Stuart Murray – Approaching Cultural Value as a Complex System: Experiencing the Arts and Articulating the City in Leeds

Our project, Approaching Cultural Value as a Complex System: Experiencing the Arts and Articulating the City in Leeds, takes an ethnographic and participative approach to the key questions of cultural value – why are the arts and culture important, and how can we know their value? By taking such an approach, we aim to study the value of cultural participation via the perspectives, attitudes and practices of a group of people who have agreed to be our collaborators – making their own experiences and ideas the primary material with which we are generating new knowledge. By an ‘ethnographic’ and ‘participative’ approach we also mean one in which we, the five researchers on this project, are participant observers: entering the site of cultural activity with our volunteers, working closely with them to generate knowledge in situ.

Overall, our project works with a wide range of cultural partners in Leeds, but the ethnographic ‘site’ of the study is the Love Arts festival, organised by the Arts and Minds Network. The Network is funded by the Leeds and York Partnership NHS Trust, works to promote the arts for mental health, and was established ten years ago in order to co-ordinate and connect the wide range of arts and mental health activity already happening across the city. Three years ago the Love Arts festival was launched as an annual showcase for the work taking place throughout the year; and this year it ran from October 2nd to 24th.

Our study takes this festival as its ‘spotlight’ focus, and given that the timing of the festival coincided with the start of our Cultural Value project, we began with a bang. During the weeks it took place, the five members of the research team spent time ‘hanging out’ at the festival, talking to people, soaking up the atmosphere, and experiencing Love Arts for ourselves. Each of us has ‘buddied-up’ with one of five volunteers, and in our pairs we have been attending events, sharing experiences, and exploring how and why the arts are important to these festival goers.

The research team met with partner cultural organisations in September, subsequntely, all five participant pairs got together for the first time, to exchange ideas and feedback on the conversations of the past month. Both meetings have proved to be tremendously productive occasions, with a real sense of knowledge being co-produced, and distinctive experiences and perspectives voiced. A further workshop was held in January, when researchers, research participants and the representatives of arts organisations from across Leeds met together. This provided the occasion to continue the process of generating co-produced knowledge, as a range of perspectives on the importance of the arts and culture were brought into dialogue.

On the basis of the initial workshops, we are very much looking forward to this next opportunity to bring together this diversity of views on the value of cultural activities within Leeds. We intend that one of the outcomes of these conversations will be a fuller, richer sense of the ways in which the city itself – its civic identity, its distinctiveness as a place to live, its vitality or otherwise – is contributed to by the particular qualities of its cultural life. The Love Arts festival contributes just a small amount to this broad, complex civic identity. But in its networked, multi-venue format, drawing together a wide range of participants and locations, it provides a striking vantage point from which to view some of the wider developments and tendencies within the city’s cultural life.

At the heart of this project, we are finding, is a complex concept of well-being, one that we hope we are moving towards being able to articulate. In what ways, little or large, does the festival contribute to the well-being of an individual, a group of people, or a city? Love Arts has a particular focus on mental health; but that does not make the experiences that take place there ‘niche’, ‘medical’, or narrowly ‘instrumental’. We all have well-being. And we all have mental health. Even in these, the early days of this project, we are finding that the highly distinctive articulations our participants give to their cultural experiences are powerful testimonies to the value of an expressive, creative, shared life. These are statements of value(s), we suggest, that could extend across a wide spectrum of mental health, conceived of in all its many forms – spanning a diverse range of ‘arts and minds’. In this way, it may turn out that the testimonies we are documenting also provide new perspectives on what might be meant by ‘the good life’. The challenge is to capture how this might be expressed and communicated, so others can hear the subtlety of our collaborators’ experiences and perspectives.

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Penny Rivlin: The Cultural Values of Digging

Thursday, 28th November 2013 marked the end of a government-sponsored national campaign, The Big Dig – a year-long initiative that aimed to promote a culture of ‘giving’ through urban community garden projects organized around food growing (www.bigdig.org).  One of our four case studies, The Big Dig is representative of organized garden projects that aim to regenerate cities, spaces and communities.  Through our review of the existing literature, we know that there is nothing especially innovative about organized modes of participatory engagement via digging. What interests us about The Big Dig, however, are the ways in which it seeks to generate impact and value through attaching voluntarism to the idea of digging as gifting. Supporting the development of new and embryonic urban growing spaces, The Big Dig’s launch statement placed particular emphasis on capturing volunteers from constituencies that are ‘traditionally’ disengaged, as a means of improving local wellbeing and community connections, as well as reducing levels of of ‘anti-social behaviour’. Oriented to the conceptual coordinates of the coalition government’s Big Society ethos, this policy intervention is based on the premise that the giving of one’s time and labour via green gardening holds transformative potential for the self, the social, and local environments. If recruitment to The Big Dig is considered as a measure of cultural values of digging across the UK, then the project’s closing summary indicates its (re)emergence: all targets for volunteer and social action opportunities were exceeded (albeit ‘traditionally’ disengaged recruits constituted a modest 1,900 people), suggesting that the values of ‘gifting’ has some cultural purchase in contemporary Britain.

Our project, Cultural Values of Digging explores the ways in which cultural values circulating around digging – as an orchestrating node for the mobilization of diverse agendas – traverse the realms of everyday life, activism and policy. It seeks to establish evidence of cultural values through attention to embodied enactments of digging as everyday life or way of life(style) practices; the role of, and the processes by which, different media technologies and practices are implicated; and mediations and uses of digging/land-use histories and heritage(s) for modes of ethical relating and value-making in the present. With an empirical focus on the North West of England, we are conducting three case studies of digging that have developed over the past three years.  Our Big Dig study examines the specificities of digging cultures and practices in an urban community allotment in Greater Manchester.  Employing in-depth interviewing with volunteer diggers’, alongside textual analyses of the diggers’ engagements with digital media platforms, we are evaluating the extent to which The Big Dig project is a significant indicator of emergent cultural values of digging, and specifically, how such values are expressed, shaped and realized in online and offline contexts.

Reproducing these methods across the two other case studies, we are examining the cultural significance of digging as a metaphor or symbolic connotator in contexts of heritagization; a wartime garden experiment, and a public event.  An example of an online-offline green-living experiment (Marres, 2009), the wartime garden study examines a hetero-nuclear family’s attachment to the WWII ‘dig for victory’ campaign, and their recreation of the gardening broadcaster Mr Middleton’s prescriptions for year-round food self-sufficiency. Whilst cognate wartime slogans have been articulated to a range of consumerist and political agendas in recent years, our interest in the wartime gardeners resides in their nostalgic re-valorization of a past moment of austerity and security as response to the present conjuncture of eco-austerity. Charting and synchronising their experiences of wartime gardening across a wide range of social media platforms, the wartime gardeners reach out to all heterogeneous communities of diggers (many of whom can consume digging culture only at the level of fantasy), gifting online visitors with comprehensive planting schemes re-worked from Middleton’s original manuals; advice on accessing heritage seeds; and vintage themed food growing films and collages.  Here, we are beginning to understand the ways in which the discursivity of heritage digging informs the constitution of cultural values of (digital) sharing; anti-consumerism; resistance (to the commercialization of the food system and to new austerity); and to familial and community resilience.

In the context of the public event, we are similarly establishing evidence for cultural values of sharing, individual and community resilience, and collective resistance in relation to the heritage elements of digging. This case study focuses on the Wigan Diggers’ Festival – an annual, free event in central Wigan (2011-2013. See http://wigandiggersfestival.org/).  The Festival reinvigorates and celebrates the political agency of Wigan born radical Gerrard Winstanley (1609-76) and the Diggers’ movement (1649-51) as symbolic resource for the expression and dissemination of a collection of political ideals circulating around interrelated issues of social justice and the redistribution of land (the ‘commons’), and ‘common’ resources and services – now effectively ‘enclosed’ through privatization and deregulation.  Disembedding Winstanley from land rights and food growing issues, the Wigan Diggers’ harness the historicity of the 17th century diggers’ narrative to express dissent at current welfare austerity measures, neoliberal modes of governance, and for the reclamation and renewal of working class politics and values. Like The Big Dig and the wartime gardeners, the Festival actively disseminates its political ideals in online and offline contexts.  Drawing together virtual and embodied communities into ‘digging’ spaces and places, these case studies diversely express, shape, renew and enact cultural values of digging in dynamic and productive ways.

 

Penny Rivlin is the Research Associate on The Cultural Values of Digging project, a six-month interdisciplinary project led by Farida Vis (University of Sheffield), which includes three further co-investigators: Peter Jackson (Sheffield), Erinma Ochu (University of Manchester) and Andrew Miles (University of Manchester). Our project website can be found here: http://culturalvaluesofdigging.wordpress.com/

Susan Ashley – Memorialisation as valuation: the Chattri Memorial

Chattri

The Chattri Memorial and annual service, on the Downs near Brighton, dedicated to the Indian soldiers who fought on the Western Front during the First World War. Photo courtesy Bert Williams.

This research explores the continuing and changing processes of valuation at the Chattri World War I Memorial, which has stood in a remote part of the Sussex Downs since 1921. The marble domed Chattri, granite platform and surrounding gardens were constructed to honour the 53 soldiers from undivided-India who were cremated on this spot. Since that time the Chattri has been through phases of disuse, pilgrimage and ceremony. I am studying the Chattri as a spiritual place, heritage object, and space of cultural practices, complicating our ideas about what constitutes Culture and Value.

This memorial is a fascinating example of Culture framed not as ‘the arts’ or as ‘the best that has been thought and known’, nor even as an anthropological ‘whole way of life’ (Griswold, 2008), but as the symbolic, expressive and sometimes spiritual realm of human behaviour. Instigated, as with most monuments, as a political tool (Hyson & Lester, 2012), the memorial’s impact lies in its extraordinary affective presence. Physically located high on a wind-swept down, with an ‘exotic’ architectural style, and possessing a unique minority ethnic history, the site has been animated each year since 1951 by a cultural ceremony that is both solemn and formal, and social and joyous, producing in participants a sense of an electric resonance and importance.

The British government, Brighton city, the British Legion, and now a consortium of local residents with Sikh, Indian, Caribbean and British ties have all had a hand in the memorialising practices at the Chattri. My research will piece together a narrative of changing senses of valuation expressed through the activities and performances of people at the site. This will come from my personal experience and scrutiny of the activities; analysis of media discourses over the years, and observations of participants and organisers gleaned through interviews and workshop. I am curious to inspect my own ideas on the factors that affect valuation, in relation to the ideas that emerge from participants.

One of the themes I will interrogate is how the ‘publicness’ of memorialising structures and activities set conditions of valuation – that such in-public displays and performances make strong intentional statements of value. Monuments are peculiar fixed objects of heritage characterised by this intention to proclaim value, and through their public prominence and permanence, project that value (and those values) into the future. The annual event is itself an in-public ritual of self-presentation on the part of organisers and participants – a form of ‘public culture’. As symbolic and expressive performances, intentionally situated in a public setting, these ceremonial activities differ from everyday cultural participation or arts spectatorship.

But what is considered important changes, runs into conflicts, and evolves, depending on the subjectivities and perspectives of those involved. Who is deemed a ‘stakeholder’ in these processes, or who self-selects as stakeholder, determines who gets to speak and define value not only within dominant discourses but within the minority communities of interest. How do such communities of interest come together as ‘publics’, determine who may contribute, and present their ‘selves’ in-public in statements of valuation? And how will participants choose to express their senses of value to me as I seek them out as research subjects? We hope that by using discourse analysis we will be able to tease out answers to such questions.

I anticipate that this study, to be completed in the midst of the centenary of WWI, will lead to further research as interest in the war builds over the next four years, and as the experiences of non-Western war participants becomes a source of contention. The Chattri is now isolated and is operated by self-organized and voluntary participants, but this could change if the Chattri Group choose to get involved in the broader commemorations. How value is defined and supported by outside agencies could (again) influence the shape and practices of those who support the memorial.

Stephanie Pitts – Dropping in and dropping out: understanding cultural value from the perspectives of lapsed or partial arts participants.

I have been interested in musical participation for some time (see Pitts, 2005), and have carried out a number of case studies that have investigated the experiences and motivations of amateur performers and composers, and of regular audience members at jazz and classical events. While the richness of participants’ musical experiences is always fascinating, and the social and personal satisfaction that they gained from their involvement demonstrates ‘cultural value’ in everyday life, the question that has increasingly troubled me is “If musical participation is so great, why aren’t more people doing it?”

Previous researchers have identified a sector of ‘culturally aware non-attenders’ (Winzenried, 2004; Dobson & Pitts, 2012) – people who are receptive to arts involvement, but are currently minimally engaged. These people seemed like the ideal starting point for an investigation of cultural value ‘from the edges’: being well-disposed towards the arts, they might be willing to contribute to the research, but being minimally involved, their perspectives on arts engagement might be different from regular participants, so shedding light on what makes one person join a choir or go to the theatre while another in similar circumstances uses their time and energy differently. The next challenge, then, was where to find such people…

With my research assistant, Katy Robinson, I have embarked on three interlinked studies of lapsed and partial arts involvement. The first of these (confusingly labelled Study 2 in my initial planning) is a questionnaire survey of arts audiences in Sheffield, in which we ask respondents about their knowledge and experience of a range of arts, genres and venues, and also to describe and evaluate their most recent arts attendance. Thanks to interest from cultural venues in Sheffield, we hope to extend this study to include an ‘audience exchange’ element, where regular concert goers, for instance, will be taken to some contemporary theatre and then join a focus group to discuss their experience of being in an unfamiliar audience. We have been distributing flyers for our survey at cultural events around the city, through mailing lists and social media, and are so far receiving a steady flow of interesting responses, to be followed up in the new year with Study 3: life history interviews with a range of survey respondents to explore their varied routes into adult arts engagement.

Finally (rather than first) we have Study 1, or ‘the violin in the attic’: here we are interested specifically in music, and in those amateur musicians who have ceased to play or had a long gap in their membership of choirs and ensembles. We’ve begun this study with a pilot that follows up on Katy’s MA research, and that of her classmate at Sheffield, Kunshan Goh: both of them completed dissertations looking at musical participation in adulthood, and so we are returning to some of the ensembles that they worked with to seek out members or ex-members who have stories to tell about dropping in and out of ensembles. We are also beginning to approach other ensembles, to ask their members to complete short questionnaires about their current involvement, and to help us recruit lapsed musicians amongst their former members or from their own past experience.

Our data collection is in its early stages but progressing well, and we hope that our findings will help broaden the debate about what ‘cultural value’ means from a range of peripheral perspectives, from lapsed arts participants to occasional arts attenders, and so to bring new insight to what is already known about the use of the arts in everyday life.

You can keep up with our progress on the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre website http://www.sparc.dept.shef.ac.uk/