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!

Laughing in the Face of Doom

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Photo credit: Dave Overton

Photo credit: Dave Overton

The last few months have required some extreme plate spinning for me as I have found myself lurching from one disaster to another which explains my 103 day absence from the blogosphere! At times it has felt as if the world has slipped on its axis and I have had to exchange a light touch and gentle persuasion for brute force and dogged determination to keep all of my plates in the air. An unexpected illness, unexpected Home Ed experience and unexpected school move for my daughter have all nestled uneasily against the demands of my freelance work and consequently my current residency at the University of Lincoln has at times been pushed out into the cold.

I have motivated myself to ‘keep calm and carry’ on through this strange time by indulging in a few simple pleasures (consuming my body weight in biscuits, watching the musical Annie and buying unnecessary stationary) and slowly I am bringing the balance of my life, work and residency back into a state of equilibrium. I think it’s safe to slam the door on doom now and to banish it to the bottom of the garden!

The project that I’m working on through my residency hasn’t actually been devoid of attention, it’s switched between ‘pottering’ and full on ‘warp’ mode to fit in with whatever is going on around it.  I’m very pleased with the progress that I’ve made; the pinhole cameras are no longer driving me insane (see previous post), I’ve had my first experience of using a Hassleblad and developing a 120 roll film, I’ve set up a studio shoot and produced a series of bespoke invitations for my project participants.

As the project’s exhibition now looms on the horizon I am going to attempt a blog-a-thon over the coming weeks to catch up on the task of documenting my journey so far. Although it’s frustrating to be blogging retrospectively I have come to the conclusion that blogging in real time could actually act as a ‘spoiler’ for my project participants.

During the next two months I will invite each of these nine people to take part in three identical interventions. I like the idea of these interventions evolving as secret missions shrouded in mystery; a digital footprint could blow my cover and potentially steer the project down a predictable path. So thank you doom, your unexpected presence may have helped curiosity and intrigue to flourish and increased the opportunities for serendipitous exchanges!

Coagulated Thinking

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Since my last blog post I have slowly been driven insane by pinhole photography. I have experienced a plethora of emotions born of frustration; from disappointment and dissatisfaction to annoyance and irritation. If I had not been encouraged by a minute number of sporadic successes, or been driven by a stubborn desire to create an image via a process which is slightly beyond the bounds of possibility, my tiny army of match box cameras may have met an untimely death by now.

My children have started referring to me as ‘The Nerdatron’ as my pinhole related behaviour has become steadily more obsessive. I can be found lurking in online pinhole forums or hanging out in hardware shops admiring sub 1mm drill bits/pin vice combos and chatting enthusiastically about the benefits of owning a digital vernier calliper. My bulk purchase of matchboxes has also been noted by the women on the cigarette kiosk in ASDA and I fear they may have me down as a potential pyromaniac.

So why do I need to master pinhole photography? Well let me explain; my AA2A project (University of Lincoln) will develop through a series of physical interventions that will allow me to meet and spend time with people that I have met online. These interventions will consider each individual’s relationship with a personal space, place and object and will be documented through an analogue process. The rationale for using pinhole photography has been informed through a combination of research, observation and experience and the cameras I have made will be used to explore the first of my 3 themes, personal space. I have attempted to pull together the murmurings of my brain over the last few weeks below to coagulate my thinking…

I am interested in the way in which we curate both our domestic and work spaces to differing degrees through placing personal, often every day, objects within them. It fascinates me that the worth of these objects is anchored to the emotions that they hold and the memories that they evoke rather than their monetary value. When thinking about how I would go about documenting the personal spaces of my online friends I felt that the use of a conventional camera would be intrusive as would be my presence. Without wishing to plagiarise the answer presented itself via Lucy Phillips’ enthralling project ‘What Cannot be Seen.’

I researched Lucy’s project as part of my MA and its many facets continue to captivate me. Lucy mails participants a match box sized pinhole camera which they use to photograph what cannot be seen before returning it to her for development. Although the idea is simple Lucy has created the conditions necessary for individuals to document a personal, hidden, aspect of their life should they chose to do so and the resulting imagery is not only revealing but beautifully poignant. She has enabled this to happen through combining an invitation open enough to elicit a variety of responses with the resources needed (support and materials) to create an image independently.

Once I feel I have grasped the fundamental principles of making a pinhole image I will post a camera to a selection of my online friends with the invitation to photograph a personal space. Once I have developed the image I will print a copy for them and deliver it in person which will be the first time that we meet.

A Year in Photographs

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A year ago I spotted a tweeted challenge from my friends Jan and Chris at the Caravan Gallery. It was the first of 52 weekly photo challenges to be set by fifty-two accomplished photographers from a project unsurprisingly named 52 by 52, the brain child of designer David Gillett. I joined the community of 52 by 52 members, and over the course of a year we interpreted each photographer’s challenge in whichever way we felt appropriate and submitted a weekly(ish) photo to the project’s Flickr group.

As I have always lacked the necessary levels of discipline, dedication and commitment to keep a diary I am phenomenally proud to now have a year of my life archived in photographs. The 52 by 52 experience has had a huge impact on my creative practice and I feel the need to reflect on what I have learnt, my lasting thoughts and my favourite bit of the project.

52 Weeks of Learning

I have learnt to be braver with my photography both in terms of subject and sharing images. I use my camera in my professional life as a tool to document the projects that I work on but did originally specialize in fine art photography in my art college days. 52 by 52 has opened up the myriad of genres between these two tried and tested approached and encouraged me to be a photographic explorer of the world. I have discovered the sheer joy and pleasure of image making which I don’t think was there before; I have an insatiable desire to find the magic in ordinariness which reflecting on the year seems to be the theme connecting each of my 52 images.

The need for dedication, the time restricted nature of the project and the presence of an immensely supportive 52 community has encouraged me to have the confidence to share images that I’m not 100% happy with. For a control freak this has been a steep learning curve but has led me to view the way that I use Flickr differently too; it’s no longer my intention to present a polished portfolio of images but to create an open sketchbook of work in progress.

52 Weeks of Pondering

My lasting thoughts/memories from participating in 52 by 52 relate more to the experience offunctioning as a member of an online community and less to the completion of each challenge in terms of creating an image. In some respects taking the photo was the easy bit and the real skill of the project was contributing to the peer critique of other member’s submissions. I really enjoyed the camaraderie that built within the group as the project progressed and was surprised by the familiarity and sociability that grew through interaction that was limited to the written word.

I was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of other member’s comments and intrigued by our shared understanding of the unwritten rules of online etiquette. We traded in appreciation and recognition and used our intuition to construct feedback that was supportive and helpful to each other.  Personally through avoiding flippant ‘great photo’ comments I learnt to be more perceptive and disciplined when offering feedback and invested the time to really consider what worked or didn’t work in the photos that I critiqued.

The discussion function on Flickr has also highlighted the democratic potential of online spaces for me. A total of 81 discussions were posted and responded to over the course of the year which gave the project multiple voices.   I’m keen to see if I can integrate the sense of openness and sharing that this type of interaction creates into my offline projects. I am currently experimenting by using a Flickr group to support a programme of offline photo-walks to encourage conversation between meets and to contribute to the planning of future routes and I am excited to see if there will be some positive or unexpected outcomes as a result.

52 Weeks of Favourites

Choosing a favourite challenge is a challenge in itself as the majority have opened up opportunities for eccentric behaviour, random encounters and full on adventures. Image making high points have included playing with light sabres after dark, stalking buskers, caravans and giant kangaroos, being pelted with custard, meeting Father Christmas and discovering a suppressed passion for railway architecture.

I am torn between two challenges as my absolute, unmitigated favourite and will therefore have to declare a tie for first place. The first is #40, set by Chloe Dewe Mathews, ‘The painter Bonnard said “Make little lies to tell a great truth”. Use that as your inspiration.’

My response was to use a Polaroid camera, which I had found in a charity shop, to add instant nostalgia to an image created in the present. Using real film reminded me of the fundamental principles involved in making an image and the value of creating something tangible. It was such a thrill to see the image develop and even more of a thrill to discover a whole community of Polaroid photographers through fellow member Meredith.

Challenge #48, set by Simon Roberts, ‘Take a photograph of an event. Focus on putting it in the context of the landscape and those watching,’ is joint favourite for similar reasons. I was really lucky to have the opportunity to visit Simon’s exhibition We English and was enthralled both by the scale of his work and the minute details held within. His use of a large format camera to create images reinforced the idea of reconnecting with the fundaments of image making. I made a conscious effort to slow down and although I shot my response in digital I tried to take an analogue approach and was really pleased with the results.

The legacy of 52 by 52 is a renewed passion for photography and I am determined to make a return to my darkroom days which will no doubt influence the future direction of my work. I am immensely grateful to David Gillett for creating such an inspiring project and unselfishly devoting every spare moment of his time to it. Bravo!

You can view my year in photographs here

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).

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)

 

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.

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