Pushing the collective boundaries of our thinking

13 March 2014

Our Information Officer, Caterina Violi, presents some highlights and useful insights from the No Boundaries 2014 event.

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(Image taken from No Boundaries Twitter)

It’s rare for an event to do exactly what it says on the tin. No Boundaries managed to achieve this.

Supported by Arts Council England and British Council, the conference was a two days open symposium about the role of culture in 21st Century society.

It was a chance for cultural organisations and practitioners to pause and reflect on where we are at but, more importantly, on where we are going. More than that, it created a space where imagination could be stimulated and some ‘old chestnuts’ collectively re-examined from a new and fresher perspective.

It truly had no boundaries. From a logistical point of view, the power of web technology meant that the conference could take place in two different locations, York and Bristol, with speakers being broadcast live between the two sites and streamed in real time to the rest of the world. I was only able to make my way to Bristol on day two but I could still tune in and out of keynote speakers on day one from the comfort of my desk.

From the point of view of the content itself, although many of the discussions were set against the backdrop of the current landscape of challenges (the funding environment, the need to prove the value of arts and culture, the economics of being a freelance artist, to name a few), they still pushed participants to think big and different.

Many of the themes touched upon were very close to A New Direction’s work and our mission. Most were interconnected, with every keynote speech almost being a microcosm of a big, ‘unbounded’ whole. There was lots of food for thought. I have summarised a few snippets of what my brain retained from these two days packed of insights, most of which, if I am honest, I am still digesting.

Diversity – the ‘elephant in the room’

Nii Sackey, CEO of Bigga Fish a social enterprise working with young people, tackled the issue of diversity in arts and culture head on in the opening session of the conference. In his experience, the main issue with diversity in the sector is quite simply that “we don’t have any”. A tweet from the audience thanked him from addressing the ‘elephant in the room’.

He added that, as human beings, we are hardwired to naturally gravitate towards what we know. People that look like us, work like us, have the same background or heritage as us, organisations that we know the work of, that have an audience we are familiar with and so on.

While it is hard to get over the uncomfortable feeling of dealing with the unknown, Nii argued that there is value in doing so. Embracing it would mean bringing new people and new ideas on board, which in turn pushes us to think differently, innovatively and, as a result, more inclusively.

Nii’s plea to “start to get comfortable in our uncomfortable-ness” is true on many levels. In terms of the people we work with and the audiences we bring in but, also, of the organisations that as a sector we fund. In this sense, the notion of diversity should not only be influencing how resources are put to use within the sector but also how they are allocated in the first place.

Involving young people and tapping into their potential

Young people and their importance in shaping the work of the sector was another theme that permeated many of the contributions. Across the board, there was a strong sense that failing to involve young people would mean the sector is missing a trick.

Nii Sackey continued his reflections by noting that young people are key to arts and culture because of the way in which they see they world. They have “as much to give us as we have to give them. They are always ahead of the curve”. And, as such, they are an invaluable investment.

But engaging young people needs to be done in a way that respects their identity and their self-expression. In a brief but eloquently written and delivered provocation, 17-year-old sixth former Sophie Setter Jerrome reminded the audience of the importance of social networks as platforms for young people to come together and have their say about what’s important to them.

With the web being a true extension of young people’s lives, organisations need to learn to navigate those communities and target young people appropriately. In Sophie’s words “If you want to engage with young people online, you need to meet us where we are at. Don’t expect us to come to you”

Engaging communities to build a sense of identity with a place

Another theme running through the sessions at No Boundaries was the role of culture in creating a sense of place. Arts and culture don’t live and unfold in a vacuum. They are shaped by the place where they stem from and they can, in turn, be key in creating a sense of place.

Talking about his experience of heading up the revival of Birmingham Library, Brian Gambles highlighted the importance of turning what was deemed as a ‘dying institution’ into an instrument to improve the cultural capital of a community.

Part of the success of the new library, which has seen a staggering of 1.5 million visits since re-opening at the end of 2013, hinges around the community’s sense of ownership of the space.

As well as being a traditional library and a corporate space, it is very much a place where power is handed back to the community. There are open spaces where programmes curated by local groups (e.g. schools, voluntary organisations) are held. This has created an environment where different generations happily coexist and where “young and old can colonise the library and generate dialogues”.

The library is also a space that was built by addressing local issues. More than 100 unemployed or homeless young people were given a role in the revival of the library, gaining skills and competencies that they would benefit from for life. This was not just an attempt to address key social issues but a powerful way of creating a sense of ownership. After all, young generations involved in re-building the library are also those that will be inheriting it.

Joy Mboya, director of the Godown Arts Centre in Nairobi, talked about the notion of a place being inextricably linked to the sense of identity of a community.

This was hard for Nairobi, a city with only just over 100 years of history, half of which spent under a colonial regime. Racial and income segregation made it difficult for the population to feel a connection with the place. The basic question 'Whose city is it anyway?' was not an easy one to answer.

In partnership with a diverse team which included architects, urban planners, sociologists amongst others, Joy set out a process that sought to involve the population of Nairobi in the planning of the Godown Arts Centre. This was done through a twelve weeks’ festival that tackled the issue of place and identity. Here, clusters of neighbourhoods were invited to come together and curate a week’s worth of cultural activities and events that best represented their area of town.

The whole city was invited to take part, mix and experience the essence and identity of different parts of town. One of the key points of success of the process according to Joy was the fact that, for the first time, many communities were actively encouraged to cross social and geographical boundaries, something that many people hadn’t done before. This helped them get a sense of the whole and where the, as individuals, fitted in relation to it. It also fostered a renewed sense of ownership of the city.

The figures around this process of engagement are remarkable. Nearly 5,000 people in Nairobi took part in the activities across the twelve weeks. But what’s even more interesting is that a staggering 350,000 (nearly one in ten members of the population of the city) took part in digital conversations around the process through social networks and web platforms. This proved both the growing power of digital technology and its increasingly important role in facilitating public dialogue.

Pushing the boundaries

The two days at No Boundaries were dense of insight which, as well as answering many questions, also, naturally, raised many others.

Diversity of young people accessing culture is an issue that is very close to AND’s agenda, on a number of levels – educational, professional or simply recreational. However, diversity in access is only possible if culture itself is reflective of the diversity it seeks to attract.

As a sector how can we remain sensitive to such diversity and foster its influence over the cultural offer? How do we ensure that arts and culture remain relevant and meaningful to young Londoners and reflective of their diversity?

Young people are not just another group in an audience segmentation; they are an active force and a valuable investment that can help shape the present and future of arts and culture. How do we, as a sector, make sure their voices are heard and their influence on the offer is felt?

A place is key in creating a sense of identity. AND’s portraits of young Londoners have shown that young people do have a strong sense of place but this often ends at their doorstep. How do we ensure that this sense of belonging has a pan London as well as a local dimension for young people? What role can the cultural sector play in facilitating this?

Many of these questions may not have an immediate answer. But the feeling that, as an audience, we had been given the space to push the collective boundaries of our thinking has definitely stayed with me. And that’s why No Boundaries did exactly what it said on the tin.