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Contemporary Public Art and non-capital Cities (of NW Europe and N America) – A framework for exploration

What follows is seen as a set of lines for thinking along, routes of exploration, rather than chapter headings or specific research topics (although things may end up being both of those at some stage in the future). There are various crossovers between several the elements listed. It is not intended as a description of all the thinking that can

Curating, creative undertakings and exhibiting

Curating, currently, is used in a whole range of contexts. There have been references to curating an exhibition, an event, a home’s contents, a book or music collection, the totality of an individual’s possessions, a series of meals, a set of public responses and so on. Pulling elements from this wide range of understandings of ‘curation’, one can list fragments

A potential Curriculum for Significance

All children and young people need access to significance – but each will have different routes towards it. ‘Significance’ here is more than general wellbeing or some sense of being involved in society. It goes to the core of how each person thinks and feels about themselves, their core identity, and the extent to which this is seen as being

Public and Private Issues

As with a number of other articles on this site, this is meant to be in the spirit of an exploration, bringing together a number of different aspects of a broad topic and seeing if any sense can be made of it all. At one level, it is a matter of simple semantics: whatever one understands words like ‘private’ and

Poverty and some of its impacts: What might be done?

This article is a composite write-up based on a number of presentations and interviews undertaken in September 2014 in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. It intended as a broad-ranging, general interest exploration of a set of ideas, puzzles and practicalities, covering: 

  • Recent economic trends  
  • How poverty gets thought about, recorded and measured;  the realities in some people’s lives
  • Policy and social approaches that affect levels of poverty
  • How poverty links to the development of children and families
  • How these influence life chances
  • What things might reduce the numbers of people growing up in poverty

A full write-up of the inputs can be read here:  Poverty and some of its impacts

 

What – if anything – can be learnt from the so-called Trojan Horse Affair?

Background

The so-called Trojan Horse Affair arose from an anonymous letter that was circulating within Birmingham in November 2013. This letter set out mechanisms for the takeover of schools by new governors (and senior staff) in order to implement a more restrictive faith-based curriculum and ethos. The letter was aimed at people in a number of other cities and claimed that such events were already underway in some schools in predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham.

There was considerable doubt about the authenticity of the letter. Nevertheless, it was passed to the local counter-terrorism police on the basis of needing to establish if any crime had been committed and because some of the sentiments in the letter verged on things that could be regarded as extremist. The police found no immediate links to terrorism. The letter was subsequently referred on to central government departments. It was, at that stage, felt that the letter exposed issues serious enough to warrant deeper investigation.

There were various discussions at local and national levels and a number of reviews were set up to explore what (if anything) was happening. Ofsted (the national body for inspecting education) was sent into a number of schools, some of which had only recently been inspected and judged to have good management in place.

Some of the schools were under the control of Birmingham City Council, as the local authority. The rest had converted to Academy status, independent of the local authority and run under contract by the national government Department for Education.

The whole episode attracted considerable media interest, over an extended period of time. It is hard to believe that some of the issues raised were of significance to Birmingham alone, but since the letter (and its reported activities) arose within Birmingham the episode became labelled the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair. The daily news repetition of that label, in an essentially negative context, created a degree of damage to the reputation of the city as a whole and, to some local communities, it began to feel like a form of Islamophobia – particularly when the Secretary of State for Education appointed the former head of counterterrorism to head up the government’s review.

This article:

  • Looks at the wider historic factors around the issue.
  • Asks if it could all have been foreseen and prevented from developing as a big issue
  • Reviews the ability of language to clarify or cloud the issues.
  • Sets out the core issues
  • Looks at the outcomes from the various reviews, inspections and investigations
  • Explores the puzzles/issues raised and insights gained
  • Asks is this the end of the Affair, or are there similar beliefs and practices still at play – and how would anyone know?

The full article can be read here:  Trojan Horse lessons

 

 

Employability programmes: Getting the best outcomes for learners

Employability programmes are seen as being to improve those basic generic skills that employers are looking for, and which are likely to help the person secure initial employment and maintain ongoing employment. Sometimes employability programmes supplement these generic skills with access to more vocationally-specific training and awareness. Sometimes there is heavier emphasis on the practicalities of sorting out a way forward for each participant, or dealing more substantially with underlying issues of  attitudes and motivations.

There are a range of people for whom employability is seen as a key learning need. Whilst employability courses are often thought of as being for young people disengaged from regular routes to employment, this is not always the case. There are also young people who are motivated, and on track, but simply lack some simple skills or knowledge relating to the world of work. An employability group may contain a variety of people. Programmes may thus need to be flexible enough to be able to meet a range of needs.

This article outlines the features of successful employability programmes. Read more

Thinking outside the box: just another glorious day

Sam is the main character of the ebook ‘Another Glorious Day’. released from the confines of that text Sam is free to be “the man from the box” and to write a blog in that role. That blog has been turned into diary form, wtih dates removed and posts put in sequential order. Sam’s diary can be read here:  Man from the Box.

Doing Poetry: No Sweat

My ebook  ‘Made in Birmingham: The Poems’ is a collection of approximately seventy poems. One was called ‘Doing Poetry: No Sweat’ 

I’m going to be a poet.

It’s an odd thing at my time of life

but a choice that is becoming

more popular, I’ve noticed.

I’ve bought my first garret

and cut down on food.

I now only need access

to a pub full of artists

and a distant woman

to impossibly love

and I’ll be off

doing poetry.

No sweat. 

It isn’t autobiographical, just a poem. There is no garret; I don’t eat to excess but that is a health thing not a starving poet thing; and a distant woman to impossibly love is definitely off the agenda (unless you count Agent Lisbon from ‘The Mentalist’, or the very nice female detective from ‘Law and Order Special Victims Unit, or the woman detective from ‘Castle’, or Ziva from ‘NCIS’  …. Do I detect a trend here..??).  

A bit of a push

In an earlier posting I talked about planning. Each year I have a set of loosely-sketched intentions. For the near future these include ‘Having a bit of a push on poetry’. This is a broad statement of intent, but I have several elements in mind that might add up to ‘a bit of a push’. I also have a specific image when I talk about ‘poetry’: Not poems that pour out of me, like it or not, but poetry to order, poetry on demand, poetry to a schedule.

 Recent attempts at producing poetry to a theme include:

  • Poems written as part of workshops linked to art exhibitions at University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute (and the invitation to read some of the work as part of a public event)
  • Poems written in response to contemporary art works in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s ‘Metropolis’ exhibition
  • Poems written in response to the Royal Academy’s ‘Sensing Spaces’ exhibition 

Developing a poetic career

A few months ago I attended an excellent workshop run by the editor/director of Nine Arches Press which is a UK small press that specialises in publishing poetry. The theme of the workshop was to try to understand what might be meant by the ‘career’ of a poet. It was clear that (except for a very small number of people) this rarely meant creating a full-time high-income role from writing poetry. Read more

A beginner’s simple exercise in contemporary art: Leger, entropy and me

The initial question in my head was ‘Can there be the idea of Progress in contemporary art?’ Turning this upside down (or back to front) you get: Can there be a contemporary piece of art that can have its layers slowly peeled away, as in some kind of archaeology, to reveal influences below the surface?

As part of a series of workshops on Understanding Contemporary Art I attended a workshop at the University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute. The theme was collage and the workshop covered a number of ideas: appropriation/borrowing; assembling found elements; using contemporary media for sources; what the artist brings to the work; how hard to expect the viewer to work; postmodernism, playfulness and the lack of grand narratives etc..

At the same time there was an exhibition of selected ‘best’ contemporary work by new (2013) graduates from West Midlands art schools – spread over three sites in Birmingham, with several pieces on display at the Barber.

On a pre-workshop visit to the Barber I simply walked round the gallery as fast as I could noting which works of art, if any, made me look twice at them. There were two: One from the New Art West Midlands exhibition (‘Entropy’ by Lindsay Booker) and one from the Barber Institute’s permanent collection (‘Composition with Fruit’ by Fernand Leger).

A very quick internet search suggested that Leger developed his early work in the context of cubism – his own style being called ‘tubism’ because of his focus on cylinders etc.. His work became increasingly abstract, with blocks of primary colours. He spent the first two years of World War 1 at the front and this influenced his art, making it into something mechanical (‘machine art’). After the war he was part of ‘Purist’ art – flatter colours, bold black outlines; and later, as part of the postwar trend to ‘return to order’ his work became more organic. By 1938, when ‘Composition with Fruit’ was painted his work was warmer, less over-mechanistic but with some remaining hint of machine parts. ‘Composition with Fruit’ followed in the tradition of Still Life but transposing it via techniques that were contemporary at the time – geometric forms, blocks of colour, incorporation of items from consumer culture, celebration of machine age tempered with organic imagery (the worms in the fruit, hinting at impermanence etc).

The ‘Entropy’ picture from the New Art West Midlands exhibition was large (240cm x 120cm), monochrome, pen and Japanese ink on paper. There were two levels to the picture: the overall image and the intricate, elaborate detail. It was intriguing and a bit disturbing; confusing to the eye. The nonlinear marks cascaded, lava-flow like. It has resonances of earthquakes, tsunamis, tectonic movements, detritus, apocalyptic reshaping of landscapes. The text from the exhibition described the picture as alluding to ‘The Great Wave off Konagawa’, 1830, by Hokusai – a painting that I had used as part of training programmes and which held some significance for me. Read more

Core skills achievements in Birmingham: Surely a reason to claim success

Since 1995, when Birmingham started its determined push to raise whole-city levels of literacy and numeracy, there have been a number of structural changes to both the local and the national education and skills landscape. Throughout all of these changes the city has been able to make meaningful statements about the progress within Birmingham and how it is doing compared with other major cities, and against national average figures. At the same time there have been contradictory statements about whether those national averages are improving or declining; or improving in absolute terms yet falling behind the improvements being made by other countries.

Birmingham’s initial development investments in children 0-5 are now showing through in attainments for those children at age 16. The investments in primary and secondary age pupils are showing through in young people aged 16-25. The investments in adults are showing through in the improved skills levels of the workforce. In 1995 we believed that it might take 15-20 years to get Birmingham, from its very low base, up to national standards for all-age literacy and numeracy. So what do the available 2012/2013 figures tell us?

  • In 1995 only one third of Birmingham children entered the first years of schooling with basic language/number skills in place. In 2013 the early language and numerical understandings and skills, on entry to school, are now at national levels – with double the number of children having the required basic skills. Given the diverse population of Birmingham, the number of under-fives growing up in families recently arrived from countries where English is not a national language, and the persistently disrupting effects of poverty on too many families in the city – this is a very good achievement.
  • In 1995 less than half of the city’s children made the transition from primary to secondary school with sufficient language, literacy and numeracy to tackle the secondary curriculum. Up to 2000 there was a rapid boost to the skills of primary-age children but this then began to lose momentum as schools over-focused on national testing and has only recently accelerated again. The English and Maths abilities of Birmingham children are now double what they were in 1995 and, again, are at national levels.
  • In 1995 Birmingham was in the lowest part of the national performance list for success levels in core subjects at the end of five years of secondary school education. Only one third of 16 year olds had at least five good passes in major subjects. The overall figure for such young people, in 2012, now stands at 88%, above the average for the country as a whole. Even if high-level passes in the core skills of English and Maths are included as a requirement within the five good performances, this was achieved (2012) by 60% of young people – slightly better than national average. By 2013 this percentage had risen to 62%.
  • The number of 16-18 year olds in some form of employment, education or training has increased substantially, meaning that far more young people have a continuing opportunity to improve their core skills, with 95% of young people now being functionally literate and numerate. Functional skills improvement is now a part of all education and training programmes for young people and adults.
  • Birmingham was a national pathfinder in developing whole-city approaches to raising overall levels of adult literacy, English language, and numerical skills. The city established a national and international reputation for this work. Regular skills’ testing has shown substantial incremental increases in adult basic skills levels between 1997 and 2012. Aspirational floor targets aimed at (‘No locality below this skills level’) were all surpassed, with most progress being made in the lowest-skill areas of the city.
  • Community organisations, housing associations, schools, employability training agencies, major employers, trade unions, probation and prison services: all see themselves as having a role in improving the ways that the young people and adults they work with access opportunities to improve their literacy, language and numeracy skills. This is far removed from the situation in 1995 when developing skills in adults and young people was seen almost entirely as the preserve of colleges and adult education services. The aim, in 1995, was to get the improvement of core skills built in as a connecting thread woven through the infrastructures of the city. There has been considerable success in this.

 

Much has been said nationally claiming that any national progress could have been due to grade-inflation, mechanical teaching-to-the-tests and so on. There has undoubtedly been an element of this but the city’s progress on the scale outlined above cannot be simply explained away so simplistically. Real progress has been made and the city should be pleased with what it has been able to achieve.

Birmingham has been right therefore to celebrate the shift in achievement levels from the poor performances of 1995 to having closed virtually all the gaps to national attainment levels, and some substantial closing of the gaps between the various groups of children/young people within the city itself.

There is more to be done. Being ‘average’ is not sufficient if Birmingham is to have the national and international edge it aspires to. There are sufficient dedicated people and agencies in the city to ensure that improvements continue to be made. Progress in the near future will rely on ironing out the remaining variabilities across the city. Consolidating the gains so far will not be enough though. Further progress is likely to be highly reliant on a strong and consistent focus on the motivations, behaviours, resources, attitudes and aspirations of Birmingham’s children, young people and adults – and not letting overconcerns with structures get in the way of good learning.

 

*****

The Birmingham Core Skills Development Partnership website has been wound down. Archive material is incorporated into this www.thewordsthething.org.uk website (with admin@thewordsthething.org.uk  as the link email address for all enquiries about the work of the Birmingham Core Skills Development Partnership).

Mastering contemporary art: If these were the answers, what were the questions?

Over the late summer/early autumn I went to exhibitions of work by students just completing their Masters degree courses in contemporary art. Their final submissions, assessed for successful completion of the course (ie a sign of some mastery of contemporary art ideas and practices?) were accompanied by notes describing the work, how it was made, the ideas behind it, and so on.

The works on display were of interest but what I was more fascinated by were the texts used to accompany the works. If texts used by successful students captured something of their ‘mastering’ of the process – if they were their final answers – what questions were they being asked: What was being demanded of them in their quest for mastery of contemporary art?

I noted around 60-80 statements that, although overlapping, were unique statements of outcome for the range of students involved. These could be clustered into linked ideas/themes. Other people may well come up with different configurations from the same basic text statements. The version below is mine, and is captured by an umbrella sense of moving on, being on a journey, progressing, becoming, transforming:

Individuality; notions of selfhood

Identity

Multiple identities; multiple opportunities

Acknowledging the unknown, unrecognised things inside each person

Part of diversity

Being part of networks

Language of relationships

Intercommunity relationships

Perspectives, cultures, traditions

Hopes and dreams

 

Unique life experiences

Memories and emotions

Repetitions leaving patterns

Traces of incidents

Transitional changes

Stresses and processes

Controlled change; anxiety of change

Sequences

Moving into place

Frozen moments

Reliability/unreliability of memory

 

Authorship and ownership

Personal narratives

Reflection

Marginal aspects/ main aspects

Cerebral/reality; conceptual/functional aspects

Role of text, language, speech

Glimpses of meanings

Translating meanings, questions and puzzles

 

New ways of working and thinking

Expressing notions as images

Mapping new territories; challenging preconceptions

Engagement with ideas

Engagement with materials – experimentation; renewal

Internal/external influences

Things as living entities

What may be missing: presence and absence

 

 

 

Mapping, planning, deciding

Designs and clarifications

Scale, pace, time

Technologies, sciences and handmades

Social contexts; environments

Social change

Choices and oppositions:

Simulated/real; conflicts/harmonies; patterns/ambiguities; shape/formlessness; deconstructed/recontextualised; literal/abstracted; learning/teaching; fixed/moving.

 

Working backwards, then, from this analysis of the explanatory texts used by emerging artists to explain their various ‘masteries’, we get the main themes of making contemporary art. These describe mastery as being a journey that can be charted as it moves along. The main constructs of this ‘becoming a master of contemporary art’ flow from a deep self-awareness by the artist – of who they are, and are not; the gaps, the linkages, the shapings. This allows the artist to draw on residual traces of life events and translate versions/interpretations of these into imagery – successfully, if the artist is reflexive, critical, willing to engage with new ideas and test out new materials – in well-thought-through ways that are aware of the choices being made, of what is being left out, and of how the work sits in context.

The above was derived from a consideration of masters level students. They were at the end of a course: It was understandable that they would have been expected to explain what they had learnt, show development, demonstrate progress. They were, after all, trainee artists .. potential artists .. people on a learning journey. What about established artists (those recognised as already having a degree of mastery) – are they still expected to explain themselves, to record their ongoing journey, to demonstrate progress?

 

 

Where is it all getting to: Next Steps

Earlier posts outlined some of the features of a flourishing organisation, and ways that agencies may need to think differently if they are to make progress. These arose from thinking about cities. They can equally be used as a framework for reflecting on any set of activities – and here are being used to assess where my own work (captured on this website) might be going.

This has highlighted some of the things that I will need to emphasise more over the next three years. These include:

  • Being able to clearly articulate why I wish to occupy myself in this way … the purposes behind what is being done … with sufficient ‘presence’/ confidence/ self-determination whilst still being tentative/ modest.
  • Responding to current concerns and interests without slipping into populist reactionism … Still being at least a little bit different in what is being undertaken … having more challenge to the aspirations, pushing myself in what I am comfortable doing.
  • Reflecting on what is being done, without endless internal activity that is of little value to anyone else
  • Being more active in engaging with others (authentically rather than simply clocking up more and more links/ likes/ followings) … countering it being a solitary undertaking … looking for more things that might require collaboration with others.
  • Actively promoting content/writing, and asserting myself as author, without unnecessarily heavy self-promotion
  • Maintaining an approach that is based on puzzling, wondering, being curious for its own sake … as well as aiming to produce stuff that could be of value/use to others.
  • Covering costs without being a money-driven set of activities … with most things being freely available to anyone … things done voluntarily.

That’s it: I have my list of commitments that I have already signed-up to, and this sense of next-step directions to follow. Time to get on with it all.

 

Thinking about Cities: An exploration of contemporary themes

I have summarised, for myself, my understandings of some of the things that key people have recently written about cities. These may only be partial understandings and are not meant to cover all that everyone has ever said on the subject. Nor is it a claim that any of the ideas are my own. Often they have come from a number of people writing in overlapping ways about particular aspects of cities. Where the ideas are more obviously being linked to a specific source this has been named, but the resulting document is not intended to be a fully-referenced academic paper. The exercise resulted from my own general interest in thinking about cities and is offered for the general interest of others.

The ideas have been grouped under loose interconnected headings: placemaking and placeshaping in cities; resilient cities; smart cities; data-rich cities; cities as planned systems; walkability of cities; benefits of density; what makes cities sustainably great; liveability and the issue of creative influence; how a city becomes a first-rank leader; cities, central government and innovation; governance in complex cities; cities and economics; good-enough cities, resourcefulness, adaptability and spontaneity; what the future might hold for cities.

My initial exploration resulted in a summary that was more than 400 pages of text with many click-through links. This has been edited down and further summarised so that the resulting document ( Thinking about Cities: An exploration of contemporary themes  ) is around 30 pages long with just a few onward links and with a section on ways forward if others want to explore further.

This post continues my earlier thinkings on cities which can be found by scrolling down this same site. (… passing all sorts of disparate other stuff on the way…) or going to the postings put up on June 27th 2012 under the headings:

  • In what ways might a city need to think differently if it is to get where it wants to be?
  • Cities: Flourishing? Learning? Resilient? Capable? Emergent?
  • The nature of cities: A way of thinking

I would be interested in other people’s reactions to any of this, via geoff@thewordsthething.org.uk