As Workshops in People’s Homes launches in Cumbria, Abandon Normal Devices speaks to Joshua Sofaer about how the project came about and what he hopes it will achieve.
AND: The Workshops in People’s Homes program is launching in just under a month. It’s been nearly a year since your first visit to Cumbria with the AND team. What was the inspiration for this new work in Cumbria? How has the project changed or developed from that first trip? What are you most excited about?
Joshua Sofaer: Travelling around Cumbria last year and meeting residents, I was struck by the number of people who were using their home as the site of creativity and as their business base. Perhaps this is something to do with the non-metropolitan, rural, and sparsely populated nature of the county. Homes serve a number of different functions: living space, studio, office, and store. People were also incredibly hospitable, inviting us in for tea, encouraging us to try a local speciality, and sharing their stories with us. It’s both enriching and humbling to be a recipient of that kind of hospitality. It puts you in an attentive and generous mood yourself. It makes you give respect and pay attention. That’s what Workshops in People’s Homes is really about: finding a way to create community through shared experiences.
In many ways the project has remained true to the initial proposal. We wanted 10 workshops in 10 homes, and that’s what we’ve got. I was looking for an emphasis on storytelling, insomuch as whatever the workshop is ostensibly about, they are still as much about meeting individual workshop facilitators and stepping into their home, as they are about learning a new skill.
What I’m most excited about is becoming a participant in the workshops myself.
AND: Your work seems have moved from performance to participation in the past decade. Can you tell us more about your process of art making through participation and collaboration? And is there a particular reason or significant work that inspired you to start working in this way?
Joshua Sofaer: I’ve been making artworks for over two decades, and it’s true that in the first decade my output was largely a kind of solo performance. I think that was a rite of passage for me. I suppose the truth is that I became exhausted with myself. Now, I’m still interested in stories, only not so much mine. What I’m doing at this point may seem quite different but there is continuity. It’s just not my story anymore; it’s the story of those that I meet. And in the same way that I found that first decade of making work about myself very useful in terms of understanding my own identity and my own place in the world, that’s what I have tried to offer, or facilitate for others. So it’s a flip side of the same coin. I’m also genuinely interested in what other people have to say about their experiences.
AND: From observing the development of the project we can see how communication and coaching skills, and your own generous approach to sharing these, play a major role in the development of these types of projects. Can you tell us more about how and why these skills play an important role in your work?
Joshua Sofaer: I fell into coaching almost by accident and I wasn’t prepared for how transformative I would find it, and what it enabled me to do in terms of holding the space for others to speak, both personally and professionally. We can all benefit from these skills, and I think we should move, as a society, towards a ‘coaching culture’. Coaching skills are invaluable in participatory art settings, when asking people to go on a collective journey while maintaining their own independence and answering their own needs.
AND: Working with other people in this way can be complex, with a lot of unknowns, meaning you and the project format need to be flexible and responsive to the participants. Can you talk about some of the challenges and rewards from working in this way?
Joshua Sofaer: The challenges are the rewards insomuch as you are asking people to go on a journey with you and you are offering them permission to do something they might otherwise not do. Some requests that I make of people can at first appear a bit bonkers. The reward is that people take that permission and run with it. I believe in the transformative potential of art practice. It’s a phrase that’s bandied around a lot but I still believe it. These kinds of participative projects aren’t for everyone but if someone makes it their own they can find it immensely satisfying. One of the specific challenges for me in Workshops in People’s Homes has been trying to find a common way of engaging people with a diverse range of experiences and backgrounds. Some of the workshop leaders are very experienced facilitators and for others this will be the first time they have done anything like it.
AND: Is the move away form performance a deliberate one, or something you will return to?
Joshua Sofaer: Performance still underpins pretty much everything that I do. In fact I would like to make more large-scale performance in the role of director and facilitator. It’s true that I’m not so interested in making solo performance work myself right now. I do get asked to do it occasionally, and I’m in the luxurious position of being able to say ‘no’. When I’m offered a commission, I think: ‘Do I really want to do this?’ That’s an amazingly privileged position to be in. It’s not that I won’t ever personally perform again, but I’m not seeking it out.
AND: This is not the first time that people’s homes have become the site of your work (Opera Helps, Tours of Peoples Homes, etc.) Can you tell us more about why the place of ‘home’ continues to be a source of inspiration or a site for your work?
Joshua Sofaer: The home is in many ways positioned as the opposite of the institution. There are the museum, or the art gallery, or the theatre, or the opera house, and then there is your home. You go between the two. You leave your home to go to the gallery and you leave the gallery to go back to your home. I think we’ve reached an understanding at this cultural moment, that everything is ‘performative’ and that art could be ‘anywhere’ and by offering the home as a site of art, you emancipate art from the institution. It’s not that I don’t believe in institutions, I do. I love art institutions. I love spending time in them, and I love working in them. At the same time, I would like to flatten the hierarchy between the home and the institution as the site of art. In fact I would like to flatten the hierarchy across the creation, appreciation and interpretation of art in general.
Homes are also places where, hopefully, we feel comfortable and relaxed. We set the rules, albeit within the confines of our resources and the law. We are also curious about going into other people’s homes. It’s always fascinating to visit people’s homes, and to experience different ways of living. The home is about comfort but it can also be about adventure. It is both entirely knowable and continually new.
AND: Finally, if you could deliver a workshop in your home, what would it be?
Joshua Sofaer: I think it would have to be something to do with my collections. I have a lot of collections in my home. I have collections of disposable ice cream spoons, airmail stickers, Polaroid photographs, postcards of the Mona Lisa, flipbooks, Finnish bread tags, photo-booth portraits, fake noses, to name just some of them. Although I occasionally use these in public artworks, really they belong in the domestic space of my home, where they are stored and displayed. So I think I would do something with the domestic collection.