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.

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’…

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!
 

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.

Why Oral Histories?

I recently tentatively wrote a little bit about some of my explorations into thinking a bit more about my role as a film maker or storyteller, about how I can develop my work to have more impact and about how I can collaborate with others who inspire me.

A superb opportunity for reflection and learning has been the University of Sunderland‘s online ‘Introduction to Participatory Arts and Media’ online course, developed in partnership with ArtsWorks Alliance and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.  It’s packed with really interesting case studies, as well as lots of opportunities to reflect on what the learning means in respect of my own work.  As part of the course, I have been asked to write a blogpost reflecting on an aspect of my own participatory practice and why I feel passionate about this.  So, here goes…


When I reflect on the most enjoyable and satisfying projects that I’ve worked on, they have consistently related to using oral histories and archives with young people.  I see participatory heritage projects as a starting point for participants to understand more about who they are, how they can connect to the world around them, how they fit into the wider picture and how change happens in society.

Pupils are turned off learning about people and places which are distant geographically, historically and in relation to their own lived experiences.  Yet when events from the past are presented in an exciting and relevant way, rather than a series of facts to be digested and regurgitated, really interesting things begin to happen.  When they play a role in taking ownership of the work then things get really exciting!

The Friends of Moseley Road Baths’ ‘Pool of Memories’ project was one such project.  It linked pupils’ experiences of swimming at their local swimming pool to the experiences of people who had swum, bathed or worked in the building in the past.  Through tours of the building, online research and oral history interviews, we created some very passionate champions for local swimming facilities!

Heritage Projects can also give space for young people to open up about their family’s personal stories.  Here is an old film created for The Lichfield Festival by a pupil about her Great Grandfather’s experiences of military service in North Africa in WWII.

In this film produced with the People’s Heritage Co-operative, students from Swanshurst School were involved in researching the experiences of wounded soldiers from WW1 in South Birmingham and interviewing War Veterans from other conflicts.  In their reflections on the project they highlighted why these kind of heritage projects are important:

‘You learn so much about where you live and what goes on that you feel responsible to continue this’.

‘I think that taking part in experiences like this can be even more informative than learning about it in lessons, because in this situation you’re learning more about actual people’s experiences’.

I am interested in developing this work further, so that workshop participants can come away with the skills and confidence needed to explore spaces, places and people around them independently.  Instead of one-off experiences, is it possible to create a culture of curiosity, where understanding events of the past is valued more than it is at present?

This will mean using archives and stories more creatively – ‘curating’ material in creative ways to develop narratives which have a resonance for others, beyond the initial participants.  How can the ‘responsibility’ that the student spoke about develop into action which impacts on people’s lives in the present day?  What kind of infrastructure is needed to support young people to take on this task?  What are the best examples of participatory, creative and empowering heritage work?  Do share your thoughts!

Feasting on Brain Food

Freelancers may recognise the conundrum.  We get to pick and choose projects, working nomadically, taking inspiration from those we work with, learning new skills and forging new relationships.  But getting tantalising tastes of what others are doing and not having our own roots can be a frustrating experience.

Over a decade into working in this way, I’m seeking a way to develop projects with more depth, more impact and longer term relationships and collaborations.  That means standing back and asking some important questions.  How can I be braver in using film and media (or another medium altogether?) to tell stories that matter?  How can I find co-conspirators and collaborators to develop projects which are genuinely participatory and have a positive impact on people’s lives?  What is it that I do well and what is unique about what I do?  What skills am I lacking?  How do I define what I do when my interests seem so broad and hard to pin down?

Lately I’ve been investing some time in trying to find answers to some of these big questions.  The first step was actually articulating some of this to people around me.  It turns out I have some very wise and inspiring friends who were able to see a perspective on my work and career that has eluded me whilst in the midst of raising two little ones.  Special thanks goes to Jane Ralls for her excellent coaching session, Sandra and Lee at Friction Arts for insisting on making space for me to get curious and Aimee Green Bourne for prodding me to play.  Note to self: meet up with friends more.

The next step has been to enrol in some more formal learning around leadership, participatory arts practice and facilitation.  I am on the cusp of completing Arts Connect WM’s ‘Arts Leadership Development Programme’.  Learning about the journeys of other ‘Leaders’ in the Arts and Cultural sector has been really inspiring – I guess that’s why I’m determined to share my own thoughts, to throw open the conversation a bit more.  There is so much to learn from others in the arts, yet we usually just see the finished product, rather than the journey that people have made.  That’s the bit I want to learn more about, warts and all, and I hope to interrogate people a lot more in the near future!

I have some rough ideas of next steps that I’m not quite ready to share – there are a few more courses and conversations planned in the near future which will help me decide on what happens next.

I’m curious as to whether any of this resonates with anyone else reading this.  Where are you on the journey, what have you learnt along the way and is there value in sharing your own journey with others?  I’ll be sharing updates from time to time, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

The Transfer Co-working space

Recently my lunches have got a lot more interesting.  Instragram-able even.  Not that I would expect people to get too excited by what I’m putting in my belly when I’m at work.  However, what it does represent is something very exciting happening in the way I work.

You see, over the past few months I have been co-working out of The Transfer, a co-working space within The Old Print Works on the Moseley Road in Balsall Heath.  Co-working involves pitching up in a shared office space to work for the day and paying a daily, weekly or monthly fee to do so.  It can be as flexible as you need it to be, which is so important for freelancers as work shifts and changes.  There there is tea and coffee included, and a variety of spaces to nestle down.

You may know The Old Print Works through one of its many tenants – the cosy community Ort Café, the Artist led exhibition space at Ort Gallery or Sundragon Pottery.  Or perhaps you’ve been to one of the events here (monthly Muzikstan nights are highly recommended!).  It’s a work in progress as the community of freelancers, makers and creatives try to breathe new life into an old industrial building, but this is the vision…

If you haven’t yet explored the Old Print Works, we are an eclectic and growing bunch of makers, doers, designers, artists, musicians, teachers, dreamers, builders and thinkers, sharing our skills and art and creations with the community in an even more eclectic and exciting space. The Old Print Works is full of studios, galleries, spaces and surprises – both indoors and out.

For me, it’s a small haven, a cosy place to hide away and be productive which is right on my doorstep.  There are so many little hideaways here and it’s full of greenery.  Tea and coffee are on tap, and the sustainable ethos of the place means that there is a mish-mash of furniture and decor, giving it a really homely feel.  I’m even managing a weekly lunchtime swim across the road in Moseley Road Baths whilst I still can!

I’m not really one of the ‘doers or thinkers’ here, but I do enjoy being around people with a ‘can-do’ attitude to making the building viable and vibrant.  It’s very much what Balsall Heath is about.

Which is where my lunch comes into the equation.  Co-workers gather each lunchtime for a communal lunch, tucking into food prepared at home or bits and pieces grabbed from nearby shops (cheesy naan bread made in front of you in a tandoor oven at Kurdistan Mini Market anyone?).  In the Summer bits of fruit, veg and herbs are picked straight out of the garden at the back of the building.  Everyone contributes something and somehow the result is always greater than the sum of its parts.  It’s also a chance to get to know co-workers, catch up with each other and step away from the screen properly.  The upshot is that my time at the computer is far more productive, even if I feel like I’m being really indulgent by stopping for a sociable lunch.

So, given the option of staying at home trying to work, sitting in a café trying to make a Cappuccino last a few hours or coming to a dedicated, friendly and affordable co-working space I think it’s an obvious choice.  Come along for a free trial and see what you think.