‘If you're leaving tracks, you're being followed.’
Encounters’ Language Tracking Project, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, pilots a new approach to the evaluation of creative participatory projects in the UK. An exciting new departure for us in which we become ‘trackers’. Rather than tracking deer hoof prints on the path ahead to see where they lead, we’ll be tracking language used over the duration of an arts project to see where that takes us in understanding how creativity and imagination support people to flourish in the shift to living together within the Earth’s ecological limits.
The pilot focuses on Encounters’ Making of Chrysalis (October 2018-Spring 2019) and engages two new Encounters’ collaborators; linguistic anthropologist colleagues Professor Shirley Brice-Heath from the US and Dr Colleen Cotter, based in the UK at Queen Mary’s University London.
Shirley is Margery Bailey Professor of English and Dramatic Literature and Professor of Linguistics, Emerita, at Stanford University, California. Encounters will benefit from her longterm research in linguistics, anthropology, education and English which led her to track the way in which people’s language changes over the duration of participatory creative processes and how this in turn can provide the most accurate indication of behavioural change.
Colleen is Reader in Media Linguistics and Dean for Taught Programmes for the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty in the School of Languages, Linguistics and Film at Queen Mary’s University London.
They’re excited to be working with Encounters. They recognise that our mission explicitly names the planetary challenges we face and combines with the robust belief that artists play a central role in creating the conditions for social and ecological change.
They are joined by long-term Encounters’ colleague, Julia Rowntree (Clayground Collective), who will advise on how the pilot might have relevance (once complete) to others in the UK arts, culture and social change sectors. As a maker herself and co-author of Clay in Common, Julia has long been fascinated in how metaphor and comparative thinking can contribute to cognitive shifts in how people see and understand the world differently.
Why is this relevant to Encounters?
Many artists know in their bones that art seeds transformation and that participatory creative processes build connection - connection to ourselves; to our communities and to the wider natural world of which we are a part.
As artists, it’s both daunting and exhilarating to see ourselves as agents of change in the shift to a more ecological age. We hope art transforms people’s lived experience of the world but how can we know more certainly we’re creating the conditions for change in how people see and feel themselves intimately part of the beauty and cycles of the Earth’s systems and act accordingly as stewards of the natural world?
If we had the evidence such conditions are created, could we create them more often, for more people, in more places?
Can our use of language hold a key?
What we say, shows what we see. What we see, shows what we understand and what we understand shows how we will act.
‘What is needed’ says Shirley ‘and what research consistently shows gives deep and honest evidence is how individuals within the actual process of a creative project talk with one another about what is going on.’
So that is exactly what Shirley and Colleen will be doing. Observing how people involved in all aspects of Chrysalis talk to each other. They will be making regular visits to Devon to observe, track and take notes of key gatherings, workshops and moments in the Making of Chrysalis. Key to Encounters’ work is the notion of the ‘ecological self’ - characterised by an awareness that human behaviours and actions are linked to other beings and the web of life and, importantly, that people can be inspired to ‘act’ from their ecological self.
Through Chrysalis workshops to date, Encounters have learnt about language, metaphor, creative processes and images to conjure and communicate what is meant by the ‘ecological self’ and how people find language to communicate, sometimes easily, sometimes with great difficulty, their connection to the natural world.
Our primary question currently is:
If collaborative creative processes can catalyse the way people identify with their ecological self - the sense of being part of an interconnected, global Earth system - how do we track participants' use of language, metaphor and comparative thinking to explore how the creative changes taking place shift cognition and shape onward actions.
We’re working on making that sound as common sense as possible and useful for artists, Chrysalis participants and the public to ask (and hopefully, as we go along, answer) in order better to understand our use of language and metaphor and how what we say shows what it is that we see.
As ‘language animals’ human’s expression of language makes visible and audible the ways we create reality itself, individually and collectively. A shared understanding of that reality, can advance the way societies reinvent and adapt at times of great social and ecological challenge.
If what we ‘see’ through our engagement with art changes; what we say and how we say it might also change. This is what we are setting out to investigate. So we will be following those imaginary ‘deer tracks’ as track makers and track followers, down the path ahead, and see where they take us.
The process has just begun.
We look forward to reporting from the field.