How do we stay nourished as practitioners and as artists?

How do we stay nourished as practitioners and as artists?

I attended Artists Connect in Conversation, organised by Alice McGrath in collaboration with Artworks Scotland. It was a brilliant open space session on participatory creative practice that started with the question  “How do we stay nourished as practitioners and as artists?”

There were about 9 of us and we had a brilliantly wide ranging discussion with some great ideas,  insights and a little bit of therapy. Here’s what I learned;

– There was a brilliant story from one of the ladies about an artists talk she’d attended. He’d been commissioned to work in Easterhouse, Glasgow and had a meeting with the councillors & funders in a snazzy city centre location. He got everyone out of the space, bundled them into a van (basically kidnapped them) and took them to Easterhouse where he’d set up a meeting table and seats outside right in the middle of some tower blocks. Apparently they looked absolutely terrified in the photos. His thing was we’re not discussing this project away in a bubble away from the community it concerns. Brilliant!

– Pick a job title that’s familiar. I’d been thinking about a job title for what I do as Tactician, a sailing role but as it was pointed out sailing conjures up images of floating and being all over the place. Also it’s a word that most people aren’t familiar with. Facilitator is much better, thanks Lowri!

– Artists as documenters, how can evaluations/ reports be more interesting. Always thinking what was the original intention? What has it become? 

– Imagine that your ears are by your waist. Picturing your ears by your waist forces you firstly to sit back and secondly to listen. Half the time we just want to be heard. We don’t need a solution, the answer is already within us.

– Some ways to create headspace. One that I want to try out is Morning Pages, I was pleasantly surprised to hear how effective they have been. I just need to get up a bit earlier in the morning!

– Open Space. The session was run using the Open Space technique which is new for me and I thought was brilliant it meant that we could speak openly and comfortably because there was no real agenda. I’ll definitely be looking more into it. 

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The Happy Show

The Happy Show

​Filling the Institute of Contemporary Art’s (ICA) entire second-floor galleries and ramp, and activating the in-between spaces of the museum, The Happy Show offers visitors the experience of walking into Stefan Sagmeister’s mind as he attempts to increase his happiness via mediation, cognitive therapy, and mood-altering pharmaceuticals.

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People Centred Architecture

People Centred Architecture

Ideo recently published their Field Guide to Human Centred Design which reminded me of the importance of people centred design and architecture in todays rapidly changing world. 

I recently worked in a recently renovated theatre and it was a great lesson on how essential it was to design spaces for how people would actually use them instead of just the aesthetics. I had many gripes about the architecture. The architects had obvviously designed what the client wanted, a grand building that stood out in the streetscape and city. But for those of us working there the new design was tricky to navigate; pillars that prevented patrons from seeing where the bar was, high bar tops difficult for shorter staff to work or be seen, locking doors that made it hard to get around the building. 

The way architecture is taught in architecture schools means that people are not at the centre of the design process. There is a discussion of aesthetics, the image, context, light, the form. this continues to the office where the concern is about cost savings and making the client happy with little dicussion of people or how they actually use or engage with the space.

All to often as architects we feel as though we must be the master builder, designing to the last detail. Which is fair enough especially as the icons in our profession work in this way. However participation does not prevent this method rather it looks at a holistic approach which encompases not just the design and construction but also puts the end users at the centre of the design process. 

John Habrekens explanation of participation has stuck with me since seeing the brilliant documentary De Drager. He spoke of participation being a paternalistic that implies that professionals make the world and they are willing to let the people in. Whereas it is the other way round. There is the built environment that has its own laws and has been around for thousands of years, so instead we should ask to what extent can the architect particpate to make it better. Not participation of the people in the work of the architect. Creating a new dialogue with the building and the professional role. If we get feedback from the way people use the building and we can understand this. We begin to ask ourselves what is the intervention the architect can make?

His interest in feedback is similar to that of the lean start up, which advocates testing and iteration, creating short feedback loops that inform the next iteration. In impact design or people centred design we are constantly looking at and evaluating the impact of a project on the community. This hardly ever happens in traditional architectural practice. The project ends with the construction of the building with little follow up to see what lessons could be learned or feedback gained.  This should be practice that is wide spread in the profession. Not just the impact to the individuals using the space but also the wider social and economic community. It begins with actually speaking to the people who use or will use the spaces. 

A brilliant example is ‘Koolhaas Houselife.’ Exploring the everyday life of the housekeeper of one of architect Rem Koolhaas’ buildings. It’s reality versus the polished images often depicted. 

Zabeleen: building on waste

Zabeleen: building on waste

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Zabeleen is a community in Egypt that shows how people can self organise to manage their own waste. At first glance it can seem like a chaotic place ewith the community living in what looks like a garbage dump. But a deeper look reveals well organised and highly effective waste management system for Cairo.

Cairo like many cities around the world is going through a massive urbanisation with governments struggling to keep up with infrastructure developments. What has developed in Zabeleen is a decentralised, participatory and low tech approach to Cairo’s waste management which also provides a livelihood for the community. They have been collecting and recycling Cairo’s waste for over 70 years without little acknowledgement from the state or secure land tenure.

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Cairo’s waste management system is a mix of formal and informal systems. They governments policy since the early 2000’s has been a focus on privatisation, limiting their involvement and involving citizens in the cost of paying for the services. Local authorities manage the solid waste collection and contracts are aware to private companies for the collection and transfer of waste. Composting is mostly managed by the formal sector whilst recycling is managed by the informal sector.

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The Wahiya and Zabeleen are the two cultural groups that manage the informal waste system. The Wahiya are Moslem migrants from the Western Desert oasis of Dakla, who arrived in Cairo about 100 years ago and entered into contracts to receive a monthly fee for collecting and disposing of waste. The Zabeleen arrived in the 1930/40s in search of employment and discovered they could make a living by renting garbage routes from the Wahiya.
Their system of waste collection has ended up being both more efficient than the state run or private systems and has provided employment for many people. However the community and their livelihoods are under threat as the government seeks to encourage privatisation of its waste service.

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The community live in makeshift structures on the west and northern fringes of the city. They process more that 6000 tonnes of garbage a day, recycling 85% of them through micro enterprises. The waste is sorted into 16 categories like tin, glass, rags and plastic which can be sold. Organic waste is fed to the pigs they breed. The pigs are central to the their livelihood strategy and come from the rural tradition of owning a pig yard. Every family owns one, usually adjacent to the sleeping quarters, and they use this space to sort and store domestic waste. The meat from the pigs is then sold to hotels for good profit. This creates a cyclical economy where the waste activities generate further employment for people in other neighbourhoods.

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The settlements have continued to grow over the years. Growing vertically in a sort of haphazard manner. The flat roof terraces are increasingly being used to sort garbage and rear the pigs, creating a colourful messy aesthetic. This highly localised method of recycling has a low carbon footprint, reducing the need for transportation, landfilling and compaction. Their recycling system is cited as one of the best in the world with the highest material recovery at 30% of the total waste generated. It is a high efficient system reducing the demand for transport, collection and disposal as the scale and organic shape of informal settlements are not designed for large removal trucks.

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Zabeleen is an interesting example of how communities can develop appropriate and local methods of successfully managing their urban spaces and it would be a great shame to see this thriving ecosystem impacted as the governments privatisation of waste disposal threatens to do.

Hoxton Street Monster Supplies aka Ministry of Stories

Hoxton Street Monster Supplies aka Ministry of Stories

Hoxton street monster supplies aka Ministry of Stories is a fantastic project in London’s East End. Hoxton Street Monster Supplies provides monster themed goods like dragon food and the thickest human snot. It is a front for the Ministry of Stories a writing program that inspires 8-18 years olds through the power of story telling.

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It was started as a pilot project by Lucy McNab, Ben Payne and Alistair Hall. Inspired to start one after attending a workshop on running a not-for-profit organisation by Dave Eggers founding member of 826 Valencia, the first of this type of program. 826 Valencia was opened in 2002 in San Francisco  the location they got for their planned literacy workshops was zoned for retail so they needed to sell something. They came up with a pirate themed shop with writing workshops at the back. The idea proved so popular that chapters sprung across the U.S from superheroes in New York to outer space in Seattle.

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Lucy and Ben were able to secure seed funding from the Arts Council and JJ Charitable Trust but it all took off when author Nick Hornby joined them. They soon set up shop in Hackney, East London with the aim to inspire a nation of storytellers.

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As a charity model it is a fascinating one. The money generated from the shop goes to running the workshops which are staffed entirely by a team of volunteers. It provides a mix of talented people the opportunity to do a range of things from building websites to advising on financial matters. Fundraising is still important and they have created fun ways to support them, for example you can buy your own ministerial position. Emma Thompson is minister for Imaginative Naughtiness.

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Design is one of the key focus. As Lucy McNab says “the quality of design is a really important part of creating the fiction.” Lucy and Ben are co-directors with Alistair as creative director. One of their rules is that everything that is sold works or can be eaten. Production is small, meaning that each idea is carefully thought out and researched. They sometimes collaborate with others, Studio Weave produced Salt Made from Tears. The packaging is simple and thoughtful and the spaces are beautifully designed. The workshop spaces include wall illustrations made by Heather Sloane.

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Design runs through not only the monster themed products and lovely shop design but also the very high standard of work they produce with young people. From newspapers to books and plays. Taking this professional approach teaches the young participants how to take an idea from that moment of inspiration to the finished product. They produced the Awfully a Bad Guide to Monster Housekeeping written by the children with the help of poets and writers in the workshop.

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For both children and adults it is a place that encourages them to use their imagination. I would love to see a program like it in here in Glasgow, but for now I for one will definitely be checking them out when I’m next in London.

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For more information check out their website

Ministry of Stories http://www.ministryofstories.org/

Horton street monster supplies http://www.monstersupplies.org/