Thought piece on digital media in CACD, commissioned by the Australia Council for the Arts in 2011
f you are working in the creative community arts and cultural development sector, [CACD], there is a fair chance that you are engaging in story theft.
In a world where our social model survives on wealth generated from resources, stories represent a vast territory open to plunder. And digital content, created by communities for ‘free’ has become a thriving trade for artists, support organizations, broadcasters and governments.
This theft may arise from the best of intentions, but too often the owners of the stories feel misrepresented, hoodwinked and de-powered by the experience.
So how do we build equitable, sustainable community empowerment– with shrinking funds, vague guidelines, new demands for digital media across all CACD practice, and hordes of experts from other arts sectors flocking to CACD coffers?
Working in the CACD sphere is – and has to be – risky business, as we negotiate the power-relationships that arise from the economic disparity our work is addressing. Community Arts practitioners derive an income because communities are disengaged/ marginalized. So, in a cross-colonial context, we need to constantly review our role in perpetuating exploitation of these groups.
Our company, Tallstoreez Productionz, has received great accolade for our digital media empowerment program, Change Media [formerly known as the Hero Project]. We have run hundreds of workshops with thousands of participants since 2004 and set up digital media hubs with many communities – but we still feel at a loss as to what exactly makes good projects work.
Instead of raving about our award-winning projects and glorious failures [check them out at: www.changemedia.net.au], we would like to explore what we, the practitioners, can do next, what we can improve, what risks we take and who really benefits from our processes and the products created.
For better or for worse, digital media helps create a lasting, mobile story about each community and is literally a lens that reveals the cracks in CACD practice. Now most practitioners use digital media as an integral part of their projects. Yet it is still perceived as scary, too complex, too time intensive and needing extravagant budgets for incomprehensible tools. And so it is often used as an after thought, as poor quality documentation, inappropriate video/ websites or fobbed off to external providers who parachute in to ‘capture’ the community.
We believe this often well intended, but non-the-less ignorant practice further widens the [digital] gap, fails to change the imbalance in power, reinforces misrepresentation, lowers the quality of work [and therefore overall reputation of the sector] and doesn’t lead to equitable partnerships.
So here’s our thought piece. Get Off My Back - a strategy for equitable digital media across the creative community arts and cultural development sector, in a damaged world - to improve quality, accountability and independence.
"I sit on a man's back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible....except by getting off his back." [Leo Tolstoy]
We developed Get Off My Back during the national CACD leadership lab run by the Victorian College of the Arts Cultural Partnerships in 2010 at Mount Eliza, in discussion with our colleagues from CuriousWorks and Darwin Community Arts, followed by an amazing 2-day workshop with iLabs’ mervin Jarman at our studio.
The ideas below are discussion starters; we are trialling them throughout our projects. The sub-chapters are interdependent and the order of appearance doesn’t matter [imagine a chart of connected circles of influence]. The guidelines are to support CACD practitioners - to question why you are involved in CACD. Your answers must be actionable, built-in to daily practice as a tangible and visible process reflected in the outcomes. It is about raising expectations, to push for excellence and to let go at the same time. This process is always evolving and inherently challenging...
Did we mention your practice is dangerous… marginalized people don’t see themselves as marginalized, their life is their centre of influence and experience. They - like all of us - deserve the best. Be the best, and then improve some more.
CACD work must aim to constantly devolve power and support communities to maintain control of their stories. Decisions need to be made with your participants, not for them. Yes, you are more skilled in a few areas, but so are they. What do you really know about their lives and challenges?
Even during one-off projects, think about long-term sustainability: offer different levels of social business models and employment educational pathways, according to expressed needs.
Support your participants to locate and voice their unique needs and utilise what they already have. This is where your area of expertise sits. Use it.
Voice / Story
What is your creative input? How do you appear in the work? Why? Why not? How is your liberation bound up with that of your participants, community and project partners? Build co-creative explorations as mutually engaging relationships.
Most CACD projects are cross-cultural collaborations: Be aware of context and the power struggles that fuel injustices: place of origin, ethnicity, gender, social background, age, ability.
Ensure the skills you bring are clearly acknowledged. We have found that when our mentor input is not credited in the final outcome it results in the community being heralded as ‘the unusually talented few, the special ones, others, not me’. This contradicts the reality that other communities can tell their own stories if they have access and appropriate support.
Your final products will be digital at least in part [photos taken, website inclusion, blogs, twitter, video, DVD, slideshow presentation, funding reports, radio feature etc…]. So from the start of your project: Think digital and viral, learn the basics, share pipelines and access mainstream, fringe and open source networks.
From Day 1 identify your target audience / end user and the final product - it supports participants to clarify why they are involved, what they want and what they will do.
Raise the bar across your art forms. Don’t subscribe to the view that Community Art is the poor cousin of Art. It ain’t.
Digital media is not just video and web, but more immersive experiences, authentic and deeper community engagement, performative evaluation, better sound, enhanced vision… Digital media is about changing how you work, not just new technology.
Train the Trainer
Train yourself out of a job - you should be obsolete after the project is over. Build local skills to a level so the community can do it themselves. This is what you promised in your funding submission… And yes, this needs more time, but even on short programs, you can start the process and plant a seed for future initiatives.
Offer mentoring in art/craft and producing [management, structure, legals etc]. These are potentially the boring bits, the invisible stuff – but this is where the ability to ‘do it again’ hides. Bring it forward; explain how it works. Let your participants take over and have them teach each other as soon as possible.
And while you are training and creating, record the process, make tailored peer-produced resources to leave behind. These tools are invaluable when you are gone. And no, they don’t necessary travel well, so keep it regional and peer-produced. There is no market for cookie-cutter empowerment tools, sorry.
Build evaluation into your project from Day 1, record your process, record feedback from your partners, participants during all stages, it will change the work.
Think of your project as a cyclic model: From Development, to Hands-on project practice to Post-production, to Distribution …to the Next pitch/ funding submission to Development. Then think backwards from delivery – what do we need to pull this off? Why are we doing this?
And film and review how you pitch /present your next project. Push yourself to raise the bar of your sector and the expectations of your partners. We all deserve it.
Thiso ne is tricky: expose yourself, self-embarrass. When you build in evaluation of the project from Day 1, you might see different results in your community’s engagement, as you will need to share your thoughts, processes and finding in a way that is truly useful for your partners and participants.
Make your process visible in the final product. Rise to the challenge. What is stopping you [us, me]? Often we feel afraid to lay open the structures of our success and failures - why? Perhaps we’re afraid we’ll lose funding or be found out as spin doctors for embellishing our stories and outcomes, so what? Nobody can really steal our means of engagement; if you are that good people will copy you anyway – and it is incredibly hard work to actually empower communities. So why worry about competition? There should be more of us, and better. Let’s develop better evaluation tools that are actually relevant to our work now AND to our funders later. And remember, yes, it is a risky business – you are potentially benefiting from other people’s misery.
Offer and push for transparency from Day 1 on copyright and legal processes. Outline your chosen legal set up in the rights & responsibilities of your Community Partnership agreement. Don’t start work without it, as it always leads to misunderstandings or worse.
And while you are at it: All of this is negotiable. Always. Why not??? A broadcaster may think differently, but hey, so can you. Make sure the ownership reflects the nature of the project and its partner’s investment, be that money, in kind, ideas, traditions, power of influence. And keep this process open.
A crucial part of an equitable agreement is that all partners and participants benefit. So think creative commons, moral rights, new ways to manage and share IP and copyright. This space is evolving, but most people are scared of legalese and so the old structures of control and ownership survive unchallenged. Keep it simple and build real trust. We see too many ‘15 minutes of fame’ promises being made that don’t change a thing. Broken promises just reinforce feelings of disempowerment, however low the budget. Deliver what you agreed on, based on an open process and transparent negotiations. Over-delivery is even better.
Provide access to gear and skills, ideally in a non-threatening/ non-restrictive environment. They must be dreaming? So use what you have, open source if it works, high-end if you can. Broker pathways to access new funds, bring agencies together, create knowledge archives, new alliances, think out of the box where to get the extra $5000 so the community can continue working with their own gear.
We are all using the catch phrase ‘capacity building’ [hmmm sounds just like ‘sustainability’…] – What does it mean to you? How long does it take to reach ‘capacity’ to do…what? This can only be determined by/with each partner community. But there’s urgency if we are to see social change in our lifetime. We only have now, here, with the means available to us. Source them.
This is always a conversation killer amongst colleagues in a competitive - exploitative environment. People are often outraged at the idea that budgets, expenditures and incomes should be transparent. Why not? Are you being overpaid?
Chances are that you receive public funds to do your work – these budgets are open to public scrutiny anyway. And yes, this is where it hurts. How do we transfer control and include our communities in budgetary decisions? Mostly we think we don’t need to - ‘They’ don’t want to know. But guess what, ‘there is a budget in my art…’ iiieeeeeehhhhh. So let’s talk about money. More often, and with the people you are delivering to. Budgets are blueprints for creative work, spreadsheets are our friends and need to be invited to the party.
All these points are dependent on each other and this one is crucial for all future disruptions and innovations.
It sits at the heart of our work, just at the edge of our consciousness, as the missing link in our storytelling. What if your community doesn’t want to tell their stories? What if you stopped making sense? What if you turn this idea upside down? Or these guidelines inside out?
Unknowable things constantly rock our world. The ‘Or Not’ factor is our pressure valve, the delete button, the time for self-reflection without navel gazing. What if we imagine this from a different angle? What if creative communities are at the heart of social well-being? What if we are the gatekeepers, the wardens of possibilities? What if you suddenly had the power to change something? What if suddenly you become obsolete?
Build it into your practice: What have I missed? Am I engaging in critical practice or repeating the same old? Are my failures and successes measurable and how, for whom? What is needed now, what is not there yet? Show me the way to the next paradigm shift.
We are keen to build this with anyone interested. Email us at email@example.com
Jennifer Lyons-Reid & Carl Kuddell, 2011