Niki Black | Connecting the Circle: Blog #3

With all four of my festival engagement events now completed, time to reflect on what my involvement with the project has taught me and what has been achieved.

I had held an exhibition and art activity at four festivals in Northumberland between March and July this year. These festivals make up the case studies of my research into the impact of such events on the social sustainability of their host communities: as such they have common variables of type and form but also display huge variations in their character, location and the visiting public with which I was engaging. Although this may seem obvious, it is something easily overlooked when preparing activities designed to be repeated on a number of occasions. I found myself challenged by practicalities such as varying weather conditions (try carrying out a paper-based art activity in a windy field!), and locations which didn’t appear on any maps alongside the variety of responses from different publics with different expectations of art workshops and academic research. What I really perceived, however, was never presume what people’s responses will be! I was constantly reminding myself of this: the teenage huddle which I was reluctant to approach turned out to be really interested and involved!

The art workshops worked best when I was based indoors (at two of the festivals): however, even though the conditions were challenging and the response was less at one of the outdoor events, the presence of an artist and the potential to engage practically drew a greater number of people to the exhibition who then engaged with me directly in conversation about the research, even if they didn’t actually pick up a pencil! The age range of those who engaged was huge (all ages from 2 to 82) which I doubt would have been so broad without the practical element. So although it may have been easy to say – ‘don’t try this outdoors, are you stupid!’, in conclusion attempting it with all its difficulties proved more rewarding than not! ‘Nothing ventured’ and all that.

My ‘partners’ in this project have been the organisers behind these festivals. I was under no illusion from the start that I would be mostly working on this on my own (and with my assisting artist). As voluntary organisers with very busy schedules and for the majority, separate professions alongside, they were all very supportive and really enthusiastic for the project but none were able to spare time beyond occasional meetings and conversations to discuss the format. In this, my project possibly differs from other ‘engagement’ projects in the Afterlife programme though I believe it hasn’t hindered my ability to engage with the public in any way.

On reflection, taking part in this project has for me been about ‘Connecting the Circle’. By this I mean enabling connections to be made and reinforced through linking the academic ideas which inform my own research with the ideas and perceptions of those visiting and involved with the festivals which in turn connects and feeds into my research development. It has been an extremely useful process in reviewing the purpose of my own research and its future direction and helped my intention to display findings from my work in the ‘non-academic’ world in an entertaining and approachable way. Responses to my research during the evolution of the methodology helped to inform the direction of my data gathering process and steer me towards considering elements of the data from different aspects. In turn, I hope displaying my research and the many conversations I had with the hundreds of festival goers may have challenged or opened new reflections on the contribution which small-scale cultural festivals make to their communities.

Niki Black, PhD Researcher

ICCHS, Newcastle University

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