Derbyshire Artist Resident Project: A Practice in Living Communally

Alex Stubbs is invited to Derbyshire Artist Resident Project, an artistic community of social practice

Samm Shackleton (DARP resident) from a durational performance of Survival-Kit
at Playground, ArtCore Gallery, Derby, 2021
Photographer Francis Ana, courtesy Artcore Gallery, Derby

Self-described as a sociocratic open system of living, Derbyshire Artist Resident Project (DARP) teeters on the edge of function and chaos. Located at Michael House, an old Steiner school in Heanor, Derbyshire, DARP bridges the gap between community and art, a place to eat, sleep, and make. 

DARP residents (left to right) Paula Erstmann, Lisa Klosterkoetter, Solomon Berrio-Allen, Coleman Stewart, Sean Roy Parker, Jo Dodd, Adam Grainger, Sonia Odedra, Ella Fleck and Buster Cassin (who is not a resident, but a visiting friend) Photographer Adam Grainger

Two strikes from a gong - spill out of a small speaker in the old school theatre, a vast space at the end of the building where a dozen or so bicycles sit against one wall alongside crash mats, sofas, and various paraphernalia. I’m lying on my back having just finished a session of dynamic meditation. Like much of what happens at DARP, it was an opportunity to pause, reflect, and refresh. Rejecting any suggestion of performativity, the meditation is wrapped in sincerity; clothed in a desire to enact something meaningful. That it happened in the theatre only added to the theatrics. 

The theatre, much like the rest of the building, is a hub for all kinds of action and experiments. Only a few months ago it was cleared to make way for a riotous-looking monster sculpture, hellmouth, a collaborative effort between Sonia Odedra and Ella Yollande. Made for the End of the World party, hellmouth contained within it the play and performance that circles around DARP. One moment the theatre is a quiet sanctuary; the next, a raucous place, filled with creatively-charged energy where people gather to talk, dance, and make. 

At DARP there is no outright objection to ideas, simply a model of consent; a system that allows for unadulterated freedom of expression. People come and go all the time, each of them shaping the dimensions of the community and building on lived experiences, desires, hopes and a willingness to invest one’s entire self into the shared community. Ideas are thought out around the dinner table; food is a social ritual. Temporary guests mingle with long-time residents, yet there isn’t a feeling of hierarchy, nor superiority. Everybody is there for the same reason; to escape the everyday and to exist as part of a community. 

Paula Erstmann, Maggie Campbell, Jo Dodd and Ella Fleck, Bread Sculpture, using traditional Ukrainian bread sculpture techniques, 2022
Photographer Adam Grainger

Ella Fleck (DARP’s co-founder), shows me around. The old classroom walls of the school still retain their lazure pink hue - a style of painting aligned with Steiner teachings - replete with swirling patterns and blackboards. Science labs remain intact, wooden countertops sitting patiently, waiting for experiments to unfold, tinted with the marginalia of past student doodles. 

Whilst the remains of the school's past are still visible, DARP has its own personality. Classrooms are now a mix of bedrooms and studios, often combined into one. Outside in the playground, tables remain from alfresco dinners in the summer whilst outbuildings have been commandeered for costume-making and dance studios. Old furniture has been repurposed, and leftover materials reused. An altar sits at the end of one of the corridors: a table filled with hand-made candles and reclaimed thistles from the gardens. Amidst all of the quirks and idiosyncrasies lies a real belief in celebrating autonomy, an encouragement to think of something and just do it. 

Last year they put on Playground, an exhibition at Artcore, Derby consisting of flags and tapestries made together in their communal studio. They’ve also opened their doors to the public, inviting those who once attended the Steiner school to bear witness to the objects and ephemera scattered around the building. By taking DARP outside of the school, a desire to connect with the world outside is clearly there, reaffirming their shared belief in community and togetherness. 

Ella Yolande, Fibi Cowley and Ella Fleck, Flags commissioned by Artcore Gallery, Derby
Photographer Francis Ana, courtesy Artcore Gallery, Derby

As for incentive, there doesn’t appear to be one beyond just seeing what is possible. Ella tells me that DARP offers a list of services, from group hugs to shovelling snow to queuing. They’ve had a couple of offers already, including cheering and booing for a Twitch-streamer as he goes live to his online audience. Performativity is simply an artistic pursuit, an individual character or the group as a whole take on a way of sticking two fingers up at the world and saying deal with it. 

There can be a bleed, though - a word Ella borrows from Live Action Role Play culture, signifying the moment when the emotions of the character blur with those of the person - between DARP and the outside world. Inside there exists a living alternative vision of how a community can function, and sometimes that spills into the outside world, for better or worse. 

Inside, practice merges with living, so that whatever walls are erected slowly erode, resulting in the harmonious arrangement of art and life. As my time at DARP nears an end, it finally occurs to me. DARP isn’t about art. It never really was. The social practice - the shared meals, the spontaneous doings, the conversations - is the important thing here.
 1 April 2022