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By Sam Thompson, University of Liverpool
Firstly, many thanks for the opportunity to attend the Grizedale summit. It was a privilege to spend time in a beautiful place with such interesting and committed people. I completed agree with Gill’s point that two-days would have been even better!
Reflecting back on the day, I’m aware that I was playing the awkward devil’s advocate in the final plenary (I hope this wasn’t uncomfortable for anyone!). The reason, I think, is because I strongly resist the idea – which seemed to be an undercurrent of the session – that social scientists trying to understand how the world works are in the domain of (to quote from Michael Davis’ summary piece) “logic, cold numbers and reason”, as if this is incompatible with profound experiential knowledge of the kind that we often value in the arts. I think this kind of “science from the head, art from the soul” discourse is unhelpful, inaccurate and, potentially, divisive.
But I thought it might be worth exploring this a bit further, as a contribution to our post-summit conversation.
In his summary, Michael Davis notes that “One of the difficulties of taking part only in discussion with arts groups is the continual drift back toward arts thinking.” We might well ask: what is “arts thinking”? I guess this could mean many things, but in my experience, one characteristic is a tendency towards idolisation – of the art work, of arts praxis and in some cases of the artist themselves. For me, “arts thinking” is sometimes reflected in a desire to bracket-off “the arts” as something different from the rest of human activity, impervious to analysis by the tools and methods by which we make sense of everything else.
It’s not a way of thinking that I share, and to explain, I’ll digress to an area of artistic endeavour where I have more personal experience…
I studied music at university and spent many years as a passionately enthusiastic classical musician. During this time, I frequently came across people – often wonderful, insightful musicians – who were quite opposed to the idea of analysing music or even, in some cases, studying it academically at all. Music was magical, ineffable, resistant to deconstruction and inexplicable through words (“Writing about music”, as Frank Zappa is alleged to have said, “is like dancing about architecture”). Attempting to lift the bonnet and dismantle the engine was dangerous – what if you couldn’t put it back together again? You might never able to enjoy music again in the same way! Worse, wasn’t it all a bit unnecessary and, frankly, tawdry? After all, if you really got music, you wouldn’t feel the need to question it.
This never made any sense to me. Not because I didn't “get” the magic of music – I lived for it, and still do – but precisely because I got it. I knew first-hand that music was amazing, powerful and transformative, and I wanted to know why! And I thought that by knowing how it worked, I’d have have more chance of helping other people experience something of what I did when I listened and played.
Back to Grizedale. The thing that excited me most about the Grizedale project was that it seems to be an exceptionally generous and open-hearted attempt to render the arts more inclusive and relevant. I love the questioning of “art” as such, the democratisation, exploring the idea of the artist as social actor and agitator, the enthusiasm about making links to history and community, situating arts practice in the context of wider social and political challenges.
And yet, throughout the day I kept feeling that there was resistance to defining social outcomes, dislike of thinking about the project as (even in part) instrumentalism, reluctance to acknowledge that there might be elements of a Grizedale “model” that could be distilled and transferred to other settings, discomfort with adopting an objective and analytic stance… For me, these are examples of the “continual drift towards arts thinking” that Michael warns of – because to embrace rather than resist them would also be, in a way, to normalise Grizedale and render it tractable and explicable. It would be opening the bonnet and peering inside the Grizedale engine.
Arts thinking – or, at least, the kind I’m talking about – worries that once you’ve allowed this move, the magic disappears. But I’m not so sure. For instance, it was noted in the plenary that some of what Grizedale does looks a lot like asset based (but non arts based) community development. This seemed to provoke a degree of discomfort, followed by reiteration that Grizedale is unique, individual and so on. But where is the threat? It would be extraordinary indeed if some of the characteristics that make Grizedale successful were not common to other approaches. It’s not clear to me how Grizedale’s uniqueness is put in jeopardy by saying this out loud.
We also talked a good deal about defining outcomes and that dread word “measurement”. Again, there seemed to be a strong resistance, couched as a concern to avoid instrumentalism. But again, I don’t see it. Using, for instance, socio-economic impact tools to understand the changes that come about during a Grizedale initiative does not thereby “reduce” Grizedale to “just” those impacts. It doesn’t devalue the project as a whole. It doesn’t stop it being art.
I could go on (and on, and on…) but I’m sure there’s already plenty there for people to disagree with, so I’ll stop for now. Thoughts on a postcard…
Octavia our British Lop gilt is now officially a sow as she has had her first litter. Nine were born on Saturday afternoon, outside in the drizzle. She has a lovely farrowing arc full of fresh straw but could not be persuaded to birth in it and she spent all of Friday and Saturday morning collecting bracken and moving the straw to make a big circular nest out in the field. All nine were born within about an hour, each one being moved inside the arc to keep warm. It took another hour or so for her to deliver both afterbirths and another couple of hours before she would move into the arc with the piglets. She unfortunately rolled on one on the first night, a common occurrence in the first few days as the piglets aren't so fast to get out of harms way. We have 8 left, 3 girls and 5 boys. We'll have to tattoo and register them in the next few weeks and get out local Lop expert Carole Barr to have a look at them. There may be some in the litter which are good examples of the breed (relating to ear shape, length, number of teats etc) worth registering which we can sell on for breeding. The rest will be growers for meat. We will probably keep a couple as growers as the meat will be a good supply for Lawson Park and the Honesty Shop in the village. If anyone wants to buy a rare breed British Lop, or some of our pork, please contact us!
Mill Hill County High School were in Coniston last week for a spot of canoeing, hill walking and general school holiday fun (with a few trips to the hospital). All music students, on holiday with their music teachers (with a penchant for both classical and easy listening), much to our delight, they agreed to to do a performance for the village on their last night. Held in Coniston Institute, our Youth Group made homemade ice cream and temperance drinks and served these during the interval and raised money for both Mill Hill school and our youth group.
Hi Bernadette - thanks for inviting me to the Grizedale summit. I enjoyed it - an interesting set of people, tho I am not entirely at home in an academic talking shop. I wasn't totally convinced by Grizedale Arts, and have pulled no punches in my critique. Be it understood however that this an argument, inviting counter-argument. with all good wishes - Matthew
THE GRIZEDALE PROJECT
This strikes me as very experimental. So was the original Grizedale forest sculpture project of 1968.
This project, Grizedale 1 for short, has undoubtedly run its course. Indeed it had a built-in obsolescence since the sculpture used primarily found materials - wind, water, stone, wood, leaf litter - which naturally decay.
Yet what I might call Grizedale 2 seems to define itself in opposition to Grizedale 1, as being everything that Grizedale 1 is not. That was Art to improve the quality of life (or whatever the phrase was), and aimed primarily at visitors. These are disparaged. Grizedale 2 seems to be wary of Art and of any definition of what art is or what it does, to be dubious of the word improvement, and to scorn visitors in favour of villagers.
But art does improve the quality of life, however you define those words. Why be shy about it? And visitors have largely defined the quality of Lake District life since 1750. Why scorn them? Ruskin, Collingwood, Rawnsley, Arthur Ransome, Beatrix Potter, Wainwright - all visitors. It would be interesting to know how many present-day Coniston villagers came here originally as visitors.
I would like to see the achievement of Grizedale 1 given its due, and to see Grizedale 2 build upon it - in a new direction by all means - rather than set itself up in a separate kingdom in opposition to it. I have seen this happen before, to the detriment of the whole, at Dartington. There the placing of departments into separate kingdoms, each upon its own hill, was highly symbolic of the fragmentation of the college ethos. Do we see the same thing happening here?
Grizedale 2 seems to depend almost entirely on the enterprise and ideas of the director, Adam, who cheerfully acknowledged past failures but given a long rope may well bring off a triumphant success here. But the direction and focus, and even definition of purpose, are not there yet. A negative definition, as I have suggested above, is not enough.
It is interesting that Grizedale 2 is ambitiously international in scope, and yet at the same time intensely local. This duality can be compared with two of the most interesting artists that have fetched up in Cumbria, Kurt Schwitters and Li Yuan Chia. Li in particular created a place and whole environment for others to work creatively, in any medium, and to exhibit their work.
Social Change and Sustainable Development. Good food improves the quality of life. Sustainable development improves the quality of food. Social change is, we hope, in a positive direction i.e. an improvement. Is food production an artistic endeavour? Maybe some redefining of boundaries is called for here - or maybe it is best to get on with it and worry about definitions and boundaries later.
These initial responses were sent by email by Dr Gillian Whiteley:
Thoughts on format of event
I felt that we didn't have enough time to get to know the GA
history through to current projects to evaluate what's going on at
GA enough to also comment on it in any meaningful and
non-superficial way. That said, sometimes coming in 'cold' to a
situation does facilitate critical distance that can then aid
insight. In this case though, I felt we didn't get enough detached
in-depth focus discussion sessions. More intensive smaller group
sessions might have been useful as I felt we barely scratched the
surface in many ways as the group of diverse academics (and
approaches) needed some introduction/familiarisation with each
Maybe if it had been over two days, we might have had time to do this.
The final 'plenary' session felt a little forced and
uncomfortable – partly as I felt objectives of the day were unclear
as to whether (primarily) the day had been about introducing GA
(and its potential for some new collaborative projects etc) to us
or (primarily) seeking review of GAs projects/processes and
All that said, the openness of GA to our comments and reflections was remarkable also. But its much better to reflect on what occurred and what might be followed up with critical (and real) distance/time after the event.
A few more thoughts/questions…
Event though it resists it and thinks it works 'with' not 'at' etc, is GA operating a form of 'avant gardism', is it a form of philanthropy? Is the lack of focus/ethos a problem? Is it disingenuous anyway as there is a 'manifesto' on the wall in the GA library – and it had 11 theses (a ref to Marx?) I noted!
Is there a fear of becoming a 'model' - why?
There was an aim espoused to challenge models of relational aesthetics cos they are all speaking to the galllery - but there is long history/are plenty of artists/etc who also primarily work to break that down and operate outside gallery settings .
Is GA fostering conviviality or radicality? Is it
smoothing over social (class) difference and making community
convivial? How does GA relate to 'community', communities,
public/publics - counter–publics?
What about social class/property relations/ownership etc in lake district?
Can an organisation grow organically only as long as its small
Dangers of philanthropy conviviality as affirmation of bourgeois values – do they offer no real challenge to neoliberalism or capitalism at all? Does that matter? How does GA activities relate to recent occupations rebellions and other global issues?
Is GA local, global, parochial?
How does GA engage with notions of mutuality, cooperation, DIY cultures?
Does GA as an organisation need to wither away and if it did what would its activities become? Would it matter? Back to questions of ethos, aims, 'mission' etc…
Idiosyncracy and irreverance for all systems is essential (in my view) but if no ethos then does it become playground for artists?
An introduction by Michael Davis
The recent academic summit at Grizedale Arts, the first of it’s kind, was something of a curiosity to take part in. Grizedale’s broad approach to art and it’s holistic way of working branches into many different disciplines - namely agriculture, architecture, social work, community development, design and ecology. So the thinking behind this summit was to gather academics whose interests sit between and overlap these areas, in order to solidify and reappraise Grizedale’s methodology from an outside perspective, rather than the more common art orientated discussions. One of the difficulties of taking part only in discussion with arts groups is the continual drift back toward arts thinking - and this in effect was an attempt to ascertain whether the Grizedale model (in it’s current form) could be sustainable outside of the arts bubble, as a viable and accountable programme, if transposed to another disciplinary area, without reliance on being an arts project. To begin this discussion, the summit gathered experts and academics from fields such as agriculture, nutrition, horticulture, history, landscape design, architecture, community arts, psychology, social science and social care. The event began with a talk by Grizedale Art’s director and deputy director on the history of projects, showing the full spectrum of engagement, from folk festivals and village projects to design consultation for one of China’s largest new city parks. The day was divided into break out groups and reconvened conversations - the thrust of which was the further development of Grizedale’s working process, whether as a design for living, a hub for research networks or opportunities for post-graduate studies.
Grizedale Arts is at a point of development where it could conceivably become an independent organisation without requiring specifically Arts Council subsidy. Grizedale as a model is very close to a number of different commercially viable models, and it could possibly be used as a model for a number of other organisations such as organic free-range hill farms, or village development programmes, or community outreach centres, and as it stands Grizedale is already looked at as a model for other arts organisations. This was a crucial topic throughout the summit: is it possible to formalise Grizedale’s model without damaging it? Can what is necessarily a chaotic freeform practice be solidified and used as a template in order to replicate and rescale it? And if so, what are the specific measurable virtues and benefits compared to other, similar models and programmes? What are the politics present in the Grizedale’s process? One problematic and oppositional view put forward to this idea of creating a reproducible model was that Grizedale is too embroiled in it’s specifics to be transferable - for example it could not function with different staff, because for one thing, so much of the programme is motivated by self interests - the idea that Adam, Alistair and Maria, with their idiosyncratic views and humour, are citizens of the lakes too is integral to many of the projects, and any attempt to transfer the model without this individual human input would leave only a husk. What is at play here then is the rough collision of academia, in the best Aristotelian tradition of logic, cold numbers and reason, with passionate individual opinions, ethics and quality judgements. Are these modes entirely mutually exclusive? Another proposition which met with general agreement was the idea that is there is indeed measurable, qualifiable benefit to all parties present in the process, whatever that may be, then it can be reduced to that and replicated - if only as a bare principle, a facet of the overall animal. But again this advances the conundrum of how to measure and qualify the outcomes of Grizedale’s work, without resorting to alienating methods such as questionnaires and guinea pig studies. For these processes will undoubtedly undo the majority of beneficial outcomes; trust, friendship, fellowship, goodwill, honesty, money, gifts and so on. This problem of observing without altering has been left, ostensibly, unsolved so far.
Another of the points broached in the conference was whether there is enough definition in Grizedale’s aims and goals. Whether that is in the old mission statement, untouched from the 70s; to use art to improve the conditions of life - or the more recent aims, to make art more interesting, to make art and artists useful - there is a lack of specifics. Is there a difficulty in finishing these sentences? Does the limitations of including specifics out weigh the stability they would potentially provide?
Grizedale’s preoccupation with the reinstatement of usage, or use value, within the arts, also featured in the debate - with questions raised on how to achieve a change in the fashion of arts, and it’s funding, for not-directly-useful projects. The suggestion was for Grizedale to act as a connecting point for similarly social minded arts organisations in order to achieve this change, which although present, are thin and widely spread in the UK, creating formalised and interdependent projects, and greater consensus. This is of course something Grizedale already work toward on a variety of levels, but larger numbers and closer connections will be required to reach a critical mass.
The hope is that this seminar will prove the ground for further research and development in many different directions, but as with all things Grizedale, is was never going to be simple. Further thoughts on the issues raised will follow below.
Michael Davis is an artist and writer
The Grizedale Summit was held on 29 May 2012 in the village of Coniston. It was organised by Grizedale Arts with Bernadette Lynch to open up some of the processes and thinking of the organisation to academics from university departments beyond the the confines of the visual arts and art theory.
The following blog is designed as a record of the summit, a point of discussion and a tool to analyse how Grizedale Arts might be relevant to the wider socio-cultural evolution.
The delegates who attended were:
Dr.Clive Parkinson, Director of Arts for Health
at Manchester Metropolitan University
Dr Gillian Whiteley, Loughborough University School of Arts, Senior Lecturer Critical and Historical Studies
Dr. Sam Thompson , Senior Research Fellow in health inequalities at the University of Liverpool and Senior Lecturer in psychology at the University of East London.
Dr. Carissa Honeywell , Lecturer in Politics, Sheffield Hallam University
Professor Sarah Banks,
School of Applied
Martin Hewitt, Head of History, Politics and Philosophy, Manchester Metropolitan University
Dr Bram Vanhoutte , Centre for Census and Survey Research at the University of Manchester to work on the Frailty, Resilience and Inequality in Later Life (FRAILL) project, sponsored by the Medical Research Council.
Dr. Derek Lynch , Canada Research Chair in
Organic Agriculture, Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.
Dr Karen Dennis, University of Huddersfield.
Matthew Hyde, architectural historian and the author of the new 'Pevsner' for Cumbria
Clare Cooper , co-founder and co-director of the Mission Models Money (MMM) programme.
Dr. Becky Sobell, Senior Lecturer in Landscape
Architecture, Manchester School of Architecture, Manchester
Professor Charlie Gere , Reader in New Media Research, Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts
website design & build by theusefularts.org.