Author Phillip Pullman said that “after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world”. I’ve always loved this quote and I’m a firm believer that storytelling is both an empowering tool for sharing our narratives and a way of recognising ourselves in one another.
Hidden Tales in Rochdale is doing just this in its work tackling the stereotypes surrounding homelessness. The digital art initiative is a partnership between Community Arts North West (CAN) and The Petrus Community, a charity providing residential and day support services for people throughout Rochdale, Rossendale and Oldham. During the 18-month project, we will hear the stories of eight local people: Sister Noel, Andrew, Martin, Gail, Tanzeem, Jimmy, Roger and Emmanuel. Each is an account of human resilience – and of change.
“It started out as a writing project because writing is a direct medium for people to express themselves,” says Sara Domville, creative producer at CAN. Working with writer Martin Stannage (also known as hip-hop artist Visceral), the team were based in Petrus’s drop-in centre, The Hub, where they began writing sessions for service users. “It was through working with that group over a period of months that we became aware there are so many stories that just aren’t told. We began to think about how we could develop this into a project that really gives voice to some of these people who don’t get their voices heard, or who maybe when they do, their stories are misinterpreted or pigeonholed.
“One of the things that I’ve learned through Petrus is that misfortune can happen to anybody. So, quite often when people experience homelessness, it’s because a relationship has broken down, or they’ve lost their job. There’s that saying, ‘we’re only ever two pay packets away from being homeless’ so it’s been a privilege for me to be working alongside people who are going through these everyday struggles.”
Domville continues: “We decided that a good way of developing this was to create a series of short films. We identified eight people who would be happy to tell their stories to camera, and these are all people who are connected to Petrus in some way.”
One of the participants is 34-year-old Andrew McConville, a horticultural specialist who spent a decade growing marijuana for his own use at home. When he suffered a mental health crisis, he realised he could put his green fingers – and thirst for knowledge – to greater use.
“If I could give anyone any insight into what I’ve learned from this project, it’s that you don’t judge, or prejudge, anyone in any point of your life because you don’t know anything about them,” says McConville.
Describing his experience of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as “enjoyable and confusing”, the condition’s positives have driven McConville’s life forward and led him to realise that his diagnosis is not life-limiting. Throughout his video, and our conversation, McConville urges us to not simply think outside the box, but realise that the box never even existed.
“My mum instilled that in me from an early age. She always said, ‘there’s nothing you can’t achieve’. I was a gymnast as a kid, I was doing all sorts to fill my time because I didn’t have any boundaries. There were no preconceptions of how I should be.
“Retrospectively, [ADHD] led me to the most life-changing moments ever. Not really thinking that I can’t do it, or I shouldn’t do it, I just always acted on the impulse.”
Opportunities to do crazy things “in the wrong circles” were “abundant” as a child. He learned to deal with his experiences in several ways, including experimenting with drugs to escape a boring life that didn’t keep up with his pace, and successfully taught himself how to grow and cultivate his own marijuana crops. While this is illegal, this knowledge instilled a passion in McConville for horticulture and he became a highly-experienced grower.
He then channelled his impulsiveness into a different direction after eventually going through psychiatric treatment (McConville did not receive a diagnosis until three years ago) and now has a successful horticultural career. He also continues to volunteer at the Petrus Incredible Edible Allotment. “For 30 years of my life, I’ve just been told that I was crazy. I’ve been told ‘you’re going nowhere’, even my teachers used to say that.”
Domville reveals that she’s often asked what it is that the team would like to achieve with the project. “It’s been important to work with these people to tell their stories because there is something very empowering about being able to do so. But then also there’s a sense of hoping that their stories will inspire others.”
It’s an extremely powerful, emotive project and there’s a real sense of the participants gaining control over their own narrative.
“Everyone’s had a say in what is told and how,” she says. “We’ve tried to match up the venues with the stories so there’s some connection. Tanzeem’s story is about the importance of education and we’ve placed her artwork in Rochdale Central Library. Then there’s Andrew and his story of working at the Aquaponics centre in Todmorden, and having a different way of doing things, and his artwork is in the Pioneers Museum. Where possible, we’ve tried to think about where would be a good environment to put this person and their story.”
Martin Stannage has also written a poem in response to each of the films, and the team worked with a photographer to create portraits. There are eight different art works dotted around Rochdale with the trail beginning at Touchstones Rochdale where you can pick up a map which directs you to the other art works. If you want to watch the films simultaneously, there’s a QR code on each of the artworks that you can scan on your smart phone. By taking art and displaying it in places for people to discover, the project is accessible to people who might not ordinarily go into a gallery.
“Some people might just come across the artworks and I like that about this,” says Domville, who, despite having more ambitious ideas about the digital side of the project, realised that the community they were working with might not have access to smart phones. “We wanted to make sure the trail is accessible to those with a smart phone but if you just wanted to do the trail, and enjoy the artwork and the poetry, it would also be an enjoyable experience.
“We didn’t want to reinforce the stereotypes. It’s easy to sensationalise with film and video. [Society] creates a single story about homeless people being X, Y or Z, and the truth is, everyone’s story is very complex and that’s what we’re trying to get across through the films. The complexity of people’s lives, the resilience, and stories of change where something has happened to somebody and they’ve found their way through.”
McConville says: “My mother said something to me all my life that really stuck with me. And that’s ‘when you change the way you look at things, the way you look at things change’.”
He refers to his ADHD as a “creative superpower”. “When you understand your condition,” he explains. “It is a superpower. It’s how you use it.
“Suddenly, it came together. So, I’ve got more energy – why’s that a problem? Just find more stuff to do with your time. I’ve had so many jobs because I’m going for the wrong ones. I’m not chasing my happiness. I’m chasing what people thought of me as a person. When I came out of that psychiatric room, I came out instilled with a power that made me see that outside influences do not matter. If you chase happiness, and find happiness, people emanate to you because they also want happiness. But they don’t understand the rules around it. You have to completely envelop your life with it. There’s no aspect of it that you can’t enjoy.
“Too many people try to find adventure outside themselves. The best adventure you can go on is with you in the driving seat. You’ve got to find out where you sit in your brain, you’ve got to find out where you want to go, and then you go there because everything you need in your life is behind your eyes.”
Main image: Andrew McConville
Hidden Tales is taking place across Rochdale until October 28, 2017. For more information and to view the films, click here.