Not for the Likes of Us

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I am currently working with Jackie Goodall from The Cottage Museum in Woodhall Spa http://www.woodhallspa-museum.co.uk/ through a research partnership co mentoring programme. We have both identified audience development as our focus. It links into research that I am doing into the impact of new technologies on the traditional concept of audience and the museum’s continuing work to engage with the local community.

I have recently read the ACE taking part in the arts report ‘Not for the Likes of You; How to Reach a Broader audience’. http://www.takingpartinthearts.com/content.php?content=943  Not for the Likes of You was a project that worked with 10 organisations prepared to embrace radical change to reposition themselves through identifying strategies for removing barriers to attendance and participation.

 

 As Jackie and I are both kinaesthetic learners we decided to use the research partnership as an opportunity to explore barriers for audiences through experiencing an activity that was ‘not for the likes of us’. We chose to visit Gala Bingo and the results were revealing. As Bingo novices we had to negotiate an unfamiliar building and process. We relied on the kindness of other bingo players and the patience of the staff to guide us through a complicated and confusing programme. We were unaware of bingo protocol, etiquette and diplomacy. We were out of our depth and at times we felt quite stressed!

The large steel shutter concealing the entrance to the bingo hall presented a very physical barrier and was our first introduction to the Gala experience. It was a bitterly cold morning and the shutter gave us little comfort that we were even in the right place. A lack of signage and dirty cigarette butt bins shouted out ‘seedy back entrance’ and we feared that we had made a big mistake. Ivy and Sheila were our saviours; silver haired bingo natives who inducted us through an engaging chat about the magic of the game. We discussed the most effective way to mark our cards (dabber v felt tip) and heard wondrous tales of a computerised pen! Shelia alluded to the fact that she now plays on-line in a hushed whisper, protecting her guilty secret from the disapproval of the hardcore players within earshot.

 

At 11.30am on the dot a senior citizen flash mob appeared from nowhere, headed up by the gleaming steel of wheelchairs. There was a quiet and well ordered anticipation that something was about to happen. The crowd moved closer to the entrance and Jackie and I found ourselves within the jostle of shopping bags freshly filled at the market. I felt a sense of awe and wonder as the shutter slowly raised revealing a plush interior complete with escalator moving towards the dizzy heights of Bingo Heaven.

As the crowd surged forward, I experienced the same excitement I had aged 16 on making it into Rock City to see The Jesus and Mary Chain; Oh how things have changed! The excitement quickly turned to panic as we witnessed the flash mob scanning their membership cards to ride the magic stairs to the bingo beyond. Surfing the crowd, Sheila shouted directions to us… ‘Fill out a form at the desk’. We waited patiently as the Gala Bingo lady made enquiries for a punter who had been separated from her favourite cardigan and then filled out forms which were quickly exchanged for cards.

 

At the top of the stairs there was another desk to negotiate and more Gala Bingo ladies with all the shazam of airline hostesses. They plied their wares, a bountiful supply of bingo cards, books and dabbers with warmth and confidence. Jackie and I were brave enough to reveal our bingo ignorance and were guided through the various combinations of games and trade-ups. Although pleased with our £3.50 purchase we left the desk feeling distinctly discom- bingo-bobulated and clutching our dabbers made our way through a corridor of one arm bandits to the next stage.

The bingo hall itself was immense and I was unprepared for its scale. The colour scheme, lighting and island seating created an atmosphere that instantly transported me to an evening out. It was plush, clean and presented excellent facilities. It was indeed Bingo Heaven; an immersive environment with everything that a discerning bingo player could need (bar, canteen and vending machines). We sat near Tracey from Birmingham, her mum and her aunt who guided us through the unwritten rituals and routines of the beautiful game.

 

I was particularly impressed by bingo technology. A large board advertised what I can only describe as a bingo i-pad using touch screen technology as an alternative to card and pen. We also played a book of games which linked Gala Bingo halls across the nation in an act of social bingo inclusion. I recorded an audioboo which documented the exciting moment that Wakefield and Nottingham St Anne’s halls completed a line in real-time. ‘Bingotastic’  http://audioboo.fm/k8iesmith

In between panic eating two snack packs of biscuits I surveyed the hall to gather some bingo statistics. Approximately 95% of the bingo demographic were female and over 60. The majority of players were in pairs or friendship groups although there were some lone bingo players and the friendly environment appeared to support this. Engagement with the programme was interrupted by breaks for food (and possibly cigarettes) but there was little evidence of players leaving after an hour. A big money national game and free games scheduled towards the end of the session perhaps motivated players to stay longer.

 

The logistics of Bingo rely on concentration, lightening reflexes and confidence. Jackie and I found ourselves just content to be able to find the numbers on our cards or books. The speed of the game was the only cause of stress for me. I did feel that I needed a bingo appreciation course or ‘how to’ guide but loved the experience and was very surprised by how much I learnt from it. It was engaging, sociable and accommodated us as new comers. I felt that we were welcomed into an experience rather than being isolated through our obvious lack of knowledge.  

Jackie and I have reflected on our experience in the context of young people visiting the alien environment of a museum and questioned how we can identify the barriers that may prevent engagement. Our next step is to work with a film maker to capture our bingo experience in an attractive format. We then hope to work with pupils at St Andrew’s Primary School in Woodhall Spa though sharing our film to explore their preconceptions of a visit to a museum.

We hope to encourage small group trips to the museum and will support the young people to audit their experience in the same terms as our visit to Gala Bingo. In an open ended experiential collaboration with a creative practitioner they will then help us to explore our enquiry question of ‘How can we build a vibrant, creative environment that will encourage young people to visit a museum’. In the same way that Jackie and I felt that we needed a ‘how to’ guide, the young people may choose to create some form of instruction to support the visitor experience in an exciting and visual way. We will however leave the question open to interpretation and avoid assuming that we know what young people think!

The partnership research co-mentoring programme has been developed by The Mighty Creatives as part of its workforce development programme and the MLA Strategic Commissioning Learning Links programme. http://www.themightycreatives.com/

 

The Art of influencing Change

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Last week I was privileged to attend the engage/enquire international conference in Nottingham through the award of a bursary place. The conference, ‘The Art of Influencing Change’, brought together over 200 arts and education professionals from the United Kingdom and other countries to stimulate debate about gallery education and issues affecting practice. I have come away with a new perspective and have been inspired to push the boundaries of my professional practice, energised by challenging content of the conference. http://www.engage.org/conference/index.aspx

The first day was a peculiar day. At times I felt like an outsider looking in, my faced pressed up against the window of a world that I didn’t quite recognise. It was a slightly uncomfortable feeling and one which was unexpected. I was challenged personally and professionally and it has taken me a weekend and two long train journeys to understand why. I have come to the conclusion that there are three reasons; context, issues and language.

Context: I would describe myself as an arts educator but I am not a gallery arts educator. My work with schools and communities encourages creative teaching and learning through the arts, whereas I would suggest that gallery arts education provides an education in the arts. These two different approaches have their own visions, values, aims and objectives and whereas there is an overlap, I think that we are travelling along two different routes but have the potential to learn from each other.

Issues: The two main issues that ran through the conference were green issues and the use of new technologies. I am comfortable with the latter but have realised that there is a huge gap in my knowledge where green issues are concerned and especially the role of arts activism in this context. An artist friend recently described his brain as a teapot; in order to store new information, he had to pour some old information out. I think that mine perhaps works like a tea strainer; I have retained some of the tea leaves of the conference teapot to squeeze out another cup which I will drink at leisure. I will not put myself under pressure to retain all new knowledge but will slowly process the ‘tea’ that is useful to me!

Language: In a previous post, I considered the complexities of working between arts and education and the difficulties each sector’s language can present when working in partnership. Gallery language is new to me and I would have benefited from a tourist’s translation dictionary.  I kept a note of my favourite new words and phrases; paucity, convivial, systemic, applied nucleation, horizontal democratic organisation, didactic experiential framework, thematic cartography, cognitive surplus. I was also interested to read the curatorial language used in a programme of events ‘to involve the wider community’ of one the organisation leading a breakout session. I chose three descriptions of events at random and used ‘Wordle’ to create a beautiful word cloud the most commonly used words. The results are interesting; ‘proliferation’ ranks as one of the most frequently used words out of a total of 251!

The Best Bit from the Conference Teapot

The highlight of the conference for me was Jonnet Middleton’s presentation of her Unity Panda project which was a very human experience. Jonnet has encouraged her community to come together to knit pandas. The project didn’t have a marketing budget and didn’t involve a recruitment process.

When asked what the project was about Jonnet describes its aim as simply ‘to see what we can do when we gather together’, which has led to her being described as a ‘donnepreneur’ (coming from the French ‘to give’). The gift economy model underpinned the project and used web 2.0 technology (facebook/twitter) combined with a physical base for participatory activity.

Panda HQ was an empty shop in Coventry where Panda Knitters came together to knit pandas because they wanted to. Their motivation was intrinsic and their passion drove panda production. There was a high footfall from Panda Knitters who would be traditionally described as an underrepresented audience; the invisible people in society. I was struck by how Jonnet’s empathetic approach values human relationships and this project is a moving example of how art can engage and mobilize people into action without being driven by an agenda of audience development or social inclusion strategies.

130 Unity Pandas have been knitted by 511 Panda Knitters of all ages. In spring 2011 the pandas fly out to China on a panda diplomacy mission. The Chinese Embassy and the Foreign Office in Chengdu are in conversation with Jonnet to coordinate the panda handover event, liaising with orphanages and a panda breeding centre. Nigel Marven, British wildlife presenter, television producer, author and most importantly, panda ambassador, has also fully endorsed the Unity Panda Project.

I have been inspired by Jonnet; her passion and drive to make things happen. As a freelancer I am constantly writing funding applications to align projects with potential funding streams. Unity Panda has encouraged me to consider how I could make a difference in my community by meeting their needs through purposeful empathetic interaction rather than letting the funding criteria dictate desirable outcomes for them.  Thank you Jonnet!  http://www.facebook.com/unitypanda

Techno Teapot

I have been so overwhelmed by the impact of my 100hr challenge on my practice that I went to the conference with the intention of finding examples of how creative practitioners and organisations use social media in innovative ways. I was really interested to hear how new technologies are being used to challenge the traditional concept of audience and engagement which I hope to explore further through my MA dissertation. Here are two of the best…

The Ghana Think Tank

Lisa Edgar, Head of Learning at Ffotogallery, led a breakout session about Vision On, a season of exhibitions and lectures examining the creative use of digital technology at Turner House Gallery, Penarth.                                                                     http://www.ffotogallery.org/exhibition.php?ex_id=343&p=                                                                                                                                                  I was fascinated by their collaboration with The Ghana Think Tank who use the revolution in mass communication to enable communities and groups to become connected and share information on a global scale.

They take a problem identified by residents of a community and feed it back to a network of Think Tanks in the developing world (Cuba, El Salvador, Serbia, Mexico and Ethiopia). Socially mediated problem solving is at the heart of this process with the intention of transposing parts of one culture into another. 

For the Ghana Think Tanks residency with Ffotogallery, drop boxes around the city, and interviews with passers-by, generated a body of problems related to everyday life in Cardiff and Penarth. These were relayed to the international Think Tanks who suggested on-the-street actions from the far reaches of the world to solve Wales’ day-to-day problems. http://www.ghanathinktank.org/

The Black Country Touring Blog

Hannah Rudman director of Envirodigital  talked about how live events can be streamed on the internet to present an alternative audience experience globally. She gave the example of the Black Country Touring Blog, which brings professional touring theatre and dance to the local communities of the Black Country.

A performance of Behna was steamed live by the Black Country Touring Blog supported by a downloadable party pack to distribute the live performance to a digital audience. The party pack suggested ways in which to set up a Behna party with useful links to source music, recipes and henna tattoo templates. It suggested getting involved in pre performance chat on the Behna website, uploading photograph to the online gallery and creating the right sort of ambience to watch the live stream. There was also the facility to post comments to discuss the performance with other online users making it an interactive experience.

This approach to live streaming goes beyond presenting the audience with an opportunity to watch a live performance that distant prevents them from seeing. It offers an alternative, a quality shared experience that is an event in its own right for those taking part. http://www.bctouring.co.uk/blog/index.php/behna-party-pack/ 

 BCT_Behna_PartyPack

Top conference tips for engaging with new technology:

I have tried to pull out the learning that benefited me from the conference in this blog. There is so much more I could write about, but this is a bitesize list of usefulness!

  • DIWO instead of DIY (do it with others)
  • Encourage random encounters; social networks rely on random encounters which lead to new innovative ideas
  • Embrace web 2.0 to move from being a passive user to an active creator of content
  • Use social media as a tool to engage with peer to peer learning, self organising networks and creative collaborative problem solving.

Embrace Random Encounters

I am an advocate of embracing random encounters in real life situations as well as through the twittersphere which sometimes gives my family cause for concern! I talk to people on the streets, in shops, on the bus, on the train and horror of horrors on the tube! The encounters that took place at the conference perhaps couldn’t be described as random as we all shared a common interest although I did meet a polar bear.

I was very fortunate to get a Soap Box slot to present my 100hr Challenge to fellow delegates during day 1 of the conference at the Nottingham Contemporary. It is here that I met the polar bear, Charli Clarke who was also presenting. In an act of pre Soap Box solidarity we bonded through a promise that if either of us had a tough gig and it all went wrong we would distract the crowd with some freestyle street dancing! Charli uses playful performance interventions to raise awareness of climate change dressed as a Polar Bear. She is enthusiastic, energetic and passionate and I very much enjoyed meeting her.

The Art of Influencing Change was an enriching experience and has given me so many new avenues to explore. I am very grateful to the many delegates who took the time to talk to me about my 100hr Challenge and am looking forward to next year’s event already!