Create Syria (The Change Collective) – #wearethecrownjewels

What this article isn’t…

This isn’t a theoretical underpinning of co-created practice, it is the practitioners’ perspective.

This isn’t a finished document, it is our reflection on a collaborative process.

This doesn’t present all the answers, it explores some of the questions we’ve encountered.

This isn’t a manual of how to do this the right way, it’s a compass to help guide us.

In this article we, The Change Collective, want to share our experience as practitioners of an emergent process of co-creation we’re part of with Syrian artists and arts organisations across the Middle-East. Create Syria began in 2018 and is now in its third iteration, which will continue into the beginning of 2021. Through the project and the relationships within it, we’ve found ourselves unpacking the assumptions around where knowledge and wisdom lie, and interrogating our role as ‘UK experts in our field’ in this international creative process. We were recruited as external consultants but as the project has evolved it feels like we have become partners in a reciprocal exchange of ideas, and we want to understand more about how and why that has happened.

We also want to acknowledge the potency and importance of the Create Syria programme and highlight the effort of organisations like Syrian cultural institute Ettijahat who protect and promote this kind of work, preserving a space for artist development despite continued social, economic and political instability.

© Alia Hajo | Ettijahat-Independent Culture | On The Brink Of Change Forum- Beirut 2019 Video of the event here. Article by Thom Louis, British Council here.  

 What is The Change Collective?

 The Change Collective operates on the idea that good practice is context dependent and evolves through provocation and collaboration, sharing ideas, techniques, and resources around issues and challenges. We are a team of UK-based interdisciplinary artists, producers and creative practitioners sitting within a wider network of artists around the world, working through collaborative projects and commissions. We are engaged in projects that prioritise impact in and beyond the project itself and we’re interested in both sides of the conversation on arts and social impact: as artists who are interested in social impact and non-artists who see the value of an arts-based approach.

Through programmes like Create Syria, we’ve been asking questions around how artists and arts organisations successfully grow and adapt and we want to model a way for individuals and organisations to respond to the opportunities that present themselves in complex and unstable environments.

 What is Create Syria and how has The Change Collective been involved?

Create Syria is a programme conceived and run by Ettijahat – Independent Culture, a leading Syrian cultural institute currently based in Beirut – alongside the British Council. It seeks to increase the capacity of Syrian artists across the Middle-East to contribute to the development of stronger, more cohesive communities through the design and delivery of high-quality community arts initiatives. The programme aims to support artists in exile and raises questions about the relationship between the arts and communities in the pursuit of personal, artistic, social and economic development. The programme is built around the following assumption:

  • If we build the creative and managerial skills of artists and community-based organisations working in the arts and provide them with spaces to develop their practice and grow new models and approaches to working with communities affected by crisis, then the well-being, confidence and resilience of both the artist and the communities with which they work will increase

The third edition of the programme, now in process thanks to the commitment of the host organisation Ettijihat, provides a path of learning and support for twelve artists and creative practitioners to grow their experience and understanding of arts and social change. Our role has been to provide input in the design and implementation of the toolkit and participants’ learning journey, to support advocacy and network building with international practitioners and to work directly with the trainers and facilitators for the workshops themselves. What started as a standard piece of consultancy quickly evolved into a relationship of innovation and exchange. We have become part of the context for development, collaborating in the design and the roll out, sharing our knowledge and ideas whilst learning equally from the people we’re encountering.

What does the Create Syria toolkit look like?

 As we’ve moved through this development process with Ettijahat, we’ve built a toolkit that feels like a living document rather than an off-the-shelf manual. There’s been a deliberate movement away from the more traditional ‘cultural management toolkits’ that are common in the region, to a model or approach that places importance on relationships between people, building networks and creating spaces to test, learn and refine. Our role has been to support the trainers to feel confident in a more participatory approach; it’s been a delicate push and pull, trying to find a way of preserving the need for structure/formality and the desire for something more emergent.

The toolkit is one of Create Syria project’s most significant outputs and is instrumental in ensuring its long-term sustainability and continuity. It is important to note, however, that the toolkit, in its present form, is a work-in-progress.Taken from external evaluation of Create Syria 2, by Fatin Farhat.

The flow of the toolkit in its current version has four components, designed to be delivered in this order whilst acknowledging that learning happens throughout the process, not just within at the designated moment in the toolkit;

Module 1 – Connect – with self (values/beliefs) with others (connecting with the people around me) with place and time (connecting with my geographical, cultural & social reality) and with my artistic practice.

 Module 2 – Explore – the balance of process vs product, creativity vs art, high art vs community-based art. Explore how to reframe language. Explore the role of the arts and understanding what the arts could do for me and my community. Explore new models and approaches and how to work with uncertainty.

 Module 3 – Create – look at systems and interconnectedness, the breadth of practice out there; what can we learn from the way that other artists have organised themselves? A testing space that moves towards the practical application of ideas. Peer-support and communities of practice.

 Module 4 – Reflect and refine – design the mechanisms which enable us to develop an adaptive practice, evolve my understanding, generate and respond to insights generated during the delivery, be honest about challenges and failures, scale up what works, identify other stakeholders to invest in the future of the process.

(Early prototype visual design for toolkit)

What was it like as a participant in the Create Syria process??

Seba is a theatre maker based in Beirut and was part of the cohort on Create Syria 2. She talks about her experience and how the Create Syria journey has helped her understand more about co-creation:


Where is Create Syria now and where is it taking us?

 Since March 2020 we’ve been working together with Ettijihat and The British Council on the third edition of Create Syria, adapting as we go this year to the changing context and conditions. A planning process held online for a subsequent online delivery has its own challenges and opportunities; currently in Beirut electricity isn’t always readily available, an obvious challenge for connecting online. The pandemic, city-wide protests and a large-scale explosion have added to the challenges and at the same time have added an incentive to provide a space for artists from across the region to come together to activate the process of rebuilding. The programme is currently underway with participating Syrian artists living in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Paris. The connection is different this time around with the workshop shifting to the online world and the map has widened, but the approach has remained consistent. The programme is currently under way in participating Syrian artists living Lebannon, Turkey, Egypt and Paris.

(French photographer Gilbert Garcin – capturing the interconnectedness of co-creation)

We’ve been listening to what’s working elsewhere – from organisations like The Presencing Institute about how to design synchronous and asynchronous content which allows for whole group learning and exchange, as well as the creation of smaller groups connected around intent or purpose. Rana and Hanane (lead trainers) are leading the synchronous sessions in Arabic (the inhales) guided by the toolkit, and then the more self-organised communities of intent will run themselves (the exhales) between now and March 2021. The focus will always be on exchange and learning rather than on final products. Some of these collaborations will last well beyond the March date and some will go in other directions. The toolkit will continue to evolve and adapt so it remains a resource for creativity and resilience in changing times.

At The Change Collective, we’re exploring how Create Syria is helping us to define who we are as an organisation. The genuine sense of collaboration, as opposed to a one-way sharing of wisdom and expertise, means that this work is a cyclical, iterative process. One project or one conversation leads the way to another, creating an impulse for more creation and new ideas. The structure of the toolkit – Connect · Explore · Create · Reflect – has become our model for co-creation, as a living organisation or system. We feel we’re becoming more fluid than ever, resisting standing still and seeing beyond the potential limits of funding and experience. Right now, fluidity seems to be a useful remedy for the potential anxiety produced in these uncertain times. How do we stay flexible amid fear? How can we keep moving forward when we’re not sure of the way? We don’t have the definitive answers but co-creation feels like a good direction on our compass.