Recently completing its second full program in Manchester, SICK! Festival aims to tackle the physical, mental, and social challenges around us. Through three weeks of performance, installations, and conversations, the festival brings together an amazingly diverse combination of artists, academics, health professionals, and service users. Audiences come away more educated, more tolerant, and more understanding of those whom society marginalizes. With such a focus on using art to spark healthy community dialogue about difficult topics, SICK! immediately stood out to me as an organization that shared my belief in socially-engaged art.

Living library event

With a mission to take their work directly into the heart of Manchester communities, SICK! places great emphasis on its local partnerships. My placement with the organization as their Community Engagement Coordinator in the winter and spring of 2017 supported these initiatives. Over the course of 20 days, my primary projects were to organise a Living Library event in Hulme and coordinate the festival’s evaluation process through a community-led focus group. Both projects challenged me in different ways and illuminated how impactful art can be in bringing people together.

A Living Library is like a regular library, except “books” are people and “reading” is replaced by conversation. Through 15-minute conversations with experts on a particular topic, visitors to a Living Library often come away with changed perspectives and understanding. My Living Library, set at Hulme Library on the 8th of March, centred on mental illness and community, seeking to reduce the stigma around talking about mental illnesses. Planned over seven weeks, I recruited six volunteers to serve as “books,” helped them develop their book titles and summaries, and served as the greeter for visitors to the library. Though we didn’t get as many people attending as we would have hoped, those who came to the event were very moved by the stories of the six books. One volunteer told his story of a crippling depression that led him to suicidal thoughts, while another’s story of psychotic episodes proved to be especially powerful with visitors. For attendees, being able to talk to someone face-to-face and attempt to place themselves in someone else’s position was powerful and personal. For volunteers, the therapeutic power of talking about their lived experience was clear for all to see.

Having little experience with evaluation, I was also eager to organise the festival focus group. This was ten to fifteen people from different backgrounds who would attend five festival events for free in exchange for honest feedback. I enjoyed talking to people with varied experiences of SICK! and loved seeing them at different festival events. In a post-festival meeting of the group, everyone shared a wide range of perspectives about the festival’s relevance, programming, marketing, and individual events. The consensus seemed to be that though the programming was of high quality, not enough people came! This is true and has shaped SICK!’s post-event evaluation, a process which continues today.

I had great fun working for SICK! for two months. Being part of a mission-driven project again was a thrill, and it’s nice to know that arts organisations around the world share the same concerns about fundraising, audiences, and programming. I’m looking forward to staying in touch with the SICK! team and perhaps doing my own Living Library or focus group elsewhere someday.