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.
“It’s about how the first step to slaying a dragon is for one person to say, probably drunk in a bar somewhere, “I bet it can be done, though”. These are the words of fantasy author Alexandra Rowland, whose novel ‘A Conspiracy of Truths’ was published late last year. The quote captures the essence of an idea, a genre, which she coined, called ‘hopepunk’. Fantasy and sci-fi is a world rich in different genres, but as soon as I read how she described what the term meant to her, I realised she had important things to contribute to our ongoing discussion about imagination, in particular to the question of how our storytelling can help to bring to life in the here and now the kind of future we want to create.
“It is very easy to think of the dystopian ideas. It’s almost lazy. Thinking of the good future is actually really hard because you have to vision something that is qualitatively different. Everyone knows what dystopia looks like. It’s also exciting, in a dramatic way. The reason that all these Hollywood movies and TV series and things are dystopian is that they’re interesting dramatically. We are all attracted to stories of disasters. When we do sessions with the public, even though we’re coming from a point of view of trying to get them to visualise the optimistic side, they still gravitate towards doing dystopian visions, and it takes a real effort to wean people off doing that”.