Experiencing Conversation as Process
Posted by Connected Culture on 30 January 2014
We are in the middle of the roundtables for Connected Conversations, Passing it On and thought we would create a blog between us in the form of a conversation on how these roundtables are working so far.
One of the earlier posts “Taking Chances with Conversations” outlined some of the approaches we are taking, much of which is experimental and we thought it was interesting to reflect on how this is working out – the difference between intention and what actually happens.
Our thinking in beginning this conversational series is that there is a spectrum of practice developed over several decades which while different in manifestation, has some commonality. So we have focused on the work itself - how does practice illustrate, manifest or develop concerns? We've set up four peer to peer discussions which are of equal weight. Arts practice is an integral element and digitised recordings of those works will soon appear online.
We set the project up to be intimate deliberately in order to generate robust conversations that had the capacity to drill down. Selection was made on many criteria but always about diversity – individual artists, companies, different approaches, longevity in the field, age, race and yes, we did pay attention to location and have people coming from Wiltshire, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Kent, Wales, Northern Ireland and Durham. We are very aware of work happening everywhere and very keen to know more, which is why we've made it possible to get engaged online and why we ask people to identify work that inspires them so we can get it out there. We also consulted with regional networks of participatory arts to get input and a view, though inevitably budget did make constraints on capacity.
It’s not a definitive conversation we are having. Its part of an on-going one. So we’re delighted when others join in or connected this to other networks.
This week a friend of mine had to go for a cancer screening. She got the all clear. But when I talked to her while she was waiting on results she was curt, abrasive, brittle and aggressive. I knew what was happening in her life and made allowances. If I hadn’t I might have mistaken circumstance for personality. I was mindful of this when I met the attendees at the first conversation. We never know what is going on in people’s lives.
People arrived into the round table, bounced off each other’s thoughts, opinions, understanding and knowledge then bounced back out into the world.
Watching the round tables was like watching billiard balls at the break of a frame or atoms careering around the universe. Isn’t that how its meant to work? We build our own knowledge, we embody it, we share and exchange it, we are given or gift it, we keep moving on, we run out of energy, recharge or are fully charged. “There is no one left, none but us” to take responsibility or turn away.
This idea of billiard balls bouncing off each other is also intrinsic to the two of us and our respective organisations and teams making this happen – it has evolved and shifted with our own conversations. There is also the element that each of the artist responders is not only responding to their particular roundtable but there is another element of artist and artform bouncing off the other.
I have been struck with the notion expressed at the first roundtable on how working with the arts can offer the space to be comfortable with difference. So often in any kind of gathering there is an unspoken insistence to reach consensus. In our persistence in seeking diversity, albeit within the domain of participatory arts, we have tried to hold to a comfort with uncommon ground and a finding out from those who think differently. At both roundtables so far, there has been a buzzing as a result, a kind of percolation that needs time, no doubt some frustration, sometimes a bewilderment and very often excitement with the possibility of new relationships.
I have also been thinking about scale and experience. Much of the time Dominic and I have been trading back and forth the famous principles of Open Space Technology such as whoever is in the room is meant to be in the room. This notion partially rests on the value of the experience itself - you had to be there kind of thing, noticing the light in someone's eye, the nodding head absorbing, hearing the passion and importantly, the laughing, the jokes. We knew this would only work if it was small. This then introduces those challenges of how this valuable experience for the few can really extend outwards to reach more people, as Dominic says above, more networks. Another favourite word of Dominic's and I has been porous and this is another intention for theses roundtables I think, that in separating the roundtables into domains, we hope to be also highlighting the porosity of theses groups - artist becomes commissioner, participant becomes artist; there are many in these roundtables that cross over.
But as we know in the arts, it is very hard to articulate an experience to those who haven't had it. We hope the artists’ responses, and the visual notes will help this and of course, the film and sound clips. But in the end it is our experiences that are precious. I'm returning today from an event on a programme in Kent called Prosper where an ex-policeman who runs the yacht club in Whitstable was talking passionately about their arts project called White Horses- he said It was the experience of the process, seeing the relationships blossom that made it work and beamed. How often have we heard this? So I think it is less about what we are doing with these conversations at the RSA and more about supporting more of them to happen, finding out from each other and feeling increasingly comfortable with not agreeing with each other.
One of my interests in Arts and Society is learning what the scaffolding processes are that help to open up learning from one project to another, one group to another, place to another, particularly with the dynamic of difference. These roundtables might offer a narrative for this kind of thing – we’ll see.
Writer Gabriel Gbadamosi responded to the first roundtable of practitioners to the second of commissioners with a beautiful piece that amongst many other points, helped us see the interconnectedness of all of our different roles in this work. He also picked up on the ever-present theme of process and product:
Process and product merge, seamlessly, into the same breathing pattern of social sculpture without its plinth: into life, since participatory work’s purpose as art is to be alive – to take risks, to be bold, to question, to disrupt and challenge, to live.
So let this breathe, without having to answer all the problems, be evolutionary instead of revolutionary. When you’re free, you connect with who you need to, and work with anyone.
It reminds me of creative work with people with advanced Alzheimer’s that is focused on “spark” moments when people “become present” and that memory is contextual. We build them collaboratively and recall them the same way. Initiatives like www.timeslips.org illustrate this. It’s also reflected in “mirror cells” research in neurology and similarly in epidemiology. Maybe that's part of what is happening here?
But technology also means we can avoid this being a chat between a small group.
We have made this process porous by using online tools to hand. So anyone can join in by posting directly onto www.connectedculture.co.uk All you have to do is sign up. We don't edit those posts unless they are offensive rather than discursive. Discussion is encouraged there and if you pose a question we will try to engage with it.
You can also tweet, use the #connectedconversations to track that discussion or join the thread.
You can find some great submissions from those attending the round tables. Participants will appear shortly. It’s really rich thinking and there are some great references to follow. If you are inspired to add to them or provoked, email Jocelyn.
We’re in the process of uploading some video and I am mindful of something practitioner Sophie Hope said. Are the terms engaged and participatory becoming empty she wonders?
“In the end" she says “its what we do that’s important”.