Narratives and the Grapevine

The Narratives and the Grapevine project was an exercise in global literature creation and distribution funded by the University of Bristol’s Brigstow Institute. It brought together Grapevine’s Lily Green and Tim Kindberg with Prof Madhu Krishnan and Dr Edward King of the university. We wanted to explore the potential of Grapevine by working with artists and writers in three very different parts of the world where different languages predominate but where WhatsApp is widely used: Bristol, UK (English), São Paulo, Brazil (Portuguese), and Yaoundé, Cameroon (French, English and Camfranglais).

Grapevine is an experimental tool for connecting artists and audiences outside the mainstream. It supports those working in vision, sound, words or video. Grapevine’s Maker tool enables you to connect artwork to gently interactive, multimedia content which your audience unlocks with WhatsApp or Telegram – and shares with friends, family and beyond. No specialised app is required: just the one they already have in their pockets. All they have to do is take a picture of the book cover, postcard, mural or other form of artwork, and send it to Grapevine. The software recognises the image, and sends the first short episode, with prompts to hear more and share. 

The project ran from January to December 2020. On the one hand, this is a much delayed end-of-project report; on the other hand we’ve recently realised, to our delight, that in a sense it is ongoing. More on that later.

The project set out to answer the question:

How can you source and generate content from languages and stories underserved by the wider publishing industry? This project seeks to explore if multimedia distribution can democratise access to literature and develop a digital literacy that effectively supports social inclusion.

We explored Grapevine’s potential with respect to those concerns, firstly through workshops with writers and artists in each location, and secondly by commissioning grapevines from selected participants, also in each location. In the workshops, which took place over a day, we asked about the participants’ existing practices as background information, and gathered their reactions to Grapevine as they used it in simple ways – as consumers, not creators. We then asked them to come up with creative ideas for Grapevine, from which one was chosen in each of Bristol and São Paulo, and two from Yaoundé, reflecting the dual Francophone and Anglophone presence there.

Workshops, commissions and sharing

Due to Covid-19, we largely used virtual means to work with partners and artists in the three locations. We found that this worked well overall. While face-to-face meetings would have been preferable, they wouldn’t have been possible in all cases anyway, given the distances and expense involved.

We worked with the organisations, artists, writers and producers described below, plus audio producer Eloise Stevens, and PhD student Penny Cartwright from the University of Bristol. Penny analysed the workshop recordings and organised the final showcase. This article is partly based on her analysis.

For each location, we now describe a selection of findings from the workshops to illustrate some of the differences between them, followed by the commissions. As always with Grapevine, you can unlock the content by sending a photo of one of the images below or saving/sharing it from this page to either WhatsApp +44 7380 333721 or Telegram @GrapevineMediaBot.

Yaoundé

We partnered with Dzekashu MacViban and Bakwa who recruited participants from across the country, evenly split between the Anglophone and Francophone regions. Georgina Collins ran the Yaoundé workshops and produced the commissions: one in English, the other in French.

In the workshops Grapevine was viewed, at least initially, as having concrete political and educational aims, and more formalised/ institutionalised audiences than was the case in the Bristol and São Paulo groups. Later, however, more literary aims, centring around language use, became apparent. Participants expressed a desire to legitimise vernacular and local language creativity and to develop a visible and established literary space for Cameroonian writers more generally.

Language was identified as a fraught issue by the majority of participants, with one stating that “on a un problème politique des langues” [there is a political language problem]. Language engagement was clearly associated with social cohesion. Grapevine was posed as a way of overcoming linguistic-cultural barriers – “because of art we came together” – and promoting “un mélange des langues” [mixture of languages]. WhatsApp is very popular in Cameroon, perhaps the most popular platform after Facebook.

Street Smart Stories

Writers Nkweti Anjie, Nnane Ntube, Bendie Sidney, Tita Hans and Edmund Elume, and visual artist Dante Besong created this commission. Street smart stories portrays, in the form of creative non-fiction, the lives of people on the streets, across four episodes of audio with signature images. From Moussa, the beggar on the street whose meals depend on a kind stranger, to the shoe mender, Mrs kok kok, who must work in a man’s world to survive, and Frank the truck pusher. Life is hard but they keep pushing.

Arrête le Mariage des Enfants

Writers Raoul Djimel, Géraldin Mpesse, Gils Da Douanla, Edouard Bengono, David Djomeni, Annie Claire Ngomo, and visual artist Cédric Chop created this commission on the subject of child marriage. They recorded four poems, each with its own Grapevine episode.

São Paulo

We worked with artist/producer Rafael Coutinho who recruited participants from around Brazil, ran the workshops and produced the commission.

WhatsApp plays a major role in Brazilian society – as it does in the UK and Cameroon, but with a somewhat different flavour. As Coutinho says, “Whatsapp is way more spread out and popular then all the other platforms of social media in Brazil, including Facebook. Brazilians embraced WhatsApp, it’s an important part of people’s lives, relationships, how we inform ourselves, we express discontentment and humour. The dissemination of memes through Whatsapp in Brazil is quite unique, I think mostly because of our humour.”

The São Paulo workshop focussed on comic books. “Compared to literature or drama, the comics community is quite small in terms of cultural presence,” Coutinho says. “But it grows when presented to a wider audience, in events such as CCXP, where the geek audience expands and connects to other mediums such as TV series and such. When closer to educational agendas and public funding, it also resonates more in the Brazilian spectrum […] It is my feeling that if disconnected from other interests of the public, it becomes very isolated and ‘bubbly’. WhatsApp is one of those bridges.”

There was an interesting difference from the Bristol workshop, where the use of physical printed artefacts such as postcards, posters and flyers attracted interest as a way of expanding the reach of an otherwise live event. From his Brazilian perspective, Coutinho observed that sending images from screens would scale better: “connection would be determined by the amount of flyers sent (and since this is a test of a theses, we’re going to do only with one comic book store in São Paulo), but we believe that if transformed into a digital campaign, using the Grapevine artwork in websites and WhatsApp, we could expand way more the number of people listening to it.”

Billy Soco

Rafael Coutinho (São Paulo), Diego Gerlach (São Leopoldo), Gabriel Góes (Brasília) and Lila Cruz (São Paulo) developed and produced this commission, based around a satirical superhero comic character created by Góes. Listeners can hear five episodes in Portuguese which narrate one of Billy Soco’s adventures and are designed to expand the world of the print comic. There is also a critical piece by Ciro Marcondes in which the journalist places the comic in its artistic and political contexts. This grapevine was designed to be placed within a comic shop in São Paulo called Loja Monstra.

Bristol

Lily Green recruited the participants for the Bristol workshop, and it was run by Heather Marks (producer) with assistance from Tim Kindberg. Lily also produced the commission.

The Bristol participants practised a broad range of art forms, including video, live spoken word and music performances as well as writing and the visual arts. There was a greater interest shown in the use of printed artefacts than in the other two locations. For instance, one participant observed that prints tags with grapevined content could be used as a way of physically moving people into venues that they don’t usually approach (e.g. Arnolfini, a local Arts venue); another was interested in people taking content away from his live performances, in the form of grapevined flyers.

WhatsApp was regarded as a very distinct medium in terms of audience compared to Instagram, Twitter and other major platforms. A bonus was that it was seen to remove a pre-requisite of having to be ‘cultured’: of one needing to know what is currently trending. On the other hand, it was seen as one medium among several that the artists would use to reach their audiences; important conversations (e.g. contemporary masculinity) would take place across several social/physical media – allowing people to engage wherever they are most comfortable.

What in the Werburghs

Ella Scotland-Waters created this commission, a visual and audio portrait of the St. Werburghs neighbourhood of Bristol, which was tagged to a poster. In the first two episodes, we heard from local residents about the place; in the third was a sequence of images of local places.

Sharing Day

On December 2nd 2020, after all the commissions had been produced, we held a “sharing day”. Each city was represented by the artists and producers, who had an allotted 30 minutes per commission to speak about their work and hear feedback from everyone else.

We held the sessions via a WhatsApp group – appropriately enough, given that that is the platform by which all of the commissions were experienced (Telegram was not used). We sent selfies so that everyone could see one another and where we were. Of course, not everyone spoke the same language but enough of us use English and French to be able to present all the projects to most participants – even if none of us could perfectly understand all the commissions, which were in English, French and Portuguese. This diversity was an interesting fact about the project as a whole: we were people in three countries with differing languages and cultures, all intersecting only partly with one another when it came to our practices and our interests, but all sharing a single platform (Grapevine/WhatsApp), and a commitment to the written and spoken word and/or to the visual arts.

There was a lively conversation and considerable appreciation of the works produced, despite the linguistic barriers. As one participant observed of a particular piece, “Even though I can’t understand the language, I love the calls, the voices, the car horns and the music. Very immersive.”

Asked to give feedback about Grapevine overall, while some aspects of the prototype have rough edges, the artists appreciated its overall simplicity. This includes that one both unlocks the content and shares the content by sending an image – either to Grapevine, or to a friend together with a message along the lines of “let’s see what we have on this pic.” As one participant put it:

“we have seen Grapevine at the beginning as a way to share and communicate. A way to spread.”

Afterwards

This project has been a fantastic experience for all of us in multinational, multicultural research – especially since, in conducting it, we transcended the Covid-19 lockdowns that have inhibited us locally. In principle, a global messaging app with two billion users is a good basis for inclusive, global literature dissemination. But we are interested in how to bring this about in practice. For all the questions that remain, we are greatly encouraged by the inputs from the three cities we worked with.

Even though we have been completely “hands-off” since December, Streetsmart Stories and, to a lesser extent, Arrête le Mariage des Enfants, are still circulating in Cameroon and beyond. We have recorded them in Canada, Germany, Denmark, the UK, Ghana and Nigeria. Users in Cameroon occasionally send us feedback via the Grapevine number, without us asking for it. This was received recently, about Streetsmart Stories: “The story is beautiful and I like the sound and feel it comes with it 👌👌”.

Grapevine is now about as popular in Cameroon and India, where another project is using it, as it is in the UK. Multimedia distribution using Grapevine has democratised access to literature, at least to this degree.

Metre and Memorisation call for participation

Brigstow Institute Experimental Partnership “Metre and Memorisation” will be exploring different ways of learning poetry. What’s the best way to learn a poem? Is silent rote learning effective, or is it better to repeat things aloud, to visualise the poem’s content, or to move about when trying to memorise it?

The research team are looking for people aged between 18 and 80 to take part in this study. The study would involve 4 zoom sessions that would happen weekly from (roughly) the middle of June to the middle of July. These would last about 45 minutes and it would be important that you attend all 4 sessions. You would be paid £8 per hour for your participation. At the end of the study you would also be invited to an optional feedback Zoom session where a poet and a critic from the University’s English Department would be on hand to discuss the poems you have learnt along the way.

If this sounds interesting, then please fill out Metre and Memorisation’s short participant survey.

Find out more about Metre and Memorisation, or, if you are under 18 take part in the “Bristol by Heart Poetry recitation contest”.

Bristol by Heart poetry recitation contest

The Metre and Memorisation Project, funded by the Brigstow Institute at the University of Bristol, announces the Bristol by Heart poetry recitation contest in collaboration with Poetry by Heart 

Deadline Extended to the 16th July.

Details of the Prize

Contestants are required to recite a poem from memory.  Poems chosen should be poems or extracts from poems of between fourteen and forty lines in length and in English.  All poems must be published and not the work of participants. Beyond this, the choice of poems is up to students and their teachers.  Poems can, for instance, be poems that are also being studied as part of regular school work, such as poems required for GCSE.  Alternatively, they can be selected from the wide range of suitable poems on the Poetry by Heart website, or indeed from further afield.  Why not choose poems that reflect Bristol’s diverse population or poems from its rich poetic history? Participants choosing a poem not on the Poetry by Heart website are asked to include a copy of the text of the poem learned along with their entry.

There are four age categories: 7+, 11+, 14+, 16+.  Heats will be held in participating schools. The process of judging these heats will be left up to the individual school: judges can be teachers, the participants’ peer group, or a combination of two.  The best 3-5 performances in each age category will then be uploaded onto the Poetry by Heart website for consideration by the judges.  Students whose school / class is not participating in the competition can enter independently, providing that their entry is approved and uploaded by a teacher or parent/legal guardian.

We would encourage teachers and parents to make learning and performing the poems as enjoyable and inclusive a process as possible and to talk about different methods of memorisation. The judges will be looking for a high quality poetry recital rather than a dramatic interpretation, and we recommend that poems are performed in the reader’s natural accent.  Further Tips on poetry recital can be found on the Poetry by Heart website.  All participating students, whether shortlisted by the schools or not, are invited to fill in a questionnaire about their experience of memorisation.  The data from these forms will be anonymised and used to help the Metre and Memorisation project into its research into the psychological effects of poetry memorisation.  Three of the contestants who complete these forms will be chosen at random to receive a £10 book token.

There are four age categories: 7+, 11+, 14+, 16+

The Deadline for entries to be uploaded is 5pm on Friday, 2nd July.

Because an unusually busy term has made it difficult for some to meet the original competition deadline, the competition deadline for Bristol by Heart has been extended to the 16th July. 

Winners in each category will receive a £50 book token plus a £25 book token for their school libraries.  The two runners up in each category will receive a £15 book token plus a £10 book token for their school libraries.

The Competition is open to children and young people in Bristol and the Surrounding Area. All schools in Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire are eligible. If your school is from further afield and would like to take part, please contact the organisers who will make a discretionary decision.

Further details about how enter are available on the Learning Zone at poetrybyheart.org.uk.

 

 

Research is difficult.

Research is difficult. Interdisciplinary, co-produced and collaborative research is even more difficult. Research involves risk as we ask new questions, of new data, using new methods. The novelty and originality that characterises researching is what attracts us to it, but also can be a source of anxiety. What if it doesn’t ‘work’? And this can be magnified when working with others with their own expectations, ways of working, and stuff.

One thing we say again and again to our new experimental research teams in Brigstow is that ‘competent failure is OK’. We want these new partnerships to do more than simply play it safe. In interdisciplinary and co-produced research it is hard to play it safe. Working with others means choosing not to stick to the tried and tested and leaving my disciplinary or practice-based comfort zone behind. And that is risky.

It is that risky space where we want teams to experiment. And that means ensuring that values of trust and belief in people and their ideas lie at the heart of what Brigstow does. When we say ‘competent failure is OK’ we mean it. We want to take the pressure off to ‘succeed’ so that teams can explore new ideas together. We want teams to be kind to themselves and each other as they embark on the difficult work of novel research.

Engaged Beings

Over the last five years, Brigstow has brought together well over a hundred new diverse research teams that span disciplines and include academics, artists and creative technologists and community leaders to name just a few. All of these partnerships are characterized by bringing difference together: different knowledge, approaches, people. Difference lies at the heart of the radical interdisciplinarity and co-produced research that Brigstow fosters, but difference isn’t always easy. One thing that we’ve thought about is how can we help new interdisciplinary and co-produced research partnerships flourish. In particular, how can we help groups of diverse individuals work well together so they want to keep collaborating once their initial Brigstow project is over.

We’ve developed a number of things to try to help create the right conditions for productive shared working among radically different researchers. The most recent is our Engaged Beings Toolkit that our current group of seedcorn projects have used as they began working together. It’s also something that we’ve been using as the Brigstow team. It is designed to be a playful prompt to have those conversations at the start of a new collaboration, and then again during the course of working together, that are perhaps hard to have because they involve articulating my wants and needs.

There is sometimes a sense in coproduced research in particular that it is somehow misplaced to have my own motivations, or at least to express those. But we want to create a space in all of our coproduced and interdisciplinary teams for individuals to be able to state what they want and need from working together. This ranges from exploring their personal motivations for being involved in the project (what’s in it for me if you like) through what success looks like for them personally (and the kinds of outputs that they hope to achieve) to the practical, process needs they have to stay engaged throughout.

Rather than those wants and needs remaining unsaid, we encourage all our teams to understand what they are personally, as well as for other team members at the outset, and then to revisit these during the course of working together. In short, we want the very thing that makes interdisciplinarity and coproduction so potentially powerful (and yet also so difficult) – difference – to be not only named but also celebrated.

You can view and download the Engaged Beings Toolkit at: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/brigstow/resources/engagedbeing/ .

 

“Sewing-as-therapy” Past and Present

Our research project Stitching-Obsession-Wellness seeks to explore the therapeutic role of sewing in 19th century asylums and its relevance to contemporary wellbeing. That relevance could not have been made more obvious by the Covid-19 pandemic. During the pandemic many people have taken up or returned to sewing as a means of coping with the stresses and strains of lockdown life, as Hobbycraft’s reported 200% boom in online sales attest. Yet more than just a hobby to pass the time, sewing has been championed for its therapeutic benefits. Against a lockdown landscape that has exacerbated existing mental health conditions yet also seen the reduction of mental health services (with staffing having been redirected to the frontline), “sewing-as-therapy” online sessions and communities have flourished as an accessible way to address and promote mental health and wellness (e.g. see Crafting During Coronavirus or Sewing Through the Pandemic).

But as our research has uncovered “sewing-as-therapy” is not a contemporary notion nor practice.  It was actively promoted and practiced at Glenside Hospital in the nineteenth century, then known as Bristol Lunatic Asylum (BLA). It was opened in 1861, to provide Moral Treatment; an ordered life would aid the recovery of a disordered brain. As well as a plentiful and good diet the hospital provided rest, safety and occupation, in the form of useful occupation which was an important part of the treatment. The curative properties of work had been praised by Samuel Tuke, founder of the York Retreat (1796) and one of the earliest mental health reformers. In 1861 50% of women patients at BLA were working, the majority at sewing, including dressmaking and mending as well as some ‘fancy sewing’. Reading patient’s medical reports, it is clear that “Working well at her sewing” is an indication of improvement.

Part of the aim of our research project is to test this qualitative statement by scientifically measuring whether the rhythmic, repetitive action of stitching can calm and focus the anxious brain into a meditative state. To see what effect sewing can have on the brain’s state, and before the pandemic hit, we had planned to collect and analyse brain activity from women during 3 sewing workshops using the electroencephalography (or EEG) technique. Covid19 has put this experimental aspect of our project on hold, as the electroencephalography (EEG) work requires human participants and the university is not currently supporting non-essential human participant research. As soon as we are able, we will readvertise these workshops and hope that the surge in sewing during the pandemic will mean we will have lots of participants!

Besides the EEG data collection and analysis, which will hopefully yield some fascinating results about how repetitive and self-expressive stitching change the overall brain activity, we look forward to working on the artistic interpretation and expression of the EEG experience and results. We are currently exploring ways of disseminating the findings, not just in an academic way but also creative visual ways. It is anticipated the results will support further projects at Glenside Hospital Museum involving people in creative sewing projects, especially if the findings echo the hypothesis that sewing is good for our mental health. This cross-specialty collaboration – which includes a neuroscientist, a human geographer, museum curators and artist-researchers – has given and reinforced such a rich historical context for the EEG experiments we have planned and has given us all an opportunity to learn and talk about the complex themes our project covers: mental health, women’s work and their place in society, coping mechanisms, self-expression and therapeutic practices. “Sewing-as-therapy” is as relevant and important today as it ever was.

Images and Caption

“This apron was given to a nurse by a Glenside patient that had made it and worn it until it was so dirty she wanted to send it to the laundry. The nurse thought it beautiful and knew the laundry would just bin it and told the patient of this problem. She told the patient she loved it and asked if she could have it and the patient agreed. It has since for some 30 years been in pride of place framed in the home of the nurse who has now gifted it to Glenside Hospital Museum”. http://www.glensidemuseum.org.uk/

With a Human Mask

When I cycled through London and I was able to recognise beauty for the first time again after a very long dark time it was so special. I could see it and I was aware that I hadn’t see anything beautiful for months, that I couldn’t see anything positive, nothing good. It was as if I was blind to all positive things and suddenly I could see again. I will never forget this moment and the happiness I felt. Being able to feel happiness is the best thing ever.

Mental health is something we don’t talk about enough. And even though I am open about my own depression it is still a big step to submit this series. I am a freelance photographer and I don’t want to carry the label “depression” in front of me. It is one part of my identity but I am way more.

Picking up the camera helped me in very difficult situations in my life and when I was at the darkest place I decided to start a self-portrait series. I wanted to document what I couldn’t put in words very often. I chose a Polaroid camera because I didn’t have the energy to edit, download, to work with the images. To pick up the camera and press a button was all I could do. And this also reflects how I felt. I wasn’t in control of my life, I wasn’t able to deal with a lot. I could only do baby steps, I could only press a button. Adjusting shutter speed, aperture, and focus: all these was out of discussion for me at that point in time. And the pictures mirror how I felt: blurry, out of focus, like under a thick layer of glass and water, melting away.

Finding a way out of the darkest place took time. And a lot of support of people who were able to be there when I was overtaken by fear and didn’t see the path any more. People that held hope for me when I couldn’t. I am in a way better place today, also thanks to having access to therapy and medication. Being able to feel happiness is the best thing ever.

 

Mareike Günsche is a photographer and educator with a special interest in social change and photography’s ability to empower. Mareike uses participatory photography as a tool for empowerment with a focus on human rights, gender equality, and social change and is driven by the desire to use participatory photography to create visibility for a variety of perspectives.

Mareike is part of the research team for Brigstow Funded Experimental Partnership: We Are Still Here: Stories from the HIV & AIDS Community .

Home Is Where The Head Is

Knowing that it’s Mental Health Awareness Week beginning the 10th of May has brought to light an aspect of the project I’m working on that’s far more poignant than I first thought. I am one of three researchers involved with ‘We Are Still Here’, which records the stories of people within the HIV-community. I am one of those, as well. Individuals are being photographed within their living spaces to demonstrate how they curate said spaces to benefit their mental wellbeing. Never has this been such a timely concept, as rarely have people had to spend so much time in their homes, be they living with HIV or not.

Before the first lockdown, I was embarking on a move from Bristol, UK to Lisbon, Portugal. A new life beckoned. A new pandemic put the brakes on everything and I was kept in England. All my life I have been a traveller, but I’m also an all-or-nothing sort of guy so I’ve either been on the road completely or at rest within my own sanctuary somewhere. A safe space is vital to me, mentally and emotionally. As it is for all. For the last fourteen months I’ve been stuck in an awkward sort of limbo: neither in my own home (though eternally grateful to the friends who’ve let me stay) but neither living the nomadicity I enjoy so much. Yes, I’ve made that word up to best describe a trait of mine that’s of utmost importance to me.

It wasn’t until we were (very kindly) awarded a research grant in October for ‘We Are Still Here’ by the Brigstow Institute and the Bristol Photo Festival, that I came to realise how much I was missing having a base that was really mine, not somebody else’s I was borrowing. Listening to our participants explain why home was so important to them became, at times, a little troubling for me. My HIV had part-caused the dissolution of my last relationship and that was someone who’d been my metaphorical home for years. I didn’t have him to fall back on. I was rebuilding myself and rediscovering the home that lies within my own dreams and wants and goals and hopes.

I could have felt stranded, but working on this project has made me realise that we all hanker after the same things, the same simple things. The HIV-community numbers just shy of 38 million and while our forthcoming exhibition won’t include that many participants (not yet, at least…) it has reminded me that even when we might be treading water a little, we’re never really doing it alone.

Of course, we all have our bugbears to live with, our roadblocks to overcome, our mental states to look after. HIV has been inextricably linked with all of those for me. I am proud to call myself HIV-neutral now, for the virus holds no power over me. It has merely left its autograph on my bloodstream. I have learnt to live – and thrive – with it. I have overcome the prejudice that others bring to it, now actively fighting against it. I have looked after my mental health by making sure I’m not alone, not stranded, and able to create my safe space wherever I am.

It’s a mindful thing, I suppose. It’s being mindful of checking-in with yourself, wherever and whenever and however you are. (Is there such a thing as a whyever?) You have to feel safe with yourself first. Easier said than done, but facing a challenge, accepting it, and then rising to it is something I’ve found just as beneficial to my mental health as finding a home is.

In a way, I am my own home. And I feel very blessed to have this project that a part of me can reside in, safely.

Collective Care: Curated Resources

Brigstow Funded Experimental Partnership “Experiments in Collective Care” has curated a lucky dip of resources to help you explore the subject of collective care.

Click on the image of a question mark to be redirected to an online resource. Each question mark will send you to a different resource.

 

 

What kinds of collective care practices can nourish and replenish us emotionally and politically? “Experiments in Collective Care” seeks to politicise care and place the emphasis on interdependence rather than independence.