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Wonderous Chaos


Imagination Exchange
18 – 21 May 2021

As part of the Imagination Exchange, something like a conference for Waltham Forest creatives involved in grassroots place-based festivals, the Barbican invited Artillery to host a panel discussion asking the question...  

“What if everything we did was community-powered?” 

Here Penny Rutterford interviews Laura Kerry and Morag McGuire ahead of the event and brilliantly captures some of the panel discussion in an article below.

A Conversation with Artillery Co-Directors 
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"I made the Art Trail," said the girl.  

And to all intents and purposes, she had.  

A few years ago on a street in Walthamstow, Morag McGuire met a couple of children looking at the E17 Art Trail Guide  

"I made the Art Trail," said the girl.  

And to all intents and purposes, she had.  

Co-directors of Artillery - Laura Kerry and Morag McGuire have been providing opportunities for communities to make things happen in their neighbourhoods for more than 17 years. From the biennial festival of the E17 Art Trail to Grandad's Island at the Walthamstow  Garden Party and Langthorne Park,  from Beans on Balconies to Bird Box Avenue.


On the evening of Wednesday 19th May, Artillery will be hosting a discussion on "What if Everything was Community Powered?"  (N.B. This a past event and more details are below)

"If I'm honest, I don't know that I've ever dared to imagine if EVERYTHING can be community powered. But this is an opportunity for us to think about it. And on that scale, what might be possible?" says Laura. 

As a team they are constantly interrogating ways in which they bring people and communities together. They believe that users are the experts, and that they should shape services. It's no surprise that Morag held a post as "Provocations Coordinator" at Big Wide Talk before joining forces with Laura at Artillery. Laura and Morag share the same values about creating the opportunities, the spaces and permission for people to make things happen. 


Creating Spaces 

Artillery's strapline is 'Mobilising Creativity in Neighbourhoods' and with their work they understand that they need to create an environment that welcomes everyone. But how can that be achieved? 

"It is thinking about the question - what do people need to feel welcome? And we're always learning about that. We also try to make the invitation something that feels a welcome addition to people's own life commitments" says Laura.  

Sometimes, it seems, it's just about getting the logistics right. Morag recalls working in Bisterne Avenue Park, Walthamstow: " It's a long way from many shops, from any cafes, toilets , running water. So on top of bringing a group of artists and creatives we took jerry cans for drinking water, we took snacks, because there's nothing worse than feeling excited about what you're doing and then suddenly realising you've completely run out of steam. It was as much about creating a space where people might feel welcome to chat to each other. We put flags on the entrances to the park to make it look as if something was happening. Children came down straight away from the flats immediately opposite. And doing it repeatedly meant that people were able to come the next day to help us with the setup. Then, they welcomed other people. So, you share that welcome. Like ripples."


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But what about when you take down the bunting, remove the signs?  

Building Relationships and Trust for the Longer Term

But what about when you take down the bunting, remove the signs?  

"It's frustrating for us when we initiate a project or start a project in a neighbourhood where there isn't continued funding. It’s as if a guillotine comes down. Those conversations, those ideas are no longer valuable or aren't valued. And that's the exact reverse of how we feel. It's kind of like not being in touch with a good friend for years. That’s how uncomfortable and difficult it can feel" says Laura. 

Morag agrees:" I think there's still a massive bit of work that needs to be done by funders in terms of understanding how much it costs for communities to make brilliant things happen in their neighbourhoods, and that small funding pots do not go very far. Our community infrastructure is so stretched. To deliver something that any community initiative could be proud of, it takes a lot of time for people to collectively develop ideas, not to go off into their own little silos and to do it separately". 

Impact and Quality 

"The reality is that you don't know the long-term impact", continues Laura. "For Grandad's Island we aimed to create shared memories together. When we went back a year later, I went in the nursery and explained what we were up to. They said, 'Oh yes, I came with my children to that ' and they were full of all the things that they loved about it, and those are the reasons we want to do it. For that day, you're part of changing people's experience of the places they live”. 

"We try to be as invisible as possible. I don't want people to say, 'this is Laura's project'. That would be a fail for me. I quite like that nobody knows that I've got anything to do with it. And we know that they've got ownership of it then. I think that's a good test. Isn't it?" 

And maybe that's what Community Powered means. 

What if Everything we did was Community Powered?
The Panel Discussion

Other people's stories can ignite our imaginations, broaden our horizons and fuel our ambition.
Isn't this precisely how we build community?   

I want to tell you a story.... I've always enjoyed telling stories, sharing anecdotes, cracking the odd joke. It's how I connect with people and how I make sense of the world. And when I hear other people's stories I start to understand, appreciate and connect with others. Other people's stories can ignite our imaginations, broaden our horizons and fuel our ambition.

Isn't this precisely how we build community?

But are the opportunities to hear different stories and create new narratives open to everyone, and if not how can we open those doors? Bringing together a panel of artists, community organisers and campaigners - Morag McGuire, co-director of Artillery and  Chloe Osborne of 81 Acts of Exuberant Defiance  led a discussion around what community powered means, what are some of the obstacles to creating opportunities for communities to harness and use that power and what can we learn from some of the panel members' projects. 


The audience and panel members all brought experience of working in their communities in an eclectic mix of projects. We met Tom Williams of Woodland Tribe, Susan Wills from the Save Higham Hill Library campaign, Toby Poolman of Blackhorse Workshop, Brittney Regal and Sam Van Elk from Kings College London, Lucy Hayhoe of home sweet home and Tony Cealy from 81 Acts of Exuberant Defiance . Each brought strong leadership to the projects they shared with us and believed in the power of welcoming and harnessing the skills, ideas and energy of those who took part in the conversation. Their projects combined passion with compassion.

Making Space - Location, Location, Location


Most of us have been stuck behind closed doors for the last year of the pandemic and are only now emerging and stretching our creative muscles to meet in person once more. Pre-pandemic we were already mourning the loss of many of the physical spaces where we were able to bring people together to collaborate, meet, make and play. Without these physical spaces how do we extend our welcome to ensure that everyone can take part, perhaps stumble upon a project as they go about their day? If we want everyone's voice to be heard, for our work not to be exclusive then we cannot expect everyone to feel welcome in some cultural establishments that can be intimidating and exclusive.

"How can we make the invitation visible? How can people happen upon the invitation? it's not about crossing thresholds of strange buildings- it's about the creative invitation happening somewhere where that feels familiar and you already feel welcome to ask the questions: Why is this here, and what can I do?  One of the other really important things I’ve been thinking about, especially in our neighbourhood, is how do we need to resource ourselves to notice the ideas that are emerging in those connected spaces? For example, some people vocalise ideas, but for others ideas manifest in very physical ways. And sometimes ideas communicate themselves when people share materials and make side by side".  - Morag McGuire

It's not about the Money, but it's all About the Money

Chloe, when talking about 81 Acts of Exuberant Defiance mentioned the value of "Wondrous Chaos". And each of the project leaders spoke about how the "doing" is often what brings the joy of a project. For any of our projects to be community powered they should, to some extent, be initiated by the community rather than imposed upon them. And then it is the process which is important. And this can be messy. 

"There's something about not managing and suppressing it but actually how do we create the conditions for wondrous chaos, and how do we say gleefully in the middle of that activity, with all the complexity of what it is to be human, and connected and inspired and sitting with difference in the same space. And I think that there's something that's real in articulating that externally, but something really good just about sitting in it. And that I think is a real dissonance in the kind of work that we do because we have to find a way of articulating it for people to take the risk on giving money to wondrous chaos, because it doesn't tick boxes and it's really hard to mitigate the risk in it". - Chloe Osborne 


Artist Esther Neslen reported back from one of the breakout groups and agreed: "bringing people together for a shared experience was something that we are interested in. Just being able to play. We're talking about things that were not necessarily outcome driven but that were just a pleasure to do, and don’t necessarily end up in something. That the actual activity and experience was really key to improvising and building creative collective confidence".


So how do we get funding for these projects? Morag said:"I have yet to find a way to articulate all those discoveries for the people that choose to fund us or that will fund us to make these things continue to happen. One of the overwhelming things that we hear back from people is about the lasting connections, sometimes they become friendships".

These connections are what builds community but they take time to percolate, they can't be authored. The emphasis is on making a difference, finding our collective strength. It's bottom-up thinking, not imposed from above and creates a bond, a sense of belonging. With projects like this we have to be comfortable with not knowing what will happen, they're not necessarily outcome driven. If they are, the outcomes can be fluid. How do we get funders to understand this?

Turning Whispers into Shouts

Another common element to each of the projects shared in the session was about giving a voice to anybody and everybody, about really listening and paying attention. Good, consistent and regular communication is crucial to encourage participation as well as recognising the skills that exist within a community. This was something Susan Wills spoke about for the Higham Hill Library campaign as well as taking care to ensure that all voices were heard and valued: "fighting for a library space these days is quite a political act. It took some doing at times but we managed to keep this campaign from being party political. We're making quite a strong statement about society so it was political with a small p that's for certain". – Susan Wills, Save Higham Hill Library

Brittney Regal and Sam Van Elk from Kings College, carrying out research for COGOV, remarked on how other sectors can learn from the cultural sector. Brittney spoke about the Welsh Water - Rhondda Public Engagement Case Study where they successfully drew on the approaches taken by the cultural sector on how they make people feel welcome.


"They had a lot of difficulties getting everyone involved, especially young people in disenfranchised communities, but instead of just saying, 'Well we need better marketing', they created an ambassadorial role for citizens, this idea of a communication chain. So it was a peer to peer communication strategy, and that helped engage communities that previously had felt really disenfranchised from this municipality, this core idea was to increase participatory democracy". – Brittney Regal


Sam Van Elk explained: "Emergence feels much more appropriate to people working in the cultural sector. [Corporate entities] often set out with good intent, working with their communities or working in a community driven way, but they also have quite clear ideas of what they're hoping to get out at the end. And one of the things cultural organisations have done in this area is kept that focus on process on how they want to work, i.e. It requires them to perhaps compromise a little bit on exactly what it is they expect they're going to get out at the end. I think one of the challenges in doing community powered work today is bluntly what's happened to communities. Traditional communities often got torn apart by changes in the structure of housing in London... I think one of the things that I've seen in some cultural work is the ability to help draw together those communities... I think the ability to convene is a really important one".


Spinning the Web

Coming together for this discussion it was clear just how much experience was in this virtual "room". It is an example of community power, the opportunity to share experience and to spin a web connecting all the different community groups together. We spoke of avoiding the traditional model based around a trajectory of growth and acknowledging the benefits of being small organisations with the ability to be agile and to make things happen quickly. We can listen to the voices of our participants which can inform what we do without the bureaucratic barriers to know-how sharing that can hinder larger cultural organisations.

If we share that know-how gained in communities among community leaders as at this event we can signpost to each other and create a knowledge pool. In turn this means that we can really listen to what individuals in our communities say, what they want and what they need and give them a voice so that we give them the power. I know that working with others on community projects here in the borough in which I live, there is a spirit of generosity and willingness to signpost, advise and collaborate.


Imagination Exchange panel discussion. Visual minutes by Rae Goddard

E17 Art Trail, Same Sky Artist Residency with Esther Neslen. Image ©Jane Sharp, 

Walthamstow Garden Party, From Page to Pavement with Del Taylor. Image ©James Robertshaw

Land Ahoy, From Page to Pavement with Benji Davies. Image © Andrew Baker.

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