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.

What is ‘Care’?

Care.  It’s about wanting the best outcome for someone.  Working with them to make that happen.  Simple, right?

In practice, providing ‘care’ can be complex and far from straightforward, particularly within the NHS and the vast range of services it provides.  Recognising these conundrums, and against the backdrop of ‘The Francis Report’ into care standards which stemmed from malpractice within hospitals in Staffordshire, I was commissioned to make a series of short case studies looking at what patients, their families and health practitioners understand by the term ‘care’.  These films now form part of the training that all medical students at Birmingham City University undertake prior to their first placements.

It was an eye opening and frequently emotional experience, exploring the tough calls, tight relationships and massive dedication required on a daily basis to ensure that patients receive the care and treatment they need.  It was a real privilege to be invited into people’s homes and lives and have them speak so candidly about their experiences.

Here is one of the seven case studies – Madeleine and Liz.  Liz articulates so well how sometimes you have to be, if not cruel to be kind, certainly assertive.  More films in the series can be viewed through the Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust Student Hub portal.

Patient Stories – Madeleine and Liz from BCHC COMMS on Vimeo.

Importing AVCHD MTS footage to Final Cut Pro

I’m NO expert when it comes to the technical side of film-making, but I do, when required spend a fair bit of time on Google, sifting through discussion forums to find a solution to whatever problem I’m faced with. Recently I bought a Canon XA-10 camera to replace my trusty and well-loved Canon XL2 (which I’m on the cusp of selling but I’m still thinking that it’s a fantastic camera and could be brilliant in some circumstances, despite being SD.  If you’re interested in buying then get in touch).

When I got it home and started playing I realised that the MTS format I wanted to film in wasn’t immediately compatible with Final Cut Pro 7.  Rather frustrated that I couldn’t scoot through the footage on Preview (much like a .mov file when imported), I started looking through forums.  No, I didn’t cave in and open a bottle of wine.  Yes, it was tempting.

So (and this is just my limited experience so far), you DON’T need to pay to download expensive software.  Just change the import settings to one of the Apple ProRes 422 settings (use Proxy or LT for small file sizes, the normal Apple ProRes 422 setting for quite large, or HQ for the best quality) and import the MTS files through the Log and Transfer window.  It allows you to view clips in real time and decide what to import.  I’ve been able to edit with no problems, my first edit has been sent in this morning and I’m really happy with it.  There’s more information on the workflow in the FCP 7 handbook.

Editing

The reason I put this up is because it looks as though two companies, PavTube and BroSoft have hijacked all of the discussion threads to sell their software.  I may be missing a trick here.  Maybe I imagined that I converted my footage without any other software or plugins.  Maybe the software creates a better workflow.  Maybe the conversion results in better looking or sounding footage.  Maybe these companies are ripping people off.

Anyhow, I hope that this is of some use.  As I say, I’m no tech-head so I’m not wanting to get into a prolonged debate.  This works for me at the moment, it may work for others.  This post may save you some money.  Read around, decide what works for you…

I’m back!

IMAG0056

It’s almost a year since I last updated the blog (If you read my last post then you will have some idea why.  Little Bean is now a big, crawling all over the place Big Bean who goes by the name of Adam – or Adamdamdamdam if you ask him).

I’m now working part time and I’m fortunate enough to be working on a really interesting and diverse range of projects.  Some of them are a continuation of work I was doing before Maternity Leave, most of them are completely new projects I’m working on.

I’d like to say a big thank you to all of the people that I’ve worked with that have been willing to be flexible as I juggle being a new Mum with my freelance work.  What I feared would be a really stressful period has been really enjoyable!

The future of Creative Partnerships

You’ve probably picked up on these pages that I’m incredibly enthusiastic about fresh, exciting and creative ways of learning. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with a broad range of youth groups and young people for all kinds of projects.

I have a particular soft spot for the Creative Partnerships scheme which involves so-called ‘Creative Practitioners’ (that’s shorthand for talented, creative people from a range of disciplines with a passion for learning!), going into schools and inspiring young people and staff through all manner of different workshops.  I do film workshops which can focus on literacy, IT, research and communication skills to name the most obvious ones, there are plenty more!  The bottom line is that attainment and engagement amongst pupils increases massively in places where these projects run.

So, whilst it’s been on the cards for a while, it’s devastating to hear that the planned cuts to arts funding may hit Creative Partnerships hard.  Have a read of this article in today’s Guardian for more on the background to it.  On the plus side, this report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers shows that there is a clear economic benefit to these projects.  Whilst measuring Creative Partnerships projects by their economic value kind of misses the point, it does hopefully provide a stronger case for the continuation of the scheme.

Just in case you’re in any doubt about the scheme, here is a video I worked on with young people from Baxter College in Kidderminster.  I can’t claim to have been the lead in the project – credit there goes to Hayley Pepler and Alison Grade – it was an inspiring project to be a part of and really highlights the benefits of CP projects.  Young people scripted the trailer for a series of programmes they have yet to produce, then quickly picked up the rudiments of filming, sound recording and directing, before going on to liaise with staff and pupils throughout the school to film everything in a day.  I’ve met professional film makers that would be unable to pull that off!  The buzz that you see in the video isn’t just all show, it’s a genuine excitement that passed around the school as the day wore on.  Magic.

Baxter TV Trailer from Rachel Gillies on Vimeo.