30 Apr 2015
Mandy Barnett: "Make, be, dance, pedal, shape the future".
“My name’s Mandy Barnett. I’m a…now, what am I?! I used to be a designer in the cultural sector. I worked in museums for years. Then I became a manager and I’m a manager consultant now. My work is all about social impact in the cultural sector but my personal life is a lot about Transition and green issues. Now the two things are starting to merge quite a lot because I feel like I’ve come out of the closet at work. I’m working in a lot of areas where the environment is at the forefront like Happy Museum. It’s great to be doing that stuff in my community too, so I can talk about that at work in a very real hands-on way as well as bringing expertise into my community.
And you’re involved with Transition Kendal as well, is that right?
Yes. Our local group is a merge group between the Action on Climate Change group and the Transition Town focus, if you like. It’s called South Lakes Action on Climate Change towards Transition (a bit of a mouthful). I’m the person in that group who really pushes the cultural sector stuff and the art stuff.
We’ve got a fantastic arts community in Kendal. We’ve got a really good arts centre called the Brewery Arts Centre and lots of very creative people. The kind of stuff that I do here is about working with people who haven’t necessarily got the environment at the forefront of their thinking but are very much about community, resilience and having fun, that’s a big focus. I’m trying to work with them, but doing it in a way that is sustainable and just slightly raises the message.
So do you consider yourself to be an artist or more of an enabler?
No, I’m not an artist, and never was an artist, although I was a designer. A designer is a bit like an artist with a clear purpose, whereas artists are often driven by creativity and exploration, designers tend to be delivering against a certain task or brief. I suppose that’s what my creative practice is: I do something with the objective of trying to raise awareness and people trying to get a message across, it’s designed around that. It’s very creative and I work with lots of people who are artists and who are designers and who are creative people.
Those barriers are really being broken down, actually. One of the projects I work with is called Fun Palaces and we are going to create a Fun Palace here in Kendal this year too, on a voluntary basis for me. That has the mantra ‘everyone an artist, everyone a scientist’ and that’s what’s behind my thinking. Everyone is creative in some way or another and everyone has an element of wanting to discover and invent in them. It’s about enabling people to do those things and have fun with it and build relationships, and all that kind of stuff.
Many Transition initiatives are familiar with the idea of a social return on investment. You talk about a ‘cultural return on investment’. I wonder if you could say a bit more about that, how you measure it and why it matters.
It might be a bit technical, and it is in some ways for the cultural sector. I work with the technical analysis social return on investment all the time. One of the things I observe is that the arts and museums and heritage are not very good at making the case for how valuable they are. But they’re absolutely fundamental to society. There is not a person in this land who doesn’t have a picture on their wall or listen to music or read books or access films. It’s fundamental to us.
One of the problems we have is we try and talk about our social return without thinking about the difference between our social and cultural return so we end up not making the case so strongly because there are other things that work with social return. There’s something about culture which is uniquely about your sense of belonging in a place, your ability to think creatively and empathise with other people, and so I think we need to start talking about cultural return to try and get that message across so that the cultural sector is better placed.
But I don’t think most people care about that, to be honest. In my community, I wouldn’t talk that language because they just want us to have fun. Thinking about it, last year we did a great project called Breaks and Beats, which was a combination of kids doing stunt bike dancing, so we choreographed a dance on their bikes with a brilliant beatboxer called Nathan Loot. So all low-tech stuff, all powered by a bike generator that we built a couple of years ago.
One of the mums of a really little girl who was 8 or 9 who was involved with it said the best thing about it was the mix of people she was dealing with. She comes from an arts background, very privileged in a way in terms of the access she has to different things in her life. There was a lad in it who came from the youth club who was bullied at school and had been referred by the youth club. Another lad who’d been involved before who led the project. Some other kids who were just passing by, a couple of kids who were autistic and couldn’t get on with some of the other stuff.
It was that mix that this woman thought her little girl benefitted from. That’s what it’s all about. Building that sense of culture in a community so that you understand other people and you empathise together and have a strong sense of place. That’s what cultural return on investment is all about.
A lot of your work is about measuring the impact of things like Happy Museum and those kinds of impact. I wonder what your thoughts might be on what might be a more realistic and practical way of measuring the impact a Transition group has?
It gets interesting when it’s about measuring wellbeing, and a focus on wellbeing with less consumption. It’s about raising awareness isn’t it? What made me excited with the projects that we’ve done here is, not that we converted people to behaving differently. We weren’t there yet. But there were people after people who came up to me and said things like “I hadn’t really thought about the environment, that’s really interesting”, as opposed to saying “stop ramming that down my throat because you’re just telling me how to behave”.
And on the film we made at the end of Brakes and Beats last year, the dance choreographer from the arts centre, I interviewed her, said “why was it good?” She said it was really important to get across the message of sustainability. I had no idea she was really interested in that.
It needs to be much more anecdotal, which doesn’t mean to say that it’s not robust. What you need to do is collect that information systematically. In work, I would do things like get people to keep project logs where they might record comments over a period or record the feedback that people give and then analyse it to see whether there’s any kind of shift in that language. You will often see the shifts we’re talking about: happiness and learning and relationships.
It’s about being clear that leading indicators are a useful measure. So if you’ve got a load of people involved with a project who haven’t been involved with a project before, in anything that’s anything like this, then you can’t prove that you’ve made a big impact on their behaviour or on carbon dioxide emissions or whatever it is. But you can show that you have raised awareness. And I suppose that’s where I sit.
Because I do so much of this at work, I don’t want to do it at home as well! When I’m doing my local stuff, I really struggle, like everyone else does, to find the time, to find the energy, to do all of the technical evaluation stuff. It’s too much like work then. I guess what we do, we make films.
Both of the two really creative projects that I’ve done in the last couple of years, we’ve made films and put them on YouTube and shared them with funders and shown them whenever we can, that sort of thing.
My objective is, I want people to have fun. I think, once they’ve had fun, they will like you. Next time you try and talk to them about insulation or whatever, then they might be more willing to listen to you. You have to be really careful about undermining the fun that people have by making it like work.
So for you personally, when you approach Transition and the work that you do in the group in Kendal, to what extent do you see that as being an arts practice? And if it is, how does that shape how you approach it?
I see it completely as an arts practice. That’s because – so here’s a selfish thing. For years I lived in Dorking and did stuff like fought the local supermarket. We set up a campaign called Dorking SOS. Then we set up a Local Food Float once we were successful fending off the supermarket, selling local food. Then I got fed up with feeling like it was hard work and I thought – I want to do something that I just wholeheartedly enjoy. Like lots of people, I need to be creative. I need to make, otherwise I get miserable. There are people like that, aren’t there? There are similar people who need to do sport as well.
So it’s definitely an arts practice and it’s always about being creative. One of the things that then means is that it’s not necessarily going to be brilliant. It’s risky and not necessarily going to be successful because it’s also about being very inclusive. When we did Breaks and Beats, we had kids who were 7-8 up to teenagers who were 14, 15, 16. So it was a real mix, and you have to accept that. It comes naturally. I don’t think it’s something I think about, it comes naturally that I wanted to be creative because that’s what gives me a spark and also the other creative people I work with.
It means that I then look for the local community artists, the local fashion designer who helped with designing t-shirts and teaching kids to print their own t-shirts. So rather than going and getting some t-shirts printed in the local shop, we would a, buy stuff from the charity shops because then we’re reusing, and b, screenprint the design ourselves. The design is designed by a local lad who wants to be a graphic designer when he grows up. So I guess it just comes in at every little stage. You never buy something or consume something that you can make instead.
What would your advice be, having been around quite a lot of different community arts projects and so on, for Transition groups who are wondering how they might bring the arts more into what they do?
Find the people locally who are creative and they might not be where you’d expect. They might not be creative in their work, they might be privately creative. Don’t make it too arty. Make it around fun. Make sure ordinary people can get involved who don’t think that they are artists. All just respect each other.
In Kendal al lot of the people involved with Transition are outdoorsy. There’s a lot of fleeces, there’s a lot of cyclists. When I first started doing the arts stuff, some of them really didn’t get it. They didn’t think it was going to be doing the job. They thought our job was too urgent to waste time with something that was a little bit more upstream. I suppose that’s the thing I would say: trust that doing that long-term stuff is about building your community and partying together is worth doing. It’s valuable like getting across an explicit message and changing behaviour is also valuable.
At the moment it seems like funding to the Arts is being cut and cut and cut. Do you think that taking the kind of approach that we’ve been talking about and which is central to ‘Playing for Time’ is something which offers a new way forward in that sense?
Yes, absolutely. There’s no doubt there’s a crisis for the arts at the moment. At the same time, I think there’s a really big opportunity. I work with the process of commissioning the arts for social impact. Lots of people in the arts don’t like that because they think it’s dumbing down I guess, that shouldn’t be your starting point. But I think it gives us the scope to say that rather than the arts being funded as a separate thing that ends up being a little bit elitist often, it’s actually something that’s embedded across the whole of public services because it is so valuable and makes such a difference.
One example is a project I work with where artists trained care workers in older people’s care homes to have creative conversations with the residents and to have better relationships as a result of that. They’re now talking about that being part of the 25 year contract with care homes in Suffolk. It’s really exciting. Projects within Kent, working with the public health funders to do some projects that are specifically to do with vulnerable young people and their wellbeing. Then you’re getting to people who don’t understand the arts, like public health commissioners, but when they see it, they realise what phenomenal value for money it is because it’s really engaging for communities and arts organisations are often really embedded in communities and really place-based.
It is a big opportunity. The business about getting across the message about resilience and upstream stuff before we need to repair the damage with mental health projects is the real challenge. So getting that investment in healthy communities rather than with ill people is the big political challenge.
As a country, mental ill health costs us £105 billion a year. That’s more than heart disease and obesity. It’s more than crime. It is absolutely phenomenal. And yet the NHS invests 0.1% of its budget in prevention, about 11% in mental health services. It’s taboo and it’s short-term and it’s inefficient. That’s a big opportunity for the Transition movement. Promoting wellbeing and tackling over-consumption are coming together in a way that enables us to have a positive message rather than a negative one.
What’s the role that you see for young people in making all of this happen?
It’s pretty obvious that a lot of what we’re doing’s about the future, and that’s the future of our young people. I’ve got kids who are 10 and 12 and it makes me weep to think what we’re leaving behind for them. The other thing is that they’re not taught this stuff at school. We’ve been talking a lot about the election and my kids say to me “the only thing we know about climate change is what you tell us!”
One of the things that really interests me is doing projects with young people. There’s one lad who we’ve worked with over 3 years now who started as a participant on our Biked Up project, was a biker. By the time he worked on another project 2 years later, he was teaching the other kids bike skills. He was one of the organisers. He’s only 15, and he’s set up his own events company locally. Getting those people in and getting that message of doing things sustainably through to them just by doing it, so it’s experiential, you’re not teaching them. You’re working creatively together on how you put together a performance, but then you say you can’t use that because that’s petrol, or that’s a lot of energy. That, I think, is really exciting too.
What we’re modelling through Transition and other things and a lot of what you’ve been talking about is that kind of joined-up approach that values everybody’s voice, that is based on a good motivation and trying to do good. Do you have any thoughts on how one might bring that more holistic approach more onto the radar or make it a reality?
One of the things I’m involved with nationally is setting up a network called Making Culture Work. We were talking earlier about cultural value as opposed to social value. That’s what we’re trying to get across with Making Culture Work. To be explicit about what the value is, how you do it better and how you make it work. One of the methodologies we’re looking at is a thing called Culture Cubed.
It’s basically the triple-bottom-line for culture where we will be getting communities together but with their cultural organisations so their museums, their libraries, their arts centres. Those are the places where public space still exists in towns. Often shopping centres have been privatised. There are kids who are not allowed into shopping centres with their hoods up in various places. So the idea is to get people together in communities talking about the whole social network, cultural supply chain.
Places like Kendal are really healthy towns, partly because we’re quite isolated. We have a very big rural area around us, so people often live and work here and socialise here and do their cultural consumption here and so on. It’s a very strong community. It’s very networked and you can see how a big arts presence, lots of cultural organisations all work together to create lots of voluntary stuff as well. Those people can’t stop creating. They love making stuff, they love doing stuff in the community. It’s understanding networks and all the relationships between things that is really important.
Mandy is just one of over 60 artists who have written sections for Lucy Neal’s forthcoming book ‘Playing for Time: making art as if the world mattered” (see cover, right). The book is now published. TransitionNetwork.org readers can get £5 off Playing for Time. Simply enter this discount code at oberonbooks.com – ONPFT2015. Valid until 31 Dec 2015.