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Connected Culture
Arts and Society

Taking Chances with Conversations

Posted by Arts and Society on 08 January 2014

“A casual conversation requires skill to become a meaningful conversation”
Richard Sennett, Together

I have been thinking about this quote as Dominic Campbell and I set up a series of conversations on adult participatory arts in a project entitled Connected Conversations; Passing it On. There have been so many discussions in the wider creative community over the last year – how can this not add yet another iteration to the growing mountain of talking and actually feel like it offers an opportunity for a deeper kind of conversation?

While at the RSA and running Arts and Society before we became independent, I facilitated a lot of seminars, roundtables, workshops – hey in Wiltshire I am doing Gatherings, but what are the skills in making it meaningful? In these times when there are a plethora of different formats for discussions and debate, it feels important to really consider the conditions that are needed for getting it right. And by getting it right, I mean everyone leaving with having satisfactorily contributed (for themselves) and moved on a bit in his or her thinking.  Sounds deceptively simple…

The usual format that we are sadly too familiar with is where there are the talkers and the listeners, with the talkers unsatisfied, because they have said it all before and the rest simply feeling a bit nonplussed. The notion of an expert seminar can be a curious one because although we are all in need of expertise, it is a divisive concept in practice. A good discussion should not resemble a classroom.

The arts community has been working with Open Space Technology for some years, the most successful I know is the Devoted and Disgruntled event that Improbable Theatre run. I am a fan but this technique is still dependent on accepted norms of discussion and often reverts to the dominance of the few.

So I have been mulling over some key principles that can help to generate a different kind of conversation, learning  from some great events I have attended and some brilliant thinkers such as Theodore Zeldin and Richard Sennett of the above quote.

Difference: actively seeking difference in those you invite, not merely from the perspective of positive diversity of gender, age, race and so on, but also in the role that each person plays in the area you are addressing and the differences in approach that they may take. My favourite quote of the last five years was when the outgoing Chair of Arts Council England said at the first State of the Arts conference: “We must find partners we never knew we had.” This means searching for those that might not normally be in the room, precisely because this will make the conversation richer. Our tendencies to just keep building our silos can arise from a failure to grasp what the ‘other’ has to offer simply due to a lack of meaningful contact.

David Garcia from the Chelsea College of Art coined a phrase of ‘uncommon ground‘ suggesting a space ‘in which different disciplines play’. Working within collaborative networks composed of ‘difference’ takes us outside our assumptions. Translating cultures of working from one discipline to another, from one arts practice to another, from one sector to another generates new discoveries and can lead to new ways of being together that then lead to new ways of working together.  This builds upon Koestler’s concept of creativity involving a bisociation of two or more apparently incompatible frames of thought. It would be interesting to frame what the ‘uncommon ground’ might be at our roundtables.

In Connected Conversations we have taken the decision to divide the four roundtables into the domains that make work happen: arts practitioners, commissioners, participants and thinkers. We anticipate that many will already know each other but it would be an utter failure if there weren’t many unknown to each other. The concept of ‘tribalism’ is interesting in this context. In his book Together, Sennett refers to Aristotle’s view of tribalism as involving thinking you know what other people think without knowing them. Something we all do but surely for a good conversation, you want provocation and surprise. In this model we are trying, where is the tribe - the company, the artform, the practice of participatory arts or the domain people represent such as practitioners or funders? Who is the ‘other’?

There is also that human urge to find common ground and understanding but a sparky conversation can build on divergent thinking.  Could a conversation resemble a rehearsal, bouncing off ideas, trying new ones, reflecting on what works and what doesn’t within an environment in which you let go of advocacy, (self or of sector) and explore what you don’t know?

Experiment: A good conversation needs to feel fresh and present and this can be hard with tried and tested facilitatory techniques.  Finding a place for surprise can help shake up expectations and encourage discovery.  This can be done in simple and little ways. The notion of trying something new needs to be for everyone though to ensure people don’t feel experimented upon. The sense of a joint adventure is a powerful permission giving tool and can generate quite surprising outcomes.

Practice: In Connected Conversations one of the roundtables will be with those who take part in the work. All too often this grouping is referred to, is only a part of an evaluation and lacks a direct voice in influencing strategy. These roundtables offer the opportunity for a flat playing field within a peer to peer dynamic so there is a likely common language of experience. The voice of practice on the ground can be so easily missed.

But there is also the issue of artistic practice as a valid and valued mode of communication. Again, all too often we give priority to talking about the arts and relegate artistic practice to the entertainment end of things. We are taking the spirit of experimentation and including practice as an integral part of how each roundtable is understood by the next one. It will be through an artform that participants learn of what others were thinking and doing. We want to avoid descriptive approaches and encourage a genuine and subjective response.

If you know of discussions that are trying similar approaches please let us know. We will see in the next month how these ideas work out and will have lots of responses on what worked and what didn’t. I’ll reflect on new discoveries when these roundtables are completed.

On a final note, while at the RSA we initiated a form of visual minutes that documented our events. Alice Maggs did this for us then and will continue for Connected Conversations. Alice listened hard and rather than trying to capture all the salient points, she picked up on capturing the spirit of the events.  Have a look here. We are doing the same with Creative Gatherings in Wiltshire with artist, Chris Glyee who created the drawing at the beginning of this blog.

Jocelyn Cunningham
Arts and Society

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