For years creative practitioners, policymakers and public funders have struggled to align their work for positive eco-social change. They face very different constraints, they operate in and in relation to different kinds of cultures and institutions, and they have different conceptions of what does and should matter to different publics. They also speak very different languages. This has meant that those who are inclined to move beyond the arts' conventional domain of “expression”, to the activation and mobilisation of communities, have often struggled to access the resources they need to realise the full potential of their work. Policymakers have also missed out, on exposure to new methods developed by artists and designers in response to fast-changing social contexts. These include methods of engagement, group-driven discovery and research. Public funders are often still locked into financing and reporting regimes that favour industry-inspired measures of impact and success, such as economic value or counting “bums-on-seats” rather than evaluating deeper personal or social transformations1.
One of the primary tasks for the CreaTures team of researchers and creative practitioners has been to create tools and vocabularies that have the flexibility and eloquence to serve and speak across these different cultures rather than reinforce unhelpful divides. As they gathered up examples of creative projects and organisations that catalyse eco-social change they discovered that designers tend to talk about their work in terms of strategy and artists and craftspeople more just in terms of practice. They use these words in pitches and proposals to clients, funders and patrons to signal domain expertise and professionalism. And it was our researchers’ hunch that there was some productive unpicking to do here.
As someone interested in the design of art practice for engaging people in creating their own worlds, I found I had a lot to say about this
Strategy is planning for a long-term goal or for an overall aim. It is a deliberate spacetime-shaping discipline. It requires a calculating, problem-solving mindset that starts from the assessment and analysis of a situation and a course of action for a social purpose. We say this or that must change and, based on our understanding of the way the world works, we will need these skills, vehicles, tools and resources, and a way to motivate others to help us achieve our goals.
Every good strategy sets out its vision. The French aristocrat, novelist and military aviator, Antoine Saint-Exupery said “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea". This charming advice exposes the manipulative desire-creation at the heart of so much capitalist vision-creation. But it's not impossible to envision desirable eco-social change that also supports communities to thrive in places. So through image, story and invitation a good strategy addresses the desires of a constellation of interested parties, showing how their new needs will be newly met. Partners and institutions are then enlisted to bring about the promised transformations using (or hacking) the ledgers, language and laws of the land.
Practice, on the other hand, is what we do as artists, doctors, spiritual seekers, sports people, carers, and coders. Through application, we acquire skills: from painting, to singing and dancing, to prayer or meditation, relational acts of listening, improvising and caring, or more intellectual practices of writing essays or software. Practices connect us to cultural traditions through specific skills, crafts and knowledge systems transmitted by our ancestors. They evolve through experimental play shaped by the personalities, capacities and constraints of individuals, communities and contexts. The most revered practitioners are granted the authority to set new directions for their craft adding new dimensions or knowledge. Alone or in different social formations practice expands what we are capable of.
So where do these things cross over?
I’m going to talk about the arts because it's the field with which I have more familiarity.
Strategic planning in arts organisations currently makes artists accountable (indirectly, through administrative filters) to funders, institutional partners or sponsors. This service relationship is often awkward because artists are trained to resist the instrumentalisation of their practice, and are uneasy about their role in the manipulation, colonisation or gentrification of publics by art. Artists may balk at the idea of strategising the life of their work in the world. But as an artist, if you don't have an eye on the strategy you are probably part of someone else’s that is very likely to shape the values, meaning and impact of your work.
So I would argue that by openly and actively embracing strategy and practice together artists can realise common goals across difference and reimagine social and political infrastructure along the way. We can also see how better cross-mixing might help to break down barriers between creative practitioners and those working in policy and funding who are trained to think and work strategically. A better relationship between practice and strategy could herald a powerful shift in society by allowing practice to reveal, critique and celebrate emergent community-generated social realities and for strategy to respond, not only with ideas for new ways to resource them or profit from them, but to help them thrive and grow.
Play. Plan. Repeat.
Some artist practices do exactly this, creating adjacent social infrastructures that serve the needs of their community members by cultivating differently constellated cultural systems often while resisting existing values and constraints.
The Hologram for instance has evolved new feminist economic p2p care practices that are also envisaged for a post-capitalist world (and that might help to bring it about). It will not negotiate with coercive capitalism. Its practice is free and the Hologram code of conduct literally curses any attempt at cooption by the wellness industrial complex. The Hologram community puts experimental practice first, learns from its practitioners in carefully crafted patterns and rituals of feedback and evaluation, and only then builds its plans including its visions for future development and resource distribution. In this way, it is building a human community of practice that innovates coordination, and economies for p2p care. It is a viral practice - now performed by people on 5 continents - that by operating on terms set by its thousands of practitioners requires its funders and arts organisations to flex as collaborators.
The Treaty of Finsbury Park, our future fiction Live Action Role Play (LARP) for interspecies justice in urban green spaces has produced a co-created public artwork with a double arc of fictional and real-world strategies realised through a series of collective practice events that build empathy pathways to other species. Yes, we wanted to create a cultural experience with visual, multi-media, embodied and relational aesthetics. But the evolution of these collective practices was always one of the most important parts of the plan because it would result in co-produced experiences that bound together different knowledge holders of the park.
So we see creative strategies nested within practices and vice versa.
Furtherfield, the organisation that I co-founded, built community platforms and tools with a DIWO (Do It With Others) ethos as a context for and through experimental practices that used network technologies to cross-breed and generate a whole bunch of new practices arising from collaborations between coders, artists, and organisers: blogs, generative art, FLOSS licences to secure the right to copy, manipulate and appropriate, all in conversation with art history. In order to make the emergent work visible and accessible and to engage with wider publics we employed a strategy that I have only recently seen defined as “extitutional”. The art context we needed did not exist so we built our own. People told us we were building an institution but that never felt right. But we did collaborate on research and creation, and organise finance, fundraising, and communication platforms. We realised that the whole idea of an individual artistic genius is a fallacy. Some people might be more able to conjure fascinating imagery or be energetic improvisers of novelty but without the ability to connect to and work the levers of the world their work will likely stay hidden and without impact. So must we go the institutional route and create roles and rules where the whole defines the parts? And where the sustainability of the institution in a market-state context is prioritised? The lawyer and artist Primavera De Filippi describes an alternative. Her vision for extitutional organisation is one that evolves new patterns of behaviour and collaboration based on identities and relationship. This describes how we have worked for the last 25 years.
As we move from a time for understanding to a time for action on climate change the CreaTures Framework could provide a set of tools, vocabularies and case studies that will support us all to amplify the positive outcomes of all our work, with more confidence about the efficacy of our efforts. It could also provide an invaluable bridge between policy, funding and the arts. My hope is that it will revivify the cultural ecosystem by connecting up practices, strategies and resources to enable us to work in tandem for eco-social transformation with organisational forms more suited to the times.