"The imaginary helps us, transform and renew the real. That’s why it’s so profoundly important. Some time back I got really annoyed and wondered to myself where did we learn that to be positive about things was to be unrealistic? And to be negative about things was to be realistic? And every cell in my body rebels against that".
In Bologna, a new approach to engagement and civic action is emerging, rooted in the imagination. One driver for this shift is the realisation we are living in what Michele calls “a distrust era”, where people don’t trust public administrations, NGOs, or private businesses. The Civic Imagination Office’s approach is towards what Michele calls ‘proximity’ working. As he puts it, “we need people to stay on the ground, to stay with the people”. And the story that Bologna has to share with the world is, I think, vitally important.
A small celebratory moment to share with you all today. For anyone who has been following progress on this project for the past 2 years and has got slightly bored with hearing me talking about “my journey towards writing a book about imagination”, here is a short announcement on a significant milestone I’ve reached. Enjoy…
We recently spoke to Andrew Brewerton, Principal at Plymouth College of Art, about the fascinating tale of how Plymouth School of Creative Arts came to be. PSCA is a remarkable new school which puts the cultivation of the imagination at its heart, even down to how its striking new building was conceived and designed. Before Christmas I visited the school and sat down to chat with then-Head Teacher Dave Strudwick to find out more about the place, how it came into existence, how it works, and what the thinking is that underpins it. I started out by asking him to tell me its story…
I loved ‘The Moth Snowstorm’. Its portrait of a world rich with diversity, and the subsequent erosion of that, moved me deeply. It was therefore a delight to be able to talk to Michael about the book, and the first thing I wanted to know was in what way living in the kind of diversity-rich world he portrays in the book impacts on the human imagination?
The Centre for Story-Based Strategy (“where imagination builds power”) are pioneers in this field. They work with groups giving them the tools to make the most of the power of imagination, building their capacity to intervene in narratives and in social change work. They particularly work with groups in frontline communities that are at the intersection of poverty, pollution and racism, with a focus on climate, economic and social justice. Their work is incredible, so it was a huge honour to be able to talk to Shana McDavis-Conway, Co-Director of the Centre.
“There’s a big question around what we call the space of learning. That’s to say, as soon as you close that room with a sink in it, how do you teach art? Or when you switch the kilns off, or when you close the performance spaces. That’s one of our propositions, that the space of learning either offers or withdraws possibility. What’s happening as well is the learning environment is shifting in a way that is less and less conducive to creativity, creative practice. Sticky, messy, space hungry practice is seen as a luxury, seen as something we can’t afford”.
One of the interviews I was going to do was with Bridget McKenzie, whose blog I adore and which has many overlaps with our conversations here. Sadly, time run out on me. But not to be defeated, Bridget very helpfully read through previous posts, pulled out the questions she thought I might have asked, and interviewed herself! She asked me to explain she wrote it in a hurry, so it might not be perfect. I love it, and perhaps if more of the people I had interviewed had done the same, my life would have been a lot easier…
“We took everybody on a journey that said the arts too have their place in the life of a city, and that the city doesn’t just have to be about shopping and traffic, that it’s as important for people collectively to share these moments, moments like this, as it is for them to share or to experience moments in their own life. You know, when you fall in love or when their baby takes its first step. Moments are what you remember. And moments are what Artichoke deals in”.
The scholar Richard Sennett once wrote, “modern capitalism works by colonizing people’s imagination of what is possible”. If it is the case that our current economic model thrives by creating the conditions that suppress rather than unleash the imagination, and if we recognise that now, more than any other time, we need a mass re-nourishing of the collective imagination, then where might we spot examples of ‘the economics of the imagination’?
If, as I’ve been recently musing, our imaginations need time and space, and much of that time and space is currently being sucked up by smartphones, social media and our online lives, then what happens when people stop, turn these devices off, and deliberately make time to reflect? To explore the answers to this questio, I headed out to The Barn Retreat on the Sharpham Estate, close to where I live, to talk to Tasha Bassingthwaighte who is The Barn’s Manager. I arrived just as participants in one of their week-long retreats were heading indoors for some fine-smelling soup. Tasha and I sat in The Barn’s library, and I started by asking her to explain what happens at The Barn.