By Madeleine Cater
Ingredients: 2 oz, of penis, 1 pint of deep voice, 2kg of balls…Pupil of The Woodlands School
What exactly makes up a man? And are the ‘ingredients’ that spring to mind when considering views of masculinity positive for our male population’s mental wellbeing? These are the questions that The Men’s Voices Project, created by Changing Relations C.I.C , are asking and challenging.
This project came about as a product of Changing Relations’ 2016 Women’s Voices Project, the play Make do and Mend, which shared stories of women who had suffered Domestic Abuse. The play was a resounding success and is securing funding to film the production to make into an education tool to be used within schools and work places.
One question which arose from the performances, however, was why much of the Domestic Abuse in the UK is perpetrated by men. Two statistics stuck out for Changing Relations: that 86% of violent crime is committed by men (Reference: Men’s Health Forum) and that 76% of suicides are by men (Reference: ONS).
Changing Relations decided to investigate whether these statistics were linked and explore whether violence and silence have become almost synonyms for masculinity. Do our societal expectations and norms negatively affect British men? Is the pressure to appear strong and be a breadwinner becoming so stifling that many resort to violence as an outlet? Should there be any one ‘recipe’ that makes up a man?
The initiative brought together marginalised men and boys from Deerbolt Young Offenders institution, Barnardos Domestic Violence Perpetrator programme, The Woodlands School and Stanley & Eldon Men’s crees. These men participated in artistic workshops which were led with the question: ‘What does it mean to be a man?’
The workshops culminated in a multimedia exhibition collaboratively created by visual artist Polly Turner, sound and visual artist Rupert Philbrick and performance poet Chris Robinson who all ran these workshops. The art was exhibited in the TESTT Space, the new visual arts venue on the North Road run by Empty Shop; a space designed to gather research from these types of projects over the next twelve months for their action research and development.
The exhibition itself was a space crafted to make you stop and think. Rupert’s soundscape both enhanced the visual art and was something to contemplate within itself too. Rupert explains that the sounds ‘encapsulate the spirit of the conversation[s]’ shared with him. These conversations, with their mixed emotion and confusion, can be heard within the ebb and flow of the soundscape and aims to portray the complicated nature of what it is to be a man today. (If you want to listen to some of Rupert’s work here is the link to his SoundCloud.)
Polly Turner, one of the visual artists working with the men, created works using textiles and stitching. She explains this was a deliberate decision as textiles have ‘strong associations with the feminine’ which she hoped would confront the viewer about assumptions they might be making subconsciously.
Alongside Polly’s work were poems by Chris Robinson whose initial inspiration came from workshops with the men. She explored what impact views of masculinity have had and will continue to have of both men and society as a whole. By using language, Chris was able to weave together an overarching view of frustration, kindness and confusion which must have been prevalent throughout the workshops she led.
Polly notes that as a young woman of this generation she feels empowered to be part of a culture which is striving for gender equality yet speaking to the men in the workshops she saw a completely different side to this new culture. The older men ‘struggled to feel they knew what their role was and were often made to feel helpless…or less of a man.’
Now that the week-long exhibition has finished, Changing Relations hopes to gather and analyse data surrounding the project. Armed with this data they hope to secure funding to tour the exhibition and run more workshops within the North East community to help bring people together. They also hope to create an educational resource, like with their Women’s Voices Project, which can be used to empower men and boys.
By giving these men a creative platform, Changing Relations have initiated a conversation about masculinity and men’s wellbeing which should only be encouraged.
Image: Louise Taylor and Pollyanna Turner