The theme of our recent Performing Arts event: ‘Ecology and Heritage’ may not have been the most obvious topic for a workshop highlighting research in theatre and performance. However, representatives of the RSPB, Velocity, Northlight Heritage, Environmental Arts Festival Scotland and Glasgow City Council all agreed with academics from the College of Arts that performance can be a way to make the world around us more accessible to everyone. The use of art for communication, engagement and question-raising were recurring themes of an extremely productive afternoon session.
The event kicked off with short informal presentations from six academics from the College of Arts.
Professor Dee Heddon was first to speak about her project ‘Walking Interconnections’, which brought together disabled people and environmentalists to take one another on walks and record their experiences through photos and audio. Dee used the 35 hours of recording to make a 35 minute verbatim play that challenges the ‘normal’ environmental discourse that assumes able bodied participants. She argued that the resilience of differently abled people could be very instructive in dealing with everyday problems. Dee suggests that rather than focus on independence, ‘interdependence’ is a more useful word for thinking about the relationship between everyone and the environment.
Doctoral candidate Ruth Olden spoke next about her work with Govan’s Graving Docks, a former industrial site which is now privately owned with plans for redevelopment. She became a mixture of archivist, activist and counter-planner in her attempts to record and raise awareness about what was happening at the site. She did this through activities such as public plant surveys, consultations outside the Subway station where she exchanged postcards for opinions, and a symbolic casting out of a willow vessel created on the site. Encouraging participation and thought have been her main outcomes (besides the PhD currently in progress) but Ruth will also pitch her results (‘Liquid Landscapes’) to Glasgow City Council and Historic Scotland.
Dr Simon Murray then encouraged us to think about ruins, particularly those of St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross (which recently appeared on the BBC and in The Guardian). The NVA (nacionale vita activa) arts organisation has received significant funding to develop potential plans for this high modernist building and the Kilmahew estate where it is located. Several academics, including geographer Hayden Lorimer, as well as Simon, are involved in the project. This will be a place where people from primary school children to university professors will gather, perform, and ask questions. Simon suggests we begin the process by asking the ruin itself some questions: “Who owns you now as a ruin?” What do you want to be in the future?”
Tara S Beall is another doctoral candidate working on Govan’s Hidden Histories with the Riverside Museum. Tara’s work aims to connect the Riverside and Govan through contemporary performance practices, and as part of this she has been involved with community groups and projects. One such project aimed to reimagine the Govan Heritage Trail over four months, using expertise from the community and the museum itself. Although it has been challenging at times, Tara thinks this can also be a way of changing attitudes towards museums, which are “not just service providers”.
Professor Carl Lavery returned to ruins with his film about the Japanese island of Hashima, part of his AHRC-funded project ‘The Future of Ruins’. Working with an inter-disciplinary team, , Carl wanted to “engage in multimedia mapping of the island”, exploring it from different perspectives and through different registers of time in order to contest the idea that ruins are simply beautiful and romantic. The troublesome nature of ruins is expressed through the shaky, disorientating form of the film.
Finally, event chair Dr Minty Donald explained her work with the Watershed+ Programme in Calgary, Canada. In her project ‘Guddling About’, Minty and her colleague Nick Millar used performance to prompt people, in a playful but provocative way, to rethink their relationships with water, specifically in light of recent severe flooding in the area. Minty proposed that her approach could be transferred to other urban rivers, and she is currently working on projects in Glasgow with the River Kelvin, the Forth and Clyde Canal and the River Clyde.
The discussion that followed continued to address these themes with input from representatives of external institutions:
- Knowledge exchange & funding: all agreed that artists shouldn’t work for free, but where does the money come from the pay them to work with academics? The answer is that there are many different models of collaboration and different sources of funding to suit various needs. Whether it is a case of salaried academics(/artists) giving time to organisations, or developing joint funding bids, it is never too soon to come and discuss an idea. Knowledge exchange is simply a by-product of engagement that is mutually beneficial. As Dee put it, the question is “What’s the research I might be able to do with you?”
- Relevance to external organisations: many expressed their surprise to find that the work being done in the College of Arts was not only exciting and accessible but also highly relevant. The projects undertaken in the College are pertinent to many other organisations and ideas can be shared and re-applied. Organisations like the RSPB could collaborate with theatre and performance academics to develop performance-based activities and engage publics in new and productive ways.
- Artists-researchers and ideas: talking to artists and researchers, engaging with them and involving them from the initial stages has the potential to bring new ideas and ways of thinking to a project. Velocity, for example, aims to embed artists in planning and other processes. There is considerable potential for artist-researchers from the College of Arts to become involved in these processes.
The many possible connections and intersections between these external organisations and the College of Arts were obvious, and we hope that they will develop into some fruitful and innovative collaborations.