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Blog: Culture Matters

Culture Matters


Each year, the School ofArts at Birkbeck University holds an Arts Week – a programme of free talks, workshops, exhibitions, screenings and performances. At the end of May this year, I took part in one of these events, a panel discussion on ‘gestation and incubation’ and their relationship to outputs and productivity in the academic and creative worlds. Titled ‘But are you doing anything?’, the idea was to explore how ‘thinking, talking and meditating rate as work’. We were asked for our interpretation of ‘activities/ways of doing when it comes to incubating, hibernating and gestation’; and whether ‘thinking and learning, if not shaped into visible outputs, [can] be perceived as a form of practice’. The panel members were chosen for having ‘a foot in two camps’; i.e. we are all practitioners in the arts at the same time as having academic roles: Lina Džuverović, Curator and Lecturer, Film, Media and Cultural Studies Department, Birkbeck; Rachel Garfield, Artist and Head of Department of Art, University of Reading; and myself, Arts Manager and Associate Fellow, Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies, University of Warwick. The session was chaired by Simone Wesner, Lecturer, Film, Media and Cultural Studies Department, Birkbeck, and an alumna of our Centre.

The panel discussion and subsequent contributions from the audience, were fascinating and thoughtful. The organisers of ‘But are you doing anything?’ will be creating a podcast from the recording of the event; and they’re looking at how they might develop further discussion on the topic. In the meantime, here are a few of my thoughts – based on my practice as an enabler for others working in the arts, my academic interests in the practices of others, and my own experiences as an academic writer and researcher:

What are the circumstances and processes involved in the ‘gestation’ stage of the creative venture? They are surely varied, and include: how it’s done (e.g. gestation might be in one block or at different stages of the overall creative process, or affected by interruptions); how long it takes; what form it takes; and its relative importance to the overall creative project.

At the session, I proposed the idea of gestation as a spectrum (cf. diagram below), starting from the fairly ‘passive’ or ‘invisible’ commencement of the process, which might begin with just noticing and letting things in (what children’s writer and illustrator Benji Davies calls getting ‘seeds of ideas, stor[ing] them, and a few years later, they turn up somewhere’. Then – although as I suggest later, we shouldn’t necessarily see this as a straightforward progression from one step to another – there are the acts of mulling over, reflecting on, and thinking, which might be followed by the action of trying things out, then shaping and refining. In the arts, these would include, for instance, as a ceramicist suggested to me, a potter discarding the first nine pots s/he makes for the tenth that is built on the experiences and ideas of the preceding ones; or actors and director in the rehearsal room ‘getting a play onto its feet’ to see what it looks and feels like, whether it works, rather than ‘just’ talking about it (thus, the talking about it would be somewhere on the spectrum between thinking and doing). A similar process is at work in the field of writing. Academics and other writers I’ve spoken to vary in the amount of drafting and re-drafting that they do. In my own academic work, I tend to do quite a lot of my thinking through the act of writing, i.e. writing several drafts to get to what I want to say more exactly. So this action of drafting and re-drafting would certainly fit into what I have termed both the ‘trying things out’ and ‘shaping, refining’ stages of the spectrum.

Coming back to the point that this is not necessarily a one-directional process, I suggest it’s a constantly two-way engagement, backwards and forwards, as it were, between the elements of this spectrum (hence, the arrows in the diagram). In addition, we could also think about a ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ process between gestation and the part of practice that directly produces the output – i.e. gestation doesn’t just occur as a completed phase before production, but can also happen at various points during the production stage. Thus the movement between the invisibility of the ‘early’ stages and the greater visibility of ‘later’ stages is one that will also have a backwards and forwards motion.


How much of gestation is solitary and to what extent can it be collaborative? If there is a spectrum of gestation, then some of the activities I’ve included in it can and do involve forms of collaboration, such as informal conversation or more formal discussions, and also trying things out.

A question we were asked to consider in the set-up of the session was to do with expectations that might curtail or undermine gestation – the demand for outputs, for showing and proving that one is ‘doing something’, and how one can negotiate or resist these demands and ‘allow for […] incubation - the dormant phase in the creative process’. In fact, as an arts manager with responsibility for securing funding for arts organisations, my role has sometimes involved me in disturbing or interrupting the gestation process of others. For instance, when I was working for a theatre company, I would have to ask our artistic director for thoughts about a show that he wouldn’t be putting into shape for at least a year, because the funding for it needed to be applied for long in advance. The same is also often the case in academic life; i.e. that demands for output by the requirements of the REF, grant funders, etc., can disrupt and curtail the gestation process. The constant pressure for outputs is graphically illustrated in these words from an arts producer who attended a workshop about co-creation that I organised: 

“I really valued the time to think and talk, but it’s tricky to get more than 1.5 hours out of the office if it isn’t directly contributing to one of my team’s outputs for that week.”

This is also something that the many artists working in schools have to deal with:

“When we'd sat round a table (us, the students and the teachers) and said 'What do we do now?', there would be periods of silence while we all thought. […]the teachers found it incredibly uncomfortable. […] it made them realise how little time they put aside for thinking in the classroom, because there's so much emphasis about bubbling along, and 'Let's be active, let's be doing, let's be talking'. […] Can we be brave enough to just be quiet and think?”

- James Yarker, Artistic Director, Stan’s Cafe, Birmingham, in Talking About CulturalValue: Voices from the Arts Community, a report for the Warwick Commission on Cultural Value, Jane Woddis, 2015.

None of the panel in ‘But are you doing anything?’ was researching the subject when we were first asked to take part in this discussion; but Birkbeck’s request means we have now begun the gestation process……

But are you doing anything?2

Mladen Stilinović, Artist at Work Again (2011). At Ludwig Museum, Budapest, 2011. Photo: Boris Cvjetanović. Courtesy of Branka Stipančić. (Image from publicity for But are you doing anything?)

On May 23rd, the Centre hosted a one-day symposium, “New Directions in Cultural and Media Research.” This symposium aimed to create a productive communal space for scholars working on the cultural and creative industries in histories, practices and products alongside critical assessment of their development, sustainability and significance for contemporary social life. The symposium also set out to reflect upon the changing climate, the ongoing debates, and the new research directions of cultural, performance and media studies. As part of the CADRE research festival, the symposium had gathered together presentations from PhD researchers at Warwick, across the Faculty of Arts and beyond, whose work draws on and develops these approaches.


In the morning session, there were three presentations from Asep Muizudin Muhamad Darmini, Han Wen, and Alessandra Grossi. Asep, from Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies, presented on “Size does (not) matter: A note from the Indonesian Islamic Boarding School (Pondok Pesantran).” Asep presented his fieldwork on the use of the internet in two Islamic boarding schools - Miftahul Huda and Cipasung. The research found that despite the limitation of internet usage, students from both schools still find the learning experience enlightening and these institutions help students form their identity as young Muslims in the modern era of Indonesia.

Han, from Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, presented on “Brand research after the cultural turn: Meaning-making, complexity and reflection,” where he discussed history of brand research and its relation to the cultural turn. The aim of his presentation was to clarify the theoretical puzzles in the interdisciplinary study of brands by reflecting on three distinctive logics of interdisciplinarity - accountability, innovation, and ontology.

Alessandra, from Theatre and Performance Studies, presented on “The representation of womanhood in Victorian classical burlesque: A combination of approaches.” Using archival research as the starting point, her work seeks to understand the representation of gender in the chosen corpus of classical burlesques and whether the crossing of gender boundaries taking place on the burlesque stage could be said to have a political value. This research drew on a combination of theories, including Classical Reception, Theatre Historiography and Gender Studies.

NDCMThe afternoon session had two presentations from Tijana Blagojev and Juliana Holanda. Both researchers are participants of the Media Policy Lab, which is a project from CCMPS coordinated by Pietari Kääpä that aims to increase Media Policy awareness. The laboratory is currently developing a game to promote Media Policy among youths.

Tijana Blagojev, from the Department of Politics and International Studies, reported on her research into “Government funding of local media: Project-based financing in Serbia - Supporting local public information of fulfilling political interests?”. Tijana explained her analysis on the system of state financing of public information that was introduced in Serbia in 2014. The aim of the study is to focus on the funds received on the local level by municipalities to see how pluralism and diversity were supported in Serbia.

Juliana Holanda, from the Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies, discussed the results of the first year of the PhD research “From Rio 92 to Rio +20: Brazilian media coverage of sustainable development.” The investigation intends to analyse how Brazilian media has covered key aspects of sustainable development, especially as relates to the ways journalistic coverage has framed sustainability initiatives.

NDCMThe plenary discussion was the major element of the final session, by which it has the aim to engage research students to discuss the challenges and opportunities for media and cultural studies. Members of staff, Joanne Garde-Hansen, Chris Bilton and Pietari Kääpä, from the Centre highlighted some key ideas in the discussion. This includes the ‘transferability’ of the cross-cultural topics in different research contexts, the non-territorial nature as well as the ‘discipline’ of the cultural and media studies, and the challenge to clarify the ‘newness’ in cultural and media study from observing both the past and current research directions. Besides, the discussion encourages research students to focus on the publications and their personal profiles, using them as strategies to build an academic identity in a particular field of research. The plenary session has inspired speakers and participants to reflect upon their academic journeys, and it also summed up the fruitful discussions happened in this one-day symposium.

This blog-entry is jointly-authored by Juliana Holanda, Yuche Li, and Phitchakan Chuangchai.

Victoria Wood Unveiling BrochureIt felt like a real privilege to join the crowd of residents, family, fellow performers and fans to witness the unveiling of the latest addition to the list of statues of comedians, Victoria Wood, in Bury last Friday. Located right in the centre of the town on the gardens of the Unitarian Church, the life-sized bronze statue represents a prominent addition to the landscape of Bury – the significance of which was reflected in the size of the crowd that turned up to watch, the regional and national media presence and the role of local civic leaders and institutions in the co-ordination and conduct of what was a very joyful ceremony (with the actual unveiling being done by the actor and comedian Ted Robbins who, among other associations, acted as Victoria Wood’s warm-up man for her successful 80s sketch show Wood and Walters).

There is lots of interest in this latest example for the project on this (which I’ve blogged about here and here). It is another addition to the Northern (and North-Western) list of such statues, indicating their interesting geography and the powerful role of figures such as these in regional identities. The accompanying exhibition dedicated to Wood in the Bury Art Museum narrates her birth and early life in the town, as well as the journey to the bright lights of study in Birmingham and then London to find fame. More than this, though, speeches from the Council Leader Cllr Rishi Shori, Victoria's brother Chris Foote-Wood, and Reverend Kate McKenna from the Unitarian Church, all indicated the extent to which her brand of observational comedy drew heavily on the characters and turns of phrase she knew and overheard while growing up. The everyday culture of Northern life was, in other words, a fundamental source of inspiration and there was a keen sense that, as well as being Bury’s ‘most famous daughter’, the town could proudly claim her as one of 'their own' (in keeping with the concerns of campaigns like Mary on the Green and inVisibleabout the uneven gender spread of public monuments, Wood joins a short list of statues to women comedians. Another, to ‘Our Gracie’, Gracie Fields, is nearby in Rochdale).


This piece is a further contribution to the pantheon of such statues from the artist Graham Ibbeson, who is responsible for the Eric Morecambe statue which arguably ‘kicked-off’ the most recent phase of commemoration of figures from 20th century popular culture in 1999, as well as statues of Les Dawson in Lytham St Annes and Laurel and Hardy in Ulverston. Ibbeson is clearly a key figure in this story and his work on these monuments (and on others dedicated to iconic sporting heroes and Britain’s industrial heritage) strongly celebrates Northern working class culture. He has also been vocal in recognising the role that such monuments can play in democratising public art. Responding to earlier criticism of the trend for monuments to celebrities as a ‘vile pollutant’ of the contemporary landcape, for example, Ibbeson is sceptical of ‘some of the so-called intellectuals, the arts professionals who consider accessibility a crime against their minority’ (Threlkeld and Ibbeson, 2011: 152).

The addition of much-loved comedians, entertainers and athletes to the category of the ‘memorialisable’ does seem to be an opening up of that category, at least in comparison with the civic, military or political leaders which seemed to fill it in the past. While those statues might have been imposed on local populations without much consultation, contemporary monuments seem more likely to need to emerge from a prolonged and complex negotiation with various courts of public and aesthetic opinion. The creation of this particular statue seems to reveal the risks of this ‘democratisation’. On the plus side, money was raised through a crowd-funding campaign from local residents and fans instigated by Victoria’s brother and biographer, Chris Foote-Wood and finally co-ordinated and managed by Bury Council and her estate. More contentiously, an initial public vote on the design of the statue came down in favour of a depiction of Wood as the character of Bren from the sitcom dinnerladies, which proved controversial. When the eventual design – actually depicting Wood in a more iconic ‘stand-up’ mode - emerged, it was also subject to extensive scrutiny and critique, including through social media. It was notable that the speeches in the ceremony on Friday did not shy away from this controversy, with Wood’s brother being firm in his assertion that the family approved of the depiction and with Cllr Rishi Shori giving a thoughtful defence of the skill and craft of the sculptor, as well as a reflection on the difficulty of capturing a universally appreciated essence of a person who everyone feels they know through decades-long appearances on their front room TV screens. This is a theme I’d be keen to explore further as it points up some interesting tensions between an assumed limit of ‘popular taste’, linked to an apparent preference for ‘real’ depictions and the potential of monuments and public art in general to re-imagine and re-interpret its subjects and representations. The familiarity of fans and audiences, through TV or film, make this a challenge that contemporary sculptors of subjects from the ‘broadcast-era' might face that their predecessors did not.

It remains to be seen the extent to which this new statue is adopted and lived with by Bury residents – and it would be interesting to follow up on that in the project. Judging by the warmth of the response on Friday, though, I’d be optimistic that it will become as well loved as its subject.

In October 2017, CMPS undertook a values exercise with students and staff all together in the same room. Please be reminded of the outcomes of that exercise here. We brainstormed, we discussed and we agreed on a core set of Values for the Centre for Cultural & Media Policy Studies. In part, this was because, as the new Centre Director I wanted to get a sense of what students felt about being with us, what they expected of each other and of staff, and what we as colleagues hoped our students valued most. We said then that values, valuing and evaluation are not only becoming more important but that they are tricky to articulate, measure and appreciate unless spoken about and remembered on a daily basis. It was also because we all felt that such an exercise was not only long overdue at the Centre, but at all universities.

So, I take this opportunity in the light of the Vice Chancellor's and the University of Warwick's recent statement expressing deeper commitment to values of equality, dignity and respect, to remind you of the Centre's values, articulated in 2017, that we stand by today and into the future:




We know there are disagreements, particularly in group work and friendship groups, across cultures and national identities. We know that national and global political dramas can drag us into what seem like all-encompassing soap opera narratives where we are expected to be a fan of one show and not of the other show. We know that historical and well-remembered ideas about national identity, race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, religion and age continue to quietly shape thoughts and feelings, even when we work hard to challenge their impacts. We also know from experience how many of these ideas have been challenged by the person in front of us, who escapes all of these ideas, and is a person. A person who cares and is cared for. It is the capacity to care, to care about and to be cared for that connects us.

Outside of your personal tutor, your module tutor, the senior tutor and the Centre Director, there are the following Warwick services that support our values in practice and care about people. These are:

Dignity at Warwick:

The Residential Life Team:

Warwick Wellbeing Support:

Independent Sexual Violence Adviser:

Warwick Students’ Union:

The 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions was one of the fastest conventions ever to have passed the UN General Assembly, and the only major international legal instrument on culture and creative industries. I held a seminar on the Convention here in the Centre four years ago, when Justin O’Connor was a Warwick Institute of Advanced Study International Fellow. Here he is now leading a major international research project with participants from the USA, South Africa and Hong Kong, and taking a global view on UNESCO’s main programs supporting the Convention. These include case analyses in Asia and Africa, looking specifically at the Expert Facility, the International Fund for Cultural Diversity and the Creative Cities Network. This seminar, however, was more focused and gathered experts on the Convention, including the Convention management team at the UNESCO HQ.

UNESCO Expert Seminar

The discussion aimed to frame the projected longitudinal assessment around culture, economy and development – themes some of the group had been discussing since we met as the Global Cultural Economy Network in Shanghai in 2012. UNESCO has a deep and long intellectual history, easily forgotten. And the Convention, despite an ongoing intergovernmental collaboration facility and extensive civil society involvement, is not overly visible within the spectrum of member state national cultural policy commitments. The Convention, however, is not just a legal agreement, but a growing project – of sponsoring research, expert technical intervention, training and evaluation, funded projects and a range of other promotional activities. It has four key goals: cultural governance, cultural flows and mobility, sustainable development through culture, and Human Rights. For me, these are the four globally significant subjects of cultural policy today. The seminar broached each of them, and helped define the scope and criteria for the above project and for the rest of us (me specifically) help define an evolving project on the role of global cultural policy and development discourse in post-Brexit UK cultural policy.

There are 11 UNESCO Chairs (recognized academic leaders) in cultural policy in the world, one of which will be an IAS International Fellow – based here in the Centre, hosted by me -- this coming June: Serhan Ada from Istanbul, UNESCO Chair in Cultural Diplomacy. We will be doing various activities, soon to be advertised.