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 · 3 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.

I like it. What is it?

February 10, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society, Design and Society, Social Economy 
http://www.anthonyburrill.com/images/purchase/i-like-it/01.jpg

Image by Anthony Burril. www.anthonyburrill.com

The first ever unMonastery launched this month in the city of Matera, in Southern Italy. Doing something new is messy. The path is unclear, doubt is a killer, and it’s somehow never easier to quit than when you are on the verge of something real.

2014 could be the year of unMonastery, and my mission, gladly accepted, is to help shape evaluation models and metrics that help us understand what it is and if it is working.

#unMonastery?

UnMonastery is place-based social innovation that throws a group of people into one place – currently Matera – and sees what happens. It takes issues facing the whole of Europe – youth unemployment, mismatched skills, brain drain to major cities, under-utilised buildings, depleted public resources –and offers up a secular, 21st century version of the monastery. People with skills and projects to offer are housed, fed and work out of a building that would be otherwise left empty.

Best suited to areas suffering brain drain and a lack of home-grown opportunities, the ‘unMonasterians’ are tasked with working with people from the local area to develop locally specific projects that respond to local needs and assets.  For me the key question will be measuring whether the project is one that both preserves the sanity of its protagonists, and can be mapped to really engage with and become embedded in its local area. Without the wellbeing of those working in it, it becomes a workhouse, without local embeddedness it becomes a fun working holiday for some super-skilled Europeans.

Matera 

The unMonastery building is highlighted in red.

The Matera unMonastery is situated in the ‘Sassi’ of Matera, a ridiculously picturesque setting in the labyrinthine ancient part of the city, where, since the troglodyte era, houses have been built into the local ‘tufo’,a calcarenitic rock that comes from marine sediments. Whilst fantastic, this setting will actually prove to be one of the first challenges for the unMonastery: Matera, the people, is not Matera, the beautiful and touristy Sassi.

The team

The Matera unMonasterians were selected through an international open call in which people were encouraged to apply for residencies in Matera with projects that responded to local needs and interests, as had been set out following a series of co-production workshops. The final team comprises of projects that take us from building functional solar-panel trackers with local young people, to setting up water-filtering systems for urban farming. The skill-set of the unMonasterians spans coders, graphic designers, illustrators, engineers, social scientists, artists. Over the next four months their projects will focus both on Matera, and on unMonastery as a venture in its own right. UnMonastery favours total, brutal, transparency: you will able to follow its progress, with everything from project plan updates to budgets available online. If at all curious, you can meet the team and ask many questions today (!) from 10am UK-time, by following the hasthtag  #unmon on twitter.

http://www.anthonyburrill.com/purchase/arrange-whatever-pieces

Anthony Burrill – http://www.anthonyburrill.com/

Progress so far?

The first week has been slow, taken up with the difficulties of setting up when much is out of your control: internet down, heating variable, furniture arriving after the people.

Due to the iterative nature of building unMonastery, it was always hard to know what it would end up being. Born as an idea in the first EdgeRyders conference in Strasbourg, it only became real when Matera – currently a candidate for European City of Culture 2019 – stepped up as a host and funder. First Materans shaped unMonstery in their understanding of what Matera’s assets, resources and needs were; then the unMonastery applicants shaped unMonasery through the projects they proposed. And now, Matera and unMonasterians – sometimes the same thing – will shape each other.

So, how will we know if it is working?

  Without the wellbeing of those working in it, #unMonastery becomes a workhouse; without local embeddedness it becomes a fun working holiday for some super-skilled Europeans

http://www.anthonyburrill.com/images/purchase/work-hard/01.jpg

Anthony Burill – http://www.anthonyburrill.com/

The job of the unMonasterians is now to work hard and be nice to each other – not too light a request when living and working in the same space as up to ten people for up to four months.

Using metrics developed in the RSA’s Connected Communities work, I am helping them develop ways of measuring how things are going, inside and out.

1. How are you? Social change is messy, and burn-out is often the cost. The unMonasterians will be asked to measure their levels of wellbeing, and make sure they have routines that allow for some version of the five ways to wellbeing and proper sleep.

2. Do you feel part of a community? RSA Connected Communities work has really highlighted the importance of feeling part of a community, of feeling accepted where you are.

3. Do you feel supported? It is important to know that you can go to others when you need, and our social connections are often the first thing to suffer when we move around. Even for those who live in Matera full-time, their new focus could disrupt those social connections that currently help them feel well.

4. How are you and your project linking in to the local area? This is the big mama of the questions. Even if our unMonasterians are happy, bright eyed and bushy tailed, without real local engagement unMonastery is a spring-break, not a new way of working. Using social network analysis, and possibly linking to unMonasterian Lucia‘s walking ethnographies, we will be tracking who the unMonasterians are working with, how this changes, and if this goes beyond the existing contacts of our contacts. Everywhere is a bubble: a key question will be whether we can burst ours.

2014 could be the year of the unMonastery, and unMonastery could be the start of something really excellant. Please do follow unMonastery on twitter, keep up to date with what they are doing here, and join them for an online twitterstorm at 10am today!

 

 

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Gaia Marcus is a Senior Researcher on the RSA Connected Communities project.

She is an an Edgeryder and an UnMonk advisor, founded the RSA Social Mirror project and is ¼ of the ThoughtMenu.

You can find her on twitter: @la_gaia

The fabulous poster images are all by Anthony Burrill

The problem with power is patriarchy

January 21, 2014 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Arts and Society 

It’s relatively easy to talk about the diffusion of power when you’re a man. Because looking at recent news – from the lack of stories about sports presenter Charlie Webster to the proliferation of those about Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard – it’s clear that patriarchal power isn’t showing any signs of waning.

Over three-hundred years ago, Edmund Burke offered a sage piece of advice to the world when he said, ‘the greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse’. Burke’s forewarning may seem obsolete in light of a recent talk given by Moisés Naím at the RSA where he proclaimed that power is no longer concentrated but is diffuse. Or, as Adam Lent puts it, that power is dying. However, Naím’s theory falters when we turn through the pages of world history and pay close attention to an overarching constant: it is predominantly men who wield power. Meanwhile, when women manage to grasp the reigns of power, they do so on the condition that they perform conventional maleness – think of Britain’s first and only female Prime Minister, the so-called Iron Lady. Therefore, even if we accept Naím’s thesis, the ability to possess power is predicated on performing conventional masculinity, consequently it tends to remain in the hands of men who do so. And, as Burke suggests, with their great power, men commit dangerous abuse.

It’s not new to suggest that power and traditional masculinity are closely woven together, but despite our awareness of this fact, the close bond between the two is not showing any signs of loosening. We need look no further than our own legislative branch of government to see unapologetic patriarchal power strutting around Westminster with full plumage on show. An investigation into a number of sexual harassment accusations against Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard has found that while allegations cannot be proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, ‘the evidence suggests that Lord Rennard’s behaviour has caused distress to a number of women’. Despite this damning indictment, Lord Rennard refuses to apologise because, he explained in a statement yesterday, he doesn’t believe an apology for something he ‘had not done’ is appropriate. Although he has been suspended from his party, Lord Rennard’s apparent lack of regret for causing offence and, perhaps more startlingly, his absence of an attempt to feign the lamentation that is usually shown by politicians when the public glare is shone on their alleged gross misconduct, shows the power that he feels he’s entitled to as a wealthy, white man. His attitude seems to say, women feel they have been assaulted, but it’s simply not my problem.

Should we really be surprised? Men dominate the public sphere and are, more often than not, seen as superior to women. Alongside concerns over the nature of the inquiry into the allegations against Lord Rennard, consider the fact  that it was Alistair Webster QC who was at the head of the investigation; whether women were involved in the process, the final say was left to a man. This gendered hierarchy is mirrored throughout society, a quick glance at organisations across the country and it is more likely that you will see men, not women, at the helm.

The inequalities between men and women are not limited to formalised structures of power. Abuse revelations go far beyond Parliament’s grandiose corridors. At the other end of the spectrum from the ostensibly ‘softer side’ of abuse claims, sport presenter Charlie Webster revealed that she was sexually abused by her male coach when she was 15 years old. Webster, who yesterday embarked on a seven-day 250 mile marathon to raise money for Women’s Aid, a charity working to end domestic violence, explained that the reason for her disclosure was to break the taboo surrounding abuse. Webster struggled to admit to her abuse because, she says, “I didn’t want my world to break down”. Often it’s hard to admit that our system is irreparable because it means that we have to shatter it entirely to form something new. Indeed, society’s desire to shy away from the damaging effects of patriarchal power has led to Webster’s admission receiving relatively scant amount of news attention. This reflects an underlying trend; for all of our proclamations of progress and civility, we aren’t properly addressing why gender abuse is commonplace, why 2 women are killed week in England and Wales as a result of domestic violence.

The causal factor: patriarchal power that is woven into the fabric of our everyday. Following on the heels of Lord Rennard’s refusal to apologise, Nick Clegg’s former aide, Bridget Harris, has castigated the ‘intellectual sexist culture and endemic sleazy culture of Westminster’. Sexism is a way of being in the hallowed halls of the Commons, Harris explains. And, again, so it is beyond Westminster. The tapestry of routine abuse displayed on Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism shows how derogatory views of women have become normalised. These views act as a gateway for men to think, even if unconsciously, on a day-to-day basis that they are worth more than women, which can and often does clear the way for gendered abuse.

Consequently, while efforts to address gender imbalances such as all-women shortlists are laudable and certainly needed, these measures only attempt to solve the surface problems of masculine power. Simone de Beauvoir explained that to delve deeper and truly achieve gender equality, ‘the point is not for women simply to take power out of men’s hand…it’s a question precisely of destroying that notion of power’. To do so, we have to start publicly questioning men and their automatic entitlement to power. For many this is an uncomfortable idea, fear is palpable in jokes we often hear, like “what are you going as for Halloween, a feminist?”. Such reactions are understandable. For those who benefit from and fully invest in patriarchal power, a form of feminism that seeks to undermine conventional constructions of masculinity in order to establish a power paradigm based on true gender equality is a very scary indeed.

Another creative resolution? Read more fiction

January 15, 2014 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Arts and Society, Education Matters 

Open-Book

When was the last time you read a good literary book? Or recommended one? Though a staple for some, reading a good novel increasingly feels like a luxury not all of us can afford in the midst of busy schedules and digital distraction.  Additionally, in a time where literary novel sales are declining and libraries are closing, it’s clear that our appreciation for the literary masterpiece is waning. It also seems as if children are beginning to mirror our increasing disengagement with literature; according to the National Literary Trust, only 40% of children aged 8-16 read daily in 2005, a figure which dropped to 30% in 2011 and by a further 2% in 2012.

However, a study in Science journal connects reading literary fiction with Theory of Mind; the ability to emphasise, imagine and understand the mental states of others. As part of the study, one group were given excerpts of literary fiction, while other groups read popular fiction and non-fiction. When finished, participants were asked to take a test to assess and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. Interestingly, there were stark differences between those who had read literary fiction and those who had read non-fiction. Those who read the literary fiction excerpts exhibited increased levels of empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. Participants who had read excerpts of popular fiction were also deemed less able to connect empathically.

The differences between literary fiction and popular fiction stir a series of old rivalries between ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ interpretations of literature, but I think what is most important is the potential for literature to enable a person to think and feel creatively. Good literature gives space and time for the reader to delve more creatively into the psyche of their protagonist and to explore human complexities and behaviours. But as we become increasingly embroiled within the world of social media, everyday communication is often whittled down to 140 characters and appreciation in the form of ‘likes’ and retweets has become a normalised endeavour. Our thoughts are increasingly becoming condensed and immediate for social media consumption as are our reactions. Though clearly beneficial in certain respects, the world of social media often provides a somewhat one dimensional approach to communication, often bereft of emotionally sensibilities.

Reading literature, it seems, is fast becoming the equivalent of ‘slow’ food – wholesome and most probably good for you but without the immediate gratification and universal appeal of faster alternatives. Tellingly, on speaking on Radio 4’s Front Row earlier this month, writer Ruth Rendell connects the belated literary success of John Williams’ novel Stoner, a novel in which a young farm man  falls in love with literature, with our literary nostalgia and claims the novel reminds us of a love of literature that we as a society seem to be gradually forgetting. But in thinking more widely about this loss, we need to consider and examine the detrimental effects of the increasing absence of literature, particularly when considering its role in the development of empathy and emotional intellect.

In contemplating the RSA’s current discussions on ‘the power to create’, it’s clear that reading fiction is certainly not the only way  to delve deeper into what creativity at the heart of RSA might look like (if only!). But it’s interesting and important to consider our collective levels of empathy and emotional intelligence when thinking about channels of power and creativity. And while recent debates are still at the forefront of the RSA psyche, maybe reading literature is not a bad start…

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