On Tuesday I travelled to the University of York for the Arts and Humanities Research Council‘s first Common Ground Event. As you will see from the link, it was an exceptionally ambitious and dynamic programme, which could have been spread across a Glastonbury Festival‘s worth of days (but without the mud, dubious dancing, and Coldplay).
While Common Ground was jam-packed with genuinely interdisciplinary and collaborative work, it was a little overwhelming, and I wondered what the end result could be, on balance, I did enjoy the day. (Also, I could have tried harder to promote my session – something I’m not amazing at. But the four participants who came were fab.)
The first session that I went to is the one that has stuck with me. Entitled ‘Every One’s Right: Retrospectives and Prospects on Urban Common Land’, this session wasn’t really five manifestos but five perspectives on what common land is. (Nothing wrong with that though. Made for a fascinating insight.) This discussion featured different types of presentation Andrew Ballantyne (on the privilege of the Commoners – how land owned by many is now owned by the few), Emma Cheatle (Town Moor landscape, chairing discussion), John Clarke (poetry inspired by the post-industrial Yorkshire coast), Rachel Hammersley (a dialogue with Emma on Thomas Spence), Al Oswald (on Town Moor as a heterotopia), and Alessandro Zambelli (a film and performance piece that traced a journey and thawted tresspass of a £14,000,000 mansion on St George’s Hill – the site of the Diggers, ironic link here). The presentations were accompanied by a video by a sound and landscape piece by Dr Emma Cheatle that traced Town Moor in Newcastle. I felt that it was very much a session on place – how we use it, share it, lose it, subvert it, celebrate neglect, try to improve it. In the words of Leveller, and leader of the Diggers, Jerrard Winstanly: “the poorest man hath as much as a title and just right to the Land as the richest man”. Stand up now diggers all!
I’m a big fan of non-hierarchical organising; back in the direct action days there was a great deal of it. (Jenny Pickerill explains the genesis of the fluidity of activist decision-making really well in the introduction of: ‘Cyberprotest: Environmental Activism Online‘). The ethos behind Common Ground, albeit less spiky, was to create:
“an opportunity to share knowledge and expertise, to establish new networks and projects, to be inspired, and to further develop the case for the importance of arts and humanities research”
However, there seemed to be an assumption of how this DIY approach would work, how involvement/democratic input could be assured. Perhaps this could have been better explained, or demonstrated. But a celebration and “market place” of shared resources and information was very cool.
The Commons on the Day
The Ron Cooke Hub is an ace building; I loved the lake pod where I ran my workshop from. I did find it a little hard to hear some of the SteamPunk GameJam session, so perhaps acoustics could have been better. However, if a genuine attempt at blurring/breaking the boundaries between academy and non-academy, perhaps a venue that is not a university may be if not more appropriate, more in keeping with trying to break down those town/gown barriers.
I do hope this event happens next year, I think it’s a brilliant idea but perhaps it needs some consensus decision-making in order to shape it, ensure fluidity, and engender an exciting form of democracy and knowledge-sharing. Perhaps a festival: outdoors, not at a university!
Rochdale and the Commons
So, the pertinent question is: what’s this got to do with my work in Rochdale? How does it affect my own creative responses and my work with community groups in the borough? I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how land is delineated in maps, and, recently, how these powers are challenged without sounding either pompous or coming across as paranoid. My work and study in this area is developing my own expertise as a researcher and writer.
One of the problems about being “expert” – be it in sharing creative writing skills or in research – is that it can create a power-imbalance; where, perhaps, the “expert” is perceived as having privileged knowledge. How we overcome this can be done in various ways:
- that the “expert” recognises the community they work with are the “experts” in their local area – that sharing ideas in an open, honest, and humble way is key to building relationships, trust, heck, perhaps even developing everyone’s sense of humour!
- that race, gender, ability, background, socioeconomic status, or sexuality should never be assumed. (And here is where I admit that I’m not the expert; there’s lots more on this by people who’re more knowledgeable than me on this such as: bell hooks on sexism, black liberation, & feminism, and the LitCritGuy on “invisible people”.)
- that perhaps we (“experts”, those from the academy etc.) could listen more often than speak and are gentle, and kind, with our rebuttals and critique. (This may be a wider wish for humanity!)
I have felt, and still feel, privileged and humbled as many of the people that I work with and have met in the borough have treated me with kindness. But I feel that it’s important to state that even experts don’t always have the answer; our common ground, perhaps, is that we continue to learn everyday, that’s what’s being human is about.