My heart leaps up when I behold..
My heart leaps up when I behold..
..A rainbow in the sky
Are you singing in a community choir or learning to dance ? Does it lift your heart in ways you can’t quite describe ? There’s a touch of Caribbean sunshine in the old Daimler car factory down by the canal every Monday night at the moment which is lifting a few hearts. It’s the Imagineer course training local people to teach carnival costume-making sessions in their own communities, in preparation for the Godiva Awakes Coventry ‘Mas’ 2012.
Embedded in the course is a creative evaluation project – part of my PhD research for Coventry University. The trainees are discussing and experimenting with creative ways of recording and evaluating the impact of the training on themselves, and thinking about how they will evaluate their own workshops later. They’ll meet as a focus group over the next year to reflect back on it all.
Currently, they are using A2 artists’ sketchbooks (about £2 each) to record comments, feelings, materials, ideas. A simple ‘baseline’ survey the first week has logged how confident participants felt then and what skills they had to start with. As well as Imagineer’s photographs, participants are encouraged to put in their own pictures – plus comments, drawings etc about the impact of the course by family and interested parties.
The first week we did a meditative ‘mark making’ exercise, using good quality chalk pastels on black paper (I think that encountering new materials has its own impact) designed to map feelings at the start of the course and hopes for the outcome. With no drawing skill needed people quickly responded. The pictures in the gallery to the right show initial feelings and hopes for the future. Clearly, our first evaluation showed we all valued feelings highly.
When the group discussed them, we agreed that we could see meanings needing little further interpretation – the tiny unconfident marks or uncertain muddles on the left and the explosions of colourful hopes on the right suggested how people felt about their own creative skills at the start of the project and what outcomes they wanted. But to what extent will these need interpretation to make them useful to outsiders trying to assess the impact of the project ? And how might that be different from the more familiar interpretation that more conventional data needs ? On other projects I’ve recorded people talking about their own drawings: sound files carry the suggestion of ‘authentic’ voice, but aren’t they also subject to interpretation and theorisation ?
Us at the old Daimler building would like some feedback from blog-readers on this – and any ideas about how project funders and commissioners have responded to similar creative methods, albeit as part of multi-method evaluation ? Barbara Taylor in a fascinating podcast seems to be saying that creative evaluation is only really useful for improving practice rather than proving impact, do you agree ?
(By the way, the podcast describes how artist Albert Petroni worked with young people at the Whitechapel Gallery making a film to evaluate the Enquire Museums project . The 12 year-olds seemed very perceptive about the specific aspects of the project that created impact: “...we didn’t get an actual task to do, we got materials, textiles and a stimulus, we got to think about it ourselves and all the pieces were very individual and not at all similar – that’s what I liked” – but maybe less so about the actual nature of the impact ?
A key point Petroni makes is that evaluation needs to be a creative project in its own right :”So it wasn’t the boring bit, it shifted the focus, it was the beginning of something new, to reflect on what happened before”.
Artists working with community projects are often pretty resentful about evaluation - “it’s associated with bureaucracy and working in an office” says Taylor. Evaluation expert Francois Matarasso has shown how the feelings and attitudes towards evaluation held by everyone concerned – from participant to commissioner - can determine its outcome, Matarasso’s The Human Factor 2009.
But artists seem so well placed to grab evaluation by the throat and make it their own. Arts training involves reflective sketchbooks, full of experiments, ideas, feelings and things which went wrong or worked brilliantly – why don’t we share this process as well as technical skills ? It’s going to happen anyway: at worst it’ll be a questionnaire tacked on to the end of a session which brings the whole mood down with a thump. I’ll be debating this at the first West Midlands Participatory Arts Forum Conference Direction of Travel in Wolverhampton on Feb 10th – I’ll let you know how it goes!
PS ‘My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky ‘ wrote Wordsworth in 1802, and he didn’t need to explain why. However, posthumously, we might enquire (and we can threaten him with loss of funding for future poetry workshops), on a scale of 1 to 5, if 5 is ‘ecstatic’ and 1 is ‘glum’, exactly how did the rainbow make you feel ? And did your heart stay up for long ? If the next icy shower plunged you into despair, does it make the rainbow less important? Had years of mooning about with poetry made Wordsworth ‘ready to receive’ the rainbow’s impact - which left his neighbour cold? I had some fascinating responses to my previous blog – Cindy Banyai from the Refocus Institute believes it’s enough to encourage people to tell their stories about their experiences – preferably in creative ways: “why do people always want to categorise and quantify such meaningful qualitative experiences ?” she asks. Watch this space! (PPS: the rest of the poem probably says it all)