Traditional culture and community art

There was a time when I dismissed traditional art as a medium for socially engaged practice. As a young community artist, I thought only contemporary forms could explore current issues. Like all prejudices, this was rooted in ignorance: I knew almost nothing about traditional arts. It was researching the Scottish fèisean movement that opened my eyes to their riches and potential. That was nearly 20 years ago, as a case study for Use or Ornament? It was the first external account of a Gaelic arts movement that had begun in the island of Barra and spread quickly across Northern Scotland. The fèisean introduced children and young people to Gaelic language and culture through summer schools, and then through regular music tuition and performances. There was much to admire—you can read the report here—especially an open-hearted confidence that welcomed all youngsters, whatever their heritage, and gave them traditional music as a living practice they could add to, not simply replicate. I began to understand how inconsequential was the medium of community arts, compared to the values, purpose and practice of the artists involved.

That experience came back to me last month in Kyrgyzstan, when I met the people of UstatShakirt. The group’s name combines Kyrgyz words for ‘master’ and ‘apprentice’ and symbolises its goal of reviving traditional music among young people. Founded in 2005, and supported by the Aga Khan Music Initiative and the Swiss Embassy in Bishkek, among others, UstatShakirt has developed a cohort of young masters who are now passing on what they have learned to the next generation. The latest stage has been to train teachers in music education so that 30 schools now offer traditional music and drama classes.

During the trip, I visited schools in towns and villages where I met many young people and watched them perform music and drama. Their happy confidence in talking with strangers about their culture said volumes about the work’s value. Here, as in the fèisean, was an optimistic openness to the world—jokes about mobile phones found their way into ancient stories. They were equally engaged with other cultures, playing of Kazakh and classical pieces alongside Kyrgyz music. UstatShakirt wants to nurture respect for the diversity of culture not some narrow nationalism.


In one remote village, close to the Chinese border, I watched a class of seven year olds show what they could do with the komuz, Kyrgyzstan’s iconic instrument. Boys and girls in traditional costumes sat side by side, contributing equally. As I watched them play—and compete to show off their knowledge—I remembered what I’d been told a couple of days earlier about the rise of conservative religious values in the region. The quiet commitment of these musicians, teachers, parents and supporters was protecting a space of tolerance for the next generation. No one was making grand statements about gender equality, self-expression or creativity. They were simply enacting those values in everyday life. Art is before it does; perhaps most human things are.

Although UstatShakirt’s Facebook pages are in Russian and Kyrgyz there are some great photos:

The Pinning Stones

Portraits from The Pinning Stones by Ray Smith

On Thursday, the residents of Scotland decide whether to leave the United Kingdom and establish their own state. Whatever your view of the possible outcomes, we should be thankful that negotiations are not being conducted with arms as they are now in Ukraine. Democracy has its failings, as elected demagogues (the irony!) never tire of saying, but it is still our best way of settling differences – provided we see it as a process, not an achievement.

If the referendum were not enough to keep Scotland in my mind just now, I’ve also been preparing a trip to Orkney to give a lecture about its culture, based on the research I did there in 2011. It is a wonderful place, unique in so many ways, and it will be great to be in Kirkwall again, though I’m conscious that I might be landing in a country that has just declared its will for independence.

And now, after a long delay, I can also share my study of culture and community in Aberdeenshire, completed last year. Aberdeenshire Council will publish The Pinning Stones in paperback this autumn, and I’m grateful to them for allowing me to make the digital version available prior to publication. Although there are evident similarities and connections between Orkney and the ancient lands of Banff, Buchan, Gordon and Kincardine, I was struck as ever by how unique each place is. What things look like is so often a matter of perspective and the closer you get the more you are struck by the particularity within the unity.

To download a digital copy of The Pinning Stones, Culture and Community in Aberdeenshire, click on the links:

In the past 20 years, I’ve been fortunate to work in many parts of Scotland: in Glasgow, Aberdeen, the Western Isles, the Highlands, Argyll, the Borders and elsewhere. I’ve met many generous and creative people,  learned a great deal and grown to appreciate the diversity of place, life and culture that lies behind the single word ‘Scotland’. Whatever happens on 18 September, this is a nation and a people with so much to celebrate.

How to be an artist

‘I don’t care if you call my work journalism or art or whatever; whatever you want to call it is fine with me.’

Jonas Bendiksen

Open for Business

Over the past few months, I have been interviewing documentary photographers for a project about manufacturing industry. Open for Business is a partnership between Multistory and Magnum, several galleries and museums, and people who make things for a living—sausages, wind turbines, hats, battleships, electronics, hot air balloons and just about anything else that we use.

The photographers are Jonas Bendiksen, Stuart Franklin, Bruce Gilden, David Hurn, Peter Marlow, Martin Parr, Mark Power, Alessandra Sanguinetti and Chris Steele-Perkins.

The exhibition opened on Friday at the National Media Museum in Bradford, and will tour the UK for the next two years. It featured in the Financial Times Magazine in January and you can download a copy. The whole project raises interesting questions about the evolving nature of community arts practice, to which I’ll return another time, but today I want to talk a little about the experience of meeting these outstanding artists.

Talking to photographers

The interviews were filmed and edited for the show, so that visitors can hear each photographer talk about their approach, their experiences on location and what they wanted to capture in the images. Here, for example, is Mark Power talking about visiting the Bombardier and Nissan factories in Derby:

Each film is different. The photographers have diverse backgrounds, ideas and practices. They are members of the same co-op, but they’re individual and competitive. The exhibition at Bradford has the best qualities of a group show—a common theme but seen so differently by each photographer that the images are in a restless dialogue with one another,  and the viewer keeps changing their mind about which pictures they prefer and why.

At the same time, as I talked with such different people about their approach to the same problem—how to represent truthfully the ambiguous realities of people making thing—I felt that there were some common foundations to their work as artists.

How to be an artist

For example, I was struck by a command of craft that enabled them to focus on what they were seeing without distractions. They were curious and open to the world, interested in the people they met, the places they were visiting and how things were done. With none of the indifference put on by some artists, they engaged with the world, taking ethical or political positions as well as aesthetic ones, and happy to talk about their ideas and values.

I always felt that the photographers saw the world, the people they portrayed and the stories they were telling as more important than themselves. There’s plenty of personality, confidence, even ego in the films, as with most artists, but there’s also an underlying assumption that the photographer is not the story.

There are other things one might draw from these interviews, and each viewer will form their own impression. But for me, craft, openness, engagement, and humility seem a good set of qualities to bring to the task of being an artist. And the results—as evident in the quality of the images in the exhibition—seem to confirm that.

A note on language

Readers of other posts on this site might notice an inconsistency in the title of this one, since I’ve often argued against the essentialism that identifies artistic practice with being rather than doing. It’s true: it would have been better to call it ‘How to do artisting’, but unfortunately we only have verbs for the craft activities undertaken by an artist—painting, photographing, playing, performing etc.—not for the underlying creative and conceptual activity that gives that craft meaning. It could be be ‘to create’, but that word has acquired other meanings unconnected with art that complicate its interpretation (for more about this, see Winter Fires, pp 65-67). So, I’ve written ‘How to be an artist’ because it sounds better than any alternative I can think of, but I mean, ‘How to do artisting’.

Regular Marvels, in Theory (RMT)

Regular Marvels

Geese 2One reason for creating Regular Marvels is to look for better ways of writing about people’s experience of art and culture. That experience is important and endlessly interesting to me, but any understanding of it, indeed the experience itself, is shaped by how it is told. So Regular Marvels sets out consciously to question how stories about artistic experience are created and shared.

It does so by trying out different ways of discovering, thinking about and recounting those experiences. If it is research—and it is deliberately not research in the sense that is currently approved by universities and research boards—it is research through practice. A Regular Marvel, for me,  includes the 18-24 month process of exploration, its evolving presence on this blog and the final book with its artwork. (I use the term ‘Regular Marvel’ rather than ‘project’ or ‘research’ precisely to free this work from association with existing theories…

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Portraying the change

How can you describe a cultural programme that has extended over 14 years, 9 countries and 3,000 projects? How do you account for its outcomes, the change it may have contributed to, and the effects on culture or society?

That was the challenge faced by the small team of people who have managed the Swiss Cultural Programme in the Western Balkans in recent years, and which has just come to an end. I helped them with the review process and wrote a report that tries to show the wood, if not all the trees.  The report, Cultural Encounters, is available to download here.

But this work is about people, people of all ages and cultures and backgrounds, coming together to talk, learn, make art, share ideas, challenge themselves and each other, create, demonstrate commitment, think, perform, laugh, sometimes cry, and ultimately help build a better society one person, one place, one day at a time. So we had the idea of interviewing 24 people who had been involved in the programme in recent years – not the organisers or project leaders, but those who’ve taken part, given their time and benefited from the experience.

Alongside the interviews, conducted by experienced journalists in the relevant languages, we commissioned portraits from local photographers. The resulting exhibition, Portraying the Change, was shown at the National Gallery of Bosnia Herzegovina, in Sarajevo, last week, at the launch of the event marking the formal end of the programme. Half of those portraits, with short extracts from the interviews, can be seen here.

All the portraits, and longer extracts from the interviews, are included in Cultural Encounters. I hope that these voices speak for themselves.

SCP Report Cover 2

The Swiss Cultural Programme in the Western Balkans

Tara Tepavac (Photo Nemanja Knezevic)
Tara Tepavac (Photo Nemanja Knezevic)

Next week, I will be in Sarajevo for a conference to mark the end of the Swiss Cultural Programme in the Western Balkans, (SCP) after almost 15 years. Set up by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and managed by Pro Helvetia, SCP has provided vital support to artists, cultural groups and activists from former Yugoslavia to Ukraine.

Over the years, there have been hundreds of projects, from contemporary dance and creative industries networks to programmes working on memory, history and alternative education. There have been scores of exhibitions, theatre productions, films, festivals, concerts and publications. Thousands of people have taken part—young aspiring artists at the dawn of a professional career, and older artists who have lived under socialism, war and unbridled capitalism.

Viktorija IlioskaWhat has impressed and moved me, in the 12 years I’ve been working in SE Europe, is the extraordinary commitment of these people leading the way towards a better artistic life in the region. Like their peers elsewhere, they have knowledge, skills and imagination. But they also have great courage in the face of social and economic upheaval, political indifference or interference, insecurity and instability. Lack of resources, especially cash, is a fact of life for most independent artists here. What they achieve with what they do have is simply extraordinary.

SCP is one of the last programmes active in this part of Europe. Most international agencies and donors have moved on, to places where misery, conflict and injustice are even more threatening than in the Balkans. Happily, the Swiss will still be active here, albeit at a lower level as far as culture is concerned, alongside others, like the European Cultural Foundation. Some SCP staff will be working regionally in a new organisation. So it can be hoped that this is less an end than a change of gear; perhaps even a further small step on from the crises of the 1990s.

A report on the achievements of the people SCP has supported will be published at the conference next week. It will be available to download from this site after that.

The problem of ‘impact’ (MCV 4)

A conversation with Peter Wright at the Creative Communities 3 conference made me realize that it might be useful to explain why I no longer use the word ‘impact’ in relation to people’s experience of the arts.

Peter, who teaches at Murdoch University in Western Australia, gave a rich presentation about his work with Big hArt, which he has been researching for some years. We spoke at length afterwards about the project and more generally about ideas of social arts practice and its evaluation. Not surprisingly, since conference speakers had often used it, we talked about the word ‘impact’. When Peter subsequently asked me where he could read more about this, I couldn’t point him to anywhere that I’ve set out this thinking, so here is a short explanation.

I should say first, though, that I haven’t always seen this. 15 years ago, when I worked on a research programme entitled ‘The social impact of participation in the arts’ I took up the phrase (which others had coined by adapting thinking about the ‘economic impact of the arts’) without hesitation. What I write here is the result of much subsequent thinking and research and many valuable conversations, such as the ones I had with Peter.

The word ‘impact’ is a concept in physics and specifically mechanics, that describes what occurs when force strikes an object or when two bodies collide. It has been transferred to many other fields, and it is now commonplace to speak of the economic impact, environmental impact or social impact of policy decisions.

In moving from mechanics to, say, public policy, the word changes from being a technical descriptor to being a metaphor. Nothing wrong in that: we use metaphors constantly to understand and describe experience. But language also shapes how we think and my doubt here is about the effect the use of this metaphor might have on how policy interventions in general—and social arts programmes in particular—are imagined by those who commission, deliver, experience and evaluate them.

Here’s the problem.

Impact suggests a force striking an object, as a die impresses itself on a blank.  It implies an active agent and a passive recipient, a subject and an object. One might even say that it unconsciously reflects the gendered imagination that divides the world into active male and passive female. And like that imagination, it’s freighted with potential violence.

In this thinking, the social art project is conceived as an experience whose ‘impact’ changes those who take part. (And for ‘change’ one should read ‘improve’, in the terms of the problem-solving mission jointly identified by the artist and the commissioner.) Participants are not seen as active, autonomous individuals, capable of interpreting, responding to or even rejecting the experiences of an art project or the intentions of those who have offered it.

But that, even if it were not an offence to ethics and democracy, is just a fantasy. Artists cannot control how others interpret their work, whether that work is a performance, a text or a workshop. Governments cannot command through social interventions guaranteeable changes in people’s lives or behaviour.

We all interpret our experiences, and especially the ambiguous ones we gain through art, in our own way. That is why two people can sit side by side for two hours watching a film or a play and come away with completely different responses to what they have seen. That is why no two people have ever read the same book.

Impact is not just an inadequate metaphor for imagining how people experience, and are affected by, the arts. It is a deceptive one, reinforcing unequal power relations that divide societies into those who know and those who don’t, those who are acceptable and those who are not, those who fit and those who need to be changed.

Since it is also a completely inaccurate account of what actually happens as a result of participation in the arts, it is dangerously misleading. It encourages politicians, commissioners and even artists in the delusion that because art and culture have profound effects on people those effects can also be commanded. The effects on policy can be exceedingly perverse.

Will any of this stop people using ‘impact’ as a metaphor to explain the effects of art and to justify investing in it? Hardly. The idea is far too embedded and too flattering to those who use it to be set aside soon. But it would be a step forward if the artists who work in this field and the researchers who write about that work questioned the term a bit more.

Serious amateurs

The modern system of art is not an essence or a fate but something we have made.

Larry Shiner, 2001

Members of West Bromwich Operatic Society can be sensitive about being called amateurs, not because it is inaccurate, but because of the perception that amateur has become a synonym for mediocre (and their work is certainly not that). It is true that the word is sometimes used almost as an insult – and not least between artists.

It was not always like that. There was a time when to be an amateur was prestigious. It was someone who was seriously committed to the pursuit of knowledge in science, philosophy or art, someone motivated only by a love of learning. Since they were not paid, the amateurs were genuinely disinterested. In the past, that also meant that they were wealthy, probably aristocrats or landed gentry, because only those classes had leisure time to dedicate to something that was not edible, usable or tradable.

Some amateurs dedicated their lives and fortunes to knowledge in science, philosophy, history and the arts. Others, lacking artistic talent themselves, surrounded themselves with artists in need of a living, or amassed great collections that have become the heart of public museums today. In all these roles, amateurs were deeply influential in the development of art forms and in shaping public taste and ideas of art. Crucially, there was a close interactive relationship between amateur (unpaid) and professional (paid) artists: gentlemen and players.

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Stories and Fables: Culture in Orkney

Download the report Stories and Fables – Culture in Orkney 2012

Orkney is an archipelago set in the wild seas of the north of Scotland. It has some of the oldest traces of human habitation in Europe. Today, it’s home to about 20,000 people and a cultural life of exceptional variety and richness.

In 2011, I was commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) to look at why this small and relatively isolated community had been so successful in cultural development. Unusually, the brief was to look back over the space of a generation and so explore the foundations of today’s success. But of course, as you go back you realise that each generation builds on its predecessors, perhaps all the way to the people who built the Ring of Brodgar and Maes Howe.

‘To write a new book on Orkney is no easy matter. Nearly every facet of life in the islands has been described and discussed and catalogued over and over again. The facts of our history – what Edwin Muir called The Story – are there to read and study. A few poets have described the vision by which people live, what Edwin Muir called their Fable.’

Adapted from George Mackay Brown, An Orkney Tapestry, 1969

The report is launched today, and can be downloaded from the HIE website, or directly at the end of this post. It’s called ‘Stories and Fables’ with a tip of the hat to Edwin Muir, whose classic autobiography contains an evocative portrait of his Victorian childhood in the little island of Wyre.

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