The Curious Case of the Golden Closet

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On a crisp autumnal morning at an hour almost early enough for the birds still to be asleep in their nests, the Moveable Museum of Found Objects (the offline product of my online project We Found Art) set off on another adventure. Its destination was Oakham in the tiny county of Rutland; a piece of middle England sandwiched in between Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Peterborough and Northamptonshire. Its mission was to both demonstrate the creative potential of social media and to ‘show and tell’ We Found Art’s learning journey.

As the museum’s adventures are often accompanied by the need for extreme towing skills and advanced manoeuvring techniques I enlisted the help of two of the project’s biggest fans to take responsibility for navigation and driver support. Val and Colin Smith (aka Mum and Dad) stepped up to the mark and also provided travel sweets which was an unexpected bonus! On arriving at Oakham C of E Primary School we were allocated a superior spot to pitch up on in the car park which didn’t involve the previous challenges of the North Sea, black ice or steep gradients which was a huge relief!

With the caravan support team despatched to explore the town I prepared to welcome 80+ pupils to explore the Museum’s collection of found objects and to find out more about its origins as an online project. My visit was part of a day of creative activities to launch the school’s ‘Telling our Learning Stories’ project, developed in partnership with The Mighty Creatives. The project’s aim is to explore the different ways in which the school community can capture and tell their learning stories through creating a group of young learning documenters. These young people will be supported to develop new approaches using ICT and social media which will eventually be rolled out across the school.

During the day pupils visited the Moveable Museum in groups of five; they peeped into cupboards with awe and wonder, admired the 70s inspired decor and asked many, many questions about caravan logistics. The hands-down winner of ‘favourite object of the day’ was a match attack card found in a muddy puddle closely followed by a skeletal bird’s leg brought home in a lunch box. It was however the photographic gallery in the Golden Closet that created unprecedented interest; it seemed to have magical powers, igniting the curiosity of the young visitors and drawing them in. There were several pupils who accidentally shut themselves inside the gilded gallery as they admired photographs of Mablethorpe and I soon realised that I needed to count each group out.

Many of the staff and young people that I met throughout the course of the day shared their stories of their own collections and I was also introduced to Geocaching (www.geocaching.com) which I got quite excited about! I was also thrilled to be offered found objects and although We Found Art is no longer accepting postal submissions I am hoping that there may be an influx of uploads to the project’s Flickr group (www.flickr.com/groups/wefoundart).

Academia is the New Rock and Roll

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Back in October I condensed months of thinking in to a blog post, the aim being to find a direction for my MA dissertation research. I knew that  I wanted to better understand how web 2.0 is changing the context of participatory arts practice; how projects are being developed and interacted with, and who is involved. I was also really interested in discovering more about the challenges from an artist/curator perspective and where the similarities and differences lie between on and offline practice.

I was thrilled that the post attracted some very helpful comments/emails from well respected academics Mike Press, David Gauntlett and Charlotte Frost. During my teenage years I was a prolific letter writer and trawled the back pages of the NME, sending off for demo tapes and ‘rare’ live recordings of my favourite bands.  If I happened to get a letter back with my tape, it was a moment of great jubilation! I would now proclaim that feedback from academics is the new rock and roll but I do however feel under pressure to write something amazing to repay the interest shown; a home-made badge or postcard just isn’t going to cut it!

In November I met up with David Gauntlett at the V and A to talk craft, lego and everyday creativity and to continue with the rock and roll theme instead of getting him to sign my T-Shirt I asked for his autograph on my copy of Making is Connecting! David was very generous with his time, tolerant of my interrogation of his creative reflective research methods and un-phased by the level of my hyperactivity rising in relation to the amount of fizzy pop I consumed (he has small children). We discussed my hypothesis and choice of case studies (mostly sourced through a Twitter shout out) and I left with a clearer vision of where my research could take me.

My Hypothesis is:

Social media-led projects curated by artists using everyday creativity are challenging traditional modes of participation.

My research questions are:

What are the similarities and differences between traditional and online community participation?

What skills and motivations do artists attribute as being necessary to the development of social media-led projects that use everyday creativity?

What factors influence the future viability of social media-led projects?

I have identified five projects to research (an overview of each is detailed in my next post):

David Gillett’s 52 by 52

Inny Murnane’s #plateaknit

Kirsty Hall’s 365 Jars

Lucy Phillips’ What Cannot be Seen

And my We Found Art

Over the last couple of months I have spent many hours on trains travelling the country to meet with each project’s curator. It has been an absolute delight and a very enjoyable experience. I have been overwhelmed by the kindness shown to me by relative strangers. I have been met at train stations, escorted to bus stops, been welcomed into homes and had a never ending supply of coffee!

My research interviews have also had an unexpected element to them. When I met David Gillett in a cafe in Bath we were treated to various interjections from an overly tactile elderly customer who serenaded us with songs from the shows throughout our interview!  In St Leonards, Lucy Phillips suggested an impromptu costal tour with her daughter as tour guide; I was only too happy to accept the offer and particularly enjoyed the ‘piece of cheese house’ and ‘yellow sweet shop.’

I have also been busy collecting data from ‘fans’, ‘followers’, ‘members’, ‘participants’ and the ‘audience’ of the projects selected via a series of online surveys. I hope to build a profile of the type of person who has taken an interest in each. In addition to demographics, I hope to discover more about levels of engagement and motivations, internet and social media habits, offline creative activities and attitudes towards arts and culture.

The next task is to code and interpret the qualitative data that I have collected and I will report back soon.

Crowd Sourced Research

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Since embracing web 2.0 technology 18 months ago I have experienced a monumental shift in my practice, which is rooted in participatory arts. How I organise and promote myself; involve and interact with people; produce and share; and understand and value my work has completely changed. It has been a period of intense creativity where I have been challenged to re-evaluate what I do, where I am and where I’m going. Through exploring online spaces both as a participant (QR-3D and 52by52) and as a curator (We Found Art) I have experienced new ways of working and re-interpreted my respective roles.

As a MA Arts Management student I have viewed these experiences as the prologue to my dissertation which I have yet to write. I am interested developing this initial research to better understand how web 2.0 is changing the context of participatory arts practice and specifically how projects are being developed and interacted with, and who is involved. I particularly want to know what the challenges are from an artist/curator/arts organisation perspective and where the similarities and differences lie between on and offline practice. I would really like to explore participatory projects that evolve online and have a later offline counterpart and if such projects are encouraging new models of practice.

Much has been written about free and open art with ACE recently producing a comprehensive archive of material relating to Open Source activity in the arts. Although I anticipate a proportion of my research to be concerned with freedom and openness in the arts and more specifically, freedom to participate/collaborate, it is not my intention to focus on researching Open Source activity. Much of my offline participatory arts experience has been grounded in the everyday; using craft/DIY culture to connect and initiate creative interactions. I want to see how this type of activity translates online (beyond networks and forums) and this will form another facet of my research.

My thinking so far has been hugely influenced by David Gauntlett’s ‘Making is Connecting; The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0’ and Charles Leadbeater’s ‘We Think’. Abstracts presented at the University of Westminster’ Transforming Audiences 3 conference
encouraged me to think more about

  • Absent present participants (Asa Stalh and Kristina Lindstrom, Malmo University, Sweden)
  • Motivations for content creation and sharing (Tim Riley, University of Westminster London)
  • Everyday creativity and wellbeing (Roni Brown, University of the Arts London)

I have also started to compile a reading list for my literary review: Reading

Initial research into how contemporary arts organisations, curators, artists and audiences are responding to the influence of web 2.0 on openness, participation and collaboration has led me to Cornerhouse’s action research project The Art of With (QR-3D, previously mentioned, is a micro commission and part of this research).

If you have read this and it resonates with what you do, whether you are a participant, artist, curator or organisation, I would love to hear from you. I am looking for examples of online participatory projects that involve craft/DIY culture and have an offline counterpart (exhibition, event, offline phase of participation for example). I would also be very grateful for recommendations for my reading list or of people that I should talk to. Please either use the contact tab above or the reply box below.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, it is very much appreciated.

 

The Moveable Museum of Found Objects

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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: wefoundart@gmail.com

We found Art is part of the Culture on Wheels Network

Waterloo Sunset

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I recently visited the Southbank Centre’s celebration of the 1951 Festival of Britain for the launch of its Schools of Creativity Pavilion.

The original Festival of Britain heralded the dawn of a new age of optimism. The post war era was a boom time for creativity, innovation and
idealism defined by the Declaration of Human Rights which stated ‘everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in the scientific advancements and its benefits.’

The Festival of Britain embodied these values with culture clearly identified as the fabric of civilised society. It was described as a ‘tonic for
the nation’ and after the Blitz and years of rationing British people were given the opportunity to celebrate their freedom uniting across class divides. The site itself was chosen to bridge the affluent areas North of the River Thames with the slums of the North symbolizing a ‘practical utopia.’

The more I read about the 1951 Festival of Britain, the more I wonder if it was like visiting the future. The sprawling site whose modernist
architecture was inspired by the Bauhaus principle of form following function was intended to present a new urban landscape. It included a dome of discovery with an ‘escalator to outer space and sky’ and its symbol, the Skylon, levitated in the air with no visible means of support.

Navigation was by foot and although the visitor could expect to see 50 murals and 30 sculptures by British artists including Barbara
Hepworth’s first public commission ‘Contrapuntal forms,’ they were just as likely to encounter a herd of jersey cows! I would heartily recommend a visit to the Museum of 51 at Royal Festival Hall to discover more.

The Southbank’s 60th anniversary of the Festival celebrates the exuberance and optimism of the original site. There is so much that I enjoyed from the urban sea side and its customised beach huts and bunting to the emotive voices of the Lion and Unicorn installation. I have captured my
best bits here in photographs.

The primary reason for my visit was to attend the launch of the Schools of Creativity Pavilion. The 1951 Festival had a series of ‘Pavilions’ celebrating all aspects of British achievement from agriculture and engineering through to education. The aspiration expressed in the New Schools pavilion was for all children to access the latest resources needed to learn. The Schools of Creativity Pavilion celebrates this legacy showcasing the positive impact of creative teaching and learning in British Schools.

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I am thrilled as Fulbridge School’s Creative Agent to have six of my photographs included in the exhibition which document our seaside project developed to encourage a life-long love of writing. 42 schools have been selected to show work and each presents
exemplary practice which is unique to the challenges of each setting.

Since visiting the Pavilion I have spent time reflecting on the future of creativity in English schools. The English education system is currently facing austerity and the Coalition Government will not be funding the Creative Partnerships programme beyond this academic year. The programme has worked with nearly 1.4 million children and over 125,000 teachers, delivering more than 8,500 projects in 5,800 schools which have involved nearly 9000 creative practitioners and arts organisations in England since 2002. Its positive impact on the UK economy, attainment and attendance in schools and parental engagement has been well documented.

My initial thought was to question whether we are celebrating the end of an era rather than looking towards an idealistic future. I may be naive but I don’t believe this to be true; as a Creative Agent the impact of the programme on my own professional development has been huge and just writing this blog is a result of CPD from CCE. I feel well equipped to face the future and I know that there is a critical mass of people including teachers, creative practitioners and young people who have embedded sustainable creative teaching and learning into their school’s curriculums and lives and will not be turning back.

The loss of CreativePartnerships will present a considerable challenge but will be the catalyst for many to develop more creative ways of being creative which has certainly been the case for me! I am passionate about learning, participation and the creative use of technology and have been liberated by the latter to explore new models of engagement.

Scan me!

My recent involvement in the QR-3D project is an example of this. The brief was intended for individual artists to create a 3D textiles QR code but I instantly saw the potential for a crowd sourced collaborative project. I chose to invest my time not in making but facilitating, engaging over 200 people in the effort.

I used the resources available to me; Matthew Brown a CP practitioner, gave up his time to help me create an instructional film with my Fulbridge School Mini-Agents. Individuals could watch the film online and make a postal contribution and schools and groups took part in session that I led. The piece involved making 1089 felt balls which would probably have taken me over 100 hours as an individual. I invested the same amount of time in the group effort but was able to promote the creative use of technology, teach felt-making skills and highlight the possibilities of collaborative working. I also enjoyed the process of creating the piece far more.

The future for creative teaching and learning in schools is going to be tough; there is no doubt about that. Maybe the key is to be open to, and seek out opportunities to collaborate through networks which engage and mobilize people into action. I have not worked out how to pay my bills and
feed my children yet but am excited by the new direction in my creative journey!

A Life Beyond Plastic: The Sequel

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Yesterday I had a joyous day with Fulbridge School celebrating their second year as a Creative partnerships School of Creativity. This year their programme has focused on developing more opportunities for active learning and child centred creativity in the Foundation Stage.

Karen Burton, Lucy Cawthorne and Clare Scott, the 3 reception teachers, have worked in partnership with creative practitioners Gizella Kate Warburton and Ian Etheridge since last September. They have been supported by monthly training sessions from the Mary Barlow and Barbara Thomas at the Totem Pole where they have explored a toolkit to embed the High/Scope approach into their practice.

Charlotte Krzanicki, the most energetic, motivated and inspirational Creative Co-ordinator I have ever worked with runs a tight ship. When I arrived at the school after an unscheduled tour of Peterborough, I stepped into a space filled with awe and wonder. Charlotte, Ian and Gizella had created a large scale reception class in the hall. The home corner was filled with the smell of fresh fruit and vegetables, there was a metallic story cave to explore with kaleidoscope torches and a construction area well stocked with wooden off-cuts and real tools.

I was happily banished to the outdoor area where I spent the day den building. Charlotte had allocated each class in the school a time slot to enjoy an interactive ‘show and tell’ with help from rotating groups of Reception children. Fulbridge hosts 700 pupils and 130 members of staff so this was a logistical triumph in itself! Throughout the day pupils visited the hall and outdoor area to find out about the project, meet the practitioners and most importantly play!

I worked with small groups of children to construct a den which linked into the introduction of story caves in the Reception classrooms. I was very conscious that the children would only have a taste of the activity so this is where I introduced some new technology. I was thrilled to be able to use my I-Pad to show the children my previous blog post which includes den building instructions. We looked at the photographs of each stage and discussed what had come before and what would need to be done to complete the process. Seeing the instructions, the children were all very keen to have a go with their teachers.

I loved the experience of seeing the children’s reactions as the construction grew. They made repeat visits enroute to P.E, at break times and at the end of the day to see how things were progressing. They solved problems, worked collaboratively, were sociable and made unexpected discoveries. Staff chatted excitably about how they could recreate the den as an Anderson shelter and parents used it as a chill-out zone with their toddlers.

A high point of the day for me was to meet Shakespeare Class who are prolific bloggers and regularly Tweet. They share my passion for social media and told me how blogging has had a positive effect on the quantity and quality of their written work. We crammed ourselves into the den and I introduced them to the We Found Art blog. It was a surreal moment. If anything in the world is possible, it’s possible at Fulbridge and I feel very fortunate to be part of their amazing creative learning journey.

A Year’s Worth of Learning

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A year ago today I had an inkling that I had struck lucky. I had overcome the first challenge of the day by successfully finding where I was supposed to be going with all the confidence of a sniffer dog! A quick sweep of the training venue, the fabulous Wallace Space, revealed a kitsch 50’s style toilet with complementary smellies, a posh cafe providing a lavish breakfast (my second of the day) and the promise of a thai curry for lunch. All boxes ticked!

It was not what I was expecting however, and neither was the rest of the day. On 10th May 2010 with a keen mind and wearing a knitted tank top, I embraced new technology. I didn’t think that we’d make a good match but a year on, we are still going strong! We have connected through social media, slightly more competent IT skills and a love of digital innovation. On our first anniversary, it seems fitting to reflect on how what was initially a 100hr challenge has paid dividends and proved to be the most influential CPD opportunity in my career.

Why so? Well, I have recently been reading Charles Handy’s ‘Gods of Management’ and have discovered that I fit best into a Dionysian culture. Dionysian’s learn from life, by immersion and by new experiences. They can be difficult creatures to manage and Handy describes in a nutshell, their feelings towards self development: ‘Dionysians will resent any attempt by others, particularly an organisation, to plan their futures or to develop their abilities. They want opportunities, but demand the right to choose between them.’ Hmmm, approach with caution.

The training that I attended (led by Ewan McIntosh and funded by CCE) was elective, I wasn’t sent or made to go; I wanted to be there and I wanted to learn. Touch paper lit, I launched myself  like a rocket on a voyage of techno-discovery. Over the last year, through 365 hours+ of digital exploration rooted in social media my world has become more vibrant, challenging and fulfilling:

  • Twitter has given me access to an army of brilliant minds; I have posed questions, offered opinions, read research and been inspired by innovation on a daily basis (in 140 characters or less!)
  • WordPress  has encouraged me to reflect and document on what I do and why I do it, improved my IT skills and helped me to connect to the wider world
  • Facebook, Tumblr and Flickr hold the processes and products of my first online project and encourage collaborations and random encounters

Like a viral marketing campaign, my enthusiasm for social media has spread through my work. I have encouraged and supported teachers and creative practitioners through Creative Partnerships at Fulbridge School of Creativity and St Mary’s Change School to use blogs to reflect on and document their creative journeys. The quality and volume of blogged material has been overwhelming and creates a persuasive argument for the use of social media in the classroom.

My family have not escaped unscathed from the social media onslaught either! My 10 year old son Jude has become a competent blogger. Previously a reluctant writer, he will now happily write about places he’s visited and ‘stuff’ he’s done peppering his compositions  with slideshows of photographs he’s uploaded.

Embracing web 2.0 technology has enriched my life. What I am most surprised about is what I have learnt about the social meaning of creativity. I realize that I have only dipped my toe in the water but with a background in community based participatory arts I am hungry to develop a deeper understanding of the relationship between making and sharing creative material online and doing it in the real world. This will keep me going for the next 365 hours at least and will be formally captured through my MA dissertation. I have just bought David Gauntlett’s ‘Making is Connecting’ and after I have cast Handy aside I think his discourse of how creativity, craft and community intersect I’ll be off on my next adventure!

If you haven’t taken a peek already, please do check out my online project ‘We Found Art’ and get involved. If you are reading this and we’re friends on facebook or you follow me on twitter, thank you for the companionship (and more) that you have contributed to my amazing learning journey! I will stop now before I descend into an Oscar style speech… If I cry, I may fuse my keyboard and will be restricted once more to old skool learning!

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