South London Gallery

Beyond Community Engagement: Transforming Dialogues in Art, Education and the Cultural Sphere

In 2016 I was approached by Dr Kim Snepvangers at UNSW Art & Design and invited to contribute a chapter to Beyond Community Engagement: Transforming Dialogues in Art, Education and the Cultural Sphere, part of the UNSW Curated Series: Transformative Pedagogies in the Visual Domain.

With a focus on peer-led learning and institutional partnerships, I approached my former South London Gallery colleague Sarah Coffils, now SLG Head of Education, to co-write the chapter with me, which we titled “Collaboration or Cooperation: Peer-led Learning and Institutional Partnerships through Two Case Studies.”

We took a dialogic approach to framing the chapter and called on past project collaborators and several key academics in the field of peer-led learning to contribute their reflections, which they did generously and openly.

That was 2016. And then edits and re-writes and publishing hold-ups meant nothing… until now. Finally: it’s here.

I’m really proud of what Sarah and I wrote and am so grateful to Kim for the opportunity to take on this challenge and for her critical, constructive, encouraging feedback along the way.

The book can be purchased here (if some light academic reading is your thing) but the Abstract to Sarah’s and my chapter is copied below.


 This chapter explores from a practitioner-based perspective, two recent arts projects, that employed peer-led and project based models of learning to engage with a specific audience of young people aged 13-25. While distinct in their organisational structure, duration and delivery, both projects were conceived as part of unique institutional partnerships that engaged artists, creative industry practitioners and curatorial and educational peers as central to each projects’ realisation.

The two case studies include a UK project called the Louis Vuitton Young Arts Project (LVYAP) that was conceived by the South London Gallery and ran from September 2009 –  March 2013 in partnership with the Tate (across both Tate Modern and Tate Britain), Whitechapel Gallery, the Hayward Gallery and the Royal Academy of Arts. Both authors worked on this project. The second case study is from Australia and is the Kaldor Public Art Projects Pilot Regional Engagement Project, which in contrast with the LVYAP, ran for a shorter period of just 12 weeks, from May to July 2015. The project was part of the educational program for Project 30 – Marina Abramović: In Residence . It was delivered in partnership with the Western Plains Cultural Centre in Dubbo in central western NSW with support from regional arts board Orana Arts. One of the authors, Jo Higgins, worked on this project.

Using a dialogic conversational format to reflect on what worked and what didn’t in these two projects, the authors’  explore the institutional nature of collaboration, as something distinct from cooperation, and considers the role of agency and outcomes for both facilitators and participants in understanding what may constitute success. The relative successes of each project are considered in light of Australian and International evaluative reports on peer-led learning and shifting cultural agendas as well as key academic texts on collaboration and models of museum-based learning.

Ultimately, we attempt to draw some conclusions about best practice models of working in regards to institutional partnership projects and innovative engagement programs that target a specific audience of young people; an audience that necessarily needs to be nurtured if cultural institutions are to have vital and engaged future audiences.



REVIEW: Sleepers Awake, MCA C3West Project, Bungaribee

Last night I made the trip out to Blacktown to experience the MCA’s latest C3West commission, Heather and Ivan Morison’s Sleepers Awake. The C3West initiative has been running since 2006 and is a partnership project connecting artists with non-arts government organisations and businesses around Greater Sydney. And as far as outer reaches of Sydney go, Blacktown is about as good as it gets. Unless you’re a resident of erstwhile “Western Sydney” (read: Parramatta and beyond…) or en route to the Blue Mountains, or after good Vietnamese in nearby Cabramatta, chances are, Blacktown isn’t somewhere you’re not going to be casually passing by.

Which is why projects like this are compelling in the way they seem to successfully and authentically integrate local audiences and artists with those of us who have the capacity and curiosity to make our way down the M4 (exorbitant road tolls notwithstanding…)

In truth I also had a vested interest in the work of Ivan and Heather Morison, and this work in particular. At one stage it was slated for installation in Peckham as part of the South London Gallery’s consistently brilliant SLG Local program. For reasons that now make sense (large, illuminated hot air balloon in densely residential, busy, occasionally threatening, corner of London…) the work was never realised there but out in Blacktown, set amongst the expanse of Bungaribee at Western Sydney Parkland, it has all the room it needs to breathe and exist.

Over the course of the last two weekends this illuminated beacon has risen at dusk and kept extraordinary company with a community performance festival. Last night we saw a short film and spoken word performance by a local Sudanese man reflecting on his experience as a refugee in Australia. It was raw and honest and incredibly humbling to see this pretty bloody awful experiences articulated so poetically. Then there was a performance by two young musicians from Minto and a “neo-burlesque” dance troupe taking on Picnic at Hanging Rock. We left before the end of the programme but there was B-boying and Indonesian dance demonstrations after that.

It really did feel like a community festival – and I say that hoping desperately not to be sound like some god awful patronising art snob. I say it because the Western Sydney artists, performers and musicians who featured on the stage were joined by obviously local families who turned up with picnic blankets and pillows and small children in pajamas. Their voices, their neighbours, their territory. Us blow-ins were the novelty really.

Reflecting on the way Sleepers Awake existed within this incredibly unpretentious environment – which was also literally expansive and increasingly cold and dark – I keep coming back to the idea of the google map pin. Except here the pin is enormous and illuminated – shining this mesmerising, benevolent, warm light on the parkland and the performance space and the picnic area. It said: this is somewhere, this is worth knowing/exploring/visiting, this place and these experiences and these people exist. Maybe that’s heavy-handed and emotional or naive and insulting but I think it’s a testament to the way a great work of public art – even or especially a temporary one – can provoke a new way of thinking about and negotiating a space, geographically or intellectually.

Mark Wallinger, Zone, Munster Skulptur Projekt, 2007.

In some ways it reminds me of Mark Wallinger’s work at the 2007 Munster Sculpture Project in Germany. Zone was a three-mile long, fishing line-thin, taut cord that traced the route of the old city walls that once encompassed this ancient German town. The cord though, was strung meters in the air – cutting through buildings and around lamp posts and trees – and was only visible if you really looked for it – and even then you wouldn’t always see it. But knowing it was there, there was a conscious sense of realising you were either inside or outside this demarcated zone and not knowing what the difference was either way. It was an exercise in spatial awareness, in moving through space, in the act of marking one space out as different from another and moving fluidly and unknowingly between the two. A collapse of boundaries you know to be fundamentally invisible.

Well, anyway – those were my impressions. I’m just incredibly glad we made the effort to go and applaud the MCA on the ambition and success of this latest C3West project.



Peckham weekends

So I work in Peckham, at the really brilliant South London Gallery, and have done for over two years now. Before I starting worked here, I’d only traipsed down Peckham Road once before, and that was to the SLG ironically enough, to see Michael Landy’s Art Bin in 2010.

And so it’s been fascinating to witness Peckham’s evolution – or the increased visibility of its evolution – over the last couple of years towards fully fledged ‘art scene’.

The hipster epidemic (which could also be the gentrification epidemic and/or the cheap-rent-means-poor-artists epidemic) has been ably assisted by the summer institution Bold Tendencies. This an annual sculpture exhibition is held on the top two floors of the Peckham Multiplex carpark and comes replete with a Campari Bar and astonishingly good views of the city. I’m not sure how many people go to Bold Tendencies for the art alone - I’ve yet to see it really announce itself in this architectural, cultural context - and it always feels a little underwhelming; a little too reliant on the novelty value of its unique location.

Having said all that, I was there on Friday night, not for the art but to see a performance by the Melodions Steel Orchestra. They were there as part of the four-day Copeland Book Market, promoting Jeremy Deller’s English Magic catalogue from his British Pavilion exhibition at the Venice Biennale. The orchestra recorded the soundtrack to one of Deller’s video works in Venice, at Abbey Road no less, and it was without doubt a coup to have them perform in Peckham as part of the Book Market. It took the usual Bold Tendencies experience to a whole other level (which was impressive considering we were already on the top floor.)

The calypso versions of everything from the Beatles to Bowie via ABBA had everyone on their feet and it was so joyous – and the evening so unbelievably balmy – that even the half hour wait at the bar was tolerable. When London summer gets it right, it’s intoxicating.

I was back in Peckham yesterday for work but took the opportunity to experience artist Tom White’s off-site commission Public Address. White has been working with some of my colleagues in the education team, collaborating with children on the local estates to create a work in dialogue with the current main space exhibition exploring sound.

Over a series of workshops, White and the kids used digital and analogue recorders to document the sounds they generated through play and exploration. Think singing, running sticks along metal fences and just generally generating ‘noise’ using the immediate architectural surrounds of Southampton Way estate. The film documenting some of these recordings is anarchic and innocent and life-affirmingly loud. But Public Address had a whole lot of other subtleties and statements to make.

A series of loud speakers attached to a large fence facing one of the taller blocks on the estate, these booming speakers projected the children’s play onto and literally at the building. It was a surprisingly beautiful case of being heard but not seen and an almost poetic lament about the invisibility of children and their inability to play freely – and loudly – outside the conventional constraints of an urban environment that bans ball games and much else besides.

There was something defiant about these speakers, like David staring down Goliath without having any sense of the magnitude of who and what Goliath might be in this instance. It’s a remarkably elegant work – for one made entirely of children’s chatter and creative play – and I was surprised at how much it moved me. It only ran for four Saturdays through June and July so I should probably thank work for getting my weekend arse to Peckham and giving me the chance to see it.