Whilst obviously significant for all of us, today’s budget feels like a bit of pre-2014 Spending Review foreplay. So, provoked by Peter Bazalgette’s inaugural lecture as Chair of Arts Council England here at RSA this morning, the fantastic questions from our new Chair Vikki Heywood, and the launch of a new RSA-ACE project called Towards Plan A: a new political economy for arts and culture, here is an attempt at the real thing: a zero-based budgeting exercise for the arts.
Zero-based budgeting is often threatened across public services and departments, but in reality rarely happens – there are too many powerful, vested interests in maintaining some sense of status quo. It, (or usually the Treasury in some form), essentially asks the question ‘what would happen if this programme/initiative/whole area of public spending was no longer funded? Rather than tweaking spending decisions, zero-based budgeting gives the chance for more radical solutions to fiscal challenges.
Whether you are lover and hater of public spending on the arts (and please let’s not call it ’investment’ – it’s spending, stupid), try this scenario.
Imagine that the Government decides to withdraw all national funding for the arts (apart maybe, from a tiny amount of art education in schools), and also bans local government from supporting the arts. What do you think would be the consequences of such a decision, in the short and long term?
Your predictions will, of course, only be predictions. But they may still help you to understand what ‘market failure’ in the arts might really look like, and build a clearer picture of the purpose of state subsidy for the arts.
I tried this with a friend, and we came to a simple conclusion… which, in a crude attempt to get some comments on my blog, I will promise to reveal once I’ve got five predictions from other people.
You can have this for free – a paper I wrote on ‘art as evidence for public policy making’, titled Speaking Doubt to Power.
Every now and again I have a really inspiring meeting that draws together common threads from our work in Arts and Society with thinking from other people and the wider world. Yesterday was one such day. I was meeting the artist Lucy Steggals about the Creative Intersections project we are doing with King’s College London and our recent event showcasing the journey of this work with participating artists and academics – and recent learning and reflection from Arts and Social Change in Citizen Power Peterborough came flooding into the frame whilst hearing about Lucy’s experiences in Gravesend and the Isle of Sheppey.
We’ve just published a case study on the artist’s residencies. Called ‘Context Matters’ this is a reflective and observational document by Richard Ings about the experiences of the two residencies that I have curated for Arts and Social Change. Very much intended to be about sharing learning and experiences, this takes the first-hand views of the two artists, Joshua Sofaer and Simon Grennan along with the two community groups they worked with; Morland Court Residents’ Association and Peterborough Street Pastors respectively. This coupled with the Made in Peterborough commissions programme; the first with Encounters who devised the Take Me To project and the second with Joanna Rajkowska’s Peterborough Child sculpture – consolidated much of the fascinating consideration and challenge that needs to be borne out when working in ‘Any Place’ successfully where there are mutual outcomes needed for the many parties involved from the funder to the commissioner, from local residents to the artists themselves.
In embarking on the journey of working in communities with the arts, much of the consideration lies in where and how the artwork is conceived. Initially informed by the brief given to the artist and underpinned by the strength of support to the ideas within it from the local partnership, there needs to be a framework with which to engage at the beginning. This is then followed by flexibility so the ideas can be shaped and informed by local conversation and context. This need for flexibility and open acknowledgement across the stakeholders is crucial. We don’t know for sure how it is going to proceed until we’ve met the local people. If the first path chosen is not working then another needs to be taken and this takes time.
Establishing the trust for this to take place with the people you are working with is also paramount – and as an artist (and in our case, commissioner/producer) you give something of yourself to that. Friendships are established, mutual professional bonds develop, time (and sometimes budget) is spent way beyond the project brief to get the job done because you become invested in it and the people involved. You become part of the group.
Different artists work in different ways of course. For some, their approach means engagement locally begins once the work is installed and for others the work is informed entirely through local people making the decisions on the artwork. There exists in the middle and at the edges a process of co-design and co-creation. In introducing an artist to a place, much is led by the nature of the introduction to the local community. As an ‘outsider’ in many cases, whether it is as a facilitator, workshop leader or artist, this can play a significant role in the expectations and understanding of people locally – who if to be engaged need to have a sense of: Who are you? Why are you here? Who is the work for? Why should I bother to get involved?
All of which needs to be skilfully woven with the artist’s own integrity and practice. This is not about the artist dictating direction necessarily but about having a voice to shape and lead the project among all the parties involved.
In turn, this throws up the fascinating subject of where the art is created and where the real value of the work is held for the different people and stakeholders involved. In ‘socially engaged’ projects, sometimes it is necessary to pull back from the final product as being the end game (and therefore the sign of success) to instead consider the journey and process that has been crafted and experienced.
To quote Richard Ings in the case study “there is, in artist residencies generally, a creative tension between the artist’s prime function, which is to make art, and they social role they may be asked to play (or find themselves playing) – and about the role that the group or community they are working with should play in the realisation of this art”
If you are interested in these considerations and challenges, socially engaged artist Hannah Hull and ixia are exploring these ideas through the Critical Spaces network. Hannah is bringing together artists and conversations along this socially engaged arts/artists working with people theme to generate an artist-led critical voice and practice in the public realm.
There will also be more to follow from the RSA as the full suite of case studies and evaluation of Arts and Social Change, and Citizen Power more broadly are published online in the coming months.
Last night in the Great Room at the RSA, there was a wonderful magic show and it felt like the space had truly opened up, not only for flexible use but also for a different kind of interaction. I sat next to an architect for the event and we had a good conversation about how space itself shifts how we engage with each other. In the arts world, the shape of a working space is almost always in some form of circle in an environment where it is evident that you can also get up and move, and create different formations of seating arrangements. But also, there is often an attention to the space itself as one of invitation to engage without there being a set interpretation of what this might look like; in other words, flexible and inclusive – anyone can enter and participate. In this way, the arts are not only for those who know about the arts and the Great Room is not only for the great and the good.
This reminded me of the Creative Gatherings we have run in the Arts and Social Change programme in Citizen Power Peterborough which I have blogged about in the past. These gatherings are for anyone in the city who engages with the arts, whether this engagement lies in a professional or voluntary capacity and are held in a variety of settings (the idea of arts happening everywhere and belonging to everyone). So, we have held them in amongst other places, a railway museum, a community college, a pub, outside in a community allotment and this summer, as part of a walk across the city. As you will see from this last link to the Creative People’s Walk, they are about finding hidden resources in the city, creative gems that offer up a delight in being in this place. One of the guides for this walk was the Poet in Residence for the Broadway Cemetery – surely another unique aspect of Peterborough.
A key characteristic of these gatherings is that they are rooted in doing things together, a creative practice of one sort or another, and not simply a talking shop. They take as their prompt, the RSA theme of reflecting and doing, action and research, expressing something in new ways and then reflecting upon this with others. Without doubt, this has generated new networks, new friendships and new ways of thinking about the arts and the city itself. We have recently published a case study on this strand, More Purposeful Together.
But getting back to the magic show last night, it was a delight and it reminded me of our collective need to ring-fence a space for delight in our lives, not just because it is fun but because it offers a motivation to get together with others to experience a communal pleasure. An experience that militates against individualism and self-interest. Could this role of delight also contribute to Matthew Taylor’s notion of recasting individualism and paying attention to what motivates us to volunteer? Long may magic in the Great Room reign!
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to sit in on some of the Creative Intersections work that’s beginning here at the RSA, in collaboration with Kings College London. The last session I took part in involved artists forming self-selecting relationships with academic specialists, with a view to future collaboration. One thing was immediately obvious (and quite interesting): the overwhelming majority of academics who elected to take part were scientists – in popular imagination, virtually as remote a discipline from art as you could imagine. The call-out had crossed all academic disciplines, but it was clearly scientists who saw a strong benefit in taking part – and scientists of all kinds, from healthcare to physics.
Why would this happen? There’s an obvious answer: Scientists, who sometimes find it hard to reach beyond the academic environment, are excited about the idea of working with someone who seeks, above all, to communicate, and whose traditional audience can be radically different from their own. Parallel to that, many artists see a benefit in this radical difference in discipline – they’re fascinated by new ways to explore and find meaning in the world around them, and jump at the chance to spend time with people who are at the cutting-edge of knowledge about what that world actually is. The Wellcome Trust’s Arts Awards aim to capture these mutual benefits in the sphere of biomedical science, and Ignite! use creative practice to facilitate science education in much the same spirit.
What really fascinates me, though, is the idea that collaboration between artists and scientists might move to the level where it actually affects working practice. Scientific breakthroughs radically overhauling art are everywhere (the effect of photographic film on painting is a good example), but this relationship is largely seen as a one-way street. Imagine, instead, a scientific breakthrough that happened because of art. This might sound silly to some people, but I’d like to elaborate with a personal experience:
I was taught that science and religion were fundamentally at odds – that science was no more compatible with religion than it was with the idea that Uri Geller could bend spoons with the power of his mind, or a belief in flying spaghetti monsters. These were all just wacky ideas, and fundamentally incompatible with scientific reason. I don’t want to get into that debate (I’ve heard a rumour that discussing the benefits of science vs. religion on the internet is unwise) but it contains a (perhaps unexpected) hidden premise: that ‘wacky ideas’ have no place in science too.
This is plainly wrong. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been told by scientists, with a straight face, that “the universe is actually shaped like a huge doughnut”, or “all points in time co-exist” or “space is like a balloon where all surface points are in contact”, or something equally, to any sane person, ludicrous. This sort of creative thinking is essential, and not just in order to convey theories to non-scientists like myself. When faced with a seemingly intractable problem, and an impenetrable dataset, starting from any wacky premise is a reasonable problem-solving strategy. It’s also what’s commonly referred to as ‘thinking outside the box’ – strategies that mitigate the kind of epistemological path dependency that increasingly complex scientific fields suffer from. The scientist who told me that the universe was “sort of shaped like a doughnut” did so because a few years ago, faced with a complex space-time conundrum, a scientist thought “what if it was shaped… you know, like… a doughnut?”, modelled it, and realised it (sort of) worked. It was a case of creative experimentation, and fitting the figures to the model ex post.
Kuhn and Feyerabend both deal with this, in different ways. But whilst these creative paradigm shifts are easy to understand in hindsight, I for one know very little about how that sort of creative space might be carved out within a typical science environment. Standing in the RSA’s Romney Room and seeing some eminent leaders in their field explaining how their field of study was ‘sort of’ like an object they’d brought in from home, and then afterwards talking excitedly about how they ‘never get to think like that’, I felt like I was on the road to finding out.
There’s not much time for real, far-out, blue-skies creative thinking in science these days, partly because the benefits are so little understood, and partly because the costs (a day spent not doing ‘proper’ research, say) are significant. But if we can tie this sort of thinking up with some of the more tangible, easily-understood benefits of arts-science collaboration, and make space for a bit of research within that, then there’s a good chance we can make the case. The benefits seem almost impossible to measure (how can we show a breakthrough in ten years’ time began in a workshop now?), but they’re certainly felt by scientists. The difficulty isn’t showing that the arts can benefit science – the difficulty is showing how.
I am writing while listening to Adele singing ‘Someone Like you’ at the Brit Awards in 2011. The song is intensely emotional in the literal sense of e-mote, to move, and though I am not crying, I feel that the song matters deeply, that her voice connects directly to a non-conscious part of me that is otherwise hard to reach.
The conventional wisdom is that the song is all about the experience of losing somebody you love, and that we relate to the song at that level of projective identification. That may be true for some, but I think it is a relatively shallow interpretation. The emotional connection feels deeper than shared memories of heartache.
I became aware of Adele’s voice long after she was a superstar, and enjoyed it all the more because I had not been swept up by her stardom and could appreciate the music on my own terms. I found myself playing Youtube videos of her songs for hours on end. I felt slightly uneasy about this, if only because there is definitely a part of me (admittedly not a particularly worthy part) that feels a bit shocked to be moved by a 20-something from Tottenham singing about her ex-boyfriend.
In this respect, it may be possible to connect details of Adele’s biography, particularly her father walking out on the family when she was two, and playing a limited role in her upbringing, to the reason her album 21 in general, but ‘Someone like you’ in particular, feels more primal than a mere loss of a young lover. On this theory, she may think she is singing about her ex-boyfriend, about romantic pain, but really it is about a deeper sense of existential abandonment, the perennial search for missing parts of oneself.
That’s pure speculation, but the point is that music seems to connect to the form of our emotions, not the content. Music doesn’t generally make us feel e.g. sadness, joy, grief etc, but it does tap into the form of emotion we are feeling and changes its ‘shape’; how deep, how intense, how sublime and so forth.
“Music is most likely to tingle the spine, in short, when it includes surprises in volume, timbre and harmonic pattern.”
There are lots of sources on musicology who have addressed these questions in more depth than I can here. For instance, I remember Czikszentmihlayi writes of three levels of musical appreciation in his classic book, Flow. From memory, these are hedonic appreciation(sensory pleasure in the moment), analogical appreciation(this is like something else, makes me think of people, times and places etc- this level is often used to explain the success of ‘someone like you’). And then there is technical appreciation, which you only really grasp when you are a trained musician who knows how much skill is involved in producing the combination of harmonies, melodies and so forth that gives rise to the musical experience.
There is also a psychological explanation that is more cognitive in nature, unpacked in a relatively recent piece in the Wall Street Journal called ‘Anatomy of a Tear Jerker’.
One key feature of a powerful song, it seems, is ”appoggiatura“: “A type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound. “This generates tension in the listener,” said Martin Guhn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who co-wrote a 2007 study on the subject. “When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves, and it feels good.”
The article suggests tear jerkers share at least four features:
1) They began softly and then suddenly became loud.
2) They included an abrupt entrance of a new “voice,” either a new instrument or harmony.
3) And they often involved an expansion of the frequencies played.
4) All the passages contained unexpected deviations in the melody or the harmony.
The authors argue: “Music is most likely to tingle the spine, in short, when it includes surprises in volume, timbre and harmonic pattern.”
“The more emotions a song provokes—whether depressing or uplifting—the more we crave the song”.
There is also a neuroscientific dimension. Measuring listeners’ responses, Dr. Zatorre’s team found that goose bumps correlate with the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, even when the music is extremely sad. Moreover, as the music business already knows, the more emotions a song provokes—whether depressing or uplifting—the more we crave the song.
Apparently ‘Someone like you’, with the sonorous voice, periodic surprises and soulful lyrics is a classic in this regard, so if you do nothing else good today, take a few moments to enjoy.
I’m in the middle of evaluating the Arts and Social Change strand of Citizen Power Peterborough. I don’t want to get into the details of the programme itself – read here if you’d like a primer – but rather, to talk about a few interesting problems that the evaluation has thrown up.
Evaluating something like Arts and Social Change isn’t about measuring ‘success vs. failure’ – if everything in the project was a ‘success’ in that narrow definition, then there would be no learning and the project as a whole would have failed. Citizen Power Peterborough has above all been an experiment – and nowhere more so than in Arts and Social Change. The goal is to find out what impact, if any, the arts can have on positive social change, and this has been pursued through a number of targeted arts-based interventions in Peterborough. Some projects have been hugely successful in terms of impact, others partly so (with important findings), and all have been able to adapt as they progressed, reflecting on-the-ground realities, new ideas and preliminary results.
The Arts and Social Change programme has run according to a set of principles; one of those principles is emergence. To paraphrase broadly, this is the idea that interventions in complex structures (like the communities of Peterborough) will lead to multiple, complex outcomes – the kind that can’t easily be predicted at the outset. These kinds of findings are extremely valuable, because they can only be brought to light through hands-on experimentation.
So, to recap: a huge experiment in a complex structure, where accurate prediction is all but impossible, where there are high levels of reflexivity, and where only the broadest of goals (increasing attachment, participation and innovation) were known at the start. How do you evaluate an experiment like the above?
One tactic is to do what many people would do when faced with a big problem: break it down into a series of smaller, more manageable problems. Arts and Social Change ran as a series of interconnected strands, linking with other parts of the Citizen Power programme: these strands were much smaller and more responsive, with fewer participants from all sides. They had more specific goals (such as ‘increasing community cohesion’) and tentative measures for their individual success or failure. Evaluating the strands themselves in this way will certainly be part of the final evaluation, and it’s incredibly exciting and positive to get to delve into the programme at that kind of level.
It would be missing a trick, though, to evaluate the whole programme by the success of its parts. Talking to people involved, one of the programme’s real (and if we’re not careful, hidden) successes has been its impact upon the ‘bigger picture’. To give an example: one of the first documents I came across whilst researching, was a letter to the Evening Telegraph (Peterborough’s local paper) from a resident, describing an intervention that had been quite strongly criticised by the paper: “…I found it one of the most enlightening and thought-provoking activities that I have ever taken part in. I still find it hard to believe that the city council had the courage to help fund this, but I am very glad that they did.” Read her words carefully once more, and try to recall the last time a Council-funded programme made you feel that way. How do you measure enlightenment? Was it ‘good value for money’? The author measures the cost favourably against some other council spending (and she makes a convincing case), but could you price the “most enlightening and thought-provoking” events in your life? I know I couldn’t. Impacts like this, if they can be nailed down and cogently articulated, give the lie to those who see the arts as an ‘optional extra’ – a luxury to be cut when money’s tight.
Consider this: I like knowing my neighbours, but I have enough social capital that I don’t rely on them – if I have personal or professional difficulties, I have plenty of places to turn to. I like where I live, but if I had to move, I’m pretty certain I’d be fine. It’s not like that for everyone. We’re talking about real interventions in places where community ties, family bonds and professional networks are all under incredible strain, and where without support, a space for dialogue and the ability to explore together, things are unlikely to improve. Art can make that happen, in a way that little else can, and Arts and Social Change is in a unique position to show how. I’ve heard neighbourhood managers talk about how an intervention has fundamentally altered how they see their work, civil society leaders tell of a re-invigorated sense of collective self-belief, and residents describe moving from isolation, to feeling that they are involved in a shared project – a shared life – with those around them.
But how to capture all that? We’re all going to face some extraordinary pressures over the next few months and years, and Peterborough will face as many of them as anywhere. If we can articulate the many things that have been learned by Peterborough’s residents, then we can share them, and play a part in handing powerful tools (for free!) to communities who need them most.
I write this with a nice glass of Pinot Noir next to me in hopes this will aid the creation of moments of insights, as suggested by Jonah Lehrer in his RSA talk on creativity last night. Indeed he speaks of the increase of alpha waves that lead to those ‘aha’ moments being induced by putting your mind at ease – hence the wine. Do I regard my glass of wine as leading to a wasting of time? Certainly hope so, but Lehrer spoke of how we have too narrow a view of what productive time looks like, critiquing our obsession with efficiency and lists. He quoted Einstein with ” Creativity is the residue of wasted time “ in making his point about wasted time leading to new discoveries.
Joe Hallgarten’s recent blog speaks of the value of cross disciplinary reflection and it is the potential for new insights unlocked through imaginative interplay between incongruous influences that drives a project we are doing with Kings College. In the Artist as Citizen and Cultural Intermediary , we are looking at the conditions that enable partnerships between artists and academics from very diverse areas of practice but also at what practical benefits might be realised from these differences.
The project was also inspired by Richard Sennet’s recent book Together which explores how we are losing the ‘cooperation skills needed to make a complex society work’ and of course these skills exercised through working with people who think and practice differently to ourselves. But I wanted this project to go further and consciously create an environment where curiosity about the ‘other’ and accessing new lenses to re-see one’s work was the driving force with a valuing of difference as the underpinning principle. The invitation for difference worked – the project attracted interest from across the College, mostly from science and medicine and we have attracted artists and small arts organisations, who for the most part, have no history of working with academics. The ‘with’ word is critical. We tend to settle in transactional partnerships,that can suffer from being utilitarian and miss the possibilities generated from real exchange. There can be a failure to grasp what the ‘other’ has to offer.
I’ve long been a believer in epiphanies being more likely in such places as the shower where, as Lehrer suggests, one has the space from incessant external voices such as mobile phones. Putting your mind at ease releases our alpha waves which in turn offers a chance for the inner quiet voice and those discoveries which can come out of the blue. As an actor, I always learned my lines while walking – the combination of activity, mild distraction of the senses and the rhythm of my steps worked for the most demanding of speeches. But how can you bring a metaphorical shower to a meeting of strangers that will lead to the formation of partnerships? Interestingly I found many of Lehrer’s prompts for the generation of creativity worked for us in practice this last Tuesday.
We began our first day together with metaphor, each of us sharing an object that would illustrate what excited us most about our work, in the hopes that this would create connections between us. Of course, this also required all our participants to be willing to take a risk, enter a world quite unfamiliar to their normal working lives and give time for partnerships characterised by difference. Dare I say it, the additional willingness to experiment was a crucial criteria and I think this involves an awareness of the wasting time principle that Lehrer speaks of – getting away from the focused rational and linear approach to problem solving and trying perhaps surprising and counter-intuitive approaches. Lehrer speaks of the brain being particularly good at metaphors helping us to bind things together. This technique of working through metaphor to describe what we are curious about can develop a collaborative language that helps to transcend the challenges of the differences in our working languages and our usual referential shortcuts. If we agree that we need a different kind of conversation to generate transformation, then a language rooted in metaphor is a good beginning.
Another challenge for this first meeting was how to get beyond politeness and the inevitable desire to please, natural to a meeting of strangers and move to a dynamic of critical friendship where each partner could assess the relevance of these particular strangers’ approaches to their own working practices. And this is where we applied the ‘shower principle’ with enforced moments of observation, reflection and prioritisation. Like many in the arts, I use a technique called the ‘silent gallery’ where participants can observe each others’ ideas in silence in order to conceive critical responses. Dissent and refinement of ideas is encouraged, but importantly within an environment of trust where each voice has an equal status, silence can have a distinct role in exchange.
Lehrer was very critical of the use of brainstorming techniques and quite right too in the regard that used unwisely, this provides fresh but superficial and ill expressed ideas without critique. However, as a technique to get everyone’s voice heard and to loosen rigid thinking, they can be helpful if used in conjunction with refining and critiquing the ideas expressed.
But for all this commitment to new ways of working, new perspectives and trying experimental approaches, it does also get down to the people themselves and the relationships formed. That’s another thing Lehrer spoke about - that it is still important to be there ‘in the flesh’ so to speak. The extraordinary value of just showing up. He spoke of a very revealing statistic; that in spite of the huge increase in skype as a remote communication tool, attendance at conferences has doubled. In spite of increasing demands on our time, people value being together. I’ll continue to blog about the development of this project and hope that some of our partners will be doing so as well, but for all of us it will be curiosity that sustains the exchange. And of course, a commitment to wasting time…
Filed under: Arts and Society, Social Economy, Uncategorized
Ok, so blogging to me is like writing is to Irvine Welsh – I’m a binge blogger. I promised another email on a new project which I’ll post on Monday, but here is another…
I have started reading Nietzsche again after a few years of not doing so and he’s keeping me awake at night. I started reading him when I was 15 and return to his ideas time and again. It’s a mild obsession that is probably quite healthy. Reading him is exhilarating, even if (perhaps partly because) I find myself swearing at him and protesting with him at very regular intervals.
One of the key trains of thought in his work is the importance of opposites, or better still, apparent opposites. He begins Beyond Good and Evil by chastising philosophers for their love of truth and goodness over falsehood and evil, partly because he thinks they’re self-deluding (everything for him is a perspective which reminds me of Ian McGilchrist’s brilliant Heideggerian-influenced analysis of attention in The Master and his Emissary) and insincere, but also because he contends that evil and falsehood, or how our society understands them, are positive, creative forces that enable people and society to flourish – there is a very interesting link here to “positive deviance” (another current obsession of mine) I’ll take up another time.
This has got me thinking about happiness. The ideal of happiness is deeply embedded in Western thought. Aristotle wrote of happiness being the highest human virtue that should guide how we live our lives and also how we view ourselves and others. Utilitarian’s like Bentham and Mill had a very different understanding of happiness but also considered it to be the essential goal of life.
One of their big differences is the status of pleasure in their respective conceptions of happiness which, as Foucault shows in the final volumes of The History of Sexuality, has been an enduring problem for Western culture for the best part of two and half thousand years. While Aristotle largely considered pleasure to be dangerous, anticipating much of what Freud said on the necessity of sexual repression for maintaining social order, Bentham often seemed to make a virtue of pleasure, at times suggesting that happiness can be subsumed within it.
The Government now seeks to measure happiness as a way of determining the performance of government. When David Cameron first spoke about introducing a ‘happiness index’ to measure how the country is doing many people rejected the idea out of hand. Much of the commentary (from left and right) was rather silly, but legitimate questions were raised regarding the challenges of defining happiness and then measuring it.
One question not asked was why happiness? The question sounds ridiculous to the ear, frightening even, which says a great deal about our modern addiction to the promise of happiness. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had the nagging suspicion that happiness might be a false prophet – the more you search for it the more elusive it becomes. In a strange Lacanian way, the act of talking, or at least feeling the need to talk about something, often says more about its absence or lack. Examples abound: the screwed up psychoanalyst treating other people’s neuroses, the self-styled child care expert who neglects the basic needs of their own children, and the libidinous priest who preaches the virtue of abstinence.
Nietzsche considered happiness a shallow virtue. To negate suffering is to negate an important part of life itself. Suffering, he argued, produces a wisdom and deep insight into life that happiness (or what people describe as happiness) can cover up, burying the drive, creativity and life-affirming intensity hardship often produces. He urged people to seek out suffering and hardship as an exercise in self-affirmation and development. I wouldn’t go so far – in any case, it’s hardly like we need to search very hard or far for it – but his reflections on truth and suffering tell us important things about the hidden value of apparent opposites and the need to think differently and to question even our most deeply-held beliefs.
Recently we held a roundtable at the RSA with the British Theatre Consortium on the theme of spectatorship and engagement. We explored the presumption that those working in the arts will increasingly need to justify public funding on the basis of being able to provide measurable benefits. This is easier to quantify when arts consumption involves direct participation, but as most arts experiences are non-participatory, we challenged, arts organisations will need to make spectatorship more engaging and active.
Once you dig under the surface, this becomes a complex subject. There is of course a difference between how institutions, particularly those with a building that needs to be regularly filled engage with their audiences, and how smaller organisations for whom participation is ‘the thing they do’, come to the table together on this subject. Many of this latter group feel that their work has not been recognised or appropriately valued (financially or otherwise); as the title of the recent conference from Connected Culture, the network that celebrates adult participatory arts, demonstrates. In choosing the name ‘Because we’re worth it’ they suggest a desire to change the perceptions around participatory arts whilst at the same time seriously grappling with the challenges of ‘genuine’ engagement and participation.
It would be really valuable to explore this place where arts participation and participatory arts meet.
It would be really valuable to explore this place where arts participation and participatory arts meet. Next time we should expose these hidden dichotomies, for it is all too easy to talk about artists and arts organisations as if they are homogenous. The State of the arts conference found this too. But the fact is that arts organisations are not all the same and we need to find a way of talking about these nuances otherwise the real nubs of the matter will remain ignored.
What should the starting point be? Leila Jankovich states that nearly 80% of those who participate in creative activity also attend arts events (according to the Taking Part survey). It is clear then that engagement of any kind may lead to a greater propensity to engage with other arts experiences in the future, ‘the challenge therefore is not the quality of what is engaged with, but with act of engagement itself’. This throws a challenge back to the Arts Council’s objective of ‘great art for everyone’. If our collective goal is a more enriched, open-minded and creative society perhaps there needs to be encouragement for all forms of participation in creative activity, irrespective of pre-conceived ideas of what is ‘quality’ or ‘great’.
One of the arts biggest challenges is raising its visibility, so the act of initial engagement is a really interesting one. Getting different sorts of people across the threshold can be a real challenge. There are interesting ways of thinking about this, the Birmingham Opera Company for instance, puts 50% of its tickets on sale to the general public (for those who know how to book in advance, have credit cards, are already going to go etc…) and the remaining 50% are distributed through the participants involved in the production. Contact Theatre place young people at the heart of everything they do. Their Future Fires project supports young emerging artists to plan and deliver their own community arts projects across Greater Manchester. Daniel Ainsworth is one such emerging artist. He is exploring with film and street art how extended periods of delayed re-development impact on a community’s day to day lives. He is inviting debate around the issues of displacement, unemployment and reduced local services in times of recession.
Daniel’s project sounds like it will enable the community of Miles Platting to articulate their thoughts and feelings about their situation in ways they perhaps didn’t know were possible which I think would appeal to Matthew Taylor’s assertion that we need to have a richer account of citizenship. This is an interesting thought because undoubtedly these accounts will vary significantly. If you ask someone what play they would like to see, they can only pick from a list of what they’ve already seen, people who have not had so many experiences in the arts do not know what the possibilities could be. For an account of citizenship to be truly rich we need to be engaged in many different ways and in many different forms.
From a policy and funding perspective, there is a significant challenge in how engagement and participation is measured.
From a policy and funding perspective, there is a significant challenge in how engagement and participation is measured. We lack a sophisticated way to represent depth of engagement and participation and in measuring the impact of this. You can have six people involved in project over three months and have a hundred people attend a final show. All 106 will go on to be counted as participants, yet the impact on these two groups and the individuals in them will be vastly different. If funding does drive the numbers game then those who engage with communities on a deeper level could be incentivised to lose these long term interventions and resulting relationships for quick, high volume wins – and what a loss this would be. But if the evidence from Taking Part is anything to go by then we need a scenario where all levels of engagement are encouraged – and then we need to have a better account of what it all means.
At the end of January I was part of a ‘Knowledge Exchange Network’ seminar organised by Leila Jancovich and her team at Leeds Metropolitan University held at the fittingly interdisciplinary home that is Culture Lab at Newcastle University. Through this Network Leila has successfully brought together policy makers, academics and practitioners to share research and ideas and to debate the issues around cultural engagement and participation. With a theme of engagement and participation in the arts on this particular day we focussed on the role that technology plays.
My contribution was around Citizen Power Peterborough and the social media approaches we’ve adopted, with some of the lessons learnt along way as a project that is trying to communicate what we are doing in the city whilst trying to involve and enthuse people in that as much as possible.
I thought I’d share some of the conversation here as it turned towards how the arts and technologies can be a tool for engaging people, here’s some of the abbreviated highlights:
- Social media offers great opportunity to share cultural content through networks of networks
- You can tell people about your work and generate a buzz when it might be challenging to do so on the street
- Social media can be a creative force behind new forms of cultural production as shown by the Royal Opera House and Mudlark/Royal Shakespeare Company
- Film is hugely powerful, participatory and largely accessible as a device for community groups. Check out Citizen Power’s Rebecca Daddow and the FREE group’s simple, effecting film
- Initiatives like NT Live showed how technologies open up new audiences and create a new kind of cultural experience through sharing live content in cinemas
- Social media can encourage people to come back to the local
- Social media doesn’t replace face to face – instead it should strengthen and deepen real life
- Be careful there is a digital divide and social media excludes some groups totally creating a new form of exclusion
- Equally social media can be used as a way over overcoming social exclusion for some groups
- But resist the pressure to always be new. Don’t innovate for the sake of it. If it works already, great, stick with it and see if you can’t make it bigger. This is what business would do.
There’s conference that brings together all the different themes explored by the Knowledge Exchange Network; internationalism, engagement strategies, place and geography and socially engaged practice on Tuesday 26 June at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. To join the off-line conversation book here.