Creating, Messing, Playing: Thinking Form in Newcastle

by Amy Barron and Ben Knight

How do art and geography intersect?  Thinking through this question was the task of Interrogating Form: Creative and Cultural Participatory Practice, a workshop held by Newcastle University on Tuesday 11th June.

Indeed, there were lots of sub-questions within this broader focus.  What is the value of using an arts-based approach?  How might we incorporate discussion surrounding the politics of representation into our work?  How might we use art to encourage encounter?  How might we use artistic practice to attune to process rather than the end result?  The workshop speakers and the unfolding conversations amidst participants precipitated a range of new potentialities associated with our own research.  Let us detail further…

Strange Spaces to Arty Places

The ‘Thinking Form’ workshop was held at ‘The Newbridge Project’, a vibrant hub for contemporary arts practice in Newcastle and Gateshead.  When we arrived at The Newbridge Project, we were greeted at the door and asked to follow signs to the workshop.  We passed bikes parked in the lobby and ascended a marble staircase.  Attuning ourselves to the space, we noticed installations and various studios speckled with art materials.  As we walked, we couldn’t help but nosey in the messy-order of the studio spaces whilst making our way along the corridor towards a buzz of friendly conversation.  The main room where the workshop took place was dotted with potted-plants and odd bits of furniture.  It was not the institutional space you might expect from a University event.  The space felt right for an event like this.

Dr Ruth Raynor of Newcastle University welcomed us to a day of thinking about different forms of creative practice.  Using the analogy of throwing glitter into the air, Ruth explained that in the workshop we will be thinking about the agency of materials, and how material can ‘escape itself’.  Ruth introduced how form, such as material, mediates us and how it is then folded back into mechanisms that try to order what we do.

Re-imagining, worldly-work and mediating materials

Following Ruth’s enthusiastic introduction, Professor Harriet Hawkins of Royal Holloway and Associate Professor Caitlin Cahil of New York University shared their experiences with us.  Harriet spoke about participatory world-making or ‘worldly-work’.  Providing a critical overview of the relational turn in contemporary art practice, Harriet troubled the seemingly universal desire in academic practice for an ‘end product’, focusing instead on process.  With Harriet, we thought about how different types of form do different types of worldly-work, how thinking about form can attune us to issues around skills and expertise and how modernist questions of form and function might offer purchase into the complex relationships between creative participatory practices and the contemporary academy.

For Harriet, relational or participatory works exist in a knotty complexity and are never a simple methodological salve for ticking off social engagement criteria for funding.  Harriet highlighted that there is always a danger that such approaches can become ‘a parody of themselves’, advising you have to tread carefully.  The kind of worldly-work Harriet spoke about in her presentation involves care and agonistic forms of negotiation that can be equally joyful and risky.  Harriet explained that this kind of collaborative world-making is about nurturing into being emerging forms of ‘caring publics’.

Next-up was urban and political geographer Caitlin Cahil who encouraged us to think deeper about the questions and intentions that guide our research.  Caitlin started her talk by commenting on the recent US Government’s policy of separating children from their parents at the Mexico-US border, and emphasised the politics at stake and the ‘sense of urgency’ amongst the ‘glitter’ of participatory action research.  Caitlin spoke about her work with the Mestizo Arts & Activism Collective, an ‘intergenerational social justice think tank’ in Salt Lake City, Utah.  We were particularly struck by the silent tableaus of young people – acted out in public spaces – that intervene in the toxic debates about immigration in the US.  Drawing on this, Caitlin asked some important questions about research and artistic practice: how does our research and participatory praxis rethink the politics of representation?  How is our work situated and accountable to place and the communities with whom we work?  How do the global and intimate intertwine in our research?  How are structures produced, negotiated and resisted, and how do we make this visible?

‘Get lost and see where that takes you…’

The second half of the day consisted of a panel discussion about different forms of creative arts-praxis, chaired by Professor Rachel Pain.  Julie Heslop, an artist working between art and architecture, expressed a concern that in the modern academy, there is not enough time for ‘imagining and messing about’.  Julie argued that we need to start to create art that reaches out to new audiences, proclaiming, ‘let’s take art out into the street or into the square, sometimes, we need to get lost and just do!’.  Dr Sam Slatcher of Durham University spoke about the capacity of art as story-telling.  Working with Durham City of Sanctuary, Sam wrote a song called the city of sanctuary telling stories of sanctuary past and present whilst critical urban geographer Dr Heather McLean spoke of fables and story-telling.  Dr Michael Richardson of Newcastle University began his talk by suggesting that ‘the impact agenda allows people to game-play’.  Michael explained, ‘creative practice has a much longer history of ‘impact’ than this buzz-word implies’.  Michael raised an important point, that there is a difference between art as method and an artist.

Isabel Lima’s intervention into the discussion has resonated in our reflections since the workshop.  We were particularly struck by her description of the figure of the artist.  Isabel was drawn to identifying as an artist because it gives her the opportunity to exist in the margins of different disciplines.  As an artist, there is the possibility to be ill-defined and autodidactic, to improvise with forms and approaches, or as Julie Heslop said, you can ‘get lost and just do’.  It was clear from the talks and the panellists that there are frames of engagement and demands that can instrumentalise the work of both artists and academics.  Perhaps most importantly, the workshop took steps towards troubling these positions.  It encourages work that challenges the boundaries of our disciplines – creating artist-ethnographers, academic-choreographers, activist-musicians – whilst finding networks and projects that nurture these entanglements.  This is a difficult task, but one which raises exciting questions about what ‘research’ is and can be for the future.

Thanks to the Participatory Geographies Research Group for making our attendance as this event feasible and to all those who organised it.  We look forward to next time!

This blog first appeared on the Participatory Geographies Research Group blog. Read the original here.