engage conference

Louisa Penfold and Nicky Sim attended the recent engage conference in Glasgow. Nicky Sim ran a workshop in collaboration with practitioners from the Whitworth, Manchester. The Whitworth are part of Circuit, which is the research context for Nicola’s PhD on partnerships between galleries and youth organisations. Nicky posted a storify about the workshop on the Circuit website. Louisa writes about her conference experience here.

Peer-led. Disadvantaged. Youth. Collaboration. Co-production. Participation. Partnership, Engagement. Experiential. Unlearning. Agency. Flicking through the conference brochure, the key themes of the 2015 Engage conference were immediately apparent.

conf15 header Tessitura.jpg

The scene was set in the opening speech: the growth in diversity in communities across the UK has come at a time of increased funding cuts to arts organizations across the sector. This has resulted in many arts organizations and galleries struggling to incorporate the broad demographics that reflect the diverse communities in which we live. The arts have been increasingly marginalized in the school curriculum meaning that sites of informal learning, such as art museums, need to play an increasingly important role in providing arts education in the community. As a doctoral student who has recently relocated from Australia to the UK, my interest in the attending the conference lay not so much in hearing about the dire state of youth and funding in the arts, but about what individuals and organisations were actively doing to address these complex concerns.

Central questions presented to attendees included: how can organisations make equitable relationships with youth that authentically project their voices through partnerships and programs? Is it young people or institutions that benefit from such peer-led programs? How does involvement in arts organizations help youth make decisions outside of these institutions?

Key-note speaker Darren O’Donnell, Artistic Director of Mammalian Diving Reflex, presented on the company’s human-centred threatre/activism/arts performance projects. Boarding on the line of utopianism, O’Donnell advocates for breaking the cycle of social concern leading to excessive precautioning and safeguarding of children. These result in a standardized formatting of what children and youth are able to do in society. Learning is the result of different people coming together and creating new knowledge. The solution being children’s and youth programs to be built upon a framework of human-centred experience. Projects O’Donnell discussed included Haircuts for Children, a performance piece in which children are paid to run a hair salon in which they give free haircuts to the public. Through the design of the performance, the relationships between children and adults is reformatted, creating a new social space and dynamic between individuals.

I found the findings of Dr. Esther Sayers’ doctoral research into youth programs at Tate in the mid-2000’s particularly noteworthy and slightly disheartening. Her research found that much of peer-led programming excludes youth voices and rarely diversifies gallery audiences. Dr. Sayers’ pointed out the complex challenge of creating equitable relationships between youth and art galleries as a result of hierarchical structures within institutions and amongst peer groups. In order to genuinely integrate youth voices into institutions, alternate hierarchies that place youth as an integral part of the structure need to be put in place. Such fundamental reconstruction of institutional hierarchy calls for a need of support from directors. I couldn’t help but notice the lack of gallery directors attending the conference.

However perhaps the most substantial and detailed research on the experience of youth and arts institutions is yet to come. Dr Roz Hall presented on her research on the experiences of those working on the Circuit program. She called for the need to incorporate the evaluation process of youth programs from the conception of the project and not just a ‘tag-on’ at the end. Such research requires the involvement of everyone working within the project (managers, junior staff, artists, youth, directors, audiences) and not just those with the ‘loudest voices.’ Evaluation does not need to assess the outcomes and impact of a project against specific criteria but rather seek to identify what we know about youth work and how we know it. The dissemination of findings amongst the broader community is crucial to help inform the programming of other institutions in the future. As a sector we need to work collaboratively to share our challenges, experiences and successes in order to make relationships between youth and organisations more authentic, ethical and meaningful for the community that they aspire to serve.

starting our circuit research

Rebecca Coles, the researcher on the project, explains the thinking behind the research:

Our Circuit project draws on an approach known as ‘qualitative longitudinal research‘. It asks how young people forge lives and subjectivities in response to circumstances patterned differently by location, class, gender, religious and ethnic and cultural processes. It follows the changing meanings and significance that these give to experience and events over time and the interplay between intention and imaginative possibility and social structural circumstance (Thomson, 2011). Researchers engaged in this kind of research also consider the roles of particular institutions (McLeod & Yates, 2006). By engaging in recurrent interviews discussing the past, present and future, it aims to follow the details of how these processes take place over time: their slow accumulations and tipping points (Farrell, 2006).

Circuit Tate Liverpool

We will meet around 20 members of the Tate’s Circuit programme, in galleries across the country, five times over eighteen months.

We hope to produce some general findings about the experiences of these members in education and work and in relation to home, family and relationships. What kinds of people are they becoming? What are the affordances of the art gallery for these different young people?

Even at this early stage already themes are emerging. For some the gallery is a safe space in which to take a break from ongoing struggles or to approach them differently: a time “where it is possible to be/do/know/live together differently” (Thomson et. al., 2012). For others it is an occasion to learn skills and to be treated – and even paid – as a professional: a time to experience themselves and be recognised as competent (Henderson et. al., 2007) and to engage in activity where what happens ‘counts’ in its artistic and social aims and outcomes and in relation to a future career.

We also hope the project will diverge from the traditions of qualitative longitudinal research. Rather than produce one description of the passing of time, we aim to compose multiple accounts – stories – with our participants. What stories do they choose to tell about the passing of time and the place of the gallery in their lives?

We have been thinking about time, self  narration and storytelling in relation to the research.

Time and stories

Storytelling is a matter of time, on many levels. For Walter Benjamin, a story requires recurrence. A teller takes what he tells from experience (direct or handed down) and makes it the experience of his listeners, who will then share it. Unlike information, which must be new, a story “sinks the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring it out of him again”. A story also requires duration. To hear and remember a story requires mental relaxation and self-forgetting. Stories also contain their own telling of time, different from historical time. Hundreds of years can pass and be of no significance to a story.

How, over time, will our participants build a story, incorporating new events into several re-tellings? How do they experience time? Is it ‘like dominoes’, as one has already put it, or ‘fragile, like ice’, as another has described it? Is Circuit a break away from time, or a way to move things forward? Across what kind of time will participants tell their stories – will all be encapsulated in one moment or will they cover decades? Will they be smooth successions of events or will they jump back and forth?


While writers have long explored the classed and gendered histories of self-telling, today self-narration and self-performance seem to have even greater significance. Unlike stories, which are more lessons than self-reflections, self-narration is a contemporary form of discipline. As Beverly Skeggs (2010) writes, the self today generates its own legitimacy via the display of reflexive techniques of self-interrogation and emotional control. But the psychological depth needed for self-governance is something only some are able trade on. Others are positioned as ripe for transformation.

What do our participants make of being asked to narrate themselves? Is it a familiar form to them? One used in and out of Circuit? Do their stories to assert the power of their ability to narrativise about their own life? Or are they strangled by silence or a matrix of existing discourse which speaks them? Which stories have they already re-told many times and which are emerging only now? Which self-narratives are passed down from others, and from institutions, and of which are they the innovators?


According to Michael Taussig (2011), what anthropologists do, most of the time, is deal in stories. The point, he argues, is not to sift through the heterogeneity of these stories to find some underlying truth but to work with a multiplicitous and fragmented reality. Stories are the point. Taussig writes of his research diary like he writes of stories. A research diary moves ahead day by day, but it can also be read and re-read – it also brings separate moments of time together, anarchic as to the supposed laws of history. It keeps a foot in the immediate and sensuous and in narrative, resisting distillation as information. And yet it is also some kind of material contraption, a comfort which stands in for thought and experience, which stands in for the truth of what happened.

The gamble of this project is that the writing of such a diary can be a collaborative process. Can a diary be shared between those who appear in it? Can we, between ourselves and our participants, generate a shared practice of storytelling?


Benjamin, W. (1999) Illuminations. London: Pimlico

Farrell, S. (2006) What is Qualitative Longitudinal Research? LSE Discussion Papers in  Qualitative Research. London: LSE

Henderson, S. Holland, J. McGrellis, S. Charpe, S. & Thomson, R. (2007) Inventing Adulthoods: A Biographical Approach To Youth Traditions. London: Sage

McLeod, J and Yates, L (2006) Making Modern Lives: Subjectivity, Schooling And Social Change. Albany, N.Y: State University of New York Press

Skeggs, B. (2010) The Moral Economy of Person Production Sociologia: Revista do Departamento de Sociologia da FLUP 20 p. 67-84

Taussig, M. (2011) I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My  Own. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Thomson, P., Hall, C., Jones, K. and Sefton-Green, J. (2012) The Signature Pedagogies Project: Final Report. Newcastle: Creativity, Culture and Education

Thomson, R. (2011) Unfolding Lives: Youth Gender and Change. Bristol: Policy Press

water literacies research

Children learn about the steam at Papplewick Pumping Station
Children learn about steam at Papplewick Pumping Station

On November 9th CRACL hosted an event as part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Sciences.

We drew on our Get Wet project, a two year action research project in which teacher educators and action researchers worked with teachers from five local schools, five local artists and the Papplewick Pumping Station to develop a water literacies curriculum. Our initial motivation for the Get Wet project was to support the heritage water museum to develop innovative ways in which the site might be used to underpin robust cross curriculum learning. In other words it was a ‘knowledge exchange project’, although we saw it as a partnership.

The project built on the research that we had already undertaken into creative ‘signature pedagogies’. In addition to working with children’s curiosity and questions and using arts practices such as contemporary installation and dramatic improvisation, Get Wet also added a strong focus on supporting teachers to build their pedagogical content knowledge. The results of the project consolidated our view that it was important in curriculum-focused action research to combine disciplinary knowledge-building, diversifying teaching processes and practice and artefact-based assessment. We also noted that, particularly at primary level, children have made very significant gains in learning what would normally be taught separately in science, history and geography – and often in secondary schools, not primary. This has lead us to think about the possibilities for further research.

Dragon Breath Theatre followed the action research project with a promenade theatre performance for primary school children at Papplewick; the play was called A Crack in Time. This drew on the curriculum development work from Get Wet.

The Festival event was attended by: staff from the schools of Education, Geography and Engineering, Papplewick Pumping Station staff and trustees, members of the public and teacher education students. We watched a documentary about the global crisis in water: the film was Last Call at the Oasis by Jessica Wu.

The film raised questions about the overuse of water, climate change, the commodification of bottled water, industrial, agricultural and chemical pollution of water and the human costs of drought. It also canvassed the possibilities for managing the conservation and distribution of water and the direct use of recycled water. Political reluctance to legislate to resolve water issues was also writ large throughout the film.

The audience discussed some of the questions raised in the film and began to explore possibilities for further educational and research work around water. Supported by the Centre for Advanced Studies, we intend to follow up on the discussion, not only by looking for support for further research into the water literacies curriculum, but also investigating how we might work with colleagues across and beyond the university to generate a larger interdisciplinary water education project.