Author Archives: Robert Crawshaw

‘Making sense’: An enquiry into the relationship between research, cultural literacy and citizenship

‘Is it possible that we cannot even define a specimen object-unit of a science of action without thus abandoning the role of observer and becoming a partner in a social relationship. […]  If we become participants, do we lose our objectivity? If we remain mere observers, do we lose the very object of our science, namely the subjective meaning of the action?  Is there any way out of this dilemma?[1]

It was in these terms that George Walsh’s magisterial 1967 review of Alfred Schutz’s 1932 phenomenological study of social science described the challenge which still faces the would-be sociologist or ethnographer in the exploded cultural environment of 2021.  Can any student of culture justifiably claim that ‘their’ method of analysing a contemporary social issue is ‘value free’ (‘wertfrei’)? What is the scientific status of ‘evidence-based’ investigation into social behaviour? What is the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity? Between personal psychology and communal belonging or ‘citizenship’? Between those who consider themselves to be ‘culturally literate’ and others whom they believe to be less so? What does it mean, in any case, to be ‘culturally literate’?  What ethical principle informs the relationship between the researcher and the researched, between those who create and those who take it on themselves to comment on the creativity of others? Between the colonisers and the colonised? Between atheists and the advocates of different religious creeds? Between people of different sexes? If ‘literacy’ is assumed to mean ‘the capacity to read’, what is ‘read-ability’ and to which category of object or creative action can the term be meaningfully applied?  What does it mean to be ‘enlightened’ in a post-Enlightenment, post-colonial, corporately manipulated global culture which is politically divided and cripplingly unequal?

 It is against the background of what Walsh refers to as this ‘unorganised manifold’[2] that the privileged position of the academically trained, post-Enlightenment, post-colonial, post-post-modern researcher has increasingly been called into question, leaving the field open to a multiplicity of viewpoints, built on a pluralistic ethos which struggles politically to accommodate socio-economic reality. This is not an attack on diversity. On the contrary, it simply underlines the fact that sociology’s claim to scientific validity is qualified at every turn by the situational construction of particular epistemologies, leaving little if any theoretical space for claims to transcendence. Michel Foucault himself confronted this paradox in 1970 in his celebrated inaugural address to the Collège de France. He acknowledged that his position in the pantheon of French scholarship was forcing him to claim transcendent authority for an open-ended, evolving theory of discourse which was itself based on the principle of reflexive, power-driven, political contingency[3].

The same challenge can be applied to current theories governing social science research methodology. Their relative shortcomings are made transparent by Schutz’s comprehensive analysis of the different factors involved in making sense of the qualities of mind that bind communities through grounded action or separate them from each other. There was only so far that he and his contemporaries could go in formulating a method capable of providing a reliable practical account of the conflicting tensions between ‘sense’ (Sinn): the feeling response of human beings to perceived reality, and ‘understanding’ (Verstehen): the cognitive operations which ‘made sense’ of humans’ perceptions in logical or rational terms. Neurological data, while physiologically valid in itself, was and still is of limited value when applied to culturally grounded facets of behaviour. While neuro-science has been the focus of psychological theory since at least the beginning of the 20th century in terms of the individual and has burgeoned of late, it is self-evident that the task becomes all the more challenging when dealing with collective ‘mindfulness’. The feasibility of pinning down and somehow measuring the process whereby individuals identify with the affective impulses which inform the perceptual processes of others is what Schutz refers to as ‘Fremdverstehen’, more recently verbalised as ‘inter-subjectivity’ and even more loosely as ‘empathy’. And then there are the further questions surrounding the links between shared feeling ‘in the moment’, the creative actions which express it, the deterministic forces of the context, the artefacts which emerge from them and the more durable symbols with which groups of different constitutions identify in different circumstances.

Phenomenological approaches which lend empirical status to shared emotion and identity are tested to destruction at moments of social fragmentation. The potential for the theorist and for the empirical researcher to ‘make sense’ of collective behaviour depends on there being a degree of stability in the way in which groups in society translate reality into symbolic terms. As industrialisation gave way to modernism, such abstract stability was a theoretical principle developed by de Saussure and applied empirically by Lévi-Strauss and the avatars of the structuralist movement. However, while universal as a principle, one of structuralism’s unfortunate consequences was that culture was all too easily characterised in national qua linguistic terms and had trouble dealing with the pragmatic reality of the everyday, especially that involving individuals and groups from mixed cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Another problem was the outsider status of the person responsible for ascribing meaning to the everyday life of another community.  The capacity to ‘make sense’ of the relationship between routine behaviour and a superordinate ‘mythological’ structure vested in shared symbols: ‘read-ability’, was reserved for those with ‘educational capital’, thought by some, even now, to be collateral with the informed insight referred to as ‘cultural literacy’.

It was only with the demise of structuralism, leaving it to be superseded by the onslaught of postmodernism’s verbal, financial and symbolic liquidity that national cultural hegemony expressed in linguistic terms could be finally put to rest, though it has persisted long past its sell-by date. As Niklas Luhmann bluntly put it in 1997 ‘Es gibt kein letztes Wort’ (There’s no such thing as the last word)’[4].  As the polyphonic model developed by Bakhtin, and the theory of différance espoused by Derrida and Deleuze became more widely adopted in the West, sociological epistemology was to take a cultural turn.  Affect theory, symbolic imagination, the growth of identity politics and the vagaries of academic fashion became the driving forces. Postmodernism was to insert a methodological wedge between a qualitative approach to cultural studies research and sociology’s established claim to scientific status. The counterpoint, as all of us recognise only too well, has been that the power of mathematical abstraction has hugely strengthened technology’s ability to model human behaviour and to analyse big data in quantitative terms.[5]  It has followed that the pressure for qualitative sociological research to be rigorous in its procedures whilst remaining open-ended in the types of behaviour it is seeking to evaluate has, if anything, increased. As Crossick and Kazcinska put it, ‘data is not the plural of anecdote’.[6]  It is this paradox which makes the incorporation of emotional iconicity into cultural studies research so hard to articulate in methodological terms: the challenge which affect theory has sought to meet over the last twenty years by drawing on the evidence of unsolicited public discourse[7].

All the above propositions place would-be project directors in the current cultural environment in the invidious position of ‘sense-maker’; they are taking on the role of ascribing meaning to the lived experience (Erlebnis) and actions (Handeln) of others, where ‘meaning’ is an incalculable amalgam of emotion and cognition at the individual level which is then extended through reiteration and symbolic translation into a shared property of culture. On the other hand, algorithmic modelling’s claim to be ‘scientific’ does not stand up to closer scrutiny when it comes to ascribing ‘meaning’ to human action. Rather It has the status of an instrumental hypothesis which can only be verified retrospectively in the light of human experience. According to this logic, it is inevitable that the social researcher be cast not as a scientist but rather as a mediator or facilitator whose task is to establish flexible, kaleidoscopic frames within which the expression of grounded experience and its translation into symbolic forms of representation become empirically representative of a given social reality. In the paradigmatic shadows of Michel Foucault and the versions of frame theory developed amongst others by Erwin Goffman and Deborah Tannen, it still remains the case that in the absence of mathematical models within which cultural collegiality can be tested (pace on-line dating and visual recognition software), a theoretical framework is discursively necessary for ‘good practice’ to be meaningfully identified and convincingly communicated to others (‘impact’).  Recent experiential methodologies aimed at creating life-changing group experiences such as that exemplified by the work of François Matarasso[8], Brian Massumi and Erin Manning[9] and Dylan McGarry[10] offer ways forward whose mainstream application is work in progress.  However, their sustainability in terms of lasting social change is still open to question.

To sum up the argument so far.  A number of consequences have followed from the ‘de-objectivisation’ of cultural research.  One is that the status of social philosophy and the hegemonic role of the trained researcher have been irreversibly undermined.  The open acknowledgement that social research methodology is only as valid as the constructed status of the premise on which it is based has called into question the ethical position of the researcher and the extent of ‘their’ authority.  Second, as revealed by the phenomenological investigations of the mid-20th century German school of philosophers and the modern-day avatars of affect theory, the factors causing individuals to identify with others is considerably more complex than the popular appeal to ‘empathy’ as a cultural catalyst would have us believe. Before becoming ‘cultural’, the experience of shared reality has to emerge over time as the outcome of co-creative action. Third, the speed and global outreach of mass communication fuelled by the power of international corporations have made the factual basis of scientific evidence very difficult to ascertain, making an alternative dialogic, dynamic approach more viable as a social diagnostic but challenging to achieve in practice.

Paradoxically, in the face of such uncertainties, it is hardly surprising that university based researchers and the institutions who support their projects should insist all the more strongly on the scientific rigour of their methods. Nor that in a cultural environment dominated by the need to promote collective ‘well-being’ against a background of crisis-ridden economic and cultural disparities, the shift towards qualitative research methods should become simultaneously more widespread and ethically fragile.  It is this which makes the responsibility of ‘making sense’ less exclusive and, by extension, less credible when defined in strictly scientific terms.  Weber and his followers, notably Henri Bergson, Husserl and Schutz himself, were aware that while the emotional components of shared cultural values were hard to reduce to scientifically verifiable categories, they could be ‘read’ (Bergson’s term) as reflections of experience embodied in material outputs and the symbolic representations with which they were associated. Identification with totemic archetypes on the part of participant actors would allow wider inferences to be drawn about the cultural context in which they had been created and the ‘moment in time’ to which they corresponded. The complex of factors inherent in the artefact would offer pointers or aesthetic indicators which could be ‘read’. The questions remain: by whom? how? and What action should follow?

To put these questions differently: what associations exist between the structure and content, verbal or material, of artefacts and the world of lived reality to which they correspond? And conversely, what is the dynamic which causes the artefact to attain the distilled status of symbol or ‘myth’ such that it becomes a cultural point of reference or localised ‘habitus’ with which people identify?  These are hardly new questions. The process of interpreting the translation of artefact into socially significant symbol has been the subject matter of research by ethnographic trail-blazers such as Lévi-Strauss and the hermeneutic (‘philological’) method applied to literary text by German scholars such as Gadamer and Spitzer for whom a specific stylistic feature or ‘etymon’ could act as the microcosm of a cultural and historical environment. A more recent analogy of this approach has been Neil Macgregor’s encyclopaedic representation of world history through the informed analysis of emblematic objects in which insight and knowledge are necessary pre-requisites. As he memorably states in the introduction to his book based on his classic series on BBC Radio 4:

‘Can we ever really understand others?  Perhaps, but only through feats of poetic imagination combined with knowledge rigorously acquired and ordered’ [11]

However, as we have seen, the difference between cultural historiography and the type of methodology required by ethno-cultural studies today is that the object of study reaches beyond the attributes of the object to creative acts which have become virtualised and infinitely diversified. This demands a more pluralistic source of data grounded in the act of creation combined with an awareness of its social significance which goes beyond the act itself. The insight and intuition which accompanies what Schutz called the ‘unit of action’ (see above) extends beyond enactment to an appreciation – a ‘making sense’ – of its qualitative contribution to its context. The capacity to ‘make sense’ of creative action in terms of its social value applies as much to the actor as to the observer participant, even if the discursive idiolect in which it is articulated is different.  Is the sentient singularity (oneness) of an experience sufficient for it to qualify as ‘research’? Probably not, even if for the individual concerned it may be part of a process of self-discovery. Compare Aldous Huxley’s experiments with LSD with the excitement of participation in high risk sport or the collective trance or spiritual ecstasy experienced in religious ritual or at mass sporting or cultural events? The difference is surely that Huxley’s experiment involved agency and forethought, though whether it could be described as a ‘unit of action’ in the Weberian sense is at best debatable. Similarly, to be a ‘consumer of culture’ or ‘shopper’, while it may invite reflection on its socio-economic significance is hardly in itself a creative act.  To be an actor researcher must arguably involve creative initiative. In addition, a degree of reflection is needed so that the experience can in some way be relativized and understood in comparative terms. What form this process should take is, however, another key question which still remains to be answered.

Before finally considering the link between ‘making-sense’ and ‘citizenship’ as an object of research, it is worth reminding ourselves of the forces which have highlighted the need for co-participation in project design and implementation.  Much has to do with a culture of ‘sensibility’, readily promoted by the combination of corporate capitalism and popular media already alluded to; much too to population mobility, ethnic diversity, and economic crisis which have together highlighted the need to improve conditions of life in otherwise divided communities.  A third factor, not yet fully explored, has been the blurring of the boundaries between art, nature and everyday life. The emphasis on creativity as an end in itself has created an intercultural space in which diversity of expression and its capacity to promote social change has become paramount but open to self-abuse by artists themselves. Creative art does not exist in its own aesthetic bubble. The distinctions between high and low art, performance and installation, film and technology, art, craft and the creative actions of the everyday have been revolutionised. It is this more than anything else which, while redefining the very nature of citizenship, has made it all the more important to create experimental situations in which the expression of local voices has material as well as symbolic status and to enable these voices themselves to define the parameters of project design.

It is for all the above reasons that ‘citizenship’, cultural literacy and social research methodology have become so intimately interdependent, in practical as much as in conceptual terms; why it is no longer acceptable for centres of higher education driven by policy-led, competitive ideologies to appropriate data from fieldwork for their own theory-led ends without there being reciprocal benefits for actors on the ground who share the power to control the durable application of research processes and outcomes. Co-participation in social research is a demonstration of ‘active citizenship’ which carries with it the civic entitlement to benefit from its findings. It supersedes the intellectual dichotomy which separates ‘making sense’ from ‘sense-making’: the traditional model in which ‘citizen-actors’ provide the data and ‘trained experts’ offer the analysis according to independent priorities.  Instead, creative action arises out of collectively articulated local needs: co-action which ‘makes sense’ according to its own terms and sets its own standards.  The initiators of such action become catalysts: de facto ‘citizen researchers’ who enable creative opportunities to attain the status of inter-active symbols with which local populations can identify in their everyday lives.

According to the terms of this research model, ‘cultural literacy’ is removed from the exclusive realm of critical understanding. Instead, it becomes absorbed into acts of participation which are meaningful to the participants and out of which knowledge is re-generated.  In such a model, the trained researcher, like the artist, becomes a co-creator.  In environments marked by ethnic and cultural diversity, ‘co-creation’ means joint activity which allows meaning to emerge organically through collective learning processes within secular spaces, where experiential knowledge understood in phenomenological terms is fused with practice informed by imagination. In such research environments, ‘trained researchers’ become cultural mediators or ‘entrepreneurs’ in the best sense of the word, in that their work is informed first and foremost by social interaction which ‘makes sense’ in terms of collective fulfilment. Only then can it become translated into imaginary constructs which are emblematic of the practices which they symbolise, which are communicable to other cultural contexts to be ‘read’ and practised accordingly.   


[1] George Walsh ‘Introduction’ Alfred Schutz The Phenomenology of the Social World (London: Heinemann, 1972) p.xviii.

[2] ibid. p.xvi.

[3] Michel Foucault L’ordre du discours (Paris: Gallimard, 1971) pp.7-8.

[4] Niklas Luhmann Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (Frankfurt: Surkamp, 1997) p.141

[5] Geoffrey Crossick and Patrycja Kaszinska Understanding the value of arts and culture (London: AHRC, 2016) pp.156-157.

[6] Ibid p.157.

[7] Robert Crawshaw ‘Beyond Emotion: Empathy, Social Contagion and Cultural Literacy’ Open Cultural Studies December 2018 2.1 pp. 676-685.

[8] Francois Matarasso A Restless art (London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2019).

[9] Brian Massumi Politics of Affect (Cambridge: Polity, 2015).

[10]Dylan McGarry ‘The Listening Train: A Collaborative, Connective Aesthetics Approach to Transgressive Social   Learning’ Southern African Journal of Environmental Education Vol.31 2015 pp. 8-21. See also https://www.empatheatre.com/ .

[11] Neil MacGregor A History of the World in 100 objects (London: Allen Lane, 2010) p.xviii.

The renewed relevance of bricolage

One of the hapless outcomes of trying to define ‘cultural literacy’ in terms of social futures has been the need to understand the relationship between art, making, doing and their impact on society in a time of crisis. Practising art in the current climate barely puts food on the table, let alone changes society, unless artists and agents have access to patronage and space. Meantime, the entrepreneurial self-employed go bust, rental is a vicious circle, disadvantaged kids suffer from malnutrition and Netflix streams a slurry of fourth-rate screenplays and wooden performances sustained by corporate capital (witness the recent, mind-numbing remake of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca).

One critical option is to broaden the definition of authentic artistic practice. After all, ‘Art’ is creative doing, open to all, fuelled by ‘agency’, to the extent that people have the capacity to exercise it in their everyday lives. Notwithstanding Jacques Rancière’s idealistic attempt to inject sensibility into Fordist production processes, the aestheticism was his and surely not that of the young woman operatives he quotes from Vertov’s celebrated film The Man with the Camera (1929). For the actor/artist, art is not gratuitously mechanical. It demands a minimal degree of freedom and consciousness. It lies somewhere at the interface between personal impulse, context, the act itself and its social outcome. Under lockdown, art, action and artefact have become co-terminal. Critical reflection on creativity necessarily incorporates the politics of process.

Creativity in and of itself is not enough. In its essence, art may remain an inherent attribute of the subjective imagination. Yet it derives from a material base and leads to tangible outcomes, however provisional. If symbolism is social, ‘cultural literacy’ is ethnographic. Art does more than inform lived reality. It entails it as the translation of voluntary articulation with material systems, whether as the mass product of corporate interest, individual inspiration or the reflection of the day to day. To be aware of this principle and to enact it in everyday life as creator, employee or commentator is to be ‘culturally literate’.

Which is where the overworked concept of ‘bricolage’ re-emerges as a potentially intriguing catalyst. It is not just the fact that DIY and gardening have emerged post-Covid as two of the very few growth sectors in domestic consumption, limited like so much else to those who can afford plants, materials and a space to call ‘home’. Neither is this the place to engage in theoretical debate about the psychological development of the individual, except to say that now more than ever, with mental health dominating the media, the need for selfhood to re-engage with the real world through collective action has rarely been so great. Inextricably entwined as they are, well-being derives from plural perceptual processes reinforced by the symbolic translation of economic reality as much as from the sub-conscious impulses of individuals. Respect for diversity demands evidence of shared imagination grounded in experience.

The contemporary relevance of ‘bricolage’ as a cultural trope is admirably expressed in an inspiring paper by Christopher Johnson ‘Bricoleur and Bricolage: From Metaphor to Universal Concept’ published by Edinburgh University Press in the Journal Paragraph (2012) Vol.35/3. This finely written article, available on line, returns the reader to Claude Levi-Strauss’s original formulation of the term in La Pensée sauvage (1962) and convincingly demonstrates how and why it can inform current understanding of the dynamic relationship between art, creativity, society and technology. It raises wider questions concerning the interaction between individual sense-responses, shared emotions, everyday behaviour, identities, politics and the natural environment which go to the heart of what it means to be culturally challenged in a hyperreal world. These are issues which I hope to be able to pursue in subsequent blogs in dialogue with anyone who happens to have read this one.

Robert Crawshaw                                                                                    
November 26th 2020

Artistic Reconnections with Land: Towards a systems view of cultural heritage learning

Amanda Bayley, Kennedy Chinyere, Nick Clough, Penny Hay, Denise Rowe, Jane Tarr
Bath Spa University

‘Pedagogies and global change’, was the focus of a presentation on 17th September 2020 to the annual conference of the Teacher Education for Equity and Sustainability Network (TEESNet). The overall theme of the conference was Education as a Pedagogy of Hope and Possibility: the Role of Teacher Education in Leading Narratives of Change.

Our paper summarised findings from an initial enquiry into an intersectoral initiative exploring nature as cultural heritage. The objective of the enquiry was to include schools, freelance musicians, artists and higher education providers as sources of data and domains of experimentation. The Trees of Hope project (rural Mashonaland, Zimbabwe), Earth Dances: Embodied Remembering (Devon, UK) and Forest of Imagination (Bath, UK) are key partners.

Our pilot study reflects work in progress for a larger scale project: Listening to the Land. ‘Listening to the Land’ which promotes conceptions of cultural heritage grounded in nature as a core element of educational practice. ‘Artistic Reconnections with Land’ articulates embodied, transcultural approaches which co-create a shared understanding of heritage.

This expression of what Haraway (2003) terms ‘natureculture’ will be developed further as a way of addressing at least three of the UN Sustainable Development Goals:

  • inclusive and equitable quality education (4)
  • urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (13)
  • sustainable ecosystems, re-forestation and increasing biodiversity (15)

The accompanying slides illustrate ways in which inclusive, participatory approaches to arts-based action research have become accessible to different stakeholders within the new COVID-19 reality.

previous arrow
next arrow
Slider

Use the arrows above to scroll through the presentation slides

Roots digital recording of a music and dance duet was performed by Earth Dances on granite outcrops on Dartmoor. It has been shared with three UK schools as a resource to stimulate discussion and creative responses with children and young people about their connections with nature. Roots resonates with ancient understandings of the relationship between people and land: an earth dance prompts joyful and loving reconnections, while a small embroidered cloth and poem explore the experience of immersion in nature.

Roots performed by Earth Dances on Dartmoor

These simply created products invited learners and teachers to reflect on and document their own relationships with nature, leading to the co-creation of digitally shared music, arts-based responses and written commentaries. The resulting exchanges helped to open up discussions about the role of creative and relational pedagogies that respect local cultures, histories and ways of life that are dependent on the health of the land. 

Such hopeful, artistically inspired pathways are intended to promote a reinvigorated, systems view of cultural heritage. They re-situate land and nature within pedagogical approaches which are holistic, inclusive and interdisciplinary (Capra & Luisi 2014: 13). By encompassing past and present understandings of human reciprocities within the natural systems of the biosphere, they aim to inform future-facing pedagogical interventions.

While David Orr’s (1992) phrase ‘ecological literacy’, encourages recognition of connectedness between human wellbeing and the health of natural systems, Daniel Shevock’s eco-literate music pedagogy, recommends a ‘fundamental re-localisation-reorientation to place, people and local histories’ (2018: 112). The next stage of our work is to generate transcultural, (e)co-creative solutions for teaching and learning (Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles et al 2020), approaches that empower local communities – children, young people and adults – to create positive change for future generations.

References

Capra, F. & Luisi, P. L. (2014). The Systems View of Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles, A. et al (2020). Research Handbook on Childhoodnature: Assemblages of Childhood and Nature Research (Switzerland: Springer International Publishing).

Haraway, D. J. (2003). The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Vol. 1. (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press).

Orr, D. W. (1992). Ecological Literacy (New York: State University of New York Press).
Shevock, D. J. (2018). Eco-literate Music Pedagogy (New York and London: Routledge).

Holding on to Wonder

ARTIST BLOG | HANNAH FOX   

www.hannahonthehill.co.uk

Being asked to write a short piece about ‘Your Life as an Artist’ is a curious task.

I remember messing around with setting up my first smart phone and being briefly puzzled by the face of the scowling woman looking back at me. There was a full couple of seconds before I realised that ‘selfie’ mode was engaged and the woman I held in my hand was me. Unconsciously observing myself was depressing in a mortal kind of way but also rather revealing in a vital way. As an Artist I spend pretty much all of my time, headspace, imaginative energies and practical efforts looking out at others. At other peoples’ communities, moments and needs and I respond outwardly to those things. For these few hundred words, though, I will turn the mirror of the selfie back on to observe and articulate who the Artist is ( it’s me..)  and how, when, what, where and most importantly why, the Artist makes her work. 

I am nearly 50 and I have been a working freelance Artist all of my life. I grew up in the 1970’s ‘on the road’ with the legendary collective of artists Welfare State International. My parents, John Fox and Sue Gill , along with many others, led this wild and evolving band of musicians, performers, dancers, pyrotechnicians, sculptors and writers. I was a quiet little girl who helped a lot. I sat under the table during meetings, collected scraps of offcuts and made my own costumes, joined in the loading of the trucks, learned my parts on the drum or the trumpet, knew my lines, my cues and set my own props. This was expected of everyone and not a big deal. We lived in caravans and toured the World making work in communities, creating wonder and sometimes trouble, giving, teaching and usually leaving behind a creative impact in the communities we visited in the form of memories, community connections, tangible skills, stuff and inspiration.

After settling in a Northern English town and finally attending ‘proper’ school ( which in itself helped to form me in distinctly different terms) I studied Fine Art at Glasgow School of Art in the beautiful, delicate and now fire devastated Mackintosh building. Dogtroep came to town, a similarly wild band of Dutch creative artists and they made a massive rambling theatre show, Camel Gossip, in the Tramway building when it was still a semi derelict tram shed full of stinking puddles and pigeons. They were seeking a few local artists to get involved and so I joined them. Again, I witnessed extraordinary and surreal art at work crafted by dreamers and makers who worked incredibly hard and knew their stuff. ‘Wonder’ seemed to be their staple and they had developed methods and approaches that were robust and practical to reliably conjure the wonder night after night to audiences of hundreds. These artists were not afraid of magic and they took it very seriously. This epic show formed another formidable apprenticeship for me.

After this immersive, invigorating and terrifying ‘placement’ I was asked by the Artistic Director to join their company in Amsterdam. She knew ‘I got it’ and worked hard. I understood that washers and rivets were as important as wigs and solos and I was tough. I ran away with Dogtroep for 5 years of International site specific performance.

It’s worth spending so many words on these origins because it is fundamental to who I am and my methodology as an Artist. I continually hone my craft, in whatever art form I am utilising, to structurally and reliably hold the wonder for others. It’s often a fragile thing, fleeting and surprising so it’s important that it doesn’t fall down. Badly held or broken magic is worse than no magic at all. 

I work across many art forms making public work; films, digital animations, projections, theatre shows, installations and constructions. I utilise whatever art form best suits the idea, the context, the purpose and the budget. I am commissioned to work Internationally, both inside and out, sometimes on my own, but often pulling teams of other artists together who bond their diverse skills to create a more complex work. Sometimes budgets are massive, sometimes tiny. I am asked into settings; a community, a landscape or a conundrum that needs an artistic response, process and outcome. I meet, talk, draw, listen a lot, ask many questions, look around the back, talk to the people up the road, think, sit and dream and then I know what is needed and what I can do. I don’t call myself a Community Artist but an Artist who works in context. This response might be designing and building an interactive installation for hundreds of families to experience at a free festival, working within a community to craft and tell the stories of their estate or village or animating a set of fairytale films about resilience, fear and hope for children to access and explore with activities during the Covid 19 crisis lockdown. 

All the work I make has a purpose and I tether the art tightly to the purpose. The purpose shapes the work and the art must respond and bend to the how, when, what, where and why.  The art is the tool to fulfill the purpose and, although it is free to soar in surprising directions, it must always serve the purpose, for responding with care to the context, the job in hand, is the work. My role is, in many ways, simply to hold the space.

Having taken this selfie and probed at my practice to briefly describe it on ( digital) paper I can recognise that my work is direct, daringly simple. It seeks to be connected, meaningful and beautiful, welcoming in participants rather than spectators. It endeavours to be playful and imaginative, to make an impact where it matters, to frame a different perspective with depth and honesty and most especially, during these terrifying times, to hold on to wonder.

Cultural Literacy and Public Art in a Global Pandemic

Introducing Pippa Hale, Artist

I was fortunate enough to encounter Pippa Hale’s work through the Special Interest Group’s case study of the project ‘Walking in Others’ Footsteps’ run by Mirador Arts, a highly active, charitable Community Arts Trust based in the North-West of the UK. The sub-project for which she was responsible was called ‘Skip, Play, Repeat

‘Skip, Play, Repeat’ involved re-enacting street play activities of previous generations of children by recrafting the artefacts which were commonly used at the time. Children of all backgrounds from schools in Preston took part in outdoor events in which they learnt how to master the special skills demanded by the newly refashioned ‘toys’.  But this was only the start. An extensive interview with Pippa for the case study and a visit to her website bore witness to the range of her creative vision and to the impact her recent work was having in the Leeds area.

Many professional artists who rely on commissions and externally funded cultural projects to further their contribution to community wellbeing find themselves constrained by the cutbacks in local government support, party political interests and the priority given to large scale economically driven projects which are dependent on the private sector. Other drawbacks are the limited timeframes of funded initiatives whose sustainability UK Research and Innovation and The Arts Councils have only recently begun seriously to address.  And then there is the small matter of COVID 19.

How would leading artists such as Pippa survive the present crisis? 

Her varied work in sculpture, installation, co-curation and infrastructural initiatives such as the establishment of prizes and new cultural venues was beginning to make real inroads into the Leeds environment. Like other self-driven, multi-talented, entrepreneurial artists with a strong sense of mission, she was clearly a core catalyst in the cultural renewal of the City. Her personal blog below gives a sense of the challenge facing her and others like her.  It is an aspect of cultural literacy which will be explored in greater detail in subsequent entries on this site and elsewhere.


Pippa’s Blog
Cultural Literacy and Public Art in a Global Pandemic

Being an artist is a struggle at the best of times, but the Covid-19 global pandemic is having a devastating effect on the cultural sector, the ramifications of which will be felt for generations.

I’m a contemporary artist who works with heritage venues, galleries and in the public realm,  making works that respond to the history, people and geography of places. Since having kids of my own, I’ve also become interested in play and its correlation to creativity. Projects are commissioned by local authorities, museums, private companies, educational institutions and arts agencies and have included works in sound, film, events, iron, found objects and foam. Sometimes the works are permanent, sometimes they are temporary, but the overall narrative is about rooting artworks to their location, connecting people to their history and place and each other.

Issues confronting artists working on public projects / What are main challenges professionals in my position have to face?

Being an artist, no matter what your practice, is a challenging career choice. Whilst it can be enormously rewarding, it necessitates incredible amounts of self-discipline, chutzpah, humility, persistence, resilience – not to mention creativity. At no time is this more true than when working in the public realm. Whereas galleries have experienced staff who support the presentation and dissemination of contemporary art, public art can be commissioned by multiple partners who perhaps haven’t worked with artists before.

The impetus to commission works of art for the public realm are varied, but are often political. Artists are often brought in at a time when places are undergoing change and artworks are commissioned to smooth the planning process or to sweeten local communities.

What kind of contribution does my work make to the ‘cultural literacy’ of communities?

One of the first things I do when working on a new commission is to connect with people in the local area. I never assume they have an interest in contemporary art, but I know they are passionate about the places in which they live and work. Talking to them is crucial when trying to get to know a new place as it builds up a personal picture of somewhere that is based on memory and local networks rather than the official stories recorded in regional archives. I can get a deeper understanding of how that community and its culture interact and it’s those conversations that ultimately inform the artwork.

At the end of the day, I’m making a new thing for that place, be it an object or an event, something that will simultaneously connect contemporary communities to the past and to current debate.

I believe good public art is essential because it reflects who we are as a society, our values and beliefs, our pasts and presents and adds depth and meaning to our cities, towns and villages. In recent weeks, public art has been at the forefront of contemporary debate with the toppling of memorial statues in Britain and the USA. Now, more than ever before, public art has an important role to play in defining who we are a people, a society, a nation. Now is the time to be commissioning new works of art to reflect these times and to provide a legacy for the future.

Unfortunately, this moment is happening during a global pandemic where arts funding for new projects has been shelved as public and private bodies redirect their funding to meet the immediate financial needs of arts organisations. And of course, we hardly dare imagine what that new landscape may look like, let alone ignore that niggling worry that these funding streams may never come back on line.

Dealing with these issues as the future unfolds is a topic I hope to be able to discuss publicly: through the medium of this website, as well as through workshops, presentations and other fora which build on what has already been achieved, not only in Leeds but elsewhere in the UK and abroad.

Pippa Hale, Leeds
June 2020