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Use or Ornament

This phrase articulates an age-old debate about the role of the arts in our society. We are probably more familiar with the idea of the arts as Ornament, something to watch or purchase. A specialist makes the Ornament and someone who wants it purchases it from a theatre, cinema, concert hall, gallery, or bookshop. Other people spend their time criticising or championing the Ornaments. It is another thing to covet, collect and consume.

And what about Art as Use, what about the role it can play in society, its use as a catalyst in bringing about change, in offering different ways of seeing and knowing.

I don’t think this aspect of arts is so well known or understood. It is the impact of Participation in the arts that makes me want to stand on the rooftops and sing about. In 1997 there was a large scale research study done by Francois Matterraso called Use or Ornament demonstrating the impact of participation in the arts. The study shows that participation in the arts can

So now you know if you didn’t already…. and it doesn’t take very much to look at this list and some of the aims, values and goals of the Transition Movement to see that the arts and Transition should be a perfect match. Are we there? I don’t think yet we have found a way to really unleash the potential of this match and as a new Trustee for Transition Network I guess I hope that I can help do a bit more match making as I feel passionate about both.

In the last 15 years the commissioning of projects that involve participation in the arts have become more wide spread reaching to; health, housing, environment, education, criminal justice system, community cohesion, community consultation, regeneration. Mailout magazine over the years has profiled this work and is a great source of information and inspiration. So we’ve learnt that participation in arts does have important social impacts and that’s why they have been commissioned over the years by these statutory bodies. However it would be mis leading to see participation in the arts simply a tool on a journey to somewhere else, it has its own validity. As Matterasso himself says more recently in a short document called the Art Of Participation (pdf),

’Participation in art is participation in life’.

Of course these funding streams are now being cut and the arts sector will need to seek out new territories and new partnerships. The Ornaments of art are also being stripped back too so we will have a large body of skilled creative practitioners charting new ground. And there is plenty of work to do…More than ever it feels like different sectors are realising that we need to work together outside of the box to re–imagine and co–create a more sustainable and interconnected future and many in the Arts sector seems to finally be really waking up to the role we have to play.

At a recent event called Case for Optimism 2 (pdf) a group of national arts organisations and practitioners gathered together to imagine the role of the arts in 2030 in a sustainable world. Participation and partnerships came up high as we imagined this future. Here are some of the future visions for the arts…

‘In 2030 there’s much more participatory art. Everyone is seen as an artist, and artists are more completely integrated with diverse networks united in greater than self- interested issues’.

‘Art galleries as institutions, will be a defunct idea; they’ll just be there to preserve art from the past, from our old material age; and art will become much more out in the world, making it, re-wilding it, healing it, and also continually reconstructing it’.

‘There is more art rooted in experience, marking the turning of the year, marking the life transitions, marking to really honour our rights of passage and rediscover the transitions that equip us as human beings’

As a Hopi poem I recently discovered says ‘The Time of the Lone Wolf is over’ and as an artist working in this participatory arts field for the last ten years (I run an participatory arts organisation called Encounters) its clear to me and many others that art and artists have a key role to play in nurturing inner and outer transition and its time to join up. The time feels ripe to explore on an international, national and local level, how we can actively create more contexts and opportunities for participation through arts to be a key process in how we transition to a low carbon life sustaining future. Seems unnecessary to invent the wheel maybe its just about bringing it into focus….

Paul Allen from the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales who spoke at the Case for Optimism 2 event said, 

‘Art, I see as a mirror that can help individuals and societies and groups to see where we really are, see the wider picture; deconstruct this consumer-focused lifestyle that we’ve been led into, and create the emotional tools to help us cope with new things and help us cope with losing old things; and just open our minds a little bit.’

So how do we cultivate this match between the arts and Transition? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Personally I think the arts could be thought of as a cross cutting theme that weaves its web into all Ingredients, all aspects of Transition. I can see strong partnerships and initiatives being developed between Transition Network and some of the highly skilled arts organisations and artists across the country with skills in participation and already a focus on sustainability. I can see participation through the arts being added to funding bids to strengthen and support the Transition Movements evolution and wider public engagement. I’d love to see support or training given to Initiatives in working with the arts. At an initiative level I’d love to see participation through arts running through food projects, eco builds, visioning processes, inner transition events, group facilitation, local development plans. As Transition initiatives locally become stronger and start to tackle more complex projects it is not unusual to bring in specialists to support us on our journey of transition to a low carbon future; eco architects, specialist builders, energy consultants, permaculture designers, ethical developers. I’d like to see participatory artists added to that list. Also on a local level I can see rich cross-fertilisations between local transition initiatives, local artists and arts institutions and organisations.

There is much to be gained by joining up and a wider range of people to be reached in the process. After spending much of my time in the last seven years taking over disused shops and re opening them as places for people to share memories, stories, and ideas about everyday life, I’m nurturing a vision of a national and international chain of Transition Shops with participation through the arts at their heart that provide holding spaces for both reflection and action, for bringing people together across difference to go on the journey of creating the life sustaining future we want to see. In my vision they wouldn’t sell anything but they’d be places of exchange, part of reclaiming our high streets as a place for community.

Before I go I thought I’d share with you some examples of creative projects, artist, organisations and approaches that I find really inspiring right now. Many of them combine disciplines and involve partnerships across sectors. These are not arts projects in the Ornamental sense and that’s the reason I want to share them because for me they are exciting and dynamic examples of the role of arts right now in a time of change. I know I will have left examples out. Feel free to add.

1. Fruit Routes

Environmental Artist, community catalyst and food grower Anne –Marie Culhane is working on a long-term project with the sustainability department at Loughborough University to create an edible landscape and deliver a comprehensive map of the fruit trees and plants across campus in order to create a foraging walk for staff, students and the local community

Anne-Marie also founded Grow Sheffield in 2007 that included setting up Abundance, a community urban fruit harvest and Allotment Soup - celebrating allotments, arts and harvest. She’s now onto Plymouth and has set up Grow Efford.

She says “My motivation for getting it going was to draw people together to share knowledge, best practice on urban food and to ensure that the importance of urban food and a supporting culture is recognised as part of a sustainable city. It also feels important that a co-operative, collaborative and creative community is as vital as learning the skills required to grow food successfully".

2. Feast on the Bridge

Another artist who has focused on creative and sustainable ways for communities to engage deeply with the whole food cycle and all the issues that raises is Clare Patey. Amongst many other projects, she curates the annual Feast on the Bridge as part of London’s Thames Festival.

‘I'm interested in creating new democratic spaces outside of the arts institutions Feast on the Bridge is about bringing people together in celebration to share food, to talk, to dance and to reclaim a beautiful public space in the heart of the city.’

For a video of Clare speaking about here work see here.

3. Trashcatchers Carnival

Transition Tootings' Trash catchers Carniva has been well documented within Transition and the event was fundraised for and drawn together by Lucy Neal who is a longstanding International arts producer and bringing together of people across difference to experience what communitas, (‘Intense community spirit, a feeling of great social solidarity, equality, and togetherness, characteristic of people experiencing liminality together'). Here’s Lucy talking about role of arts at this crucial moment in time.

4. A Little Patch of Ground

I am fortunate to have been involved in producing A Little Patch of Ground, an intergenerational food growing and performance project now in its third year. Over the years we’ve collaborated with artists, arts organisations, local councils, schools and with local Transition Groups in Totnes, Liverpool and Doncaster. The last Patch of Ground in 2011 twinned two groups in London’s East End and in Totnes. Inspired by Joanna Macy’s cycle of change; gratitude, pain for the world, seeing with new eyes and going forth, this five month community project involves participants in exploring issues about climate change, food production, resource depletion and interconnection.

5. Kitchen Ritual

Miche Fabre Lewin’s deep work with food, ritual and feasting. 

6. MMM – Mission Models Money

MMM – Mission Models Money is a network of thinkers and doers whose vision is to transform the way the arts use their resources.

Their two latest programmes, re.volution and re.think are dedicated towards building the resilience of creative practitioners and organisations and realising art and culture's leadership role in tackling the huge global challenges we face. Look out for the seed bank with projects that could be on your doorstep.


Platform have been developing pioneering work at the intersection of ecology and social justice for over 20 years. They combine the transformatory power of art with the tangible goals of campaigning, the rigour of in-depth research with the vision to promote alternative futures.

8. Citizen Power Programme

Citizen Power Programmebased in Peterborough, looking at how citizen power can and should shape civic and democratic renewal. Based on theoretical argument, action research and policy analysis, the programme aims to develop ideas and practical policy solutions for cultivating civic activism and reinvigorating decision-making in the UK. The programme includes Sustainable Citizenship: the role of behavioural economics in combating climate change and Arts and Social Change: the role of the arts in creating a sense of belonging and imagination in a place.

9. Happy Museum project

Happy Museum project is designed to encourage museums to think about what it is to be a sustainable, high well-being organisation. The project aims to create a community of practice in UK museums in response to the economic and environmental challenges currentlyly facing us. Maybe local transition initiatives could link up with their local museum…

10. University of the Trees

University of the Trees/Shelley Sacks and Hildegard Kurt and their work in the field of social sculpture which derives in part from the work of Joseph Beuys, who proposed and stressed the need for an expanded conception of art in which human beings - in their inherent freedom, creativity and transformative power - are potentially artists.

Ruth Ben-Tovim

Photos: I Disagree, I Told a Story, Precious Life all by Encounters; Map of ideas by Simeone Jaeger; Feast on the Bridge by Tim Mitchell; Trasncatchers Carnival, Tooting; Little Patch of Ground by Dave Harbott