The keyword is collaboration: dwelling among pathways through NCACE’s evidence garden

Keyword searches will help to unlock the NCACE collections for researchers and practitioners. I was pleased to be invited to reflect on what Evelyn Wilson described as an ‘evidence garden’ recording the complex pathways of knowledge exchange that characterise NCACE’s multi-sector-connecting mission at the March 2023 Evidence Cafe launch of the new NCACE Collection. The event focused on four exemplary essays commissioned for the collection and  showcased for the occasion by: Rosy Greenlees (Crafts Council); Ann Light (CreaTures project); Bronac Ferran (re-wilding STEM), and Cara Courage (cultural compacts). 

I began by imagining myself undertaking a keyword search to guide me through the garden’s complex and multiple pathways. In one sense, the keywords will be self-evident, beginning with ‘collaboration’, but including ‘sustainability’, ‘climate emergency’, ‘ecology’, ‘art’, ‘craft’, ‘higher education’, and ‘culture’. Environmental sustainability offers a situated, place-aware strategy for dealing with the climate emergency. Ecology is both a discipline linked to sustainable life and environmental sciences and a metaphor for grasping the complex relations that obtain between the different parts of a cultural and organisational system, its capacity for institutional collaboration productive of change and a better, sustainable future. Practitioners, makers, researchers, curators, historians and interpreters of culture who turn to NCACE’s collections can usefully recognise both the denotative and metaphoric functions of keywords: particularly as they strive to situate themselves in, while re-shaping anew, traditions of interdisciplinary engagement and research in seeking to make an impact on the future. When the cultural critic Raymond Williams built his historical cultural theory around ‘keywords’ (for Williams, ‘democracy’, ‘class’ ‘art’, ‘culture’, ‘industry’) he crucially recognised that keywords have etymologies and multiple meanings based on complex histories: those meanings are sometimes contested, at the very least they point in different semantic directions. 

The keyword I want to propose here is the verb ‘to dwell’. Ann Light’s essay records a future-focused aspiration that has shaped her career that led to the remarkable CreaTures project: the challenge of how to ‘dwell together well’ – a formulation in which both place and collaboration signify. Etymologically, to dwell means to be situated, to make a home, abide as a permanent resident. ‘Dwell’ also derives from ‘to linger, to procrastinate, to delay, to keep the attention fixed.’ In an even earlier, Old English form, dwellan meant to be led by error, in some sense to intellectually transgress. ( I bear all of these variants on a keyword in mind as I traverse, and dwell among, the pathways in the evidence garden that these excellent essays offer.

Rosy Greenlee’s essay reflects on her leadership of the Crafts Council during which time the Council has become an increasingly important contributor to NCACE’s evidence garden. A council is of course a solid entity, guaranteed by the existence of a charter (1971). The national charity for crafts, with its support for everyday creativity, in fact descends from a complex history and series of dwellings (its London gallery, for example: now closed). Craft Council is now a service delivery organisation, under the Arts Council’s umbrella. As such, it is empowered, sustained, and developed by collaboration and it has become an important player in the national creative ecology ( I celebrate the continuing importance and innovative capacity of craft: I work closely with Stoke-on-Trent, the home to national and international ceramics, a craft that was and remains a vital force of creativity in the city. Rosy Greenlees reflects on the place of crafts in ‘a complex ecology of activities and benefits’ that arise from working co-productively with a range of partners and sectors. That work is often characterised by open, inquiring approaches to research collaboration, sometimes without regularly constituted ‘research questions’. Such an approach can generate, for example, a shared understanding of the value and importance of ‘repair’ and its emotional economies in the relations between textile craft and anatomical medicine. Such work innovatively explores the value of the emotions and touch in handing down medical and craft education; a reminder that ‘tradition’ is etymologically derived from the Latin tradere, to hand down. Higher education has become an increasingly important research partner to the Council though roles and responsibilities can sometimes be innovatively reordered by partnership and project needs: for example, the research for one project was conducted by KPMG as a professional services provider, the university partner involved for its expertise in deploying and developing a leading concept. Greenlees’s essay encourages readers to dwell collectively on the sustainability challenges, around funding and expectations of priority and authority, faced by the Crafts Council as a distinctive force for collaboration and innovation in the creative ecology.

Ann Light (University of Sussex) reflects on her role in the CreaTures project. Funded as a Europe-wide consortium under Horizon 2020, future funding through this route is a research sustainability challenge on which readers should collectively dwell. CreaTures ambitiously strives to codify, reflect on, and offer guidance for future makers and researchers on the relationship between the climate emergency and the role of art in contributing to its understanding and positive transformation – while always recognising that both sustainability goals and the role of art therein are complex. CreaTures included twenty commissioned experimental projects, while also drawing many more existing projects into an Open Creative Practice Framework. Each work package of the project (Research, Policy, and Creative Practice) can bring insights from the Observatory, which identifies exemplary Pathways to assist those who seek to develop new artistic interventions and evaluated outcomes. If the Craft Council is constituted by charter, CreaTures offers the playful, artistically remarkable, Treaty of Finsbury Park, a project that promotes an understanding of biodiversity through role play. The Treaty is an artistic enactment of re-wilding through live action role-play – interspecies assemblies that encourage us to dwell at the edges between human and non-human actants, and their re-working of processes of re-wilding.

Bronac Ferran begins her essay (on STEM and re-wilding) at a festival in Norfolk with discussions about re-wilding through the topics of soil quality, land management, and bees. Situating herself on the edges between overlapping ecological conversations, Ferran is most interested in edges that shape and drive the creative ecosystem in its relations to the climate crisis: the points at which knowledge systems meet to re-shape future possibilities. This is indicative to the essay’s analysis of STEM disciplines, the post-WWII cybernetics/information revolution, AI and their relationship to a cultural re-wilding produced by interactions between poetry, visual art, and the technologies of print, particularly in the practice of key German artists and thinkers of the 1960s. Ferran situates her thinking in a long history of thought, beginning her essay with Carlyle’s seminal reference (in 1831) to conscious, artificial systems, and dynamical, unconscious systems. Ferran traces the most recent manifestations of this thinking through Chomsky’s generative linguistics from the 1950s; and the way in which Chomsky informed the thinking of figures such as Bense and Meyer from Germany. Ferran’s essay dwells on the potential of poetry to lead by offering a transgressive model of the generative, produced at the edges between art, design and material printing. Ferran’s exploration of archives from art schools in the 1960s reveals complex interpersonal relations between artists, thinkers, and practitioners. Such relations constituted the ‘dynamic [unconscious] soil’ of the research base that re-wilded art practices by mixing media and moving the results into new spaces, especially among those living in marginal or ‘edge’ zones. Ferrans’s essay dwells upon networks and nodes of activity, neglected by earlier historians of art, culture and disciplinarity. In so doing, it offers different interdisciplinary pathways to the future, foregrounding the importance of Chomsky, AI, and cybernetics; thus offering counter narratives to histories of the ‘linguistic turn’ dominated by Saussurean models that were so prevalent during the 1980s and 1990s. If the CreaTures project provides us with rich and nuanced blue prints and case studies for collaborative work to address the climate emergency, Ferrans’s focus on the neglected archives of art schools enables us to dwell on the transgressive connections, and future possibilities, generated out of relationships between the history of practices and our present/future.

Finally, Cara Courage’s essay focuses on one of the new ‘soils’ for collaboration, the cultural compacts that aim to leverage new sources of value to place-based cultural ecologies. Supported by Arts Council England, and reported on recently by BOP, Courage explores in particular the place of universities in compacts: do they offer distinctive sources of collaborative value, given that compacts are protean and varied formations/bodies comprising partnerships across many sectors. Strikingly, as an expert in place-making Courage focuses on universities’ role as good neighbours, their status, as Anne Light might put it, as dwelling partners in the act of living (and exchanging knowledge) together well. Compacts offer deeply collaborative platforms, and Courage reminds us that a pre-condition for innovation is the need for conversations without preconceived assumptions about each partners’ offer. In looking for evidence of innovation, Courage finds that the evidence garden seems, just now, quite patchy in some of the most innovative directions in which compacts could and should push: more diverse leadership of compacts should certainly be an aspiration. Courage also urges us to dwell on the fact that cultural compacts could be doing more to address the climate emergency and also social prescribing.

My walks through NCACE’s collections, its ‘evidence garden’ no less, perhaps indicates that our sense of place-making, and, creative innovation and intellectual space-clearing are linked in complex ways to the focus of our intellectual attention and practices – in the making as well as in the conceptual and textual acts of application and interpretation. To reflect on the keyword ‘to dwell’  can help to illuminate other keywords such as collaboration, and the ecology of institutional and disciplinary relationships, as we navigate new structures, new disciplinary and practice-based alignments in pursuit of more sustainable futures for our cultural, social, artistic and technological relationships.