RSA Arts & Ecology

Hacking together a project

In a blog a couple of weeks ago, Matthew Taylor called for ideas for a new RSA project on manufacturing. Given the RSA’s commitment to practical project work, he suggested that heavy industrial projects would be impractical for us and that worthy reports on the future of manufacturing in the UK are two-a-penny.

The rise of hacking (see this paper published by the RSA’s Design team in 2009) provides food for thought, but the practical project isn’t yet clear… Anyway rather than go over the same ground again, I thought I’d do something more constructive, like make a map of the Hackspaces that are springing up around the UK. This one (click on it to go to the actual map) shows the Hackspaces listed on the Hackspace Foundation website as of today.

I’d be interested to know what factors contribute to the forming of a hackspace. Is it a university near by? More diverse or tolerant communities? Concentration of creative or high-tech industry? What do you think?

Map of UK Hackspaces – data taken from http://hackspace.org.uk/

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

Think Big, Teach Local

It’s an exciting moment in the Area Based Curriculum project in Peterborough. We’re at the point where we try to move away from bothering busy people with important jobs, asking them to do things they wouldn’t normally do, and towards a role supporting people moving ahead with their own projects. Where the RSA stops being ‘doer’ and begins to act in the role of ‘supporter’. Communities and schools work together to design a curriculum. We don’t do it for them. We don’t determine who gets involved, or what goes in the curriculum. That’s the whole point.

The point of an Area Based Curriculum is that communities and schools work together to design a curriculum. We don’t do it for them. We don’t determine who gets involved, or what goes in the curriculum. That’s the whole point. Eleven years of working with schools on Opening Minds has convinced the RSA of the power of a curriculum that is conceived, designed and implemented by teachers in a school. The Area Based Curriculum goes one step further: reaching out beyond the school gates and asking the people in a local area to pitch in and work with teachers, bringing their ideas, resources and expertise.

The problem is, of course, that in order for the work to be worthwhile we of course do have a view on what should go in the curriculum, and who should be involved. We insist that the curriculum reflect the diversity of a local area, and seek to engage those not normally involved in education. We ask that the projects take proper account of the national entitlement of all children to a certain set of shared knowledge, at the same time as reflecting local knowledges and priorities. Our reasons for doing the work in the first place are based on principles – educational and ethical and political. For it to be worth doing we must care about the outcomes, and take responsibility for ensuring that our intervention is not a hollow one that reinforces existing power structures and exclusions, fails to secure different outcomes to what existed before, or worse.

Our project in Peterborough is at the point where we do what we said we went there to do, and try to provoke a genuinely community owned and led curriculum. We have to hope that we have got the balance right: between providing enough steer to the work so that we achieve and can measure what we set out to do, and stepping aside at the right time to allow the teachers and community partners in Peterborough to develop and own their own projects.

The Big Society must intend to achieve better outcomes for society, and someone has to define what those are – otherwise why bother?

This tension between the stated aims of a given intervention and local ownership, of course, is present in all work by agencies seeking to enable people to do things for themselves. This includes central government espousing ideas like the Big Society. At the beginning the intervention, or policy, or suggestion for change is just that – ‘centralised’, ‘top down’, ‘external’. The Big Society must intend to achieve better outcomes for society, and someone has to define what those are – otherwise why bother? At the same time the enactment of the Big Society needs to be internalised and owned by communities, professionals and individuals. What are the mechanisms for making this happen? How do we establish a shared sense of what we are trying to achieve? And how far does or should the original intervener (in this case the Coalition Government) retain responsibility for the outcomes?

The Area Based Curriculum is, ultimately, about culture change. It’s about subtle but crucial shifts in perceptions of ownership, responsibility and expectation. So too is the Big Society. We will soon find out whether our assumptions about how to effect change in a way that empowers have been correct, and we will learn a lot on the way. Sharing this learning with others doing similar work will be crucial to informing the success of the Big Society.

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

Art, Ecology and Citizen Power

Tomorrow, the Dutch artist Marjolijn Dijkman arrives in the UK to begin her residency atClare Cottage in Helpston, near Peterborough. Her stay marks a shift in focus for Arts & Ecology, towards exploring how the arts may engage people locally with environmental change and sustainability. As part of this, Marjolijn has been invited to stay at the home of the local romantic poet John Clare who died in 1864, so is no longer living there. The cottage was refurbished last year and Marjolijn intends to explore contemporary ideas about ‘place’ with people in the surrounding villages and the city of Peterborough, which is where the RSA Citizen Power project is located.
Wandering Through the Future (installation) by Marjolijn Dijkman, 2007. Commissioned by Sharjah Biennial 8: ‘STILL LIFE, Art, Ecology and the politics of Change’. Photo by Lateefa Maktoum

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

The thing we shouldn’t be asking artists to do


Heart of Darkness by Cornelia Parker, 2004 from Earth: art of a changing world, London 2009

This is Climate Action on Cultural Hertitage week – it’s an initiative championed by Bridget McKenzie as a response to the growing number of individuals and organisations calling for a more clearly defined sense of purpose from the arts and heritage sector.  People like Al Tickell of Julie’s Bicycle ask: “Why do we expect moral leadership to come from corporations and science? Surely the meaningful nature of the arts in society puts it in a position to take a lead on climate action?”

There are two aspects to this. Firstly it’s about how we behave ourselves. Art fairs, say, have become an example of the muscularity of the art industry. As curators/critics Maja and Reuben Fowkes have asked,  is this world of global art jamborees a sustainable one? Gustav Metzger’s Reduce Art Flights was one of the artist’s passionate “appeals”, this time to the art world to reconsider how they had been seduced into transporting themselves and their works around the globe. Furtherfield.org’s We Won’t Fly For Art was equally explicit, asking artists to commit to opting out of the high profile career track that conflates your ability to command air tickets with success.

Industries can change the way they behave. Tickell’s work with the music business has already shown how a cultural industry can transform itself in terms of process.

But there’s also the role of art as a spoke in the wheel of culture. Science itself changes nothing. To become a transitional society requires more than policy. The real change must be cultural. So should climate be the subject matter of art?

Pause for thought: Do we want rock stars enjoining us to change our ways? Please God, no. See? If it doesn’t work for rock music, why should it work for other art forms?

In an article being published next week on the RSA Arts & Ecology website, Madeleine Bunting will be arguing strongly against the urge to push artists into an instrumental role in climate:

“The visual arts offer a myriad of powerful ways to think and feel more deeply about our age and our humanity, but it is almost impossible to trace the causal links of how that may feed through to political engagement or behaviour change,” she cautions.

It is time to accept that artists don’t simply  ”do” climate. Even the most obviously campaigning art is of little value if it is simply reducible to being about climate. They may be inspired to create by the facts of science and economics, as Metzger and Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett of Furtherfield were in those examples above, but if you asked them to make art about climate they’d almost certainly run a mile.

What was interesting about the RA exhibition Earth: art of a changing world was the way that made that explicit. Artists like Cornelia Parker and Keith Tyson were clear in saying their pieces that they weren’t necessarily conceived with climate in mind at all, (though both are passionate about the subject). The decision to include Parker’s Heart of Darkness as an a piece of work to make us ponder the destruction of our planet was a curatorial one.

There’s a kind of separation between church and state needed here; institutions shouldn’t just be looking to their carbon footprints, they should be looking to see how they can contextualise this cultural shift with what they show their audiences – whatever the artform. It is up to the curators, directors and art directors to take on this role. In this coming era, we urgently need events, exhibitions and festivals that make us feel more deeply about the change taking place around us – and we need them to find new audiences for those explorations too.

But what we shouldn’t be doing is asking artists to make art about climate.

Read Bridget McKenzie’s Framework for climate action in cultural and heritage organisations

Follow Climate Action on Cultural Hertitage #cach on twitter

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

The impossible hamster & RSAnimate: thoughts on “nubs”

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sqwd_u6HkMo

Yesterday, the New Economics Foundation released this video to support their report about the irreconcilability of the idea of sustained economic growth with the idea of sustainability itself,  Growth Isn’t Possible. It’s made by Leo Murray, one of the makers of The Age of Stupid and the short film  Wake Up Freak Out.

The Impossible Hamster is a clever way of drawing attention to an idea, using a short viral video. In some circles this would be called an agit-nub, nubs being “short videos that explain or bring an idea to life“.

In the last couple of years, nubs have increasingly become the means by which new ideas are spread around the web. They encapsulate how the web works; by making them embeddable, they become a freebie for other content producers. Spreading ideas and messages on the web is about reciprocity; you have to give in order to receive attention.

Nubs raise a few questions. Firstly, at the moment wit is still prized as much as quality, but will the increasing standards of advertising viral videos begin to crowd out the more low-fi productions like Leo Murray’s? Take a look at this ad about the persuasive technology of a musical staircase which turns out to be an advertisement by Volksvagen. Made to look low-fi by the adevertising agency DDB Stockholm, it became one of the most successful virals of last year. Advertisers are spending increasingly large sums producing these virals.

Secondly, if nubs are the repository for political messages, will we soon have “nub wars”? As somebody in the office pointed out the moment they saw The Impossible Hamster, a climate sceptic might have made a video of a hamster growing not only fat but clever enough to start building new worlds.

Thirdly, do they respresent a kind of Darwinism of ideas; if an idea is not reducible to a three minute nub will it become worthles?

Myself, I don’t think so. I think their mix of expression and intellect makes them an incredibly powerful new genre.

On the last point, the RSA’s own RSAnimate series shows that nubs don’t need to be reductionist. Take a look at Matthew Taylor’s Left Brain Right Brain which is just out this week:

Look out for new videos coming up on the new RSA Comment pages:http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

RSA Arts & Ecology – MA in Art & Environment: 2010

University College Falmouth
MA Art & Environment: 2010

For centuries artists have interpreted and represented the natural environment. It has provided materials and subject matter, as well as inspiration and knowledge. In recent times – particularly since the growth of the environmental movement – there has been a dramatic change in our understanding of the many ways our society impacts upon the Earth. This awareness has galvanised around the fact that the relationship between humanity and our life-giving planet is in a critical state.

This change in knowledge has been reflected in contemporary art practice. MA Art & Environment, at University College Falmouth, encourages a focused engagement with ecological and environmental issues. Designed to give students the skills, expertise and confidence to operate as a professional artist in this critical area of practice, the course will also enable them to develop strategies and practices that use art as a cultural agent – as a tool for knowledge, understanding and change.

Students on the course have opportunities to benefit from the Universtity’s relationship with Cape Farewell, The Eden Project and University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute.

For further information please
contact Dr Daro Montag
daro.montag[@]falmouth.ac.uk
+44 (0)1326 211077

Update on State of the Arts

A week ago the RSA and Arts Council England held the substantial State of the Artsconference, which we hope will become an annual event. The conference tweeters continue to sing with the compelling ideas and discussions that the event prompted. And now content from the London event is becoming available from the RSAs main website and there will be more online soon. Enjoy.

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

Design and ecology: Julia Lohmann

Design tends to think of the environment in only terms of materials and processes; how do we make things in a way that harms the environment least. So it was great to come across the work of designer Julia Lohmann. I met her about a year ago to write a piece about her in the New York Times.

Anyway. To the p0int. Lohmann is famous for her Cow Benches – uncomfortable pieces of furniture that consist of a single cow hide stretched over a skeletal frame to form a headless, legless shape that looks uncomfortably like a sitting cow. On one level it’s a kind of riposte to the DFS leather sofa, forcing us to think about the materials that the things we sit on are made of.

At first glance her use of animals appears repulsive and callous. Her graduation show at The Royal College of Art included a piece called Flock – a series of lamps made from sheep’s stomachs. She outraged fellow designers a couple of years ago with another seat shape calledThe Lasting Void, a sleek, futuristic pod that turned out to have been moulded from the inside of a slaughtered cow’s body cavity.

In fact they’re quite the opposite – a way of forcing us to think about our disconnection from the animals we slaughter. In fact there’s a tenderness about her pieces that’s more visible with the second glance. Raised in small-town Germany with a love of animals, who worked on farms in Iceland, she believes that if we kill animals we have a responsibility to know what we do, and to use every part of the carcass respectfully. As a student she had been fascinated by the reaction to Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided: “You kill and cut up a cow and people are outraged,” Lohmann says. “Yet we do that every day. And what percentage of that meat is being thrown away?” Lohmann’s work is an attempt to create something useful – or at least respectful – from every piece of the dead carcass – even the cavity.

Unlike most design, Lohmann’s pieces leave you with a very clear question. If your reaction to her work is still that it is frivolous and unethical to use dead animals to make her pieces, then what else about the way we use animals is frivolous?

Julia Lohmann in the New York Times

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

Joe McElderry not No 1: how to stop a juggernaut


In a fitting end to Simon Cowell’s four year dominance of the Xmas number ones, this year’s festive pop pick is an expletive-filled polemic against the American military-industrial complex “Killing in the Name”. A man who has always stood with admirable consistency on the law of pop – that sales mean what the public want, and the public knows better than the critics –  was last night skewered on his own petard, significantly outsold by a campaign which in a few weeks gathered almost a million followers.

And what do we learn from this?

Two things.

One: Social media can do extraordinary things. To get a number one hit after appearing on national television every Saturday for three months is really not hard. Yet that old media juggernaut careering down on us was stopped a Facebook campaign started by a couple from Essex and a single live performance on Radio 5.

Two: Ultimately we British are best motivated against things, rather than forthings. The best way to increase democratic participation in the UK would be to ask people to vote against candidates, rather than for them. Can you imagine it? There would be queues around the block, come polling day. (Of course there’s the small problem that the political landscape would be poisoned forever, but you would have participation.)

This, of course, provides tricky lesson for those of us interested in the enviroment – and those of us here at the RSA who prefer an optimistic, positive  approach.

But it does go some way explain why it is so hard to motivate people to action when it comes to issues like climate. Which particular machine are we supposed to be raging against? Try as we might to divide society into the environmentally good and bad, there is no covenient Cowell figure to blame everything on. As Paul Kingsnorth suggests in a comment on a blog post earlier, there is no clear enemy other than ourselves. Though we can rage against our leaders for failing at Copenhagen – and the scale of the failure was immense – few leaders wanted to stick their neck out without a clear mandate from their people – and let’s face it – that clear mandate just isn’t there yet.

Point one though provides at least one clue to how to change that. Social media is not the answer to everything. Maybe the gains it can make in terms of the environmental agenda are only small ones, but if social media campaigns are witty, smart and well-directed they can still do remarkable things.

Thanks to Anne Helmond for the RATM photo.

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

RSA Arts & Ecology – Jan 14 | State of the Arts Conference

State of the Arts Conference
Thursday, 14 January 2010
Park Plaza Riverbank, SE1 7TL
Tickets: £115 (includes VAT)


The State of the Arts Conference, organised by the RSA and Arts Council England, brings together a wide range of creative voices to debate the value and purpose of the arts at a time of significant change.

We recognise that arts and cultural experiences are more diverse, disruptive and fast moving than ever before. The conference will explore with artists, entrepreneurs, cultural leaders and policy makers what kind of arts landscape we need and how we might get there.

Join us in examining the key role of the arts and arts policy in building a strong future for the nation.

Keynote presentations by:

Riz Ahmed, actor and performer
Ben Bradshaw MP, UK Arts Minister
Alan Davey, Arts Council 
Andy Field, Forest Fringe
Dame Liz Forgan, Arts Council
Jeremy Hunt MP, UK Shadow Arts Minister
Nicholas Hytner, National Theatre
Jude Kelly, Southbank Centre
John McGrath, National Theatre Wales
Lord David Puttnam
Matthew Taylor, RSA

For more information see the main State of the Arts Conference page at RSA Events.

Please visit our FAQ page if you have any queries on the conference.

via RSA Arts & Ecology – Jan 14 | State of the Arts Conference.