Category Archives: Research

From Toy Story to Treseder: what are we fighting for? Perspectives on Youth Voice

On Tuesday 3 November at 12.15hrs EEST, I’ll be presenting my paper, From Toy Story to Treseder at the International Research Conference “Impacts of Arts and Cultural Education: arguments and evidence. The conference is being promoted by the Latvian Academy of Culture and will be live streamed from 11.00am EEST online on the Academy’s YouTube Channel and Facebook page.

My presentation explores the phenomenon of ventriloquation, hypnotism and impersonation as channelled through Disney’s Toy Story 4 and identifies the challenges to fighting for the creative voice of children and young people. It asks when it comes to your time to hearing the voices of young people, how do you perform? Are you a hypnotist, ventriloquist. Impersonator or something else?

In case you can’t make it, here is my presentation.

And if you prefer to read it, here it is.

Introduction

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Unlike Leonard Sachs in the BBC TV series The Good Old Days, I shall try and avoid any sesquipedalianism (The practice of using long, sometimes obscure words), try hard not to asservate (assert over emphatically) but enjoy the myriad multipotency and polyphony of our session together here in Riga, or where-ever you may be based.

“Begin with art, because art tries to take us outside ourselves. It is a matter of trying to create an atmosphere and context so conversation can flow back and forth, and we can be influenced by each other.” (W.E.B. Du Bois)

In accordance with the author and historian, WEB Du Bois, I’d like to start with another piece of art, the film, Toy Story 4. In this clip, Buzz Lightyear is trying to persuade our hero, Woody, to give up his quest to find Bo Peep and go home. Woody refuses so Buzz asks his inner voice what he should do next.

Thanks a lot, inner voice. Something we all might recognise in times of trouble when it comes to listening to what we think our intuition, our gut feeling or what we might think of as our authentic voice is telling us.

Buzz’s awareness that his inner voice has its limits is important in the phenomenon of ‘youth voice’. In this presentation, I’m going to discuss the challenges these limits present, especially in these times when the voices of the people and young people in particular are called upon to inform public cultural policy. I’ll be exploring this by considering the concept of Authentic Voice and how this relates to the concept of Performative Voice; and how voices can inform civic dialogue as part of a wider call for Cultural Democracy.

Youth Voice: the impulse for this paper

You can’t go far these days without hearing about the importance of pupil voice in school improvement, planet climate warnings or, at the older end of the age spectrum, the Brexit referendum, perhaps the biggest pretence at listening to the voices of the British people in recent years.

We’ve learned a lot in the UK from the Brexit referendum about how voices are manipulated, distorted and selectively listened to; and there’s some learning here for when it comes to considering how young people’s voice – or voices – are heard and acted upon. At a macro level, this has been one provoking incident which has led to a consideration of what we mean by public voice and democracy.

 Creative Voices: an organisational perspective – what are we fighting for?

Coming closer to home, as CEO of the charity, The Mighty Creatives, we place great store by our brand strapline, ‘Fighting for the creative voices of children and young people’. It’s an aspiration woven through our organisation since it began and as such it helps mark ourselves out as deserving of special attention in the cultural marketplace: it’s at the heart of our mission statement. My colleague Emily York expresses it thus:

Children and young people are feeling more and more empowered to share their views and to have them valued. It is our duty to listen to them, respond to them and embed their views within our organisation’s practice where appropriate. We cannot authentically provide for children and young people if we do not do so. With this there is an undeniable responsibility, not only to provide children and young people with rich arts and culture opportunities, but to also organically embed youth representation and voice within our infrastructure.

There are several concepts here which I’ll explore through this presentation

Firstly, that of authenticity: the idea that an organisation has to ‘walk the talk’ if it is to be taken seriously by the beneficiaries it claims to be working for. Authenticity suggests a fundamental, state of being which represents the true self of the organisation’s intentions and motivations. Being seen to be authentic can be comforting in that it provides a sense of moral rectitude when the world is replete with fake news, illusion, ambivalence and ambiguity.

Secondly, that of civic duty: by listening to young people and actively taking steps in order to transform organisational policies, practices and structures, we can demonstrate that we are fulfilling a wider civic role, rooted in traditions of participation and democracy.

So the second impulse for this paper has been to stimulate debate with colleagues, both within TMC and externally, about what we really mean by Youth Voice; how and why it should be fought for and what’s at stake for us all: artists, educators and young people themselves.

What we understand by Youth Voice

At its simplest level, youth voice is a term for how children young people are able to express themselves in order to influence the world around them. This is not just about the spoken word but the many different ways we express ourselves: laughing, crying, gazing, pointing and grasping amongst many others.

Youth Voice is central to many engagement and participation strategies and I’m going to reference three of which inform our work at TMC: Hart’s Ladder of Participation, Phil Treseder’s Degrees of Participation model and Lundy’s Model of Child Participation.

Phil Treseder’s Degrees of Participation emphasises that there should be no limit to youth participation, with each degree of participation being equally valuable, dependent on the proposed project and the objectives of the participants. These degrees are:

 Assigned by informed;
Consulted and Informed;
Adult-initiated, shared decisions with children;
Child-initiated, shared decisions with adults and
Child-initiated and directed.

Lundy’s Model of Child Participation provides a sense check of whether we are ensuring that every child and young person we engage with, through any degree of participation, has their voice heard and acted on.

Her model provides a way of conceptualising a child’s right to participation, as laid down in Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is intended to focus decision-makers on the distinct, albeit interrelated, elements of the provision.

The four elements of the model have a natural and rational order of Space, Voice, Audience and Influence. A safe space and open space must be available for young people to share their views, children and young people must be facilitated well enough to express them correctly, these views, ideas and opinions must be actively listened to and acted on if and where appropriate.

In 2012, Andreas Karsten identified 36 different models of youth and citizen participation in which the importance of youth voice plays various degrees of importance. I’m not going to compare and contrast all those models here but suggest that this proliferation of models is perhaps a sign that trying to define youth voice as a singular entity is a lost cause from the outset.

Rather than trying to define a complex phenomenon under one all encompassing model or metaphor, it might make more sense to see it as a polyphonal phenomenon: multi-faceted, multi-structured, multi-purposed and multi-voiced.

 The mirage of the authentic voice

When in times of ambivalence and complexity, it’s time to turn to art again and I’d like to show you this brief clip to give us another perspective on the challenge of youth voice.

Let me introduce you to Kenny Craig, hypnotist from the BBCTV series Little Britain of a few years ago:

Whilst youth voice has been central to much child centred learning pedagogy across the world, there’s a risk that claiming to privilege children’s voice as the central plank of your cultural policy making can become a tokenistic attempt at democratic education, which can, with a hypnotistic Kenny Craig waving away of the hands – Look into my eyes, look into my eyes, the eyes, the eyes, not around the eyes, don’t look around my eyes, look into my eyes, you’re under – mask several other agendas – pupil compliance, customer satisfaction, and the inexorable marketisation of education – in full flow.

The sight of the young woman not remembering agreeing to go on the date with Kenny reminds me of student subject choices being strangely limited at critical times in their education development. When she’s discouraged against her will to choose the set menu over lobster and water instead of champagne, I ask myself whether this tells us something about how often young people in school can be hypnotised into expressing their school’s desires rather than their own.

When we find ourselves asking ourselves, whose voice are we actually listening to? The voice of the young woman or that of Kenny Craig? Then it’s time to resort to art again – this time in the shape of some more old English Music Hall Tradition – to gain some further insights into the ephemeral concept of youth voice.

It’s always interesting to see the ventriloquist dummy fighting against the will of it’s operator; not least because it’s the operator’s own voice is expressing the revolt, through the voice of the dummy.

Ventriloquation – when a speaker speaks through the voice of another for the purpose of social or interactional positioning (Wertsch, 1991, Bakhtin, 1981) – is not just a spooky music hall act but is brilliantly demonstrated in Toy Story 4, when Woody, on his quest to return the trash toy, Forky, to his owner Bonnie, chances upon a doll called Gabby in an antique store and her slavish ventriloquist’s dummies, the Bensons.

The conflict between Woody and Gabby Gabby is at its heart, a fight for the voice of the child. Gabby Gabby’s voice box has been broken and her desire to replace it leads to her capturing Woody and offering a deal – give me your voice box and I’ll give you back your lost toy, Bo – and by implication his long-lost love.

The Bensons are instrumental in her fight to regain her voice box, and Woody, ever the Tom Hanks hero, obliges. He donates his voice box to her through a surgical procedure; which leads to her eventually gaining the attention of a lost child at the end of the film which ensures both the toy’s and child’s happy ever afterness.

Scratch the surface of Toy Story 4 and there are several other delights in store when it comes to understanding the complexities of youth voices.

Heteroglossia (roughly translated as ‘multi-languagedness’) is described by Bakhtin in his work “Discourse in the Novel.” And refers to the idea that there are several distinct languages within any single (apparently unified) language or text: and that different languages each have a different voice which compete with one another for dominance.

This is exemplified in this clip from Toy Story 4: in his search for Woody, Buzz Lightyear, who all through the film has been advised to listen to his inner voice, struggles to listen to the voice he wants to hear from the button-induced phrases from his own voice box:

“It’s an unchartered mission in unchartered space” doesn’t cut it.
“No time to explain!” isn’t what’s needed.
“To infinity and beyond!” is missing the point.

But finally, the inner voice phrase “The slingshot manoeuvre!” does the trick and Buzz is off to save the day again, reminding us in the process that the ‘inner voice’ is also, far more complex, more heteroglossic, than we might imagine.

Toy Story 4 also shows how children’s voices are constructed through acts of impersonation.

In one of the final chase sequences through the carnival at the end of the film, one of the toy gang, Trixie, impersonates the family car’s GPS system and the toys manipulate the controls, so taking control of the car.

Also worth a listen to how Buzz responds to Rex the Dinosaur when asked what he’s doing as he presses his voice box buttons.

So, bearing in mind the hypnotists, ventriloquists and impersonators which construct our inner voices, we can conclude that always in transition, voice is not a fixed entity. We do not speak consistently for long. We are always learning; and always listening to new voices which we try to ignore, assimilate, pass off as our own or wrestle into a completely different form.

Our authentic voice can never be completely pinned down or determined because our lives depend on flux and flow, confluence and influence.

Listen to your inner voice says Buzz Lightyear throughout the film. But which one, we might ask ourselves?

So, is the search for authenticity a false one, given the heteroglossic, provisional and fluid nature of voice? And if so, then what hope is there for organisations like ourselves, and at a macro level, policy makers who great place value on the need to hear the voices of young people and the wider community at large?

The hope lies in the very plurality that the word ’voices’ suggests and the recognition that voice is dynamically constructed and reconstructed, shaped by many different, counter or affirmative voices. To channel the voice of Judith Butler and her work on identity: we do not have a voice, we perform multiple voices. Voice is a performative act, not a state of authentic, inviolable being.

Policy perspectives: How plurality supports cultural democracy

Bearing this in mind, what are the implications for policy makers and practitioners who genuinely want to ensure that the influence and agency of young people can felt in their organisations and practice? How does policy contend with ambiguity, ambivalence and multiplicity of voices and views?

The Mighty Creatives and many other cultural organisations are not alone in wanting to hear from the voices of our beneficiaries. This desire stems from the recognition that arts have a critical role in the civic life of nations: and for this role to play out to its full effect, listening and acting upon the voices of citizens is critical.

The study undertaken by Kings College London for the Gulbenkian Foundation in 2016 makes the case for the civic role of the arts in the following ways:

The inherent argument: Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes ‘a right to participate in the cultural life of the community’ and that it is in the duty of every arts organisation to reach out and be an active part of their communities, especially if they receive public funding or protection.

The social justice argument: We live in unequal and divided societies and arts organisations are well placed to articulate this disparity and (furthermore) enable social action by, with and for the disadvantaged to ameliorate the situation.

The intrinsic argument: Arts organisations are uniquely placed to engage in civic matters since they are seen as neutral or third spaces and that people respond to the material of the arts using different values and faculties from those they apply to explicitly political media.

The dutiful argument: In a society in which trust, engagement and investment in traditional civic organisations (such as churches, political parties, etc.) is seemingly declining, arts and cultural organisations represent a last resort (or perhaps preferred agency) through which to mobilise and animate citizens in democratic processes.

The Kings College study highlights the work of Bacon and Korza (1999) and their argument that it’s the very presence of the multiplicity of voices which leads to civic dialogue and democracy.

Their emphasis on dialogue between multiple voices can direct us to how we might better develop our intentions to listen to and act upon the voices of young people.

They argue, in their publication, Animating Democracy: the Artistic Imagination as a Force in Civic Dialogue, that cultural organisations play a key role as catalysts, conveners, or forums for civic dialogue, beyond their basic role of producer, presenter, or exhibitor.

By offering space, organisational and interpretive capacity, cultural organisations can build local relationships to encourage various publics to engage in civic dialogue and participatory democracy:

“civic dialogue plays an essential role in the workings of democracy, giving voice to multiple perspectives on challenging issues; enabling people to develop more multifaceted, humane, and realistic views of issues and each other; and helping diverse groups find common ground.

Dialogue can help diverse groups find common ground on a particular issue. Face-to- face exchange prompts people to develop a more multifaceted, human, realistic picture of their fellow citizens and of an issue, in the absence of which there is a tendency to stereotype opponents and reduce issues to extremes.”

This leads me to three final questions. If we could recognise our own multiple voices of ourselves, might this lead to the democratisation of ourselves, and an acceptance of our differences to ourselves first of all, from which acceptance of The Other might follow?

Could recognising the hypnotists, ventriloquists in our own lives somehow lead to greater tolerance of the multiplicity of the voices of The Other and lead to societies which are more at ease with themselves?

And finally, when it comes to your time to hearing the voices of young people, how do you perform? Are you a hypnotist, ventriloquist. Impersonator or something else?

I’ve leave this with you for our Q and A session, but in the meantime would like to end with a return to art.

In 2019, The Mighty Creatives promoted a conference entitled Creating the Future: Challenging Perspectives and Broadening Horizons for Children and Young People. Designed, developed and delivered by 5 young people, the conference produced many challenging conversations about how young voices could inform their futures.

We asked the poet, writer and creative producer Charley Genever, to capture the day’s conversations and happenings, of which she crafted into ‘Notes for Change’ which I shall finish my presentation with. The last note provides a partial answer to the question I have just posed.

SLIDE NOTES FOR CHANGE by Charley Genever

1. We all know how the world is, we feel it in our fists, the evidence is there, we’re failing at least two million of our kids and not one of them deserves it.

2. A shut door is a barrier. A bus ticket is a barrier. Education is a barrier. Your 35+ staff team with the same average age is a barrier.

3. The system is an ancient ocean and provision comes in paddling pools. The figures go over our heads to the ebb of rich, white hands. Look at them wave, floating their tick boxes and funding loops to our shoreline for us to ascribe our lives to.

4. This is not how it should be. Kids do not come culture free and every turned cheek becomes a disaffected memory.

5. Imagine how fresh democracy would be if we showed every child, they’re worthy of creativity.

6. There’s so much noise when you’re young. Layers and layers of it. A slow story, a clock for a tongue, all the words come out wrong. Shame slots in-between, breeding on the lack of opportunity.

7. Jargon is only good for lingo bingo. It’s condescending. Get it off your posters.

8. Art is the business of people, the right for everyone to belong, for new minds to find their tribes, to create thriving humans.

9. If you don’t wear this sentiment across your chest, you’re not a youth engagement officer, you’re a security guard.

10. Are you being honest with yourself? Are you riding your high horse to the estates, the academies, the prisons, or are you watching the horizon shrink from your office?

11. LISTEN. The youth will speak. GIVE SPACE. The youth will fill it.

12. In the right light even dust will ignite. Sparks in school visits, in workshops with guest artists, in museum trips and paid internships. Don’t tell me you can’t evaluate a twinkle. You are asking the wrong questions.

13. Remember when you were first gifted the power to make the ground sound magical? Turn tarmac to fairy-tale. Open the curtains and let the whole street in.

14. There is no alternative to hope. It’s all we’ve got.

15. There is no alternative to hope. It’s all we’ve got.

END

The full conference schedule is here Konferences programma_15.10_ENG-2.

Bibliography

Arts Council England (2015) Building a Creative Nation: Putting Skills to Work, Creative & Cultural Skills.

Arts Council England (2018) The Conversation, A report by Britain Thinks.

Bianchi, L.L. (1999). Finding a voice: Poetry and performance with first graders. PhD thesis. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire.

Bond, K. & Stinson, S. (2007). It‘s work, work, work, work ‘: Young people ‘s experiences of effort and engagement in dance, Research in Dance Education. 8, 2, 155-183.

Butler, J., (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge.

Fishkin, James S. The Voice of the People: Public Opinion and Democracy, New Haven, Conn.:Yale University Press, 1995.

Hart, R., (1992) Children’s Participation: from Tokenism to Citizenship, UNICEF International Child Development Centre.

Ivey, B. (2009) Expressive lives and the public interest, Expressive Lives, Samuel Jones Demos.

Kerbela, L. (2012). Swimming in the shallow end: Opportunities for girls in youth drama, focusing on the quantity and quality of roles available to them. Tonic Theatre: http://www.tonictheatre.co.uk/wp-content/

Lundy, L. (2007) “Voice” is not enough: conceptualising Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child”, British Educational Research Journal, 33:6, 927-942, available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01411920701657033

Mathews, Andrea. (2007). Restoring My Soul: A Workbook for Finding and Living the Authentic Self, Bloomington, IN:Universe.

Schaffer Bacon, B. and Korza, P. (1999) Animating Democracy. The Artistic Imagination as a Force in Civic Dialogue, Washington DC: Americans for the Arts.

Stinson, S.W. (1997). A question of fun: Adolescent engagement in dance education, Dance Research Journal. 29, 2, 49-69.

Stinson, S. W. & Bond, K. E. (2001) I feel like I ‘m going to take off: ‘Young people ‘s experiences of the superordinary in dance, Dance Research Journal. 32, 2, 52-87.

Rhodes, Ni. (1990) 21 Voices:The Art of Presenting the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.: Association of Performing Arts Presenters.

Treseder, P. and Fajerman, L. (1997) Empowering Children and Young People: Promoting Involvement in Decision- Making, Swansea: Save the Children.

Wilensky, L.M. (2013) The Proof is in the Poetry: Generating student voice in a collaborative writing group approach to teaching and learning in ninth grade English, MA dissertation. San Diego: University of California, San Diego.

Nuclear and linguistic fusion on the Energy Coast

I’ve never been too happy to wander lonely as a cloud up hill and down dale but recent visits to Cumbria and Lancashire are providing me with the chance to explore some of Britain’s most beautiful coasts in the North West: although my early moments have already complicated that stereotype. There’s the huge ship building sheds of Barrow with its history celebrated in Japan; the bleak but impressive outlines of Sunderland Point and it’s sharp reminder of the British slave trade with Africa and the Caribbean of the 18th century; and the nearby nuclear demonology at Heysham Nuclear Power Station conjures up memories of Chernobyl and Fukushima.

For all its claim to being a rural idyll separated from the hurly and burly of city and corporate life, this part of the coast line has powerful international economic significance. Some say that were it not for Barrow’s nuclear submarine building capability, that Britain would find itself cast out of NATO and the G8 power block. The region is known as the energy coast and the preponderance of fission technology on those coast lines is one reason why and also a cause of intrigue and curiosity: why are nuclear power stations built in pairs? How many atoms are split every hour?

The moment you slip off the beaten tracks which connect fission technology to the nation’s defence policy and enter more isolated communities – which have themselves been subject to more than their fair share of societal fission in recent decades – the everyday language for the citizens of those communities shines as startling forms of linguistic flora and fauna.

Whammeling, Haff Netting and the Wynt are not only just great scrabble words but everyday expressions of fishermen and women whose families have lived in the region for over 5 generations. You double take as Nordic surfaces in the conversation and stories of fluorescent plankton disrupting a fathers fishing night spill out into the cold December air.

‘Did you catch anything dad?’ A son asked his father 70 years ago as he set about his nightly task of salmon fishing. ‘No, the nets were on fire’ was the disgusted reply from his dad when talking about the plankton that had coated his fishing net.

Nothing to do with nuclear spillage but the wonders of the industrial and linguistic terrain open up the possibility of some extra-terrestrial apparitions in the not too distant future. I’m still trying to figure out how many atoms were split over the course of the hour that I visited Heysham. Whatever the figure, it will be unimaginably large and no doubt involve several hundred zeroes in it somewhere: more than all the grains of the sand in the world someone says; more than all the Scousers in the world retorts someone else. Impossible, I answer back, but one thing is sure: the mysteries of atomic and linguistic fission won’t be easily solved by a few hours visiting the visitors centre of Heysham Nuclear Power Station.

The disappearing knowledge of the Hyperloop passenger: schools beware! Number 6 in the series: Knowledge, traffic and arts based research.

The hyperloop has hit the news again with dreams of tubing it from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than 10 minutes. Everyone around the world will have their equivalent journeys and will marvel at the apparent ease at which such previously long journeys have been reduced to bats of eyelashes. In the UK, we will wonder how a hyperloop journey could take us from London to Liverpool in just under 30 seconds: although given the magnetic pull London has on all things economic, political and social in the UK, it is a wonder that anything ever leaves London at all, never mind in a hyperloop tube.

But the greater significance of the hyperloop proposal is on how we understand knowledge of traffic flow and our place in the civilised world and how we engage with passengers, train spotters and irate cows on the line.

Because make no mistake, in hyperloop world there will be no room for any of these travel distractions. In a hyperloop tube, you will be strapped to your seat, asked to brace yourself and before you know it you will have been shot across the planet with the equivalent of a ton of TNT shoved under your backside. You will know nothing of the experience and your sum knowledge of the world and all its wondrous creations will not have improved a jot.

This is why we should worry – and worry hard – about the proposed hyperloop project. No longer will students be able to revise on trains before exams; no longer will commuters be able to improve their literary knowledge and no longer will we see people frowning over Sudoku puzzles and other complex numerical machinations. The nation’s literacy, numeracy and emotional intelligences will all suffer enormously.

Where arts based research can help however will be on the hyperloop platforms, both pre and post-TNT backside kick. Artist researchers will offer passengers new ways of consolidating their knowledge before they take the fatal kick up the backside. These researchers will remind commuters of their 12 times table through pretty graphics; confirm proper grammatical construction of sentences and offer new ways of reminding ourselves of our Shakespearian heritage. Whilst the journey will be over in a bat of an eye, our memories shot to pieces, the learning will continue for ever: and for that, Michael Gove will be proud.

More travel knowledge here.

Do you like my claw hand? Writers in Schools revisited

Roy, front of the class, is demonstrating through a simple walking exercise five things which are involved in writing: the children recognise these as the five senses – smelling, tasting, touching, listening, looking and Roy says you need all five in order to write a story. He elaborates by suggesting that it’s the senses that make characters and places of stories come alive and also help you get ideas and help you describe situations.

It’s a large class – the whole of KS2 and year 2 : there must be at least 50+ kids in the room together with 3 staff who are sat at the back, watching. He stands front on to the class; behind him is a data projector and 2 school benches upon which are placed, stood up, a selection of about 20 of his books. These help draw the gaze to him and give him a status: another form of disguise perhaps.

The attention of the group wanders: a small group of girls look at each others socks, a small group of boys natter quietly to each other. We’re in the afternoon, feeling a bit post lunch lethargic and we’re post serious education of the morning. He moves on to the ‘shed in the heads’ concept – ‘where all the things you’ve sensed go, you can see what’s lurking around’. He points to a red bag he’s previously planted in the hall – an example of something which is in his shed in the head…. He brings out a box of fish fingers and points to one of the books on the bench as including a box of fish fingers. “This book by Roy Apps…” he refers to himself in the third person.

He starts to read out from one of Roy Apps’ books and offers the group a chance to join by calling out ‘Cheerios’ as he reads out sentences in the book which have the ‘c’ word missing. He points to a magic word in the paragraph which suggests something is about to happen: SUDDENLY.

Suddenly, he points to another bag which he’s planted in the hall earlier. He collects stuff out of the bags – ketchup bottle, garlic, blood stained stake, capes – the competition in the book is a device to get rid of mum and dad so that lead character, Jonathon, can go and stay with granddad who’s a vampire. He reads out and splits the group so that they can listen for things that Jonathon senses. He calls out for a gold bag – kid pulls out blank piece of paper (scary! He explains the fear of the blank piece of paper to a writer) and goes onto suggest that the five senses aren’t everything…. The magic of stories needs imagination too (which he describes as a word with a silent letter c – imagi©nation…

Imagi©nation causes a shift from the ordinary to the extraordinary. How? He hands out sheets of paper to kids who line up.. which spell out ‘I wonder what would happen if’ when aligned properly. He relates his own background to the family story – his Uncle Watte, the cook in the navy who would scare people and had teeth which looked like vampire fangs: ‘Do you like my claw hand?” Uncle Watte would ask when playing with a piece of chicken tendon. Years later, Uncle Watte’s claw hand has metamorphosed into the hand of the story teller.

Resistance isn’t Futile! Telling our stories of the Labour Movement

The Aspire Trust is one of the first groups in the UK to receive a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) All Our Stories Grant for its challenging and inspiring new project “Resistance Isn’t Futile: Combination, Mutuality, Solidarity and Aspiration”: an exploration of the history of labour movements and trade union activity in the North West between 1830 and 1950..

The project will access the collection of Keith Hackett, who has amassed a significant archive of labour related artefacts from the region. This currently private collection will be made into a public resource through a process of researching, cataloguing, digitising and a series of community-focused research and story telling events.

All Our Stories – a brand new small grant programme launched earlier this year in support of BBC Two’s The Great British Story – has been designed as an opportunity for everyone to get involved in their heritage. With HLF funding and support, community groups will carry out activities that help people explore, share and celebrate their local heritage.

The popular series presented by historian Michael Wood and supported by a programme of BBC Learning activities and events got thousands of us asking questions about our history and inspired us to look at our history in a different way through the eyes of ordinary people.

The programme and HLF All Our Stories has proved a real hit and Resistance Isn’t Futile is one of hundreds of successful projects around the UK to receive a grant. The project will begin with the digitising and cataloguing of more than 400 items from trade unions, mutual benefit societies, friendly societies etc which will be made available online. 12 key pieces will be identified for further research and each of these will provide the focus for a community-led research project. The Aspire Trust will work alongside each community group to examine the stories and histories related to each artefact.

TV presenter and historian Michael Wood, said: “We British love our history, and no wonder: few nations in the world, if any, have such riches on their doorstep, and so much of it accessible to all of us. It is really tremendous that the people of the North West have been inspired to get involved to tell their own story and to dig deeper into their own past. It’s brilliant that so many people are being given the chance to get involved through the All Our Stories grants. Having travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles this last year filming The Great British Story, I am certain that fascinating and moving stories will be uncovered which will not only bring to life the excitement of local history, but will illuminate and enrich every community’s connection with the national narrative.”

Keith Hackett said: “I have collected and kept these items safe – some for almost forty years – because for me they give testament to the efforts of extraordinary ordinary people to improve their worlds – and make them better for their own generation and for generations to come. Every items has a story to tell, and most name the people whose efforts they valour-ate. Whilst the objects themselves are in their own ways stunning, beautiful and inspiring …. behind each one lies the efforts, beliefs and achievements of real people …. and it is their stories that will truly bring these objects back to life and relevance in today’s world.”

We were delighted to be approached by Keith to play our part in telling the stories of the labour movement’s history in the North West. The notion of public service is taking a hammering in these days of cut backs and recession, and we hope that our “Resistance Isn’t Futile” project will rebalance many of the stories that are being told in Britain right now about the role the labour movement and working people can play in making this a great country to live in.

For further information please visit http://www.aspire-trust.org

Reading the Riots: who’s bringing the media to account?

I’m watching a group of young people perform a play they devised about the summer riots (or disturbances, if the R word causes you some difficulty). Some of the group were ‘involved’ directly; some were not. What does bind them though is they have all been ‘involved’ with the media’s responses to the events: they have all read the headlines, all seen the TV coverage and, to a lesser or greater extent, been witness to the twitter feed which became a twitter storm in those early days of August.

In their play, the cast act out the early hours of the riots against powerpoint slides of press images, underscored by tracks by Marvin Gaye, The Jam and The Who. There are monolithic pictures of riot police and burning cars, under which the unhooded actors slouch, their social anxiety clothing their angular visages. The images show choreographic moves which would be impossible for trained contemporary dancers: high kicks through shattering glass sheets.

There’s no doubting the power of those iconic images the press managed to conjure up during those heady hours – but quite what damage those images then managed to generate is still up for discussion.

The camera can fire up so much mischief. It inflames petroleum feelings and catalyses social itches into anaphylactic shocks. Its iconicity highlights, exaggerates and essentialises in ways that were never intended. And these days, then there’s photoshop which wreaks further havoc.

I’m reminded that you have to use the arts to play back to people other stories, other interpretations which may be messier, more inconvenient and yet which give us importent alternative insights. We need artists views to counteract the juggernaut express power of the million camera gaze. You have to show something back to audiences, somehow, because someone somewhere has to bring the media themselves to account.

For more on Reading the Riots see https://drnicko.wordpress.com/2011/10/04/reading-the-riots-its-time-to-hear-the-real-evidence/

Reading the Riots – hearing the real evidence

I’m working as a researcher for the Guardian LSE Reading the Riots project in which they’re trying to find the background and reasons for the summer disturbances from the point of view of the perpetrators, those who have been charged and locked up, or those who found themselves involved for one reason or another.

The research is completely anonymous and confidential. If you would be interested in being interviewed for the research – or know someone who would be, please get in touch.

It will give you or them a great chance to put their side of the story, but in a way that is not connected at all to the police or government.

Please email me on Nowen.aspire@btconnect.com.

The full research team can be seen here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/reading-the-riots-blog/2011/oct/10/reading-the-riots?newsfeed=true

“Mr Torpey Nick Sir!” messing with identity. Writers in Schools Revisited

Tony, a professional animation artist has entered a classroom of a High School in Liverpool and greets a teacher who is about to introduce him to the class he is about to work with that afternoon. Tony is visiting a school which he used to attend as a teenager. After having not visited the school for over 25 years he has now been employed as visiting screen writer and animator on the NAWE Writing Together programme which has placed him in that school for what will be six half days of work with a group of year nine boys in order to get the ‘pleasure back into their writing, and to develop more ‘colour’ and expressiveness in their creative writing.’

Nick Torpey – a teacher of Tony’s when he was 11 – is still teaching at the school; and the first two words of Tony’s greeting – Mr. Torpey – are the words Tony was accustomed to using whilst being a pupil the school. A split second later, Tony realises that this formal approach is inappropriate for the enactment of the role Tony has now found himself in and adds to his greeting the less formal “Nick” – only to realise immediately afterwards that given this interchange is taking place in a classroom in full view of the on looking boys that Tony is about to work with, that this informality is too informal and that he must resort to another type of formal style which is used by many teachers in their communications with each other – the tendency to refer to each other as ‘sir’ or ‘miss’. Hence the birth of the rapid fire utterance, ‘Mr Torpey Nick Sir!”

Tony is introduced by his new colleague – Mr. Torpey Nick Sir – to the class as a freelance, professional animator who has come to share (as opposed to teach or instruct) his writing skills with the class in front of him. Tony doesn’t recall having anybody similar being introduced to him when he was at school and for this class, they too have not been introduced to this type of adult presence in the classroom by the current school managers before. It is clear from the start that the relationship that the pupils can expect to have with Tony will be of a different nature to the one they are accustomed to with the regular teachers in the school. They are encouraged to address him by his first name and discouraged from calling him either ‘Mr Ealey’ or ‘Sir’. Discouragement comes in the form of explicit, friendly guidance that using the artists first name when addressing him is acceptable, or the occasional joke with a pupil who stumbles over the construction “Tony Mr Ealey Tony Sir.”

They are led into a series of exercises by the writer which are different in terms of both style and content to their usual classroom exercises. They have been asked to describe ‘pitches’ of films and stories they have known (short descriptions which aim to capture the essence of the story of that film in as few words and as punchy a way as possible) and are soon developing pitches of their own for film stories they are encouraged to imagine. The class is marked by an atmosphere of attention and focus on Tony; contributions from the majority of the class to Tony’s questions and suggestions; a lively, informal and good humoured interaction between artist and pupils. The teacher who is present sits at the back of the class, scanning the room for any signs of distress, discomfort or potential trouble. Mr Torpey Nick Sir left the room some minutes after the class began.

The reassuring knowledge of the HGV driver: how schools could benefit. Number 4 in the series: Knowledge, traffic and arts based research.

There’s a lot to be certain about when you’re driving a truck. You know you’re more imposing than pretty much else on the road. You can see more, anticipate more and from the elevated position of your cab, can reflect more on the foolishness and antics of lesser road mortals. Your philosophical reach matches the miles measured on your tachograph.

You know it will take you a good half mile to stop should you decide to break: you’d be better off making an appointment with your gear box to slow down, rather than rely on acting in the instant. You know you are carrying out some vital economic, social or cultural function: moving widgets by the million or self build furniture to homes bracing themselves for the arguments that will leap out of the box the moment they slit open the cardboard with a stanley knife.

Safe in this knowledge, the HGV driver reflects many schools approach to teaching children. They know the curriculum and navigate it with confidence; they will take a long time to slow down and change direction and are secure in the belief they are undertaking vital economic tasks: training the youth of today to be the economic generators of tomorrow.

However, HGV drivers have their achilles heels too. Their inability to see very much behind them and their innate inertia means they cannot respond easily when faced with an immediate accident in front of them on the Euston Road. They can easily jack-knife and cause hours of disruption for hundreds of fellow travellers if they spill their widget load over the Queens Highway. Their security in their knowledge is fine in times of certainty and if no-one else is on the road. These days however, nothing is certain and traffic is an inevitable consequence of venturing out on the road for everyone. “Don’t blame the traffic – you are traffic” as some bright spark in the automotive industry recently wrote.

HGV drivers, like cyclists and taxi drivers, could benefit from a course in art based research: the understanding and knowledge this would generate would help them become more nimble movers, respond more effectively to the needs of other members of the traffic stream and give them a sense of humanity when it comes to carving up a motorbike on the inside lane.

More travel knowledge here.