December 4, 2012

Jo Broadwood, People United’s Head of Research and Innovation, talks about her visit to two inspiring art projects involving connections to both the past and the future.

One of the (many) benefits of working for People United is our Go and See scheme for staff, where we are encouraged to attend arts events as long as we promise to write about them afterwards. So, I took some time away from the office to do my first Go and Sees.

Collective Spirit is the name of the boat made from over a thousand pieces of wood donated by people across the southeast, as part of the cultural Olympiad. Like many people I love the sea, and what a boat symbolises – a sense of adventure, a journey, and a curiosity to see what is beyond the horizon. So at first sight the 30-foot boat looked incongruous in the middle of Kings College quad, completely landlocked by concrete buildings. But one of the other people on the tour told me that the river used to come almost up to the opening at the southern end of the quad, and I suddenly had a sense of this tiny shiny wooden boat drifting quietly along the Thames to anchor there in order to reveal its stories.

Gary, one of the directors of Lone Twin the art company responsible for creating Collective Spirit was our guide. He talked us through the story of the boat and its creation. The only proviso they had for accepting a donation was that there had to be a story attached to it. Each donated object had been painstakingly sectioned and melded into the hull of the boat.  Shapes such as a child’s wooden train set, a hobby horse head, an axe handle, walking sticks laid in rows with their curved ends like breaking waves, guitars, a carved wooden heart, and a wooden elephant showed up clearly against the bigger more uniform planks of wood. What was astonishing was that Gary knew all the stories. The Bedouin tent peg that had been discovered in the sand by a woman on a trip to the Sahara; the hairbrush which had come from the set of the ‘Carry On’ films, the piece of wood from the RMS Olympic, sister ship to the Titanic, the carved wooden walking stick from Ghana that had been used to finish off the ends of the hull, and, of course, a piece from our very own beach hut at Herne Bay. The makers ensured that all donations were recorded and honoured and could easily be found in the grid of numbers running along the edges of the hull.

John Ballatt and Penelope Campling in their excellent book Intelligent Kindness, talk about the origins of the word kind being rooted in the old English noun ‘cynd’, which means ‘nature’, ‘family’, ‘lineage’, ‘kin’. It indicates that we are all connected to each other by force of our common humanity, and these connections stretch across geographical distances and across time; Collective Spirit was a potent symbol of this ancient definition of ‘kind’.

My second Go and See was all about connections too, but more specifically our connection with the future. The question posed to the audience in the opening minutes of The Roadless Trip was ‘What will the world be like in 2030?’ Sarah Woods and Richard Gott curated, performed, and presented their quest to discover the answer in this mixed media show incorporating film, interviews with thinkers, scientists and philosophers, and a couple of very funny audience participation game shows, including the ‘build your own self-participating universe’ game. Their dry deadpan delivery and quirky humour delighted the audience whilst along the way they made moving and important points about the fundamental nature of our interconnectedness through issues such as global food production, energy use, and climate change. Their answer to what will the world be like is, – whatever we imagine or dream it will be like…. It emphasised the importance of telling stories of the future and imagining our desired world, so that ‘when fragments of what we dream come by we can grab them and make use of them’. Part of a day organised by the excellent Case for Optimism it underlined the role of the arts in helping to fire our imaginations and dream a different world.

International mediator and peace builder John Paul Lederach talks about ‘living in a 200 year old present’, as if we are holding hands at the same time with both the oldest person we know and the youngest person. The importance of understanding our connections with the past and each other, and how our actions in the present affect our shared future is a key theme in our paper, Arts and Kindness. Both these projects in their different ways beautifully and movingly, emphasised these ideas of interconnectedness and relationship across time and space.

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