Interview: Changing Relations | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Changing Relations is an arts-based education and training company that challenges thinking around gender norms, gender equality and healthy relationships, using creative methods to provide original educational and training resources. They’re bringing their Men’s Voices exhibition to Locomotion in Shildon (now-22nd May) and Killhope Lead Mining Museum (27th May – 13th June). The exhibition explores traditional masculinity and considers how destructive social norms and gender stereotypes shape us and seeks alternatives to the how you should be a man. We speak to Jessica Owens from Changing Relations to find out more.

Tell us more about the Men’s Voices: Stepping Out Of The Box exhibition.
The Men’s Voices Project started as a series of participatory art workshops with groups of men and boys across the North East, culminating in a public exhibition at Empty Shop Durham’s TESTT Space in October 2017.

Beginning with the question ‘What does it mean to be a man?’ participants worked with artists Rupert Philbrick, Chris Robinson and Polly Turner to discuss the positive and negative stereotypes that surrounded their understanding of masculinity. Alongside traditional arts and craft activities, including print making and cross stitch, participants spoke at length as a group and through individual interviews to share their thoughts and ideas.

What emerged was a fragmented world full of mixed messages; with observations of cruelty and kindness as participants explored their life stories and the expectations made of them. By sharing their memories, role models, hang-ups and histories the groups started to weave together a collective experience of masculinity. Reflecting the words and ideas of the participants, a dark reality permeates the work of the assumed masculine stereotype.

In bringing this exhibition on tour, we aim to develop dialogues around the concept of masculinity, challenging preconceived ideas and asking audiences to consider the impact of their own actions in perpetuating gender stereotypes. Ultimately, we want to empower all genders to question destructive cultural pressures and seek healthier alternatives. We’re currently working with men, boys, women, girls and LGBT groups to extend the body of artwork contained in our original exhibition to pose questions around gender norms more broadly. Our exhibition will become Stepping Out of the Box and will showcase at brand new cultural venue, The Art Bunker in Bishop Auckland from September 14th – October 13th.

Why is it important that men attend these events?
Statistics from the Men’s Health Forum show that three quarters of suicides are committed by men, but men are less likely than women to access therapy or seek the social support of friends. Men are also more likely to misuse both drugs and alcohol which experts indicate is linked to mental health issues. So in the face of this picture, we have to ask whether the messages boys and young men are receiving as they’re growing up are healthy? In encouraging men and boys to ‘man up’, ‘grow a pair’ and not ‘cry like a girl,’ are we laying the foundations for male mental health difficulties further down the line? We think it’s really important that men – and women – take the opportunity our exhibition provides to question whether we are unconsciously perpetuating attitudes that don’t really help any of us and to consider whether there might be some healthier alternatives. 

Why do you think masculinity is currently facing an identity crisis and are you hopeful things will change for the better?
This is a really big question and there’s a whole load of angles we could take to answer it! One such angle is that as a society, we haven’t yet fully acclimatised to the challenges laid down by the feminist movements of the 20th century; some might say we’re facing a backlash against the calls for women’s equality. To be completely frank about it, we’ve had a society for hundreds of years where men have been in charge and now women are claiming their place at the table. And the reality is that this adjustment of the social order seems to be causing some of us some growing pains because attitudes can be slower to change than material reality and this potentially leaves us with a sense of conflict between what we expect and how things are.

So, what does this mean in terms of men and boys and the concept of a crisis of masculinity? One of the artworks in our exhibition was created by asking men the words they’d use to describe themselves. We were fascinated to find that ‘hard-work’, ‘protect, ‘provide’ still featured pretty highly – in the top 5 words used in fact. This suggests that men still tend to have a sense of what their role should be – in society, in their family and relationship – that is not at all far removed from what would have absolutely been the norm more traditionally, prior to the modern day. Although we have by no means reached absolute gender equality in the UK in terms of earnings and positions of power and decision-making, we hear strong messages about female empowerment, we have our second female PM….at the same time, we have influential media figures such as Piers Morgan, coming out strongly against the advert Gillette recently launched – The Best Men Can Be – arguing “Let men be damn men.” But what does this mean?

As an organisation (Changing Relations C.I.C. is the arts company behind the Men’s Voices: Stepping Out of the Box exhibition) we’re always hopeful! It’s what motivates us to do the work we do – the possibility of change for the better. And if you look, you’ll see plenty of examples that give hope of a better, more balanced future, from groups set up to support men suffering from social isolation or mental health to individual dads taking on the role of being the primary carer to their pre-school children. The future is about each person just being a person – doing the things that suit who they are or their family circumstances; getting help when they need; irrespective of whether they are male or female.

Are there any traits within more traditional masculinity that you feel are worth preserving?
Absolutely. When we asked male teens in schools across South West Durham how they would describe themselves; ‘strong’ and ‘daring’ featured pretty highly. There’s nothing wrong with these qualities in themselves. Being daring can be the driving force enabling people to start new businesses or seek solutions to problems facing the world around us. Strength is something that enables us to get through difficult times. But being able to accept that we need help is also important and the idea that men shouldn’t do this as then they wouldn’t be ‘a proper man’ isn’t helping anyone. And the other side of things is that there’s no reason why women and girls can’t be strong and daring. So, it’s about balance really. Keeping the valuable traits, accepting that being well-adjusted might need some different traits, and recognising that the qualities we associate with traditional masculinity might not just be the preserve of men and boys. 

Why is the exhibition going to towns that have a strong industrial heritage? 

The answer to this question is expressed perfectly by the following quotation from the Head of The Woodlands School, whose male students worked together with our Lead Artist Polly Turner to produce some of the exhibition content:

“The project perfectly captured the need for clear expression in boys and young men.  As someone who has seen the high cost of young people and adults not being able to do this, and for some this has resulted in suicide, I was anxious for the project to break down barriers and explore aspects of masculinity which may be entrenched in this part of the world with its past emphasis on heavy, industrial jobs that required a certain way of presenting to the world.

The exploration of the topic via speech and artefacts created the conditions for the pupils to fully explore their own views on masculinity and their responses to Polly showed that they were comfortable with her input and structure.I feel that this is a topic that could be explored in a wider setting and that secondary schools across the region would benefit from it enormously.”

Do you think that the North-East has more of a problem with toxic masculinity than the rest of the UK?
We can’t ignore the industrial heritage of the North-East and the fact that de-industrialisation was not necessarily accompanied by social investment to support people to transition away from generations of going straight into one particular line of work. The implication of this is that we perhaps have some attitudes in some areas of the North East that have remained fossilised compared with more metropolitan areas that may have seen greater investment through the post-industrial years. 

For example, award winning novelist, Ross Raisin in the piece he contributed to the pilot phase of our exhibition in 2017 – Manufacturing Men – shares a quotation from one of the participants who featured in our soundscape:

“If my missus was…the sole provider, I think there’d be a lot of friction in the house, because my manliness would be gone… I would feel really angry at her, and at myself. But probably at myself more.”

This is such a powerful quotation in the way it shows how fixed attitudes around masculinity harm everyone…including men themselves. At the same time, it’s also worth noting that toxic masculinity can manifest in different ways. It’s not only a working class or northern problem. It just looks a little different in different places and amongst different social groups.

If men are experiencing mental health issues where can they seek help?
There are many support services and different ways of accessing information. Visiting your GP can be a good starting place, but there is also information about mental health on the Mind website. In the case of a mental health crisis, the Samaritans are available on 116 123. Many areas have groups that have been specifically set up to support men, often run out of local community centres. We think that opening up and talking to your friends and family can also be really helpful as they will then be aware that something needs to change and will hopefully offer support.

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