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

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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.

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Chico Mendes Legacy Lecture 13.01.09

On 13 January 2009 RSA Arts & Ecology teamed up with the Young Vic and People’s Palace Projects to present a lively encounter programmed to coincide with Amazonia, the theatre’s latest extraordinary production inspired by the life and legacy of world-famous environmental activist, Chico Mendes, who was assassinated because of his political views in December 1988.
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Public art and public space

… if you were listening to Radio 4 this morning you would have heard a very brief snatch of RSA Arts & Ecology’s Michaela Crimmin respectfully disagreeing with the plan to use the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Squarefor a memorial to World War Two hero Sir Keith Park. The RSA were instrumental in turning the Fourth Plinth into a unique public contemporary art space.

Listen here.

Photo: Alison Lapper Pregnant by Mark Quinn taken by my old friend Daveybot.

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More Milk Yvette’s David Berridge considers whether some notion of ecology is implicit in the Fluxus scripts in a new article for RSA Arts & Ecology:

Take the act of writing a score such Ono’s Piece for Nam June Paik No.1
and its one word “Water.” Such a piece embodies a host of
contradictions. It’s a written text, and a visual art work; a
performance in itself and a script for a performance that will follow.
It is precise, but not prescriptive; a gift for a friend that also
asserts an ecological dependency transcending the particular.

similar web of possibilities effects the reader of the score. The text
is self-contained and complete, yet such cryptic minimalism seems to
invite a response to complete it. That response is subjective, yet also
seems an objective response both to a word – water – and a substance.
Here a text seems to be becoming its own organism, both word, nature
and not.

Read more here.

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Dear Barack and Michelle

From the recent open letter from NASA climate scientist James Hansen to Michelle and Barack Obama, urging radical action when he takes office:

There is a profound disconnect between actions that policy circles are considering and what
the science demands for preservation of the planet. A stark scientific conclusion, that we
must reduce greenhouse gases below present amounts to preserve nature and humanity, has
become clear to the relevant experts. The validity of this statement could be verified by the
National Academy of Sciences, which can deliver prompt authoritative reports in response to
a Presidential request. NAS was set up by President Lincoln for just such advisory purposes.

Tomorrow at the RSA Arts & Ecology site, I’ll be publishing an interview with US environmentalist Bill McKibben in which he argues for a worldwide campaign in support of action to reduce carbon emissions to 350ppm, in line with James Hansen’s recent paper that suggests that our emissions are already too high for sustainable modern life. McKibben is taking the reins on this one with 350, which lets Jarvis Cocker off Ed Milliband’s hook.

Photo: RIBA President Sunand Prasad’s The Volume of One Tonne of CO2. As featured in Best of 2008. Photo by Nathan Gallagher

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Pessimism, optimism, pt 2

After hearing the latest news about the increasing rate of Arctic melt, Bibi van der Zee burst into tears.  She wonders whether it’s time to give up. Conventional social wisdom says that bad news does not make people act. Maybe she’s an example of that.

The current poll question on the RSA Arts & Ecology page, posed by Gemma Lloyd,  is, Are apocalyptic facts more effective in motivating people to change than positive messages? As it stands, the voting is Yes 52%, No 40% and undecided 8%.

Photo: Museo Aero Solar, by Tomas Saraceno, as mentioned by matthew here. A more heart-lifting artistic act of collective intervention.

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Art, peak oil and imagining the future

David Cross of Cornford and Cross writes on the RSA Arts & Ecology website today about how he believes the rules of artistic engagement are about to change :

As producers of visual culture, our moments of autonomy can be
frustratingly elusive. We must inform and persuade, and appeal to both
reason and emotion if we are to replace passive spectatorship with
conscious action. But in the market, attention is finite, and the
demands on our audiences’ time are many. Even our most original and
radical messages are assembled from borrowed fragments and framed by
preconceptions. To be meaningful, they must be palatable to audiences
accustomed to more familiar narratives.

Following established procedures can bring acceptance, and conforming to received ideas is often well
rewarded. But now the cheap oil is gone and the climate is badly
damaged; we are entering a new era. Though the nature of the coming
risks cannot be exactly predicted, a safe bet is that their reach,
scale and variety will demand many different responses. We cannot
prepare for all the uncertainties and surprises ahead, so diversity
offers a better chance of success than centralization and uniformity.
Besides, experiments are more interesting than blueprints…

Of course it is vital that visual communication is used to promote a
massive reduction in consumption. But if society is to adapt in time,
the issue is no longer simply about raising awareness. Rather, it is
about developing more radical ideas and alternatives. In
addition to producing aesthetic and contemplative experiences,
contemporary art and design should test concepts, assumptions and
boundaries in everyday life, and imagine new ways — material and
intellectual — of going about the world.

More here.

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