South West England

The Recipe Exchange and Making is Connecting at Spacex Gallery, Exeter

A Review by Dr Stephen Riley, June 2011

For those unfamiliar, Spacex Gallery is the leading contemporary art space in Exeter. The Recipe Exchange is an outreach project commissioned by Spacex and created by artist Helen Pritchard; and Making is Connecting is a book by academic David Gauntlett. The Recipe Exchange was represented in the gallery by outcomes of the project, and Making is Connecting by a talk given by the author. Given that Pritchard is a PhD research student at Lancaster University and Gauntlett is a Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Westminster, both projects are associated with that controversial area where research and creative practice meet.

From many possibilities, Pritchard chose the village of Farringdon, near Exeter, as her focus. Taking the traditional communal practice of sharing recipes as her starting point, the idea was to get local people to share ideas and experiences, and to pass on skills in ways one might expect to have been routine in pre-modern England. Thus, ‘The Recipe Exchange’ was not just about recipes. It was about the exchange of any skill or knowledge that any individual thought might be useful to others. And it was not just about the sharing of know-how. It was about the interactions and new relationships that would be formed when people began to communicate in ways perhaps now largely lost.

Project outcomes were represented, first, by a large sandwich board covered with photographs of people engaged in activities of various sorts in the village, and ‘recipes’ for things such as ‘how to draw perspective’ or ‘how to talk to people’.

Next, there were three videos: in one, a man showed a small audience how to split and re-pot plants; in the next, a woman showed a group how to spin wool; and in the last, a party of walkers inaugurated a new country path.

In another room were two iMacs showing The Recipe Exchange website. The project is now open to anyone, anywhere, to read, modify or add new ‘recipes’ to.

David Gauntlett’s argument emphasised the continuity of private creativity, and/or its rescue since a period of relative passivity caused by television. His fundamental theme and his reason for valuing creativity is that it involves the connecting of previously disparate media, interaction by the creator with others in the creative process, and then a more general engagement with others as the thing created is made available to the world at large. The continuity element starts with references to John Ruskin and William Morris; early champions of individual and hands-on creativity within an industrial society which tended towards mass production, deskilling and the alienation of people from the things they made. Gauntlett then connects the ideas of Ruskin and Morris to new possibilities presented in our time by ‘Web 2.0’: the interactive media that characterise the internet’s second phase; sites such as YouTube and Wikipedia, which rely on the self-initiated activities of individuals. Gauntlett sees this kind of activity, in which people communicate and entertain for no profit, as the equivalent of pre-modern craft-making.

Both projects, in their understated and cheerful ways, are concerned with a profoundly serious issue: how to resist the effects of globalisation and corporate domination. If the key issue in Ruskin’s and Morris’s day was mass alienation from the means of production, rapid global communications have made things far more complicated in ours. We now face questions of how individual and community identities can survive in the face of infinitely-resourced, homogenising forces, expertly designed for maximum seductive effect and motivated solely by profit, and how democratically elected governments can still operate when in thrall to international commerce.

The kind of resistance that projects such as these form a part have yet to find a clear identity, but examples are becoming increasingly visible. There have been riots recently in Bristol in opposition to the opening of yet another Tesco Express store. Elsewhere, the expansion of the Wetherspoons chain of pubs has been resisted. Sometimes the disquiet is more subtle, like the tension between judges on TV programs like X-Factor, as it dawns that although the search is ostensibly for new talent, the real but unspoken measure of success is how well the contestant fits into a pre-existing mould.

These projects ask more questions than they answer. For example, what does it mean when a village’s creativity is put onto the net to be altered by anyone? Is that a good, democratic, liberating thing, or have we lost something special? And what would a poststructuralist thinker like Baudrillard make of the likes of YouTube? Would it be seen as a cause for optimism or just another place in which simulations are further replicated? However, this is creativity-related research, and just as more established forms of research often end by identifying areas for further research, so effectively, does this.

Ends – 798 words