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Why is a person with a career in contemporary visual art working for a language project…?

New Speakers has commissioned Deirdre MacKenna, Director of 'Cultural Documents' to produce a series of cultural 'tools' which mediate New Speakers' work in public situations. Here, she tells us a bit more about her background:

I am one of the lucky few to have had great jobs in the glamourous, cutting-edge world of public art galleries… For over twenty years my role was to develop programmes and projects of unique and ambitious artistic vision within the rarefied ‘white cubes’ of the contemporary art gallery. But despite the successes and rewards of the work, I started to see the galleries as limited in their capacity to enable deep engagement, or attract people who were not already familiar, thus I became worried that we were only ‘preaching to the converted’ and that the good work was missing its target… One day I sat down in an attempt to put a name to what was bothering me and was shocked to find a much longer list than I had expected…

The limitations were all connected to a sector-wide method of producing short term projects, characterised by artists making great work, but in very pre-prescribed ways without time or means of getting to know their audiences and with no potential to react to their responses; everyone pitching for the same resources, carelessly consuming the already over-committed capacity of our small, independent organisations; distant relationships with funders and policy-makers; no means of exploring our role outside our sector, and all of the insight of the research and production processes overlooked in favour of the final outcome.

In addition to this, I felt that many crucial, intangible aspects of our changing society such as identity, diaspora, migration, language, territory were inadequately addressed in the cultural arena, and failed to reach the people who with whom they would resonate.

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Deirdre MacKenna introducing the context and purpose of 'Cultural Documents' to a group of visitors in Filignano Italy, 2015 © Cultural Documents

It seemed that I needed to change tack; eradicate the barriers and ‘the people’ the art to them, rather than expect ‘the people’ to come to it/is. But who are the ‘the people’? I created Cultural Documents, an agency which produces new cultural programmes from local and historical knowledge, and this enabled me to work autonomously, commissioning projects and programmes where I thought they would play a useful role. At first I prioritised working closely with individual people, but gradually I recognised how much knowledge was hidden away inside academic institutions, and this led me to GRAMNet in Glasgow and a gradual process of identifying potential collaborators.

In November 2016, I attended one of the regular GRAMNet collaboration development meetings in Glasgow and there I met Bernadette O'Rourke. We exchanged reasons for attending the event and quickly a dialogue began which continued over the next few months and led to a kind of mapping out of potential approaches and projects which would bring valuable academic research to the attention and use of people in related contexts and situations, such as multi-cultural communities… 

Cultural tools - impact in the public arena
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