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.

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!

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.                                                                                                                                                                                                             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.

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. 


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!