Next in our series of interviews about the Bradford’s National Museum Project’s research trip to Chicago and Washington DC is, our very own, Helen Graham. Helen co-organised the research trip, working with Elory Rozner (Uncommon Classrooms) to facilitate the Community Co-creation Workshop in Chicago and collaborating with the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access (SCLDA) in Washington DC to exchange ideas with the Smithsonian Institution about the specific issues facing ‘national museums, libraries and archives’ aiming to do place-based work in their local area. Helen shared with me (Lynn Wray) how her experiences on the trip impacted on her own ideas about community co-creative and place-based participatory practices.

LW: Did any one moment from the trip stand out for you? 

HG: I am going to cheat and pick two! I went out earlier than everyone else who joined at different times over the two weeks, so that I could meet those that were coming to the Co-Creation Exchange workshop – as well as others not able to join us – wherever they were based. This ran the gamut of art galleries, museum boardrooms, basements, cafes and freezing cold fields.

Doing this meant I was able to spend a day in South Side Chicago with different organisations – through a tour organised with enormous thought, care and kindness by Erik Peterson at the Smart Museum of Art, including The Oriental Institute of Chicago and the Hyde Park Art Centre. The first of which led to fascinating conversations about the histories of Islam and of Muslim communities in the US. The second of which offered a very inspiring peak into an organisation that is very effectively democratising art practice. I have written more about the ‘Smart Museum of Art’ in my other Chicago blog.

On the same day, we also met Emmanuel Pratt at the Sweet Water Foundation, a place of ‘regenerative neighbourhood development’, a mixture of ‘urban agriculture, art, and education to transform vacant spaces and abandoned buildings into economically and ecologically productive and sustainable community assets that produce engaged youth, art, locally-grown food, and affordable housing’.

The Sweet Water Foundation, Chicago. Photograph courtesy of Helen Graham

Emmanuel is an incredible thinker, doer, teacher, creator – you can find out more about his work here. ‘Sweet Water’ is a powerful mixture of everyday practicalities of growing, cooking and eating together, of aesthetics linking form and function and of critical engagement with the histories of the site. This critical conversation is used to open up the biggest questions around insurance redlining, racism and different and mutating forms of capitalism. What really struck me – and this realisation dawned slowly as Emmanuel made time to show us around – was the holistic and powerful coherence of the project. ‘Coherence’ might sound like an odd and cold thing to note, but it really isn’t. The ‘Sweet Water’ approach is about building an alternative economy and community where the smallest things animate and enliven the biggest ideas. That is the power of coherence. Things and ideas stick together, hold and become stronger as they reinforce each other. Truly amazing work!

The second is related to the Bradford’s National Museum project process. We went as a big group as part of the action research. But I’d been unsure about whether and how to do this. At times in the planning it felt like we’d just made things more and more complex but I am so glad we did. The trip offered a very deep, social and experiential approach to learning together. It has moved our thinking and relationships on in all sorts of ways.

LW: In the workshop at Stony Island Arts Bank we were asked to pick out three words that are important to our practice. Did you come away with any reflections on the way you use language to describe your practice?

Elory Rozner – our wonderful guide to Chicago – and I designed the workshop to work with language, as the medium that connects us but can also limit or constrain our thinking.

Helen Graham and Elory Rozner at the Bradford and Chicago: Community Co-Creation Exchange, 20th November 2019, Stony Island Arts Bank. Photo Credit: Erik Peterson

Through the workshop we generated and expanded our vocabularies and were able to take a more critical stance on the typical language of ‘inclusion’ and ‘participation’. It is so crucial that the language we use doesn’t lock in inequality and unequal power. The worst culprits are words like ‘deprivation’, deficit-orientated language which assume people are in need of something that cultural organisations must provide (and that they should be grateful for!). The most beautiful language generated through the workshop drew attention to the wonder of human beings, thriving, sharing and learning about the world and making it and shaping it together. Which we tried to do in practice through the making of our giant word map!

LW: What were the similarities and differences between Chicago and Bradford? How easy was it to transfer any learning or ideas between these contexts?

What makes something relevant is never about one-to-one applicability, it is about resonance. It is about what sticks and grows. It is about what gets under your skin and stays there. Sometimes close and starting-to-be-assimilated and sometimes as a productive irritant, a reminder. What I hope will transfer to me is generosity. The people we met shared their time, ideas and their work with such a quality of intellectual and social openness. That stays with me very strongly. Like Sweet Water, this is a small thing and the biggest thing. An everyday day thing and a self-conscious political act.

There were also a set of specific ideas I’ve drawn out of being in Chicago – Mission (for what matters now); Value (for alternative economies); Tradition (for innovation); Elevation (for transformation); Mutability (for change); Relationships (for alternative structures) – and have pondered them at greater length in another blog!

LW: Did the trip inspire any new ideas or changes to your practice in Bradford? What will you be taking forward?

It is all very well to seek networks and connection – and this is something we’ve been actively doing through the Bradford’s National Museum Network – but these networks have meaning when they are infused with a greater sense of purpose. This does not, I think, at all need to be a coherent, worked-through mission. It isn’t anything you have to sign up for or even entirely articulate. It is rather a sense that there is a something else that is being reached for. In Chicago this greater purpose might be something like prefiguring much better futures through what you do every day.

Yet, as I write this I realise it might be even more fundamental than that. Maybe it wasn’t about faithfulness to any idea or purpose but to the city itself, to the whole of what Chicago is. Maybe this is really what place-based work is about – a desire and fidelity to the complexities of a place. To be endlessly interested in a city’s (or a district’s) nooks and crannies and all the potentials that lurk in its pasts and might start, at any moment, to spark up from any given conversation.

Posted by:Lynn Wray