Creativity, learning and tigers in the Forest of Imagination

September 9, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society, Education Matters, Fellowship 

The Forest of Imagination took place in Bath this summer and attracted over 2,000 visitors. It was a 4 day contemporary arts, creativity and learning event organised and led by RSA Fellows and hosted by Bath Spa University. Over the past year I’ve blogged a number of times about the ArtSpace Bath and the Forest of Imagination (from now on Forest) project and I had been involved in many meetings, discussions and communications about it. That said, when the Forest launched I still wasn’t quite sure what to expect. What I discovered was a creative world full of surprises and learning.

foi picThe journey to the site began in the centre of Bath with graffitied paths creating the start of the pilgrimage, when I got to the top of Sion Hill and turned the corner to see the amazing tiger gate I was already sold! Once in the site, I’ll admit it, I got a bit lost, but this was part of the Forest’s allure – discovering places for yourself and learning through uncovering different areas both visual and sensory. The Forest was made up of four action packed days of performances, workshops, installations and exhibitions. It managed to engage new and inter-generational audiences in the city whilst helping to pave the way for a permanent contemporary arts centre in Bath.

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10,000 hours or 10,000 friends? eight perspectives on talent in music

It’s about time we reconsidered what we mean by talent: how it is defined, who gets identified as talented, and how they are developed, recognised and rewarded. Is talent the product of 10,000 hours of devoted practice, or the reward of cultivating 10,000 followers?

Definitions of talent are diverse, and influenced by the company we keep and influences we subject ourselves too. For example, the expectations of our teachers have been shown to have a particularly strong influence on our future success. What we mean by ‘talent’ depends on the networks of information that we participate in.

Our expectations of what talent looks like matter ever more in an age of accelerating access to visual communication tools. In the last decade talent competitions became a new force on our TV screens. As contestants are driven towards established categories for their music product, ask yourself whether David Bowie or Prince would have made it through X-Factor open auditions. A new study from the RSA captures 8 distinct perspectives from the music industry. It is clear from looking deeper into the music industry that talent always has a social context. 

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How networks help us create

August 14, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Arts and Society, Social Economy 

This is a guest blog by Channelling Talent co-author Siobhan McAndrew.

We generally think of creativity as being down to individual talent, hard work, or even fate. This fits well with an optimistic worldview. To argue that ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ sounds resentful, a product of ‘tall poppy syndrome’.

However, network science using the tools of social network analysis (SNA) has generated rich evidence of how social networks enable, mediate, and generate talent and creativity. The University of Chicago network scientist Ronald Burt studied idea generation in a large technology company, finding that good ideas emerged from brokers bridging different networks, but spread most thoroughly within groups.

An important study by UCLA sociologist Gabriel Rossman with others, using the massive data contained within the Internet Movie Database, examined collaboration in movie-making. Being more connected in the industry is related to success at the Oscars when connections are to the prestigious rather than simply more numerous. In other words, selection into elite networks is critical for individual accomplishment.

Image Credit - US Army via Flickr

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Power to create taken literally at the RSA Academies Arts Day

Booom, booom, booom, bom, bom, bom

Hats off and thrown wildly up in the air to all the students, their parents and teachers from RSA Family of Academies who raised the roof at the RSA yesterday with the infectious sound of pounding drums to conclude the RSA Academies Arts Day.

The loud, booming, warm, rhythmic sounds of these drums resonated throughout the RSA.  I wish you had been there to marvel at the confidence of these students and their parents who wholeheartedly (and with an understandable amount of jitter) embraced the ‘get involved’ element of the day and breathed in the energy.  They were an absolute credit to themselves and their schools.  I even surprised myself during the drama workshop, getting in a sweat chasing parents around the Great Room to catch their ‘tails’ wasn’t exactly in the brief.  But it was all gloriously creative, and in this creativity emerged discipline, listening, mindfulness, consideration, friendship, bravery, confidence, leadership and imagination. What a heady mix. Read more

2014 RSA Student Design Award Winners

Today is a big day.

Nine months ago on September 1st 2013, we launched our eight RSA Student Design Award briefs for the year and thousands of students across the UK, Europe and Asia began applying their design skills to a range of social, economic and environmental issues such as improving hygiene in low-income areas, managing water in urban areas, addressing changing work patterns, and many more. Over 600 students sent their work into the RSA and our judges began the arduous task of reviewing and scrutinising the work, looking for key insights and clever design thinking. Those 600+ entries became a short-list of around 80 and today, after interviews with all short-listed entrants, I am pleased to present the 18 winning projects and the designers behind them.

Today’s impressive list of emerging designers and innovators – some working in collaborative teams and some working individually – represent the best of what happens when good ideas meet good design (and good briefs too, I think!).

This year’s winners include proposals for new packaging made from beeswax, an alarm clock app to improve well-being amongst 18-25 year olds, an affordable sanitary towel for schoolgirls in low-income areas, and a frugally-designed hygiene pack for use in refugee camps. Read more

From East to West: admitting the hypocrisy of history

The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice – Mark Twain

It’s often said that history is told by the victors. But what effect does this have on how we understand the present? In Britain, it means all too often that we’re quick to judge the actions and beliefs of people abroad without reflecting on what’s going on at home.

Tensions between the West’s understanding of itself and of other countries surfaced recently at the RSA, when historian Orlando Figes came to give a talk on revolutionary Russia. Figes presented a thought-provoking argument for understanding the Russian Revolution in the longue durée (which you can watch here). But amidst this analysis he made a particular assertion that left me with an uncomfortable but unfortunately all too familiar sense of doubt.

Figes described Russian society as dominated by a pathology, in which Russian citizens accepted ‘state violence for national defence and for revolutionary goals’. The evidence he provided for this came in the form of a poll taken in 2007 in three Russian cities, St Petersburg, Kazan and Ulyanovsk. The results of this survey revealed that 71% of the population believe that Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet state’s security force, the Cheka, had protected ‘public order and civic life’and that two thirds of respondents thought Stalin was positive for the country, despite acknowledging that between 10-30 million people had suffered under his regime.

Taken in isolation this seems counter-intuitive. Surely if there’s hard evidence that a regime was responsible for such huge carnage, there would be unanimous agreement that it should be remembered as a historical evil.

It is this seeming incoherency that led Figes to propose his pathology hypothesis. But, his explanation doesn’t provide the answer to this puzzle. Instead, although he is no spokesperson for Britain, Figes’ explanation implicitly creates an alarming and unrealistic dichotomy between the West and the rest (or, in this case, Russia). Russia, imagined as a nation brimming with people who have a disturbing view of the past and the present, is seen as the antithesis of civilised Britain.

Now, this isn’t to say that I in any way embrace Stalin’s actions, nor support Putin, whose power Figes explains is, in part, predicated upon historical myth. But lurking in Figes’ hypothesis is the assumption that there is something unique about Russia’s glorification of past atrocities.

This simply isn’t the case. It’s time we, in Britain, talked about our own understanding of national history. Let’s look at the facts. In 1998 a Gallup poll found that when asked about the British Empire ‘roughly 70% of people’ expressed pride that Britain had an empire, while 60% said they regretted its passing. These levels of nostalgia for Empire are strikingly similar to the proportion of those polled in Russia who saw the Cheka as integral to maintaining order in Soviet society.

Yet, as with the Soviet Union, there’s no shortage of evidence to show the negative effects of Empire, which saw colonialists murdering, dispossessing and enslaving indigenous peoples who they saw as inferior to themselves. In the 10 years following the First War of Indian Independence in 1857, for example, it’s estimated that almost 10 million Indian people were killed at the hands of the British.

And although unlike Stalin’s regime in Russia, the majority of the colonialists’ actions affected peoples far away from Britain, the specifics of such atrocities continue to surface in contemporary society. Newspapers reported two years ago on the publication of documents that revealed with stark clarity the systematic torture and starvation of Kenyan people imprisoned in British-run Mau Mau detention camps. This means that despite not being affected directly, people in Britain are aware of the unquestionable suffering caused by British colonialists. In this context, a positive understanding of Empire is as galling as Russian support for the Cheka or Stalin.

The similarities between British and Russian peoples’ understanding of their respective national histories are not the result of  underlying pathologies but rather romanticised narratives perpetuated in popular discourse.  For example, alongside facts that begin to reveal the extent of its injustices, Empire is remembered by the likes of David CameronBoris Johnson,Michael Gove and Gordon Brown as halcyon days of British history, seen as necessary for the Britain’s and the world’s development. In this sense, the dominant historical narrative shapes public understanding and facts lose their importance.

A skewed understanding of history is therefore by no means limited to Russia. With this in mind, in the UK we must stop using such interpretations of the past to reinforce the division between East and West or between ‘them’ and ‘us’. Instead, domestically and internationally, it’s time to start challenging accepted historical narratives, where the voices of the victors are louder than all others.

 

The Big Idea: creating the Forest of Imagination

The Big Idea: In July this year Forest of Imagination (FoI)  will host a four-day cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary contemporary arts pop-up event in Bath, as a proof of concept for a more permanent arts space in the city.  

Forest of Imagination grew from conversations between various RSA Fellows and creative partners about the need for a permanent contemporary arts space in Bath and it was the first project on the RSA crowdfunding area to reach its funding target.  The background to the project and its early stages can be found on a previous RSA blog which shows the progress of the initiative with community engagement. Read more

The debate on regional arts funding: data, capacity and postcode pedantry

April 28, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society 

The debate about arts funding distribution across England and the unfairness of allocation decisions bubbles up from time to time.  Last week three arts professionals, Peter Stark, Christopher Gordon and David Powell independently and through self-funded means published a report ‘Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital’ with the intention of bursting the bubble on the debate so that radical change might happen once and for all. Read more

The acceptable face of creativity: how Media Diversified creatively challenges the “ubiquity of whiteness” in the media

April 15, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Arts and Society, Fellowship 

A couple of months ago, I was watching music videos with friends when a band made up of Cambridge graduates came on the TV. As images of the musicians flashed in front of our eyes, someone made a “joke” about one of the non-white band members: ‘he can’t have gone to Cambridge, he’s black’. While it’s easy for some to dismiss this as a harmless aside, this one comment tells us a lot about British society. Even if a minority ethnic person succeeds at their creative endeavour (whether academic or musical), the focus is not on their talent, but the colour of their skin. Read more

Vulnerability is not a weakness

March 12, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Arts and Society, Education Matters 

In her brilliant TED talk ‘Listening to shame’ Brené Brown claims that ‘vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change’.  While we might think of vulnerability and weakness synonymously, Brené argues against this myth stating that vulnerability is all about pure courage, emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty.

I heard Grayson Perry, Turner Prize winning artist and ‘transvestite potter’ talking at the Women of the World festival where he also talked a lot about vulnerability.  His lecture Men!  Sit down for your rights proposed a Bill of Rights for Men, which included the Right to be Vulnerable, and the Right to be Uncertain.  Grayson thinks that the ‘Right to be Vulnerable’ would be a part of giving men a new model for masculinity at a time when the current constructs of manliness feel dated.

Following her own ‘vulnerability hangover’ (but let’s face it we all have them) Brené observed that in fact vulnerability is actually essential to whole hearted living and so I was uplifted to read a blog from an English teacher, ’5 things that scared me’.  An honest portrayal of a challenging week at work where the lesson learnt was ‘always do what scares you, only when out of your comfort zone will we truly learn and become our best selves’.

I think this is a really important idea.  Embracing our vulnerabilities comes down to asking ourselves to think differently and in turn this requires empathy to allow others to be open.  Being out of your comfort zone is difficult and many of us might identify with Brené’s epiphany:  that whilst being frustrated at not being able to get her work out to the world, she realised a part of her was engineering to stay small, to stay under the radar.

However if the implications of showing our vulnerability are innovation, creativity and change then we need to make it a more socially acceptable behaviour, in our working relationships, personal relationships and our friendships.

And how might you embrace vulnerability in adolescence? It strikes me that this is a time when most of us feel particularly awkward, out of place and unsure of ourselves.  Do schools have a role in addressing vulnerability head on?  Can you allow space for vulnerability?  How can you do this safely and appropriately?  Is it just about taking chances, leaps of faith?

Joe Hallgarten and Selina Nwulu with RSA Fellow Barbara Hearn are working on a project called Rethinking Adolescence.  They are starting from the idea that adolescence is an under-utilised asset, that this time is valuable and not just a phase in life to get through.  There is a perception that young people are ‘citizens in waiting’ and that adolescence is a time of ‘vulnerability of personality’ (Verhellen, 2000) because changes are so rapid.  It is a chapter when we experiment, push boundaries and start forming the kind of person that we want to be (or perhaps don’t want to be) so if we had the scope to express our vulnerability more, what might this lead to?  And not just for adolescents.  Vulnerability is often the grist for artists’ creativity so there is every reason to think that this would generate everyday innovation and change if vulnerability was allowed to flow.

As a last point I thought I’d share a personal story to illustrate the title of this blog in a small way.  I’ve started to play the ukulele.  I’ve got carried away with the idea of me playing the ukulele.  I’ve talked about it a lot.  I’m also not very good it but my basic ability to strum out a tune found me announcing to my parents one evening that I was going to give them a rendition of Maggie May.

Having verbally committed to the performance I found myself on the sofa, ukulele in hand with an expectant but somewhat uncomfortable looking audience.   I realise my enthusiasm has set the expectation bar high and I can’t remember the last time we all sat round for a jolly sing song.  The Von Trapps we are not.  In that moment a gulf of awkwardness sprang up.  There was nothing for it but to plunge in vulnerable and exposed.  Strumming then singing, tentative sound filled the room.

I still wasn’t very good but I was out there, a chorus in and committed when out of nowhere my dad started singing.  Finding something of Rod the Mod we belted out ‘Oh Maggie I couldn’t have tried anymore’ and a rather beautiful thing happened.   We looked at each other, smiled and in that brief moment something changed.   There wasn’t a vulnerability hangover in sight.

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