Enjoying the obstacle course

I’ve just read yet another article describing the hand-wringing over school leavers not being equipped with the skills or proficiencies needed to succeed in ‘the workplace’.  Meanwhile, as a parent and creative practitioner I’m surrounded by people who see play, experimentation and creative thinking as fundamental to creating rounded, happy children.  We point to the huge evidence base that play and creativity aid problem solving, encourage the brain to make links between different areas of learning and give important space for children to learn through making mistakes.  Kids become more resilient, discover new interests and take an interest in their own learning journeys.  Why are we making kids jump through hoops when they could enjoy the whole damn obstacle course?

Students from Swanshurst School documented their learning journey into treatment of war casualties using film.

It’s unfortunately unsurprising that the joys of arts, creativity and culture are slipping off the curriculum.  Just weeks into entering office in 2010, the Conservative / LibDem Coalition decided to trash the ‘Creative Partnerships’ programme which involved strategic, high quality arts and culture provision in schools.  Subsequent educational reforms have squeezed music, drama and art out of the curriculum at the same time as funding cuts have hammered schools’ ability to provide extra curricular activities.  With OFSTED inspections deciding the fate of schools and widespread pressure for local authority schools to transfer to academy status, staff can be forgiven for focusing on getting the ‘basics’ right at the expense of a more holistic school experience.  The result is a two tier system where only children from families with the resources and capacity to support creative activities outside of school come into contact with experiences which were commonplace a generation ago.

With this in mind, I’ve been considering how my own practice can develop to meet this challenge.  Work in schools has always formed a strong strand of my work – film lends itself so well to exploring narrative, unpicking topics in the curriculum, developing literacy and presentation skills and sharing ideas with others.  It also involves technical skills and teamwork which create new and often surprising new dynamics in the classroom.  ‘Help for Hedgehogs’, ‘Monoxide Mole’ and ‘Untold Stories: Birmingham’s Wounded Soldiers from WW1’ all involved pupils in using film to share ideas and information with a wider audience.  Moreover, we had a lot of fun in making them!

Key Stage 2 pupils learning technical film making skills in preparation for making their film ‘Help for Hedgehogs’

Last week I started the first step on ArtsConnectWM’s ‘Planning for Work with Formal Education’ course.  It aims to bridge the maddening divide between schools who want to develop a broader, more creative curriculum and the talented, passionate individuals and organisations who are champing at the bit to bring their work to children and young people.

We heard from Sarah Worth of Highly Sprung who have been doing some really interesting and innovative work to co-deliver key learning in schools through the medium of physical theatre.  I documented a similar project five years ago when DanceXchange and Dance 4 piloted ‘Discover Dance’ to explore how dance and movement could help enrich and embed learning.

Discover Dance from Rachel Gillies on Vimeo.

Sarah discussed was how this type of work can continue in today’s climate.  Excitingly, Highly Sprung have been collaborating with academics to bring their research into schools.  So what a microbiologist in a university laboratory is viewing under a microscope can be enacted physically in a school hall.  They are also clear about the benefits of long term, strategic partnerships with schools.  It’s inspiring stuff.

My particular passion is for finding ways to bring local history into the classroom to develop pupils’ interest in their own heritage.  For me, knowing my own family’s story and understanding the development of the area where I live has helped me to feel grounded and settled in who I am and where I have made my home.  It also reminds me that people like me can have agency in shaping the world around me and make a difference.  It’s about citizenship, it’s about making connections with elders in our communities, it’s about standing on the shoulders of giants as we forge our paths.

I’ll be using this blog to share some of my ideas and reflections as I develop my strategy for working in schools.  I am keen to explore more collaborations with artists and arts organisations as I go.  There are a few things on the horizon which I hope to get my teeth stuck into, so come back to check in if you are interested!

In the meantime, do get in touch if you have experience of arts and cultural education in schools.  If you are a teacher then what are you currently engaged in?  What works well?  What isn’t working?  What is preventing you from doing what you would like to do?  For the creative practitioners amongst you, how have you ended up working in education?  What does high quality provision look like?  What are the factors influencing your ability to provide the kind of sessions you want to?  Who are you partnering with?  And how is work funded?  Are we dependent on NPOs with salaried employees and funded educational programmes to deliver school projects or are individual artists in a unique position to shape the agenda?

I’ll leave you with an inspiring short film which recently featured on the BBC.

Lucy’s Story

I was recently involved in delivering a film project with Geese Theatre at The Farndon Unit, a secure mental health unit for women.  It was fantastic to collaborate with Emma and Ruth, experienced practitioners with a real passion for and belief in transformative arts provision.  More to the point, they had a belief in the people they were working with and the experience and tools needed to help participants have a positive experience.  I’m incredibly proud of the finished film and the responses to it.

Over the four weeks of the project, the women took the lead in developing the story that they wanted to share, took on acting roles, got involved in audio recording and operating the camera and created an impressive film illustrating some of their own experiences on their journey towards recovery.  As a facilitator and film maker I learnt a lot, not only from working alongside Geese, but also the staff at Farndon and the women themselves. The group were so generous in sharing their stories, ideas and enthusiasm – even on days when they were finding it tough.

Their film and their experiences of the project were recently shared at Elysium Healthcare’s Service User conference.

I know that travelling to and standing up at a conference to discuss the project was a huge step for those members of the group who were able to travel to present the film.  I’m already looking forward to another project with Geese and another opportunity to learn from both practitioners and participants as I shape my own practice.

If you want to learn more about Geese Theatre’s work then I highly recommend the current exhibition at Mac Birmingham which documents and celebrates 30 years of their work.

Planning, collaborating, telling stories

Planning, collaborating, telling stories.  All the stuff that I love.  Here’s a bit of an overview of what I’ve been up to so far this year.

I have spent part of this year working part time as a Project Co-ordinator on ‘Living Memory’, a two-year Heritage Lottery supported project that records and celebrates photography collections and life stories from across the Black Country.  It’s been an intense and rewarding role, delving into fascinating stories and stunning images from across the area, as well as making connections with community organisations and projects that I was completely unaware of before.  The project will hardly scrape the surface of the rich narratives there are to uncover, but you can get a flavour of what we have been doing on the project website (where you can also sign up to get occasional updates into your inbox) or by following us on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.  A personal favourite story of mine is John Shrimpton’s – whose efforts contributed to the formation of the Sandwell Valley as a nature reserve and protected it from development.

I’ve continued my longstanding relationship with the Lichfield Festival this year, developing their ‘Hear My Voice’ learning and participation programme, this time with elders across Walsall and Lichfield.  Textile Artist Liz Blades and I have been visiting Dementia Cafés, the weekly ‘Mind Matters’ session in Beechdale and drop ins for over 50s to develop our project on the theme of journeys.  I have been taken aback by how open people have been about discussing their memories – often they touch on personal traumas and tragedies and frequently these experiences have not been shared so candidly before.  Our task will now be to carry this work forward into the next phase.  The textile patchwork quilt which illustrates some of these memories will be on display at the Lichfield Garrick Theatre over the course of the Festival.

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, work has continued on the Birmingham Friends of the Earth Heritage project.  A group of volunteers have been scouring through the archives housed at the Library of Birmingham and have unearthed some fascinating stuff about the 40 year history of The Warehouse, BFoE’s home since 1977.  A few weeks ago I trained up a team of volunteers in a morning to conduct oral history interviews with people who have a connection to the building and to BFoE’s work.  With 17 people to interview over the course of the afternoon it was a hectic day, but so many lovely anecdotes emerged and there was a really strong sense that these people were early pioneers and advocates of many of the actions that we see as positive and important today.  I’m in the process of knitting these stories together.  A short film and accompanying booklet will be ready for the Autumn.

Behind the scenes I’m still plotting and planning other projects, including ongoing collaborations as part of the People’s Heritage Co-operative.  Next week I’m embarking on a new project making a film in a setting for women with mental health needs.  I’m also going to be presenting Women’s History Birmingham‘s work to this year’s Community Archives and Heritage Group conference, which this year focuses on Conflict, Protest and Reconciliation.

Solstice reflections

Solstice Greetings! As this is my final day at work until January I wanted to mark the end of the year by thanking everyone I’ve worked with over the past year. I’ve fed off your enthusiasm, energy and expertise. You know who you are.
 
Projects have covered Hedgehog habitats, the Women’s Lib movement, environmental activism, testimonies of genocidal rape, pioneering dance performances, education for pre-schoolers, mapping stories of migration and performances by people with sensory impairments (what have I left off?). I’ve also been on a learning journey this year, exploring participatory arts and media practice, the creative heritage sector, workshop facilitation, Arts Leadership and exhibition curation.
 
Special mention must go to The Transfer and everyone who works here for providing me with a home for the past year (and plenty of very good lunches). Co-working rocks.
 
Looking forward to longer days, new growth and development as the sun sets on the shortest day, I’m currently planning some juicy (and alarmingly big) things for next year which I look forward to sharing. Let’s collaborate, learn together and make more exciting things happen in 2018.

Friends of the Earth – doing some digging

Intrigued by the pioneers of environmentalism in Brum? From the early days of environmental education, paper recycling, practical actions around sustainability and creative street actions, there is so much to explore and uncover through the Birmingham Friends of the Earth Heritage project that I’m currently involved with.

We are currently recruiting volunteers who want to be involved in exploring organisation’s history.

Volunteers are being given the opportunity to interview BFoE activists.  This Thursday I will be running a fun workshop to teach some of the basics of oral history interviews.  We will be using audio recorders and film to capture memories.  Again, no experience is needed – just a curiosity and enthusiasm for exploring the topic!  We are meeting on Thursday 23rd November, 2:00-4:40pm at Stirchley Baths.  E-mail Liz Palmer at heritage@birminghamfoe.org.uk if you would like to get involved.

Volunteers are also being invited to help us sift through the extensive BFoE archive.  The BFoE archive of photos, newsletters, leaflets and posters is kept at The Wolfson Centre in the Library of Birmingham.  It’s a real treasure trove and we’re eager to share it through this project!  There are sessions scheduled for:

  • Tuesday 21st Nov 4-6.30pm
  • Tuesday 28th Nov 4-6.30pm
  • Tuesday 5th Dec 4-6.30pm
  • Saturday 9th Dec 1-4.30pm
  • Tuesday 12th Dec 4-6.30pm
  • Tuesday 19th Dec 4-6.30pm

No previous experience of archival research is needed – just your enthusiasm!  Again, contact Liz Palmer if you would like to attend!

 

A Healthy Ecology of Culture?

‘How do leaders in the Arts achieve wider and deeper engagement with the Arts and Heritage?’

This was the question posed by Robert Hewison, author of the excellent book Cultural Capital, the Rise and Fall of Creative Britain’ at an Arts Connect WM seminar for Arts and Cultural sector leaders on 1st November.  It’s also a question that I’ve been grappling with on a personal level over the past few months, and something I alluded to in a blogpost back in June.

Hewison has superb insight and clarity into the shifts in cultural policy, in the increasing commodification of culture and need to justify its value in market terms.  His book charts the rise of the ‘Creative Industries’ and the notion that an army of freelancers and small scale creative businesses can drive innovation, tackle unemployment and regenerate whole swathes of post-industrial Britain.  As one such freelancer who is frequently told how much my colleagues and I contribute to the economy, I’m acutely aware how much guff is spouted in this regard.

Thankfully there seems to be plenty of work being done to redefine how we measure value in arts, heritage and culture.  I completed the University of Sunderland’s online ‘Introduction to Participatory Art and Media’ course over the Summer and the range of excellent case studies with serious research evidencing their impact was wonderful.  However, unless this work is taken seriously at a strategic level with adequate funding and supporting structures, the hours spent meticulously evidencing outcomes will be just one more instance of the sector fruitlessly justifying ourselves on other people’s terms.

We were also provided with some seemingly damning statistics, highlighting how increased Arts Council and National Lottery funding for the Arts has led to minimal impact on engagement amongst the wider public (admittedly using flawed methodology).  It was highlighted in the ensuing discussion on our table that it is important to bear in mind the wider context of ‘homegrown’ and commercial culture to get a truer picture.  My mind instantly turned to a key text from the Leadership course, John Holden’s ‘The Ecology of Culture’ which sees culture in a wider context than Arts Council policy, where different cultural sectors organically intersect and support each other.  Like a natural ecological system, it requires interdependence and sustenance of the many different elements.

The lecture highlighted three key threats to the sector, which really set the challenge for everyone in the room:

  • National Lottery funding decreasing
  • Educational policy narrowing
  • the wider Economy shrinking, with particular challenges at Local Authority Level.

So, how do we begin the answer the question posed to us?  In all honesty I fear for my future in the sector as a Freelancer.  Whilst welcoming additional funding coming into new and existing National Portfolio Organisations locally, I feel that freelance artists are frequently on the outside of the conversation, working precariously in a tough environment.  If we don’t ‘get the gig’ or have the time to invest in attending arts events it is hard to operate.  This is exacerbated for people with dependents, people with additional needs or people living in more isolated areas.  The idea of an ‘Ecology of Culture’ is something which makes sense to me – the need for stronger networks at all levels, with more people looking ‘sideways and below’ for support, instead of merely responding to challenges and opportunities coming from a policy level.

I’m not entirely sure what my ask is, I’m still making my first forays into thinking about this in more depth.  I’m probably being quite unfair in my analysis based on my current bugbears.  I could probably be more proactive, be more focused, take more risks myself.  However, here are some thoughts, which I appreciate are very focused on my own development:

  • In the Heritage sector there is so much dependence on Heritage Lottery Funding for individual projects.  It seems that there is little in the way of learning and development, particularly as so many projects are one-off, small scale activities by community groups who do not deliver heritage projects as a core activity.  As part of my work as Secretary of The People’s Heritage Co-operative I am interested in exploring how we can develop networks to increase our resilience.  Sharing experiences and skills, as well as making connections with other heritage practitioners will surely mean that we are spending less time competing for limited funds and more time pooling our skills as the funding pot decreases.  I’m particularly passionate about making the case for high quality and strategic heritage education with young people and I hope that Heritage Practitioners can feed into the development of the ‘Cultural Education Partnership’ locally.  Watch this space as plans develop.
  • National Portfolio Organisations could create ‘learning communities’ – spaces where artists can collaborate, play and respond to each other, without the pressure of responding to a commission.  Friction Arts’ ‘Artists on the Edge’ is a superb example of this.  It has created a family of artists from different disciplines who are now forging new paths, but who are also able to bring their skill and energies to supporting Friction Arts’ work.  It’s a reciprocal and sustainable model, which is of particular value to ‘post-emerging’ artists.
  • Arts organisations also need to find ways to welcome Artists through their doors – not just as consumers of culture, but as people with something to offer and share.  How can we initiate these conversations?
  • I really welcome the Arts Leadership course (Arts Connect WM are recruiting the next cohort now!) and I’ve taken plenty away which I’m not yet sure what to do with.  Perhaps my next step should be seeking a mentor?  But who and where?

Am I thinking along the right lines here?  Am I just using this as a sounding board to vent some frustrations?  I think that most artists CAN and WANT to achieve wider and deeper engagement.  Too often our engagement is fleeting, ‘hit and run’, working to another agenda.  I crave depth, collaboration and longer term relationships where I can use my artistic practice to work in a genuinely participatory and collaborative way.  Several projects are in the pipeline where I hope to address that.  In the meantime, let’s keep Hewison’s question in mind and try and develop a healthy cultural ‘ecology’…

Happy Birthday Moseley Road Baths!

A building very close to my heart, Moseley Road Baths, is 110 years old today!  It stands as a testament to the late 19th Century municipal vision of public buildings which could create spaces for self improvement, healthy living and community.  It also stands as a testament to a campaign of community action, lobbying and creativity, which has prevented the doors closing and the building becoming derelict.

When I moved to Birmingham in 2003, I worked on Reception for a few years whilst setting up as a freelance Film Maker. As a result of that, I was able to enjoy the beautiful architecture, swim regularly (sometimes with the pool to myself!) and meet so many people, many of whom are now friends.

When the building was nearing its Centenary year and threatened with closure, a handful of us came together and formed the Friends of Moseley Road Baths. Back then it seemed unlikely we could convince Birmingham City Council to keep it open. Today I went for a lunchtime swim to celebrate all that we have achieved.

In 2010 the Friends of Moseley Road Baths received funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund for a three year ‘Pool of Memories’ project. I was so lucky to interview people with memories of swimming, bathing, working and socialising in the building. Even better, I ran workshops in local schools where pupils were given opportunity to make their own oral history films. The work from that project can be viewed on the ‘Heritage’ page of the Friends of Moseley Road Baths’ website.

However, there is still so much work to be done. A Community Interest Company is hoping to take on the running of the building from April next year when the Council pull out, but funds are needed to help make that happen. So here are two asks:

Vote for the building for Aviva’s Community Fund (it takes a few minutes) and contribute to the Crowdfunder.

Here are just a handful of comments from supporters explaining why they feel the building is worth saving. I cut this together from interviews with regular Sunday morning swimmers.

For regular updates on the campaign, details of how to get involved and for news on events and activities, subscribe to the Friends of Moseley Road Baths’ mailing list.

How to Curate an Exhibition

I’ve been musing on the leap from content to curation today with the Friction Arts gang.  They really set the bar high in making exhibitions immersive and making content available.  We had chance to unpick some of the ideas behind their current project, ‘Wholesale Memory’ at Birmingham’s Wholesale Markets, and discuss the relationship between market traders and the artists who have been working so long to try and capture their stories.
There is one more chance to attend their ‘How to Curate an Exhibition’ workshop on 3rd November – it’s practical, inspiring and you can hang out in the Library of Birmingham with pizza after hours!
 

High – Keneish Dance

I’m really enjoying documenting dance projects recently – particularly when I get to see work in development and find out a bit more about the process that goes into creating a piece of work.

‘High’ by Keneish Dance was previewed at Sandwell College in September.  The dance company specialises In Contemporary Dance and African Dance.  ‘High’ is currently in development, but you can take a peek at what to expect here.  Look out for future performances or stay in the loop by subscribing to the Keneish Dance newsletter on their website.

Multisensory Delights – Part 2

Recently I reflected on my blog about the strides that Extant are making in increasing opportunities for visually impaired artists and theatre-goers.  Opening up opportunities for people who have long struggled to be part of the arts world is creating new narratives and new approaches to performance which can be exciting for everyone.

‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ by Dance Artist Billy Read is another fine example of what can happen when artists with physical impairments are enabled to put their ideas and talent into the public domain.  ‘Unlimited’ is a funding stream which supports disabled artists across all art forms.  For Billy, a deaf Dance Artist (hailing from Walsall, as all the best of us are…), it gave him the funds, time and rehearsal space at mac Birmingham to experiment with different techniques and tools to create a really special piece of work.  It also enabled him to collaborate with Ariel Fung, a deaf Dance Artist from Hong Kong.  I went along to mac Birmingham last month to document an R&D performance of the work in progress.

The premise of the piece is that Billy and his friend Ariel inhabit a dystopian world where deaf people can be controlled by the use of implants.  Sign language is prohibited, deaf clubs are shut down and this army of automatons are put to work in mines and office blocks.

Billy’s approach to dance is of necessity different to dancers who can hear music.  His reliance on being able to physically feel beats and visually follow cues gives him a different starting point.  He and Ariel were accompanied on stage by a percussionist and a DJ artist who together provided a live score – the vibrations were felt throughout the audience, and in places can be seen on the footage(!)  Projected text, film, images and audio description were used in places to help to provide a narrative, but as with the music, it helped to create a multi-layered performance, a real sensory feast.  I particularly enjoyed seeing sign language incorporated into the dance – both BSL and the ‘secret sign language’ which was enhanced by use of small lights on gloves moving in the darkness.

The performance was followed by a Q&A session with the whole creative team, where the audience gave their thoughts on the performance and we could learn more about the artistic process.  I felt really inspired by how the R&D period had given Billy time to collaborate with other artists, to play around with projection, lighting and sound.  They shared their experiences of trying to work out how these tools of communication could move from being functional to become something which really enhanced and complemented the whole performance.

The core message of ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ is that deaf culture can be inclusive and creative – our world would be a poorer place without the contributions of the stories, talent and creativity of people with disabilities.  You can judge for yourselves when (we hope!) the piece goes on tour.

Billy is represented by Deaf Explorer, who are working to increase involvement and visibility of the deaf community in the arts and develop deaf artists as leaders.  To find out more about the development of this work or if you are interested in booking a performance, e-mail Alan McLean at deafexplorer@gmail.com.