Art is popcorn for the brain

Becky Parry reports on a research visit.

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In March I was successful in my application to undertake a research visit to Finland. This was part of an EU funded Cost Action: THE DIGITAL LITERACY AND MULTIMODAL PRACTICES OF YOUNG CHILDREN (DIGILITEY) and included visiting colleagues in the University of Helsinki and Tampere. In this post I share my reflections about an exhibition I visited at the Helsinki Art Museum.

The Helsinki Art Museum is part of a broader complex which includes a cinema and various shops and fast food outlets. One of the shop fronts in the complex is an exhibition space in which manikins were positioned with buckets on their heads. This work by Jouko Korkeasaari: Mystical Rapture certainly caught the eye of the passer by, drawing them in from the cold and snowy streets.

Perhaps due to their extreme weather the Fins are very geared up for the layers of coats, scarves gloves etc and provide plentiful and free cloakrooms and lockers. As tourists we paid (teachers are free) and had a quick look at the Tove Jansson gallery before heading up to the Modernism exhibition

On the way in we found ourselves drawn to these post-it note style invitations to visitors to participate in a range of activities.

For me these simple suggestions are importantly different to the achingly dull worksheet often found in museums and galleries. Although they offer clear instructions, the outcomes are open ended. If you have a go you might become part of an art work or be inspired to devise a new movie.

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The Modernism exhibition Modern Life! – Finnish Modernism and the International Dimension was designed by Marcel Schmalgemeijer and included an array of artefacts from everyday objects to brand new buildings, photography, engines and glassware. My personal favourites were a series of chairs and dresses beautifully lit so that I couldn’t resist trying to capture them and the interesting shadows they created on my camera phone. As I did so a murmur gathered momentum and I wondered if I had done something wrong, but it turned out that there was a live musical performance beginning in the gallery – one of three musician’s creative responses to the exhibition was being performed live. It felt rather amazing to just encounter this unexpectedly and I enjoyed wondering around gazing, peering and pointing whilst the performance filled the gallery spaces.

I compared the exhibition to a recent one I had attended in the UK which has been bugging me ever since. It seemed to me to be too focused on one artist and too focused on what the work said about art, rather than what the art said about the world. This exhibition presented social history, geography, politics and economics alongside architecture, art and design. It was accessible and beautiful and I had the urge to try and capture it, albeit on a mobile. It was something I wanted to share and talk about.

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On reflection I wonder about the museum’s use of the phrase ‘art is popcorn for the brain’ – signs in English declaring this were hung all over the café, shop and entrance. I understand the link to the cinema, to accessibility and enjoyment but pop corn is such an ephemeral thing and I am not sure the analogy works entirely. Pop corn is light, fluffy and pleasurable and this exhibition could certainly not be dismissed as that. The exhibition seemed to me to be designed with a determination not to assume that the audience knew about Modernism already and was rich with contextual, explanatory  material which presented a narrative but avoided cliché (and wasn’t only speaking to the art critics that might appear on specialised radio programmes). It was concerned with giving the audience exhibits they could imaginatively engage with because they included the everyday and they included everything from rugs to aeroplane propellers. I returned to a frequently asked question I have about what art museums are for. This set the scene for my visit, providing an opportunity to think about what education, especially for the very young, is for. I was reminded of the work of Elliott Eisner and his suggestion that:

The arts celebrate multiple PERSPECTIVES. One of their large lessons is that there are many ways to SEE and INTERPRET the world.[1]

This is something that young people from the CRACL’s centre’s  TALE project have been telling us for the last year they most value about doing art. Art museums then, are not just about art, artists or art critics they are about the everyday and should inspire us to read and redesign the world critically and creatively.

[1] The NEAE has a great summary of Eisner’s ten lessons the arts teach here: https://www.arteducators.org/advocacy/articles/116-10-lessons-the-arts-teach

Circuit longitudinal research – some emerging results

Becky Coles and Pat Thomson report some emerging research results.

What did Circuit mean to the young people who engaged with it most deeply? We set out to answer this question by following twenty-one young people from Circuit’s ‘core’ or ‘peer’ groups in four galleries. We asked about their everyday lives and their experiences of work, education the gallery and art practice, through five ‘waves’ of interviews over two years.

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One of the exhibitions some of our participants were involved in at First Site.

As might be expected, our participants came from relatively well educated and well-off backgrounds: seventeen had a parent who was doing at least skilled manual work, administrative work or running a family business and seven of these had a parent doing highly paid work; thirteen had a parent with a degree and four had a parent with an Art degree; seventeen participants were themselves studying or had studied an arts subject at college or university. Yet there was considerable variation in how privileged these young people were.

It is generally agreed among those who research employment in the cultural and creative industries that getting jobs is hard, so it is not surprising that six of the young people in our study had been unsuccessful in getting the work they aspired to on graduating from University. For those who had families they could live with, this was less of a problem than for those who did not and who became reliant on gruelling regimes of badly paid work and insecure housing.

A majority (16) participants wanted careers in the creative and cultural industries and nine wanted them specifically in the art world. But while three were doing vocationally oriented degrees and six were planning how to negotiate career paths while still in education, others had been blocked from doing so by a lack of financial resources or a lack of awareness or knowledge. An equal number – six – were not following a plan but working their way up into paid positions, starting with voluntary work. Achieving financial security in the future was a significant concern for some participants (six), all of whom came from less well-off backgrounds or lacked a family they could live with. While four expected professional work in the arts to provide security, two hesitated to fully commit to the precarious and competitive work structures of the art world.

Participants who did not aspire to careers in the arts or creative industries either felt no need to plan because of the family support they could rely on – two, for example, felt free to become totally absorbed in their art degree for its own sake – or they saw professional roles as incompatible with their independent art practice or entrepreneurial ambition. Two quit education, favouring the informal support structures of the art world and creative industries. While twelve participants had their own ongoing art practice, two also said they could not call themselves artists because they did not make a living from their work. Although four had used their art practice in paid work at the gallery, no participants expected to make a living from making art.

It was a pleasure and a thrill for participants to do something for other people and to feel part of large and powerful institution. Circuit made up for the lack of professional work available to them. Eight found Circuit a comfortable place to socialise, particularly when they were going through difficult social experiences elsewhere. All but one however, had also felt obliged to do some Circuit voluntary work they didn’t enjoy or weren’t sure about because they felt committed or indebted to Circuit.

Circuit also helped our participants find out about career pathways, learn workplace skills and integrate into art-world sub-cultures. Seven had made decisions about their education based at least in part on discussions with people at the gallery. Circuit also helped participants work their way into jobs. Five went on to get professionally paid work in a gallery on the basis of their work with Circuit. Two, however, had tried to do this and failed. And six others had found regular non-professional paid work at the gallery, or occasional work as they were needed, which provided them with income and a continued connection with the art world.

 We are following up the participants in a few months to see what they are doing ‘post Circuit’. 

building a City of Literature

Joanna McIntyre and Susan Jones of CRACL have been awarded funding from the University’s ESRC Impact Accelerator fund for a project called ‘Building a City of Literature’.

The project builds on over a decade of educational research in the Centre on the most effective ways of developing sustainable partnerships between schools and local cultural organisations.  It extends our work on the signature pedagogies of creative practitioners and uses arts apprenticeship and mentoring models which have been explored in CRACL research in order to develop local knowledge amongst pupils and teachers, using the arts as a means to develop a sense of value about place.

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Teachers from three Nottingham city schools joined us at the School of Education to launch the project. They will be working with creative practitioners from local arts company Sheep Soup to support their pupils in researching, writing and performing plays about the communities in which their schools are located.  They will start by exploring some of the resources which have been developed as part of CRACL’s long-standing research partnership with community arts company Excavate.

These include the scripts of two community plays, written by local playwright Andy Barrett.  The first play, Road to Bilborough, is a spy story about the friends and neighbours who migrated into a local council estate in the 1950s.  The second, A Lifetime Guarantee, was a play which resulted from a project which examined the history of the site of Nottingham’s former Raleigh factory (now the Jubilee Campus).  Performed by a community cast, both plays toured local venues to packed out audiences.  Both were based on the oral histories of those who lived and worked in the places they are about.  The oral histories generated as part of the Raleigh project have been archived on a website, and this will provide further material for pupils and teachers to explore.

IMG_0765.JPGWith these two plays and the website as a starting point, the Building a City of Literature project will support teachers and pupils to explore the processes involved in researching, writing and presenting stories about the places in which they live and learn.  One of the outcomes of the project will be playscripts, which will be published as a resource for schools to use.   Work from the project will also feature on a website, developed in collaboration with the teachers involved, which will support other teachers with practical strategies for developing place-based approaches in their schools.

By working with local creative practitioners, the young people involved in the project will also be made more aware of the possibilities available to them to engage with creative organisations in the city, whilst the development of place-based approaches to teaching and learning of literacy offers strong support to Nottingham’s UNESCO City of Literature status and to the Arts Council’s initiative on Cultural Education Partnerships, both key aspects of Nottingham city’s agenda for engagement with the arts in the city.

telling stories, producing evidence

Frances Howard is researching the Arts Award with ‘disengaged ‘ young people. She writes

Pat and I are working to support The Mighty Creatives (TMC), the East Midlands Bridge Organisation, to run Artsmark Support Workshops based around ‘Evidencing the Impact’.

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The Artsmark award was re-launched in 2015 and is a mechanism for helping schools to enrich, develop and strengthen their arts and cultural provision. Schools accredited with Artsmark embed the arts in whole school planning and improvement and enable access for their pupils to high quality resources and networks of cultural organisations.

The workshops are designed to help schools explore how they can best capture evidence of impact on children, staff and the wider school. Teachers undertake practical planning exercises which ensure they consider how best to capture the evidence of impact as they go, in order to be able to reflect on the wider impact of their Artsmark journey in the final case study.

The key questions that we have been posing in these workshops are based around the nature of evaluation: What are we hoping to do? What do we expect to see as a result? And what evidence can we gather to see if this has occurred? Key messages we hope to communicate on telling your overall story include thinking small, incorporating a variety of data and thinking about the analysis of data.

Alongside these theoretical considerations and practical exercises, CRACL postgraduate researchers, myself included, have been presenting empirical examples of data gathering and analysis on their research with schools, arts programmes and children and young people.

These workshops are on-going, taking place twice termly, across the East Midlands region.

We are looking forward to continuing this relationship and developing the work further.

 

circuit conference

Conferences. We all get to go to them and sometimes we present. Sometimes we even organise them. This year Nicky Sim got to organise a very important conference – the first of a series of wrap-ups of the Circuit programme. It was held at Nottingham Contemporary on March 10th.

Circuit is/was a four-year programme funded by Paul Hamlyn. It brought art galleries and youth organisations together to provide cultural programmes and festivals for young people who might not typically be engaged with an art museum.

We are connected with Circuit in two ways – Nicky has conducted ethnographic research into ‘partnership’ through a TATE – Nottingham AHRC funded studentship, and Becky Coles and I are doing a longitudinal study of 21 people engaged in the ‘youth’ programming/curating collectives. So Becky and I were there, as well as Nicky of course.

The conference theme addressed the possibilities, risks and challenges of developing democratic practice between young people, youth organisations and galleries. (Young people are defined as 15-25)

The attendees came primarily from the ‘youth’ and ‘gallery’ sectors with a few other people, researchers and arts administrators, added in.

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The proceedings were a mix of presentations and discussions with some time for ‘table’ conversations.

Some of the learnings of Circuit were clearly on show, both as displays and in the discussions. Youth Collectives have taught galleries that

  • successful programming for young people is inter-disciplinary – film, music, visual and performing arts together
  • young people need to see themselves represented in gallery activities
  • there has to be something for me, something that is relevant to me
  • activities have to offer something – personal development, the opportunity to socialise, new connections
  • activities have to be free and accessible.

Difficult questions were raised and some of the more obvious tensions emerged – the terms ‘young people’, ‘diversity’ and ‘hard to reach’ were an ongoing issue. The hierarchies of power within galleries, the continued attacks on the youth sector and informal education, the possibility of institutional critique becoming a programme of concrete activity challenged all of us.

Becky and I were both pleased to discuss the gallery as a ‘gig’  economy and the parlous state of employment in the arts in general and for young adults in particular; this is a major issue emerging from our research.

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conference line drawings by @askthefaces, a Nottingham based artist

Nicky and Rachel from Circuit did a great job in organising the conference. Nicky’s commitment to ensuring that a wide range of views were on the table was enacted through the programme. The process and the topic were congruent.

I’m sure all of us left with some key things to think about and  even perhaps with a concrete action in mind.

Youth Forum: democratic participation through the arts

We have just completed our second interim report of the Serpentine World without Walls programme. This featured research into the first stage of Youth Forum, a programme conducted with Westminster Academy high school students. The artists commissioned to run the programme are Barby Asante and Teresa Cisneros.

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We report that:

In this project, young people were encouraged to draw on their own experiences, resources of knowledge and skill to develop ideas, to plan, to make and to show and share artefacts they had made. If the ‘discipline of form’ provided a framework and required the patient development of craft skills, it also allowed the young people to draw substantially on, and to contribute to, their ‘funds of knowledge’ (Moll, 1990).

Observation, discussion with the young people, Education Curators and the commissioned artists gave clear evidence that art-making activity was greatly valued by the young people. Levels of concentration (or distraction from some) were indicators of levels of engagement and involvement in the project. Overall, a palpable sense of purpose and progress was evident in the various 8 studio spaces at the Cockpit when the young people were making things. They garnered opinions from others, negotiated and reflected. The young people generally felt that they permitted to give voice to their ideas, opinions and concerns.

 

The full interim report is here as a downloadable PDF

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I, Daniel Blake reveals the rich complexity of literacy – and why it matters

This post by Susan Jones is re blogged from The Conversation, Feb 9, 2017.

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The Bafta nominated film I, Daniel Blake portrays the often brutal experiences of those attempting to navigate the British welfare system. Director Ken Loach has said of his film, however: “It’s for those people who are struggling against the cruelty of bureaucracy, whatever country.”

The film gives us insights into the ways in which today’s world can be particularly alienating for those without the specific skills it demands. Viewing the film through the lens of literacy, we see how letters, booklets and forms accrue as pillars of a system decried by Daniel Blake as a “monumental farce”.

Within a knowledge economy, literacy is bound up in a wider suite of policy based on an economic/financial model of human development and a narrow view of how people make use of literacy in their everyday lives. As is shown in the film, this both compounds the challenge for those in need of access to vital resources and renders their everyday experiences invisible.

Daniel Blake is not “illiterate” – he is resourceful, creative and willing to work, and we see him using his skills and sharing his knowledge. He is told that the benefit system he is forced to navigate is “digital by default”. Daniel’s riposte that he, as a craftsman, is “pencil by default” reflects one of his key challenges. The pencil is associated with versatility and being open to change. However, it can also be rubbed out and replaced, like the generations of workers Daniel represents in post-industrial society.

When he is asked to “run the mouse up the screen” of the computer in his local library, where he has sought help with his benefit form, he tries to do so physically. When he is told his screen is “frozen” he replies: “Can you defrost it?” The unfamiliarity of these processes place this man, who has never before needed state support, in an alien world.

A world moving on

New technologies may be moving on, meaning people like Daniel can be left behind, yet the film demonstrates how digital technology is a key resource for creative and collaborative responses to economic challenge. Daniel’s neighbour has been forced to use his initiative to supplement a meagre income from a zero-hours contract by ordering counterfeit trainers through a contact in China.

Daniel is left incredulous at the Skype conversation he witnesses – his disbelief at the fact that this conversation is taking place at two different ends of the globe emphasises how the world is moving on around him, leaving him without access to resources, recognition or the means to participate in society. It is this neighbour, China, who is finally able to complete the Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA) form online for Daniel, after days of his thwarted attempts in more official institutions.

Despite the stranglehold placed on claimants by the bureaucracy depicted in the film, the two most powerful texts in Daniel’s story are his own. His spray-painted graffiti makes public the individual struggles that take place within a hidden maze of official texts. The note Daniel prepares to read at his appeal, handwritten in pencil, also challenges the system he has been forced to navigate. Announcing himself as “I, Daniel Blake” in both of these texts, Daniel is defiant in reclaiming his identity from those who have sought to define him.

Insecure times

The benefits system with which Daniel grapples is the result of the most significant reform of the British welfare state in half a century: that is, in the time since Loach directed Cathy Come Home. However, the challenge for those made vulnerable by poverty is even more acute today than it was five decades ago, and media-friendly epithets of “skivers” or “strivers” hark back across centuries to notions of the feckless and undeserving poor.

Researching for his Bafta nominated screenplay, screenwriter Paul Laverty heard stories across the UK of insecure housing, zero-hours employment contracts, inflexible fitness to work assessments and punitive sanctions. Katie’s desperation at the food bank is one of the film’s most powerful depictions of the impact of recent welfare reform on personal dignity, and it reflects the reality of an eight-fold increase in their use in the last five years.

A close focus on literacy in I, Daniel Blake highlights the impact of welfare policies which are based upon a narrow view of people’s lives. It also shows how this impact is compounded when such policies rely upon narrow ways of viewing literacy and the rich complexity of its role in everyday life. Literacy education and research can and should continue to challenge reductive models of what it means to be literate, and to critically explore the implications of this for social justice. This can provide valuable space for voices, such as that of Daniel Blake, to be heard

 

CRACL news

CRACL is pleased to report two staff changes.

Dr Becky Parry was the researcher working on the Tale project, She now has a permanent Assistant Professor position in the school. She will be working on the new B Ed programme and the MA CALL.

Dr Lexi Earl has been appointed to the position of researcher for TALE for the remainder of the project.

We will soon be advertising a shorter term position for a researcher specialising in statistics.

 

Roma Patel, who is partly supervised in CRACL, conducted her final PhD research ‘experiment’ at Lakeside. Roma is a theatre designer and she is researching how digital technologies can be used to create immersive theatre environments for very small children.

She staged, with the help of an artist, a one hour performance which was attended by volunteer research families. The performance was called The Runaway Hare, and it featured a tree that responded to sound by making light patterns, a talking grassy patch, a magic flower that laughed and boats that twinkled.

new books

CRACL members have recently published two new books. As if thats not enough, one of our PhD graduates has also published the book from her thesis.

Alex Southern (2016) The Ministry of Education Film Experiment. From Post-War Visual Education to 21st Century Literacy. Palgrave Macmillan.

Becky Parry, Cathy Burnett and Guy Merchant ( Eds) (2017) Literacy, media, technology. Past, present, future. Bloomsbury

Pat Thomson and Christine Hall ( 2017) Place based methods for researching schools. Bloomsbury