Through the Digital Placemaking research project we've been thinking about how creative applications of technology can foster connection between people and places across Bristol and Bath. These places might be physical or digital, or a hybrid mix of both. We’ve been encouraged to deep dive into our specific interests and grow meaningful relationships with people who we’ve been co-creating our projects with. For me, this has meant speaking to and dreaming with creative changemakers at the intersection of inclusion and technology, especially Black and POC (People of Colour) makers and thinkers. It has meant thinking deeply about what happens when we centre individual and collective care and nourishment at the heart of digital placemaking. This blog post shares some of that journey.
As a creative and inclusion producer, over the last five years I’ve been fostering critical and cultural connections between ideas, people and places. I do this to shift the narratives and power dynamics which privilege some over others in the wider creative sector and society and help more inclusive practices take root. I am a 31 year old, mixed race White and British South Asian woman (yea, that box) who last year completed a Masters in Creative Producing. I recognise in that positionality, the tensions at play when I take up space in creative / digital industry processes and conversations. I am determined to use my privilege (educated to masters, light skinned, working for myself and by and large my rules) to make our sector more inclusive, and also to honour my lived experience as a young(er) woman of colour operating in a predominantly white space, where the majority of storytellers and decision (and money) makers ‘at the top’ are still predominantly white men.
"I believe that when we place care and openness at the heart of our relationships, we usher in the possibility for transformation."
It is only in the last year or so that I’ve understood more fully that my practice is rooted in a culture of care that is shared and developed across the projects and organisations I work with, like Rising Arts Agency. Through my practice, I find creative ways to embed care into processes within the creative industries: from filmmaking, to event curation; programme co-design to workshop facilitation for artists, organisations and funders. This approach involves active listening, holding space for sensitive and challenging conversations, and flexible frameworks which centre people (not projects) so we may embrace the unexpected and emergent. I'm still learning about this process of staying in the ‘not knowing’ and not shying away from complexity, which I can see offers much power and potential.
I believe that when we place care and openness at the heart of our relationships, we usher in the possibility for transformation. If we can move toward an ‘inch wide mile deep’ paradigm that is based on meaningful relationships, which allow for emergent outcomes — and go deep with the care of them — then we stand a chance of changing what we create and therefore what futures we manifest. we allow ourselves to enact ‘inch wide mile deep’ practices. This sentiment and other guiding practices are explored in American author, doula, women's rights activist and Black feminist Adrienne Marie Brown’s work Emergent Strategy, which has helped me find a new language for expressing these parts of my creative practice and beliefs. Thank you to Rabab at Gentle/Radical for introducing me to her work.
[If any of this is chiming with you... I really encourage you to read it too. There’s so much work to do.]
In the first few weeks of the fellowship back in 2019, it became clear that we were looking at how digital placemaking over the next ten years could help us think differently about the world we live in and our place in it. Exploring digital placemaking within that widened horizon, in deep and focused ways, has felt at times frustrating (because we’ve all realised what a long way to go to achieve real system change), but ultimately, it has felt liberating. How often in a project are you encouraged to look a decade into the future, and start laying the foundations for new ways of imagining (and reimagining) it?
Currently global and multinational companies have the monopoly on how we experience digital innovation. Digital placemaking is often figured as flashy, fast, top down interventions which newer technologies like 5G, holograms, augmented reality are combined with cutting edge urban design. These interventions increase connectivity or productivity, and create ‘added value’ for those who already hold power in our cities (mostly through the commodification and sale of our personal data). But within this model, the social (and environmental) impact of all this is not considered. The Bristol and Bath Clusters programme has put culture at the heart of the conversation which has helped us to shift the metrics governing and perpetuating global/corporate digital placemaking. We’re interested in interventions and infrastructure which centre the local, the social, the accountability of makers and include expanded ideas about culture and cultural value (not focusing solely on cultural capital generated by institutions). To me, this means digital placemaking with and for people that puts care and human needs, and not money or status, at the heart of its processes. It’s been a joy to explore these ideas with the cohort and I would encourage you in particular to look at projects by Digital Placemaking Fellows Grace Quantock, Will Taylor, Tim Lo and Shawn Sobers.
The process has demonstrated the power of the collective to change the narrative, coming as we do from multiple angles and with diverse perspectives, but with overlapping and complementary visions. As practitioners who focus on, or are inspired by, inclusive practices we have validated, challenged and amplified each other, and this has helped me take up space and build confidence in my own ways of seeing the world. One of the goals I set myself at the start of this research project was to use my voice - use it more, and unapologetically, to paint pictures with words of what I want to see in the world and fully embrace that mark making. Conversations with the fellows, and many others, have facilitated this growth. Curating conversations and making this mini podcast series exploring my ideas has also been another way of practicing this.
Over the course of the project, the questions I’ve been asking have changed and I struggled with this for some time, feeling I was failing. But I’ve learnt that I am exactly where I need to be, that I have been listening, observing and reflecting, and that things have come to life as and when they were supposed to. I’ve taken a lot of strength from a quote that fellow Shawn Sobers shared with us early on from anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston that posits that “research is formalised curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” Shawn speaks about inductive approaches to research which allow us to follow unexpected paths: as we generate data, make our observations and reflect, we are then better informed to make and remake our hypotheses. Whilst my core mission - to centre Black and POC creatives and changemakers in digital placemaking - has remained the same, the way in which I’m exploring this has shifted a lot.
At the start of the programme, I began by asking ‘How might creative digital placemaking in Bristol foster young POC creatives' connectivity and agency in the city?’ which was in many ways a continuation of the work I had been doing with Rising Arts Agency at the time. Rising’s Whose Culture project (2018-2020) aimed to map the cultural engagement of young creatives and colour and provide opportunities to build community across creatives in physical and digital spaces. I was curious about what it would mean to remodel Bristol’s existing and future digital infrastructure to serve Black and POC people, in particular creatives and people working for change, in particular those aged 18-30. I was asking questions like, what digital interventions could help us do bigger, louder work through increased platforming, connectivity and entrepreneurship?
I was deep diving into Instagram culture and particularly thinking about how it was being used by diaspora communities as a tool for representation, entrepreneurship and placemaking - when for a lot of Black and POC at some level, you’re ultimately experiencing a form of displacement. I was interested in the aesthetics and performance of activism within a platform like Instagram, which ultimately encourages you to convert your cultural capital into capital for the attention economy. I wanted to understand more about the commercialisation and co-option of digital diaspora connectivity and understand what that might look like on a local level where cultural capital could be converted into other forms of value which served local communities (young POC) in meaningful ways. I was asking questions like, does our cultural capital have to be converted? Can cultural capital exist only as cultural offerings and not be monetised or co-opted? What could that look like?
Then in May 2020, with the murder to George Floyd sparking a new wave of intense uprisings across the globe through the Black Lives Matter movement, we saw another shift in how we might make change. We began to witness what happens when the work and debates you’ve been involved in - of if you are a Black person - the lived experiences that you’ve been dealing with your whole life - are suddenly on everyone’s (white) lips…
It is overwhelming. The violence, the hypervisibility, being expected to explain or present your trauma to the world, to educate, do emotional labour. The burden of this work was and still is falling on Black people, and has been rippling out to many POC. Many of the latter (from older generations in particular), have been re-evaluating what support and solidarity looks like, and stepping into their power as agents of anti racism.
It is exhausting. At Rising Arts Agency we took a wellbeing week off in June. I pressed pause on several projects and diverted my energy to supporting myself, my community and peers. I know many people who came off social media entirely. In those moments, we understood that ‘firefighting’ can only go on so long. We deeply listened and came to learn more about what we needed for ourselves to feel more rested and well and what space/s we wanted and needed to create for ourselves and others.
So - if you’ve reached this far. Amazing. In case you need to - this is me butting in to tell you - take a break, get up, strike a power pose, shake it out, grab a cuppa? Whatever works for you. And then come back and settle back for part two…
Grounding Ourselves In Digital Space
Lockdown also offered us “a portal” to self care (Arandhuti Roy). Many, myself included, were shocked to the extent to which we/society normalise expectations of productivity as everything moved online and we were expected to ‘power through’. It shone a light on how our self worth and value has become so linked to how much we can produce. It highlighted the hypocrisy and complacency at the heart of our ableist systems of work and leisure, which have consistently excluded disabled people from spaces as we began, finally, to investigate en mass innovative, collective and digital ways of operating that many disabled people have been asking for for so long.
In my freelance producing work, I was running workshops exclusively online (Zoom) and holding space in new ways, learning about the art of connecting through screens in new digital spaces of gathering. Our facilitation became more mindful of how we hold space for diverse groups of people with diverse needs and preferences. Much of those spaces centered around care and access, shared in the not knowing and the newness of these experiences, and revelled in the criticality that our current climate is stoking.
I sensed a shift in myself when I ‘stepped into’ digital spaces which were hosted by institutions, but which no longer had those physical institutional walls around me. Whilst oppressive dynamics absolutely map into digital spaces and behaviors in these spaces (think - being ignored or gaslit in meetings), I found a strength in being in my home (my space), having my slippers on, and feeling more ready than ever to exercise my power (my voice and my perspective) in its fullness, in digital space. I acknowledge that having a space to work in, largely undisturbed, in itself is a huge privilege that has enabled me to develop new relationships within digital space/s.
This year, more of us than ever have been finding ways to ground ourselves in an uncertain and intense world: understanding what it means to feel good, to be mindful of what we need, to need care, and extending that out to others too… Within this context my ideas around digital placemaking began to soften and re-form. Responding to what myself and others needed, I started to think about what a digital/physical/hybrid space where we could feel nourished might look like? What about space/s where we can feel (as) wholly ourselves (as possible) without (much) explanation, a space to feel comforted, to feel comfortable, to just be, to process in our own ways? My desk research and informal conversations began to explore what it might mean to gather in ways which centre care; my research question gradually revealing itself as, ‘How might we create hybrid digital and physical ‘spaces of care’ that centre young Black and POC creatives and changemakers?’
Throughout this process I’ve been working from a story perspective and exploring the intersections of rest, race, culture, disability, labour and politics. I’ve been engaging in organic, free form conversations with makers who would call themselves activists and those who would not - but are whose very existence in certain spaces is a form of resistance. I’ve spent time asking questions that elicit stories - generating qualitative data about the themes and feelings at play in what I’ve been calling, ‘spaces of care’.
"This year, more of us than ever have been finding ways to ground ourselves in an uncertain and intense world: understanding what it means to feel good, to be mindful of what we need, to need care, and extending that out to others too…"
The Threads That Connect Us
IMAGE - 'Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare' - Audre Lorde
My research has traced the connecting threads between social justice and rest, cultures and communities of care, and how these play out in physical and digital spaces. I have been inspired by:
Sculptural installations such as furry places of rest by installation artist Uzumaki (and those we’ve seen closer to home like Fluffy Library), as well as curatorial initiatives that reclaim laziness and idleness as power such as Black Power Naps and The Nap Ministry which exist both in physical and digital guises.
Writings which unpack the politics and realities of resting such as texts like Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Care Work. This creative non fiction writing explores disability justice, a movement that centers the lives and leadership of sick and disabled queer, trans, Black, and brown people and speaks of collective care webs and new forms of mutual aid. Audre Lorde has also been a great source of un/learning and re/learning, in particular when thinking about how as women we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge, and how this is connected to ideas of self/collective care and rest.
Most of all, I have been inspired whilst speaking to incredible thinkers from Bristol and beyond, whose stories have given shape and fullness to the hunches I’ve been following. Creating the podcast has been an important way of platforming the voices of radical thinkers and creatives, predominantly women of colour, who I deeply respect. Within the podcast, I offer my reflections alongside comments from:
Courtenay Welcome (Fine Artist) talking about representation and roles in processes of self and collective care
Euella Jackson (Rising Arts Agency) reflecting on culture, community, creativity and capitalist systems of production
Grace Kress (Shelby X Studios) exploring activism and collective care in physical and digital space
Grace Quantock (Digital Placemaking Fellow) speaking on the histories and stories we tell and are told about labour, rest and place
Josie Gyasi (KWMC) reflecting on curating recipes for rest and taking up space
Malizah (Artist) speaking on the role of creativity in being good to and knowing ourselves
Rabab Ghazoul (Gentle/Radical) exploring the intersecting oppressions and opportunities of place, race and rest
Raquel Mesegeur (Theatremaker) speaking about rest and lying down an act of resistance and method for reframing and reclaiming public space
Tessa Ratuszynska (Expanded Performance Fellow) sharing their new research into bespoke digital spaces for those with marginalised identities
Stacey Olika (Amaka Design/No Boundaries) thinking about what 2020 has meant for change makers and the spaces we need
Spaces of Care
Themes which have emerged and guided me in the research and podcasting have included:
Digital space making - questions around what digital placemaking is/has been and what it could be; the challenges in making spaces for ourselves; the norms of ‘place making’ and how to subvert these in physical/digital/emotional space; the pace and rhythms of making space in more caring ways.
Taking up space - unpacking what it means to take up space in new ways; complicating notions of ‘activism’; thinking about both personal and collective journeys towards resting spaces, and particularly the politics of rest.
Spaces of care - exploring the role of representation, authenticity, agency, spirituality, creativity, joy and celebration in creating digital / physical spaces which centre care, rest and freedom.
A new world is being built in digital space / or digital interventions in our physical world and we need to be a part of the conversation. I’ve come to understand that we can refigure digital placemaking from a means for cultural regeneration of places/economies into digital space making which centres culture as a means to regenerating and restoring ourselves. Most of all, I’ve learnt that it is ok to not leap into action (as producers tend to do), but to let things emerge - slowly feeling my way to something different and more responsive. This research therefore feels like it is still only the beginning of more conversations, workshops and development which will test and re-imagine new digital space making and spaces of care with those they are being built for and by.