‘I’m interested in the relationship between the I and the we’

I knew, before we met, from our exchanges on Twitter and also from the fact that Caroline Hick (one of my Re:view artists) recommended that we talk, that Lisa Cumming and I would find much in common. Lisa was every bit as warm and interesting in real life as I had found her in our online interactions , but it was in this simple sentence that I knew I had really found a kindred spirit.

Lisa is a Community Associate, part of the Programme for a Peaceful City, Department of Peace Studies, School of Social and International Studies at the University of Bradford http://www.brad.ac.uk/ssis/ppc/

I heard about her at the beginning of the year from mutual friends and fellow Wur bloggers Georgia and Ivan Mack. Following her on Twitter I was very interested in her tweets on listening conversations, conflict & nonviolent change. (https://twitter.com/LisaDialogue)

Back in March she tweeted that she had gone to a talk given by Cory Doctorow on digital freedom and copyleft at the 1 in 12 Club in March, an event I had wanted to go to but couldn’t. I (slightly cheekily) DMd her to ask if she would be interested in writing a guest post for Wurblog, which she kindly did http://wurblog.wordpress.com/2013/04/28/cory-doctorow-can-technology-save-the-city-guest-post-by-lisa-cummings/ and which I turned into a free zine which was distributed at Bradford Baked Zines popup shop in May (http://bradfordbakedzines.wordpress.com/)

Following another Twitter exchange about DIY culture and social change last month, (part of a larger conversation Storyfied here http://storify.com/JeanMcEwan/underground-culture-… ) we arranged to meet for coffee, which we did this week at the National Media Museum.

What a great blether we had, as my Nana would say. In two and a half hours we talked about many things – our shared Scottish roots (Lisa’s family are from near Glasgow) my family photography project, Lisa’s work at Peace Studies including an upcoming course CommUNIty for people interested in social change in Bradford, collaboration, co-production of knowledge, power and access, and also asking ourselves the big questions:

What is my role in society?

How can I make change?

How do I/we deal with conflict, personal and social?

It was good to find out that Lisa was still searching for the answers to these questions too!

Lisa talked about her own interest, and that of her colleagues in Peace Studies, in working with creative approaches to these questions. Lisa’s keys interests are in listening dialogue and in conflict transformation. She talked about how powerful she had found the Change Spaces collaboration at the University, facilitated by Caroline Hick http://www.brad.ac.uk/gallery/whats-on/spring-summ… (which I blogged about here this week) which involved making rope as a means of addressing the questions above.

We talked about the possibilities of creative collaborations with Peace Studies, and Lisa is going to look into possible funding from Connected Communities – a possible funding source Caroline had suggested I investigate.

We also talked about of gift circles. I described how Ivan and Georgia Mack and I had done it for the first time at the DIY conference in May at the 1 in 12 Club http://www.brad.ac.uk/music/whats-on-workshops/ and Lisa is very interested in us doing it at the commUNIty course in the coming months. Lisa is also very interested in using zines within the commUNIty course as a means for participants to communicate about their own activism work and projects in Bradford- and it excites me to thinking of making zines with a different kind of group- outwith the DIY community- people who might see, or use them in a different way.

Chatting further about Wur blog, Lisa said she would be interested in writing another post (hurrah!) – this time about her experience of the Change Spaces collaboration. I’d be really interested in reading her thoughts. She also thought some of her colleagues in Peace Studies may be interested in writing for the blog. This would be amazing- to gain and expand on other perspectives and experiences on gift and generosity.

We agreed, having so much common ground, and so many potential projects we could work on together, that we would have to meet again. I’m already looking forward to it.


What is your proposed artistic activity, and what do you want to achieve by doing it? (500 words)

This morning, trying to start filling in an R and D application for Grants for The Arts, and feeling confused and overwhelmed after a few hours.

What exactly are my activities? Who will I engage with? What groups can I work with? Will I run workshops? Who will benefit? Who are the participants? Who are the artists? What counts as R and D and what is an actual project?


Talking to N over lunch is always good, though it’s left him with a headache. He asks questions and challenges me. As an artist and my other half he has a different view of my activities. He asked me – why do you want to work with people on their family albums? For what purpose? How do you they know they want to be worked with? What will it achieve? Isn’t exploring subjectivity, identity etc something that artists are interested in? Are other people generally interested in this?

He suggested that I am trying to marry two separate areas of practice: my own artmaking in response to my family stories memories and photographs – essentially an individual, autobiographical process – and the dialogical, social practices I’ve been involved in, and that these may not necessarily fit.

Bringing the family photography work into a participatory practice – I’ve defaulted to looking at models I’ve experienced and worked within, and the project begins to looks like a community arts project, and not the investigative, exploratory research that I am actually engaged in. I decided to stop doing community arts work a few years ago because I was increasingly uncomfortable with the processes of engagement with participants – I found them inflexible and hierarchical, and not about exchange but bestowal. This is a project for you, the community. This is how we are working, and this is what you will gain from it.

N said he thought that the interesting aspects of my activities and recent practice has been in asking questions about the nature of exchange, of community, conversation – setting up the darkroom co-op, running gift circles, talking to a range of people across disciplines about their experiences and perspectives on collectivity and dialogue.

A project getting people to respond creatively in a directed/circumscribed way to their family albums (ie using processes I have used in my own practice) isn’t open-ended and investigative and closed and limiting, the opposite of what I want to achieve.

Maybe then instead: rather than using a space to run workshop and participatory exhibition, perhaps a set of questions, in which the dialogue, and the discussions are the research; and the research is the work. Inviting other artists and professionals from art, health and social practices to come in to a research lab space to have discussion and debate about the ethical, and aesthetic issues of working with people on their family albums. Have open access so members of the public can come and join the discussion.

Ask a series of questions from people of different ages, cultures and social groups about how they see and use their family photographs.

How does my own work in response to family and archival images, fit in to this process? Perhaps, displaying it as a starting point and a trigger for dialogue for members of the public to respond to about their own memories, stories and photographs. This dialogue can be documented via text and audio and pinned to the wall, and I take my own work down as these other voices and responses are added – part of the evolving discussion.

This exchange is the research, this is the work.

Maybe I just needed to reposition, tweak, reframe a bit. Ok now I’m going to have another crack at that form.


This week I visited to the “Fieldworks: Co-researching Self-organised Culture” exhibition at Gallery II, at Bradford University http://www.brad.ac.uk/gallery/whats-on/spring-summ…

The exhibition, a joint project by Andy Abbott and Caroline Hick, Fellows in Art at the University of Bradford, explores the question“Should art and music just entertain us or can it also be used to change the world?” through artistic research in their respective practices. Drawing together their curatorial and programming work as Fellow in Visual Arts and Fellow in Music respectively, the exhibition explores the fellowships and what they achieved. As both Caroline and Andy are two of my three Re:view artists, and both engaged in social and collaborative practices in different ways, I was very interested in seeing the exhibition. I know quite a bit about each of their work, but it was fascinating to see a survey of their joint activities in one site. A large printed interview on one wall asked Caroline and Andy questions about their work and approaches; much of what both of them said about life, and art resonated with me; Andy talked about the experience of life as a ‘a collective, open-ended experiment’ and Caroline talked about art and culture being “a powerful vehicle to tell previously unheard stories and have the capacity to present these experiences on many levels; from deeply personal to overtly political”

Looking at and reading documentation and artwork, an hour flew by and I didn’t even get through half of the exhibition. There was a lot to engage with in the documentation for Change Spaces (http://www.brad.ac.uk/gallery/whats-on/spring-summ…) a project from 2012 working across departments at the University responding to ideas around conflict transformation. Caroline commissioned artist Sorrel Muggridge to gather and develop work around these ideas in collaboration with members of Bradford University staff Lisa Cumming (Programme for a Peaceful City, School of Social and International Studies) and David Robison(Senior Lecturer; mobile content, new media and narrative, Bradford Media School). From this process Sorrel created an experimental, interactive installation which involved rope making as a metaphor for the experience of peace building and conflict transformation.

As well as the emotive presence of the ropes as physical evidence of collaborative participation (“You can’t make rope on your own” Caroline comments in the exhibition information), on a shelf next to the ropes there were print outs of email conversations between Sorrel, Lisa, David and Caroline which gave an insight into the processes and thinking behind the project. As well as this, a print out of an excellent blog about a visit to the original exhibition by Irna Qureshi, describing her experience of making rope with her mother and her young daughter as ‘visceral and remarkably therapeutic’ , gave a flavour of the emotional impact of making the rope. http://theculturevulture.co.uk/blog/all/the-art-of-making-rope/ I’m sorry now that I didn’t have an opportunity to see and take part in this exhibition last year, but very glad now to have this second chance to engage with the work and processes behind it.

Also displayed was work and documentation from another project commissioned and curated by Caroline: NO LIMITS | Re-imagining Life with Dementia

“A first-ever national touring exhibition of work which aims to develop an aesthetic of dementia activism. Developed in partnership with men and women with dementia and in collaboration with artist Shaeron Caton-Rose and filmmaker Anne Milne, it explores the individual and collective strength of people living with this condition. The exhibition brings to life ideas around community, empowerment, and friendship”


This project completely blew my mind – particularly Anne Milne’s film ‘Agnes and Nancy’: The courage, humour and honesty shown by Agnes and Nancy, as they talked about living with dementia, while chopping wood, and making dinner at Nancy’s house in The Black Isle was extremely powerful. What women. The film showed their strength, not their illness https://vimeo.com/32903503.

In creatively engaging marginalized people in a genuinely equitable and empowering ways, telling untold stories and challenging dominant narratives, Caroline has brought into being a very powerful and radical piece of work. I have huge respect for her and feel very fortunate to have the opportunity through the Re:view bursary, to be talking to her about my own work.


Hurrah, a studio day. Digging out my work from drawers, wardrobes and boxes, after some recent visits from family friends had temporarily turned my studio back to a spare bedroom.

Laying out archive family photographs and putting them next to my responses and interventions – re-representations, photographic journeys, re-photographs, drawings, collages, re-photographic re-stagings. It’s powerful to me to look at these things combined, mixed up. To see how I have taken my family images and ‘pressed them into service’ (from a quote by Annette Kuhn) to make and re-make meaning – fusing the autobiographical, with the found, and the fictional.

Thinking about these processes as a working model/methodology for the participatory project on family photography I’m planning – ways of working with others on their own family albums, in a shared search for new meanings and narratives.

Notes on a journey:


“A photographic journey, May 2001, with a dear brother and a dear friend, to places of childhood significance. Homes, graves. Sad, happy. Then a trip to the seaside to have fun. Remembering, mourning, celebrating. I’ll never forget this. I continually return to these photographs, using them to make new images and narratives of me, and us.”


Some new research on memory work has opened up, from reading Annette Kuhn’s ‘Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination’ (Verso, 1995) which I’m finding really exciting.

‘Memory work is a method and a practice of unearthing and making public untold stories, stories, of ‘lives lived out on the borderlands, lives for which the central interpretive devices of culture don’t work.. These are the lives of those whos ways of knowing and ways of seeing the world are rarely acknowledged, let alone celebrated, in the expressions of a hegemonic culture. Practitioners of memory work may be conscientized simply through learning that hey do indeed have stories to tell, and that their stories have value and significance in the wider world. At the same time, as an aid to radicalized remembering, memory work can create new understandings of past and present, while yet refusing a nostalgia that emblams the past in a perfect, irretrievable, moment’ (p8)

On the ‘memory work’ entry on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memory_work) it says this:

“Individuals remember events and experiences some of which they share with a collective. Through mutual reconstruction and recounting collective memory is reconstructed. Individuals are born into familial discourse which already provides a backdrop of communal memories against which individual memories are shaped. A group’s communal memory becomes its common knowledge which creates a social bond, a sense of belonging and identity. Professional historians attempt to corroborate, correct, or refute collective memory. Memory work then entails adding an ethical component which acknowledges the responsibility towards revisiting distorted histories thereby decreasing the risk of social exclusion and increasing the possibility of social cohesion of at-risk groups.”

These two quotes have got me thinking about the radical potential for a participatory project on family photography, which embraces many of the ideas I’ve been investigating over the past months – reciprocity, exchange, transformation.

I then found this tremendous article by Annette Kuhn – ‘Personal and Cultural Memory: a Methodological Exploration’ http://publicsphere.narod.ru/Kuhn.pdf which discusses different autothenographic approaches to working with the family album. A whole new world of enquiry has opened up. Feeling excited and full of purpose.