N A Ratives blog post image

Digital Placemaking Category

Whose New Normal?

by Lyndsay Davies, boomsatsuma and Michele Curtis, Iconic Black Britons

The relationship between boomsatsuma and Iconic Black Britons is a longstanding one but the nARratives project has generated much excitement and expectation for both organisations.

With inclusion and celebration of difference at its heart, our Digital Placemaking project will see our organisations collaborate in a new way. With nARratives, we are co-constructing and co-delivering an exploration of the intersections of community, technology and culture. We are creating a prototype that will digitally augment local art and cultural narratives to allow people to collectively experience place.

Or at least we were…

Our work is location-based and heavily content driven. We’re augmenting the Seven Saints of St. Pauls murals, in fixed locations throughout St. Pauls, and we need access to the community in order to consult and seek opinion about the shape of the augmented content. Without the ability to build these simple foundations, we have had to pause the majority of the project and remodel our approach whilst we wait for the work to resume in July.

Lyndsay: Most importantly, the pause has allowed us time to observe and reflect. We’re now starting to see lockdown loosen its grip on the UK. For better or worse, this has offered the nARratives team a glimmer of hope, a small but mindful light at the end of an unnerving tunnel. As the situation evolves, and the restrictions develop and lessen, we will press play on our project again, but this is not without caution and learning.

Naturally, key questions have been unearthed - key questions that will prompt speculative answers but need to be given time nonetheless. How collective will safe collectivity be? Will audiences seek face-to-face connection or shy away from it? Will enforced physical distance, and the visibility of PPE, create and reinforce barriers to meaningful sharing and discussion, or, will these measures instil the confidence needed for it to thrive?

Fundamentally, these questions help us to reconsider the practical elements of our project but being in isolation has also afforded us time to consider some of the wider themes of our project content. For many, isolation isn’t a new state of being.

Our project is about inclusive interaction. It’s about people learning about people. It’s about new technologies inspiring collective audiences to engage with the DNA of an environment, identifying intangible cultural heritage and exploring the value and contributions of people that experienced isolation and used it as a driver for change.

Michele: To an extent, Black and ethnic communities have always lived in a socially and physically distanced world, due to the ongoing stigmatisation and institutional racism that has permeated Britain. In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, this hasn’t changed and during this period I have asked myself, on many occasions … “are we really in this together?

One sunny spring morning, after being self-quarantined for over a month, I ventured out to purchase groceries and for the first time, experienced “our new normal”. We arrived at the supermarket to see a line of patrons queueing in an orderly fashion, each standing two meters apart, patiently waiting to enter the store. We joined the queue and stood on the mark, indicating that we were two metres behind the person in front of us. The older, white gentleman, two metres away, turned around and looked at us. He then proceeded to move off his marker and walk to stand closer and, less than two metres away from the white woman in front of him. As I observed this, I had to wonder why he felt it was necessary to move further away? Having been inside for a month - in my safe place - this experience made me contemplate further the notion of place, togetherness and community - three themes integral to the lives and actions of the Seven Saints of St. Pauls, the subject of the murals.

Ethnic minorities are being stigmatised in the press amid the Covid-19 pandemic. We’ve seen the widespread xenophobia and mistreatment of Africans and ‘foreigners’ in China who are being blamed for spreading the virus. We’ve read about the African Caribbean community being disproportionately affected by the virus in the UK and US. We’ve seen social media explode when French doctors suggested vaccine experiments should be trialed in Africa. We’ve observed the white washing of the NHS in their campaign to support frontline workers. And now we’re seeing BIPOC communities condemned for activism against structural racism and police brutality all over the world. It would appear and often feels that we are not in this together. This is not our new normal.

Lyndsay: What is clear, is that we’re in the midst of change. The results of which are yet to be determined but the degree of the impact is likely to be broad and far-reaching, drastically affecting some of Bristol’s most vulnerable people.

As a project team, we’re focusing on what’s possible. We are in the crux of reshaping processes and finding new, safe methods to develop and test our prototype. The way forward is uncertain but what we do know is what we believe in. Paramount to our project is the promotion of authentic, diverse narratives and their ability to connect people, helping them reflect on the creative behaviours and actions that build and enrich a place.

So, as we start to move forward and physically occupy spaces that have felt distant in recent months, we will continue to build a digital showcase of creativity and community, recognising the importance and influence of diversity and heritage on the world around us.

Michele: The impact of this virus has highlighted that now more than ever our mission to fill the gap of multicultural representation and educate through the lens of art and culture, remains a key priority. BIPOC have been requesting basic human rights through activism and protesting since the transatlantic enslavement of African people and the Seven Saints of St Pauls were no different - our project offers the perfect opportunity for non-BIPOC to engage and learn about the wealth of heritage, culture and contributions of the African Caribbean community in Britain.

The nARratives project’s promotion of integration and inclusion continues as we explore new and exciting ways to connect communities that now face old divisions and new ones.

(Photo by Bhagesh Sachania photography ©️Michele Curtis - The Seven Saints of St. Paul’s App Launch 2019.)