CoDesRes – Discussant response

I recently had the pleasure of being the Discussant as part of CoDesRes: CoDesigning for resilience in rural development through P2P networks and STEAM place-based learning interventions session, convened by Dr Anita McKeown, at this year’s Royal Geographical Society annual conference in Cardiff.

CoDesRes (co-designing resilience) is a methodology and a project that brings a STEAM practice into the community and environmental justice setting. It’s a two-year Environmental Protection Agency (Ireland) funded project, situated in the Iveragh Peninsula in Ireland, and led by a collaborative and interdisciplinary team of artists, scholars, engineers and marine biologists to iterate and trial the methodology for engaging communities to implement local responses to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals 4,11,14 and 15. The project considers the rural has a role to play in the development of sustainable communities and cities by developing viable realistic alternatives to urban dwelling and supporting positive economic social and environmental links between the urban, peri-urban and rural areas.

The conference session was formed of four presentations from the project leads from University College Dublin, Ireland: CoDesRes: CoDesigning for resilience in rural development through P2P [peer-to-peer] networks and STEAM place-based learning interventions, Dr Anita McKeown; Inclusive design for land stewardship: Community engagement in coastal biodiversity management through p2p networks, Eleanor Turner; Marine Education; influencing youth education through STEAM place-based interventions, Lucy Hunt; and Waste as Resource; embedding circular economies in community contexts through STEAM place-based interventions, Colin Keogh.

Together, the presenters gave a deep-dive 360-degree purview of the project and their own academic, professional, personal and residential place in them. As audience, we couldn’t help but be charmed by the passion and dedication of the team and the community of which they were speaking of, are part of and are serving, by the first hand narrative given to us.

I was asked to respond to the project from my role at Tate Exchange, as a platform with a premise of interrogating how art and society interface and affect each other.

Much of the work of CoDesRes is with those young people in their transition school year. This is a an optional one-year school programme that can be taken in the year after the Junior Certificate in Ireland, and is not led by a formal curriculum. ‘Transition year’ struck me as an apt metaphor for the whole process that the communities of Iveragh are embarked upon through CoDesRes – a time of unscripted exploration, of learning in innovative ways and engaged in a conscious-raising step-change of self and society.

Here art was being used as a tool – something the funders and stakeholders both might expect and be familiar with – but also as an approach – something that may extend their understanding of the true value and agency of the ‘A’ in STEAM. In CoDesRes, the arts drive its generative, iterative, question-posing and solution-finding, explorative and inter- and trans-disciplinary process. Finding out by doing, playing to everyone’s expert positions – including that of the community being the expert in being the community – is the stuff of socially engaged arts, and at the core of CoDesRes. It was evident that in this, CoDesRes is on a journey with its communities of changing their view on what art is and what role art can play in society, and placing art as a driver in the blue, green and people (education, community development etc.) ecologies of Iveragh. Will this perspective change also be seen with the funders and policy-makers come the end of the project?

I am intrigued too to find out what the exponential outcomes of this project will be, come the end of its tenure. With the concern around rural population decline, it was heartening to see both Eleanor and Lucy returning to the place of their upbringing to share their skills and knowledge and love of place with its future generations and its current ones – Eleanor told a story of how a former teacher of hers, after joining her on a walking reading of the landscape commented that they had never understood the place like this before, even though they has been walking the area for decades. These women are leading by example, what effect will this have on the generation coming up behind them, seeing that they have a potential future there and seeing a different kind of leadership in action, and on the one above them in seeing and conveying that potential to their young people? It took CoDesRes to join together previously disparate projects across the peninsula and join as one its overlapping blue, green and people ecologies into one holistic one. This is one of the keys to success in precipitating pervasive cultural change, in becoming greater than the sum of its parts: change has already started in the first six months of CoDesRes, what will it have set in motion for its legacy at the end of its two years?

As any good conference session should do, it raised more questions than answers for me too, and in no particular order:

·         What is the art practice, specifically?

·         Is art changing the community?

·         Who are the peers in this process? Who are the collaborators needed? What are the gaps? Is there a baseline of collaborators needed to start and maintain a project?

·         How does CoDesRes critically problematize the notion of ‘sustainable development’?

·         What will be made of the autoethnographic methodology?

·         What are the funders stipulations, what do they see as success?

·         Is this methodology applicable to other situations? How could that be made so?

·         Is the duration long enough? What is long enough?

·         How to manage the multiple layers and purviews of this project, from policy, to schools, to local government.

·         Can this rural context talk to the urban one?

·         Is intergenerational conversation happening? Where and how?

·         Has this changed people’s relation to their place?

·         What does P2P practice integrity look like? what is its excellence?

·         What can sibling sectors learn from it? what do they have to change to work with it? would this put them off?

·         Language and definitions – lots of acronyms and layers of info, which is alienating, where is the point of access info this for people?

·         What does the place in 5, 10, 50 years look like? Will it have halted/reversed rural population decline for example?

·         How is the legacy sustained? Mention of a media legacy, how will the public be supported in marinating this? Has consideration been given to the emotional and physical labour required to sustain legacy? What is the expectation of this?

·         How will it affect all those structural/socio-political issues in the area that form its whole ecology? What is this projects role in/plan for that?

·         Work within and beyond the arts/different ways that art has become active over the last 60 years and how artists have changed our understanding of what art can be and what it can do: how can art make a difference to people’s lives and society?

·         How do the projects operate as methods?

·         How is CoDesRes being evaluated?

The presenters went a long way to answer these questions in their presentations and in the dynamic and engaged plenary discussion with the audience after, but as ever in the live setting of a project, I am mindful in my own practice of coming back to core questions as a means of generative development, reflection and evaluation. In CoDesRes I see a project team and methodology that shares that approach and is well on the way to co-creating a project that is changing ways of living and creating a sustainable ecological and community development legacy for the people of the Iveragh Peninsula.

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CoDesRes also got me thinking about the grammar of social practice, the subject and object positions of place, its actors and themes, and I will continue to explore this in the coming months.