Take a look at this excellent course about activating yourself and your communities via creative engagement.  The course brings together three unique thinkers and practitioners: Ruth Ben-Tovim, Lucy Neal and Anne-Marie Culhane.  See below and click the links for more info...


The Art of Invitation – Creative Engagement for Ourselves and Our Communities


Encounters is delighted to be back leading this course Monday, 9 November, 2015 – Friday, 13 November, 2015. Last year a dynamic and inspiring group of participants gathered at the world renowned Schumacher College and we look forward to a similarly creative experience this year.

Are you looking for effective ways to bring groups of people together and maintain their involvement?
Are you trying to encourage people to respond to the social and ecological challenges of our time and become active in the world?
Would you like to explore more creative ways of engaging communities?
Do you want to find out about inspirational ways to reach and include more diverse groups of people?
Do you want to learn about the craft of making things happen?
Would you like to explore how making art together can accelerate change?

Activating participation is an essential craft, and the course leaders looked at a range of approaches to invite people to Join In. Participants on the course learnt by doing and left having developed their own plans, activities and skills for change for their own projects, organisations and communities.

The course facilitator’s work spans creative projects in formal and informal spaces, working with communities, activists, politicians, policy makers, service providers, educators, seeking to develop and create change.

Join us for a week of creative exploration. Each day will include sessions focusing on inspiring case studies, specialist workshops and presentations from contributors. This will be combined with practical group work, celebration, solo reflection time, and 1:1 mentoring to develop your own practice and process.

Participants are encouraged to bring their own project ideas, plans and experiences as material to develop within the course. At the end of the week you will come away with new creative tools for change that can resource you and the projects, communities and organisations that you are involved with and give you the confidence and skills to create new ones.

Ruth Ben-Tovim
Ruth is the Creative Director of Encounters. As a professional artist and consultant, she has used the transformational power of the arts to work with thousands of people over the last 20 years. Encounters specialise in designing and delivering tailor made participatory arts projects in arts, education, community, environmental and regeneration contexts.

With Encounters Ruth has produced and co-produced hundreds of intimate and immediate participatory interventions that inspire creativity, dialogue and exchange between people of all ages and cultures. The organisation works with people to unearth their own imaginative and instinctive power to shift how they see the world and their place within it. Encounters associates co-author evolving artworks with people of all ages and cultures, mapping and collecting stories and other evidence of everyday life which are then retold to a wider community through, exhibitions, public art, performance, publications and uniquely tailor made events.

Anne-Marie Culhane
Anne-Marie initiates, catalyses, designs and delivers creative and environmental arts projects, education, events and happenings and co-devised Encounters’ Patch of Ground strand of work.

Her work includes residencies, commissions, activism, education work and projects across disciplines. It embodies all aspects of project co-ordination, mentoring, advisory and research.

Anne-Marie works with the visual arts, installation, dance/movement, performance, film and words and has exhibited, performed and undertaken residencies in UK, Europe and Asia. I have set up a number of longer term cross-disciplinary projects in the UK. She draw inspiration from the cycles of nature and seasons; permaculture (learning from natural systems); environmental and ecological concerns or questions and listening and responding to people, landscapes and particular sites (urban or rural).

Lucy Neal
Is Author of Playing for Time: Making Art As If The World Mattered, a practical handbook of creative practice to inspire transition to more ecological age which was a collaboration with 60 artists, community activists and writers. Lucy is also a Happiness Associate working on The Happy Museum Project and a core member, initiator of Transition Town Tooting. She co-led C40 Case For Optimism – with Teo Greenstreet and Hilary Jennings. An evolving space for artists responding creatively to global challenges. Lucy is Chair of Phakama and Vice Chair English Folk Dance and Song Society.

Schumacher College brings together leading international thinkers, activists and practitioners, for small-group transformative learning experiences. There is a focus on interactive, participatory and transformative learning for sustainable living.

For more information about Schumacher College and to book visit the Schumacher College website.

Project Flyer

'Three Years/Three Years' by Anthony Schrag...

This is a reblog of a post by participatory artist Anthony Schrag that's incredibly important to our notions of defining our field(s) of practice(s) not as 'a community of one voice' but an alliance of multiple voices. Many of us share Anthony's frustrations about professionalisation and attempts to impose a false hegemony on socially engaged/ participatory arts...

Serendipity or coincidence meant that the three years of my PhD coincided with the three years of the Artworks Pathfinder projects, and, being in Scotland, I have attended all three Scottish conferences. I grew with them and, like youthful playmates who find themselves staring into a unknown future abyss together, I find myself at a personal and professional juncture, similar, perhaps to the state of the Artworks project finds itself now. As I am now also in the stages of wrapping up my research into notions of participation, I too feel the looming ‘what next?’ question sidle up to me at vulnerable moments.

Even though I occupy a position external to Artworks Scotland, over the past three years I felt very welcomed into the discourse it espoused, and that sense of inclusivity has been gratefully accepted. Over time, I’ve also noticed my own shift from a novice outsider with high hopes, to an invited angry provocateur, to a jaded dissenter, hopelessly clinging on to notions that things will change. I now find myself wondering how the Artworks project has influenced me and I have influenced it, and how my future will be different once I finish my research: will that future have been altered because of Artworks? What do I do with my own inquiry into participation, now that formal structure of support is ending? Do the questions that we asked just fade away? How can it have meaning? And, as the conference drew to close yesterday and we were left ruminating on a professional ‘what next?’ I had my own thoughts about the day – and the future.

Cynics and Sing-a-longs: The choice to include mostly theatre/music folks in the presentations is probably an apt representation of the populations involved in ‘participatory works.’ However, more numbers do not necessarily equal a unified whole: such is the problem with ‘democracy’ – the loudest and largest get to speak for the lesser few. This does not bode well for a ‘community of practice’. David Camlin’s Dialogical Sing-a-long went down a storm for some, but for myself and an embarrassed few (mostly visual artists, it must be said) we sat cringing at our tables, rolling our eyes at such ‘kumbaya’ tactics. Its funny to consider now, but it reveals a deeper dissonance that has still yet been unpicked: the difference in intentions and methodologies that do not link us. Yes, we are, as Susanne Burns suggested in her closing speech, all linked by matters of ‘collaboration’ but the focus on our similarities at the cost of our differences is highly problematic. It would be equivalent to reducing doctors down to ‘those interested in hygiene’, or physicists to ‘those that use mathematics’. That we are linked purely by ‘collaboration’ is possibly too simplistic. Yes, we do all collaborate, its true: but things also draw us apart, and it is this difference – this ‘how are we unlike each other’ that never seems to be given enough attention. This becomes problematic if we’re being presented as a unified whole of ‘participatory practitioners’.

Internals and Externals: Too often in these sorts of conferences, we rely on those we know and the conversation becomes a bit incestuously deformed. Should the conference co-ordinator also be speaking about her research? I personally think not: it warps the findings to be quite limited. Often, we stay in this narrow band because it is easiest when planning, but if indeed the project is about the breadth of participation, I wonder to what extent the research is skewed because we have invited the right kind of people to attend. That ‘right’ kind of people aligns with ‘open-space’ seminars, but the issue with those is that it becomes justification for a narrow focus; for not doing the hard work of getting the wrong sort of people involved. What of those artists who could not attend because they couldn’t afford the entry fee; those participants who had to go to work; those dissenters who had awful experiences with participatory artists; those gallery administration staff who had to stay and open the buildings? The grist and meat of participation comes in the minutia of projects, and the same is true for research: what have we missed by not seeking out other voices? Are we patting ourselves on the back while ignoring those outside the room?

Language and Voice: I am amazed, after 3 years, that we are still no where nearer to defining what we mean by ‘participation’. 60% of me thinks this is a good thing. I would hate to reduce the diversity of practice into narrow headings and definitions. The other 40% gets filled with a vibratory rage that we use a single word to talk about many very, very different things, with very different intentions and desired outcomes. Is it correct to elide applied participatory works that hope to change and benefit communities with the transgressive, abusive-like works of Santiago Sierra, for example? If I believe it is ethically problematic to assume that participatory projects should ‘help’ other people, should I be thrown-together who feels their work should have an ameliorative impact? Education and participation are still confounded, despite meaning – and intending – very different things; No distinction is made on those that undertake ‘participation’ as paid work to supplement their practice, and those whose entire artistic career is participatory; there remains no challenge to the professionalisation of an industry vs the call for artists to be professional.

This latter, perhaps is the biggest hurdle for me: is there a difference between a professional participatory artist and a professional artist? Creative Scotland has released a report that grew from the Artworks project titled: Developing a Foundation for Quality Guidance for arts organisations and artists in Scotland working in participatory settings. Does, I wonder, Painting have a Foundation for Quality Guidance? Or Sculpture? Or Video art? In what ways are we hemming ourselves in with this professionalisation? In conferences, this lack of a specific definition is perhaps quite useful, because we can be dialogic about meanings: we can argue and unravel what we mean and discover our differences. We can speak to each other. The problem is comes when these conferences lead to reports: reports that are not able to unravel this diversity of meaning and intention because their purpose is to distill meaning down into bite-sized mouthfuls. These reports – especially because the practice is so new and many do not know much about it – are often then are taken as fact: the research is taken as the be-all-and-end-all of information into participatory settings. They will, no doubt, be implemented as policy.

And this when the ‘what next?’ becomes frightening. Because, if I do not fit into the categories of the assumed notion of participation, do I cease to exist as a participatory artist? What if I have a different notion of quality then the framework of the report? Am I then a bad participatory practitioner? If the written documents are not clear about this lack of a cohesive and shared notion of quality; of the diversity of practice; of differing ethical frameworks; of the multiplicity of intentions; of the plethora of desires we all have in ‘working with people’ then they are bound to exclude. If we are indeed trying to come together in a “community of one voice” how can we build it into a continuum that really can accommodate the gamut of practices?

For my part, I think this must come in a recognition – in written language – that the practice is not fixable into one thing: I know this is often said, but it is not expressed nor truly communicated. It is not explicitly shown in the conferences and reports that it is a practice which incorporates those that wish to help and those that wish to transgress; those who desire a political imperative and those that want to entertain; those that want to align themselves to social work and those that find such a proposition patronising and ethically problematic; those that merely undertake participatory projects as it supplements their non-collaborative practice, and those whose very ethos is a co-authorial approach. We cannot be lazy and hope that these differences are implicit and understood. They are not. This is evidenced by the very discussions we are still having – after 3 years – about what it all means to work with people. If we, as a community of one voice, cannot collectively agree on this continuum of practice, how can we ever assume others will understand?

Submit your new or existing blog posts, essays, etc. for publication on our blog

We're asking anyone who would like to share their thoughts new or old about socially engaged, ecologically engaged, participatory or activist arts with us so we can, in turn, (re)publish them here to stimulate open debate.

The posts can be about your practice, thoughts about the field, politics of our practice, academic research... anything you feel is relevant!

Please email us docs or links at and we'll publish quickly...

Look forward to hearing from you!

Meeting Arts Council England about recognising our socially engaged/ ecologically engaged/ transitionary practice

We met with Arts Council England on Tuesday 16th December to discuss recognition of our work as a unique form of artistic practice.  Alison Clark-Jenkins, Director for ACE North and for Combined Arts, kindly agreed to meet us along with some of her working group looking at 'participatory' practice.  Stephen Pritchard attended the meeting in person, whilst Bridget McKenzie and Lucy Neal took part via video conference from ACE London and Ruth Ben-Tovim took part via Skype.  We were very positively received.  This blog post is an overview for our supporters and followers about the key points raised.

We talked about the broad scope of our practice and our various approches.  We explained that the field shared a focus on people, process, ethics, social justice, sometimes politics, place, communities, ecological concerns, etc.  We pointed out that we felt largely ignored and misunderstood by many within UK arts institutions.  We also pointed out that our practice was often suspicious of arts institutions and state intervention but that we frequently worked in interdisciplinary ways.  We explained that we tended towards independence and that our work was often self-organised.  ACE discussed our practice in terms of initiatives such as Creative People and Places and Paul Hamlyn Foundation's ArtWorks.  We pointed out that they, along with outreach and arts education, were focused on audience development, continued professional development and participation.  We explained that 'engaged arts' was always issue-based.  We also noted that these initiatives were not artist-led.  We were keen to also explain that our field of practice must be conceived of as an art form as valid as any other and that our work aimed at high experiential as well as high aesthetic values whilst aiming to address issues of social justice.

There were areas that ACE wanted to explore further and better understand.  They asked us if we would be willing to participate with them to develop these areas and to continue to seek to better define our field of practice.  The aim remains to recognise our work as a unique art form.  We will all play a part in this ongoing dialogue with Arts Council England but it was agreed that Ruth Ben-Tovim and Stephen Pritchard would be the initial points of contact with ACE.

We suggested that ACE might initially look at Culture Shift and their interesting 'Gablik test' as a starting point for understanding our practice.  We also recommended various US groups such as Creative Time, A Blade of Grass, Open Engagement, etc.

We have agreed to meet again in January and will soon be arranging this with ACE.  When we know the date, we will be contacting everyone to ask for comments and ideas about how to progress our discussions and call for recognition.

This is a very brief overview of what was a very positive meeting with Arts Council England.  We welcome any comments and ideas!

Warm festive wishes and more soon...

What's in a name?

Great to see a such a fundamental first question for our new blog from Genevieve Rudd.  So many ways to attempt to describe our practice.  Perhaps it’s important?  Perhaps it doesn’t matter?

I was wondering if anyone had any thoughts on the title of our practice - participatory, socially-engaged, collaborative, community arts… ? Is there an actual tangible difference in the work depending on the name, or do each describe the same process?

I personally use ‘community artist’ to describe my job role, because I work in the community and do art. For me, it’s a simple and accessible phrase, even if it is a phrase that is less commonly used.

What do you call yourselves?

Look forward to connecting with others working in the field on this new platform!
Genevieve, @gruddphoto