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CAKE Mix: The Art of Collaboration

On Tuesday 23rd July, in amongst Newcastle University’s graduation celebrations, we gathered in the impressive Armstrong Building for the 32nd iteration of Collaboration and Knowledge Exchange (CAKE). This month’s theme was ‘The Art of Collaboration’, a broad topic which invited fascinating and varied interpretations from our three main speakers.

First to present was Angela MacOscar, Head of Innovation at Northumbrian Water Group (NWG). Angela spoke about the third instalment of NWG’s Innovation Festival which took place between 8th-12th July 2019. The festival itself aims to bring an alternative environment in which to collaborate with purpose, with fun, experimentation and free food all part of the package – so really, there’s nothing not to like! At the festival, NWG looked to crack some of the tougher challenges faced by businesses and communities by setting a range of tasks that cannot be solved by the water company alone – and so naturally necessitate collaboration. These challenges range from managing surface water to customer service delivery, right through to broader goals like enabling a smart rural revolution and improvements in asset mapping. This year, there were 23 different activities which facilitated group work and collaboration around these kinds of challenge with topics not only of interest to NWG but that have real relevance and purpose for the several thousand attendees. Among some of the focuses of this year’s festival were the importance of mental wellbeing, and the concept ofdigital twins.

Above all else, the Innovation Festival is a place to play and co-develop. Offering a space to make new contacts, new networks, and to seek new business opportunities, the festival proves its worth in an increasingly competitive and time-critical environment where many of us find it difficult to give up time to attend such events. In our daily jobs, Angela reminded the CAKE audience that we have less and less space for thinking and listening, which as activities in themselves are increasingly hard work. The festival is a space that facilitates these. Conducive to this element of playfulness was what Angela described as a ‘democratised environment’ in which attendees at the festival were encouraged to come in casual clothing, with a festival attitude, resulting in them acting and behaving differently. Suits, we learned, are certainly not encouraged!

The activities at the festival have resulted in a total of 54 ‘strong’ project ideas, some of which came out of an innovation garage and a fix-it café. FabLab Sunderland also supported sessions in which attendees could create prototypes. As well as getting people to work hard (one of the sprint tents even ran out of post-it notes!), there is a simultaneous awareness and focus on health and wellness. At NWG, there have been wellness-related activities to reflect this – at this year’s Festival there has been a particular focus on male mental wellbeing. The festival also works with Biffa to make the event zero-waste – reflective of another important value and aim within NWG.

For Angela, there is something particularly collaborative and special about working in the North East- a sense that the NWG Innovation Festival could not really take place with the same level of success anywhere else. The success of the festival also depends on ‘passion and perseverance’ both during and after the event. The challenge for Angela and her colleagues is to ‘do justice to the hard work put in by attendees’. This is done in several ways, including during the festival itself where, this year, a tent was dedicated to showcasing ideas that had originated from sprints and hacks over the past two years of the festival. Even more exciting is NWG’s launching of an external portal ‘Amplify’ which will be for everyone to participate in, posting ideas that came out of the festival and their progress.

The NWG Innovation Festival will return in 2020. Details about the event will be updated here.

Next up to present was Stella Hall, Director of Festival of Thrift. The first Festival took place in 2013 at Lingfield Point in Darlington, making a big impact regionally and nationally, with 27,000 visitors, 17,000 more than expected. The Festival has grown significantly, becoming a national event showcasing the region, benefiting from its re-location to Kirkleatham Museum & Grounds in Redcar. The Festival has won a multitude of awards since starting out, including Best Event Teesside (in 2015 and 2017), Gold as North East Tourism Event of the Year and the Observer Ethical Awards for Arts and Culture, recognising the fact that artists are embedded in the programme as agents for social change.

The Festival’s ethos comprises:

  • Build a unique and distinctive, fun, sustainable national event which draws positive media attention to our partners, Tees Valley and the North East

  • Celebrate the heritage and contribute to the future prosperity of Tees Valley and its industry.

  • Ensure wider economic benefit through encouraging extended visitor spend on travel, accommodation, restaurants and businesses.

  • Contribute to community cohesion through targeting communities with less access to culture.

  • Highlight the skills and creativity of the region’s artists and craftspeople, to inspire people of all ages to learn old ways, and find new ways to be creative in their every day lives.

  • Promote the concept of sustainable living and being a voice for sustainable issues.

The Festival of Thrift has a small team, which means they have to collaborate in order for the extensive programme to get off the ground. Together with the creative community, the festival aims to inspire people to be creative and sustainable in their everyday lives which can’t be done by the Festival team alone. There is an important distinction, however, between partner, collaborator and associate – and Stella reminded us that these terms are not and should not be interchangeable. Each of these types of relationship has a different starting point. For the Festival, seeking out partners and collaborators is a journey which starts with a conversation. Much in the same way as building a friendship, the key is to find ‘the spark that connects you together’. This can lead to unusual or unexpected collaborations such as the Festival’s own partnership with petrochemical company Sabic. The partnership is emblematic of the importance to stay in, in Stella’s words, the ‘discomfort zone’!

The Festival of Thrift is no small localised gathering – attracting 35,000 visitors, it is a truly national event, and also attracts international audiences. The Festival draws attention to the important skills of artists and craftspeople, whilst also playing a crucial role in feeding into the economy of Redcar and engendering pride in place for local residents. Last year, the Festival made a departure from its usual two-day format, extending across the Tees Valley with its Viewpoints programme, which aimed to actively change views about the area across the region. Similarly, a partnership with Tees Valley Nature has allowed the Festival to pitch in ideas in order to address common issues such as clean air, which is also a theme of this year’s Festival.

Other local collaborations include working with artists to produce an artwork for Middlesbrough Station which will clean passers-by’s lungs when visiting the station. Meanwhile, the Festival are also working with Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, Palace Arts, and Navigator North to identify key locations for collaborative art pieces. One such location is The Welding Institute in Middlesbrough who have become a partner with the Festival. They helped with training and are now working together to create a giant artwork that the Institute will sustain.

Stella observed that none of these projects would work if the time hadn’t been made to have conversations with partners and collaborators. We have to ask each-other such questions as, ‘What are your priorities?’ ‘What do you want to achieve? and ‘What can we do together?’. Other collaborations within the Festival’s work include with Tees Valley Combined Authority around raising the profile of the region and assessing its transport methodology, and with Groundwork and UK Men’s Sheds for activities for children and young people including the building of dens, go-karts, and – to go with this year’s theme of the Moon-landing – a rocket-ship! It is exactly these kinds of local and place-based relationships that are needed to make a festival happen, or a project work, or to engender local pride. Successful collaborations do not happen overnight and require long conversations.

Looking to the future, the Festival are collaborating with Sunderland and Teesside Universities to build an online community to engage more people, a platform called Thrift 365. You can check out the latest version here. On top of this, the Festival welcome the uncertainty of where they are heading next, and simply want to engage with partners who want to be part of the journey with them. Stella’s concluding advice was that ‘the most important thing is to stay with it…If at first they’re not your kind of person then try and find out the ways that they are. Stay in your discomfort zone.’

Concluding our morning was Rachel Pattinson, Vital North Partnership Manager for Seven Stories and Newcastle University.

The Vital North Partnership is a strategic partnership between Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books and Newcastle University, funded by Arts Council England and Newcastle University. Newcastle City Council staff are also members of the Vital North Partnership’s Steering Group. The partners share the goal that Newcastle becomes a centre for excellence in children’s literature, and have been working together since before Seven Stories opened in 2005, the same year in which Newcastle University founded the Children’s Literature Unit. Today the collaboration stretches across three university faculties and ranges from research to teaching, and from collections to public events.

For Rachel, collaborative projects are simply more interesting and more inclusive – both of which are important values for Seven Stories and Newcastle University. But, they’re not easy – there are many barriers to collaboration, particularly around finding the time to work together, accessing funding for such work, as well as finding the right expertise. At Seven Stories, working with digital partners is welcomed and encouraged, but the commissioning approach that it uses can sometimes hinder collaborations with the digital industries by making them transactional. The importance of collaborating outside of the museums sector is increasingly being recognised by funding councils such as the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) – one of the funders of Creative Fuse North East. Newcastle University and Seven Stories were successful in bidding through the programme for a seven-month research project – Children’s Magical Realism for New Spatial Interactions: AR and Archives’ – or ‘Magical Realities’ for short. Taking the widely available Google and Apple software for Augmented Reality (AR), the project wanted to consider the digital layering in AR and its interaction with space. Just as the locations that AR is applied to are considered ‘real’, who is to say that the digital layers are not ‘real’ too?

The project took the work of children’s author David Almond as a basis for exploring AR and magical realism. To do this, the team conducted six interactive workshops with children to inform the design of an app. These workshops aimed to enhance the sense of place in David Almond’s writing, but also needed to be fun and make sense in isolation for the children involved. One such workshop was ‘Dreaming New Archives’, held in summer 2018, which aimed to explore what would happen if the context of Almond’s writing was removed. What would children make of the materials themselves? To do this, the materials and objects were situated in the landscape of Ouseburn, where Seven Stories is based. Facsimiles of the objects and materials were taken out of the centre  in order for the children to decide where in the ‘real’ world of Ouseburn they might have been found. The workshops confirmed the team’s predictions, and also led to two key findings: 1) that the children tended to find concrete explanations of the abstract objects; and, 2) they were especially drawn to the overtly figurative items. These acts of composing the collections and navigating the experience influenced the project team when deciding which items to keep in the AR experience, and how to link the objects to one another.

Using the ideas from across the six workshops, and drawing on archive materials in Ouseburn, the project team designed and created a Magical Reality app. It is free to download through the Appstore (iPhone) and Google Play (Android)The evaluations of the project uncovered the different types of knowledge exchange that were created in the workshop environment. The project was able to move beyond the typically transactional digital partnerships previously utilised by Seven Stories, using an experimental and iterative design of the study. Having successfully secured follow-on funding from AHRC, the project team are moving on to a second phase: Embedding Magic: AR and Archives. Through this they hope to develop the app into a digital platform on which people will be able to place their own digital objects and design their own trails. This has involved workshops in Byker and Walker with three schools.

Rachel concluded with a reflection on the collaborative nature of the project. Whilst the original bid, workshop design, delivery and content were all collaborative efforts, the development of the app was comparatively non-collaborative. This was unsurprising, given the specific skills and expertise required to produce an app, which many members of the project team did not have. This highlights an ongoing need in Arts and Cultures research in particular – the need for up-skilling of staff to enable even more collaborative work in the future.

Rachel ended by highlighting two forthcoming workshops that Vital North are delivering focussed on Immersive Cultures which will be of particular interest to those working in museums/culture and immersive technology. You can book onto the free workshops via the links below;

Workshop 1, Mon 29 July:

Workshop 2, Wed 31 July:

CAKE 32 ended with a range of questions – including the importance and challenge of managing intellectual property across collaborations and partnerships, sustaining the role of innovation following events, and consideration of the role of written agreements that partners and collaborators can consent to – with networking then following over the usual excellent cake.