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October 17, 2017

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.


Students in the city

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/

City Arcadia Gallery


September 17, 2014

All Roads Lead to Coventry

All Roads Lead to Coventry was a joint venture organised by Warwick Creative Exchange, Coventry Artspace and Warwick Arts Centre – the aim was to invite universities, arts organisations and council officers to share ideas about the longer term future for the city and the role that arts and culture could play in reimagining that future. Rather than spending day in meetings, we decided to invite participants to spend a morning walking and talking through Coventry, discovering and rediscovering some of the ‘hidden gems’ which are tucked away across the city (museums, theatres, statues and historic buildings) as well as encountering the everyday experience of a richly varied (but still compact) contemporary city. And so, on a sunny September morning in Coventry, our journey began.

Start of the walk

The walks were designed by Simon Bedford, an associate producer at Warwick Arts Centre who greeted us at our starting point – appropriately enough, a car park midway between the city centre and the university. Here we were divided into ten small groups, each comprising cultural producers, academics from Coventry and Warwick universities and some of the senior officers at Coventry City Council. There was a buzz of anticipation – we knew our final destination (the EGO performance space close to the Transport Museum), and we knew that there would be some stops and talking points along the way, but the rest was up to us. Each group was given a map, a few notes on things to look out for and some questions to start the conversation, some chocolate – and away we went.

Our walks started from ten locations across the city, converging in the city centre. My own journey took in the village atmosphere of Earlsdon, the statue of Frank Whittle (inventor of the jet engine and a reminder of the city’s heritage as a centre of engineering, innovation and manufacturing) and the Albany Theatre, a beautiful 600-seat theatre run entirely by volunteers with big plans to relaunch itself as a centre for community arts. Like many of the places we visited, the Albany is hidden in plain sight, tucked away in an impressive former college which it shares, rather bizarrely, with a Premier Inn (see picture below right).

Albany Theatre - what next?Albany Theatre - hidden gem















Other groups walked along the canal, visited Coventry’s music museum (home of The Specials and a back catalogue of ska and reggae), looked at the new Fargo development or took in the Hillfields neighbourhood.

Coventry is often identified with its history of motor manufacturing and today it is still dominated by the ringroad – an impressive feat of engineering and a vital artery for people who live and work in the area – but also a symbolic barrier which seems to cut off the city centre from the diverse neighbourhoods beyond. So it was refreshing to be able to walk the city, meandering through its many histories, guided by people who knew its hidden corners and byways.

All walks led to EGO performance space – here we were served a wholesome lunch, shared stories from the day and tried to connect our experiences of the city into a bigger picture.

It became clear in the conversations during and after the walks that people who know Coventry well enjoy sharing its secret histories and hidden pockets of culture and community. But for outsiders, like many of the academics and students at the city’s two universities (including myself), the city is hard to ‘read’ (and hard to navigate!). One of the challenges we confronted was how to connect the city’s diverse histories and communities into a coherent narrative – how can we sell this complicated, fragmented, reticent city in a world dominated by brash city ‘brands’ and honeypot tourist destinations? Coventry is a city which wears its history lightly – ancient cottages house kebab shops, the old city walls skirt brutal modernist buildings. How can we connect the city’s many pasts and presents into a new future? What part can the arts and culture play in drawing the city together and opening it out to visitors? What are the barriers in the way of what we want the city to become?

Coventry history 1



These questions will be part of a series of ongoing conversations between artists, academics and council officers and members over the coming months. If you would like to get involved, please visit the Warwick Creative Exchange website – we will be posting some pictures and blog posts from the day, and posting details of future activities and projects designed to reimagine the city and its culture. You can also continue the journey we started with All Roads Lead to Coventry by visiting Coventry Artspace’s City Arcadia Project, a series of art installations which reimagine a city in transition, beginning with Kathryn Hawkins’ sculptural installation, (river). Or use your smartphone to follow the Trails of the Unexpected walk, designed by Janet Vaughan of Talking Birds and built by digital artist and developer Ashley James Brown. Or just let us know what you think of the city in the comments section below.


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