Towards a Community of ‘Amateur Creativity’ Research?

Within days of beginning the Get Creative Research Project we came across the AHRC funded initiative, ‘Amateur Dramatics: Crafting Communities in Time and Space’, and were excited to find that a symposium coming out of the project would be taking place at the University of Warwick in mid-September. The Amateur Dramatics project – of which Helen Nicholson is the Principal Investigator – is a collaboration between Royal Holloway and the Universities of Exeter and Warwick, where co-Investigators Jane Milling and Nadine Holdsworth are based respectively. The project also involves two PhD projects, undertaken by Cara Gray and Sarah Penny.

Attending the symposium in Warwick on 17th and 18th September was a great opportunity to hear more about the work of the Amateur Dramatics initiative, and to engage with the work of researchers within theatre studies (and some from other disciplines, including media studies and anthropology) whose research is also exploring histories, sites and practices of amateur creativity. In her opening remarks, Helen Nicholson suggested that amateur creativity is in the “zeitgeist”, and that this is “an agenda setting moment”. This resonates with our feeling on the Get Creative Research Project. But why has this upsurge of interest in amateur practice come about? How do we account for this feature of the zeitgeist? Is it a consequence of technological changes? Funding conditions? Broader shifts in (cultural) politics?

This is one issue that the Get Creative Research Project will open up, as part of our work in addressing the question: what would it mean, for whom – and under what circumstances – for there to be more cultural creativity in the UK? Is this simply a matter of better (and, in some sense, more ‘democratic’) modes of recognition, better recognizing what cultural creativity is already ‘out there’? Or is this also a matter of intervening in policy processes and funding mechanisms? The papers presented at the Warwick conference confirm that both the recognition and funding of ‘amateur’ creativity are very live issues, and require considerable further attention. To take just two examples, the paper given my Nazneen Ahmed and David Gilbert, drawing on their work on the ‘Making Suburban Faith’ project, powerfully illustrated the range of creativity taking place in religious contexts that is typically overlooked by funding bodies and other official mechanisms by which creative activity is recognized and supported; whilst the “provocation” presented by Molly Goyer Gorman strongly suggested that funding changes in Northern Ireland are putting youth drama at risk in the area. As we look towards the start of our fieldwork in the coming weeks, the two days of discussion at Warwick strongly indicate that we are asking the right questions, and provide much food for thought.

The Amateur Dramatics project itself investigates practices of amateur theatre specifically – both contemporary and historical – and has a particular focus on how amateur theatre shapes ‘community’. During the first session of the conference Helen, Nadine and Jane set out some of the central concerns of the initiative. Their starting point is the question, “are we are missing something about amateur creativity”, especially when we adopt the perspectives of the ‘creative class’ and ‘creative cities’ approaches to urban (re-)development? (See my blog post on Spaces of Creativity for a discussion closely related to this question and the issues it raises.) Their work is based around the idea of ‘constructed communities’ outside of metropolitan spaces; and the project’s case studies are located within suburbia, garden cities / new cities, villages, market towns and the Royal Navy. In this way the project is in part addressing questions of “the geography of amateur creativity”, including sites of domestic creativity; improvised places of performance; and theatre buildings.

During this opening session of the conference, Nadine Holdsworth pointed out that amateur creativity is more often than not marginalized, and – with her particular interest in questions of heritage – she also suggested that amateur creativity, often local, is typically not recognized by the state as heritage as such. The Amateur Dramatics project has found evidence of “alternative archives”, and important examples of self-generated history, and self-generated archives, in the form of scrapbooks, for example. Moreover, Holdsworth suggested that the project indicates ways in which amateur theatrical creativity should be understood to exemplify “embodied archives” through memory and shared practice.

In these ways and others the Amateur Dramatics project provides examples of the processes of recognition (and the absence of recognition) that the Get Creative Research Project will be exploring across a variety of sites of creativity. Through its explicit concern with processes of community building, the Amateur Dramatics project also provides a series of rich examples of modes of sociality taking place through amateur creative practice. It is one of the concerns of the Get Creative Research Project to explore the varieties of sociality taking place across a range of creative sites. In some cases we may find that these may reasonably be described as ‘communities’. In other instances we may need to employ different vocabularies through which to describe the modes of being together – or of not being together, or of being-together-in-conflict, etc. – that are taking place through creative practice. This will also involve investigating how these modes of sociality are connected to processes of recognition by which the creative practices in question are located within (or excluded from) wider cultural ecologies.

Across the two days of the symposium, a number of papers explored examples of ‘overlooked’ sites of amateur creativity, many of which also challenged the drawing of neat distinctions between amateur and professional practice. Cumulatively, these papers demonstrate a growing interest in amateur activity from a variety of perspectives, including, for example: the history of the relationship between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’; the genealogy of this dichotomy; the methodological and ethical challenges of studying amateur creativity; and the political and policy implications of amateur creativity and its positioning in relation to professional practice.

From the perspective of the Get Creative Research Project the symposium was a big box of treasure, with upwards of 22 papers exploring amateur and everyday creativity from a variety of perspectives. The conference confirmed my sense of the importance of asking questions about the (organisational and non-organisational) conditions in which creativity takes place – and what consequences follow from these conditions for modes of sociality and cultural value. I take these to be key concerns of the Get Creative Research Project.

One particularly rich example for thinking through these questions was the paper given by Diego Pellecchia on amateur practices of Noh Theatre in Japan. This example suggests that amateur creativity can take place within a very ‘formalised’ set up, with amateurs learning ‘the right way’ to execute the gestures through which Noh theatre is practiced. Noh theatre is an example of a culture of creativity in which ‘amateurs’ are acutely concerned with developing their expertise, with developing their capacities to practice an art in the ‘correct’ way. This example calls into question any presumption that creativity is a condition of ‘freedom from constraint’, and that amateur creativity is a perhaps particularly unconstrained sphere of creative activity. It also challenges any presumption that amateur creativity is distinguished from other modes of creativity by its comparative freedom from the valorization of expertise. The example encourages us to be sceptical about aligning amateur creativity with freedom from disciplinary structures of knowledge and expertise. But it also encourages us to think broadly about the ways in which – if the valorization of legitimate knowledge and expertise may at times function as part of ‘disciplining’ processes (c.f. Foucault), or processes of distinction (c.f. Bourdieu) – they are not only disciplining or involved in processes of legitimation and hierarchy.

Diego’s paper also lead me to think further about how amateur creativity can operate as an opportunity for varieties of self-cultivation, and the ways in which discourses and processes of ‘self-cultivation’, ‘expertise’ and ‘knowledge’ must not be presumed to be disciplining structures. In Diego’s paper he mentioned that for a number of amateur participants in Noh theatre “self-cultivation” was part of their aim in being involved. When I asked him to elaborate the accounts of self-cultivation he had heard in the context of amateur Noh practice, he spoke about older people (in this case, 50 years and upwards) – the primary participants in amateur Noh – placing themselves in a new social position within a society that has a very deferential attitude towards the elderly. Amateur participants in Noh theatre tell Diego they like being placed in a situation in which they learn, in which they can be corrected. This is very rich and interesting for helping us to think about some of the pleasures of creative practice. It also raises question about the extent to which ‘knowledge’ and/or ‘getting it right’ operate within different sites and cultures of creativity.

Moreover, the example of amateur Noh practice in Japan re-emphasises the importance of being attentive the variety of modes of sociality and modes of ‘participation’ being experienced, generated and contested in these different sites. Important questions about ‘participatory’ modes of amateur / professional collaboration were raised by Daniel Ashton’s paper, in which he made a reading of the ‘Life in Day’ film project, questioning the extent to which the participants in the project exercised creative agency. He thereby provided a useful challenge to any easy presumption that ‘participatory’ practices are ‘democratic’ or straightforwardly facilitating of expanded opportunities for creativity. This echoes the work of Helen Freshwater (2009) and Clare Bishop (2012) in asking us to pause in valorizing ‘participatory’ practice, to pay close research attention to how processes of participation operate in practice, to what freedoms and constrains are in operation, to whose agency operates where and how, and to what modes of sociality and creativity take place through any given example of ‘participatory’ art.

Questions of agency were also at stake (more or less explicitly) in discussions of the methods and ethics through which research into amateur creativity takes place – another important and generative part of the conference. Claire Cochrane’s paper, in particular, explored the experience of being an ‘insider-outsider’, as a former amateur theatre maker turned academic, returning to her former stomping ground to conduct research. She invoked the idea and possibility of “an ethics of care” in research: in other words, aiming towards what she described as “interpretive empathy” in the research process. This lead me to wonder whether we might think about looking to observe an “ethics of care” as operating not only in the research process, but within some sites of amateur creative practice themselves (regardless of the presence or absence of a researcher).What might this look like? How might care be in operation within these spaces of (amateur) creativity? What are the ethical aspects of these practices? And what role might ‘care’ being playing in these spaces which are – typically – outside of a monetary economy of paid work? How might we think about economies of care taking place within sites of amateur creativity? What varieties of care do we see taking place? What processes and techniques of care? What objects, people and processes are cared for?

Care might be thought of as one particular – and perhaps particularly important mode – of giving value to things, people, places, processes. Perhaps we need to think about how conditions are created in which care can take place. Perhaps there are examples of organisations in which there is a ‘deficit of care’. Perhaps there are examples in which creative activities create spaces in which an ethics of care can take place, where previously conditions appeared not to allow for interpersonal relations characterised by those kinds of relations. Sarah Weston’s very interesting paper on her work using “performance as research” in various sites in Manchester provides one example that seems to illustrate this possibility: as she described how a group of more-or-less alienated theatre ushers took part in a creative workshop in which they came to care for an imaginary character they were collectively creating. Moreover, the paper given by Anne-Marie Green suggested that amateur theatre can constitute an “unusually open emotional space”, in which important modes of “affective labour” can take place. Other examples explored during the symposium indicate the passionate intensity and attachment that some amateurs can develop within their activities. As we conduct our fieldwork in the Get Creative Research Project, we should be attentive both to the processes of care taking place in creative practice, and also – perhaps inseparable from this – the modes of affective labour in operation within these sites.

I came away from the conference excited by the energy and potential of the conversations, and by the feeling that there exists a growing community – in and around theatre studies at least – of researches exploring amateur practice; challenging the amateur / professional distinction. These are issues of which the Get Creative Research Project is attempting to take a broad view – drawing on a series of ethnographic case studies, interviews with Get Creative champions in six regions of the UK, and on the overall evaluation of the Get Creative campaign – in order to both make a significant empirical contribution and to develop a set of conceptual interventions in the identification and valuing of cultural creativity.

The Get Creative Research Project, amongst its other aims, seeks to contribute to affecting shifts in the discursive (and potentially the policy) framings of ‘amateur’ creativity. Engaging in and contributing to the kinds of conversations that took place at the Amateur Dramatics symposium – and cultivating a shared sense of a community of researchers engaged with these issues – will be one important part of achieving the Get Creative Research Project’s broader action research ambitions. On the basis of the Warwick symposium, there is a nascent community of ‘amateur creativity’ researchers that is primed to make a broad range of critiques of the very distinction of amateur / professional itself. This, for starters, will constitute a significant challenge to the processes of recognition and value attribution that this dichotomy currently helps to sustain.

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4 Responses to Towards a Community of ‘Amateur Creativity’ Research?

  1. Pingback: Grease Lightning! And my first conference paper |

  2. Diego says:

    Reblogged this on 外国人と能 and commented:
    Here is a great review of the symposium ‘Amateur Creativity: Inter-disciplinary Perspectives’ – delighted to read that my paper on Amateurs in Noh Theatre was so well received!


  3. Pingback: ‘Laboratories of Fun’ – Fun Palaces Weekend 2015 | Get Creative Research

  4. Pingback: Towards a Community of ‘Amateur (/Everyday) Creativity’ Research? (II) | Get Creative Research

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