Transforming Lives: young people, art and the city

Methodologies and innovative ways of working

A book/catalogue collecting ideas and images from the project was published in October 2011:
Encounters Beyond Text: art transforming lives ISBN 978-0-9567899-3-8

Gary Stewart and Paul Heritage started the workshops from the same set of instructions, taught the same skills and allowed the same sense of free fall in the workshops as students discovered rather than were taught how to make work using digital art technologies. Although the young people worked in small, self-defined and selected groups, in all instances the student-artists developed ways to cross their various stages of knowledge, development and sophistication with the equipment and programmes. Showing and sharing their work almost daily, they achieved enough distance from each other to produce distinct creations but the project as a whole grew from the crossings, samplings, borrowings and exchanges that characterised the workshop environment.

The emphasis was on finding ways of exploring the technology and the possibility that the students could teach Stewart what he might not yet have 'found' as a particular route through the programmes. This prepared the students for live performances where 'mistakes', 'crashes', 'pauses' and the genuine 'unknown' were a part of the experience for audience and artist alike. Terrifying for a producer, enlivening for the performer, baffling for the audience but ultimately liberating for everyone as the technological framing of the artistic event became ever less inhibiting and always more playful. The performances had their own sense of anarchy, with the human and the digital in playful dispute.

In every instance, the installation was paraded as low tech despite its high tech credentials. The screens were always make-shift, the operating modules always on display, the audience were given the simplest means to interface with the images, discovering their own powers of control and command. At all times the original artists were the conduits of significance. Meaning was made by strategies that constantly reminded us not just of the presence of the artists, but who they were, where they came from, and how they inter-reacted with the technologies, with each other and with the audience.

Community and location are intimately connected in constructing the narrative for the installation and are what gives the work its power and significance. The fundamental architecture of VJ software is as a recombinant, re-contextualising and reassembling content in new ways and the premise and very act of VJing enables the manipulation of collective media memory by bending the trajectory of not just the past into the present and the creation of new imagined futures but also the crossing between the geographic, cultural and conceptual spaces of Brazil and the UK. With the ubiquity of digital media combined with the power and ease of media sampling at your disposal you can be quite literally thinking globally but acting locally, creating new meanings, configurations and cultural references. To this end the primary focus is first and foremost assembling the media database that can be available for consideration. Content is first reduced to objects which are organised, structured and categorised before receiving alternative meanings and having their latent potentiality realised as they take on a life of their own. It is in effect an explicit, publicly shared dynamic representation of how the research process has been undertaken. It is an investigation into how content behaves and the ways in which with every recall of a memory, it changes. This extended and expanded memory space is conveyed to the viewer in a way that references our experiences of cinema, music and physical performance but it also has its own unique and distinct grammar with a syntax based on transitions, movements, sonics, atmospheres and layers. Perhaps as a direct consequence of the software used the relationship between layers and composition for both the visual and sonic has become an important part of VJing, mixing together in varying degrees multiple images and controlling the amount of transparency to vary the visibility of certain areas analogous to musical composition. The content's meaning is connected more to its physical and cultural surroundings than it is to the limited projector space enclosing the images. It is less about the surface and more to do with the ability to juxtapose images with sophisticated control. VJs get to explore and wield the power of montage, which we have seen to have such historical importance in the world of cinema and which has now become such a familiar and significant part of immersion installations in galleries, museums and the growing interest in public art and spaces. It relies on how an unlimited combination of relatively simple elements are capable of expressing a broad range of human emotion, sensations and feelings. This work is part of the search to create new dynamics and relationships between images, spaces, performers and participants and in doing so examine and explore storytelling as a collective experience



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Platform discussion. Queen Mary, University of London: 17 January 2012

A platform discussion held with the lead artist, PI and members of the groups who have performed the installation during the project.

The following provocations were given to the participants before the discussion and formed the basis for the evening's discussion:

  • What are the main challenges to stimulating high-quality research which draws on diverse disciplinary resources and skills and encourages interdisciplinary collaboration outside of Higher Education Institutions? As outlined in the original proposal we undertook this research in collaboration with academics and artists who engage with issues of public policy in relation to young people as well as with young people themselves. How far is this reflected in the final outcomes? What can we learn about how to balance diverse participants in collaborative research practices?

  • How far can a practice-led research programme created through collaborative processes beyond HEIs make a distinctive contribution to theoretical, conceptual and empirical study? What more can be done to create arenas for shared debate both within and beyond the academic community that learns from and contributes to the continued development of projects such as the Encounters programme as it advances?

  • Encounters has had very successful, public outcomes for an international audience within and beyond academia. Has it also contributed to public awareness of the research on which it is based? How can this be done.

  • How can arts-based research informed and inflected public policy in relation to young people? What more can Encounters develop more more effective strategies in this field?

  • We asked a clear question at the beginning of this research If we were to create a live visual and interactive exhibition drawing on multidisciplinary debates to illustrate and investigate how young people transform their worlds through the arts, what would it look, feel and sound like? What answers have we found?

  • Did we do enough to help young people make and unmake their worlds? What more could we have done with such powerful technological/artistic/academic tools? We set out to enable young people to re-frame their lives through the arts. How can we make more explicit the relationship between this process and the means by which young people to strengthen their capacity to challenge the status quo?

This framework provided an environment to think critically about how the research has developed over the last year, and opened up possibilities for how we might develop this audio-visual platform and our methodologies in future encounters. The debate both highlighted the projects successes, but also the realities of empowering young people to think critically and take responsibility for interrogating the relationship between research, policy and young people. 


Arts & Humanities Research Council: Each year the AHRC provides approximately £100 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from archaeology and English literature to design and dance. In any one year, the AHRC makes approximately 700 research awards and around 1,000 postgraduate awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. Arts and humanities researchers constitute nearly a quarter of all research-active staff in the higher education sector. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. See Arts & Humanities Research Council website.