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!


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)


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


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


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

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!

Life Beyond Plastic


Today I have been at the National Early Years’ Conference, ‘A Life Beyond Plastic’ , an event organised by the Totem Pole , a unique Early Years training centre in Grantham, Lincolnshire. The whole day explored the benefits of giving young children real experiences.

Early Years consultant and trainer Mary Barlow explains: “In our manufactured world adults and children use plastic objects every day. These are very similar in many ways – they are often smooth and have no smell or taste.”

“By offering a wide range of objects that are not plastic – even something as simple as a bottle top or a fir cone – we enrich children’s learning by giving them open-ended experiences.”

Mary Barlow is the owner of the Totem Pole and an inspirational trainer. I had the fortune of being trained by her myself 7 years ago and her skilful facilitation of the High/Scope approach has had a huge and lasting impact on my practice. We have worked together many times over the years, co-developing and delivering training. More recently, I invited Mary to be an external partner of Fulbridge National School of Creativity and St Mary’s Change School where she has supported Reception Teachers and Creative Practitioners to develop a child centred creative approach in each setting.

My background as a creative practitioner is rooted in the early years. Highlights have included working as an Artist in Residence at Staniland Nursery in Boston, delivering training for Lincolnshire County Council’s Birth to Five Service and working with parents and children at SureStart centres across Lincolnshire. As well as the High/Scope approach, I have been inspired by the pre-schools of Reggio Emilia.

Today I have led a couple of breakout sessions creating tempoary environments; we have been den building! This is the reason for this post. The structure of our den was created in a very prescriptive way and introduced as an adult group activity. The idea was to create a frame, which if used in an early years setting, could be presented to the children as a space for them to develop through active learning experiences.

In the past this has been an effective activity to introduce the idea of developing spaces within a setting that respond to children’s interests but there has always been a downside! I tend to avoid instruction sheets as everyone has a different learning style and what makes sense to me doesn’t necessarily seem like logic to others! So here lies the challenge that I set myself today. I wanted to see if I could collaborate with the workshop participants to develop a set of mutually agreed instructions that could be posted here for all to access. The results are below and I am very grateful to Janet who volunteered to be our scribe.

To create a den you will need:

25 x 4 foot sturdy garden canes

50 plastic coated paperclips

Masking tape

Strong string


Lengths of lightweight fabric, curtains etc.


Unfold the paperclips into an ‘S’shape then attach one to each end of the canes with masking tape.  The paperclip should make a small loop, not a hook.

Lay 3 canes on the floor and arrange them into a triangle, tie each of the three corners together with string, leaving the string long.  Then attach the other two canes to one corner of the triangle (this will now be known as the top). You need to make five of these shapes.

By sliding the shapes on the floor, move and assemble them to make a pentagon (five sided shape) by pushing the bottom side of each triangle together. Then tie each of the corners of the pentagon together securely with the string.

Lift the point of the triangle off the floor and move one of the moveable canes to the left and attach it to the top of the adjacent triangle, with string.

Then lift the last of the moveable canes towards the centre, making a roof for the structure and tie them securely together with the string.

You can now add the magic and decorate your structure. Enjoy and have fun!!!! 

 If you attended today’s sessions you might be interested in the following blogs written by artists working with Reception aged children using a range of artforms:

Sarah Wakeford, Ian Etheridge, Rosie Ward, Gizella Kate Warburton.

If you are intending to do some den building in your setting, please report back by leaving a comment. I would love to hear how you and your children have developed your ideas, (Click on the speech bubble under the title of this post to open a comments box).

If you came to one of my sessions and didn’t experience Mark Whelan’s Forest School’s session, you might like to check out his website and his latest adventure St Georges Preparatory School.

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