Ruth Little – Stewardship, connections and ecology: contexts for the development of talent

You can listen along to this keynote using the audioboo player above. The transcript follows.

For the last 3 weeks I’ve been travelling on a sailing boat in Scotland with Cape Farewell, which was set up 10 years ago by David Buckland to bring artists and scientists together to develop a cultural response to climate change; to extend the languages, methodologies and capacities of artists to engage new participants and find new forms of communication for the most pressing problem or this or any time. We’ve travelled across 19 Hebridean islands in the company of 40 artists and scientists from Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and beyond – connecting with their communities through a series of meetings, meals, ceilidhs, sharing of work, and intensive and extensive dialogue. I want to emphasise two things I’ve observed and drawn on in the last 18 months in developing this long-term community-oriented project:

The first is that there’s individual learning and group or community learning, and their interaction is essential to individual growth and cultural wellbeing.
The second is the idea and practice of stewardship. The Gaelic word ‘stiùir’ lies behind and informs all my thinking about supporting the full range of human talent and perception necessary not just for our cultural welfare, but for our survival. By talent, I mean specifically the convergence of knowledge, craft and skill in a particular context, and the apt and affective expression of resonant and relevant questions. Like so many Gaelic words, ‘stiùir’ is expressive of a living concept more than a thing; it holds multiple meanings and shifts with its context. It means at different times helm, rudder, stern, rule, guide, and pivot. It describes the act of stewardship, guidance, navigation, direction, steering or piloting.

It is, I think, the word that most fully expresses the role that many of us play, as funders, curators, producers, dramaturgs, motivators, supporters and challengers of emerging, developing artists. And when is an artist not emerging or developing? Creativity – talent development – lives in the continuous present, and it moves unpredictably and often indirectly on the waters of its context.

So what are the navigational tools we need to develop and share in order to support this indirect and perpetual journeying? What are we enabling, what are we protesting (speaking for) in the work, the craft, the ethos of stewardship, and why?
I think we’re speaking for connection.

The abiding and corrosive problem we encountered or learned about on our journey is the problem of disconnection. And it’s everywhere around us, vividly reflected in the recent riots and looting across England. But looting is in fact something most of us have been doing all our lives on earth, one way or another…

At the Scottish Association for Marine Science, where our journey began, Director Lawrence Mee spoke about the dangerous disconnection between our terrestrial lives and the undersea environment. William Bryant Logan writes of life as ‘the story of vessels that learned to contain the sea’, but the loss of connection to the realm in which we originated and which we still carry within us is destroying our oceans. Island elders like Mary Smith in Lewis and Lachie Morrison in North Uist spoke of the disconnection of the young from the places, local knowledge, languages and traditions that give meaning and practical guidance – ‘stiùir’ – in their lives. In our cities we’re all implicated in the disconnection between the production of energy and our squandering of it, between the waste we generate and its continuing presence elsewhere, between our economics and our ethics, between the young and any prospects that might draw them into a sense of responsibility, engagement and agency.

Writer Rebecca Solnit sums up the problem of disconnect eloquently: ‘The life of the body, birth, death and illness, has vanished from the private sphere into professional seclusion; the production of the conditions of life has disappeared from view too, with energy and materials that come from what is no better known than nowhere. Together these disappearances mean that both the exterior and the interior of the body – the interior of metabolism, the exterior of sustenance – have been lost. The body is no longer experienced as a natural system integrated with natural systems.’ [Catalogue essay on Ann Hamilton, ‘landscapes of emergency’ (1992), p. 43]

Stewardship, for me, speaks for re-connection. Cultural practices – what Clifford Geertz has called the webs of significance which man has spun and in which he is himself suspended – are forms of sustenance that can restore a sense of integration of the self with natural systems, because their mode is connective, collaborative and associative. But they have to be enabled to do that, or resources will drift habitually towards the Romantic model of the exceptional individual set apart from society, or towards instrumentalist provision of cultural ‘services’ in areas of perceived disenfranchisement and social marginality.

We need to think differently about the ‘edge’. Talent development doesn’t simply mean finding and enabling talented individuals – it doesn’t mean praying for a great play to fall out of an envelope at the Royal Court every other year. It means actively creating the conditions in which talent can itself be brought into being.

Educationalists and cognitive scientists have argued for some time that talent doesn’t reside in the individual mind at all, but in the relationship between the individual and his or her environment. We’re only talented in a context. We have as much to gain by generating potent contexts for individuals and groups as we have by scouting for talent like prospectors. People are not nuggets; they’re processes. Cognition itself is distributed between the mind, the body, activity and cultural setting. I’m not interested in supporting the production of art as though it were somehow disconnected in either its meaning or its making from the world it describes. I want to support a shift of values and behaviour across our societies, a process that belongs to and is reflected in cultural practices.

We have so much to learn, recall, teach one another, and communicate, and we’d better get on with it.

We need to restore the role of craftsmanship in making. A play is wrought, not written. We need to support the development of what Richard Sennett calls the engaged material consciousness. I’d like to see, and work within, research and development structures that deliberately broach the boundaries between art and craft. This way of thinking is exemplified in the work at Dovecot Studios, and it rejects the division that developed during the Renaissance, when originality began to be favoured over truth to materials, and the pleasure and humility of making things well for their own sake. The rise of the artist over the craftsman separated the artist from the community, separated the individual from the craft of citizenship, and I believe that the development of talent at every level must involve reconnecting the artist with community, with the process of apprenticeship and the knowledge that resides in elders, artisans and communities of practice everywhere.

Creative response develops through relationship, working with, learning from, knowledge transfer; through listening, stepping towards, time, respect and trust. Crucially, it develops in humility, which comes from the Latin ‘humus’, meaning ‘earth’. Nothing is more valuable than grounded sensory connection with a subject, place or people. Virtual connections are essential too, as they bind relationships and allow for information exchange over distance. They’re important in tending to relationships and projects, but the most important process is attending: being fully present in a situation, using all the senses to respond to it. The black box studio isnt a good place for learning, because if it speaks of anything, it’s of itself. Artists need to flex, to get out of the studio, to stumble into unfamiliar situations and gain confidence in their capacity to make meaning out of them and express it to others symbolically and physically.

We learn, ironically, by looking away – through indirection, the unexpected. Knowledge is something we grasp in flight – it isn’t acquired ready made. Talent development is a process of being unbalanced, inhabiting mistakes, allowing for collision, and out of that, finding form. It’s the story of Palestinian playwright Taher Najib, who travelled to England on a Royal Court international residency, and whose gift of oranges for his brother was torn apart by immigration officers at Heathrow searching for bombs. Out of that moment of chaos, Taher shaped a story and shared it with his peers, and made a monologue that’s since been performed around the world. In finding new form for his experience, Taher became talented. Discovery is based, according to Stuart Kauffman, on the art of the ‘adjacent possible’; on bringing together unlike domains – Jaffa oranges and bombs; beauty and chaos. It’s the leaps and sparks between them that generate new knowledge, form and desire. Skills develop by improvisation, by moving indirectly.

That’s why I’m inspired by the gift-giving of ceilidhs. ‘Ceilidh’ comes from the Gaelic word for companion; it’s the passing of knowledge and talent ‘knee to knee’. It’s a hands-on process; a form of research into the capacities of a community. Research needs people; people tell stories…and stories have many sides. We learned on the islands that ‘truth’ is just a tightly-held version of someone else’s story. The National Trust of Scotland will tell you a standing stone has an ancient, pre-Celtic history; a crofter whose family has dug this field for generations will tell you it’s just an old lintel stone stolen from a neighbouring island. The bus driver who delivered you insists they disagree for sectarian reasons; the local councillor will argue that they’re all great storytellers, and terrible liars. If we want to do good research, if we want to communicate the value of a project; if we want creative projects to have the kind of impact that can shift behaviour and values, we’d better learn the crafty art of storytelling – and we can only learn it by listening. The artist residency programme at Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Sleat doesn’t isolate the artist, but brings him or her into full relationship with the cultural life of the buildings and their surroundings, with landscape, language, music and story. You can’t hide there, and the experience is intense and life-changing, according to former artists-in-residence Rody Gorman and Ross Henriksen. It’s an experience of learning to belong by giving and being given to.

The problem with the way we often think about the making of art is that it reflects the forms we see about us in society: which are linear, fragmented, isolating and acquisitive; modeled on the efficiency, speed and editorial capabilities of our technologies and on the restless incremental improvement of consumer products. The world is so full of made and possessed things that in the wealthier nations we’re losing sight of the processes of making, and the relationship between materials, time and attention that they require.

We’re losing our understanding of the local, of place distinctiveness, of the way stories fit to particular environments. And i think these losses need to be countered with what with Jay Griffiths in Pip, Pip calls ‘slow knowledge’: shared and interdisciplinary knowledge, moral knowledge moulded to a specific cultural context or ecological locale. Rebecca Solnit, writing of the artist Anne Hamilton, says, ‘Artmaking is in some ways a gesture against the speed and fragmentation of production, a restoration of the full process from imagination to execution, of the relationship between mind and hands.’ This idea of ‘full process’ is interesting to me, but what does it mean, and how can we support it?

Slow knowledge is niche knowledge, embodied knowledge, not the amassing of information through technology or the showcasing of opinion or attitude. Slow knowledge can bear ambiguity, uncertainty, contradiction. It has seasons; we encountered many realms of slow knowledge on the islands, among crofters, fishers, food producers, ecologists, oceanographers, poets, boat builders, sculptors and elders.

Scotland’s islands are niches, or cells, and there’s value, I think, in using the metaphor of the island as a way of defining the space, ecology and community within which any full process of research and making might take place. Like cells, like human bodies, islands have membranes, they’re distinctive in their identity, but they’re porous to the world and its weather. They’re stories, or processes, and it’s the processes of exchange, transfer and trade that give islands resilience, not their insularity. A healthy nation is narrated by its people, not characterised by its government or seduced by the soundbites of its corporations.

A community comes into being through exchange. The resources of any community are immense; they include its local knowledge base, its natural environment, its traditions and stories, its crafts and skills. Communities need to see successful models of arts practice, with positive outcomes for participants, but those outcomes don’t only lie in performance, in the moment of release. They’re in the nature of the connections established throughout the process and beyond – the sometimes hard narrative of participation. We need to develop the support structures in the making of new work so that it is not only rich, complex and confident in expression but influential and affective in its impact on others from the beginning of the process to its end (and there should be no end, only another beginning). That means developing the narratives around projects to include the full process and the possible, not the prescribed, legacy.

My model here is the Australian community theatre company Big hArt, established by Scott Rankin, which works with marginalised and disadvantaged youth across regional/remote Australia. Big hArt argues that if you throw a wider narrative net over a project, you create more possibilities for stakeholders of many kinds to participate in it at every stage. They’ve established a model of setting up an advisory board for each project, made up of specialists reflecting the synthesis of issues in the project, and including a local councillor, a local business, young people, community leaders, representatives of relevant government agencies, and an arts mentor. It’s an approach that works well in island communities – and urban ‘islands’ could also be considered in this light. It allows for distributed investment in the project, and offers more points of purchase for stakeholders.

We tend to neglect what we think of as the margins or edge, except as places requiring special attention or support. But we’re all at the edge of someone else’s world, and at the centre of our own. In building a career, according to Rankin, artists tend to gravitate towards cities looking for more opportunity. Experience and the work produced can become homogenised, diminishing the impact of the topography, colours, stories, horizons and the materials found in regional or remote areas. BIG hART project work is located in regional areas because of the inspiration they offer. Rankin insists the arts provide a synthesis of our whispered concerns and an approach to ideas that can’t be achieved through policy, committee, infrastructure, the media or through other institutions with strong market links.

BIG hART have developed projects, and the talent of participants, in ways that i find incredibly inspiring, which have restored the process of making and the scale of making to the level of local community; without compromising on quality, through deep craft, attention and critical feedback, they’ve made possible a linking of craft, art and community into archipelagos of practice, where the individual is extended and expanded through connection with others, and with other ways of seeing. They take regional concerns into national forums, locating all their work within larger narratives around social and environmental justice. This doesn’t make the art utilitarian – it amplifies it, because it grows out of the voiced concerns and hopes of the communities themselves.

And there are other inspiring examples of talent development: Skye artist Julie Brook’s urban/island exchange and drawing project with children aged 3-10 at Fruitmarket was astonishing. The project brought children from Edinburgh to Skye to draw the island, and Skye children to Edinburgh to discover and depict this new urban domain. Over a two-year period the chidren learned the skills of drawing and evolved their sense of colour, line and form. The qualities they developed were confidence in their capacity to represent the world, give voice to their intentions and respond to one another; and they developed the life skill of attention – the capacity to be absorbed in the continuous present.

The Royal Court’s international residency programme is one of the most inspiring, challenging and influential forms of engagement I’ve been involved in, and it changes the lives and career paths of many of its participants. But it relies for its continuation on a single enlightened funder, with the support of the British Council, because its outcomes may not be visible for many years, if at all, in the traditional sense. But the programme’s value in terms of creating intercultural, international connections, developing confidence through communal learning, and making space for new voices, idioms and concerns, is exceptional.

And there are the community boat building projects taking place across the Scottish islands and in Govan through the folk university and Alastair McIntosh’s human ecology programme. What could bring craft and art more fully together than the building of a boat, which then becomes a vessel not just for learning the skills of sailing, but for symbolic and metaphorical expressions of the fitting together of a community around a common aim? The world needs more community boats, more folk boats.

We also need more folk universities, where artists, researchers and scientists and community members can come together in new ways, to explore particular issues of relevance to individual community ‘islands’; localised, intense and informal gatherings of interest, expertise and self-expression. Arts organisations are absolutely adapted and ready to become folk universities in an instant, in response to a particular issue or need. They’re bursting with the skills, resources and experience of people too often tied down to roles rather than employed according to capacities. It’s something we aimed for last year in a three-day gathering at Cove Park of 50 artists, scientists, curators and community leaders to discuss and imagine together the values and form of a four-year Scottish islands project. The folk university, however it’s constructed or interpreted, gives confidence to the curators or navigators of a project, gives connection to its participants, releases academics from the limitations of institutional practice and creates links between realms of knowledge through the interplay of casual and designed moments, play and reflection, presentation of work, questions and interests, and sharing of food, music and travel. If you really value and attend to the process, the outcomes will generate themselves and be more fruitful for it. Dig down, grasp, lift up, let go – it’s what William Bryant Logan calls the ‘original choreography’ of the hands.

David Lan’s work at the Young Vic is built on his belief that talent is relationship. Funding needs to look to and consider the long-term value of the full range of relationships between the artist and his or her context: individual, community and environmental. What is being given? What is the artist or project giving in return? Funders look for value,vof course, but they have the right and responsibility to question and extend the definition of value into values – incorporating ethics into economics. Values too must be reflected, supported and communicated through cultural means. Who are the stakeholders in any project? What qualitative or quantitative measurements might describe the value of a project to them? There are many languages and registers of value. The Big hArt model aims to ‘energise culture, provide advocacy and mentorship, and increase options for all participants’. It’s a notion of value that deliberately pushes back at narrow economic definitions.

According to Solnit, ‘’Things exist only in their conversations; value cannot be taken out of circulation. Similarly works of art are responses in conversations about making meanings, which is why understanding a work of art often entails knowing the conversation: a displaced work of art is a non sequitur, a milestone without its road.’

There’s individual research and making, and collective research and making. Art is a social practice, which is enriched through new contact. The journey we’ve been on was a form of group learning in which individual research and skills development is expanded by becoming part of a larger collective cultural practice.

Artists need residencies. Ideas need residences. Situated experience offers possibilities for action – we should design contexts for talent development – a boat, an island, a community of practice, an event, a place, a turning point – rich situations. Sometimes in quiet places of isolation and retreat, sometimes in the reflective and stimulating circumstances of Cove Park and Annaghmakerrig in Ireland, but also, and particularly, in other complex, demanding, unfamiliar environments. In places where political decisions are being made that will affect people’s lives; in places where energy is being generated and where our own communities are making decisions about their needs and limits, about their futures, and looking for ways to implement them that maintain their sense of agency and identity.

Agency is not about the individual will. According to philosopher Jane Bennett, it ‘always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces’ [Vibrant Matter (2010), p. 21]. We need to become more attentive to the materials and processes that we’re part of and which are part of us. To find out about a process or system, go to its edge – the place where definition begins, and take that as your centre. That might be a physical or a social place. It’s a border, a place of trade and covergence of many stories; a place, in Sennett’s words, of difficulty and becoming, where new skills are learned. People on these edges hold knowledge and experience that can push art in new directions, give it new languages, metaphors, processes and audiences.

Artists need new knowledge, not just about concepts, but about social, economic and technical processes. Olafur Eliasson has argued that we have to work actively with our senses and words in order to sharpen our sensibility towards this complex, heterogeneous field. We cannot afford not to think about the environmental consequences of our individual actions of about the relationship between the individual and the collective. We should actively advocate for an art making as one mode of engagement with the world among many – more meaningful and valuable as it connects with those other modes. Move out of the studio into place and space, and dynamic participation.

Talent is a whole person capacity, and we all possess it, but it has to be chafed or sparked into being through connection and enlightened institution-building. In The Craftsman, Sennett describes such an institution as having ‘started as a sketch, capable of evolving. Inside this institution you would…engage with difficulty, accident, and constraint. You would avoid resolving specific duties of people in the institution to the point where the duties, like rooms, became self-contained. You would know when it was time to stop institution-building, leaving some issues unresolved, and you would leave intact traces of how the institution grew.’ (263)

Funding bodies are crammed with expertise and experience – it’s our most precious resource and we have to retain it. I’d like to see NESTA come back into play as a resource for artists developing knowledge and practice in interdisciplinary partnership and through extended research and making. I hope the Arts Council and Creative Scotland will extend their Talent Development remits through contextual or situated residency programmes, placing artists with energy generating companies, policy makers, food producers; at the same time drawing talent out of individuals and groups outside self-defining artistic enclaves by supporting the sorts of knee-to-knee exchange that Scottish culture draws and thrives on: the sharing of skills and knowledge face to face, across realms of practice. Let Battersea Arts Centre, the Young Vic, the National Theatre of Scotland, say, function from time to time as folk universities, curated in partnership with Fuel, Fevered Sleep, B3 Media, Unlimited. Let’s all take part in designing these situations: funders, producers, curators, artists. That means letting go of disciplinary barriers and institutional territorialism, slowing down the frenzy and waste of production and programming, encouraging organisational collaboration, local touring, community engagement early in the process and right through, with an emphasis on young people, including children, and developing their practical skills, broader relationships and critical confidence.

WC Fields said never work with children or animals. David Harradine taught me you should always have both in the room, all the time, either literally or metaphorically, as participant-observers: unselfconscious, instinctive, fully present, attendant. We need to support one another to live aesthetically, not anaesthetically: fully sensitised to our environments, to our locality, to our place. We need to engage with technologies, natural forces, the vegetable and mineral realms.

Developing talent, or rather talented interaction, is an ethical project, and should be available to all. Aesthetics and ethics are closely connected: the way we feel the world is the way we feel about it. Ethics, another form of ‘stiùir’, provides direction and guidance. Our own actions as navigators are inseparable from our ethical orientation. But the realms of ethics and aesthetics can be enlivened, both these forms of perception sharpened, given new languages, and brought towards communities of participants rather than observers. In a true ceilidh, there are no performers and no observers: just a passing round of knowledge and human feeling. Navigation of a boat is a form of community knowledge, comprising craft and tools brought together for a common purpose. The Andrew Raven Trust explored this idea in a recent ‘Paths’ weekend, where the theme and the practice of path-making converged in the building of a bridge by the group. We need to walk together as well as talk together, solve practical problems together, dream together, with all of our talents at play.

Making art in this way is a form of gift. Supporting it too has to involve a kind of giving, without the security of predetermined outputs. We live and give amongst one another: together we’re much more than the sum of our parts. We should look to the broader and deeper social value of our cultural encounters and develop our languages and qualitative measures: when a child develops confidence, pride and connection in creating a portfolio of drawings of landscapes and people that were once strange to her, how do we measure that? We need to measure it now, and years from now, in the choices that child makes as a citizen, maker, participator and communicator.
I’d say this to every one of us – artists, agents, producers, funders, supporters: what have you been given? What will you give in return? What will you do to provide the sustenance that underlies sustainability?

My hope is that we’ll work more closely together and with many others we might not have thought to work with, to develop the practices of stewardship and the support structures necessary for its expression within locality and community; that we’ll come to see group learning as a vital resource in dynamic cultures and times of change – a practice of reconnection that makes possible the expression of talent grounded in specific places, knowledges and encounters.

We live and work between the realms of gravity and grace: the physical and the spiritual. Our ideas have to be grounded – humble – and embodied to be meaningful to us, and at the same time they have to resist this inevitability, and strain towards the edge of possibility and hope. We work best when we work with resistance – politically, intellectually and materially. But working with resistance is a craft – a subtle art. It needs to be practised – learned, repeated, lived – until it fully occupies the continuous present.
Ruth Little 2011

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