The usual tools don’t work: thoughts on working small

By Siddharth Khajuria & Razia Jordan

Life Rewired Hub (Barbican Level G Programme), photo by Mark-Blower

Introduction

What’s the role we can play in convening conversations people want to have now, and creating moments of community?

This is the question we’re exploring, both through this piece of writing and as two producers at the Barbican centre. If you don’t know it, the Barbican is a labyrinthine complex of arts venues in London. The building comprises a concert hall, two art galleries, two theatres, and three cinemas — each of which are programmed by their own team of art form specialists.

Between these venues lie a series of public foyers where the majority of the work the two of us produce finds a home. In the foyers, our ‘Level G Programme’ of installations and public events sits side-by-side with the multitude of communities who rely on these spaces: freelancers working on laptops, students revising, parents and babies playing, audiences rushing around with coffees and beers before concerts and conferences… It’s a busy, messy, well-used, and occasionally chaotic environment.

We’ve worked together since October 2016 as part of a small team of four: the Barbican Incubator. This relatively new team merges cross-organisational policy and strategy functions with public programming responsibilities. This context feels important to mention, because the curious nature of our team means that we have had the luxury of a remit which: invited us to question organisational structures; allowed us to explore what specific values for our work might be; and enabled us to experiment with creating new types of public programme for our institution.

As producers interested in how an arts organisation like ours might fulfil a broader civic function, we’ve sought to convene conversations people want to have now. It’s a process which has encouraged us to explore broader definitions of “cultural activity” and “cultural / arts producing”, be it through experiments in format, ceding control of decisions to others, or examining the voices we seek to platform. It’s worth noting that neither of us have been freelance arts producers, or practicing artists. We’ve primarily worked in a variety of institutional contexts, ranging from small cultural organisations through to large national ones, and it’s from these institutional points of view that we are writing.

In thinking about how to co-write this piece, we decided to create it through a series of conversations between the two of us. Much of the work we do together revolves around open-ended discussions with each other and collaborators, and it felt right for this work to be a product of that kind of conversation. On one occasion, we invited two of our colleagues to take part in a longer, facilitated discussion around the subjects of ‘making space’, dialogues and friendship[1]. This unearthed and articulated much of the thinking which has informed this piece of writing, particularly around questions of values-driven work, safe spaces at work to test ideas, and ways of finding your allies.

Uncertainty

Most of the audiences who encounter our work do so in the Barbican’s foyers. In the past we’ve often called it ‘public space’, but in our recent conversations we’ve come to feel that this isn’t quite right. A genuinely public space, like a town square — with all of its distractions and noise and freedom — seems to encourage art which reaches more for spectacle and monument. Our space feels less like a piazza and perhaps more like a civic space, a place where you can lean towards the private if you like (e.g. sit on a laptop working) or take part in something more social. It’s appealing for both these uses because it’s one or two levels removed from the street and, importantly, there’s no obligation to buy anything.

To realise public programme and installations here, we have found that a producer needs to put down nearly all of the tools they might use in a traditional gallery or performance space. Despite forming part of an arts centre, these foyers aren’t an arts ‘venue’ in the usual sense of the word. And we haven’t perfected a formula or approach for what kinds of projects work here. A unique element of surprise and, to be honest, chaos, seems to come with each project when working in this environment.

Consequently, there’s an extent to which we’re having to step back and be OK with some uncertainty, with the fact that encounters with the ideas in our projects will often be accidental or partial. Building a level of exploration or discovery into how the audience might experience a piece of work becomes interesting, and perhaps necessary, because of this. For example, Unclaimed (an installation about our experiences of ageing) took the form of a surreal lost property office in which audiences picked up objects to discover — often to their surprise — multimedia narratives hidden in old shoes, keys, children’s toys, and much else.

As well as actively responding to this co-owned social context, a significant aspect of what we are doing is making space for small things within the very big place we work. In contrast to much of the Barbican’s programme — which often invites hundreds or thousands of people to experience a piece of work together — we’re often creating shelters or containers for work which might only be for 15 or 50 people at a time.

It’s hard to do something messy or adventurous for the first time at large scale. For us, the energy and spirit which experimental, small-scale work brings into the building is well-suited to foyer spaces, encouraging people to seek out pockets for privacy or intimate experiences. Just as importantly, it is easier to respond to something: be it a new idea or a recent event in the news. A producer or maker can take different kinds of risks when they’re not faced with the financial pressures of the Barbican’s 1,000 seat theatre or 2,000 seat concert hall.

Why is it important or useful for a big venue to have room for small things too? There’s something about the mix of risks: there’s no shortage of adventure in the main art form programme, but a smallness of scale also encourages a different spirit of experimentation, be it through inventing formats, choosing unlikely collaborators, or ceding programmatic control.

One recent example was a project called Soundhouse. This entailed the creation of small ‘listening cinema’ in the Barbican’s foyers — an intriguing wooden box you could step inside to find a dimmed room with soft carpet to listen to a loop of various audio work. It was curated by two independent producers (Eleanor McDowall and Nina Garthwaite) and this micro-space only had four swinging chairs in it and room for 10–15 people at a time. There was an accompanying events programme that, because of the small scale, had a sense of intimacy and unpredictability about it — there was one evening where you were invited to hold eye contact with your neighbour for 30 seconds, an intense thing to do with anyone, let alone a stranger at the Barbican.

Unclaimed, photo by Peter Schiazza

Co-creation

Perhaps because of the co-owned nature of these foyers, the balance of our programme in this space has tilted in favour of co-created work. It’s now rare that we’ll embark on projects where someone is aiming for a fixed outcome from the beginning, or has a rigid idea of what the finished project might look like. Work driven or realised by one intellectual force feels less likely to thrive in the social and unpredictable context we work in. So, we’ve found ourselves drawn towards projects which come together in a messier and co-owned way.

It’s an approach which also stems from an interest in the possibilities which open up when encouraging an ‘unlikely community’ to come together.[1] By this, we mean people with different insights, experience and ways of looking at the world who gather around a central question and jointly create a public project — often one that feels like it only came into existence because of the particular dynamics of the conversation between the group which created it. Ideally, no individual in the group could have made the project by themselves within the context they usually work, be it research, policy, art, advocacy, or another field.

Diverse project groups are exciting — the conversations within them feel particularly fruitful and exploratory. And for us there is a connection to the fact of being non-white producers in a predominantly white sector. As any producer does, we have blind spots and biases. We’re attempting to be inclusive through our approaches and methods, encouraging a range of voices (often marginalised ones) to be heard within our projects and programme. We hope to keep learning and testing ideas, and we’re striving to be reflective about our own power in relation to the contexts we’re working in.

Responsiveness

What, then, is the relationship between this kind of programme and our attempts at making a cultural organisation more responsive? For us, a responsive spirit involves actively talking to people we might not otherwise encounter, and reacting to the conversation which takes place — their insights, knowledge or ideas. We have experienced this in different ways across projects A recent example was our collaboration on the Panic! report and accompanying In Focus symposium — which looked at social class inequalities in the creative industries workforce[2]. It felt important that this project about our sector was led by sociologists who were independent from it, using external data sets with a real intention (both from them and all the partners) to create something distinct. We knew this research and dialogue wouldn’t have been created should we have all looked at the issue separately.

Another connection to responsiveness is our interest in projects which have an unanswered question at their heart. We’re instinctively wary of presenting work which feels definitive, where questions have already been asked and answered before the work makes contact with an audience. So, for us, one measure of whether a project is striking the right tone becomes our ability to sum it up in a question which might resonate with an audience member. Some recent examples from our programme include:

What might ageing be like for me? Or what does the future of ageing look like?

What does it mean to human when technology is changing everything?

What might a ‘cinema’ for audio work be/look like?

Whilst the questions at the heart of a project are rarely answered or tied up, our hope is that many of the people involved — including the audience — might find themselves looking in a different way at a subject they’re interested in.

There is an important connection between this approach, and a discussion about values and worldviews. In order to create a trusting dialogue in a co-created piece of work, we’ve regularly needed early opportunities to talk about the values and (sometimes hidden) agendas which motivate the decisions people make in projects. We deliberately try to make space early on in conversations about values and goals, rather than experience, previous projects, and CVs.

When we’re talking about values in our work, we mean a set of guiding principles and questions that help us develop projects which feel authentic, meaningful and with a particular purpose in mind.

Within the Incubator, a conversation about value was always in the background of our work days — we generally shared the same hopes for contributing to the creation of a broader, more equitable and diverse cultural sector (in the widest sense).

Reflecting on our relationship as a team of four, what stands out is the importance of a conversational space where we could shut the door and process the experiences and feelings of working in an institution — often in ways none of us had felt secure to do before. We wondered together about the unspoken meanings in the meetings we were in, and what kinds of change we could effect. This was often a place to be honest about everyday frustrations of work, but also a place to imagine radically different outcomes of the situations we were finding ourselves in. In these conversations, there was room for uncertainty and change, encouragement to test things, and evolve thoughts over time. We clearly made ourselves vulnerable enough early on to identify commonalities and shared values, but if we’re honest some of it was luck — we happened to become friends, which meant the stakes were always higher as we felt protective of each other and the work we were making.

We no longer work together in that exact way now (through job changes and new priorities), and you can’t count on becoming instant friends with all of your colleagues, or even hope to share many values with them. Perhaps you can actively be on the lookout for allies, people to make you feel less lonely, and to help you live outside of your head at work. A particular challenge in roles charged with changing the way an established organisation works is resisting the urge to cast yourself as an outsider or rebel or enlightened one. We have, and continue to, struggle with striking a balance between wanting to make change, whilst looking after ourselves in the face of the friction which invariably accompanies work like ours.

Reflecting on the difficulty of striking that balance, something which springs to mind is the meeting point (or, for some, collision) between your personal values and those of the wider organisation. This interaction — between your worldview and that of the place you work for — feels like an ongoing one: things get refined, added to, and gradually become something you might call your professional values.

A productive question to keep asking ourselves is this one: “what does the organisation want to say or see happen, and how can I do something that still feels authentic to who I am as a cultural producer?” In thinking about this subject, we wondered if it would be productive to directly address one of the questions in the Making Space brief: What are the questions which inform, and the processes and values which define your practice?

It was clear that these questions exist in our heads in various shapes — but it took some work to extract them, as some were much less clearly formed than others. We thought it might be helpful to share a selection of those questions which emerged for us. These are things which inform our decision-making around the Barbican’s Level G Programme; we don’t think these are fixed ideas, but they’re some of the questions pre-occupying us at the moment:

Life Rewired Hub (Barbican Level G programme), photo by Mark Blower

Early considerations

Why do we think this project should exist or happen? What’s the question it’s asking?

Whose voice is being platformed and why? Which voices are missing?

Is there enough room in the project for doubt, vulnerability, unexpected consequences?

Does it make us question our own experiences, values, processes, knowledge? What are our biases here?

Will this project help us evolve our production or curatorial approaches?

How it’s being made, and who it’s being made for

Is this collaboration bringing an ‘unlikely’ community of people together?

Who will be attracted to this and why? What about this will persuade people to come?

Is this allowing an unlikely or surprising experience to happen for audiences?

Will it be fun or meaningful or useful to the people who interact with it?

Will there be a productive friction of any kind between the makers / participants / audiences?

How might this collaboration challenge our normal way of working?

Will I be able to explain what this project is to my friends and family?

The organisational and sector-wide context

Is this sympathetic to the complicated, co-owned context of the Barbican’s foyers and our organisation?

Might this challenge people to think about the role of culture in different ways?

Is there a reason why we think this should happen here?

Are there internal allies we can reach out to?

Are we being realistic and fair in what we expect of others in achieving this?

Throughout the discussions the two of us had about Making Space, one word kept cropping up: conversation. Great conversations can be nourishing and they’re almost always messy, in good and bad ways. They are full of connections, signals and misunderstandings and when you have an authentic and exciting one in your professional world, you notice it.

In trying to be useful convenors for conversations that people want to have now, we’re making space for researchers, makers, audiences, thinkers, and audiences to talk about something they share an interest in.

So much of doing this relies on preserving a fruitful ‘uncertainty’ in a collaboration. In practice, however, this can be fraught with risk. How do you avoid drifting into a space which becomes confusing or unsettling for your partners? This is especially important considering the power imbalance in the room that comes with the fact that we’re often (as the Barbican) in possession of or in control of budgets and the power to give something a platform or not. And with our colleagues, it is challenging to sustain a nimble “let’s-just-see-where-this-conversation-goes” spirit with the needs of a marketer, fundraiser, or communicator for timely and clear project information.

These challenges are, to a significant extent, still unresolved. We’re attempting to make space for a deliberately experimental, small-scale, responsive, dialogue-led approach to cultural production in an organisation and sector that — in their physical and institutional architectures — weren’t really designed for it.

As a result, we’re still creating the space (conversational, budgetary, physical) for our programme at the same time as producing the work itself. There’s something productive about having to build everything as you go, but it can be tiring too. And some of this sentiment lies at the root of writing the brief for this project: a period of nearly three years producing at a relatively intense pace left us in need of a reflective space. As we began to reflect, we noticed some common threads woven through our work, many of which we’ve explored in this piece of writing.

We realised that if we were navigating these questions, and needing a space for reflecting on them, most likely others were probably doing the same. We wondered if there was a device we might manufacture for enabling a small group of us to do so together? To make ourselves accountable, doing this project with a group of people we don’t know, working in contexts and countries different to ours, felt like an interesting route to take.

Where would starting the conversation take us? There are definitely other routes we could have taken but this felt in tune with our approaches to work at this moment in time. There was, and still is, something scary about having to put all of this in writing; we want to get better at it, this is a step towards that.

[1] This conversation was between the two of us with Laura Whitticase, Shoubhik Bandopadhyay, and facilitated by Jonathan May.

[2] Regine Basha referred to artist Daniel Bozhkov’s idea of ‘unlikely communities’ in her contribution to As radical, as mother, as salad, as shelter: What should art institutions do now? (Paper Monument, 2018)

[3] The lead authors of the Panic! report were Dr Orian Brook, Dr David O’Brien, and Dr Mark Taylor, you can read the report here. The project partners were Create London, Arts Emergency and the Barbican. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, led by University of Edinburgh and University of Sheffield.

*Making Space essays were commissioned and written in 2019

Razia Jordan and Siddharth Khajuria are producers at the Barbican, a Brutalist arts centre in the City of London which is home to a concert hall, two theatres, three cinemas and two galleries. They work together to develop and deliver a cross-arts programme of talks, events, installations, residencies and research projects — with a focus on exploring the Barbican’s spaces as a site for convening conversation and facilitating unexpected arts and social experiences.

Razia is from Birmingham and studied photography. She joined the Barbican in late 2016 from Create London, an arts organisation where she produced a range of socially engaged arts projects across London including helping to create new community centres and supporting artist-led businesses. She has previously worked in learning teams at Chisenhale Gallery, Roundhouse, and Whitechapel Gallery.

Siddharth joined the Barbican in 2012, soon after which he co-produced ‘Hack the Barbican’, a chaotic four-week takeover of the Centre’s public spaces by a self-organised community of 300 people with no central curation. He used to be a producer at the BBC, which he joined as a graduate trainee in 2008. His work at the UK broadcaster included: undercover investigations at Watchdog, producing segments for Woman’s Hour, and event producing the BBC’s activity at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Siddharth’s from London and studied history.

Making Space

Cultural production, its responsiveness to a changing world and role within social and civic life.

British Council Creative Economy

Written by

British Council Creative Economy team. We work with artists, entrepreneurs, and creative communities globally to tackle today’s cultural and social challenges.

Making Space

Making Space is a collection of essays, commissioned and written in 2019, each responding to the question “how can cultural producers become more responsive to an increasingly complex world beyond their walls, and play a stronger role in civic and social life?”

British Council Creative Economy

Written by

British Council Creative Economy team. We work with artists, entrepreneurs, and creative communities globally to tackle today’s cultural and social challenges.

Making Space

Making Space is a collection of essays, commissioned and written in 2019, each responding to the question “how can cultural producers become more responsive to an increasingly complex world beyond their walls, and play a stronger role in civic and social life?”

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store