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Perspectives essay: social arts, creative flux and citizen led innovation

The theme of this short essay is the role of art and other creative tactics of cultural participation in sustaining or enhancing citizen led innovations. The examples referenced relate to actions affecting change and social capacity building where the genesis is without the commission of control agencies. . Responding to perceived priorities from super-local contexts, the three projects each began with a process of co-creation in the realm of the arts then leading to and affecting collective enterprise as a sustainable solution or route to improved conditions. This limited range of anecdotal narratives demonstrates the potential force of creative cultural enterprise arising from quasi-spontaneous or activist inspired approaches to citizen engagement. The perspective presented considers the essential character of local action (or empowerment) as an expression of nuanced and deeply felt values that relate to an individual’s sense of connectedness with their physical and social environment. The examples included generally refer to collective or shared experiences in the form of a creative gesture. There is no significant quantitative and qualitative evidence to be drawn formal evaluations and, therefore, no longitudinal observations from which to argue or prove the effectiveness of this work. However, the intention of this reflection is to exploit personal experience and from this vantage point, make a suggestion that creativity and creative behaviours have an essential and dynamic function in supporting self-determination within self-defining communities.

The central problem that relates to this perspective is the difference between cultural commissioning and that which inherently forms (re-forms) out of a responsive or reflexive collective endeavour. It is generally expected that arts enterprises and the creative industries will benefit communities in transition and stimulate growth economies in a viable relationship with social ecologies of change. This has been the basis of repeated creative or cultural industries led regeneration exercises. Further, there is an assumption that the process, as a strategic practice, avoids disruption or the fracture of communities. But where targeted policy led cultural interventions do occur, the supposed benefits to the affected community tend to be measured against metrics normalised by organised political thought and political objectives and these are not necessarily primary motivators that can inspire willing engagement. Any planned and concentrated cultural investment will assume a degree of impact; the question is whether this aligns with the needs or instincts of the resident and remaining community. Dependent on the scale of the intervention, it can contribute to displacement in the same way that highly capital intensive investments tend to destabilise neighbourhoods and their established sense of distinctiveness. This is an over-generalisation and proof is lacking; the views I express are subjective, drawn from my practices working for and with communities.

"Creativity and creative behaviours have an essential and dynamic function in supporting self-determination within self-defining communities"

My family has lived and worked in Rochdale for at least 4 generations. I have spent all of my working life in Salford, Rochdale, Oldham and parts of Manchester and I am proud of the reputation and strength of our diverse and ever developing cultural landscape. However, I am increasingly wary of a professionalised creative sector that disguises its privileges by claiming democratic value. This is not to bemoan the inherent worth of professional and specialist arts production nor its contributions to contemporary society; only to point to a risk. A cultural class has emerged in the region and is appearing to dominate public spaces for engagement and absorb the major portion of available public funding. The effect, unintentionally, is to obscure the vernacular and ‘living’ cultures of super-local social communities in the region, in favour of what is claimed to be high value and high quality arts. My perception is that it has become increasingly difficult for citizens to influence change through their own creative actions and so they have to become increasingly deviant and imaginative as a way of preserving and promoting their own cultural enterprise (activism).

Examples from practice

There are three sample projects selected for their diverse contextualising detail; they offer differing scenarios and, therefore, complexity. It has been my privilege to act as one of the contributing artists (or creative activists) in each case and the brief descriptive outlines and reflections presented here are personal annotations taken from my memory and incidental documentation. In each of the examples it was my (and others) original intention to engage with a local audience through creative practice and, where relevant, pursue collaborative relationships and opportunities for co-creation. What binds these examples is the motive to involve, participate or share within social groups or entities on the basis of a common sense of place-related identity; therefore responding to an element of psycho-geography in addition to, or even instead of, the physical and material environment (landscape). Each example covers; an overview of the context (environment), a brief description of the form of the action (enterprise), a brief description of direct impacts and potential legacy (the immediate effectiveness of the work as gesture) and a brief description of the reach of the co-operation (audience, participants and stakeholders). It has been necessary to exploit qualitative language in these notes without rigorous qualification to reflect judgements related to the character and value of; inter and intra-social engagements, latent creative opportunities, organisational cultures and intangible knowledge. Any inference or suggestion of long-term or sustained impact should be read as subjective opinion; these are recent projects and there has been no attempt to collect or evaluate any evidence of associated impacts. These projects have all benefitted from the support of an Arts and Humanities Research Council Knowledge Transfer Fellowship (“Supporting arts and enterprise skills in communities through engagement with the local environment”; Reference: AH/G017115/1).

‘The Secret Gardens Festival of Mass Narrative’; cultural swarm, Salford and Trafford, 2011/12

Secret garden

This is an initiative covering Salford and Trafford where established networks, third sector organisations and active communities needed a vehicle for co-operative cultural programming as a means of growing positive perceptions of districts in the city and their residents. In the face of severely diminishing public resources and significant reductions in available funding for creative community projects, the Festival was a means of: highlighting a programme of citizen led cultural activities; seeding or encouraging new creative aspirations; celebrating the contribution of creative collaborations within communities; and connecting communities of interests across a broad conurbation. The main drive came from individuals living in complex neighbourhoods and areas of multiple-deprivation where the impacts of an accrued negative public reputation can be most acute. There was a combined will to promote the positive value of those neighbourhoods and co-ordinate a temporary network that could maximize on value from the sharing of creative public engagements. This was a mass action that can and should be repeated. It was distributed across a range of locations and it was one opportunity to capture and disseminate the richness of local culture and local places. Thirty-five separate groups, organizations and informal networks of differing type and constitution collaborated to produce a programme of fifty distinct events. On the whole, they did not seek permission or approval from any authority as each contributing project was in control of its own resources; its own planning and delivery. The notable exception was a 2-day showcase event for the Festival presented in public realm spaces at MediaCityUK. This was the first time that any of the contributing parties had to consider the presence of an external or other authority and decision making body. Inevitably, the power and control was assumed by that other authority and its representatives. As a consequence, this element of the entire enterprise generated; disproportionate costs, fresh barriers to participation, risks to future continuation but also the majority of the journalism relating to the project.

The festival took its theme from the novel The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett who spent a portion of her childhood living in the Islington area of Salford. The 100th anniversary of the publication of ‘The Secret Garden’ (2011) was marked by The Islington Estate Tenants and Residents Association (TIETARA) and children from nearby schools who lovingly restored a commemorative and themed mosaic in Islington Park. The idea of a swarm festival of mass narrative came out of and was inspired by this earlier activity, it built and expanded on the metaphor of the garden in the novel; referring to places valued and cherished locally for their undisclosed or symbolic cultural value and celebrating undiscovered creativity throughout the City of Salford and the Metropolitan Borough of Trafford. The Festival was intended as a showcase of grassroots creativity embracing both fictional and autobiographical storytelling across multiple platforms and media; content sourced from diverse community groups or from individuals in both real and on-line spaces; singles stories told through multiple voices or multiple stories told through a single mediation.

Context: The location of the project is an urban conurbation covering multiple and diverse neighbourhoods crossing local authority boundaries. The participating neighbourhoods are mostly recognised as lower super output (LSO) areas by indices of multiple-deprivation. Those neighbourhoods have close proximity to a high-value capital-led intensive regeneration in an environment routed in the industrial heritage (and identity) of the region. There is a rapid and dramatically diminishing role for the public sector in cultural programming, welfare support, essential and non-essential services. There is a relative deficit in reputation of communities and micro-regions within the conurbation due to reported crimes and socio-economic deprivation.

At the same time the region can boast a highly active and well-populated voluntary sector with a strong proportionate presence of social enterprise. There is a strong representation of effective and connected key individuals throughout the participating neighbourhoods; highly-motivated community activists. There is a pre-existing and established tradition of low investment cultural programming at super-local levels. Residents commonly present a powerful association with local identity and perceptions of identity and this crosses generations.

Actions from the project: A new organisational network was established with the specific intention of creating a fresh identity for a largely pre-existing cultural programme. This involved an attempt at modelling co-operative systems of governance and administration designed to prioritise open participation or contribution. Collaborative processes and the sharing of practices were designed around social media and the development of digital communication tools specific to the festival. One output from this effort was the design and delivery of a single digital showcase and an events programme unified around a shared timetable and a common communications design. There was a collective attempt at continuation planning and this achieved specific goals producing both legacy and capital from the first festival; a narrative film documentary, a dedicated flash novel, a web-based archive etc.

This was a scalable public celebration and creative showcase that emphasised cultural assets locally and built awareness and belief in the value of social capital within the region. Audience-sharing developed a mutual appreciation between neighbourhoods and participating organisations of the impact and reach of collective cultural actions. The Festival demonstrated affordable solutions to cultural programming and highlighted growing (rather than diminishing) opportunities for cultural participation and engagement, leading to a better quality and rate of inclusion in LSO areas. The co-production of social media and digital assets from the project encouraged greater digital inclusion and IT use through ‘prosumer’ activity. The project included a broad range of community led input across all ages and without concession to any supposed divisions of society. As a direct consequence of the action, some professional cultural organisations and creative enterprises across the conurbation were directly encouraged to focus attention around the theme of locally-sourced talent and ‘live’ cultural assets. Each contribution experienced an enlarged public audience, achieved through shared programming, promotions, digital networking and on-line showcasing. The Festival affected positive reputation-building for the region, at the very least for those participating in its delivery and execution.

‘Colouredge’, public art commission, Littleborough 2011/12


This was a commission awarded by a self-organising volunteer group in the town of Littleborough on the Pennine Edge of Greater Manchester where they had developed a habit of annual celebrations focused on local creativity. The group responsible for the annual festival made a decision to break step with the limited and limiting associations of a local arts festival and embrace contemporary tactics of creative engagement and inclusion, thereby leading new conversations about the nature and scope of locally-made culture and artisan enterprise. They designed a commission with the intention of forcing an opportunity; igniting fresh impetus and direction in the manner by which residents and town’s people engage with the festival and its cultural programme. The Festival Committee selected a project proposal from open competition on the basis of; local relevance, lasting legacy, participation opportunities and the offer of collaboration with local stakeholders. The preferred project started with a colour analysis of the physical landscape as a means of designing an indicative colour key, representing place identity. The project’s intention was to grow a ‘prosumer’ network; people who might adopt the colour swatch and then manipulate its contents for their own, personal needs as retailers, manufacturers, creative businesses, artists, crafts workers or social enterprises. This practice of ‘colour mapping’ is still being refined and tested in different environments and social settings, other than and as well as Littleborough. It has begun to take the form of a system or method of engagement that can be readily transferred (transposed) according to differing user contexts, even supporting primary teachers delivering cross-disciplinary local field studies.

By building archives of colour sources and colour observations related to specific places, the practice seeks to offer multiple opportunities for creative response and for public engagements. The main goal is to produce original artwork from qualitative enquiry that maps a tacit link between colour experience, material colour presence and regional or micro-regional identity. Colour acts as a unique language in the environment, perhaps communicating with or equally ignoring its neighbour, evoking memories and familiarity, indicating history, time and natural ecological processes. It can stand as a reference point in the landscape; a contestation and inter-play between nature, the elements, architecture and human interaction. The built environment is often an extension of the natural landscape and geology of a region, up to a point at which the urban mass starts to adopt ubiquitous materials and aesthetics. The ‘Colouredge’ project and similar interactions examine colour and colour occurrence as a contributing tool to landscape character and to understanding socio-cultural identity related to geography. The resultant colour resources can be used to explore opportunities for fresh interpretations; design concepts, new product ideas or communications specifically branded by their equivalence or relation to regional distinctiveness.

Context: The start of the project was an open interpretation of the colour characteristics of a physical landscape predefined by civic boundaries; a nominated place. The process captures and values characteristic heritage in the landscape and thereby celebrates traditions of place alongside; contemporaneous features, original gestures (or marks) and natural ecologies. The theme of the enquiry encompasses atmospheric and meteorological changes; conditions that affect perceptions of the landscape that are in flux but understood to be within a range of normality relating to the identity of that place. This aspect taps into a common special interest, shared by a significant proportion of local residents, in that it evidences history (or memory) woven into the urban condition, the wilderness and the contemporary everyday.

The ‘Colouredge’ project responds to a pre-existing focus of interest in place identity and local distinctiveness that is common in the town’s culture. The project benefitted from existing habits of local action and self-determination; a range of self-selecting communities of interest promoting public engagement. Either because of or as complement to the activities of the Arts Festival Committee, there is an emerging growth of creative industries in the town, mostly characterised by independent sole traders, part-time self-employed and independent practitioners. Due to the focussed actions of the Committee arts professionals, amateurs and hobbyists in the town are well networked and were already behaving co-operatively before the commission.

Actions from the project: The process of the commission started with a landscape colour survey using cameras, colour cue technology and paint mixing; and conducted by commissioned artists working for the town’s Festival. The purpose was to initiate colour conversations (exhibitions, consultations & workshops) targeting different public groups in a range of contexts including; local schools, gallery presentations, community centre presentations, the local railway station, artist studios, etc. These activities informed the design and editing of a range of colour palettes that were reproduced in dye, print and paints and made ready for adoption by other producers. The colour research activity continues to grow as does the prototyping of product concepts and test samples inspired by the colour palettes: household paint range, cotton samples, fashion tailoring, soft furnishings, local interest books, colour walk guides, education packs, etc.

This has been a steady process of local engagement raising both related debates and the profile of cultural participation locally. The core focus has been the adoption of specific colour keys and their significance to local identity (community branding) and this has provided a fertile territory prompting further action. Local creative industries networking has been the principal benefit so far; linking micro-scale enterprise and cultural production and forming an additional community of practice. There are clear signs that it is facilitating local pride and the promotion of local distinctiveness through tapping into character, sense of place and identity. The process and project outcomes are promoting additional routes to self-determination and options for direct income to benefit social and cultural enterprises and specifically the work of the Arts Festival Committee. The priority audience for the project has been its commissioners; these are equally the most likely participants and contributors and inevitably the owners of the projects legacy. As this matures into a collaborative relationship, the important audience over the longer term is shifting to players and stakeholders in local governance and planning controls; professionals and people with authority who may act on the local distinctiveness arising from the project. The commissioning group and others in the local community aim to develop a relationship with conservation interests and professionals as one means of preserving local identity. Economic actors in the creative industries and their adoption of the community brand are the main source in relation to the sustainability of impact from the project.

‘Guns to Goods’, Social Enterprise start-up, Moss Side, South Manchester. 2009/12


This is a creative enterprise project initially inspired by a locally-based (Moss Side, Manchester) charity, supported, in turn, by the Serious Crime Unit of the Greater Manchester Police. As a consequence of a series of strong and positive outcomes from armed violence crime reduction campaigns, the relationship originated the Guns to Goods concept due to the continuing need to reduce the incidence of gun related crime and gun ownership in the very local community. This project aims to promote ongoing citizen led initiatives affecting reductions in weapons proliferation and gun ownership by providing a means of physically destroying weapons, placing them beyond use and symbolically converting their metal into fresh artefacts of aesthetic value. The project potentially supplies a narrative that has brand value for the main charity as well as the various public and third sector endeavours contributing to crime solutions. Importantly, if successful, it will provide space for public expression and creative gestures, adding to campaign resources, through product design and product enhancements.

From 2009, artist/researchers at the University of Salford have been assisting the charity CARISMA (Community Alliance for Renewal, Inner South Manchester Area) with a new, social enterprise start-up aimed at affecting a reduction in gun and gang related crime locally; that is, within Manchester. The initial move to collaborate was at the request of CARISMA, who had proposals for an arts project that they had developed in co-operation with the Police. They had originally envisioned a single sculptural monument fabricated in gun metal and designed through consultation. Once the collaboration had begun it was possible to rethink the initiative as a creative enterprising action that could be; controlled and facilitated effectively in a staged (lock step) approach, designed within constraints on cost liabilities, and adjusted flexibly to options for sustainable operations should the system of recycling prove feasible. The main objective was to release the project and its sponsors from grant or funding dependency.

The main enterprise is recycling guns taken from police custody into metal stocks for new manufacturing. The second is a design, make and retail enterprise that seeks to create high value artefacts with the aim of developing commercial surplus for investing in social goals locally. The aim is to blend established community engagement practices with a social enterprise model where design, manufacturing and retail merge with social campaign promotion, creative solutions and public arts commissioning. By successfully establishing solutions to procurement and logistics in the process of recycling source metals from the supply side (police armoury) to secure environments for decommissioning and smelting (foundry), the project literally destroys weapons. This is a positive narrative and marketing tool that has the potential to influence gun crime reduction by recruiting new engagement with the problem. Resolving the practical and logistical aspects of the project has provided raw materials and a starting point from which to grow low volume production of high to medium value artefacts of aesthetic worth (public art commissions and new designs for manufacture) branded with a gun crime and armed violence reduction narrative. The longer term goal is to embed and fund engagements with ex-offenders and those most at risk of offending, leading to both employment within the processes of the project and new learning experiences. Though there are many similar examples elsewhere, the ‘Guns to Goods’ initiative specifically seeks to be different in that it aims to empower individuals through their own actions and, eventually, their shared ownership of the means of production and commerce.

Context: This is an Inner Urban Setting; a relatively densely populated district that once blended with heavy industry land use but has subsequently been subject to decline and recurrent recession. Consequently, there has been a sequence of displacement and change impacts from regeneration and intensive infrastructure investments over recent decades that have developed a culture of uncertainty. There is a historic trajectory of gang related segmentation across communities and neighbourhoods. The area is recognised on the national index of multiple-deprivation and there is a persistent and pervasive negative reputation nationally, for high rates of crime and poor social cohesion attached to the district. Counter to this reputation, there is a relatively high incidence of initiatives for positive action to reduce crime and build social cohesion in the local neighbourhoods of Moss Side and these benefit from established networks that are self-organised. There are strong religious/ethical attachments represented within the community, supporting a strong role for professional spiritual leaders. Established habits of cultural celebration and expression are well embedded into the annual calendar and these are largely co-ordinated or led by community activists.

Actions from the project: The ‘Guns to Goods’ project has focused on recycling guns stored in police custody into metal for transfer into further manufacturing. So far there have been a number of concentrated investments into specialist design for manufacture; creative solutions and ideas for developing replicable low volume artefacts. There is an ongoing objective for storytelling and narrative construction based on the experiences of the project; relating the initiative to a wide audience as a process of developing its recognition and brand. In the next phase of the project there are new creative expression/participation opportunities relating to individual experience and gesture; the design of products that allow for bespoke user-generated content as a means of developing advocacy around the social mission. The action is related to continuing efforts to build and renew inter-agency networks led by CARISMA as a representative local charity.

This is an enterprise system for multiple adoptions in and by communities on a micro-scale. The project seeks to provide a creative vehicle from which to build further platforms for the capture and dissemination of beliefs and ideas. There is now an emerging route to devising turnaround opportunities focused on individuals and their needs; opportunities for structuring learning experience for ex-offenders through work and employment contributing to the community’s needs. This relates to a potential for income from enterprise; a possible contribution to the sustainability to the enterprise and the main charity. The products planned, falling out of the initiative, offer opportunities for community led communications and the dissemination of positive messages that will assist in reputation building for the area and its residents. The charity partners in the project are promoting their approach to policy influencers and makers; those informing opinion relating to local investments or resources to combat crime and the ‘Guns to Goods’ initiative provides one case examples.

Practice area

There is an over-arching theme that has been supported by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Knowledge Transfer Fellowship (“Supporting arts and enterprise skills in communities through engagement with the local environment”; Reference: AH/G017115/1). These practices, when viewed together, propose a framework and methodology of creative and socially constructed interactions that empower and support communities seeking to affect or counter change in local conditions. The practice functions in the realm of social sculpture (and reverse innovation modelling in socio-cultural spaces) leading to enterprise activism and positive campaigning with the intention to impact on; professional design thinking, local planning decisions, other change agencies and public policy solutions. The purpose in each example has been to extend or advance motivations felt by individuals, leading to collective actions in response to campaign-related or social issues then owned by what becomes a self-defining community. These actions in themselves generate fresh sources of impact from creative and enterprising innovation with and by self-nominating individuals or groups.

In brief summary, these projects have utilised an arts and enterprise participation model to create self-branded commodities or outcomes that are representative of collective experience and connected identities in relation to wider cultural (social or economic) programmes. If it is possible to refine these actions into one model, then that model seeks to sustain the commitment of those participating by focussing on metrics and benchmarks that can be owned and influenced by locally-significant communities or groups of individuals; those most affected by the play or endeavour. These projects lack organisation in so far as they are chaotic; in a state of permanent flux. They embrace a blend of creative agendas and enterprise goals and that in itself generates some doubt and a good deal of disruption in terms of process. They are formed to provide a breadth of purpose and opportunity, linking outputs to specific environmental and social impacts but not through design so much as gesture and accrued wisdom discovered through the process of trying or speculating around an idea. This means that the activities can and do respond to chance inspiration as readily as structured problem solving. This is the main creative element; it is often disruptive and problematic, but the critical crisis that it generates positively reinforces discourse and the sharing of emotional intelligence and subjectivity. Where participation alters shape or form in the course of these creative projects, it then detracts from the original concept or vision so that something new can evolve. This is where the process differs most significantly from commissioned and policy led change processes and cultural interventions. The projects indicate a role and function for arts media in multi-strand participation; they suggest a methodology emphatic of team and collaborative process, individual responsibility and creative opportunity. The process develops shared purpose by fostering fresh creativity and a diversity of approach in the exploration of the social, physical and political discourses that either sponsored the original action (concept) or stimulated a desire for change.

It is difficult to conceive of a rational argument for investing in systems of consultative change and citizen led enterprise without a prior awareness of goals, structures and risk; a plan. However, each of the examples cited were intentionally vague at the outset and were designed to yield and deviate, as processes, to new input and to unpredictable creative contributions. They began as conversations or critical odysseys rather than solutions to nominated problems. This is an important consideration in this realm of practice as ownership or the transfer of ownership cannot be fully predicted and sensitivities play a major role in the construction of meaning and response around the central motivating theme. The main stakeholders are very informal organisations whose own survival and sustainability is highly dependent on the contribution of unique citizens and the circumstances of key individuals; it is important that the activity forms a personality that can attract empathy and even passion from the main players. That said, the lead organisations and associated sources of citizen leadership, however informal, benefit hugely from professional support (public and private sector) when it presents as a complement. The nature of that support is variable but is increasingly likely to take the form of advice, guidance and participation rather than financial aid. This has far more to do with practical effectiveness and shifts in consciousness than any political leadership at the level of national government. The aggressive austerity measures of the current coalition parties (national UK government) and their attempts at isolating a welfare under-class are an important feature of the context but have not, in any way, caused active citizen leadership nor the habit of co-operative partnerships with professional allies. This is not ‘Big Society’, it is an established pattern of resistance that may be typical of many communities that perceive themselves to be remote from wider political priorities or capable of affecting positive and sustainable change locally. Hyper-local consortial and co-operative behaviour between organisations of differing type offers the best chance of sustaining community leadership, as it allows an activity to grow and evolve. Inputs from professional artists and creative agents are one of those areas where specialist support is most likely to excite engagement and new thinking. The learning from the three examples cited here is that such input need not pose as expertise and thereby dominate the culture of ideas within a network but can form one part of a dynamic conversation. Acting as part of a community of interest focused around a mission, the artist worker’s primary role is to experience the development as one of its agents. The process is not too dissimilar from the discursive meanderings of trial and testing that might be expected in the rarified atmosphere of the artist’s studio, only that it involves far more people acting together. If the activity is to sustain or be repeated, it makes sense that its forms should be malleable and its outputs changeable as these are primarily social phenomena routed in dynamic communities; they are not problems with a solution.

This Perspectives Essay was written as part of the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform's (GM LIP) 'Mapping the Urban Knowledge Arena' project. The GMLIP is one of five global platforms of Mistra Urban Futures, a centre committed to more sustainable urban pathways in cities. All views belong to the author/s alone.