Working Off the Back Foot:

The Importance of Consultation and Negotiation
in Working with Communities

Contributed by Nick Hughes

© copyright Nick Hughes 1995



Introducing Phill Rooke:
An Artist Mindful of the Workplace Context

In November 1994, a large carved sculpture entitled Skipping Underneath was unveiled in the courtyard of Mount Gambier's Civic Centre (in southeast South Australia). The totem pole-like carving was produced by Phill Rooke with the workers at the timber mills in Mount Gambier, where he was Artist-in-Residence from April until October 1994.

The title is derived from a hand sign used in one of the mills where the noise of the machinery is so loud that the workers can not speak to each other. It means that the timber is not being planed properly underneath: it is skipping underneath. The hand sign is reproduced on the sculpture with a looped skipping rope over the top of it. The lyrical quality of the title symbolizes the elliptical way in which the artist has brought the stories of the people who work in these mills to life in this extraordinary and beautiful artwork.

Phill Rooke is no newcomer to art-in-working-life projects. An Australian by birth, he has worked on many similar projects in Britain, beginning with a placement on two London building sites in 1974 and including projects with toolmakers, pipe welders and oil rig workers. From this experience he has developed a very clear appreciation of the complexity and sophistication of the consultation processes involved in working with a community.

He says of his work:

Over the years I've realized that as an artist I must do more than produce an artwork. In fact, to produce work outside of a social context and in isolation now seems meaningless. I have developed a process which involves working with a community right from the initial stages of a proposal -- recognizing all the time that I must be dealing with their ideas, acting as a catalyst to provide opportunities for them to extend these ideas -- and that I must endeavor to reflect their social reality and aspirations as a living part of the final product. I need to make sure that I build a situation that includes as many people as possible, and that I remain flexible enough to allow the project to change and take on new aspects.

The Process: The Artist Meets the Mill Workers

The Skipping Underneath project was initiated by the Construction, Forestry, Mining Employees Union (CFMEU) and the Riddoch Art Gallery in Mount Gambier, and it was funded by the Union, the Community Cultural Development Board of the Australia Council, the Mount Gambier Council and the South East Cultural Trust.

For the artist, the first part of the process is the long and intermittent work of setting a project up. This project was three and a half years in gestation. The more important stages of the consultation process really begin when the artist arrives to start the residency. Although Phill visited all the mills in the Mount Gambier area, he worked primarily in two large mills: the government-owned 'Forward Products' and the privately owned 'CSR Softwoods,' each of which employs about 450 people.

In both these mills, the first stage in Phill's process was to attend a series of meetings between shop stewards and management which are held to discuss issues within the workplace. At these extremely important first meetings, Phill tries to give people a clearer picture of what he's about and the sort of things that he does. He takes along a leaflet describing the project and a lot of photographs of his previous work. He outlines the process he used in this work.

The next stage is a series of small introductory exhibitions. These are usually in the canteens of the work sites where he is going to be working. The exhibitions consist of the introductory leaflet and the photographs of the other places he has worked, along with explanations of that work. Phill goes along to these exhibitions and spends time talking to people with the intention of giving them a general grasp of the process. He then goes around the mill talking to individual workers about the project and also about the job that they are doing themselves.

Phill takes photographs of the workers as he goes. He stresses that the photographs are a very important part of the process and that the act of him taking a photograph of them forms a link between him and them. He later gives these photographs to them and sometimes he puts them on display.

The photographs give me a way, in direct terms, of talking to them about their work. I can actually talk about the machine, for instance, that's in the photograph, that they're working on. Or the sort of job that they're doing. It's really important for me to be knowledgeable to the extent of knowing what questions to ask about the work that they're doing. Then you start to talk about other things -- like conditions and issues that concern them. That leads into discussions about the whole lifestyle that they lead; the whole life-world, if you like, that they live in. At this stage, there's not a lot of talk about sculpture.

Negotiating the Artist's Workspace

While he is doing this initial consultation work, Phill is also negotiating a physical space within the worksite where he is going to build the artwork. As a sculptor, he is dependent on being able to use a number of heavy tools. In one mill, his space was in a maintenance workshop, and in the other it was in a working part of the mill. This negotiation is crucial to the success of the project, because the artist is in a very real sense intruding into the workers' space and needs to negotiate with them how he's going to fit into it. Throughout these negotiations, he recognizes the territorial power of the workers because he knows that only by doing so will he eventually gain their trust and respect.

So you're constantly in a situation where you have to make sure that you maintain a relationship that's really effective. If you have a relationship where they're just tolerating you, the project's not happening. If you have a relationship where they don't tolerate you, you're out the door. You're always on the back foot, in a sense.

Being on the back foot is a deliberate strategy that Phill adopts in these negotiations

because it empowers them and if they feel empowered about it, it builds up confidence for them. If they got too empowered and they treated you like a doormat, well that'd be no good either because the project wouldn't work. So your real skill is making an equal relationship from an unequal one. I do quite like negotiating my way through those sort of traps.

Communicating through Images

The next stage in Phill's process is the production of some introductory drawings which he puts up in places around the mill with leaflets explaining what they are. The leaflets also make it clear that the purpose of these drawings is to give people a 'kick off' for ideas and that they are not intended to be the finished product.

People like good drawing, he says, because people who are makers and doers tend to have an "artisan's aesthetic" and a "visual ideology"; they tend to see the world in pictures rather than words.

Their perception is empirical: they perceive what is there. It's different from the way an intellectual worker sees things. They're not abstracting or doing it through words.

Phill's concept of "visual ideology" is central to why he does this sort of work. He knows that ordinary people respond very directly to painting and sculpture -- if the artist has been able to make it "live" for them.

I gauge the success of a project by the way people react to me and the work. They warm to it, they come back to it. They talk through the ideas; they want to discuss the ideas; they want to have an input into those ideas. That's living for them.

Sharing Ideas

When he has done the introductory drawings, Phill takes them around the mill and talks to individuals about them, stressing again that these are only ideas that he is putting up for discussion.

I come and I put up ideas. Not necessarily the right ideas they're just ideas that I put up and you have to think around them. It's a way you develop lateral thinking in the works.

Phill is critical of what he calls the "confrontational command structure" of most industrial workplaces, often created by managements whose only way of running a works is to issue orders. It leads to a climate in which open discussion and negotiation of ideas is very difficult. Both workers and management, he says, find it difficult to break out of the command structure.

Under command management, ideas -- especially among men -- are very much about being correct. You're correct about your idea, and you fight that idea to the end. You put up the right idea and you maintain yourself around that idea. They find the need to share ideas difficult. I come up and I talk through ideas with them. There's a shift in thinking involved.

During his residencies, Phill aims to influence some of the dynamics of the culture of the workplace. He aims to develop within the workforce, through his own use of consultation and negotiation,

a process whereby they can actually see, through the process, a role model that presents some issues to workers. Issues about consultation, problem solving, negotiation, organization, and group dynamics. These are all issues that under the command structure they haven't had to deal with.

Using Art to Help Industry Change

Over the past few years, a number of changes in work practices have been introduced into the mills. Phill sees that there are important possibilities in using the consultation and negotiation skills of the artist working in the community to assist in this process of change.

Managements want to institute "Total Quality Management" in the mills. This is a system under which workers are supposed to be empowered by a process of consultation and negotiation and hence assume more individual responsibility for the quality of the product. Phill observes that management want the quality output, but they aren't always prepared to abandon the command structure. The workers, too, contribute to the maintenance of the culture of confrontation, and some current work practices prevent multiskilling and maintain hierarchical management. The recession has strengthened the hand of the management and it has been possible, in some cases, for them to ignore the important and difficult part of the introduction of Total Quality Management, namely the empowerment of the workers. At best, the changes can contribute to empowerment; at worst, the workers can end up with more responsibility and worse pay and conditions.

Phill stresses that,

The empowerment of workers is fundamental to the process of change in the workplace and the work of the artist in the community is an innovative and effective way of enabling some of this to occur.

Looking for the Stories in Between

Phill's working process usually continues through a series of working drawings, with each one being taken around the work site and used to elicit more ideas and to challenge people's perspectives. By this stage, he has come to know the people very well and he is writing down their stories and looking for "the stories in between." What he means by this is that people's stories are not just [made up of] what they tell you directly about themselves, but also what they don't tell you -- what you learn about them from others; what you sense about them. Sometimes the true story is in between the others.

There are a lot of fascinating unsaid things in the shop which you know about and which come to you in different ways -- indirectly.

Phill believes strongly that it is the responsibility of the community artist to tell these stories in a way that makes them live for the community, in ways that they can understand. As he puts it,

In a project, there's got to be some sort of cognitive and aesthetic development that touches or uses elements from their visual ideology.

But he also believes equally strongly that the artist has to put something of himself or herself into the work -- that the work has to live for the artist, too.

Putting Yourself into the Work

He has some interesting criticisms of what happens when a community artist doesn't do that. Speaking of community arts in Britain, he says,

I think this whole notion within community arts of participation and consultation had its failings because people laid it down that there were set patterns by which you do those things. I think you've got to work out your own patterns. The problem was that because the ways of doing participation and consultation got laid down as hard-and-fast rules, a lot of artists became simple facilitators, or entertainers, or therapists. They walked into a situation and they said to people, "What would you like me to paint or sculpt?" They simply facilitated the project and they said, "Well, this is not my own work that I'm doing now. It's someone else's, and all I'm doing is facilitating. And now I'm going to go away and do my own studio work." I've heard that said numbers of times.

I think that what happens within that framework it that you become intellectually dead as an artist. It is essential to find a process in which both you and the community take on this cognitive development. That has to happen with both of you within the process. If it doesn't occur, you've got a lopsided thing that's going to fall on it's head eventually.

The last stages in Phill's consultation process usually involve the making of a model and the ensuing discussions around it. In this case, time constraints forced him to take a risk and short-circuit this part of the process by going straight to the making and construction of the finished artwork. The risk certainly paid off, and Skipping Underneath reflects not only Phill's artistic skills honed over a lifetime of practice but also the care with which he applied his consultation and negotiation skills.

It illustrates again how centrally important these skills are in community cultural development work. As Phill puts it,

One of the things that's happened in community arts is -- because it was labelled a democratic process, because it was [about] consultation, negotiation -- we tended to underestimate the sheer complexity and the sophistication of the work that had to happen. One of the other problems is that we've always thrown people who are quite young and quite inexperienced in their work into what is a really complicated process.

In terms of art history, this type of work is in its infancy and will need persistence, support and time if it is to become a substantial part of our culture.


Nick Hughes has worked in theatre all his life as a stage manager, an actor, a director, an artistic director, a dramaturg, and a writer, mainly in the area of political and professional community theatre. He moved from England to Australia in the mid-70s, and has been based there ever since. You can send e-mail to Nick at

This article was first published in Artwork, the magazine of the Community Arts Network of South Australia, Issue No. 26, March 1995.

Other articles by Nick Hughes in Webster's World:

¬…       Working Off the Back Foot:
The Importance of Consultation and Negotiation in Working with Communities

¬…       Somewhere Special:
Participatory Arts Residencies at Swallowcliffe Schools

Also see our introduction to Community Arts in Australia
incorporating useful background information about agencies and programs mentioned in this article

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