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engage Conference 2014 - Disruptive Influences

28 November 14 -- jsuess
Miranda Millward, Arts Award Coordinator, Oxford University Museums

Between November 10th and 11th I was fortunate to be able to attend the engage 2014 Conference in Leeds. The conference title Disruptive Influences sought to bring together content that examined innovation, collaboration, digital practice as well as considering what might be on the horizon for those of us working in the cultural sector. 

On the morning of November 10th I opted to visit The Tetley a new contemporary art space in the one original building that remains on the old Tetley Brewery site. The Tetley is part of a drive to reassert the visual arts within Leeds city which historically has had a stronger reputation for the performing arts. As well as exhibition space the gallery building also has a restaurant and corporate hire spaces and this is a key part of revenue generation to support the other cultural activities the gallery undertakes. The building has required a substantial amount of renovation work and is also the home of the huge Tetley Brewery archive which has remained largely unsorted and uncatalogued for many years. The gallery director is looking at ways for artists and the local community to become involved in responding to the archive in a creative ways. The gallery’s participation programme seeks to work mainly with those in the LS10 and LS11 postcode districts which are amongst the most deprived in Leeds and also very close geographically to the gallery.

The main conference was hosted at the Northern Ballet next to the BBC building. In the afternoon there were 2 sessions looking at Innovation and Collaboration and Innovation and Digital. The session on collaboration looked at innovation in terms of needing a generous mindset in order for creativity to grow. It also looked at why we innovate, what gets in the way and how innovation can sometimes lead to disruption. We heard from Jo Venner a producer at Unlimited, an association that enables disabled artists realise their work to a larger audience, Tamsin Omond, a climate change activist and Rohan Gunatillake, a co-producer at Sync on how digital collaboration often ends up just being commissioning because the people commissioning the digital work are often too afraid to truly and fully collaborate with a digital producer.

The second session on Innovation and Digital looked at how social media, mobile and digital technologies continue to influence audience experience and how cultural organisations need to be a part of this change. In this session we heard from five different speakers two of which stood out for me. Matt Locke the director of Storythings talked about how we tell stories. Matt has previously worked in television for the BBC and Channel 4 and believes that changes in technology which are now mainstream such as iPlayer are fundamentally changing the way culture is consumed which has implications for the media and the role it has in our lives as audience members and as those who work within the cultural sector. Sarah Ellis is a Digital Producer at the RSC – she produced Midsummer Nights Dreaming in which a well-known play unfolded in real and online spaces over 3 days using you tube, twitter as well as other social media. The project was a collaboration between the RSC and Google Creative Lab. Although a very interesting project which drew in new audiences and participants worldwide it made me consider how can we enable our core audiences to feel involved in these new initiatives? Additionally is there a way for cultural organisations to fund and manage these large scale digital initiatives without the large digital multinational commercial companies of which have controversial reputations.

There were a number of optional evening sessions to attend. I attended a really useful session on the new Arts Council Quality Principles for Young People. The session was presented by Emily Pringle Heard of Research at Tate. Emily discussed the Quality Principles which are currently being piloted by a number of venues and institutions and will be rolled out in 2015 to all ACE funded venues as a way to plan and measure the impact of work with young people. It was interesting to note that during consultations with young people that they put being authentic and a sense of progression as being key to their participation in cultural education and activities. I also attended a series of short Soapbox presentations by delegates. The three that stood out for me as the most interesting and useful for my role at the OUMCs were by Meghan Goodeve, Helen Moore and Liz Fraser Betts. Meghan’s presentation called Click, Create, Construct showed a simple Pinterest project undertaken at The Courtauld working with young people who took their favourite piece of artwork from the collection and created a pin board around it. It was an effective low cost digital project which could also be ideal for an Arts Award project. Helen’s presentation showed how in her role as learning officer at York Minster she had initiated a street art project within the minster Gothic vs Street. Working with established street artists responding to the gothic architecture and craftsmanship four new pieces of art were created within the minster. Liz Fraser Betts from Orleans House showed a short film about Partnership for Excellence delivering a year-long Arts Award project between 8 museums. 

On day two I opted for a breakout session ran by Poly-Technic an artist collaboration between Steve Pool and Kate Genever. Steve and Kate have been working together for a number of years and part of their joint practice is to create bespoke diagrams to help themselves and others understand projects more clearly. We initially started as a group working together on a huge sorting task – sorting words and images in silence with no rules. We then worked in pairs to create diagrams to help us understand our close family or work structures/networks. The last hour was spent creating a diagram to help us understand a work project or issue more clearly. This was a really interesting project and really helped me work out one thing that I want to initiate within my role at the OUMCs.

In the afternoon on day two we returned to the Northern Ballet for two more sessions looking at Innovation, education and galleries and What’s on the Horizon? I really enjoyed contributions from Finnish artist Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen whose participatory practice seeks to work in a truly collaboratively manner with participants to create meaningful engagement. Oliver’s work methodologies are available online so people can replicate projects within their own communities however this is not without risk, for example a far right group in Germany picked up on the project Complaints Choir and used it to complain about their issues which are totally at odds with Oliver’s own political and social views. This brings up an interesting point about how open source we want to be online and the flip side of what do we do when someone whose aims we don’t like uses our materials for purposes we don’t want to be associated with or don’t approve of. I also enjoyed Paula Le Dieu’s contribution on how cultural organisations can work with audiences beyond them merely consuming and appreciating in a passive manner. Can we enable audiences to be key participants in creation, curation, interpretation, research and knowledge production around their cultural heritage? Paula balanced her arguments by considering the flip side – the potential cost of attempting this and failing.

I am very grateful to ASPIRE for supporting my attendance via the CPD fund. It was an interesting and sometimes inspiring few days which I am still reflecting on. It was great to catch up with old friends and colleagues and meet new people as well as exploring the cultural life of Leeds.