Mulling on Mull: 2015 Artist Residency Reflections

14th April 2015

Mull artist residency

A few weeks following our Mull 2015 Arts & Sustainability Residency, Ben and Gemma from CCS take some time to share their reflections and learning from the weekend on Mull.

What were our aims?

This March, we gathered at Comar in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull for our second annual Arts and Sustainability Artist Residency. Our group included 12 artists from across Scotland, as well as a museum/art conservator, a researcher, two of us from Creative Carbon Scotland and a polymath who also works for Creative Scotland.

This year’s residency was structured around a weekend-long discussion on the extraordinary and ambitious Sustainable Development Goals proposed by a working group of the United Nations. These 17 goals have been hammered out over two years by 70 countries from both the developed and the developing world and if they are agreed by the UN in September will come into force on 1 January 2016, with the aim of achieving the goals by 2030.

Although at first glance it might be difficult to see what these goals have to do with artistic practice, we were keen to collectively explore whether they could be connected, which goals held particular traction for the artists involved and how we might use them to develop future work .

UN post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals

SDGs

Building on last year’s residency we also worked more closely with Comar to deepen our understanding of the organisation and the context of Mull.

We had a number of ambitions, including:

  • To provide artists, who may or may not have previously thought about environmental sustainability in their practice, with the space and stimuli to consider how it might drive new ways of working;
  • To collectively develop artists’, Creative Carbon Scotland’s and Comar’s thinking about how environmental sustainability can be engaged with in different artistic practices on practical and conceptual levels.
  • To nurture and build a creative community of practice which embeds environmental sustainability at its core.

What did we do?

Over the course of the weekend, our facilitator Mike Bonaventura from the Crichton Carbon Centre led us through different exercises to reflect on and discuss how we might engage with the SDGs through our individual or organisational practices.

The ambition of the SDGs is no mean feat with the first goal reading ‘End poverty in all its forms everywhere’! Each SDG has more tangible and specific objectives attached, but nonetheless these are global and very high level aims. In spite of this, it became clear that each of us could see how the SDGs could affect us, how we could contribute to their achievement and how the arts and cultural sector could play its part.

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Rebuilt sheep enclosure, FANK project, Mull

We spent Saturday afternoon braving the wind and rain on a site visit to a public art/heritage project initiative by artist Emma Herman-Smith where an old sheep fank is being restored. Led by Sion Parkinson, Creative Director of Visual Art, Craft & Film at Comar, we learnt about the history and ambitions of the site (with some sheep role play along the way to keep us warm). This discussion continued on Saturday evening when some Mull residents joined the group and we shared thoughts on Comar’s contribution to the sustainability of Mull’s small island community with a population of only 3,000 people.

On Sunday we were asked to start thinking practically, breaking into smaller group sessions before returning for a concluding group discussion. Each group was asked to imagine what the world would look like in 50 years’ time if it had been successfully reshaped according to the relevant SDGs and therefore reflected the focus on either Dignity, Justice, Partnership or Planet – four of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s guiding principles for the SDGs. In addition, we considered how art and artists had contributed to these future societies, and finally what the continuing place of the arts would be in such a world.

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What did we learn?

Although Creative Carbon Scotland’s focus is on environmental sustainability, much of the discussions had over the weekend involved ideas and questions around social sustainability: the SDGs focus on achieving gender equality and promoting the role of women and girls in sustainability matters and debates as well as on reducing inequality within and among countries. But they also focus on creating sustainable employment; on preserving ecosystems and the natural environment; and on the sustainable management of water. All of the participants found something that not only they could relate to in their work but they were enthusiastic about, that powered their artistic work and their lives. These weren’t remote, high level goals but ideas they could use day in, day out.

The more practical task of pinpointing how art and artists had helped achieve more sustainable future scenarios was challenging but there was no doubt about the enthusiasm amongst the group and the belief that art was and should be involved. A few of the points that came up included:

  • A society based on partnership will require a common, shared vision and also an emotional aspect: a partner needs to feel, to engage in order to get behind a vision. Emotional commitment can be the realm of art.
  • Historically art has usually been focused on what we might call ‘the project’: ensuring the cohesion of the hunter-gatherer group, celebrating the glory of one or more gods, maintaining the demos in ancient Greece. All these are about the sustainability of society. Maybe we need to be more enthusiastic about contributing to the modern ‘project’ of sustainability.
  • A reclaiming of the idea of ‘entrepreneurship’, moving it away from a focus on economics and towards a concept of ‘undertaking’ things, doing and acting. This seemed to fit well with what artists do.

The weekend finished with a discussion about what to do next. It was suggested that an important part of Creative Carbon Scotland’s role was to emphasise the valuing of sustainability thinking, not just to normalise it – in a way some of the work of making it a normal part of day to day life is already happening.

The SDGs provided the artists with justification and confidence about incorporating sustainability into their work, and the residency had strengthened their confidence that they were part of a group with shared values. The ‘community of practice’ that CCS is developing would and should do the same and we will use the opportunity of our upcoming April Green Tease to consider how Scotland’s artists and communities can contribute towards the Paris COP21.

We also looked forward to future residencies and other projects and sought comments on the structure of this one. There was great support for the work, but a number of people asked for a wider age range of participants; a wider range of activities and ways of working during the weekend; and getting outside more into the landscape (points all taken!).

Stephanie de Roemer, who was documenting the residency, has produced a more thorough report of the weekend’s events and discussions. Read the report here. Thanks to all who contributed to the weekend – it was truly inspiring!


 

Images: Vivian Ross-Smith, vivianrosssmith.wordpress.com

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We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.


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A project initiated by Edinburgh’s Festivals with key partners the Federation of Scottish Theatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network

Edinburgh Festival City Federation of Scottish Theatre Scottish Contemporary Art Network