The Art of Swapping

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Swap Box front
When I was small I had a brilliant book called ‘Free Stuff for Kids’ I spent many happy hours perusing the pages before posting polite hand written requests to various PO boxes in order to get my hands on cool stuff. The cool stuff dropped onto my door mat in many different forms and I still remember with delight my top 3 acquisitions – a scrap book especially for sticking foil milk bottle tops in, a book of vouchers to exchange for Fab lollies and an i-spy book dedicated to identifying different breeds of cows.

As I transited through my teenage years my postal habits became more of a reciprocal affair and I dedicated myself to sending cool stuff as well as receiving it. I created mix tapes with neatly written track lists and photocopied inlays, made mixed media collages (mostly celebrating The Smiths), took and developed photographs and collected badges, postcards and zines. I carefully curated packages containing any combination of these items and despatched them to the most special of my friends. Sometimes I got stuff back, sometimes I didn’t but the experience of putting together my packages was always joyful.
Swap 03
A month or so ago I spotted a tweet from Oh Comely magazine introducing their November Care Package project. The idea was simple, you registered on their blog, were paired with a stranger and then had a couple of weeks to prepare a parcel of surprises for them to include something warming, something inspirational and something personal. I wondered if this was an opportunity to rediscover the magic of communication 1980s style!

My swap partner was called Tom and over 2 weekends I stitched a felt creature to keep him company during long winter nights, embroidered a quote from Oscar Wilde on a particularly tasteful psychedelic tie and constructed some matchbox sized pinhole cameras for him to experiment with. I carefully selected a suitable box to pack this bounty into and wrapped each component with brown paper and garden twine.

I spent so long faffing with my parcel that I missed the posting deadline and sent an apologetic email to Tom only to discover that he had too which I found very reassuring. Within a couple of days of each other, possibly motivated by the shame of not getting to the Post Office on time, our swap transaction was complete.
Swap 05
As I carefully unpacked my parcel from Tom I realised that he was revealing a snap shot of his life and interests to me through his thoughtful selection of gifts and I was overwhelmed by his kindness. I am now the privileged owner of a

• series of vintage postcards written by a daughter to her parents over the summers of 1952 and ‘3
• jar of pear and chocolate jam made with the spoils of a foraging adventure (+ a battered guide book to encourage me to search out food for free)
• beautifully well thumbed, pre-loved copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover
• ‘Iris’ 7” single by Emmy the Great

For me taking part in the November Care Package project was about so much more than a simple exchange of gifts; it was life affirming experience that struck a chord with my creative practice as an artist. Looking through the comments and photographs from fellow swappers on the Oh Comely facebook page it seems I’m not alone in my emotive response.
Postcard 5a
Over the last few years I have been intrigued by the way in which social media can be used to bring about unexpected collaborations between strangers united by a common interest. I have explored and interrogated my curiosity formally through post graduate research and creatively through 2 pieces of my own work; We found Art and I Would Like to get to Know you Better.

Oh Comely’s project shares the essential ingredients of all of the projects I have studied; it issued an invitation in a virtual world that had the scope to create tangible connections in ‘real life’ and an opportunity for the project community to share their collective experiences, building trust and friendship along the way.

After pondering the joys of swapping and the obvious overlaps with my practice I couldn’t resist instigating a mass creative exchange under the banner of my new venture Creative Communities; a phone call to co-founder Dave Briggs and packet of biscuits later (fuel for creative thinking) and The Artist Swap Box project was born.
Swap Box back
Over the next few weeks we will be encouraging practising artists and art students to sign up on our project blog. We will then pair them up in a random fashion and ask them to create a shoe box sized work of art and some career based words of wisdom to swap. Full details of the project can be found here.

I was very lucky to be able to launch the project at the Art Party Conference in Scarborough (as a member of Lincolnshire Artists Forum) thanks to a bursary from a-n so have my fingers crossed for some very exciting swaps and future collaborations!

Little Howard’s Big Question

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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)

 

Ice Road Trucker

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On Friday 3rd February 2012, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to combine my two great loves Caravans and Ice Road Truckers as I took my Moveable Museum of Found Objects on a very chilly adventure.

The destination was The Myle Cross Centre in Lincoln; the event was ‘Innovate and Inspire,’ the Lincolnshire Art and Design conference for KS1-KS5 Teachers. After waking up to snow, I braced myself for some extreme caravanning. I collected my co-pilot, we hooked up the museum and headed off with nervous anticipation.

My avid viewing of Ice Road Truckers: Worlds Most Deadliest Roads was put to good use once we reached Lincoln where the perils of snow were replaced by steep gradients, badly parked cars and speed bumps. I made the assent to the top of the city in second gear and with nerves of steel and a carefully controlled clutch. The final pre-conference challenge was a car park slalom where I negotiated a series of gates and manoeuvred the museum into place with the help of my ‘spotter.’

Once pitched up I switched into conference mode. During lunch the Moveable Museum was open for tours of We Found Art’s crowd sourced collection and a new photographic exhibition documenting our trip to The Bathing Beauties Festival in Mablethorpe.

After lunch I spoke about my work with Fulbridge School and its Caravan Gallery, the development of We Found Art and how I use social media to support creative learning in the classroom, (which led into a practical workshop using found materials).

The conference was exceptionally well organised and if I hadn’t been there to deliver I would have loved to have been able to participate in the interactive sessions. ‘Pimp your Lesson’ and ‘Up-cycled Fashion Wear,’ filled the conference hall with frenetic energy and an excited buzz, an atmosphere which luckily for me spilled over into the afternoon.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day and felt privileged to spend it with teachers who are so passionate about creativity. It was also reassuring to know that there are so many Lincolnshire schools that value creativity in the curriculum and clearly support their teachers learning.

Grateful thanks go to my Dad who was my Co-Pilot, Museum Assistant and Photographer for the day.

If you attended the conference I have put together a I Love Caravans Web Links pdf that you might find useful and you can see more photographs from the day here.

The Adventures of Dog Charity Shop Boy

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The adventures of ‘Dog Charity Shop Boy’ have been reported over on my Flickr page but I thought they deserved some Thinking Bridge space too!

Back in the autumn, my son Jude and I were thrilled to discover that The Caravan Gallery were putting together a book of other people’s pictures. In the blink of an eye we grabbed Jude’s camera and set off to scour the streets of Boston in Lincolnshire to look for the perfect shot!

Jude found a sign for a Dog Charity Shop and quickly snapped it, eager to visit the establishment itself in the hope that I would let him choose and take home a second hand dog! He was very disappointed to find that the shop in his words ‘was just a load of old lady clothes!’ (Through the eyes of a 39 year old, it’s a treasure trove not of dogs but up-cycled items waiting to be re-homed!)

Undeterred Jude emailed his photo and hoped for the best. On Christmas day, he opened a small flat parcel and was thrilled to discover that it was a copy of ‘The Caravan Gallery Presents Other People’s Pictures’ with his photo printed on page 56!

Armed with his book, Jude decided that an impromptu personal appearance was in order and revisited his sign and the Dog Charity Shop. Bemused customers looked on as he posed for photos with Kevin the shop manager!

I was very excited to have photographs included in the book too, but on this occasion was very happy to be overshadowed by the creative genius of Jude!