In Exploring cultural identities through art Sue Wilkie shared her reflections on the role of culture and global education.

A group of teachers, educators and arts workers came together to discuss the ideas in that article.

Initial group discussions occupied the overlap between Sustainable Development, Education and Art.  Thinking revolved around what art and culture can contribute to personal, social and environmental wellbeing, locally and globally …  and how this might translate into educational practice.

Taking creative risks, making crucial connections A first challenge arose:  to focus on some key ideas contained within the mass of stuff which was coming up.  And so, we set a course and headed for “over there somewhere.”

This approach may seem vague, but it holds a core idea.  The group recognised that the process was as valuable as the end product: to develop creative fresh thinking we needed to take risks and trust in our own learning process.  We wanted to apply the theoretical ideas we were exploring to the way we were working as a group.

As well as thinking about the process itself, a consideration of the relationships between core concepts was also key to our work.  Arts and education practise does not always integrate with sustainable development.  These concepts included wellbeing and interdependence.  We visualised this as a nesting system, interconnecting the wellbeing of the self, the local and the wider world, with the health of each of the systems dependent on that of the others.

Human activity is a subset of the human [social] environment, which is in turn a subset of the natural environment.  Each subset relies on the larger set in order to exist.  Each larger set relies on the health of its subsets in order to sustain its wellbeing.  [An individual’s wellbeing is similarly dependent on larger systems, but individual wellbeing also impacts on them]

At this stage, we also looked further into the relationships between art, education and sustainable development.  On the one hand we discussed whether art and education could exist without sustainable development – but could sustainable development exist without the other two?  On the other, sustainable development is about change and transformation, and this can also be true of arts and education.  All three help us make meaning of the world, developing a sense of self and being, place and belonging, sharing a set of ideas and values.

“Sustainable development is about change and transformation, and this is also true of arts and education.”

Thinking through making

After pushing and pulling these ideas out, creative activity helped evolve the group’s thinking.  A large montage of words and drawing was created to show our responses to the ideas.  This process drew out two overriding subjects, that of transformation, and that of being human.

Our next move was to take these ideas through a making process, and in doing so develop our sense of ‘thinking through making’.  This is where an idea is brought to a creative activity, with the intention of producing a product.

What is important here is that, in order to get to the product, the participant has to think through the idea, make some sense of it, and share this with others.  This process is circular, stimulating further thinking and alternative ideas.

We tried this out by answering the question ‘what does transformation look like?’ - using different materials and objects.  The process worked extremely well, expressing meanings through associations, different viewpoints and effectively documenting the journey.

Sculpting the future

From this we drew on works of social sculpture, which involves people working together to make meaning and objects.  Choosing the humble shopping bag as our medium, we chose the theme of “Bags of being or bags of buying?” and let loose our ideas on an unsuspecting workshop group of British and South African teachers at the June 2005 Tide~ conference.

After some initial reluctance the participants worked together to create a room size sculpture, transforming shopping bags into expressions of identity, culture and globalisation.

The feelings that you get from this process vary.  It has been liberating, and sometimes frustrating, to explore thoughts and ideas and express them visually, in a way that does not require traditional artistic skills.

This, of course, can be challenging for the educator, because you are not quite sure where the results can end up, and so requires a degree of flexibility, risk taking and of trust in your facilitation skills.  This trust should also be present in the management of the setting, contributing to a creativity environment.

We have developed a paper which sets some challenges for teachers, artists and educators to chew over, and invites them to take these ideas further.  We are still on course for 'over there somewhere', so come and join us on the path.   Take a look at the project paper, grab some simple materials and have a play.

“Bags of being, or bags of buying?”

People who care little about themselves are reckless stewards of the future. Art [by which I mean art, craft and design] is a kind of practical thinking which enables people to find a sense of place. A self affirming cultural activity which can contribute to changing us and our world in a sustainable way.

Bag of buying

Globalised culture, saturation advertising and the commodification of every aspect of daily life.  Branded identity is dehumanising.
Environmental, social disaster in the making – well documented, but also personal, individual disasters -  the more we consume the emptier and more meaningless we become.

Bag of being

Subvert the label, use it to discover your identity and share it. – the process of self realisation and sense of place begins.
The act of making is self affirming. You contribute to the culture, reinforce your identity through the thinking use of techniques, and image making.

Extracted from notes from a presentation to ITE students by Sue Wilkie, Bartley Green Technology College

Human beings or human buyings?  Download the project paper click here