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).

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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.

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

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.

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