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Jonathan Vickery - Students and the city

vickery.jpgJonathan is Associate Professor in the Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies. His central research interest is in the politics and organisation of public culture - policies, institutions, spaces and places, development and democracy.

Jonathan is currently working on an IATL (Institute of Advanced Teaching and Learning) funded project 'Urban Cultural Intermediaries: pedagogy, creativity and the city' (or 'Students and the City' project for short) to explore ways of defining pathways for student activity in the city-pedagogic (the city as learning platform), creative (the city as a framework for culture, design and communication), and public engagement (disseminating research and knowledge). There will be blog updates throughout this term which we will publish links and updates to on these pages.

Part IV: August 2017

Part III: July 2017

Part II: June 2017

Part I: May 2017

Part IV: August 2017

poster.jpgOur project’s last event was Friday 21st July in the Belgrade Theatre’s Patrick Room, and was attended by around 40 of Coventry’s active cultural sector. It featured, among other things, a special address by major urban scholar Professor Malcolm Miles. Called “Cities, Culture and cultures”, Professor Miles addressed the attractions and problems generated by using culture as an instrument of urban development. He had two main messages to the audience: firstly, Coventry’s post-War rebuilding was a magnificent international modernist vision, and motivated above all by “hope”; we need to recapture that motive and that vision. Secondly, cities around the world are all being made to follow trends and models of development, often completely unsuitable, character-less and usually to the exclusion of the real culture and social life of the city. These trends and models not only include new shopping malls and luxury apartments, but “creative quarters” and public art, iconic new museums and popular festivities. But whatever short term gains these trends and models bring, argued Professor Miles, unless a city allows the particularity and uniqueness of its cultural and social life to shape its development.

In this last of four blogs, I will describe the final outcomes of our new project. The outcomes are important objects of learning, as one of the aims of the project was to test the boundaries of pedagogy and student learning in the "live" urban context of the city.

In other words, we have treated Coventry as a learning platform, providing a range of opportunities for public engagement and cultural participation. Our particular concern was to discover various ways in which students could engage with the city, and so expand the learning outcomes of the module 'Culture and Social Innovation'. I had been running this module (or variations on it) for many years, finding ways in which students can convert their theoretical learning into professional practice by organising public cultural events in the city. These events were explicitly to be the result of research on the city, and explicitly the result of a creative methodology. For example, this year, the students used "photourbanism" (visual research using photography and film); "cultural mapping" (understanding the distribution and interrelation of cultural activities throughout the city) and the "curating the city" approach (a term used for a form of public exhibition that takes the city as its subject, and uses the city itself as the “exhibit” or work of art).

photo_2.jpgIATL funded this project, and they are particularly interested in new approaches to pedagogy - exemplifying an exploration of their aims. These aims are 'interdisciplinarity', 'inclusiveness, internationalisation and diversity', 'student leadership', 'open-space learning', and 'student as researcher'. A few of IATL's aims were obviously intrinsic to the project from the start, by virtue of being in the city. The latter three, 'student leadership', 'open-space learning', and 'student as researcher', were demonstrated when the student group had been briefed and trained to operate in the city with a research agenda; they were to create a high profile event for the city's renowned Positive Images Festival.

The Positive Images Festival is, apparently, the largest festival of “multiculturalism” (the term has now been supplanted by “diversity”) in Europe. It offers a perfect framework for a largely international student group to explore 'inclusiveness, internationalisation and diversity'. This was no flakey undertaking. The students’ workload was broad and rigorous -- they had to conduct research on the cultural life of the city, and in a way that could be exhibited and relevant to both its urban development and the current social diversity of its public. In short, we were attempting to innovate a form of public engagement rarely attempted - a research exhibition. There are all kinds of exhibitions that exhibit information and knowledge; our aim, however, was to generate research and then creatively convert that research into “art”. It was not an exhibition of works of art - still less, didactic objects that illustrated or communication fragments of information – it was an art exhibition that communicated knowledge, through visual experience. The students entitled it “Welcome Home”, and used various objects carried around by people not at home (immigrants, refugees and the “home-less”) as the material for their exploration on place, belonging and identity.

The students' research was interdisciplinary - as it combined various qualitative methods (like participant observation or group discussion) as well as policy research, particularly on the city's cultural, community and urban policies. The significant point about these three separate policy fields - cultural, community and urban - is that when conducting interdisciplinary cultural research, they are not actually separate realities at all. You cannot separate the experience of the city into culture, social and the urban environment of the city "itself". In fact, what is the city "itself"? Professor Malcolm Miles, in his public lecture, started with a question: What is a city? What do we expect of cities? Why have they produced most of the important cultural, social and political achievements?

Before we began our project, many of our students would call Coventry “dull”, “grey”, “dangerous” and “unfriendly”. They thought they were truly "seeing" the city. By the end of the project, which demanded their personal investment in social and cultural engagement in the city, they were transformed. The city was now a fascinating place, full of surprises, contradictions and paradoxes, differences and challenges. All of the students experience of the city was transformed by our research, particularly artist Kate Hawkins and her "Walking the City" cultural tour, along with Chris Maughan's Food Union tour, and, of course, my own architectural tour. Cities are basically the interactions between its people (and not all of these people belong, or are residents or even citizens).

The students' research was also "inclusive" in the sense that one of our tests was to see how far we could "open" a module to other kinds of participants (and so model a form of cultural participation as a research strategy).This was not easy, and started with drawing up contractual frameworks that took into account the learning, social and legal implications of involving non-enrolled people in the module. What transpired was a low-risk and place-based research exchange, supplemented by students from other courses. Critical points in the participation was two events we held to extrapolate and discuss the issues emerging in the module - reflective occasions, where students could get a broader view on what they were doing. The first of these was an open seminar in Coventry Artspace offices, in Eaton House (next to the railway station). The second of these was in Fargo Village. This taught us of the importance in creating other spaces within the project - spaces of reflection and dialogue with others, as well as spaces of research and learning.In a different form, this principle emerged at the very start of the module. I knew that we required a separate event to discuss the implications of the research exhibition, and not just an opening "view" of the exhibition itself. As it happened, the opening viewing on Thursday 22nd June was worthwhile: around 30 people listened to the students opening and introducing the exhibition, followed by a talk on arts and development -- by Institute of Advanced Studies Visiting International Fellow, Professor John Clammer. The following night, the students had organised a special and more intense event -- this time with a number of performances and a panel of guests discussing the issues raised by the exhibition. It was attended by organisers of the Positive Images Festival as well as Coventry Migrant and Refugee Centre. It was a great evening. It was a great project. Over the summer I will be writing a report, and thinking on the value and transformative experiences lying in wait for next year’s students – who will find that Coventry is not what they thought, and the city is a space of infinite creative possibilities.

Part III: July 2017

image2.jpgOur project of student engagement with the city did not come to an end with the end of the summer term. Many of the students (particularly MA and PhD students) are still here, and are still following up on the many opportunities presented to them by our project. This is partly because of our great project partners, which included IATL (the funders), IGGY (very interested in Coventry’s young people), the city’s renowned Positive Images Festival, along with many other interested parties, from Warwick's Public Engagement office to Warwick Enterprise to the Coventry Artspace and the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre. Our final event is on Friday 21st of July, where we have invited renowned urban culture scholar, Professor Malcolm Miles (Plymouth School of Arts, Design and Architecture), to start a public debate on the role of culture in cities. The debate is not only aimed at policy makers, arts professionals and organisations; we have aimed to engage with the many non-residents or non-citizens of the city (what we call 'mobile' people -- the visitors, refugees, international students, and so on). Culture is not a luxury; it is intrinsic to our values, identity, our sense of place and belonging, and our motivations and productivity. We need a deeper understanding of a city’s culture and its facility for inclusion and participation outside the usual frameworks of the arts and organisations.

One of the initial aims of the project was to define a space where enterprising students can use cultural research to make an intervention into the city. The object or target of this 'intervention' was a specific policy area -- the city's cultural policies, and current discussions on the strategic use of culture in the city's development. Given the summer term and the precise dates of our project, we were invited to advertise our final events as part of the programme of the Positive Images Festival. And moreover, as of the 14th July (Coventry being shortlisted for the UK City of Culture award), our research is increasingly coinciding with some relevant thinking on the importance of culture to development.

The students were primed for a research engagement with the city by some key consultants and cultural workers we invited to contribute to the project. My last blog indicated how we had secured a space to exhibit the outputs of the student work -- the City Arcadia Gallery -- and while we did not have this for the whole term, it nonetheless provided a concrete framework through which to understand of the social spatialisation of the city's culture, as well as the terms by which the people of Coventry engage with the city's cultural life. In the past, a lot of research on cultural participation has been framed in terms of rights, equalities, access and exclusion. For us, the framework is more a question of the spatial conditions of inclusion itself. So many people do not engage in cultural participation, but this is not because they are excluded. The spaces of culture are simply outside their social orbit. And in Coventry, new spaces for cultural inclusion are few and far between. Our temporary exhibition, therefore, was a non-institutional space of cultural engagement, and the City Arcadia Gallery was particularly appropriate as it is actually a shop faciltiy in the City Arcade. It allowed the student group to attract people passing by, on the street, going about their shopping, or simply wandering aimlessly around.

Students were trained in such acts of engagement by consultant Melissa Eveleigh. Her one day workshop in June (we held in Millburn House) was open to other students and participants from Coventry, and saw Melissa drew on her breadth of experience of TfD (Theatre for Development) practices in Africa. Her workshop focussed on critical issues to do with human development, group communication and how the group could work creatively to engage very different kinds of people in the urban expanse of the city.

At the other end of the spectrum (a few weeks later) technical training was required – training in designing and constructing a public exhibition. To this end we held a Gallery-based open seminar on exhibitions, led by artist and curator Ryan Hughes (provided by Coventry Artspace); following that we held a practice-based session by artist-curator Karolina Korupczynska from the innovative Stryx Gallery in Birmingham. Both these sessions alerted the group to the surprisingly complex series of tasks involved in public events and exhibitions -- from design and aesthetics, to audiences and health and safety, to experience and communication. There's much more to an exhibition than hanging pictures from walls. While the students did exhibit some photographs and paintings, most of the exhibition was comprised of objects donated from various people, representing their lives in the city. The students were beginning to understand the exhibition more in terms of an "installation" or immersive environment, than a standard format exhibition of individual objects.

Professional arts administrator, Catherine Groom, led the group on its final four week journey toward constructing the final exhibition and the public event that was held to discuss the exhibition. All the while Emilia Moniszko from IGGY was shooting and composing film footage (the outcomes will be explained in the next and final blog). At this stage, the student group begun to understand how the passage from research knowledge to social impact (via public engagement) is a complicated one. Of importance to their learning process was the various conversations and meetings held with city organisations, particularly the generous Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre. The week of our final events were coincidentally the week of the national 'Refugee Week' celebrations and awareness-raising events. This allowed the students a greater access to the city's social networks, but also to understand in a more vivid way the urgency of their subject.

Part II: June 2017

These last few weeks have been full of meetings and various trips in and around Coventry, where the students have been networking and becoming familiar with the urban terrain of the city. There are around 10 city artists and creatives contributing to the various stages of the project, and the current stage is being run by Emilia Moniszko of IGGY (pictured with her camera – she will be making several documentary films).

Coventry, while essentially a product of rapid post-war planning (where a city largely flattened by bombs was re-designed from scratch), it is full of surprises. The market area - the covered market and the City Arcade - looks, to the naked eye, downright grotty. In design terms, however, it is an extraordinary organisation of space (and the situation of a car park on the roof was one of Coventry's many urban design innovations). Next to the market area main entrance is another notable feature of the city. This is the huge 14-storey 'Coventry Point' office block, which dominates the city centre to the paradoxical extent that few people look or pay attention to it. This physical focal point of the post-war modernist city was a product of late 1960s brutalist design, by architect John Madin who designed the old Birmingham central library, tragically demolished last year (as was Birmingham's Post and Mail building a few years earlier, also by Madin). Coventry Point, now largely empty, is also marked for demolition.

'Brutalism' was one of Britain's most significant architectural movements, of which Coventry was an exemplar. It was intellectually creative, in the sense that it combined the separate disciplines of architecture, landscape design and road design, and found innovative ways of constructing integrated, accessible and useful urban spaces. However, as we all know, Brutalism's design achievements have been routinely dismissed, often in the face of the immediate perception or impression (that concrete is horrible, grey, impersonal, and so on). This populist negativity, so echoed by the media, has given undue weight to many modern cities in demolishing what were, and are, serious design projects.

I have been interested in observing students walking around the city, and identifying what it is that they register or 'see', and how they evaluate what they see. A believer in education, I think the most problematic aspect of social life today is a fundamental lack of understanding - exemplified in the attitude of many to Coventry city centre (as dull, grotty, badly planned, and so on). Some measure of understanding of the city's architectural and cultural history, its vernacular and visual language, would entirely transform anyone's urban experience. I have seen it happen to students, as they begin to use their sense of perception, imagination and intellect. They begin to peal back the layers of urban life, and see beyond the immediate grime and grey façade, to an open space of possibility that is stimulated by historical narrative, memory, and the values of past cultural epochs.

jv_blog_2_pic2.jpgI would argue that such a renewal in our understanding the city - and the space of the city as it historically evolves - would generate more investment by individuals and a way of looking at the city as a space of possibility. The City Arcadia no doubt looks cheap and nasty to many - but it's a space of possibility. The students are now discovering how. A few days ago I was again looking at its design - the lines, organisation of space, shapes and structure of the building, and came away convinced that a greater investment could return a social renewal of Coventry's often ridiculed civic centre. It is now host to the Theatre Absolute (the UK's first 'shop front theatre'), to Coventry FabLab, and to the City Arcadia Gallery (pictured).

Of course, someone might respond with the obvious comment that a lot of the city centre, at first glance, looks awful. First glances tend to prioritise colours and surfaces - in Coventry's case, uncleaned or ill-maintained buildings and the spaces in between. And in one sense they are right: these spaces and buildings are not valued. For the city, 'new development' is always assumed to be what the city needs, or which represents progress.

Our project, in the context all the new projects stimulated by the City Cultural Strategy 2017-27, will hopefully be part of a 're-valuing' of the city, and an identifying of value as much as a creation of value. We need to understand value in terms of our interaction and use of urban space, not just the appearance of new, smart or clean buildings. Such a 're-valuing' will change our understanding of 'development', and where the 'cultural' will be understood to be a potentially powerful part of urban development thinking, as culture is one powerful way of making people 'value' their place or city.

Seeing the cityRight now, students are in a process of learning - how to 'see' the city, and understand its value and to create value in response to the city. And so much of what is surprising, puzzling, and genuinely interesting about the city is indeed concealed from view. This is certainly true of many culturally active or creative people who nonetheless have little role in the culture or development of the city (such as international students, unemployed people, refugees). Seeking a dialogue with such people will perhaps provide clues to understanding how the city's disparaged urban spaces could be activated in a positive way by a participatory cultural creativity.

Last week the students were given a 'training' session in development work - learning how to activate a creative situation, engage people, communicate and inspire, and identify value in the social expanse of the city. It was delivered by Melissa Eveleigh, a development worker with huge experience in Africa and community work in the UK. Using these skills the students will, in the next two weeks, be penetrating the city's opaque urban veneer, and locate people who are open to cultural participation. Collaborative research will follow, and the final result will be here - an exhibition of collaborative, participatory research on the city, at the City Arcadia Gallery. We have just held an introductory session in the Gallery, where Mindy Chillery (Director of Artspace, who manages the Gallery) explained how the space might be activated for the student’s new research venture – which will, at the end of June, form an official part of Coventry’s Positive Images Festival.

The Positive Images Festival [we are listed under ‘exhibitions’]:

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Part I: May 2017

A few months after arriving at Warwick in 2001, a famous German artist knocked on my office door, and announced that he had been commissioned for a major public art work in Coventry City Centre. Jochen Gerz was his name, and his mark on the city still stands in the form of The Future Monument and The Public Bench (in Millennium Place, or 'Plaza' as it was being referred to in 2001).

One significant aspect of Jochen's approach to public art was his use of student groups. Since the 1970s he worked with student groups for research, social and community engagement. He found students to be effective at creating and disseminating knowledge in ways that promoted participation as well as cultural interest. Jochen's work is an inspiration for a project now being funded by IATL (Institute of Advanced Teaching and Learning) and called 'Urban Cultural Intermediaries: pedagogy, creativity and the city'. We call it the 'Students and the City' project, for short. In ways directly relevant to the City of Culture 2021 bid, we are trying to define the potential role of students in Coventry's creative development. After all - is it not significant that the city has over 50,000 talented, educated and energetic young people? Since 2001 I have been developing an ‘urban pedagogy’, where students use their research on the city to engage with various people, spaces and places.


The first photo is of an event we held in the Pod NHS centre in Coventry in 2015: here we gathered a number of the city’s poets and musicians to discuss the city, its cultural diversity and the lack of space for art, student workshops, performance, film screenings and research events, outside of the high-security institutional walls of university buildings.
Through urban-community research, the students discovered so much of what we may call 'invisible' cultural production. Far too many creative people had little or no access to space for the reception and discussion of their work.

walkingthecity.jpg The second photograph is an ‘open’ seminar I run every year, and led by city artist kathryn Hawkins. It’s called ‘Walking the City’ and is ‘open’ in the sense that other people can join in the walk. It’s based on an innovation in urban research methodology – of city walking - and involves exploring the experiential landscape of the city (its memory, aesthetics and semiotic economy). We uncover all kinds of hidden meaning and significant aspects of the city as we are attentive to the ground, space and places that make the city what it is.


So what 'role' do these 50,000 students play in the city? The answer might seem obvious - they study (hopefully) and spend money on rents and entertainments. Our assumption is that students are 'positioned' socially in the city (every city, nationally) primarily as consumers and not producers, and their role in the city's urban economy is passive. Do we expect anything else? A small number will engage in volunteering, internships and community activity, a smaller number yet will find employment or become enterprising and set up their own enterprise. Our interest is in Coventry's cultural and creative sectors - is it true that Leicester and Nottingham have growing cultural and creative industries because students are more enterprising and a critical mass of graduates remain living in the city? Does Coventry provide any form of attractive opportunities for students or graduates, in employment or for their own start-up ventures?

In the light of the new Coventry Cultural Strategy 2017-27 (an inspiring document that should be supported), we need to think of pathways to creative participation in the city. This is what we are missing, and what institutions and policy-makers need to consider. In recent scoping research we undertook on campus, Coventry does not have the negative connotations in the minds of students that we would routinely expect. In fact, our talking to students accross campus revealed that what students thought of the city depending on their relation to it - their activities, participation, social life, (or not).

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