Canal & River Trust, waterways, people, passion and museums

I attended the Canal & River Trust AGM on Friday in Birmingham’s beautiful new library. The Trust is only two years old, so very early days for them. Whilst their key business is about public engagement they have had a huge number of maintenance works to do as well. It is remarkable what they have achieved in this short time and there was a very positive feeling in the room. I’m very pleased I went because being surrounded by people with a passion for something makes life worthwhile.

Laurence Newman, Chair of the Museums & Attractions Partnership said: “Think about the outside of the museums, not just the inside”.

This was the first sentence that really took my attention – probably because whilst I work with Museums, I am very drawn by working beyond them too. That social history and landscape use is not only archive material but continues to be out there, in the streets, the architecture, in the fields and waterways.

Museums are not only about conservation, preservation and collection, but also about the future. Professor John Hume, giving his retiring address, commented that “we need to find a better term than heritage, it’s awful”. He also voiced disdain for the term ‘attractions’, declaring them to be rubbish. I couldn’t agree more, I thought John Hume was an inspiration. He was vociferous about the need to generate history, not just look back at the heritage.  “We’ve been living in the past…too romantic”. Everyone spoke passionately about his or her roles within in the Trust. John more than anyone was keen to keep the focus on the social history. The image below is of one of John’s slides, showing the protests about the possible closure of sections of the Grand Union Canal in 1960’s. I think this image is very reflective of the tensions in the room about how to move forward:

 canal protest

The image of the 1960’s protesters floats above the orderly speakers table. Earlier this year there was another protest about the Grand Union Canal in Milton Keynes – which just shows how much people care about access these waterways. The view out to the city of Birmingham beyond is framed by the distinctive circular motifs of the New Library.

In the room we discussed the function of the canal and waterway network – past, present and future. Indeed Birmingham is built around the canal system – yet there is no Waterway Museum there. The Gloucester Waterways Museum is much loved, but is being crowded out by the Peel Development at Gloucester Quays. Someone mentioned it should relocate – but without the canal network it would be dislocated and stripped of meaning.

Time does not – cannot – stand still. The whole canal system is a museum – but it must also record and document current things, or it will have a huge legacy gap and be frozen in time. I love the way that the waterways are like arteries in the landscape – they carry things and people, connecting places together across time. Art projects could be used to join places up, by commissioning artists to explore each place and share their findings in other places.

Occasionally there were terms used that I questioned. There was talk about the Trust being ‘the experts’ and that visitors and the public are ‘customers’. So archiving knowledge is about sharing ‘their’ knowledge. But surely we should be thinking about collaborating with our membership, learning from them just as much as they learn from us? Living the Wikipedia principle both online and off. We are all the public. Defining people as experts and membership as ‘the public’ or ‘customers’ it sets up a mindset of there being a trading transaction, rather than sharing a genuine passion for the rivers and waterways.

Whilst the concept of the expert is, of course important, I’m not sure whether it is a useful way to bring people on board to support the Trust. Knowledge exchange, sharing learning and engendering generosity will help to feed the economic machine. I suspect that we are becoming immune to the hard-sell approach. Better to engage with enthusiasts and feed their passion as collaborators, rather than take a service provider role.

And that applies to the digitisation of the archives. The archives conserve everyday things that were made by, and belonged to, ordinary people. And living ordinary people can add to the knowledge about those things through storytelling. There was talk about educating and informing people – knowledge belongs to everyone, because everyone has a story to tell.

Artists can help in that process. And I hope that I can too. I thrive on these discussions and spend hours of my life considering new ways of thinking about them. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the River Severn and it’s influence on Flow Contemporary Arts

Flow was named after the River Severn and the wonders of the Severn Bore. Every now and again I need to remind myself of that – and the best way is to trot down to the riverbank and witness the Bore. It’s magical.

Flow is the psychological condition of ‘Optimal Experience’ as defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand.

The concept of Flow is deeply fascinating. Ants are good example to borrow from nature as a living demonstration of flow and collective intelligence. Another is the Severn Bore, which, when it occurs, is because the sea flows inland and the river flows downriver. The Bore is a physical example of two-directional flow, like knowledge exchange, traffic flow and dialogue.

And that is how Flow Contemporary began, a germ of an idea inspired by the power of the sea forcing a river back upstream.

As my early notes stated:

Flow projects are positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand

It continues to be the case, a wave of energy bouncing off the riverbanks/other people/places, revisiting things again and again until they are truly understood.

Flows first project goes public soon – exciting!!!!

The Cabinet of Local Change is a pilot for a future collection of ‘cabinets’ that will be commissioned specifically with touring in mind. This one is specifically for Forest of Dean residents.

Artist Simon Ryder (artNucleus) was commissioned by Flow Contemporary Arts to create a ‘cabinet’ in some form that could be used to reflect upon changes in the nature of the Forest of Dean, inspired by his own research in this forest and through engagement with local Community Library users. A key part of this process was for it to be made public via blogging.

The cabinet will make its first appearance on Thursday 29th August 2013 – Mitcheldean Library at 2.30pm and Newnham on Severn Library at 6pm.

Simon is concerned with peeling back the narratives from places, people and objects, then weaves  them together into new configurations in the form of sculptures, videos, texts and artefacts. Working together at Mitcheldean and Newnham community libraries, Simon and Carolyn opened up new ways of thinking about how libraries might operate. They shared blogging skills and how technology can provide opportunities for artists to reveal their working methods, as well as inform the making of art – technology and nature combining in the creative process.

Inspired by the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi in the forest, the outcome is fascinating. It is a unique storage system that appears to grow through the books on a shelf, like an organic extension, with partially enclosed spaces to contain ‘items that signal change’. Modular in its construction and open source (with the 3D templates freely available for download from the internet), Simon worked with the designer-makers at Millar Howard Workshop to produce a cabinet that can be flat-packed down for storage and touring. The cabinet is a portable work – it will make appearances at scheduled times, providing a beautiful and original focus for local discussions about change. To start the ball rolling, the first items to be placed in this cabinet will be printed copies of Simon’s blog, some books that informed his thinking, and a vial of water from St Antony’s well; the remaining spaces are empty, awaiting library users to add their own artefacts.

Flow Contemporary Arts works with both arts and non-arts partners to initiate produce and present contemporary art in unusual locations. Founded by Carolyn Black in 2012, Flow specialises in making things happen through the unique approach of commissioning artworks that respond to place, yet can also adapt to other contexts. If you wish to host or support the work in the future, contact Carolyn@flowprojects.org.uk

The project was supported by the Forest of Dean Local Action Group and the Forestry Commission.

scanning branches with X-Box, photo Chris Morris
scanning branches with X-Box, photo Chris Morris

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Supported by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development: Europe investing in rural areas

and Forestry Commission FC logo_eng_linear_col

The Barbican, Welcome Trust, Helen Chadwick & sunshine

Some days you just have to go and see some art. When a friend asked me what would I recommend he saw when in London I decided to join him, and it was fab.

The main show at Barbican is Cage, Johns, Rauschenburg, Duchamp and Cunningham, which was enjoyable, though the atmosphere there is always a bit dark and dungeony. But that worked quite well with the theatrical sense of the show.

The highlight for me though was the Geoffrey Farmer in the Curve Gallery – what a wonderful piece of work. I first saw Farmer at Documenta last year, when he showed Leaves of Grass, and this one was equally as mesmerising. The Surgeon and the Photographer was poetic, picasso-esque, python-esque (as in Monty!), Dali-esque and the narrative like a strange detective-esque experience.

It was wonderful, and I found myself reading it like a book, considering how some of the puppets were on pedestals addressing groups of people, some engaged with nature, balancing butterflies on their fingers whilst cut-out birds flew overhead. Some carried weapons, so looked like military rows of soldiers, some seemed free of hierarchy or order. Multi-cultural, the film element morphed people heads from one into another, or showed sequences of stills of war, of clothing etc.

After that, a quick dash around Welcome Trust – outside art from Japan, well worth a visit, some real gems in there. Then a whizz to catch Helen Chadwick before it closed. Piss Flowers in the window alongside an evocative text were pleasing, but the majority of work didn’t excite me the way it used to. But it did make me think of Next Nature and how she juxtaposed flowers and flesh together and played around the edges of the erotic by alluding to genitals. She was a very special artist and the way she portrayed meat and flesh as equal is carried on by contemporary artists like Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva. Elpida is representing Macedonia at Venice this year, so check it out and see if you can see the relationship.

Flow Contemporary Arts’ first-ever project, in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire with Simon Ryder

Are Community Libraries really more than books?

Absolutely!!

Artist in Residence Simon Ryder explores the art of blogging and teaches others to do it too. Join us to learn more at the following dates and times:

Mitcheldean Community Library

10.00-12.OOam

Monday 13th May, 3rd June and 17th June

Newnham Community Library

2.00-4.00pm

Monday 13th May, 3rd June and 17th June

PLEASE NOTE THIS IS LOCAL FUNDING AND IS FOR FOREST OF DEAN RESIDENTS AND LIBRARY USERS, BUT WE AIM TO PRODUCE CABINETS FURTHER AFIELD IN THE FUTURE!

Flow Contemporary Arts is delighted to have been awarded funding from Forest of Dean Local Action, part of the RDPE programme for England, to initiate the ‘Cabinet of Local Change’ project at two community libraries, during May and June this summer.

At the meetings we’ll tell you a bit more about what we’re doing, but more importantly, Simon would like to discover how changes in the nature world of the forest affect you. How did changes in the past affect your life? What current changes in the nature of the forest might affect you in the future? Your answers will help Simon understand more about the forest – the people that live here and what makes it unique.

What you tell Simon will inform the stories he tells about change – not in a book form, but online – as a blog.

And if you fancy having a go at blogging yourself, we’re here to help. We’ll go through the basics and explore how computers can add to the wonderful world of words that Libraries provide!

If you are in the Forest, please download and share poster:  Are Community Libraries really more than books

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Supported by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development: Europe investing in rural areas