Get Off My Back
If you are working in the creative community arts and cultural development sector, [CACD], there is a fair chance that you are engaging in story theft.
In a world where our social model survives on wealth generated from resources, stories represent a vast territory open to plunder. And digital content, created by communities for ‘free’ has become a thriving trade for artists, support organizations, broadcasters and governments.
This theft may arise from the best of intentions, but too often the owners of the stories feel misrepresented, hoodwinked and de-powered by the experience.
So how do we build equitable, sustainable community empowerment – with shrinking funds, vague guidelines, new demands for digital media across all CACD practice, and hordes of experts from other arts sectors flocking to CACD coffers?
Working in the CACD sphere is – and has to be – risky business, as we negotiate the power-relationships that arise from the economic disparity our work is addressing. Community Arts practitioners derive an income because communities are disengaged/ marginalized. So, in a cross-colonial context, we need to constantly review our role in perpetuating exploitation of these groups.
Our company, Tallstoreez Productionz, has received great accolade for our digital media empowerment program, Change Media [formerly known as the Hero Project]. We have run hundreds of workshops with thousands of participants since 2004 and set up digital media hubs with many communities – but we still feel at a loss as to what exactly makes good projects work.
Instead of raving about our award-winning projects and glorious failures [check them out at: www.changemedia.net.au], we would like to explore what we, the practitioners, can do next, what we can improve, what risks we take and who really benefits from our processes and the products created.
For better or for worse, digital media helps create a lasting, mobile story about each community and is literally a lens that reveals the cracks in CACD practice. Now most practitioners use digital media as an integral part of their projects. Yet it is still perceived as scary, too complex, too time intensive and needing extravagant budgets for incomprehensible tools. And so it is often used as an after thought, as poor quality documentation, inappropriate video/ websites or fobbed off to external providers who parachute in to ‘capture’ the community.
We believe this often well-intended, but non-the-less ignorant practice further widens the [digital] gap, fails to change the imbalance in power, reinforces misrepresentation, lowers the quality of work [and therefore overall reputation of the sector] and doesn’t lead to equitable partnerships.
So here’s our thought piece. Get Off My Back - a strategy for equitable digital media across the creative community arts and cultural development sector, in a damaged world - to improve quality, accountability and independence.
"I sit on a man's back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible....except by getting off his back." — Leo Tolstoy
We developed Get Off My Back during the national CACD leadership lab run by the Victorian College of the Arts Cultural Partnerships in 2010 at Mount Eliza, in discussion with our colleagues from CuriousWorks and Darwin Community Arts.
The ideas below are discussion starters; we are trialling them throughout our projects. The sub-chapters are interdependent and the order of appearance doesn’t matter [imagine a chart of connected circles of influence].
The guidelines are to support CACD practitioners - to question why you are involved in CACD. Your answers must be actionable, built-in to daily practice as a tangible and visible process reflected in the outcomes. It is about raising expectations, to push for excellence and to let go at the same time. This process is always evolving and inherently challenging...
Did we mention your practice is dangerous… marginalized people don’t see themselves as marginalized, their life is their centre of influence and experience. They - like all of us - deserve the best. Be the best, and then improve some more.
CACD work must aim to constantly devolve power and support communities to maintain control of their stories. Decisions need to be made with your participants, not for them. Yes, you are more skilled in a few areas, but so are they. What do you really know about their lives and challenges?
Even during one-off projects, think about long-term sustainability: offer different levels of social business models and employment educational pathways, according to expressed needs.
Support your participants to locate and voice their unique needs and utilise what they already have. This is where your area of expertise sits. Use it.
Voice / Story
What is your creative input? How do you appear in the work? Why? Why not? How is your liberation bound up with that of your participants, community and project partners? Build co-creative explorations as mutually engaging relationships.
Most CACD projects are cross-cultural collaborations: Be aware of context and the power struggles that fuel injustices: place of origin, ethnicity, gender, social background, age, ability.
Ensure the skills you bring are clearly acknowledged. We have found that when our mentor input is not credited in the final outcome it results in the community being heralded as ‘the unusually talented few, the special ones, others, not me’. This contradicts the reality that other communities can tell their own stories if they have access and appropriate support.
Your final products will be digital at least in part [photos taken, website inclusion, blogs, twitter, video, DVD, slideshow presentation, funding reports, radio feature etc…]. So from the start of your project: Think digital and viral, learn the basics, share pipelines and access mainstream, fringe and open source networks.
From Day 1 identify your target audience / end user and the final product - it supports participants to clarify why they are involved, what they want and what they will do.
Raise the bar across your art forms. Don’t subscribe to the view that Community Art is the poor cousin of Art. It ain’t.
Digital media is not just video and web, but more immersive experiences, authentic and deeper community engagement, performative evaluation, better sound, enhanced vision… Digital media is about changing how you work, not just new technology.
Train the Trainer
Train yourself out of a job - you should be obsolete after the project is over. Build local skills to a level so the community can do it themselves. This is what you promised in your funding submission… And yes, this needs more time, but even on short programs, you can start the process and plant a seed for future initiatives.
Offer mentoring in art/craft and producing [management, structure, legals etc]. These are potentially the boring bits, the invisible stuff – but this is where the ability to ‘do it again’ hides. Bring it forward; explain how it works. Let your participants take over and have them teach each other as soon as possible.
And while you are training and creating, record the process, make tailored peer-produced resources to leave behind. These tools are invaluable when you are gone. And no, they don’t necessary travel well, so keep it regional and peer-produced. There is no market for cookie-cutter empowerment tools, sorry.
Build evaluation into your project from Day 1, record your process, record feedback from your partners, participants during all stages, it will change the work.
Think of your project as a cyclic model: From Development, to Hands-on project practice to Post-production, to Distribution …to the Next pitch/ funding submission to Development. Then think backwards from delivery – what do we need to pull this off? Why are we doing this?
And film and review how you pitch /present your next project. Push yourself to raise the bar of your sector and the expectations of your partners. We all deserve it.
This one is tricky: expose yourself, self-embarrass. When you build in evaluation of the project from Day 1, you might see different results in your community’s engagement, as you will need to share your thoughts, processes and finding in a way that is truly useful for your partners and participants.
Make your process visible in the final product. Rise to the challenge. What is stopping you [us, me]? Often we feel afraid to lay open the structures of our success and failures - why? Perhaps we’re afraid we’ll lose funding or be found out as spin doctors for embellishing our stories and outcomes, so what? Nobody can really steal our means of engagement; if you are that good people will copy you anyway – and it is incredibly hard work to actually empower communities. So why worry about competition? There should be more of us, and better. Let’s develop better evaluation tools that are actually relevant to our work now AND to our funders later. And remember, yes, it is a risky business – you are potentially benefiting from other people’s misery.
Offer and push for transparency from Day 1 on copyright and legal processes. Outline your chosen legal set up in the rights & responsibilities of your Community Partnership agreement. Don’t start work without it, as it always leads to misunderstandings or worse.
And while you are at it: All of this is negotiable. Always. Why not??? A broadcaster may think differently, but hey, so can you. Make sure the ownership reflects the nature of the project and its partner’s investment, be that money, in kind, ideas, traditions, power of influence. And keep this process open.
A crucial part of an equitable agreement is that all partners and participants benefit. So think creative commons, moral rights, new ways to manage and share IP and copyright. This space is evolving, but most people are scared of legalese and so the old structures of control and ownership survive unchallenged. Keep it simple and build real trust. We see too many ‘15 minutes of fame’ promises being made that don’t change a thing. Broken promises just reinforce feelings of disempowerment, however low the budget. Deliver what you agreed on, based on an open process and transparent negotiations. Over-delivery is even better.
Provide access to gear and skills, ideally in a non-threatening/ non-restrictive environment. They must be dreaming? So use what you have, open source if it works, high-end if you can. Broker pathways to access new funds, bring agencies together, create knowledge archives, new alliances, think out of the box where to get the extra $5000 so the community can continue working with their own gear.
We are all using the catch phrase ‘capacity building’ [hmmm sounds just like ‘sustainability’…] – What does it mean to you? How long does it take to reach ‘capacity’ to do…what? This can only be determined by/with each partner community. But there’s urgency if we are to see social change in our lifetime. We only have now, here, with the means available to us. Source them.
This is always a conversation killer amongst colleagues in a competitive - exploitative environment. People are often outraged at the idea that budgets, expenditures and incomes should be transparent. Why not? Are you being overpaid?
Chances are that you receive public funds to do your work – these budgets are open to public scrutiny anyway. And yes, this is where it hurts. How do we transfer control and include our communities in budgetary decisions? Mostly we think we don’t need to - ‘They’ don’t want to know. But guess what, ‘there is a budget in my art…’ iiieeeeeehhhhh. So let’s talk about money. More often, and with the people you are delivering to. Budgets are blueprints for creative work, spreadsheets are our friends and need to be invited to the party.
All these points are dependent on each other and this one is crucial for all future disruptions and innovations.
It sits at the heart of our work, just at the edge of our consciousness, as the missing link in our storytelling. What if your community doesn’t want to tell their stories? What if you stopped making sense? What if you turn this idea upside down? Or these guidelines inside out?
Unknowable things constantly rock our world. The ‘Or Not’ factor is our pressure valve, the delete button, the time for self-reflection without navel gazing. What if we imagine this from a different angle? What if creative communities are at the heart of social well-being? What if we are the gatekeepers, the wardens of possibilities? What if you suddenly had the power to change something? What if suddenly you become obsolete?
Build it into your practice: What have I missed? Am I engaging in critical practice or repeating the same old? Are my failures and successes measurable and how, for whom? What is needed now, what is not there yet? Show me the way to the next paradigm shift.
We are keen to build this with anyone interested. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jennifer Lyons-Reid & Carl Kuddell
Feral Arts has been using digital media in its work with communities for more than twenty years. Practices and technologies have changed a lot over that time. In the late 1980s we worked to introduce and legitimise video as a community arts medium, rather than just as a means of producing community videos or documenting performances. At the time we were introducing domestic 8mm video as one of the media used in larger public space multi-arts program (visual arts, music, video games, welding, basketball, barbecues etc).At that stage in Queensland any arts funding proposal involving video was considered to be a film project and was automatically referred to the Film Funding Office. Although some of the work produced won filmmaking awards it certainly was not conventional film making and was never going to survive in a film funding model. On a more pragmatic level, the film funding pool was even smaller than the arts funding pool. We challenged the funding guidelines and were successful in having video accepted in Queensland as a legitimate arts media.
In a field dominated at the time by community theatre we argued a case for video (and a multi-arts approach more broadly) on the grounds of its cultural relevance in the lives of the ‘at risk’ young people that we worked with. This sounds ridiculous now given how ubiquitous video has become as a creative digital medium right across the arts sector, but at the time we faced opposition both from within the sector and the funding agencies.
As portable computers became available in the early 1990s we started to experiment with integrating them into our multi-arts practice too. Our Amiga 2000 (boasting an impressive 32 meg of RAM!) was our only computer. It went from its office duties during the day to being set up on picnic tables in public parks in Logan City at night as part of our multi-arts workshops with at risk young people. We learned some valuable lessons about data management along the way, losing our whole hard drive contents one fateful night. We added an Atari digital music computer and samplers into the mix in 1992. These new digital tools were quickly integrated with everything else we offered in the multi-arts program. For example, shadows from kids playing basketball on the walls of shopping centres were captured on video, imported into the computer and printed out to create screen prints for T-shirts. Live video footage was mixed with film clips, video games and digital music being created on the spot. Images captured on video were scaled up and cut into life-sized sheet metal figures with oxy acetylene torches and welded to a half court basketball and projection screen that was designed and built through the project in a shopping centre car park. It was an experimental multi-arts approach based on the idea of providing lots of different creative options (including digital options) that were culturally relevant in the lives of young people. Our aim was to create an environment in which participants could drive the process, coming up with new ideas and new combinations.
The point is that digital media tools and practices have been integrated into the broader array of community arts and cultural development processes – just as the sector has experimented with and adapted every other emerging arts medium at one point or another. It is not digital for the sake of being digital or innovative or cutting edge, but rather because of the cultural relevance of emerging digital arts tools in the communities in which we work. We would argue that in most respects digitally-centred CACD practice is no different from work produced using other artforms or media. The same tensions between artistic goals and community aspirations are at play. The most beautiful and powerful digitally-centred community pieces that we have been involved in producing are not coincidentally the ones in which the community processes have been the strongest.
In our current program - Storytelling in the Public Interest - we develop software platforms, projects and training resources that support broad community involvement in large-scale digital storytelling projects. One example, Digital Landcare (www.digitallandcare.com) provides tools and skills for people involved in local environmental projects across the country to report on their work and share their knowledge with the broader community. The aim has been to enhance the digital capacities of this sector and help establish a sustainable online Landcare database and storytelling community for use into the future.
There is a growing backlash to the notion that digital in and of itself represents innovative, cutting edge practice in CACD and in the arts sector more broadly, or that digital media necessarily enables more people to become producers rather than just consumers of the arts. This can be seen for example in the debate being initiated by Arts Queensland through its ‘Lo-Fi’ Forum. We strongly support this critical analysis of the role of digital in the arts and cultural sector and welcome it as sign of a maturing sector. There is no doubt that the role and potential of digital media as creative tools in producing art can, and has, been regularly overstated. In our opinion some of the most innovative practice currently in the CACD sector is happening in overtly non-digital realms of arts and craft through initiatives such as Brisbane City Council’s ‘Saviours of the Lost Arts’.
In exploring these questions we should be careful not to lose sight of what has been learned over the last twenty years in the use digital media in CACD and the broader arts and cultural sector. As we begin to analyse more closely and more critically what digital media actually offers the arts and cultural sector, we need to make sure hard-earned knowledge is not lost or rejected by the next generation of practitioners. One important distinction that we feel is not currently being made effectively in this emerging conversation is the difference between the use of digital media as a creative tool in making art, and its role in helping to organise and aggregate user generated digital content. Whilst we need to make sure we don’t overstate the innate creative power of digital tools, we need to ensure that we don’t overlook the real potential and opportunity to use digital platforms in connecting the arts and cultural sector (and other sectors) in new and powerful ways.
Our experience over the last ten years in building the PlaceStories software system and developing custom platforms like Digital Landcare is that enabling community-based creation and publishing does not magically transform community participants into fabulous digital storytellers – in a conventional sense. That of course, is not to say that the more than eight hundred stories created and published to date into Digital Landcare for example, are not great stories, and well told. It is simply to emphasise that the primary purpose of this work is storytelling in the public interest. It is about providing communities with the tools to manage their own cultural information. It is about connecting people in communities of interest to share knowledge through storytelling in ways that are sustainable and meaningful to them. It is about people being supported to share the stories that matter to them, and using tools that are relevant to their lives and interests. Just like the multi-arts programs twenty years earlier in Logan City, this work is about experimenting with digital technology and responding to community needs and interests.
We also want to take this opportunity to share the digital protocols and guiding principles developed collectively by the Community Partnerships’ Key Producer companies as part of the development of our Digital Strategy. We feel they provide a useful reference point and framework when considering the use of digital media in CACD work.
- accessibility – for all users
- usability - easy to use for content creators and audiences
- compatibility – integrates with existing systems and digital practices in the community
- skills growth – builds digital capacities of sector and community
- community focus – meets needs of the communities and partners we work with
- innovation – experimenting with new tools and exploring their value within the community, art and cultural development more broadly.
- flexibility – easy transfer and distribution of data and digital content
- efficiency – an effective and economical means to communicate, collaborate and promote their work and the sector
- user generated – content created by users and managed by users
- copyright - user ownership of and responsibility for published content
- quality – content management, support and guidelines for publishing
- consistency – of messages and branding in digital formats
- sustainability – design for growth and use by the sector into the future
- standards – works to meet and adopt existing and emerging industry standards
- respect – for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and cultures, culturally diverse, communities.
POPPY VAN OORDE-GRAINGER
Community Art and Digital Media
I love my job. I find it constantly challenging and infinitely satisfying. Ten years ago, during my first community art gig, I remember standing in the middle of the street in Beverley thinking: “this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” One of the things I love about it is I’m always learning new skills. I find it impossible to stick to one medium. For me community art is about communicating ideas and if to do that I need to learn new skills, or hire someone else, then so be it. Animation, photography, digital printing, Photoshop and foosball table construction are all skills I’ve picked up along the way. For that reason, I don’t feel comfortable being labeled a “digital media artist” however I will gladly talk about times when digital media has helped me find a balance between making exciting contemporary art and engaging a community in the process.
I work predominantly with young people to create artworks and in doing so I try to foster confidence, engagement and collaboration. Photography and video can work well in this context because they are slick, easy to display and distribute and most young people relate to them. However, I also combine more tactile mediums in the process such as costume making, installation and printmaking. I only teach digital media skills when it’s appropriate and when it’s not I tackle the technical aspects myself or hire professionals and have the participants involved in other elements of the work.
Usually the projects have three phases:
Below are explanations of each phase and examples of when I have used digital media in each.
When I’m consulting I begin with a few icebreakers and try to cultivate a casual and friendly atmosphere. This helps people open up, making them more willing to share ideas and collaborate. For the same reason I also set aside some down time to hang out with participants, like sharing a meal. Then I pose a question that unearths common ground and enables the group to work on a unified vision. Depending on the goal of the project this could be: What is the best thing about where you live? What’s your most memorable dream? What reminds you of home? What’s your favourite film? What are your hobbies, talents, skills and interests? What do you want to make? What resources do we have? Answering happens in many ways: talking, writing, surveys, painting, acting, drawing, taking photos, interviews, dancing, games, puppet shows and so on. Sometimes we then vote to narrow it down to a single focus point.
Rather than asking participants to just tell me about their favourite place they are asked to paint a picture of it, cut a hole in the middle of the painting and poke their face through the hole. Then they have the part of the picture that was cut out painted onto their face and someone films the ‘picture-faces’ as they talk about why they love that place.
For me making is the most fun part. How much direction the group needs depends on their confidence, experience and background. Sometimes I direct 80 per cent of the work and sometimes 10 per cent. Each community is different and I always play it by ear. Often I start a project directing a lot and by the end the group has the confidence and skills to take over. Once the participants decide on the subject matter I engage them in different mediums to express the idea. My considerations when deciding whether to use digital media are: What will communicate the idea best to the audience? Is it at the participants' skill level? Will it be fun to make? Can everyone be involved? Can we incorporate skills and knowledge they already have? Will it look good? Can we afford it?
We were making an image of "I dreamt my family and I were being chased over a bridge above flowing lava by pink hippopotami in stripy overalls."We spent a few sessions making hippo masks, a model landscape and overalls. Then participants were shot by a professional photographer in front of a green-screen posing as the family or the hippos. The model landscape was also photographed. Then they were taught how to use Photoshop to put all the elements into one image. Next the Photoshop files were given to a 3D modeler who turned them into stereoscopic goggles.
During the presentation stage my aim is to show the work in the best possible light and to really engage the audience. I often use non-arts venues for presentations both for practical and aesthetic reasons and because art-spaces can be intimidating. In Jigalong for example, we screened the animation on a giant cardboard TV at the basketball court because it was where everyone hung out. Digital media is useful because it allows for a few methods of presentation and a wide distribution.
At Subiaco Primary School 300 students were involved in making an animation which was screened at parents’ night, used on the school’s website and made into a film clip for a band on You Tube. An image used in the animation was also printed on vinyl wallpaper and permanently displayed at the school.
I also use digital media to document community art projects and often the documentation becomes a work in itself and ends up being how people outside of the process see the work. In fact I’d say more people have seen my work online than in real-life. In addition documentation also strengthens the impact for those directly involved if photos of the event make it look really impressive.
Documentation images from the Rock Hole Long Pipe promenade theatre piece were turned into an exhibition, an online and hard copy story book, a case studies book and several power point presentations.
Every time I work with a new community the challenge is the same; “how can I make the most out of this situation given the time, money, resources and parameters?” Digital media has often been my answer to many of those questions and I have no doubt it will continue to be integral in the future. In fact as I write this I am uploading a promotional video to Facebook to recruit young people to a community project I’m doing in Scotland. I have also just finished a Skype meeting with the other artistic director who spent much of last week emailing me videos from his iPhone of potential site-specific locations. Yay technology! Who knows perhaps one day I’ll even feel comfortable with being called a digital media artist.
PENRITH CITY COUNCIL
How does your digitally- centred Community Arts and Cultural Development practice engage with communities (reflecting the personality and aspirations of the community stakeholders) and deliver sustainable benefits to participants? What protocols do you follow when working with communities, and how does this influence your way of working and the art that is produced?
Article: Creative Conversations - Neighbourhood Stories
Penrith City Council, in collaboration with CuriousWorks and local residents, is exploring the role of digital Community Arts and Cultural Development (CACD) practice in enhancing participatory processes and capacity in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
Since 2007, the Neighbourhood Renewal Program has been engaging residents in 12 established communities of Penrith identified as experiencing relative social and economic disadvantage (identified through ABS data). This process has focused on creative engagement with artists, community cultural sector organisations and local residents with sustainable partnerships across Council and other levels of Government.
One of the mechanisms for engagement has been the Neighbourhood Stories project, an ongoing ‘work in development’ that continues to explore new ground in digitally integrated CACD practice in synergy with ‘participatory based’ renewal. The project has been exploring a successful framework for local residents to have a creative conversation with artists, community organisations and local government in the renewal of the neighbourhoods where they live.
The focus of the project continues to be on the significant role of the arts to make meaningful change in people’s lives and in their communities in the places where they live, in innovative and tangible ways. The project aims to engage local communities across the emerging digital divide, which is apparent in many areas facing significant socio-economic disadvantage.
The Neighbourhood Stories Project has provided residents with a development opportunity to train in multimedia as a mechanism to tell their stories and have direct input into policy development to make positive change in their neighbourhood. Residents from a diverse range of backgrounds and ages continue to be vital contributors to the program.
Residents were provided with training and resources to film interviews with other residents living in St Marys about the strengths and areas for improvement in their neighbourhoods. Workshops included filming, digital photography, interview skills, editing, online publishing and digital strategy and included over 20 hours of training facilitated by CuriousWorks. The resident project team then created multimedia works which were embedded on Google maps at www.neighbourhoodstories.net.au, creating a creative communities channel. Simultaneously raw footage provided rich data to support Council’s local planning processes.
Through the course of this project, a set of principles have been identified that nurture and enable the development of creative conversations. These principles include emphasis on inclusive and collaborative processes that promote a sense of equity such as Council staff and local residents participating in joint training led by CuriousWorks. As equal members of the process, Council staff are not seen as experts but members of the process jointly learning in collaboration with the community, Shakthidharan, Director of CuriousWorks points out “Crucial to the success of Neighbourhood Stories was a council willing to share and even relinquish power around representation to its community.”
Other principles in practice include:
- Commitment to the engagement of high quality artists
- Empowering residents to interview other residents about the place where they live
- Engaging residents with a wide diversity of backgrounds, ages, skills and abilities including those with little experience in the arts or technology
- Equal focus on the quality of the journey for the individuals as the quality of artistic work, the personal and creative journeys for participants is of equal importance as art making outcomes
- Having a responsive and flexible framework that can respond to the different learning and development needs of participants
- Working with an approach that identifies and builds strengths in individuals and communities
- Ensuring participants retain the copyright to their multimedia works and that Indigenous Cultural Intellectual Property (ICIP) protocols are followed
- Wherever possible, artists retain copyright of their work and Council uses the work under license
- Using technology and resources that already exist in that community
- Identifying future projects and leadership opportunities for individuals and supporting these where possible.
This project has been a valuable opportunity to demonstrate how creativity can be a powerful medium for artists, residents and local government to collaborate and find creative solutions to local issues and emerging potential in communities. This process builds on strengths and enables positive self determined change in the places where people live. Initiatives such as Neighbourhood Stories nurture ‘invisible’ cultures by empowering communities and individual potential through collaboration, learning, imagination and creativity.
Sustainable benefits to participants include building skills development and creative pathways for local people. Pathways for new projects stemming from this initiative between project partners CuriousWorks and St Marys Senior High School are already underway. Feedback from project partners further elaborates on the positive outcomes: “Monica gained an enormous amount from the program , confidence, self awareness, a sense of pride relating to her cultural and community heritage, an amazing skills set in the IT area and leadership skills” Kristine Beazley, Principal St Marys Senior High School.
Neighbourhood Stories has provided a creative online platform for people’s stories and perspectives to be heard. Stories previously invisible in the local community have become ‘visible’. People have made new connections; the process has empowered residents to actively contribute to Council planning processes.
People who do not ordinarily engage with the arts and creative outcomes are transforming perceptions of these places, both for the people living in these communities and beyond.
Finally the initiative has built an online platform for the creativity and stories of projects across the Neighbourhood Renewal areas to be told. The vision is that the creativity and stories both on the website and in communities will continue to unfold…
Cali Vandyk-Dunlevy, Cultural Development Officer Local, Neighbourhood Renewal Program
In 1999, the World Bank interviewed 60,000 people who lived on less than a dollar a day. They were asked to define the biggest barrier to breaking down their own disadvantage. Beyond food and water, they defined the most significant barrier as not having a voice. The need for a capacity to express their own story of building dignity and opportunity was as important as the act itself.
At the same time, we also had the rise of a new medium for storytelling. It offered the lowest ever barriers for telling your story artfully, powerfully and sustainably. This medium will become the main way that people will produce, share and receive stories in the future – and we still have the opportunity to carve out significant space in it. Indeed, for community artists, digital media offers up the chance to facilitate stories from the margins of our society that not only build opportunity and social change for the communities involved, but funnel the power of those stories to transform the systems in the centre.
Yet despite the opportunity this potential remains largely untapped. Many past approaches to utilising digital media in communities have had flaws that limit their success. Some mediate the outcomes too heavily and fail to facilitate art that represents the insider’s view of the community. Others supply equipment, but do not build the capacity of communities to use that infrastructure for the long-term. Many commit to ongoing sets of workshops that unfortunately leave behind few long-term skills or a passion for learning. We struggle to facilitate professional or innovative artistic outcomes.
The issue here is broader than our own industry. Whilst radio took 50 years and television 20 years to reach an audience of 20 million, it took Facebook two years. The internet is still a baby - but like Godzilla, one that is making terrifying strides in its early years: spam, Wikileaks, Justin Beiber, SMS bullying, Egypt, LOLcats, Skyping an overseas family member, getting fired on Facebook. It feels like digital technology has a hold on us; not the other way around.
At CuriousWorks we've been developing a best practice model for utilising digital media in communities that addresses these flaws and fully leverages its latent potential. Since 2007 we've been working intensively in Western Sydney and the Western Desert (we wanted to ensure that our model could work equally well in starkly different environments). We have to come to focus on capacity building, community ownership, professionalism and sustainability. Our model centres on a knowledge transfer system and is implemented from the grassroots up, over the long-term.
These are the qualities of the model that we have found crucial to its success thus far.
Early on in a project, we help the community define themselves and the stories they want to tell. They need to know why they're telling them, for whom and what they expect as a result. We've found this nurturing of responsibility for storytelling is the only way to leave a truly lasting impact. Through this we also get a sense of the community's digital infrastructure needs, and can quietly start designing a platform that meets those needs.
Our belief is that if people have the ability to powerfully and sustainably represent their community, they can influence their local public institutions as a result. In 2010 we trained a group from Penrith, Greater Western Sydney, to make compelling stories on whatever technology they already had; mobiles phones, old cameras, the computers at the public library. They then uploaded that content to an online map of Penrith. Stories aligned with the different groups the council was consulting with in order to build their Neighbourhood Action Plan. In this way, the community had direct influence on a document with significant impact on the future of their neighbourhood. Crucially, counsellors had to formally reply to the map and the plan in their council meetings.
In Newman, remote WA, we were about to start a major project based out of their youth centre when it closed down. The kids we ended up working with desperately wanted it opened again. We simultaneously followed two paths: shifting our partnerships and base to the schools in town, and training the cultural leaders more intensively to campaign through digital media for their youth centre to be re-opened. Now, almost two years later, our model has been embedded into the school curriculum and teachers and young leaders are being trained to replace us as the facilitators in the community. In some instances, a group of 10-12 year olds are training the teachers in digital media skills. The community is hosting their own, annual local film festival and the youth centre has been re-opened, bigger and better than ever.
Sometimes people seek to influence not their own community but ‘the public‘. This part of our model centres on empowering cultural leaders to create excellent art for the consumption of mainstream Australia, distributed through the internet as well as traditional media forms. An example of this is Villawood Mums: a story about two mums' very different experiences of Villawood Detention Centre that subtly shows how our refugee policy has changed over the last ten years. The trick here is to make art that is accessible - after all, everyone has a mum. Here's one comment someone posted about the story on Facebook:
I watched “Villawood Mums” last month and have a story to share; a 70yr old church attendee kept saying that ‘refugees were well looked after, people in detention centres were always lucky to be on Australian soil , she couldn’t understand what the fuss was about all those people on the roofs of the detention centres.' After watching “Villawood mums” that lady understood that she didn’t have recent information...she decided to go visit the new arrivals.
The story has also been circulated amongst the staff of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
Since these cultural leaders are capable of producing professional level media, there is another avenue available to them for sustainability: the creative industries. So we've been training them in small business skills, facilitating them taking on client jobs for media production and putting the surplus back into giving their community a voice. Its a new kind of professional pathway that bridges small business and charity, the creative industries and art; the same bridge that CuriousWorks itself forms through its existence.
The final piece in the puzzle for CuriousWorks is to leverage the Internet as a medium for bringing together the network of communities and cultural leaders we work with. We've built a safe social media portal where they can connect with each other and share stories, knowledge and values from opposite sides of the continent. We've built an online toolkit with lesson plans that cultural leaders around the world are using to implement our model in their own ways. And the more communities we work with, the more the value of that combined knowledge and network grows.
We're too young a company to be sure just yet, but our hope is that over the next few years, the triangle of schools, councils and cultural leaders in each region we're working in will actually make us redundant. We hope that they will completely take over the model and run it the way that they have decided it works best for themselves and in their community.
In this spirit, I'll leave you with an insight gleaned from one of our community collaborators in Roebourne, remote WA:
We have many visitors come here, all with projects, investments, and ideas for our future… all the grand plans. But once in a while we get visitors who contribute some happiness and joy, and add to the social fabric that is already here. When that happens the community responds with precious gifts, of knowledge, of history – and most importantly we make a connection with our visitors.
 http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTPOVERTY/0,,contentMDK:20622514~menuPK:336998~pagePK:148956~piPK :216618~theSitePK:336992,00.html
Images (top to bottom)
Change Media, Tallstoreez, Photographs by Carl Kuddell
Dajarra, Video Worksop, Feral Arts, 1992
Hyperdome, Feral Arts, 1993
In the Blink of a Night, Image by Hannah Brown, Mike Ellis and Poppy van Oorde-Grainger for YMCA HQ, 2008
Trashcatcher's Ball, Image by Tim Mitchell with Project Phakama UK and Emergency Exit Arts for London International Festival of Theatre, Stratford, 2008
Parnngurr, Image by Poppy van Oorde-Grainger for Awesome Arts Australia's Smarter Than Smoking Creative Challenge, 2004