Tuesday, 9 December 2008

More thoughts on consultation

I attended the launch of Say&Play yesterday, a toolkit for improving local government consultation, based on a series of recent events held in Lambeth. On the one hand it was great to hear politicians and local goverment officers talking about the need to do positive, creative consultation with residents. I found the thinking about how consultation needs to move away from 'research', from extracting information from people, towards creating a transaction, where those who are consulted get something out of the process, whether that's social networks, useful information, entertainment etc. really interesteing and useful.
On the other hand I found the event frustrating. That might be because of the lack of opportunities for discourse and conversation (a bit ironically!) which I suspect were due to keeping the launch short and sweet. But it was also born from my feeling that surely local government can't have only just woken up to the fact that we should talk to people, find out what their lives are like and what could make them better. If that is the case, I find it both remarkable and depressing.
My final frustration was with the exercises we did as a way of demonstrating how this kind of consultation can work. One of these involved being given 3 blue stickers and choosing 3 out of 6 statements as being the most significant issues faced by local authorities conducting consultations. You put your stickers on the 3 most important issues. And that was that. I buy the argument that this can work as an activity that doesn't feel too difficult or time intensive, or laborious, and therefore it's accessible to people who might otherwise not engage with consultation activities. However, 2 of the choices were: 'complex subject matter' and 'tickbox culture'. To me they are the same thing: the desire for easy clear answers and the fact that such answers are perhaps impossible and maybe misleading. There was no space for me to voice this. There was no subtlety or complexity in the exercise. Maybe I'm being naive. Maybe it's about having a range of activities that range from the do it in a couple of seconds straight forward answer, to something more complex, and through that variety we put together the bigger picture. But I wonder if we are dumbing down, if we are assuming that people who don't usually take part in consultation can or will only do activities that are non-complex.
I hate to feel like a cynic, and I appreciate that we need to be exploring different ways of doing things. Perhaps the issue was that we didn't get to explore the complexities at the launch event which left me with this frustration, I'm not sure...
Anway, you can find more info on Say and Play on the Involve website, here.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Ameliorating Amelia Street

I recently worked with another artist, Kamala Katbamna, to explore the area around the Pullens Estate in South East London with a group of young people from Gascoigne Primary School. The local TRA are working with the Architecture Foundation to recruit architects to improve the public realm in the area, and we wanted to add the voice of young people to the mix of information given to those applying for the tender. You can read the writing created here, and find out more about the competition, and listen to Kamala's sound piece by visiting the Amelia Street website.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Creative Writing and Consultation

Thank you to the 20 people who came to the creative writing and consultation event hosted by Create KX at the School of Life on Wednesday 19th November. I found the workshop really interesting, especially the mix of people, ideas and approaches within that one room.

I wanted to post up some of my notes from the session as a way of reflecting and sharing the thoughts generated over the 2 hours.

Where does it end?

A conversation that really struck me was around the question ‘where does consultation finish?’ Are we stymied by the idea that consultation is something done to a group of people and then finished with? Instead, should we be looking at consultation as an ongoing process, something which is done with rather than done to? I wonder if our project-driven arts funding and our society’s need to ‘finish’ things (ok, that’s a grand statement, but I think there’s some truth in it) makes it problematic to argue for the ongoing. Maybe because we’re not sure how to measure its successes? I’m not sure.

What can writers offer?

We talked about writers working as translators, finding ways of crossing the communication gap between those involved in regeneration. We also talked about them as interpreters.

People were struck with the idea of writers creating more abstract responses which can then be interpreted by other professions (architects, designers etc.)

There seemed to be a feeling that the brief exercise led by Aoife Mannix achieved two main things. Firstly it was accessible, relaxed, enabled people to have their say. Secondly it to some extent worked as a warm up, diffusing mindsets, opening up thoughts, which could then lead to quite remarkable and personal responses to the question ‘what does home mean to you?’ that might not have been accessed if the question had been asked cold. I found this really interesting, that we might use creative processes to open a path to finding more accurate and intimate responses to important questions.

Here’s one of the communal pieces of writing we created with Aoife:


Earl Grey, because I’m worth it

The smell of your skin on an autumn evening

Would you like to come for dinner?

Birdsong and Gravel

Home-full and home-less. So blessed and so confused by having two homes separated by sea. Home is love, but loves are split too. Home is somewhere between my father’s and my husband’s arms.

A bit of politics:

Someone raised the interesting issue of how creative writing might take a role in critiquing and challenging the bureaucracy and politics of regeneration. How might that work? And how might that be funded? We circled that question too – how does who’s paying affect what we do? Might we end up doling out propaganda rather than opening up genuine debate?

We touched too on the ethics of what happens afterwards, who takes responsibility for the listening that is needed if consultation is to work.

What’s important?

~ Doing with not doing to

~ Not going into the process with an idea of what the answer should be

What’s needed?

~ Really robust case studies that can be used to convince (maybe reluctant) organisations to engage with this method of working

~ Effective communication - people won't work in this wayif they don't know about it

I’m interested in this idea of case studies, perhaps in trying to get a project off the ground that sets out to consult in this way and explore and document the possibilities. And then the communication of that knowledge and experience comes second, giving people the confidence and skills to find their own ways of engaging with creative writing and consultation.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Professional Development and Support

UrbanWords is looking to develop a programme of professional development and support in the field of writing and regeneration. In order to plan an appropriate and useful programme, we are asking a broad range of professionals interested in this area about their training and support needs and ideas.

Please click here to take survey by Monday 22nd December, and please pass the link on to any contacts who might be interested.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

What kind of writing?

I had a really interesting meeting with a writer called Denna Jones a couple of weeks ago. She’s a writer who does work that relates to place, from ‘public art’ residencies to involvement in masterplanning processes. We talked a lot about the importance of the narrative of a place, about how writers can explore and ‘give back’ the lost narratives of a place to the people who inhabit it, engendering pride, conversation, and change.

One thing we also discussed was the focus I have taken so far on the idea of ‘creative writing’. It’s not a term I’m particularly comfortable with, and am becoming less so. As Denna said, all good writing should be creative. I increasingly think that the thing I am interested is story and narrative, and that doesn’t necessarily need to be restricted to the defined spaces of ‘poetry’, ‘prose’, ‘script’ etc. Perhaps what I am interested in is a new kind of writing, that exists outside of the boundaries of literature that I have grown up with and interacted with so far?

Friday, 21 November 2008

The power of language

I wanted to post this emailed comment from a writer called Naomi Alsop who I met at The Writer’s Toolkit – a conference organised by Birmingham Book Festival in October this year:

“Reading your blog from today about Obama’s victory and the role of fiction in preparing people for the idea of a black president, I thought about an article I read when researching my undergraduate degree in sociology, (Metaphors we discriminate by: Naturalized themes in Austrian newspaper articles about asylum seekers by Elizabeth El Refaie). El Refaie argues that the various metaphors used to describe asylum seekers in the press (flood, influx, army, horde etc) have become so naturalized that people don’t realize they’re metaphors and that can result in people accepting behavior against asylum seekers which they wouldn’t otherwise. So if you’ve internalized metaphors of asylum seekers as an invading army it’s acceptable to use the army to intercept and detain them (as in Italy, eg), if criminality metaphors are used it’s natural to detain them, if they’re a natural disaster we need to improve our defenses against them. That article was one of the points at which I decided I wanted to use stories to challenge the dominant discourses which divide people and instead work towards using language to foster understanding.”

(Naomi will have a website soon: www.naomialsop.com - and can currently be contacted at info@naomialsop.com)

Her email reminded me of something Inua Ellams said at the TINAG roundtable discussion in October, about the power of words to change perceptions, and how the role of writers working in a community regeneration context could be to explore and positively impact on the meanings and power of the language used to describe a place.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Jargon Buster

I just found this (http://www.regenerationexchange.org/jargon.php) on the Regeneration Exchange website - great if you're feeling confused by regeneration jargon.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Arts Professional Article

Arts Professional have published a short article about writing and regeneration as an online 'addition' to their current issue, which focuses on arts and regeneration. It's got a terrible title, but do take a look. You can get to it from the Arts Professional
website homepage. Go to 'web exclusives' and then to (ahem...) 'Words of Wisdom'.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Barking Metamorphosis

UrbanWords is involved with a really exciting project in Barking, East London, working with the Barking Learning Centre, writer Yemisi Blake, the art/architecture practice muf, product design students from the Royal College of Arts, and young people living in Barking.
There are chairs, tables, trees and stories, and much more to come. I am very excited about it! We've set up a project blog at www.barkingmetamorphosis.wordpress.com which will be developing over the next few weeks.

No Hiding Place

Myself and Aoife Mannix performed part of the soundscape we’ve created during our residency on the Greenwich Peninsula at the conference, Artists Making Places, on Monday 10th November, organised by Art on the Greenwich Peninsula.

It was a fascinating conference, with an emphasis on the power of art and artists to effect real change in places and communities. Declan McGonagle chaired the conference, and was commissioned to write a paper as a provocation for the conference. It’s called ‘No Hiding Place’ and is a fantastic and inspiring piece, which argues for art to be seen “not as a decorative antidote to reality but as one means of comprehending and transforming that reality”. I’d recommend it (and it’s quite short!). You can download it from here: http://www.artongreenwichpeninsula.com/debateEducation.php

Alfredo Jaar gave the conference keynote, and was again inspiring about the role of the artist as a catalyst for change. He talked about how artists can create new models of thinking and new ways of communicating, emphasising that communication only works when an answer is invited and given. His approach is about dialogue and collaboration, rather than trying to convey ‘a message’.

One thing Jaar said which really stuck with me was: “an active community is a community that creates.” I agree with him, and in the importance of arts and creativity in the fabric of our lives.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Can stories change the world?

I've been thinking a lot recently about how stories can effect positive change. I remember working in a job where employees were stuck in negative storytelling patterns. It was like we were all trapped in the same story : 'it's rubbish, no-one ever listens to us, what's the point? etc. etc.' I attended a storytelling conference at around the same time and started to wonder whether workshops with staff to encrouage them to start to tell different stories might somehow help the organisation break out of this negative cycle. I didn't follow my idea through, but the connection between stories and positive change has been following me around ever since. My logic is, if we can tell a different story, then that can open up a space for a different narrative to happen. The story itself won't change things, but it can create the space and the possibility for change to happen.
I've been thinking about this again in the run up to the US election. When commentators questioned whether the US would ever elect a black president, I couldn't help thinking, well, the story has already been told; we have all read novels and watched films where there is a black US president. That space has been opened up by fiction, and perhaps now is the point reality can step in.
I'm not suggesting that the films casting black actors as the US president are responsible for Obama's victory, but I do wonder if they played a role, if the world came to this election having already seen a black man in the white house, and decided to step into the space made by those stories.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

What do writers do?

Writers tell stories. They find form for complex ideas. They show us the world anew. They explore the connections that exist, between people, places, events, and time. Writers search for what is not said, the currents that exist underneath what is made explicit. Writers create work that is a pleasure to read.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Roundtable Discussion at the TINAG festival

25 people came to a roundtable discussion asking 'is there a role for creative writers and creative writing in the process of regeneration' at Cafe Oto, in Dalston, last Friday, as part of TINAG's three day festival exploring 'the city'.

I found the discussion fascinating. We had 6 panellists, who gave a broad range of responses to the question. It was a beginning of a conversation really, and we could only just scratch the surface in the hour and a half, but there is talk of setting up further discussions and possibly a network of those interested in this area of work.

I am in the process of writing up the session for TINAG's festival publication and will post more details as I progress.

Something that struck me on Friday was a conversation a woman who attended the event. She works with young people in Newham, and her initial response to the discussion was 'but we're interested in activism, not words.' I tried to explain that I am also interested in real change and in real empowerment for people who are experiencing regeneration, and that I see the potential for writing to have a powerful effect on urban change. As our conversation progressed, she started to say that maybe she saw that writing might be one way in to engage with people and articulate their views and aspirations, with the intention of engendering change. I am hoping that conversation will continue.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Hard hats and steel toe-capped boots

This week sees the culmination of a fantastic project, BS1. Artist Neville Gabie was apppointed as artist-in-residence on the Cabot Circus site (commissioned by InSite Arts, the residency was funded by Bristol Alliance).
In addition to his own work, Neville wanted to create the opportunity for other artists to respond to the creation of this new retail centre and successful got arts council funding to do so.

I worked with Neville to appoint the novelist Donna Daley-Clarke to work on the BS1 project. It was fantastic to be in the position to find an interesting writer, and offer them the time, access and impetus to respond creatively to a vast and remarkable site.

Donna wrote three stories as a result of her residency: Dirt, Stone and Glass. They have been published in a small publication, currently available at the BS1 exhibition in Bristol (24-30 Oct).

Talking about her residency, Donna said:

"I saw processes and machinery that I had no knowledge of and weeks or months later I had a series of light bulb moments as I realized what I had seen then. I saw lots of absences: no floors or walls or ceilings. There were wires beneath my feet and brightly coloured cables running up poles.

I met many people formally in meeting rooms and informally as Neville grabbed men in high-vis jackets walking past the open door of Costa Coffee. I talked to people on their lunch breaks. I climbed ladders in the rain to get people's stories.

None of the stories I eventually emerged with belong to any one person I spoke to, but none of the stories would have been possible without the input of the many people who gave up their time and shared something of their journeys."

In addition to the publication, Donna wrote some texts which are bring projected onto the exhibition window, along with another artist's video portraits of site workers.

Monday, 20 October 2008

A free workshop looking at creative writing and community consultation

UrbanWords has teamed up with Create KX to deliver a workshop exploring how creative writers can contribute to the process of consultation. The session is free, but you need to book. Details below:

What Do You Think?
A community/ an organisation/ a place can be seen as a tapestry of stories, each thread essential and compelling.
The space to write down, savour and enjoy these words enables communication and sparks passion.
We all know the pen is mightier than the sword, but can creative writing ensure successful consultation? Can writers provide a vital role aiding regeneration?
Join us for a stimulating workshop on using literature and creative writing as part of the consultation process for change and urban renewal.
The workshop will delivered by UrbanWords (www.urbanwords.org.uk) and poet, Aoife Mannix (www.aoifemannix.com).
3.30-5.30pm, Wednesday 19th November
The School of Life, 70 Marchmont Street, London WC1N 1AB
Free, but booking essential. Email info@createkx.org.uk to book your place.

Friday, 17 October 2008

BS1 Project - exhibition in Bristol 24th - 30th October

A week long exhibition at 94-96 Horsefair, Bristol, marks the culmination of BS1, a series of temporary art commissions responding to the creation of Cabot Circus, a new retail centre for the city.
UrbanWords worked with the artist Neville Gabie, and Insite Arts, to commission Donna Daley-Clarke to respond to the site. She has written 3 stories, Dirt, Stone and Glass, which will be available at the exhibition and soon up on the project website.
There's an opening evening on Thursday 23rd October, 5.00-9.00pm, and the exhibition's open 24th-30th, 11.00am - 5.00pm. Click here to go to a flyer for the event.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Playing In Urban Places - transcript up on site

You can now download a transcript of the paper I gave at Playing in Urban Places at Leeds Metropolitan University on 3rd October from A Place For Words.

Just to blow my own trumpet for a moment, some unsolicited emails after the event:
"I wanted to say how much we enjoyed your presentation, it was brilliant, interesting and inspiring"
"I really enjoyed your talk "

I'd be interested to hear what anybody thinks about it...

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Playing in Urban Places

I spoke at Playing in Urban Places: a seminar, organised by Leeds Metropolitan University Gallery and Theatre last week. I will be posting a downloadable transcript of my paper on the A Place For Words site shortly - I'll post a note to tell you when it's up.

It was a really interesting day. Lots of interesting ideas and questions, plus we got to make dens, and play with lego!

Quentin Stevens, from the Bartlett, gave a key note about playing in urban places, which resonated with a lot of the things I've been thinking about recently.
Play is crucial, I think, in exploring and developing our relationship with place. It seems to me that play - seen as 'normal' for children, and 'transgressive' for adults - is key to achieving a sense of ownership and agency over a place. Quentin Stevens talked about areas where play takes place: paths, intersections, boundaries, thresholds and where there are props. This made me think about the work Snug and Outdoor have done around play and narrative, using concepts from narrative analysis (about paths, thresholds, obstacles, destinations, sanctuaries, arenas) and relating those to the design of play-spaces. Can we make a jump from this to the wider field of urban design and start to design in the possibilities for new narratives?

Monday, 22 September 2008

Other people's thoughts

Some nice quotes I found on Public Art South West's fabulous website:

Art isn't necessary anymore as a field, a profession; art is no longer a noun, it [has] become a verb. Art is nothing but a general attitude of thickening the plot.

Vito Acconci

Art is language and public art is public speech.

Jonathan Jones, The Guardian

Public art is... 'a form of street life, a means to articulate the implicit values of a city when its users occupy the place of determining what the city is'.

Malcolm Miles

Monday, 8 September 2008

Michel de Certeau

I’ve been re-reading a couple of chapters (Walking in the City, and Spatial Stories) from Michel de Certeau’s collection of essays, The Practice of Everyday Life. It makes my head hurt, and I’m not sure I understand a lot of it, but there’s some really interesting stuff there about our relationship to cities and to stories.

He talks about the power and importance of stories and legends in creating place:

“It is through the opportunity they offer to store up rich silences and wordless stories, or rather through their capacity to create cellars and garrets everywhere, that local legends (legenda: what is to be read, but also what can be read) permit exits, ways of going out and coming back in, and thus habitable spaces.”

He talks of stories and legends as haunting places, and argues that “Haunted places are the only ones people can live in”.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Playing in Urban Places

I am speaking at a conference in Leeds on 3rd October. My paper is called Narrating the City. It asks whether there is a role and a space for literature and creative writing to inform and explore our relationship to urban space. The paper connects the concept of narrative to that of navigation. It considers who authors a city, compares the role of the resident/visitor/walker in a city to that of the reader, and looks in very practical terms at how such ideas can be applied through participatory literature work.

Currently it looks like this:

... but I'm getting there! Will be posting my ideas as they develop.

Information about the seminar below:

a seminar:
Playing in Urban Places.
3 October
9am – 5pm
Followed by an evening reception.

This seminar seeks to investigate the creative ways that a city is uncovered and discovered, while generating a platform for discussion and debate around the experience of interacting with location. Using the work of Alex Hartley as a contextual springboard the day will become a stimulating event to explore creative and innovative engagement with the urban.

This is a seminar for artists, architects, curators, educators, students, and those working in related fields of geography, urban planning, literacy, and so forth.

The day will showcase an international selection of researchers and artists through paper presentations, interactive installation, sound, video and performances, on the following themes:

o Innovative engagements between art and architecture

o Navigating places, paths and barriers

o Subversive and transgressive acts to take back the city

Our panel of speakers include:
Chair: Professor Guy Julier - Architecture, Landscape & Design, Leeds Metropolitan University

Keynote Speaker:

Playing with the Potential of Public Spaces

Dr Quentin Stevens – Senior Lecturer Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


Sarah Butler - UrbanWords
Dr John Crossley
Leeds University
Matt Delbridge
University of London
Marianna & Daniel O’Reilly
Laura Robinson & Dr Liz Stirling –
Leeds Metropolitan University
Victoria Stanton
Varsity of Maneuvers - Birgit Binder & Jorda Planellas
John Wild

To book please call the box office on 0113 812 5998, all forms of payment accepted, or call in person to the Gallery & Theatre Office between 9am and 5pm, Monday-Friday.

£75/£45 concessions [lunch and evening reception included]



Wednesday, 3 September 2008


I've been thinking about the difference between poets and prose writers working in a 'public' way. A public artist I spoke to a year or so ago said he always works with poets because it's easier. They write in such a condensed way you can fit it onto a physical sculpture much more easily. Fair enough, maybe, if we're talking about physical public art. I could make endless arguments about why prose writers can work as effectively, but as a prose writer myself, I feel slightly on the back foot and I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's just that, because it's such a condensed and transportable form, poetry has been the more used literary form in this area of work.

I have just started a lovely project on the Greenwich Peninsula with the fantastic poet, Aoife Mannix. We're blogging about the process and sharing our writing as we go along (visit the blog here if you want to have a look). Again, I feel a bit of a pang that I'm not a poet. I want to be able to write something people can take in in one gulp (though I appreciate it will take them longer than that to digest it). I guess I need to accept the difference between the forms, and find ways to tell and present stories in a way that makes sense to me and how I work.

I'm working with the artist Neville Gabie at the moment on a project in Bristol called BS1. We've appointed the novelist Donna Daley-Clarke to respond to the building of a new shopping centre in central Bristol. I was really keen to appoint a prose writer to explore exactly this issue - how can prose writers work in this field? I'll be thinking more about that as the BS1 project draws to an end later this autumn.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

UrbanWords at TINAG festival

UrbanWords will be hosting a roundtable discussion, exploring the role creative writers can play in the process of regeneration and urban change, as part of This Is Not A Gateway's festival exploring multidisciplinary approaches to the city. Visit the This is Not a Gateway site to find out more.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Who's to say why there's a tank by the side of the road?

I went for a walk through South East London yesterday and came across this tank on the corner of Mandela Road and Page's Walk (I think!)
A man who works locally stopped and said he'd been driving past it for years but had never stopped to look at it before. We ended up talking about how we both wanted to know more. Why wasn't there a blue plaque? he said. Why wasn't there an explanation?
I've been thinking about this since and I can't decide whether I respond positively to this need for stories, for explanations, for narratives about unexplained things, or whether I find it a bit depressing that our immediate response is to look elsewhere for an explanation - that we want someone else to author our city and our experiences for us, rather than delighting in the opportunity to make up our own stories.
Maybe I'll write a spoof blue plaque...

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

How to define writer and text

I am reposting part of a comment made by Ruth Ben-Tovim at Encounters, a really interesting looking organisation based in Sheffield, because I think it's worth considering in more detail and would be really interested in other people's ideas. She says:

"Really interested to read about this site and think it's important to champion the role text and writing could have within regeneration and public realm work. I'd like to see the definition of 'writer and 'text' be widened though. At the moment in the examples you give it seems as if the emphasis is on the idea of writer as a primary creator, someone who shapes others' words or works with people to listen/ absorb but then creates a new authored work. I think that there is of course a place for this work but I think there is also a huge scope to use and work with Verbatum text. For the last 5/6 years I've been delivering temporary public art work/performance work collecting memories and stories linked to specific places within a neighbourhood, journeys people have made to live where they live, and answers to broad questions that explore what it is to be human. We've used these 'collections' to create print, exhibition and performance work and in those processes see myself as a Dramaturg/ curator or even organiser of this text, a very creative role but not the 'author'. We're now looking at projects where text from collections such as these could work within permanent public artwork."

I think this is a really interesting point. I guess from a personal point of view I am interested in the idea of collaboration, so a writer working alongside (and on an equal footing) with a group of people who wouldn't define themselves as 'writers', to create new, challenging work. Perhaps this fits in with the idea of Dramaturg/curator/organiser - but then do you need a writer to do this, or not? Am I too keen to pigeon hole people, I wonder?! I suppose I've spent a lot of time trying to think about what it is that makes writers interesting/relevant people to work with in this context, and trying to think through how writers can keep their identities and use their skills as writers in a community/participatory context. I'm not pretending to have any answers!

I'd be interested to hear other people's thoughts on this....

Monday, 28 July 2008

2 articles to look out for

Look out for articles in NAWE's latest journal (issue number 45) and the regeneration journal New Start Mag (Volume 10, no 442) which go into some of the thinking on the A Place For Words site in more detail. The articles are also available to download from A Place For Words

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Starting a Conversation

A Place for Words is meant as an invitation to join in a conversation. I find this area of work fascinating and full of potential and want to explore existing case studies and possibilities for future work further.
Do you agree with the ideas proposed on the site? Are there things you’d like to add, or argue with? Have you been involved in projects you would like to see featured on the site?
Please get in touch either by responding to posts on the blog or by emailing me at sarah@urbanwords.org.uk

Wednesday, 4 June 2008


The A Place For Words site has just this minute gone live!

I'm writing a bit of a holding post, as I'm about to embark on an epic cycling trip from John O'Groats to Land's End and won't be back at a computer until early July.

Until then, please explore the site and feel free to email me at sarah@urbanwords.org.uk with any comments.