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
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