As I write we’re entering our fifth week of lockdown and I am currently reorienting the ‘who with’ and ‘how with’ part of my PhD. In the meantime, the feedback between theory and practice will have to be through applying a conceptual perspective to my own life. This perspective comes from the concept of communities of practice1 and its descriptions of how meaning, identity and belonging are formed. This view is applied to analysing how the process of participating in arts and culture can create and maintain health. During this lockdown there has been a proliferation of examples, from the sourdough craze to the rise of crochet and neighbourhood singing. Maybe this is the opportunity for me to make kimchi, explore my many neglected cookbooks and finally knit stylish, cosy jumpers for my dogs. I can bring my conceptual framework to life through the practice of conceptualising participation as learning with others, such as online forums to share experiences or blogs to learn techniques. I can reflect on whether this participation can both maintain my mental and physical health and write my research equivalent of King Lear.
None of these things have happened. My focus and productivity are sporadic. I haven’t even binged a TV show, let alone been actively creative. There are plenty of resources that say this is to be expected and, help to soothe the debilitating feeling that now is the time for productivity and creativity whether personally or professionally. Some are aimed at PhD students and shared through communities.2 My conceptual perspective identifies non-productivity itself as a practice, through this mutual engagement, shared repertoire and joint enterprise of staying well through the COVID-19 pandemic. Together, we will take each day as it comes, celebrate the small wins, and learn how to walk through The Valley of Deep (COVID) Shit3. There’s the repeated line ‘you are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.’ A reminder that you’re juggling responsibilities, new roles, ways of working and worries.
Since I don’t have any distractions at home, no juggling act, care work or adjustment to online working, I don’t feel I belong to the community of non-productivity. My conceptual framework states that the concepts of practice and identity are profoundly connected and relate to meaning and belonging. Without either a productive or non-productive practice, it is predictable that my identity as a PhD student is evaporating, as are my other practices and identities, which are all now curtailed by lockdown. How do I start to take the suggested small steps back into the practice of being a PhD student or even being a participant in everyday life and recover a sense of self?
At this point, my application of my conceptual perspective falters. However, it does provide an emphasis on an individual’s knowledge and experience. I’m familiar with the ongoing process of acknowledging the validity of your own challenges and not minimising your feelings. I have learnt to not compare my experiences to a pregnant woman, crossing the pirate-filled Gulf of Thailand in a wee boat to a future of either being trapped with a new born in a refugee camp or an as yet unknown life in a uncontemplated country. I can apply this knowledge in order to try not to compare myself to those who seem to be negotiating productivity and non-productivity. I’ve been working on the task of leaving my feelings out there, to not dismiss them as trivial compared to what other people must being going through. I find it helps to let emotions breathe and take form, in order to provide the shape of something to acknowledge, to help voice ‘I’m not fine’ to something and, hopefully, someone. I’ve found honesty with yourself helps meaningful connections grow, and if you’re lucky, one of those productive people might leave baked goods on your doorstep and help you find a practice.4 This process has taken me to a place where I can start to act on the advice of setting achievable goals,5 enjoy moments rather than activities6 and so create the conditions for taking those small steps back into PhD practice and myself.
Resulting Sketch of Dog
1Etienne Wenger (1998), Communities of Practice – Learning, Meaning and Identity
4 Pistachio and rosewater cookies. Unexpectedly my practice seems to be organising fitness workouts based around mathematical sequences. There is even a process of reification, where form is given to experience and objects articulating the experience are created, as I have been given a logo. Reification and participation are a duality that constitute the concept of negotiating meaning that is the basis of practice and identity. Maybe my conceptual framework is coming to life, as I seem to be forming an identity as an unqualified fitness organiser.
5 I might not have made kimchi but I have finally made the most basic form of pickles. I’m now making up for all the years of missing the flavour and texture combination of the world’s finest sandwich, Bánh mì.
6 It’s not a stylish dog jumper, it’s a moment. I haven’t used these pencils since I purchased them last year. I’m finally acting on the celebrating small wins!
March 16th 2020 was my own Covid-19 watershed. I started the day at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. I was speaking about GWL and our work with legendary feminist artist Linder; the audience had seemed marginally depleted, there was nervous laughter as the mic was passed around in the Q and As, hugs still happened, social isolation and social distancing were new terms that were yet to affect behaviour. On the train journey home from Cambridge to Scotland traveller numbers were noticeably reduced. By the time I joined the Museums Association conference planning meeting in Edinburgh that same evening, the atmosphere had shifted dramatically (hand sanitising routinised, a sombre mood, the MA team preparing for imminent lock down, a sense of this being a ‘Last Supper’). Fast forward: as I write just over a month has passed since this cognitive milestone and the subsequent rapid reorientation of GWL from an audience facing, building centred, live events and learning hub (with just two of our team focussed part-time on the digital realm) to knowing that our building is closed for the foreseeable, staff and volunteers all working from home and everyone committed to making our beloved resource function, make sense and have impact in the virtual world.
Facade of Glasgow Women’s Library Bower of Bliss, Linder, a commissioned flag (with accompanying film and exhibition) for Glasgow Women’s Library, Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, 2018
I wanted to briefly share at this stage three of my own observations of how GWL is responding to the COVID-19:
The GWL staff team members are specialists in adapting to and managing change. As a feminist cultural organisation, resilience and adaptability have been muscles we have had to develop. Change Making is one of our Strategic Aims Challenges have been ongoing and varied since 1991: insecurities (whether financial or concerning premises), neglect, and marginalisation (not to say derision) at the outset, and continuing political, social and cultural tumult and criticisms of every stripe (as well as opportunities and the challenges associated with growth and increased recognition), have had to be acknowledged, discussed and acted upon as a team whilst attempting to be a genuine resource ‘for all’.
As a team we nurture staff and volunteers creativity and potential beyond the Job Description. The consequent benefits for GWL and our users are that this solution focussed momentum for change has continued to be unleashed during COVID-19. Some years ago GWL established Creative Clusters – themed groups that enable the Board, staff, and volunteers to productively connect. Cluster members tackle ‘stuck’ issues using creativity and our shared Core Values as an anchor. Team members choose Clusters based on their knowledge, interests and passions. During this challenging period this embedded ‘can-do’ collaborative culture and variants on ‘clustering’ are blossoming. For example, I found reassurance in Week 1 from a bulletin sent by our cleaner who reported that she had enjoyed an online Green Cluster meeting, was writing a Blog about the GWL garden (with a volunteer) had attended the first Reader Development Cluster meeting (her first ‘Zoom’) was ‘studying a lot of online literature, including GWL’s Strategic Plan (which is really interesting) … I am getting a chance to do all the research I never seem to have time for…Tomorrow I’ll be in a Webex meeting, about video subtitling… my brain has been buzzing with all these new concepts and my creativity has also made a reappearance.’
The efforts made throughout GWL’s development to centre access and inclusion and consult those most excluded from the cultural offer has meant that aspects of our work are flowing freely with minimal sense of adaptions being needed (for example, in May we stage another of our Open the Door Digital Festival, in planning for several months, the first of these digital festivals took place in 2018). Staff with digital skills have been quick to share expertise and have demonstrated exemplary leadership in an organisational culture where learning as a principle for all was already embedded.
A culture of care and kindness that people feel when they use our building or visit us online, and that characterises the staff and Board cohort, is ensuring that so far, our ship is steady and our work is making a difference. Amongst staff and Board I have sensed excitement percolating about how these current challenges can cultivate change at GWL and beyond.
There is of course no room for complacency, we are all mindful that the challenges: financial, existential, social, local and global, guarantee turbulence in the cultural waters as far as the horizon. Meantime, we can derive courage from a glance at the stirring stories on our (virtual) shelves and in our collections and can draw on our own history of tenacity, survival and creatively navigating the storms of the past three decades. In amongst the inevitable personal and professional dis-ease that change can engender, the team at GWL harbour dreams that in this, the latest ‘crisis’ that we are being asked to navigate, may engender shifts that could bring us closer to realising our Vision, Mission and deepen our Values.
Adele Patrick is a co-founder and Creative Development Manager at Glasgow Women’s Library. In the year leading up to the Lock Down Adele undertook a Clore Leadership Fellowship and produced Post Fellowship Research. In a GWL Twitter Take Over (08.04.2020) Adele shared the demands she was making of herself as a Feminist Leader.
German philosopher and cultural critic Fredrich Nietzsche once said “invisible threads are the strongest ties”. As well as being reminiscent of Paisley’s very own Sma Shot, there is the undeniable truth that the invisible threads Nietzsche refers to are what binds our communities together. Our strong ties are in the social connections we make and in being part of something bigger; a shared ‘we’re in this togetherness’.
This strength of connection, or sense of community, is what underpins all that STAR Project does. It’s a solid and safe foundation, albeit invisible, a platform for change that facilitates risk taking, creative expression, exploration and growth. The onset of Covid-19 threatened to rip through these invisible threads as, piece by piece, they were intertwined with fear. Connections were now fraught with risk.
We feared the impact of the pandemic; what it might mean for us, our community, ourselves, our existence. We worried about funding, staff health and safety, loss of income, and we worried about our ability to get through this unscathed. Fear is contagious and, alongside our own fears, we were inundated by the fears of hundreds of distressed and vulnerable community members looking for comfort and reassurance. People were displaying signs of trauma and grief, fight or flight responses were kicking in and – for many – there was a profound sense of loss. A loss of what was known and safe, of connections and, of the way things were supposed to be.
Understanding this threat to the psychological safety of our community is what compelled us to try and salvage those invisible threads as quickly as was possible. A collective determination developed within the team and we decided to do what we do best; we got creative in the face of adversity and upped our game.
And so began our digital revolution.
We experienced a real urgency to adapt and creatively replicate our services digitally, and as closely as possible, to what was familiar. Within 32 hours we had our contingency plan in place, adapted our social media strategy, a creative operational plan and associated protocols, set up various digital tools and implemented a new wellbeing framework for the team. The only exception to this was our Community Fridge which we adapted for delivery, an essential service tackling food insecurity and reducing food waste, but that’s a whole other blog in itself.
For our community members, their need to connect with us, and each other, was so strong they were willing to put aside age-old resistances to change and, for some, a mistrust of new technology.
If you’d said to me a month ago that our Drop-In would work digitally, I’d have laughed (albeit in my head). If you’d said that we could be just as creative and that our community would engage just as creatively, I may have doubted it. Yet here we are, even busier than before and with a whole new level of creativity to explore. People who were a bit quieter have come into their own, leading on topics, enjoying a newfound digital freedom. People who resisted technology are suddenly connoisseurs of Zoom, Slack and Hangouts.
Amid the horrors of this crisis, the fear and the loss, there has also been gain; new ways of working, evidence of cultural resilience,* expanding comfort zones, heightened creativity, lots of compassion, and a new kind of connectedness. Those invisible threads continue to hold fast.
Although we are bruised, we are finding ways to battle on.
A registered Scottish charity: SC028133
*Cornelius Holtorf (Assistant Professor, University of Lund, Sweden) describes cultural resilience as the capacity of a cultural system (consisting of cultural processes in relevant communities) to absorb adversity, deal with change and continue to develop.
Back in February (admittedly, a time that now feels but a distant memory), the Centre for Culture, Sport and Events, Renfrewshire Council and STAR Project came together to ask the Paisley community what culture meant to them. Despite the appaling weather, our community members attended en masse to tell us exactly what it meant to them.
While opinions and views were collected throughout the event, our community members decided that they wanted to host a workshop and write a blog to capture their thoughts and feelings about Art & Soul of Paisley a couple of weeks later. In true STAR style – they asked, we did.
The group consisted of 8 community members, all eager to share their thoughts on the event. We started talking about our general feelings about what had happened on that rainy afternoon in February. Everyone agreed they had had a great time, listening to the upbeat tunes of the Well Happy Band, eating delicious food from Redss Catering, dodging the numerous photographs/graphics being captured but, most of all, people loved having their voices heard.
Our community are a cultural bunch, prior to the event they already felt like they knew a lot about the subject. Some told us the event was a useful platform for bringing together all of the incredible things happening in Renfrewshire and really reflecting on how these things benefited them.
Photo credit: Willie Kay
Highlights of the event, from our community’s perspective, included the happy atmosphere and the community spirit. They were proud of the number of people who turned up with the soul (see what I did there?) purpose of coming together to talk about things that mattered to the community. One community member told us “it felt like we were the experts telling people what we know and what is needed. They genuinely listened; they were interested – I loved every minute of teaching people how important it is to create your own culture within your community. More please!”
Community members agreed that the participatory and accessible nature of the event kept them engaged throughout. “It wasn’t sitting around, death by PowerPoint and being talked at by a guy in a grey suit. It was – get on yer feet, use yer voice, get the colour markers out.” Others felt having children there was a highlight. They acknowledged that, while the kids were loud, on a ‘sugar high’ and interrupted a few of the activities, having them there made the event seem more ‘community led.’
As a result of the event our community members felt heard, empowered and included. Many stated that being involved at such an early stage of the project made them want to know more, want to follow the progress of the work as it progressed; to help support it in any way they can. “I knew, the moment I got there, it wasn’t a tick box thing. Not a ‘yeah, yeah, tell us what you think, and we’ll do our own thing anyway.’ No, it felt like ‘we’re not doing anything until you’ve told us what to do.’ It wasn’t an event done for us; it was with us.”
Our community felt there were few to no barriers to them engaging with the event- although everyone agreed that the weather could have been better – we assured them we would look into it!
Finally, community members decided to each come up with one word to sum up Art & Soul of Paisley: Togetherness; Community; Creative; Participation; Inspired; Happy; Spirit; Surprising; Empowered. That the community members chose these words to describe the event, demonstrates that the potential to positively and meaningfully engage the community in the cultural regeneration process is already well underway.
The first ever Paisley Book Festival celebrated a hugely successful inaugural year. From 20th to 29th February 2020, the festival – which celebrated Radical Stories and Rebel Voices and marked the 200th anniversary of the Paisley Radicals – packed out venues across the town as more than 2,500 people came to listen to the likes of John Byrne, Kirsty Wark, Janice Galloway, Kirstin Innes and many more. There were a host of free events including Luke Winter writing stories on demand at the Piazza Shopping Centre, and young readers got in on the act with a special Bookbug in the Bath at the Lagoon Leisure Centre.
We also hosted the inaugural Janet Coats Memorial Prize, created in honour of the Paisley-born wife of publisher James Tait Black who herself released two volumes of nature-inspired poetry in the late 19th century. The winners – chosen from open submissions from Scottish poets on the theme of climate change – were announced on 28th February; Basara Basit from Paisley triumphed in the under 18s category and Sylvia Telfer from Rutherglen won the adult award.
photo: John Griffin
In addition to this brief overview, there were many highlights to consider over the ten days which also included a schools programme taking several authors to 8 different schools in Renfrewshire.
With a strong opening night event and an evening that saw poets and poetry-lovers huddled in the library in the warmth away from the floods, we have seen a real positive response to the launch of the Paisley Book Festival. Despite the weather many made great efforts to travel from far and wide to see Emily Dodd, Breaking the Mould panel event on low-income and disabled access to publishing as well as Maria Stoian’s Make Your Own Zine Workshop. John Byrne’s Big Birthday Bash, with actors from the Tron singing tracks from Underwood Lane, and PACE delivering an enjoyable section of Slab Boys as well as Paisley-born Gary McNair interviewing John, was a special moment for everyone in the room, including Paolo Nutini. The standing ovation at the end was a magical touch to the evening.
Photo: Kausar Yasin
Following this, a magically intimate conversation between author Kirstin Innes and Janice Galloway about thirty years of The Trick Is To Keep Breathing meant the buzz in the Arts Centre did not leave anytime soon, and Jenny Lindsay’s event saw a surge of book sales of This Script. Sold out events in The Bull Inn and The Lane, as well as Callum’s Cavern meant that Alan Bissett’s Presents strand was well received, and the adrenalin from the packed-out Fun Lovin Crime Writers events saw a great finale to Paisley’s inaugural book festival. This will be a mean feat to follow.
On a blustery Friday afternoon, hardy and rain-spotted folk from in and around Paisley gathered at the Beechwood Community Centre in Shortroods to take part in the first of the workshops planned as part of our UKRI funded place-based partnership project:Improving Community Wellbeing and Prosperity through Culture, #ArtandSoul.
This partnership-focussed work looks at how the benefits of arts and culture projects, interventions, activities and interests benefit local communities. The work undertaken will, we hope, provide evidence of cultural value as well as giving insights into the ways in which local communities and individuals participate in arts and culture. In turn, our findings will feed into policy and practice discussions taking place within community organisations and, at local authority level; helping those who deliver support and services to better understand the wants, needs, skills, abilities and interests of their communities.
Photo credit: Willie Kay
In liaison with local community leaders, our project partners at STAR Project and within Renfrewshire Council’s Cultural Regeneration team led the workshop which was attended by about 50 local community members alongside representatives from a range of local and national organisations; including NHS Scotland, Renfrewshire Leisure and the Disability Resource Centre.
The activities undertaken – and the discussions that arose from them – provided a huge data set which we must now collate, analyse and feed into the next phases of this project and, into the wider discussions currently ongoing at council level – and particularly within the Future Paisley Partnership – on the strategic direction of some of their cultural regeneration work.
We had a great, fun-filled afternoon that also gave us much to think about; there was a lot to say about the art and culture in Paisley as well as about ‘what’s not there’ and ‘what’s been lost’ over the years. That people attended in numbers in spite of really atrocious weather conditions helped to ensure that we were able to gather some very rich and valuable data to take forward in this project and, to feed into relevant discussions and debates on cultural regeneration in Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland and elsewhere.