Urban Cultural Intermediaries: pedagogy, creativity and the City
Last year ended where this year began – planning some experimental pedagogy using the city as creative platform. Last summer's module was funded by IATL (Warwick's Institute of Advanced Teaching and Learning), and has resulted in a new module format – which will heavily influence this autumn’s Creative Project (a dimension of the core module), and will continue to evolve next summer. Summer (May and June) is a great time to teach – it’s festival season, there are visitors and tourists around, and people are out and using public space.
My original project proposal stated that "this project will activate students' creative potential across disciplinary boundaries and through interdisciplinary interaction -- in the context of the City of Coventry and current opportunities offered by its embryonic creative economy". This sounds good, but before constructing a framework for "interaction" or anything in the city, there were legal and well as ethical issues to think-through: after all, there are limits in what students are “allowed” to do off-campus -- particularly on a Tier 4 visa. The relation between "students in the city" is an historically tense one -- if one that has historically become subsumed in the question of economy. People may not have a particularly positive regard for students en mass, but the student population has become so embedded in the local economy, not to have them means less prosperity all round. The traditional "town and gown" tension is pretty much gone (as a social phenomenon, grounded in class) and has largely been supplanted by a less socially-grounded moral disdain (students are noisier, less socially conscientious, less cognisant of the value of the money, and so on). At the same time, universities have become such a huge presence in the city (in most cities) that few would question their importance. Yet, there remains a policy gap – the City Council are clear on the role of university institutions in the city, but not so clear on the role of 50,000 students when they are not inside the university (or a bar, or a rented apartment).
The initial rationale for the new module project was the conundrum of "creativity” -- the increaingly normative demands in teaching that somehow creativity will be in evidence or that creativity is a wholly positive and constructive phenomenon. Yet in my experience -- and I am sure I am not alone --- creativity can make demands that students cannot fulfill. Some students find themselves with a facility for creativity, others do not; and what kind of creativity do we expect? Amateur creativity? Professional-level creative products? Some students find creative production helpful in their learning, but others find it mystifying. Recent scholarship on the creative industries, however, now recognises that creativity is more often than not a collective endeavour, and even where individual talent and skill is involved, this is usually an individual working within a set of conditions that include the contribution of others. We all too often identify creative skills with an individual’s powers of creation – not collaborative methods, or different ways of engaging with a social space or place. Creativity as a concept is still derived from the proverbial romantic artist and inspired work of art.
Exploring models of creativity that are collaborative (and in this case, hopefully transformative of a place) means that the students needed to think about the material conditions of creativity as a form of labour -- what can we actually do, and how, and to what effect? Creativity as an urban intervention has to be more of a process, collaborative and managed in stages, and where many of the students must assume roles not normally associated with creativity.
Our summer module we call the "practice" module, as it allows the students to experiment by putting their theoretical understanding into practice. In the context of the Arts, Enterprise and Development masters -- we explore project design, management and the collective and collaborative dimension of creativity. Working in the city demands social engagement, networking, locating and using resources and understanding the policy and political contexts in which everyone is working -- in this case, the resurgence of interest in culture generated by the official bid for the UK Cit of Culture 2021 award.
The IATL funding was a ‘strategic project’ award – which gave us a range of extra resources and contributors, events and activity spaces, all normally outside the scope and budget of a regular module. An attempt to re-think the summer practice module was thus subject to a range of opportunities on a city cultural intervention, and participation in the city's Positive Images Festival -- said to be the largest festival of multiculturalism in Europe.
At the start of the project, I was considering of the role of “intermediary”, and how, in the creative industries, the intermediaries are crucial parts of a chain of events, multiple conditions and a collaborative process -- yet may not themselves be involved in the creation or the shaping of a final product. They may, rather, use skills in communications, management, enterprise, marketing and client or public engagement, all essential to the function of a project or enterprise. In other words, the intermediary is part of a value chain, and more often than not, part of a line or collective that is defined by the frameworks of creative production, such as a branded project. The intermediary may also be a catalyst, entrepreneur, provocateur or instigator; sometimes they are just agent or representative; but they are always one essential role in a much longer creative process, and they usually engage with constituencies or social groups that inhabit that industrial or cultural space.
Creative teamwork is difficult enough, let alone undertaken in a city of unpredictability; a foreign city; a socially unsettled city; a city that doesn't actually know who or what it is -- at least, these were the students’ initial observations. Moreover, one of the aims of our module was "inclusivity" -- constructing an urban space through pedagogy, where others (non-enrolled, or non-students) could participate in learning processes (perhaps the undergraduate, city youth, creative workers, refugees).
In the first few weeks city artists and activists taught the students how to navigate the city, and how to peel back the laters of history and meaning of which so many remain unaware. While it became apparent very quickly that "student" as a social category is tied to consumption -- outside their learned institutions, student have only one role in the city and that is transient consumers. They buy courses, food and drinks, entertainments, short term accommodation contracts, and if they are fortunate, clothes and luxury goods (though the latter probably in Leamington Spa and not Coventry). Yet, it began to emerge just how many students there are in the city, and with the organised labour of culture just how much students could potentially play a role in the city's cultural economy -- not just the economy of retail and consumption. Moreover, important research questions about the city began to emerge: Why is the city so indifferent to the potential of students – particularly after graduation? Why are students so indifferent to Coventry, and are unlikely to choose it as the place to begin their career? Why do students have a postive regard for Leicester and Nottingham, stay, and expand those city’s cultural economies? And are these questions based merely on anecdotal evidence – does anyone really know? What kind of data or evidence do we need, and what would we do with it? In fact, what is Coventry's creative economy -- and does it have one?
Our project conctructed a framework where the need of students for recognition, empowerment and employment was brought together with the needs of the city in expanding its urban creative economy. This was discussed at our three public events: 'The Right to the City' (at Artspace, Eaton House, on 14th June); 'Students, the City, the Creative and Cultural Industries' (at Fargo Village, June 28th) and 'Coventry Culture Forum' at the Belgrade Theatre (Patrick Suite, July 21st).
Altogether the project featured the contribution of nine creative practitioners and three academics; it had three stakeholder meetings, nine student seminars, an exhibition, and a public performance in the oldest pub in the city, the Golden Cross. Four blog postings on the progress of the project were requested by the Warwick public engagement office. Their blog (relating to the University's contribution to the Coventry City of Culture Bid 2021), can be found here: https://www2.warwick.ac.uk/about/cityofculture/research/support/jonathan_vickery/