What we learnt from the first Learning Conversation: the Writers & Critics

An on-line audience of 70 people attended this first learning conversation of the Co-Creating Change Network addressing critical questions about how we write about this work in order to amplify it and give it greater credibility and profile. The panel comprised of Lyn Gardiner, David Jubb, Maddy Costa and Mohamed- Zain Dada and was expertly chaired by Sarah Blowers. The panel were presented with a series of questions but the conversation was free flowing and discursive bringing some key challenges to the fore in writing about the work that we co-create.

Can writers and critics review participation?

Lyn Gardiner kicked off the conversation in response to this question by saying “Why wouldn’t they want to do so? This is some of the most interesting work that is being created and is likely to become more so given the current context we are living in.”

However, it was felt that editors don’t see the work as being worthy of review in comparison to say, West End theatre.

“And do we want to reduce this work to a star rating as if it was a fridge for sale?”

Editors need a ‘hook’ so, for example, work that is addressing gun crime is likely to get covered but this raises the question of what you have to give up to get published?

It was felt that there was an important distinction between those writers paid to write and those who wrote to “work something out”

“Who is writing? Why are they writing? Whose stories are being told?”

David Jubb asked “Do we want to write about it in the same way that we currently review work?”

In reply, Maddy Costa asked “What do we mean by review?”

The work is about process and practice and perhaps our writing should be about storytelling and exposing the hidden stories and narratives.

An important strand of discussion emerged around the way in which arts and cultural organisations promote their work in a conventional way with web sites highlighting the show on the front pages and the co-created work being hidden. So, it could be argued that we are our own enemies in this way by not amplifying the work ourselves and appearing to give it less value.

Who should write about it?

“Why don’t we budget for writers to write about projects within projects? Why don’t we find the voices? Why don’t we re-examine who writes about it?”

Zain suggested that it was important that anyone writing about the work was familiar with the territory. It was suggested that a lot of writing is done to secure further funding and is self-aggrandising rather than critical and honest.

It was suggested that writing about the work could be a co-created process in itself. Indeed there is an argument for all forms of communications about co-created and participatory work – including evaluation – to be seen as part of the co-creating process.

“So many voices are not heard – so many writers are not supported – how could we support them better? How could we develop new voices? “

What are the ethical challenges about writing about this work?

Some of the narratives and stories are about changing lives which raises questions about ethics and the need to be clear about the terms of engagement, to be transparent.

“It is about making space for more human stories to be told and shared.”

“We are sharing human stories. Where might a participant want their story to be told?”

This is no different to another form of writing about work – evaluation – where ethics and consent are so important. Maybe there is a need to connect our wish to amplify the practice to an approach to evaluation that is about more than monitoring and accountability but which is more about following the journey of the work, walking alongside it and interacting with it?

David Jubb referred to “embedded journalism.” This could also be about embedded critical practice or embedded learning. Lyn Gardner talked about it as “storytelling. It is not about judging but about building trust and that takes time. You have to be aware that the human element is foregrounded.”

“I think of it as interrogating the process, being accountable to myself and challenging the power structures and norms.”

“The work is not a product but a process and in order to write about this implies the writer must do more than sit through one show.”

The role of power and values?

This is linked closely to the notion of power.

There is also a value system at play. It was suggested that most Artistic Directors will be focussed on making work and getting the reviews of this work to support their profile and reputation. They are usually not ‘participation people’ and nor are many funders or trustees. “Who gets to make the decisions about what is programmed? What is profiled and funded and what is amplified?”

The new Arts Council England strategy ‘Lets Create’ actually validates this work but the question is will it do so in reality when the culture of the sector is so embedded in hierarchical values of relative worth.

“The values systems are represented in space on websites, the rooms in which the activity takes place. Our norms need to be redefined and unlearned.”

It was suggested that there was an opportunity in the context of Covid-19 where live shows have been stopped and an increasing emphasis has been placed on relevance of the organisation to its city/ community. But, it was felt that there was a fear here and that the danger was that the ingrained cultures would prohibit any change and the system would be replicated and ‘normality’ would be maintained as we move forward. The question was therefore posed: “How do we collectively work together as an industry to effect change in this area?”

And the call to action? “Let’s genuinely commit to the change we want to see – amplify and diversify the voices, challenge the hierarchies and blind spots and build writing into the processes of co-creation.”

Susanne Burns
December 2020