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/

David Beel: EViDAnCE – Exploring Value in Digital Archives and the Comainn Eachdraidh

A large proportion of the work on cultural value centres upon primarily institutional accounts as to how ‘culture’ brings value to both individuals and communities. Research from institutions such as museums, libraries, galleries, theatres and arts organisations dominate the literature in this area, however, very little is written or researched with regards to more everyday and voluntary cultural work conducted by communities. Even more so this is especially pertinent for rural, remote and peripheral locations where such activities often play a central role in maintaining community ties. This is especially true of the Comainn Eachdraidh (Gaelic for Historical Societies) in the Outer Hebrides whose potential cultural value extends well beyond their initial remit as a historical society. There are around 19 active and autonomous Comainn Eachdraidh groups in the Outer Hebrides with the earliest dating back to the 1970s, beginning with a very specific political motivation: to preserve the aspects of their own culture that more official, institutional and mainstream archives saw as irrelevant or unimportant. The larger groups have almost full membership from the populations in their respective areas. As such, the Comainn Eachdraidh represents a medium for the cultural transmission of meaning (McGuigan, 2004) in order to present and preserve a ‘way of life’ (Williams, 2010) that for Islanders is seen as fragile and under threat due to a variety of long-term external influences.

Archives such as these are generated as an articulation of ‘heritage from below’ (Robertson, 2012) and they represent spaces of ‘marginalised memory’ (Creswell, 2011) attempting to give a counterpoint to more top-down and mainstream articulations of history (Mason and Baveystock, 2009). As Stevenson et al. (2008) suggest, their relevance and value extends well beyond the physical site of the archive itself, it is ‘the active and on-going involvement in the source community in documenting and making accessible their history on their own terms’. This makes understanding the practice of archive production amongst volunteers central to comprehending their broader value. Added to this, through the process of digitisation something is both gained and lost in the ‘click of a mouse’ (Latour and Hermant, 2004), and understanding both the production and outcome of such ‘clicks’ is key in understanding the different ways in which value is potentially generated.

Most Comainn Eachdraidh groups have some form of digital presence whether through social media (facebook, twitter and blogs), their own websites or through online digital archives. Digitisation, however has not been a simple process for such small groups to undertake alone. Despite allowing their archives to reach beyond the walls of the archive, it have often meant trading-off autonomy. Due to the expense of converting analogue records to digital form as well the need for long-term hosting solutions, collaboration with other Comainn Eachdraidh groups in order to pool resources has been necessary (for example see Hebridean Connections and their blog . This raises a series of interesting questions about the nature of such practices in term of how digitised content creates value for Island life. And following on from this a series of further questions which this project wishes to understand – How are everyday practices of cultural heritage production represented in digital formats? What value do volunteers/non-institutional heritage work have culturally, economically and socially for communities? Finally, in a broad sense, how does the ‘memory work’ of the Comainn Eachdraidh build identity for individuals and communities?

Project website/blog – evidance-ahrc.com