Little Howard’s Big Question


I am a big fan of the ‘Little Howard’s Big Question’ model for empirical research. If you don’t watch CBBC and aren’t a fan of cartoon boys, this approach may have passed you by. In a nutshell Little Howard and his big real world friend (Big Howard) ask questions about anything and everything in the world around them.

My current research focuses on artists’ who develop social-media led projects that encourage participation. This is structured around the requirements of an MA dissertation and consumes the majority of my time. Every so often I allow myself to explore Little Howard’s research technique which is far more open-ended. My last big question was ‘how many days will it take before I am bored of replacing every meal with fish finger sandwiches and individual trifles?’ After gathering quantitative data I concluded that the answer was three!

My most recent big question is weightier than the fish finger/trifle conundrum and is distracting be from my ‘proper’ work. Yesterday I attended a Creativity and Production workshop, the first in the series of workshops exploring digital transformations in the creative relationships between cultural and media organisations and their users, at the University of Westminster. After an excellent presentation from Jim Richardson of Museum Next about the ways in which museums are using digital technology to engage with their audiences an interesting question came from the floor. The essence of it was: ‘is crowd sourced activity exploiting the audience through getting them to do the work of the organisation?’

Having experiences of both being a crowdsourcer and as a crowdsourcee (I think I may have invented those words) I was intrigued and challenged by the suggestion of exploitation. My experiences of crowdsourced activity have been overwhelmingly positive and have had a huge impact on my practice as an artist and I feel the need to reflect on why I think the answer to this big question is ‘NO’!

Last year I responded to a brief from Sally Fort who had been awarded a Connerhouse micro-commission to develop a project called QR-3D. Sally asked for makers (amateur or professional) to create a scannable 3D textiles QR code and upload a photograph of it to the project’s Flickr group. An online selection panel of experts then chose the work from the Flickr pool that they wanted to see exhibited at Cornerhouse.

My motivation for responding to the brief was to develop my practice; could I use my creative skills to execute the technical demands of the piece and as a participatory artist how could I involve other people? The project that followed involved working with 200 participants on and offline to create the 1089 hand rolled black and white felt balls necessary to build a QR code. When scanned the finished piece revealed the story behind its creation. You can read about how the project developed here.

As a crowdsourcer I traded my time teaching felt making skills for the labour to create the content of the piece and by embedding the narrative of the project into the piece the participant’s contribution was visible. As a crowdsourcee I provided content for Cornerhouse’s QR-3D exhibition and having the piece displayed gave me the opportunity to build my reputation as an artist. I don’t think that I exploited anybody in the process of this project and certainly didn’t feel exploited myself. It is my view that this project had characteristics of a ‘gift economy’ and provided reciprocal benefits for all involved.

I have also been pondering offline crowdsourcing in relation to this question, thinking in particular about museums and collections. The Brecknock Museum recently asked for local contributions to a forthcoming exhibition to celebrate 200 years of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. Members of the public called into the Museum over the course of 2 days with objects, photographs and stories. All contributions were given freely by people who were keen to share. This type of activity is not uncommon in museums but would probably be described as ‘audience engagement’ rather than ‘crowdsourcing.’ It would be very unlikely that issues would be raised relating to exploitation although providing the content of an exhibition could be seen as ‘work.’

My background is in community arts and for me online platforms are the equivalent to the located project spaces of schools, village halls, community centres and the like. When I take my work online, crowdsourcing is a vital component of my practice and I use it both to bring people together and to build the content of my projects.

Crowdsourcing is elective and relies on people getting involved with a project because they want to. I was overwhelmed by the response of people who wanted to get involved in my online project We Found Art. Not only did participants contribute to a collection of found objects but they posted photographs, poems, songs, stories, and useful links. They commented on photographs and offered their opinions and specialist skills; For me this created a different notion of value within the project.

At this point Little Howard would summarize his thoughts so far in song form (usually including references to monkeys or dinosaurs) but I am going throw this big question open… what do you think? I would be very interested in hearing your comments; which I appear to be crowdsourcing!

Postscript: I have just found Charles Leadbeater’s essay ‘The Art of With’ commissioned by Cornerhouse and thought it would be useful to share his thoughts on this big question:

‘Why do people contribute to open projects, freely reveal their knowledge and ideas to others and why should an arts organisation seek to be open? When an organisation sets up a more open way of engaging with a community are its motives always the same as those of the outside contributors? One answer, the main one thus far in open source style projects is that people are motivated by a non-monetary passion to commit to a project. Open projects are sustained by a voluntary subsidy from user and developers. It all comes down to love for what they are doing, the ProAm ethic. Participation comes from intrinsic motivations and satisfactions, like the satisfaction of solving a puzzle. A slightly different answer is that there is a currency in these communities but it is not money, the currency is recognition and appreciation. People contribute because they like getting a sense of recognition from a community of peers. It’s this external validation and recognition that matters. The motivation is still non-monetary but external. Finally, there are those who argue that money does matter. People need to make a living somehow, even if they are contributing a lot to open projects. They still need to be able to put bread on the table. Some worry that money is a distortion of the purer motives that seem to underpin open projects. Others take a much more pragmatic view that they understand how to mix making money – for example by adapting open source to particular markets and users – and contributing to open source projects. It’s not a matter of principle but a question of tactics.’ (Leadbeater, 2009, p16)



The Moveable Museum of Found Objects


I am interested in how web 2.0 encourages innovative, creative interactions online and challenges the traditional concept of collaboration, participation and engagement and how this compares to the live experience. As a kinaesthetic learner I thought that the best way to find out more about the how it would be a fantastic opportunity to set up my own online project (for readers with small children this concept works like ‘Little Howard’s Big Question’). The project is We Found Art which has now reached the point of an online to off-line shift which I thought I would blog about.

When I set up We Found Art online, it was my vision to exhibit its collection off-line in an unconventional space. I also liked the idea of engaging with an audience that might not choose to use their leisure time as cultural tourists. With this in mind I drew up a list of places that my family and friends enjoyed spending their free time. Shopping centres, car-boot sales, markets, campsites and the seaside all featured highly. It became apparent that to realise my vision these were the places I should be and to visit them I would need to be mobile!

As a caravan obsessive, the answer seemed obvious; create a Moveable Museum of Found Objects in my 1988 Avondale Perle Olympus touring caravan and take We Found Art on the road! (Of course, the idea’s not new and Jan and Chris at the Caravan Gallery have been doing it for years). A hectic summer of caravan curation ensued.

Last weekend, the Moveable Museum pitched up for its first public engagement at the Bathing Beauties Festival in Mablethorpe. Although it was a baptism of fire in terms of extreme caravan manoeuvring and required nerves of steel to get it on and off the seaside promenade, I’m pleased to report it was a huge success.

Myself and Nigel Blackamore, Curator of the Brecknock Museum, welcomed over 200 visitors into the 5 berth space over the course of the weekend who explored the crowd-sourced collection with awe and wonder, curiosity and intrigue. We were overwhelmed by the generosity of these visitors who shared their stories of finding and collecting and even brought us treasured objects. I have tried to capture the essence of the festival and have created the ‘Virtual Book of Mablethorpe’, a visual diary of our Bathing Beauties experience, which can be found over on Flickr.

My main observations from the museum’s first outing are that we have been able to maintain the community focus of We Found Art and that it has encouraged the same imaginative creative exchanges between people offline as it does on. The use of the unexpected (but familiar) space of the caravan encouraged visitors to enter the museum and feel comfortable to engage with us and with the collection. By directing visitors to the project online (through print or QR codes) we have been able to enhance their understanding of it also providing opportunities for participation. The latter is something that I hope to develop more.

The Moveable Museum of Found Objects is set to tour from Spring 2012 and We Found Art welcomes bookings. For more information, please contact me (Katie Smith, Project Curator), by email:

We found Art is part of the Culture on Wheels Network

New Year, New Project


The vitality of thought is an adventure. Ideas won’t keep. Something must be done about them’.

Alfred North Whitehead

Jude's collection

I have an idea that won’t keep. It has been simmering away since November and now it’s reached a fast boil I need to do something about it! It’s an idea for a project to explore if creative activity online can encourage participation in arts offline. It’s been keeping me awake at night! I am fascinated by the many possibilities of using Web 2.0 technology to consider how digital media is affecting the creation, distribution and consumption of the arts. The project is going to involve many of the things that I am passionate about including

  • Creative thinking
  • Collecting
  • Collaborating
  • Participating
  • Random encounters
  • Afternoon tea

My son Jude is the main inspiration for this project and the idea comes from his obsession with collecting. As a toddler, it was bricks which he would stash under his push chair. More recently finds have included an oil drum and car exhaust but generally his collection comprises of tiny treasures found in the street.

On a wet November afternoon the idea was born as I walked from Grange Town to Chapter in Cardiff and felt strangely compelled to make a Jude style collection. I suspect that the urge was born out of a form of auto suggestion as my mind made a subconscious link to the reason for my journey. I was going to see Gruff Rhys’s secret installation ‘Hotel Shampoo’. During his time touring with ‘Super Furry Animals’, Gruff collected 15 years worth of freebie hotel toiletries which in the absence of a diary became soap filled memory triggers.  After the collection threatened to colonise his house Gruff used the many miniature bottles to create his installation. ‘Hotel Shampoo’ both catalogued his transient existence on tour and reminded him of the buildings he’d stayed in and the people he’d met.

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Two months on and I can still associate each object that I found with the memories of that day; the damp air, soggy leaves, large dog barking behind a gate, hot chocolate and cake, patient boyfriend  pockets filled with my muddy finds. It has led me to consider that fact that if I didn’t blog, I wouldn’t be sharing these associations or my collection and if it wasn’t for twitter and @chaptertweets I wouldn’t have made my journey or be inspired to create. The way that I work has changed profoundly through engaging with social media. Online networks have given me the opportunity to share and respond to creative thinking and to collaborate and create content. My challenge now is to see if this online collective activity will extend to create and share something tangible offline for a physical audience that may see the arts and culture as something that is not for the likes of them.

The project that I would like to propose will involve my professional, personal and social networks (and I hope some random encounters too) and I will be encouraging people to send me small found objects. I will accession, photograph and catalogue these objects and create a dedicated blog, Facebook group, You Tube channel and Flickr account to share contributions.  If an object has inspired a creative response this could be captured through prose, poetry, photography, film, animation or sound for example and there will be space to share this too. Collecting can be an individual or group activity but all involved will become part of a collective effort.

The second part of this activity will take the form of an interactive exhibition in an empty shop. I am hoping to find a venue in Boston, Lincolnshire to respond to the town’s lack of cultural opportunities and access to the arts. I hope to use the online content to support and augment the audience’s experience. Marcel Duchamp once said

‘The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contributions to the creative act.’

Taking Duchamp’s philosophy in a very literal sense I will be providing an empty space within the exhibition for the audience to contribute objects of their own which will reposition them as part of the collective and hopefully overcome some of the potential psychological barriers to participation. My career started in Boston 10 years ago as a community artist and I will be using my local contacts with schools, businesses and community groups to encourage visits. By using an empty shop and borrowing from the many excellent activity ideas from @artistsmakers and the empty shops network (including afternoon tea) I hope to create a welcoming environment as an alternative to a traditional gallery space.

Kesteven Morris Dancers collected objects on New Year's Day

This is a DIWO (do-it-with-others) project and will rely on the generosity of all involved. I think that the Arabic proverb: ‘if you have a lot, give from your wealth; if you have but little, give from your heart’ is particularly relevant to the current economic climate and cuts to arts funding. I am already very grateful to Nigel Blackamore, Senior Curator of the Brecknock Museum who has offered to curate the exhibition and A&K Markham Photographers who have offered studio time and the use of a macro lens. HUGE thanks go to Kesteven Morris who have made the first contribution of objects.

If you would like to contribute to this project please write ‘I’m on board’ (+ where you’re from/ what you do as an optional extra), in the comments box below.

For details of how to get involved please subscribe to this blog and I will post more information within the next 2 weeks.

Your support is really important and the more ‘on boards’ I have the easier it will be to make things happen. I will also be tweeting updates as @K8ieSmith