Sarah Pogoda
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Reinventing live events, reinventing communities

This chapter presents a take on resilience, sustainability and recovery in the arts sector and creative industries that is distinct from the digital projects presented in the first part of this book: we present two case studies of small-scale, local, socially and environmentally- engaged arts projects in a predominantly rural area. Our case studies offer alternative narratives to those of the urban and metropolitan creative industries and the macro-solutions that often do not suit the social and economic realities of artists and audiences in remote geographical locations. This chapter therefore complements the thinking about outdoor arts facilitation by local authorities in Chapter 7 in this volume and aims to enable governments, funders and the creative sector to take decisions which improve the wellbeing, prosperity and cultural vivacity of the creative sector and communities., It is based on research carried out in rural North Wales.

This chapter presents a take on resilience, sustainability and recovery in the arts sector and creative industries that is distinct from the digital projects presented in Part I of this book: we present two case studies of small-scale, local, socially and environmentally engaged arts projects in a predominantly rural area. Our case studies offer alternative narratives to those of the urban and metropolitan creative industries and the macro-solutions that often do not suit the social and economic realities of artists and audiences in remote geographical locations. This chapter therefore complements the thinking about outdoor arts facilitation by local authorities in Chapter 7 in this volume and aims to enable governments, funders and the creative sector to take decisions which improve the wellbeing, prosperity and cultural vivacity of the creative sector and communities, based on research carried out in rural North Wales.

Metamorffosis and Utopias Bach are both initiatives that started outside formal arts establishments. Metamorffosis, a week-long, small-scale festival of combined arts which ran in June 2021, offered 25 events ranging from performance, movement, music, poetry, film, artistic walks to site-specific interventions and puppetry. Though part of the AHRC-funded research project on Re-Inventing the Live Arts Event with Local Communities (Bangor University), Metamorffosis emerged from within the arts community of north-west Wales. Utopias Bach, meanwhile, is a diverse, creative arts initiative created by those taking part, and open to all. It is a low-tech, virtual and in-person initiative tackling the uncertainties of our post-lockdown world, exploring how we can face the overwhelming gravity of our current situation, including climate change, inequalities and the collapse of our ecosystem.

Both Metamorffosis and Utopias Bach are grassroots initiatives that tackle the issues of where and how we gather, and with whom we gather for shared artistic experience. They offer models of low-tech, outdoor and small-scale arts practices that are particularly adaptive to the challenges rural areas were, and are, still facing in the context of coronavirus (COVID-19). By doing so, both put into practice the Wales Arts Council’s call to ‘take a fresh look at how we can achieve a strong and resilient arts sector that properly reflects culture and society in modern-day Wales’, based on a ‘profound questioning and re-shaping of values across all aspects of public life’ (Arts Council of Wales, 2020).

Case Study I – Metamorffosis festival

Sarah Pogoda

For live events, the bodily co-presence of actors and audiences is constitutive for the events’ distinctive aesthetic experience (Fischer-Lichte, 2008). Since the existence of theatre studies and performance studies, bodily co-presence has been understood as an integral part of artistic live events. Whereas Peter Brook’s idea of theatre as a physical space of watching and being watched is open to technologically mediated forms of bodies and gazes (Brook, 1996), Peggy Phelan insisted on performance art as a physical live experience that would change its ontological status if it is ‘saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate[s]‌ in the circulation of representations of representations’ (Phelan, 2005: 146). Different to his predecessors, Cormac Power investigates how the changing concepts of presence mutually constitute (with) various modern and postmodern understandings of theatre and performance art (Power, 2008). Power also explores non-physical modes of presence, for instance aura, media, text. Common to all these approaches is the understanding of the fundamental reliance of live arts on physical co-presence.

It was the pandemic that made even governments acknowledge that ‘The arts sector, like the hospitality industry, relies on audiences gathering together to enjoy a shared experience’ (Welsh Parliament, 2020: 2). As a core prerequisite for creative industries, bodily co-presence matters for GDP. The creative industries contributed £150.6 billion in Gross Value Added (GVA) to the UK economy in 2019 (DCMS, 2021).1 With an annual turnover of more than £2.2 billion (Elis-Thomas, 2020), it is one of the fastest growing sectors in Wales. At the same time, compared with the large anchor nature of UK-wide creative industries, within the Welsh creative ecosystem 98% of companies are small businesses, backed by a large population of freelancers. This makes traditional forms of industrial strategy unsuitable for Wales (Komorowski and Lewis, 2020: 14).

This unique Welsh situation calls for even more attentiveness considering all acknowledged intrinsic benefits of the arts: enrichment of people’s lives, enabling social interaction among community members and experiencing a sense of community (Close et al., 2005).

Keen to enable a return to audience gatherings for the arts as soon as possible, on 15 September 2020 the Welsh government published their ‘Guidance on Coronavirus and Working Safely in Performing Arts Industries’. However, the pandemic mitigation measures undermined the aesthetic and communal traditions of arts events markedly; the Welsh government acknowledged that strict regulations for social distancing ‘could have implications for the choice of repertoire or type of activity, especially where close physical contact is an integral part of the artform’ (Welsh Government, 2020: 17).

The findings of this case study, which is based on the Re-Inventing the Live Event with Local Communities research project carried out in Bangor, Wales, must be understood in this context as a contribution to understanding the relevance of small-scale events for diverse communities in north-west Wales during the pandemic and beyond. The project examined how practitioners creatively reinvented live formats to align with government regulations, and how audiences experienced potentially unusual event formats resulting from artistic innovation. The research reveals how local grassroots initiatives mitigated the impact of arts communities put on hold by the pandemic restrictions and how small-scale arts events can sustain communities during crisis and generate the loyal audiences essential for recovery.

The focus of the project was an investigation of the artists, art formats and audiences attending the week-long combined arts festival Metamorffosis (21–27 June 2021). This festival was the result of a long co-creational process involving Sarah Pogoda and community member Anna Powell, who suggested the idea only weeks into the first national lockdown in 2020. What started with Surrealist Saffaru (August 2020) – the first in-person festival in the area since March 2020 – grew into the community behind the Metamorffosis festival of June 2021, which took place over one year before pandemic restrictions were finally lifted in Wales on 6 August 2022. Metamorffosis events, accordingly, aligned with the government protocols, most prominently through a mask mandate, social distancing, sanitising, ventilation, one-way systems and limiting audience sizes to 30 people.

The Metamorffosis festival consisted of 25 different events, some of which ran multiple times;2 12 were indoor events, 12 took place outdoors and three used mixed venues, with one online event. Encouraging artists and audiences to rediscover sites on their doorstep, the outdoor events used public spaces not previously associated with arts events, whereas half of the indoor venues were artist-run spaces outside established institutions (Awen 33, Togyg, Bangor Arts Initiative). Most events were site-specific (Hag Haf Ha Ha; Metamorffosis, Revolution and Botanical Time; Metamorffosis movement!; Bacchanates y Farclodiad). Though diverse in genre, formats and theme, the most cutting-edge contributions experimented with including the more than human world.3 These events enabled a radical shift from imagining a community of human beings, towards a community of human and more-than-human beings.

The research demonstrates the relevance of small-scale events for diverse communities in north-west Wales during the pandemic and beyond. The evidence is drawn from qualitative and quantitative data collected through seven artist interviews, which includes one interview with an art group of seven artists,4 and three questionnaires. Two questionnaires were circulated immediately after the festival, one designed for artists, one for audiences. A third questionnaire – designed for audiences – followed a series of six so-called post-festival arts events we organised across a period of six months after Metamorffosis. The questionnaires were designed for descriptive research using open questions, multiple choice, multiple response, rating and likert-grids. These data are complemented by field notes in the form of writing, film, photography and sound, alongside film documentation of the festival by Culture Colony (Machynlleth).

 Artists reinvent the live event

The artist questionnaire was circulated after Metamorffosis (June 2021) to 34 participating artistic participants (professional and non-professional artists), yielding a total of 12 responses. For nine respondents, Metamorffosis was the first time they had been able to present their work since the first national lockdown, with six not being able to continue arts projects they had started before the pandemic. Artist Freya Beath explained that the artistic ‘tumbleweed’ during lockdown was ‘very bad for your mental health’ and described the festival as providing a ‘platform to inspire people … a reason to do something’. For many artists and communities, local initiatives like Metamorffosis were thus key opportunities for restarting engagement with live in-person arts and for engaging with their communities, both of which had a positive impact on their mental health. These events also provided opportunities to develop their artistic practice.

Local initiatives like Metamorffosis are thus key to enabling the artist community to engage with their communities and develop their practice. Metamorffosis was welcomed as a platform for experimentation, allowing artists to bring their practice to new levels at a time when the sector was put on hold. Ten artists felt the event they created was more experimental than usual, and 11 stated that, for their participation in Metamorffosis, they had expanded their practice into new artforms. Four engaged with new materials, and seven collaborated with new people.

One predominant aspect of experimentation and development arose from Metamorffosis’ small scale, with ten artists reporting that small-scale events allow them to take more risks and experiment with artforms when compared with big productions. The main focus of experimentation was the audience–artist relationship. Free-text responses particularly highlighted the possibility for generating a community and enabling intimate experiences for both artists and audiences as well as meaningful interaction among all. Some suggested that the small scale blurred artist–audience divides: ‘It made everything feel somehow collaborative, breaking down the “performance-audience” dichotomy.’ The fact that 11 out of the 12 respondents felt that the pandemic-related health and safety protocols had not made them feel disconnected from their audience suggests that the more experimental art forms they created also bridged pandemic-related physical distancing.

 Audiences reinvent the live audience

The results from the audience questionnaire corroborate the artists’ perceptions. As the audience questionnaire aimed to understand the overall festival experience as well as that of individual events, audience members could submit a questionnaire for each event. When submitting second and subsequent times, the questionnaire followed a different pathway. In total, 24 individuals offered 46 responses, of which nine were in Welsh and 37 in English.

Audiences confirmed in free-text answers that they felt ‘engaged’, ‘connected’, ‘comfortable’ or ‘relaxed’. This is further supported when 91% strongly agreed (with 9% agreeing) that they ‘felt engaged in the experience’, or 78% strongly agreed (with 18% agreeing) that they ‘felt part of a group’. Like the artists themselves, audiences noticed the shift to more experimental art formats. One representative response states: ‘Extremely different in content. I don’t tend to choose to see movement work (i.e., dance) so this was unusual for me.’ Another remarked on the risk-taking: ‘Felt much less institutional! People hanging off trees/cliffs maybe wouldn’t happen in a pre-covid cultural event?’ Yet another statement referred to the Metamorffosis Movement! event and suggested the transformative power of experimental art enabled by small-scale formats: ‘this was different due to its external setting, amount of people present, transformative subject. The experience of the “transfformation” itself was unlike anything I have ever experienced.’

When asked whether they would still attend small-scale events of the kind offered by Metamorffosis once other venues reopen, all responses confirmed ‘yes’. The questionnaire then offered an open-text box to add comments, which were used by most respondents to highlight their preferences for community-organised small-scale events outside of established institutions and making visible the tangible and intangible benefits small-scale grassroots art events bring to communities (Duxbury and Campbell, 2009):

The sense of a local community working together in a creative and supportive way is very special

I much, much prefer these kinds of things outside the gallery. I think we need to re-imagine the gallery, and the way art can be part of life rather than in isolated/removed/elite institutions. COVID and this event has shown us how we can do that

Metamorffosis was born from a global crisis and normal life being put on hold, but it used the unprecedented circumstances creatively to reinvent live events not only for building and sustaining communities, but also for enabling them to flourish. Audience responses provide evidence that there is a general openness and willingness from audiences to diversify the range of formats of cultural events they attend, not only during the pandemic, but beyond it into the future.

 Beyond the pandemic

Looking beyond lockdowns and restrictions, the picture is mixed. Data from the Cultural Participation Monitor (CPM) collected by The Audience Agency between October and November 2020 showed differences between results for Wales and the rest of the UK, making Wales-specific plans for recovery more urgent. According to their survey, ‘fewer Welsh are ready to start attending in person than the UK average’. The same survey sees 9% fewer people in Wales planning to return to established venues or sites when compared to the rest of the UK. The CPM also suggests that the support of safety measures makes a return to pre-pandemic ‘normal’ in Wales only likely long-term (The Audience Agency, 2021).

The Metamorffosis research suggests that small-scale and outdoor events are essential drivers for creative industries and should not be considered only as interim replacements in times of lockdowns and restrictions. Small-scale events can help facilitate a transitional phase or make engagements with arts accessible to those who continue to be affected by anxieties in large crowds, as some responses to the audience survey suggest.5

This is what also emerges from the additional research, carried out with artists involved in the original Metamorffosis festival, which consisted of a series of small-scale events across a period of six months after the festival that we evaluated via a second audience survey (AuQ2). The events were free of charge and located at various sites and venues in the area, including the local large-scale arts centre, Pontio. Pontio encompasses a flexible mid-scale theatre (up to 450 people), a studio theatre (up to 120 people), digital cinema (up to 200 people), Bar Ffynnon and Cegin café. Pontio closed on 20 March 2020 and reopened its doors to the public only more than a year later on 12 July 2021 (thus weeks after Metamorffosis). Pontio has since been struggling to bring back its audience.

The rate of 13 English and five Welsh responses to the second audience questionnaire mirrors the average attendance number for the events in question. The results support our hypothesis that small-scale events generate a loyal audience: 89% strongly agreed (with 11% agreeing) they came to the follow-up event(s) because they had enjoyed Metamorffosis and it made them want to experience more events of its kind. Free-text answers supported this further: ‘We are like a community now and I don’t want to miss anything that goes on, because each thing builds on the rest and deepens the experience’.

The findings further suggest that this loyal audience is willing to follow artists to new and/or larger scale venues. This becomes evident in the 15 responses we received after the events we ran in Pontio. Eleven stated that they will now visit Pontio more often for arts events, and for two it was their first visit to Pontio ever, while one response expressed that they usually avoid Pontio for arts events.

 Reinventing the rural live event

Metamorffosis was a unique festival in many senses: it was small-scale and in a rural area, but it was aesthetically experimental with some cutting-edge artistic innovations and therefore not comparable with rural festivals which often relate to mainly traditional cultural heritage. Metamorffosis also did not attract tourism (Crompton and McKay, 1997; Egresi and Kara, 2014), as pandemic restrictions prohibited travel. Therefore, it is difficult to discuss it as an economic case study (Janeczko, 2002; Kwiatkowski et al., 2018). As Qu and Cheer point out, ‘in evaluating the success and/or failure of art festivals in rural contexts, assessments that transcend economic development are essential because non-economic outcomes can often contribute greatly to sustainable revitalisation efforts’ (Qu and Cheer, 2021).

Small-scale initiatives co-created from within the community can step in where macro-solutions do not take effect, or where established institutions and local councils are slow to respond. The Metamorffosis research demonstrates how such initiatives can boost community morale and enable members of the audience to experience a sense of community and intimacy. At the same time, they offer platforms for developing artistic skill sets, showcasing experimental formats, networking and exchange for artists that are a viable alternative to virtual forms of artistic engagement and offer mental health benefits. Communities require ongoing care, care which virtual networking events or digital access to creative content alone may not be able to provide with the same level of success. Communities emerging from in-person small-scale local events that focus on intimate relationships can be sustainable, committed (Mahon and Hyyryläinen, 2019) and thus contribute to more resilient and empowered communities who can sustain the material and immaterial infrastructures that keep a creative community alive and resilient in times of crisis (Mackay et al., 2018).

Case study II – Utopias Bach, a revolution in miniature

Lindsey Colbourne

Utopias Bach is a co-created socially engaged arts initiative that emerged amidst the coronavirus pandemic. It was part-funded by Arts Council Wales, Gwynedd Council and Rural Futures from November 2020 to July 2022. It started with two conversations in August 2020, in a gap between pandemic restrictions. One was with 14-year-old Gruff Ellis and the other with movement psychotherapist Samina Ali. These conversations highlighted the possibilities of working at a small scale for physical and mental health, in ways that can effect change and collectively activate and explore a new way of being in the world.

Stimulated by these conversations, a group that started with four members has, within two years, grown into a constellation of around one hundred creatives, academics, people working in the community and interested individuals. We are focused on north-west Wales, but reach as far as Spain, Argentina and Malawi, and share ideas about how we might use socially engaged art to create space for meeting, creating and being the change at small scale.

As a case study, Utopias Bach illustrates how less prescriptive public sector funding and interventions can support long-lasting grassroots initiatives responsive to local challenges within a global crisis. We will share Utopias Bach learning and principles, not as draconian macro-solutions or techno-fixes, but as quite the opposite: Utopias Bach’s practice emerges from those taking part and from where it is taking place. The pandemic made evident our entanglement with the global world, while lockdowns and shielding threw us back to attaching ourselves to the soil. Utopias Bach addresses this uncanny/confusing simultaneity of personal, local and global, and explores the bigger picture, empowering communities to find responsive small-scale solutions together (Figure 8.1).

 The importance of language and metaphors

The Welsh word bach means hook, hinge, nook, corner, bend, dear, small and minor, suggesting a range of possibilities or creative starting points. In Utopias Bach, bach stands in creative tension with the universal no-place of Utopia because there is particular resonance with the small in Welsh language and culture. The dying words of Wales’ patron saint, St David were: ‘Gwnewch y pethau bychain’ – ‘do the little things’. Small also connects us to a set of Welsh words and phrases relating to intimate connections with your small patch of place, that do not translate into English, such as Milltir Sgwar, Bro fy Mebyd, Cynefin (Davies, 2021). In this way, our concept of Utopias Bach relates closely to what Bruno Latour calls ‘the Terrestrial’ (Latour, 2018). The Terrestrial is a way of being that avoids a return to identity and the defence of borders in the face of the current existential threats stemming from climate change, ecosystem collapse and inequalities. It brings together two complementary movements that modernisation made contradictory: attaching oneself to the soil and becoming attached to the world.

Bilingual communities such as those of north-west Wales are particularly aware of the power of language to shape the world we inhabit. Attentiveness to how we use language became a core tool for transition in Utopias Bach. We use metaphors deliberately to question (and undermine) existing ‘norms’ which uphold the status quo or generate anxiety instead of agency or limit our imagination for change. One key metaphor, which Lisa Hudson introduced to describe the form, structure and growth of Utopias Bach, is that of a strawberry plant. To propagate themselves, strawberry plants send out runners looking for soil. If a runner finds soil, it starts to root and a new plant will develop. This metaphor enables us to think of growth as other than ‘big’, as it shifts attention towards feeding and supporting small groupings to take root wherever they find fertile ground, be it Spain, Malawi or Gaerwen on Anglesey.

The strawberry plant, which our website (at structurally replicates, enables us to entangle and be open to unexpected forms and outcomes, making it possible for us to act beyond the formal entity of a network and to acknowledge the more than human as part of our community and way of working. It allows us to think of our roles, practices and discourses in expanded language and open them to transgress beyond managerial processes, as follows:

The Partners (the gardeners): meeting monthly, with particular areas of responsibility: Lindsey Colbourne – project overview, collaboration and documentation including website; Samina Ali – conscious participation, inclusion and health and wellbeing, plain language; Dr Wanda Zyborska – artistic quality, reflexive practice and conceptual frameworks; Lisa Hudson – methodologies, reflective learning and budget; Julie Upmeyer – host organisation, methodology toolkit and social media.

The Collaboratory (the mother strawberry plant): an action learning community where we come together monthly, alternating between online and face-to-face, to share ideas, learning and activities.

Arbrofion – Community experiments (the strawberry plantlets): discrete interventions reaching out into different communities, often involving an artist and a ‘community connector’. Community connectors are a human or more-than-human (an event, a space, a piece of land, a plant, an idea, a shop) that functions as a way of reaching out and creating ongoing connections.

Documenting and evaluating (the compost heap): creatively responding in writing, film, sound, images, movement to track: thread, flow, intent; material for a purpose (e.g. to share learning on something); individual moments of insight/significance.

In the course of the project, our use of language has begun to intersect with the development of a new culture. We have started to think of Utopias Bach as a Utopia Bach itself: one in which we work with awareness, care and respect for each other and the environment, paying attention to our process and methods. Not only did this way of working fit with the increased time available to some during coronavirus restrictions, but it also offered a calm space for those on the frontline. The funding we received for the project, with its emphasis on process, community and relationship-building for long-term outcomes, was instrumental in supporting this way of working.

A critical characteristic of this unique culture was allowing slow-paced activity and the organic evolution of conversation. We were encouraged to bring ‘our whole selves’ to the conversation and to find common ground with others experiencing similar psychological, emotional and physical challenges. At our Collaboratory meetings, we co-created a set of principles for Utopias Bach:

  • Diversity: Seeking and celebrating diversity and difference and appreciating what we each bring to the collective experience.
  • Change: Challenging prevailing orthodoxies, polarities and ways of working to create space for radical change. Sometimes a tiny change is as important as a big one.
  • Spread: Like a strawberry plant, spreading and nurturing through sharing skills, ideas, events and resources.
  • Open and reflective: Generous with space and time for ongoing reflection and dialogue and open to challenge. Flexible on time, outcomes, methods.
  • Co-creation: All those involved co-determine what happens through self-facilitation, accountability and conscious participation.
  • Responsive to needs: Aware of and responsive to the needs of participants; encouraging honesty, kindness, empathy and understanding.
  • Artistic quality: A questioning approach to quality, as something to strive towards. Developing a culture of questioning and noticing where the art is taking place or becoming.

 Pandemic resonance

From the start, Utopias Bach tapped into the shift in people’s everyday routines and needs triggered by the space and effects of lockdown restrictions. For many of us, Utopias Bach became indispensable to our personal, community, creative and/or professional lives. Collaboratory participants at our six-month review meeting commented:6

It takes me a long time to work with people because I am neurodivergent. But I’ve just been here a very short while and I really feel at home. And it’s a lovely and bizarre feeling at the same time because this doesn’t normally happen to me.

I feel I’ve found my tribe. I just feel totally accepted and listened to and included, for me, as I am. And I have never felt that before, …. It’s all about doing things differently in a beautiful way where everybody is very mindful of everybody else and the experiences we are all going through together.

I wouldn’t be here, doing this role [gallery curator], now, if it wasn’t for Utopias Bach. It’s just given me, personally, the confidence to think of myself as somebody who can be involved in art and it made me think ‘art can be a really intimate and community-oriented thing … so my role is going to be all about participation and community engagement.

This is the community I’ve been looking for for years. I’ve been so isolated after having kids and recovering from addiction. I’d lost all my creativity and confidence and didn’t think I could go back to a creative life. But Utopias Bach is mind-blowing and beautiful, it’s so great to be in this group. I am now full of ideas, confidence and enthusiasm.

During pandemic restrictions, we started meeting regularly on the Zoom platform. Despite the constraints of our rectangular boxes, our meetings started creating an open, supportive learning community which built capacity in terms of skills, creativity and contacts. Resisting the network metaphor that the Zoom algorithms suggest, we instead playfully experimented with virtual assemblages of ‘being with’.7 For instance, we physically performed ‘Exquisite Corps’ with our bodies on Zoom, enabling us to feel connected bodily as well as virtually (Figure 8.2). By using meditation and collective imagination exercises, Zoom became a small knot of entanglement within the telepresence of our virtual community. Our sense of community grew, countering the lack of physical interaction, contact and closeness with other people. As restrictions eased, we alternated between face-to-face and online meetings, to enable those further afield/with accessibility/social distancing needs to continue to take part.

Our first face-to-face meeting took place at Metamorffosis in June 2021. Geocache Bach was inspired by Max Haiven and Alex Khasnabish’s ‘understanding [of] imagination as always embodied and relational, and recognizing that the radical imagination is a space of encounter, learning and disruption’ (Haiven and Khasnabish, 2010: 19).8 Geocache Bach was an invitation to find and build Utopias Bach – a world of tiny possibilities and imaginings – in dystopian cracks and corners in and around The Old Goods Yard (TOGY) in Bangor where some members of Utopias Bach had their art studios (Figure 8.3).

TOGY is a place in a state in transition, somewhat dilapidated and being taken over by weeds, while providing a space for new beginnings. Through the provision of mini-human figures and of basic found materials, around 60 people (aged 3 to 89) came to TOGY to seek out and add to a world of miniature installations. Tiny human figures were dwarfed and decentred by an enormous forest of moss and spiders and seagulls. Installations were inserted into cracks in the concrete and rusting sculptures exploring radical ideas in miniature. Examples include works made by participants that were about rethinking the role of monuments (The Wild Garden of the Outdated Monument), new relationships (Some of My Best Friends have Stems), cultural co-presence (My Family and Other Breadfruit) and equality (Quarry Ruins Housing the Homeless; a House for Moneyspiders).

In order to place humans within imagined futures to which they are not central, we also ran Trawsffurfiad at Metamorffosis.9 This bilingual (Cymraeg: English) shape-shifting imaginative embodiment of becoming a more-than-human being was undertaken as a collective guided imagination exercise that involved travelling to a future world, perfect for the more-than-human being that participants had become, and returning with messages for humans. These guided imagination exercises have become a key part of Utopias Bach’s methodology for imagining and exploring a new way of being in the world.10

Creating the change

What had started as ‘experiments’ supported by £500 of seed funding grew into work in villages and with particular interests (such as isolated older women, homeless people, land), which experimented with their own micro-utopias. Increasingly, we have received requests from public, private and voluntary sector organisations interested in learning about the kinds of processes we have been exploring. Importantly, these organisations, rather than seeking to fix the people and communities they serve, wish to change their own culture to enable closer collaboration with them. We now work with institutions to engage them long-term in building relationships, changing culture and offering ‘invitations’ to try things out in an open-ended way.

One example is our collaboration with Rural Futures, who were working in Gwalchmai on Anglesey, a small village particularly affected by low income and the effects of coronavirus. In spring 2021, they invited Utopias Bach to work with them to help the community reimagine the future. We connected the local school to one in Limbe, Malawi, and used our ‘guided imagination’ meditations with 120 young people to create a vision for the future which was taken as the starting point for the whole community to discuss the future (Figure 8.4).

Through the ongoing work of the Rural Futures development officer, Mark Gahan, the children-led Utopias Bach visioning has since resulted in a cross-generational group creating and maintaining an edible community garden and a renewed play area. Meanwhile, Samina Ali has led embodied psychotherapy sessions for the whole school. This work further helped to address the psychological trauma experienced through lockdown. The community visioning event was held in the Canolfan Henoed (Old People’s Centre), and the cross-generational relationships and trust built meant that the centre, traditionally only for use by older people, has opened up and become a hub for the whole community to continue to come together for a better future.

Co-creation and community-building

In the course of my 30 years of working as a professional facilitator, designing and running conflict resolution, co-creation and participatory decision-making processes for sustainable development in the UK and beyond, I have observed the need to develop shared practice and argued for the (cost)effectiveness of collaborative approaches in creating long-lasting change and innovative solutions (Colbourne and Straw, 2009). My work has shown that significant barriers to collaboration are not in communities but are inherent within public sector institutions themselves. For example, procedures and systems undermine the ability of staff to spend time on, or be rewarded for, collaborative efforts, compounded by gaps in staff collaborative skills, abilities and knowledge (Colbourne, 2009).

Utopias Bach became an opportunity to learn about collaborative decision-making, joint action and ‘shared practice’, bringing together diverse people, groups and perspectives. The results illustrate the value of this kind of approach, going beyond ‘arts/nature on prescription’ (HARP, 2022) that supports people’s individual health and wellbeing, to creating long-term communities with an ongoing relationship with each other and the more than human world.

Conclusion: Lessons learned for a better future as community

Metamorffosis and Utopias Bach tackled the issues of ‘where and how we gather with whom to enjoy a shared experience’, to speak in Welsh government papers’ tongues. But they went beyond this, dealing with crises by creating transformational sustainable collaborations and communities with humans and more than humans in remote geographical locations. These collaborations and communities not only created resilience for surviving a pandemic crisis, but also for engaging with ecological emergency and issues of inclusivity in their locality.

These approaches are different to the more ‘top down’ or ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of interventions focused on the urban creative industry and urban audience. They involve long-term emergent processes, relationships and outcomes through community-building, the creation of networks of creatives, engaging communities in reimagining their relationship to the future and the more than human world, and low-tech, analogue solutions to problems thrown up by pandemic mitigation measures.

From grassroots experimentation, institutions within and beyond the cultural industries were able to pick up, learn from and use these approaches to influence their own post-pandemic futures. But this chapter has shown that, as well as building capacity and resilience of creative practitioners, small-scale arts events help to bring back – and attract new, more diverse – audiences to established venues and town centres.

The small-scale nature of the projects and events, designed to fit with pandemic restrictions, enabled new audiences to feel safe and confident to get involved, and be physically co-present. It also encouraged artists and participants/audiences to experiment with and experience unfamiliar event formats, aesthetics and ideas, such as connecting to the more than human world. As restrictions eased, this new way of working continued to appeal, becoming an established way of working, like tributaries drawing people into contemporary arts, for both the local arts communities as well as for the audiences.

Small-scale grassroots initiatives also helped to build a sense of local ownership. The case studies illustrate how formal arts establishments can benefit from engaging with smaller grassroots initiatives to reimagine their relationships with the communities they serve. This type of community engagement, inclusion and co-creative approach, however, requires time and care in a world that is otherwise fast-paced, action-oriented and high-tech.

Time, attentiveness and intimacy are similar to care work, in that they are rewarded more symbolically or emotionally than monetarily. To allow artists to make a living doing this deeper, slower work, arts funding bodies might consider opening a conversation with creatives about the complexities of this kind of work and how to change funding (and other support) schemes to best support artists working in this way within their local communities.

Our case studies show that radical imagination and practice involve a reflective shift in our processes. Both case studies have allowed processes of openness and questioning, through experiencing a time of utmost uncertainty and precariousness (pandemic, social and climate emergency). But they were resilient in that they fostered mutual care and deep noticing, allowing participants to question how things could be done. This practice requires commitment, kindness and stamina; relational tools which can only be mobilised when feeling part of a community.

‘Recovery’ in the creative industries might therefore start by recognising the value of small-scale but long-term activities and the deeper effect they have on ‘audience’/participants/creatives. Institutions might consider how they might prioritise this kind of engagement, over the pursuit of maximum audience numbers. This may require the adjustment of evaluation processes, paying more attention to enabling multi-perspective continual learning.11 This would enable policymakers to be part the desired change and offer support for grassroots initiatives without being prescriptive, in line with John R. Ashton’s call for institutions to shift to being ‘on tap not on top’ at this time of existential uncertainty (Ashton, 2003). To do so, staff in policy/funding organisations at all levels – not just the ‘front line’ officers – need to engage in the projects and their processes as participants. Engaging within the processes themselves enables staff to develop skills for working collaboratively while gaining a sense of the far-reaching and interconnected effects of this kind of work, of how institutions can support the creative industries and, critically, what the institutions need to change within their own processes and procedures to do so.


1 ‘By comparison, the construction industry contributed £129.3bn, the automobile industry contributed £49.1bn, and agriculture £13.0bn’ (DCMS, 2021).
2 For an overview of the programme, please see the bilingual website: There is also a playlist of videos introducing most of the participating artists and their events available via the following link: ZpVVVr6i_QOktoJ6zm5q1uarqIf-WW
3 The term more than human stems from eco-criticism and ecology studies but is more and more applied in other disciplines as well, particularly in the Arts & Humanities for thinking beyond the Anthropocene. ‘More than human’ is often used to describe what we used to call nature, but it does so from an ethical standpoint which emphasises that we exist in ‘a communicative, reciprocal relationship with nature’ (Cianchi, 2015: 32) and engage in inter-species relationships (Haraway, 2016). For this chapter, the term includes non-living beings, i.e. beings we would not identify as nature or species.
4 The semi-structured interviews focused on how artists changed their working practices to align with lockdown and restrictions, or to an art sector on hold and the resulting creative trajectories. All interviews lasted for an average of 45 minutes. Edited interviews are available on
5 E.g. ‘I don’t feel safe in mass events and won’t do so for a long time. Smaller events feel intimate, personal and are a greater opportunity to engage with fellow audiences’; ‘I much prefer this type of small-scale event because I feel quite anxious in large crowds’.
6 Unpublished Zoom meeting recording 15 December 2022.
7 See this Utopias Bach collaboratory meeting for an example:
9 See page on our website:
10 See ’Revolution in Miniature’ on our website:
11 For details see this reflective blog on ‘Mapping Moments’: ugh-utopias-bach.


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