As part of its remit, the Centre for Culture, Sport and Events (CCSE) is committed to hosting conferences, symposia and seminars which promote knowledge generation and exchange, providing a platform for scrutiny, discussion and debate of the issues that frame and influence the sectors of culture, art, sport and events locally, nationally and internationally. These events afford valuable sharing and networking opportunities for scholars and policy/community stakeholders alike. They are anopportunity to both reflect on what already and to look to the future. CCSE had planned for its annual symposium to take place at UWS’s Paisley Campus in May 2020. However, with the onset of the COVID–19 crisis and the subsequent restrictions placedonall “co-present” activity, we were required to reconsider our approach. We are – as we discovered – in a fortunate position. Our University can provide access to a suite of digital broadcasting options; YouTube, Twitter etc, and we have colleagues with the expertise to help us to exploit these facilities in–house too.
Thus, we began planning our live stream virtual event: Festivals, Events & COVID19; Navigating a Global Pandemic. The impetus for organising and hosting this event was to provide an opportunity to hear from speakers active at various critical intersections of the art/sport/culture/festival and event nexus. We invited academics, alongside policy and practitioner stakeholders, to share their experiences of COVID–19 to date and, to explorethe implications of the pandemic for their sectoral interests in the longer term. We brought together a fantastic line up of local, national and international speakers to discuss three topics:
Cultural festivals: performing at a distance
COVID-19 and the future of sport events
Creative responses and new event formats
The challenges that the culture, sport and events sectorsare facingwere foregrounded in the contributions of our speakers. Tackling the colossal effect in the economic sphere, including the inherent‘precarity’ of the sector overall and the strain placed on artists, producers, sponsors, broadcasters and others in the supply chain were central issues. The abrupt cancellation of all summer season events across Scotland has pitched event organisers into something of anexistential crisis. The schedule of live events nationally for 2020 has been severely curtailed and the current prognosis for 2021 is for a ‘very cautious return’ requiring events to be remodelled to accommodate our post-COVID reality. The Edinburgh Festivals alone generate over £300 million for the Scottish economy. The direct effect on artists and producers reverberates down the supply chain as those delivering support services are also impacted. This pattern is repeated across the country, and internationally.
It is a real concern that many – freelancers, performers, agents and athletes – will find it extremely difficult to survive in the sector until 2021; many arts practitioners, for example, rely heavily on annual events as an arts marketplace and showcase for their creative work. While the sector is still booking for next year, the risk that increased ticket prices will exclude some audience members is very real. Moreover, this does not yet consider the burden of meeting new government-sanctioned compliance frameworks going forward.
The severely straitened financial circumstances in which governing bodies –i.e. local authorities – find themselves and the period of global economic recession to come will affect the prioritisation of the recovery of the arts sector too. The dimensions of public and private space are also changing in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and this will impact howwe experience communal social experiences and what size and type of events we will be able to host in our neighbourhoods, towns and large cities. There are, nevertheless, reasons to look to the future with positivity. For one thing, this period of enforced abstinence serves to demonstrate the extent to which cultural and sporting events function as milestones of individual and community memory/identity making, rites of passage and recurring traditions in our lives.
Our speakers underlined the role that technology and associated digital platforms – while not always free – can play fulfil as enablers, allowing enhancement and cost saving that could benefit the sector. If used appropriately (with care taken over accessand data security) such platforms can be harnessed asvaluable recovery assets. Digital, downsizing and strategic dispersal may well be vital for successful rebuilding and utilising the crisis to help us find a way towards sustainability in recovery. In addition, much of the sectoris well used to dealing with problems creatively, working within tight financial constraints to deliver their work. The pause in activity that has been forced upon us is an opportunity for retrospection and upskilling and, for finding creative ways to reach new audiences. It is a chance to consider adaptations and innovations that will enable recovery/reimagining; to return with better-informed events that are of increased relevance to their target communities and audiences.
Currently, it is far from clear how the sector will return. Arguably, the government-funded furlough scheme in the UK isshielding the sector from the worst of the impacts of the present situation.The community and participation impacts of the cancellation of some events – we heard about highly specific sporting events in Northern Canada in session II – are significant and, cannot yet be fully understood. Further, festivals and events comprise significant parts of our international reputation which can be lost rapidly but, once gone, is not so easily regained. Thus, while the future might look different, it is nevertheless hugely important – for livelihoods, wellbeing, and social connection – that these sectors do return.
The humanitarian effort in the sporting and cultural sectors emerged as a common theme across the sessions, people have felt uplifted by the commitment in local communities to re-conceive neighbourhoods, to engage in culture and festivity in different ways. Nevertheless, a desire to support large scale sporting and cultural festivals and events remains. It is clearly apparent that equality, diversity and inclusion should be at the heart of any vision we create. Neighbours and neighbourhoods as connected places located beyond city centres and with social and physical accessibilitywere foregrounded by speakers as entities that are guarenteed to increase in importance.
Concluding on a positive note, our speakers and audience contributors felt re-energised by the commitment in local communities to re-imagine their neighbourhoods, to engage in culture and festivity in empathetic, kind, and collaborative ways. The local, and the importance of ‘place’, will be reinforcedbut a desire to structure part of our lives around around large scale, spectacular sporting and cultural festivals and events still persists. Significant change is inevitable, but we’ve seen that the sector has already demonstrated the resilience on which it must now seek to build.
Here, and on our social media platforms, we will continue to reflect on the issues raised in the virtual conference andthose which crop up in the evolving context of the ‘new normal’. Though there is much uncertainty, it is also the case that the post-COVID–19 outcomes for the sector are likely to be far more positive if issues around change, challenge and sustainability have already begun to be interrogated, with as many voices as possible included in the conversations taking place.
If you would like to view the virtual conference, it can be seen here.
Dr Stephen Collins’ short film ‘James Town and Slavery’ is an official selection for the Changing The Story Online International FIlm Festival. The film is a result of a research project which investigates the links between modern and historic slavery in James Town, Ghana. Capturing footage of a new walking tour developed in a collaboration between the project team and James Town Walking Tours, the film premiered on 1st June 2020.
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.