On The Map

Whether or not people mean it literally when they say the groundswell of community events I’ve written a lot about are ‘really putting Highams Park on the map’, Highams park is indeed about to appear on the map – the transport for London map that is. Although our train service won’t change, at least in the immediate term, when TFL take over the Liverpool Street to Chingford line in a few days, people across London will see our station (and indeed Wood Street and Chingford) on the same map as the more familiar underground lines. The area’s proximity to Walthamstow and the City will perhaps become more apparent to people who have previously given the E4 postcode very little thought. 

  

Whether this will have an impact on the area only time will tell. When TFL took other suburban services into the overground network  reports abounded of rising property prices and the sudden emergence of new hipster hotspots. This could be a double edged sword – already some attempts to create new focus for highams park have been stalled by unmanageable commercial rents for small local businesses. 

One thing which will not change is the continued growth in the community led initiatives which make the area a very special and exciting place to live. One opportunity arising directly from the change in management of the railway station takes place this week when the trackside retail unit becomes a temporary pop up shop ‘ (not quite) the end of the line ‘ run by the Highams Park Society and providing local groups and craftspeople with an opportunity to showcase what they do. This is just a prelude to another summer of events, which will include the first Highams Park Festival of Culture, the launch of two further Little Free Libraries, and the annual Highams Park Day. Anyone venturing for the first time to the newest area on the map should find more than enough to make them want to stay. 

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The Unofficial Countryside

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The small wooden box has the image of a pylon burnt by hand into the top. Inside the lid a photograph of birds roosting on a telegraph pole which rises from a meadow’s unmown grass. The seven 3 inch CDs are housed inside paper sleeves featuring images so close up that it is hard to identify them. Some are plants, others man made structures – some could by either. These images immediately bring to mind Epping Forest, and the Lee Valley marshes which I know so well. But at the bottom of the box six map fragments, when pieced together turn out to be the less familiar Western edge of London- Ealing, Wembley, Twickenham, and at the top Hertfordshire – tantalisingly close to, although not quite reaching Essex. The landscape of the maps is familiar though – built up urban areas, reservoirs, and on the fringe of the city those inbetween places, where there is clearly green – but not wild – space. London has already subsumed some of it, and, on the map, is a constant threat to these delicate edge lands.

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This is ‘The Unofficial Countryside’ – a new release from Wist Rec. In this era of downloading and streaming a physical music release can become a sought after artefact – most obvious in the resurgence of vinyl, but releases like this go way beyond the LP. Packaging, artwork, and concept go hand in hand with the music – and when it works are inseparable from one another.

This release, each 20 minute disc the work of a different artist, has much of interest musically. Electronic and acoustic sounds crossing the same inbetween space as the rural/ urban artwork. It is often impossible to tell where the boundaries lie between a found sound or field recording and a synth or acoustic line, or between composed or improvised, natural or processed sound. It is the sort of release that is best to immerse yourself in, without trying to unpick the artist’s processes – and it certainly wouldn’t be the same as an iTunes download or on Spotify.

The Unofficial Countryside is inspired by Richard Mabey’s book of the same name – and the routes marked on the enclosed maps illustrate the walks he took when writing this study of the space between city and countryside as long ago as 1973. The book was pioneering in this field – an area which continues to be explored by writers, musicians and artists today, and this small box and its contents both continue that journey, encourage a reading of the text which inspired it , and bring a new perspective to past and future Urban Wandering in the edgelands of London.

Art, books, community (and just a little mulled wine )

The community spirit I wrote about in my recent post on the Highams Park Plan was much in evidence last weekend, as the community came together for a day of festive events which highlighted how much has been achieved in just a few short months.

First up was the launch of our three little free libraries, a project I’ve been involved in as part is the arts and culture group (ARC). Since the launch of the little free libraries project UK, with 12 installations in Walthamstow this simple but powerful idea has captured the imaginations of communities across the country, and the network of little free libraries seems to be expanding every week. These small wooden houses are each decorated by a local artist and hosted in residential, )or sometimes business locations and are available to all to leave, take, or swap a book. The combination of public art, literacy and community engagement embraced by this very simple idea shows the potential of grassroots activity. Small interventions can enhance an environment and positively impact people on a day to day basis.

Our three Highams Park little free libraries are situated across the area covered by the Highams park plan, and each artist’s design reflects a different aspect of our unique part of London.

On Abbotts crescent, the Magic Forest by Hiding Fox incorporates clay pressings of leaves collected from epping forest, with tree branches created from ceramic coated clay.

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Yvette Sargent’s Bee House on Handsworth avenue depicts book reading bees surrounded by the flowers that attract them, both reflecting the beautiful garden in which the library is situated and drawing attention to the declining Bee population and the potential impact of this.

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Sam Johnson’s Design on Selwyn Avenue reproduces the Highams park signal box – itself recently saved by community action, and now undergoing a restoration and occasionally open to the public.

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These three pieces of public art are, as local legend William Morris would have said, both useful and beautiful, and are already being used and enjoyed by people every day. We celebrated the launch of each of them with especially written poetry from local poets, and by swapping gift wrapped books as well as enjoying mince pies generously supplied by our hosts.

We followed this up with some late Christmas shopping at the Christmas craft market – where the majority of stalls were run by local artists, as well as a representation from a number of local businesses including xylonite arts, grace and albert cook shop and the recently relaunched royal oak. We finished the day with a mulled wine singing carols with people from across the area. That all of these events were organised by local residents, working entirely voluntarily made the event feel very special and a true celebration of the talent and entrepreneurial spirit in our area. As we look forward to 2015, which will amongst other things see the formal creation of our local area plan it is really exciting to think ahead and imagine how all these initiatives will develop over the coming year.

Xylonite Arts – An arts space for Highams Park

This evening sees the launch of Xylonite Arts. Surely the first public arts space to appear in Highams Park for a while, and perhaps another sign that this area has reached the critical mass needed to sustain small, creative and quirky businesses.

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Xylonite arts at 12 Winchester Road will host small scale exhibitions, a permanent selection of carefully curated vintage pieces and works from local artists, and a variety of workshops and participatory sessions. It’s the brainchild of Lili Spain, a local curator and performance artist who brings a wealth of arts and business experience to this new venture. If the crowd at this evening’s opening is anything to go it will provide something unique to the area which fills the demand for a creative space on our doorstep.

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There’s certainly a wealth of local talent to draw on. xylonite arts opens with a secret sale of one off postcards designed mostly by local artists, although Lili has drawn on her wide network to persuade one or international names to contribute too. Choosing a piece to buy was quite a decision, but I’m delighted to have added an original work to my walls this evening- get down to 12 Winchester Road this week while the show’s still on!

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Scientifically speaking…..

Two really interesting papers have been published in the last couple of weeks which have really chimed with me, and they have happened to come at a time when my own work is evolving to encompass many of the issues raised, and will perhaps allow me to explore these issues further. Firstly, Counting What Counts, published by Nesta, and written by Anthony Lilley and Professor Paul Moore makes a convincing argument that the arts and cultural sector is neither properly collecting or making good use of data which could help us to understand and increase the social and cultural impact of our work – and importantly could enable us to to unarguably demonstrate the results achieved through the investment of not insignificant amounts of public money.

This I think is really important to all of us working in arts education and the participatory arts sector. Everyone involved in this sort of work has stories about how engaging with the arts has ‘changed lives’. This is sometimes presented in the rhetoric of the evangelist in efforts to get across just how important our work is – only last week I attended a presentation in which colleagues who deliver an inspirational arts education programme in the States talked of ‘rescuing people’ through music. I don’t doubt any of these stories, or the essence of the many evaluation reports I see which assert that arts programmes have had effects on people’s lives which extend way beyond developing their artistic skills. We use reports and evidence like this to make the case for funding and investment in our work, and we are often required to produce them by funders to show the return we are delivering on their investment. And of course it is vital that we do hold ourselves to account, when we are usually spending public funds or other people’s money. I may write another time about the way we do this, the sophisticated models that we do have in place, and we do have many – from extensive quantitative data collection and analysis, to those individual and often inspiring case studies.

However, amongst the issues raised by the Counting what Counts is the fact that this so often happens in isolation. We don’t have mechanisms or infrastructure in place to look at the really big picture – the ‘Big Data’ which has the potential to really change practice and influence at the highest level. The other primary issue is related to what we do collect and why, and the fact that it is, as mentioned above, so often seen as the way of justifying our work and existence, and not as a fundamental tool which we can use to inform and shape decision making.

In recent months a combination of things, some work related, have led to me paying more attention to science stories in the news. Another thought I had, whilst reading this paper was how many arts project evaluations are actually subjected to the rigorous standards that any scientific study would be before being published and accepted by the scientific community. I am sure it happens and that there are pockets of good practice, but there is a strong case to be made for an arts education resource and training provision which helps organisations with areas such as statistical analysis. How often has it been demonstrated that the effectiveness of an arts project in achieving social impact is statistically significant? – I’d be really interested in any examples of such evaluations. There is also a case to be made for a peer review system as is standard for publication of all scientific papers.

With the Counting What Counts report still very much on my mind, I was really excited to read that Dr Ben Goldacre had written a paper advocating for use of random controlled trials in educational contexts, and, again for the building of an infrastructure echoing the now well established mechanisms that exist in the medical world. The paper speaks for itself and can be read here. If the arts education world were to take some of these points on board we could really add weight to those inspirational case studies and be in a position to make scientifically proven arguments about the effectiveness of our work in schools, communities and other contexts in addressing social issues and genuinely making the world a better place.

This as ever will take time, but I’d urge anyone who has the opportunity to do research and evaluation around their work with the arts to think as scientifically as they can, and I hope that the Arts Council and other major bodies take both these pieces of work seriously and are able to help the sector build the infrastructure and develop the skills which will be required for the realisation of the potential impact of these pieces of work.

After the ball is over

I’m fairly sure it’s not actually over yet, but for many of us in the arts world the beginning of the London Olympics came as something as a relief as wall to wall sport took over from one of largest and most intensive arts festivals we’d ever delivered. Officially lasting four years, but not really gearing up until the beginning of this July, with festival 2012, the Cultural Olympiad delivered extraordinary moments, a few disappointments and an intensity to rival the sporting event which has picked up the baton this week.

There is a big danger that after the games and the summer break, we will start the new season both with something of a hangover and severe withdrawal symptoms. We’d been planning for this summer for so long, pushed major projects into this key period, committed and raised substantial sums of money for some truly extraordinary moments that what we’ve just produced seems like a virtually impossible act to follow. It is unlikely that in the foreseeable future we’ll ever again be able to stage anything as ambitious as ten of Pina Bausch’s extraordinary works in the space of a month, or revive Philip Glass’s epic Einstein on the Beach, or bring companies from across the world to the UK to perform the complete works of Shakespeare in their own languages, or take over five sites on the banks of the Thames for the biggest free world music festival we’ve ever seen. It seems likely that we’ll enter a period where arts organisations need to play it safe, revive bankable hits, reduce risk and keep costs down. I’m sure along the way there will be standout new productions, and emerging talent to get excited about, but I don’t doubt that anyone who has been around this festival will acknowledge that it was genuinely a once in a lifetime event.

Nonetheless I see a massive opportunity in the aftermath of all this. Across this festival, and in the last week alone, we have seen some high profile demonstrations of the role the arts can play in society, and people who might not previously have thought the arts have a relevant and useful role to play in their lives have been inspired and directly involved. Most obviously, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony seems to have succeeded in pleasing at least most of the people most of the time, and showed how a big artistic statement can increase awareness of shared values, culture and collective memories to bring large groups of people together. Earlier that day, Martin Creed’s All the Bells did exactly the same thing across the country, with a much simpler (and cheaper), but effective work of art. Within festival 2012 the bouncy inflatable stonehenge did the same job, with added value for fans of Spinal Tap, and, as I write, the enormous sculpture Godiva Awakes is being towed towards Walthamstow by 100 volunteer cyclists where she will be met by a celebration which will bring people from across our community together.

This power to contextualise, transform, unite and inspire any group of people, in any setting, across any boundaries which may be in the way, is one which is almost unique to artists, and one which can be exercised anywhere, anytime, without budgets of Olympian proportions. Those of us trying to follow the biggest artistic statements we are ever likely to see could do well to harness this power, to nurture and support the artists who realise this potential, and to build sustained relationships with those around us who could be directly impacted and involved. The good news is that this is happening across those organisations whose plans I am privy too, and I am sure elsewhere too. That certainly helps me shake of the hangover and look forward to planning a very different type of party.

It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

In his keynote speech at the Royal Philharmonic Society awards, the people’s conductor Gareth Malone, said ‘I think that classical music is better than the rest. It’s better than folk, it’s better than drum and bass, it’s better than rap.” Tempted though I was to blog vehemently about that at the time, I didn’t. Surrounded by the entire classical music industry, after a good meal and wine, it’s easy enough for such things to slip out. I think that Gareth in all probability would say, in a different context, that there is good and bad music of all types, and that what is good in one context can be entirely wrong in another. Certainly to my mind one of his many gifts is choosing appropriate, and usually ‘good’ music to encourage the people he is working with to take their first tentative steps as musicians. I would be surprised if he were to follow through on his statement and only ever use Western Classical music when working with his choirs, be they of young people, military wives or any other background.

So, I’ve long argued that good music is good music, and my own musical life has reflected this. As someone passionate about music education, and convinced that making music can empower and enfranchise people, bring out undiscovered personal qualities and develop the skills needed for success in any walk of life, I’ve always been unconcerned about what the music that does this should be. There’s not something magic about playing a Beethoven Symphony – in some contexts it will indeed be playing in an orchestra, in others a band in a mates garage, a folk club session or a freeform jazz improvisation. The key thing is it has to be as good as it can be – it’s the commitment and dedication, blood, sweat and tears that it takes to do it well which will truly develop the elusive ‘transferable skills’ and enable individuals to translate musical participation into empowerment. The challenge of those of us setting up and leading music education activity is to ensure the pleasure and satisfaction outweighs the pain caused by the hard work.

On Midsummer’s day, a week long celebration of one of the most extraordinary cultural institutions began in Stirling. I am not going to add much to the many descriptions of El Sistema, Sistema Scotland, or England’s In Harmony programme here, but readers seeking background on this may well want to start with this this Guardian piece and accompanying video. I shared the open air performance in Raploch through BBC4s broadcast. It was very much a display of the commitment, dedication, selflessness, teamwork and sharing that first convinced conductor Jose Antonio Abreu, and later Edinburgh’s former bishop Richard Holloway, that the orchestra was a model which could transform communities. The concert was an extraordinary, and potentially life changing moment for the performers and audience alike.

However I was a little troubled to find a tiny Gareth Malone sat on my shoulder that night saying ‘see, I told you classical music was best’. Of course, it was Purcell that the youngest Scottish players approached with infectious enthusiasm, and Beethoven that stilled a Scottish crowd and overcame unseasonable weather. When the stakes are high – and this programme aims to help whole communities overcome some of the biggest social problems – is it a case of only the best – only classical music, will do?

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Later that week, I watched BBC3s Project Hackney in which Plan B, Labrinth, and Leona Lewis worked with young people who had been excluded from mainstream education. The programme finished with scenes of their performance of music they had produced themselves. The pivotal scene for me was Plan B telling the group words to the effect that ‘it’s only going to be good if it’s good, people won’t make allowances for who you are’. In the end it was good. Despite my initial suspicions of the intentions behind this project, it had integrity – my only concern is to know how committed the BBC are to ensuring it has a legacy, and that the young people are enabled to continue on this course which may just have got them back on the rails.

This week, in a Hackney Community centre, some of the 150 young people who regularly work on the Barbican and Guildhall school’s drumming project have been collaborating with young Brazilian musicians from the Pracatum school to develop new material which will be performed in their communities, and at this weekend’s Back2Black festival at Old Billingsgate market. The Pracatum school bring their own take on Samba and other Brazilian music – the Barbican project has, for over four years, been built on the premise that the young musicians build material from the sounds they relate to as young twenty first century East Londoners. Beats lifted from Grime and Hip Hop are woven into their powerful performances – and they will be a key part of this November’s major performances Unleashed which will explore their dreams and the realities of their East London. Evident in the rehearsal room this week, and sure to resonate with audiences at the weekend, are the same qualities – commitment, sharing, selflessness, dedication – that were present in Raploch a week ago, and the evidence and testimonies from people that have been part of this project over the years show substantial impacts on the individual and on the wider life of their school communities.

I’m not going to make a judgement that any of the projects I’ve talked about here are better than the others, but I finish these thoughts more confident than ever that making music together does have the power to impact communities and change individuals lives; pleased, that on this evidence, good project design, inspiring leadership and integrity are more important to the success of this area of work than the musical medium chosen, and happy to continue my genre crossing musical existence, whatever Gareth says.