Trip to Shipley in April - a creative approach
Wed 06 May 2015 21:07:01 | 0 comments
(Note: this has turned into a far, far longer piece than intended! The length has probably reduced its user-friendliness, but I hope that there may be something of use here. Specific reflections on Shipley might be a useful 'outsider's perspective', or could feed into general thinking across case studies.)
With four separate geographical areas forming 'Towards Hydrocitizenship', it can be difficult to grasp what may be going on at each distinct site. At our last group meeting in Shipley, Owain Jones said something that lodged in my mind, which is that our project aims to "take the specificity of site seriously". This means welcoming the many differences between locations, which in all their complexity, provide (rather than hinder) the rich material of our research. Some creative practice research methods may be very useful and appropriate for understanding what we are doing across case studies.
It's clear that each area is very particular, in terms of social demographics, local history and culture, hydrological features and so on. Each local collaboration is also the culmination of the dynamic relationships between the people in the team, their personal interests and motivations, experiences and knowledge. It's relevant to consider the history of each individual's involvement with this patch of land and with (or within) that community. Cross-cutting themes and approaches for the broader project may be noticed more objectively by people outside the local team, who might have a naturally comparative outlook.
Steve Bottoms leading the 'Salt's Waters' walk. (Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 19/04/15)
(1) My Creative Practice Research (introduction and some examples)
As a creative practice researcher (working through film and photography), I have always tried to immerse myself into the very environment or social dynamics that I'm seeking to understand. For example, rather than berate the 'arts-science divide', or advocate for a 'fruitful collaboration' between artists and scientists, I would initially seek to explore this interplay in the most proactive way possible. I have done this by participating in the crowd-funded science project Dark Snow, which aims to engage non-scientist with what's happening on the Greenland ice-sheet, as well raising funds for the science itself. I helped to create audiovisual material alongside the widely-followed and respected climate blogger, Peter Sinclair. He then used his existing networks to disseminate this material far and wide. Below you can see Peter's image of the video-editing process, where we were able to draw very directly on the expertise of Jason Box, a professor in glaciology. Interestingly, Jason himself is a self-taught videographer and photographer, whilst Peter is also a nurse. Simple notions of arts/science divides were debunked right away, as you can also see in this video.
Screenshot from Peter Sinclair's blog, Climate Crocks, July 01,2013
Examples of videos can be seen here.
Sara Penrhyn Jones collecting Cryoconite samples. Transdisciplinary research with glaciologists and biologists, Greenland. (Photograph: Arwyn Edwards, Microbiologist, June 2014).
By placing myself (physically and through the camera) in the same environment as earth scientists in Greenland, during three separate field trips, I lessened the distance between us in every sense. This direct experience was a way to both understand and address the challenge of communicating complex science to a lay-audience. I observed people and place, through my various lenses, whilst also creating potentially useful material to aid science communication. This material has indeed been used since on television news (NBC, S4C), science journals, activist blogs, academic conferences, and in my own artistic installations. It is also illuminating to see how the material gathered and created becomes re-recreated and appropriated by others in the digital age, as the tools to create and disseminate media become increasingly available. A single field trip generates multiple narratives; alongside the very visible sample-gathering on the ice sheet, notions of authorship were also tested.
Arwyn Edwards and Joe Cook grappling with the ice-corer. Greenland 2014 (Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones, Greenland 2014)
I find that the online video in particular, is seen as the least interesting art form. Just a documentation of a real event, as if this were a neutral, unmediated process. Filmed and edited output is often seen as serving an instrumental purpose, such as communicating or disseminating information or a 'message' discovered in more legitimate ways. Whereas there can be an element of truth in this, creative practice as research (through film and photography) may be seeking to answer research questions in the same way as traditional research whilst simultaneously testing the capabilities or limitations of its own processes and form.
Crossing disciplinary divides is usually the greatest challenge on any collaborative project, and it may involve a willingness to see things differently, or to see more. In Greenland I wondered whether I had new eyes on the landscape, because of what scientists were telling me, and what I was observing and experiencing. If so, how was this manifested in my creative work, and was this transmissible to others? I remember noticing at one point on a field trip in Greenland that we were all spending much of our time peering very, very closely at the ground beneath our feet. I wondered, by the end of each trip: were we starting to 'see' the same thing?
(1) Joe Cook, looking for answers & (2) Bubbles- there's life on the ice sheet! (Photographs: Sara Penrhyn Jones, Greenland 2014)
Simply having a reason to be in Greenland together, and working in the same environment, was intrinsically more significant, than any film or photograph produced as a result. Professional and personal relationships were formed during these exchanges and led to further collaboration, more efficient communication, understanding and trust between us. The legacy of Hydrocitizenship could be similarly meaningful. It's also not necessarily a matter of choosing just one objective; several different processes can happen simultaneously. It is possible to be both 'useful' and critically reflective, which in the context of the ecological crisis may be a sensible and ethical way to be an academic. Digital media can be repackaged in endless ways, so the product never has to be the end-product; it may rather reflect an ongoing process of intellectual and creative enquiry.
It takes an investment of time, and perhaps a certain humility to cross language or disciplinary divides. A willingness to be 'stupid' in order to learn. Sitting in a recent Arts and Humanities symposium on the 'Anthropocene', I felt that perspectives from earth sciences were sadly absent. I had been part of conversations about the anthropocene on the Greenland ice sheet months earlier, but the science and arts and humanities perspectives were so different that we could have been talking about an entirely different concept. That is one problem with language- you think you've nailed it, but people don't always mean the same thing even when they use the same words. Yet a deeper sense of the thinking, being and knowledge of this group of scientists, inextricably connected to Greenland in my mind, still affects my own thinking.
(3) The sleeping arrangement and (4) Karen Cameron, Researcher at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. Evening walk. (Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones, June 2014)
During another recent creative research trip, this time to Kiribati in Micronesia, I was wary of simply fleshing out, visually, a pre-conceived idea of a 'sinking nation' at the mercy of rising seas. I was investigating the relationship between climate change and heritage, both tangible and intangible. This international project, Troubled Waters, is transdisciplinary and multi-partner (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council). The research focuses on three sites (Cornwall, North Wales and Kiribati), and a practice-led approach forms a key and driving component. My main contact in Kiribati, Claire Anterea, is a community engagement officer for the Kiribati Adaptation Project, and has acted as a fixer for dozens of international journalists.
Claire Anterea (Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones, Kiribati January 2015)
Claire is often dismayed at journalists' 'thin' engagement with place- her home- as they produce a definitive documentary in a matter of days. She tries to persuade them to spend at least a night in a traditional home (a simple raised platform made of local materials), without filming, but rather to simply listen to the early morning soundscape. This will include women sweeping with brooms, and men singing as they collect toddy from coconuts, high up in the trees.
(5) Traditional home, and our accommodation for three nights and (6) A woman in the village making sweet-smelling garlands, for us, as it turns out. (Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones, Kiribati January 2015)
Essentially, Claire wants visitors to understand her country physically, sensuously, and culturally, from the most immersed or attuned perspective possible during their short time there. It's a question of what is accessed, and how, during the earliest stages of creative representation. This is particularly fraught when you consider the politics of post colonialism (exacerbated by the fact that countries least responsible for, are often most vulnerable to climate change). Whose stories are these to tell? In what language? Every image has a subtext; every creative decision is a challenge.
Translating culture with help from Cinawa. (Photograph: Richard Gott, Kiribati, January 2015)
There is something very liberating about the idea of taking time to wander and feel, and to 'be human' as part of the research process. This also allows for the possibility of spontaneous interaction with people and place, perhaps unfamiliar to us. It can be egalitarian, enriching and a highly responsive way of working. It accesses and creates knowledge which can't always be decoded into 'straight' text but perhaps evoked more powerfully through art, which more readily facilitates multiple meanings, and which can acknowledge (or even celebrate) its own limits. I'm becoming increasingly interested in what I don't manage to capture, and why.
Natan Itonga, Cultural Officer, Mark Tredinnick, Australian poet, and Sara Penrhyn Jones (Photograph: Richard Gott, Kiribati, January 2015)
A project like Hydrocitizenship, in trusting the arts, is a radical facilitation of 'possibilities', which potentially makes people nervous. I'm impressed with the AHRC for supporting this approach, and I keep reminding myself that process is (almost) everything in this project, and that successes will most likely be intangible. Yet considered reflection across the case studies will be necessary to get the full research value from the project. This doesn't always have to be lists and bullet points but (in my view) a 'tuning in', which means talking to people during the process too, so that insights feed back into the live project. Some of this can be done online, but most of us talk much more freely in one-to-one conversations and on our 'own' territory.
Sound-recordist Richard Gott listens, attentively, to the sounds of the sea, fishermen, birds and distant singing at sunset. We catch glimpses of marine life (fish and crabs), and take perverse delight in the way that they elude our audio visual equipment. (Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones, Kiribati, January 2015)
(2) My trip, armed with cameras and a microphone, to Shipley:
So, back to Shipley. As a group of researchers, we may decide on emerging themes between case studies as an essential paper exercise, but I would always advocate a form of 'listening', in the right setting too, to compliment or drive this comparative analysis. Perhaps this is site-specific research?!
Initially, I didn't feel that I had a real sense of what was going on in other case studies, and this may because I am more used to 'knowing' through personal, creative and physical experience, and through more involved interactions. I wanted the notion of creative conversation to include me! So for one weekend I observed the local team at work in Shipley:
Lyze Dudley, exuding 'calm' at the end of a sociable day, engaging passers-by on World Heritage Day (Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones 19/04/15)
It's appropriate and maybe even poetic to 'listen', in situ, in order to learn more again about listening. It may also be one of the most important general themes or methods in Hydrocitizenship. The idea of 'attentive listening' has come up in meetings too. I prefer it to 'engagement', which can imply an agenda-led or one-way process. What was striking to me about Lyze's demeanour was her comfortable occupation of this space alongside the footpath, where she sat for hours. Through the subtleties of verbal and non-verbal communication, she made herself available to the many people who recognised a person who really does have time to talk.
Lyze, starting conversations, simply, with a map, and bowl of water for dogs on the ground!. (Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones 19/04/15)
What does it actually mean to have a 'conversation', which according to Lyze is inherently creative in one way or another? (So perhaps the adjective is superfluous in the term 'creative conversation'?!). How can we encourage conversation about water? Again, Lyze had a relaxed approach, and a convincing one, which is that many of these conversations naturally connect with water, at some point, and there really is no need to force the issue. On reflection, I hardly managed a photograph without a 'watery' reference in one form or another, which does vindicate Lyze's point!
Lyze Dudley and Steve Bottoms, before the 'Salt's Waters' walk. (Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 19/04/15)
Lyze explained the need to create positive associations in people's minds (relating to herself and the project), and so each exchange is a performance in aid of this broader goal. It seems that she has spent roughly a day a week on direct engagement with the community, and is able to benefit from the fact that their local case study builds on the earlier production of art and relationships through the 'Multi-Story Water' project. Lyze's training in psychiatry may have professionalised her apparently effortless techniques. She also bases herself at the Kirkgate community centre for some time each week, so that she has become a familiar face.
I asked her how she makes contact with people (other than face-to-face) and she laughed at the idea of email ("I never send emails!"), and explained that she would always choose the phone over email. Of course this is (embarrassingly obviously) a better communication strategy, and it was one of many 'take home' lessons learnt. Understanding her approach (and the rest of the Shipley team, of course) feels like the meat on the bones of this research (if not the very bones).
Dotting the map (Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones 19/04/15)
Like a microcosm, perhaps, of the Shipley case study more generally, Steve Bottoms' 'audience' for his 'Salt's Waters' walk arrived warmed up, perhaps partly by the much earlier 'act' of 'Multi-Story Water', and by a number of small acts from each team member since, which includes simple conversations- an art form too. Steve himself had described to me the performative aspect of standing on people's doorsteps, when doing door-to-door work in the area:
"Sometimes if I produce a card from my back pocket that says that I'm a professor, that gets their interest. Why is there a professor on my doorstep looking bedraggled? I find something really interesting about that process of engagement. When you talk to somebody on their doorstep, it's a real leveller, it's like 'please talk to me'. They're making a split second judgement about you and whether you're worth talking to. So it is actually a presentation. A theatrical thing."
I won't attempt to recount the whole of Steve's walk, as I won't be able to do justice to the live event. It explored and enacted (as it happens!) many of our project's emerging themes noted in other parts of the Hydrocitizens blog, including water history, water connections, stories and narrative. It was also, true to the project's ethos, an iterative process, where participants shared their own knowledge in ways which became part of the event itself (and very likely will feed into further walks or other creative outcomes, such as an audio-walk).
I liked the way that the walk was so naturally about place in relation to water, both with and about community. It was a subtle act of ecosocial narration. The narrative was historically-grounded, locally embedded, and presented as part of an ongoing process rather than a finished product'. The walk was also, well, a walk! A way to simply 'be' in (and to move through) the local environment. To hear water and feel the sun on our faces too.
A convivial atmosphere. 'Salt's Waters' walk. (Photographs: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 19/04/15)
Eddie Lawler brought out his guitar in the woodland, and sang his own song, 'The Ballad of Little Beck', near the beck itself, and actually (beautifully, politically) written from the perspective of the "modest English stream, scarcely two miles long…" After re-listening, I have found the song very poignant too:
"...for the best laid plans of wealthy men, to climb to the top of the tree, have crumbled to nothing before my eyes, in less than a century…"
I managed to film this gorgeous performance but think that the video needs some images, video, or sound of the beck as overlay. This may be a reason for me to go back! I was also very grateful to the woman in the red scarf (in the second image below) who volunteered to hold the microphone for me, and did a very good job. Spontaneous (and very useful) participation. The high quality soundtrack captures something of the environment too- birdsong. These are subtle co-creations.
Eddie Lawler performs his own song 'The Ballad of Little Beck'. (Video Screenshot: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 19/05/15)
Steve Bottoms describes that on this 19th Century stately home estate, you couldn't just "leave a little beck to be a little beck. You dam it." (Video Screenshot: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 19/05/15)
The presence or even personality of water in this walk is worth thinking about in relation to 'Towards Hydrocitizenship' as a research project. What does it mean to work with (and through) art to explore community relationships with (and through) water?
Steve provided one framework for thinking about this in a filmed interview next to the river, explaining (to summarise): Projects which utilise applied theatre methods often involve going into a community, and working with a particular group. The group could be perceived as marginalised in some way, such as a prison, or you could be working with a school:
"Whether you're facilitating workshops or working towards a performance, the group itself is in a sense 'pre-scripted', determined by the circumstances. When you do something environmental, I very quickly discovered, that doesn't apply in the same way. So, you've got a river here, that actually connects a large group of different people, different socio-economic backgrounds, down the length of this area. In terms of connecting to those people who are most likely to be affected by flooding, for instance, you can't just go to the local community centre, because those people may be living up on a hill. Literally what we have done from the start, both from the earlier version of this project, and this current work is to go door-to-door. Knock on people's doors and talk to them."
(Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 18/04/15)
Talking to them…...
I've told this story backwards by describing some of the events on Sunday first. As a matter of fact, Saturday was a busy day too, with a local community consultation involving the residents from High Coach Road estate which Steve Bottoms has been interested in for a number of years.
The Victorian Boathouse, and an ideal location for the community consultation. (Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 18/04/15)
Residents discuss their thought about where they live in a conversation facilitated by Paul, Steve, Lyze and Maggie. (Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 18/04/15)
So how do you facilitate a successful community consultation? My conversation with Paul Barrett, from the Kirkgate centre, was invaluable. Paul, like the other team members, also emphasised the importance of groundwork. For example, the need to build relationships, and letting people know about the event through door-to-door contact.
Paul Barrett, from the Kirkgate Centre (Video Screenshot: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 18/05/15)
Paul's approach is to ask three key questions in the community, which are: What do you like? What do you dislike? What would you like to change? This is the starting point for their conversation:
"We ask very open questions, because the end result we want is a stronger community that solves its own problems."
(Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 18/04/15)
Paul explained that communities are often as concerned with the intangible or social aspects of their lives:
"The underlying theme, I think, is neighbourliness".
He is interested in the quality of life of local people, and how this might relate to the river. The Shipley team seem to do very well with 'listening' in a very open way, and starting very much from that base, rather than, for example, only with more abstract ideas about ecology or the arts. This struck me as being particularly appropriate for a Connected Communities project.
Lyze Dudley and locals (Video Screenshot: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 18/05/15)
I was curious about Paul's own experience of being involved on academic research projects, as he mentioned that he didn't go to University himself, and that academia was a world of 'otherness' to him. He said that he likes to keep things simple, and would not be overly worried about what was measurable:
"How do you measure the effectiveness of a piece of work like this? Well, we ask people."
There are practical consideration as well:
"There's a culture of meetings, and we just can't afford it."
Maggie Roe talks to a local resident (Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 18/04/15)
Paul emphasised that what the Kirkgate Centre do, primarily, is to build relationships. They have a history as well as a future (they hope) in the area, which tempers what they can do:
"We don't like to raise expectations too far…it's also part of our ethos more generally. We don't do things for communities. We do things with people. It's about the capacity... of this estate to deliver things they want to do. We're interested in building that capacity."
(Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 18/04/15)
Steve explained to me that this 1950s housing estate lies in a flood-risk zone, and was built, unusually, to blend in with the environment. Apparently (for reasons I can't fathom) the estate might be considered a 'sink estate' by some, but Steve described the delight that most locals feel towards their patch. It is very close to Saltaire, a mill village and world heritage site. Steve conveyed his interest in these kinds of juxtapositions, partly from a 'heritage' point of view, but also for exploring other ideas, such as 'placemaking' and 'identity'.
Stephen Bottoms (Video Screenshot: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 18/05/15)
Through consultation with the community, the Shipley team have understood that the land between the houses and the river, the floodplain, or "big bit of scrubby grass, basically" is problematic for some locals. The land becomes boggy when wet, and the lack of proper footpath can be awkward and dangerous.
(Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 18/04/15)
"Various people were saying: couldn't you do something more interesting with this floodplain land?"
Locals have raised the idea of a proper footpath, pond or wildflowers as potentially constructive improvements. I'm very interested in how the Hydrocitizenship projects might work with communities to help facilitate such efforts. At the same time, as Paul had conveyed in this community meeting, a footpath, for example, isn't 'just' about achieving a footpath, but also about bringing a community 'together' and helping to produce and consolidate relationships that empower in other ways too. Even if the footpath never happens, something else does.
(Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 18/04/15)
Paul had a great anecdote about a neighbourhood he has worked in, where, because people had got to know each other better, a burglar was later caught and wrestled to the ground. The intruder had been recognised as unfamiliar, whereas previously everyone had been unfamiliar.
Stephen Bottoms (Video Screenshot: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 18/05/15)
Although not many people under thirty were at the consultation, the residents were very keen to draw a younger crowd into any events that they were planning, such as a summer street party. There was talk of bouncy castles to attract families with children, and a quip about getting to know the younger people in the community "because they'll be looking after us when we're old…we hope!"
I was struck in the same was as when I've attended community meetings at home in Wales (such as the Tal-y-bont floodees group). I'm always humbled by the richness (and expertise) of what's often called 'local knowledge'.
Is it relevant to mention that I was very drawn to local accents? Probably not, even if it was part of my positive response to the event!
(Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 18/04/15)
Whether 'just' being somewhere is enough, I'm not sure, but it creates conditions for meaningful and serendipitous exchange in the relevant local environment.
Video Screenshot: Sara Penrhyn Jones (18/05/15)
After the meeting I wandered around and probably caused annoyance by blocking the footpath with my tripod, after noticing the beautiful reflections of the river dancing on a tree trunk. When you stand around filming, or even more strangely recording the 'sound' of a tree, it tends to draw attention. Shots of water, trees and rowers will be perfect overlay material for when someone mentions the way that water relates to our natural environment and lifestyles. So whilst gathering useful material, I was also getting a tan, and chatting to locals. I learnt something about the rowing club, and the trout, that apparently can be seen trying to leap up the weir in October. These are the conversations that 'Towards Hydrocitizenship' facilitates, which are not necessarily always a 'means' for something else.
Walking (first in the wrong direction, on purpose!) back to my IBIS hotel, and along water for the whole way, I also got a better sense of the lay of the land. (Photograph: Sara Penrhyn Jones, 18/04/15)
This experience happened a few weeks before we were shortlisting some artistic proposals in our own case study in Borth and Tal-y-bont. The trip strengthened my feeling that we should prioritise the artists who were embedded in the villages themselves, as a way to create a positive and empowering legacy in the (geographical) community. It also validated our current local focus on how (and if) the community's existing concerns are being sought and reflected (as well as stimulated) in artist proposals.
This trip alerted me to some key differences with the Welsh case study (relating to community partners, geographical spread, expertise and approach). I'm curious to explore notions of creativity and art in 'Towards Hydrocitizenship', and to consider whether all creativity is equal? Even if (we) academics see conversations as creative or art, is this a perspective that the local community shares? I'm very interested to see what kinds of larger or more involved creative outcomes emerge from and with the community in Shipley.
I wonder, as a very general question, what compromises (if any) are being made by academics and community partners as part of this collaboration?
If anyone would like to visit us in Wales, Croeso! You'd be made very welcome. The whole team will come to mid Wales in July, but individuals can choose to linger for longer, if they'd like to! Thanks to the Shipley team and local residents for accommodating me, and tolerating the cameras!