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. 

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

alt= Ministry of stories/ Hoxton monster street supplies store

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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


For more information check out their website

Ministry of Stories

Horton street monster supplies

Learnings in community arts practice

Learnings in community arts practice

I came to the end of my course in community arts practise, with Impact Arts last week and it seems like a perfect opportunity to reflect on my learnings over the last 6 months.


Everything I’ve learned  comes under the umbrella of “be flexible.” We each got a mentor on the course and her biggest tip was, make a plan, see how things go but have a plan B. For my individual project I wanted to get young people to come and engage with Orkidstudio’s EMPOWERMENT exhibition at the Lighthouse Glasgow. I did everything I could think of to get them along, promoting it to youth groups and local schools. But for a mix of reasons, I didn’t get a single teenager along. I was however able to engage with visitors to the exhibition, asking them to participate in building the collaborative cardboard city. This ended up being a wonderful way to do it. Although I didn’t get many teenagers I did get a mix of age groups from children to adults.


With this also comes the need to think about the final result and the impact of the project. Sometimes the client wants a particular thing to display but other times they are more focused on the participation. This was the case with our group project at Darnley Primary School, we let the children decide what they wanted for the project at the start. Starting with a sound and drawing workshop encouraged them to get some ideas going and some themes started to emerge. We realised that a lot of the sounds reminded them of animals and this led to coming up with the idea of making a totem pole.


One of the most interesting things about participation is learning to work with a mix of people. From the organisation, to the client group to working with other practitioners. You never know what people will ask you or what mood they will be in that day. I did my placement withe Creative Pathways, Paisley. It was a fascinating opportunity to see the group of young people from the interview stage to the middle of the project. They started as a lovely group of young people willing to engage with but new additions created more disruptive group dynamics and it was a learning experience to see how the facilitator dealt with it.

a1 x1

Engaging with people is a mixed bag. You never know how they will react to your proposal. I found this at the cardboard city workshops. The people who would join in would often be the ones I wasn’t expecting to take part.  It is about creating relationships and one of the simplest ways I’ve discovered is to learn names.

Additionally everyone comes with their own abilities, interests and perspectives. Abilities vary so trying to keep a level playing field whilst making it stimulating for as many as possible is important. With Darnley Primary, the sound and painting workshop worked brilliantly but it was more difficult when we used mud rock. Surprisingly when we got feedback from the kids they loved that it was challenging.

Be prepared to wear a lot of hats. Successful participation involves pre planning, monitoring the finances, communication, e.t.c not just working with people. You might even end up working in things you know nothing about. You have to shake your fears of failure or the unknown, especially if your asking others to do so too.

Finally record the process, this is one of the hardest bits especially if you are working alone, but photographs tell the story so much more. They are a great way to build your reputation and show others what you’ve done. Additionally give people something to take with them. It makes them feel so much more connected and is something I learned from the kids feedback at Darnley. I then used it in the cardboard city so each participant got a Polaroid photo to take with them.

For me the best part is seeing people grow more confident in their creative skills own creativity. From the teachers at Darnley Primary who by the end of the workshops were making things in their own spare time, to seeing people who said they were bad at art building a cardboard building and being proud of what they’d made.  I realised that even if you can get only one person to engage it can be incredibly rewarding.!

Yona Friedman_ Feasable Utopia’s

Yona Friedman_ Feasable Utopia’s

“If a theory is well constructed and spread abroad, it has the advantage of no longer being the property of specialists, but of stemming from the public domain. The present-day monopoly of the architect has to do with the fact that there is no real theory, but merely a set of pseudo-theories in other words, observations which only reflect the preferences of their authors”.

“A theory must be general and valid for anybody”.

Yona Friedman

Yona Friedman

Who is Yona Friedman?

Yona Friedman is a Hungarian-French architect and theorist who design utopian projects that deal with urban planning and empowering the user. His ideas went beyond architecture and planning incorporating contemporary art, sociology and economics. Key to his work was the idea of individual freedom, that is encouraged through unpredictability, play and empowering the end-user.

Yona Friedman - Blueprint

How did he get started?

Yona Friedman was born in Hungary in 1923 and became a famous architect and urban planner in the late 50’ and early 60’. He grew up in Hungary and during the Second World War joined the resistance during the short time Germany occupied Hungary. His experience as a refugee during the 2nd WW is said to have influenced his social theories. After 10 years in Israel he decided to move permanently in Paris in 1956, here he received a favourable reception to his ideas.

Friedman’s ideas centred on an “architecture with the people, by the people, for the people.” A Democratic architecture that is conceived and materialised by the people. The architect provides ideas, techniques new aesthetics, which are validated only with the people.

The same year he presented his “Manifesto de l’architecture mobile” to the 10th International Congress of Moderne Architecture. He first presented the principles of the “mobile architecture” which is an architecture that is able to understand the constant changes of social mobility. This «architecture mobile» called «mobility of living» by the team 10, promoted planning rules that could be created and recreated, according to the need of the inhabitants and residents.


What is his why?

“I have always tried, in architectural studies, to develop projects that were feasible”

As Friedman’slater projects show, he practiced his concepts of a feasible utopia through his work with the United Nations and UNESCO on self-building manuals in Africa, South America and India. Friedman always sought to develop projects that were easy for even non-professionals to understand. He even wrote how to comics to explain how to build and make communities. 

He sees society as a utopia, which has been realized. In “Utopies Reaslisables”, and he tried to build an objective and coherent theory of social organizations. For him, utopias appear as remedies for a collective dissatisfaction. These utopias could become feasible if they get a collective agreement. 


What is his process?

It was Friedman’s emphasis on participation that set him apart from his contemporaries. The user is raised above the architect and the master builder. Friedman used his drawings as a way of expressing his ideas and developing a way to making his ideas understandable for everybody. For example with his work for the UN he developed a language of pictograms that could communicate a method of building using local materials and show information on dealing with issues ranging from water management and infrastructure to food policy.

ml_Yona Friedman_700

How is he changing the world?

He sought to widen the relevance of architecture, seeing its practice as a non-specialist discipline, at the crossroads of philosophy, ecology, spirituality, mathematics and the sciences, and relating to every area of society. He has considered that as an architect, his role is to observe individuals, their emotions and their actions, rather than to construct and impose a model. “I think like a sociologist”, he says. Human nature, is unpredictable and uncontrollable so ideal form in architecture is the very absence of planning but it should be free. So the idea of authorship becomes redundant and deceptive; instead, he encourages an organic, growing and improvised architecture, modelled on the future user, who is ultimately given the title of author and creator.

Find out more at Yona Friedman