Tiree in Your Words

I haven’t written much about  Tiree in Your  Words here yet, not wanting to potentially affect the result by exposing too much of the processes and thinking that went into it. Now that it’s completed (at least the word collection part –  who knows where  it might lead), I’ll be reflecting here on various aspects of the project and related thoughts.

Tiree in Your Words is a mini-project we (Frances Woodhead and I) undertook for the course we  are doing with the University of the Highlands and Islands called Art and Social Practice.

We wanted to find out what the Isle of Tiree means to people who live here by collecting six words from everyone; to give islanders the opportunity to express their idea of Tiree and the chance to see what Tiree means to others in the community.

We provided a number of ways to participate:  cards to fill in, a mobile number and an email  address. People ‘posted’ the cards into boxes around the island – wee Tiree houses made of papier-maché  – and yesterday we held a community event where  we  opened the boxes and put the words on display. At  least 26 people took part in the box opening, and we were delighted to find we’d collected words from about 140 people, nearly 900 words. During the event we collated the words and created some on-the-fly word clouds using Wordle, then mounted the cards on boards to display them in five age groups, plus ‘age unknown’.

group of people

The words will be printed in An Tirisdeach, our island newsletter, as a word cloud and maybe in other ways too, and are currently on display in  Tiree Rural Centre. They’ll be available for other projects and we have already collected ideas from participants for ways to use them.

Tiree in Your Words has a blog at tireewords.wordpress.com where we will be adding more images and word lists, together with any further project developments. We’ll  be  documenting the  project fully for the course and I’ll post a link to that soon, for anyone who’s interested.


A few weeks ago when I was surfing (does anyone say that any more?) the web for information about the arts and wellbeing/mental health, I found a Pearltree. (This one.) Pearltrees has been around since at least 2010 but I’d never come across it before. In its own words it’s a ‘visual and collaborative library. It lets you collect, organize and share everything you like.’ You store links – that’s all I’ve been doing so far – and also images and notes, in a visual hierarchy of ‘pearls’.  You can also connect other people’s ‘pearltrees’ into your own, forming richer networks of information, and there are features for sharing pearls socially, for researching related pearltrees, and for working as a team.

I like the way the information structures collapse into little pearly dots and expand into circles, really more like flowers than trees, so there’s always a sense of delight using it. I’ve created a pearltree for my Art and Social Practice course and one for Craft and Making, among others. I’m finding it a very useful tool.


Matt Mullican

Tiree in Your Words  is the title of the  mini-project I’m doing in collaboration with the otther Art and Social Practice student on Tiree, glass artist Frances Woodhead. There are various things we’re doing for the project which I’ll write about soon, but the gist is that we’re collecting words from everyone on Tiree who wants to participate, and next weekend we’ll hold a community event to create a display with the words we collect. This  morning Frances emailed me about an artist whose work is in the 2013  Venice Bienniale, Matt Mullican. I hadn’t come across him  before but found this video and there is so much to think about in his work.

This is inspiring us to create some artwork around our own words to be part of the Tiree in Your Words display.

models of social art

Yesterday in our weekly class, Roxane showed us Stephen Willats’ ‘Socially Interactive Model of Art Practice’, which is a triangular diagram (from page 92 of Grant H. Kester’s Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art), with Artist, Audience and Context forming the points of the triangle and Artwork in the centre of the triangle. There are arrows in both directions between the points, representing the mutual interaction between Artist and Audience, Artist and Context, Audience and Context, and between the Artwork and  the Artist, the Artwork and the Audience, and the Artwork and the Context. It’s reproduced on this web page.

We discussed whether ‘context’ is wider than it appears from this diagram, more encompassing of both artist and audience. We had talked the previous week about many contexts such as environmental, domestic, technological, economic, generational, religious, historical, cultural, health. We mentioned that ‘situation’ and ‘context’ are related but different. You can create a context by creating a situation. We didn’t discuss examples but I think in this sense a situation may be a more particular happening or  series of happenings. For example, a kitchen and what happens there could be a situation, within a domestic context. I am thinking that the triangular model might also work with Situation in place of Context. A kitchen and a cook and some people who are eating would be the three points of the triangle with the (social) meal at the centre. But the context of such a situation could be domestic or hospitality or refuge or some other abstraction and would be like a container that informed but  was also beyond the specific interactions within the model.

Anyway, Roxane suggested we made our own models, which sounded interesting, so here’s mine.

diagramOne of the things I’m becoming more sure of through doing the course is that ‘social making’ is an essential element of the kind of community practice I enjoy. By which I mean activities where people are engaging creatively with materials that are at the  heart of their interactions with me and each other. I think this is towards or at the edge, or even off the edge, of art as social practice – both because it’s very craft based, and because the ‘making’ aspect is at least as important as the ‘social’ aspect. I’m thinking about this a lot at the moment – but that’s another blog post.


Conversation with exchange

Our third assignment was to include an element of exchange in a conversation. I asked people to bring two things, a topic for conversation and something to give away. The participants had all been to an earlier conversation together. I intended there to be other people but that didn’t work out.

I thought about exchange  and what I and the other  people in the conversation might get out of it and give to it.

  • all participants may get
    • enjoyment, understanding of one another, mutual connections, increased openness to others views, a gift
    • in return for presence, participation, giving something away
  • I may also get
    • understanding of how people negotiate process, increased confidence, knowledge of what issues matter to people, satisfaction, awareness of people’s skills
    • in return for forethought, asking for help, action

My thoughts beforehand

  • exchange the ideal for the achievable – without losing too much idealism
  • people bring diverse ideas and possibilities into the mix and negotiate which there is time to talk about
  • the personal value of ideas, need for equality, taking people seriously, temporary commitment to one another.
  • Exchanges
    • exchange one’s preoccupations for a better understanding of someone else’s.
    • Find out what is important to each other.
    • People also bring a small gift and leave with one.
    • Building connections between people.
  • Potential for equal exchange (of ideas) is determined by the decision of the group (of individuals), if it can make a decision as a group about which of the topics to discuss.
  • The idea that people in the group bring skills that can help the artist, facilitation may be a matter of noticing who is good at what, and inviting them to do it.
  • the others in the  conversation are co-producers
  • the outcomes are considered but not pre-determined
  • how much knowledge is optimal
    • do I explain what is happening and why?
    • do I allude to exchange?


  • mention I will be reflecting afterwards on weblog
  • how will I collect ideas for discussion? I thought about asking people as they arrived and making a list, this would be good if anonymity were important. Or asking people to go round the circle and offer their discussion topic. This is what we ended up doing. It’s more of a challenge for participants; not everyone would feel able to do this especially in a bigger group.
  • how will we negotiate what subjects are discussed?
    • ask for ways to resolve or suggest ways to resolve
      • practical
        • number of people >= number of subjects
        • divide people
        • divide time
        • both
        • consider extending into the future/other people
        • subset subjects
          • discuss some: never/in future/in another context
    • In the event we mutually chose to  discuss almost all the subjects. One was postponed till  another person might be present. One was almost not discussed but I raised it towards the end. I w0ndered how peple might feel if we didn’t discuss ‘their’ topic. I could  have asked this.
    • attend to group dynamics –  something I find very hard to ‘read’
  • how will I organise exchange of gifts?
    • add all gifts to a bowl, have people take something as they leave?
    • in the event, people seemed reluctant to be first to take something. I took the bowl of gifts around the circle. I think this was actually quite a tricky exchange because as well as people wanting particular items, they had investment in seeing how the item they brought was chosen by another. And because the coices diminished as the items were taken.
  • documentation/feedback – as well as my own notes, I decided to give people a small feedback sheet with these questions
    • why did you come?
    • what did you expect?
    • what did you receive?
    • what would you change?
    • any other reflections?

Review and observation

  • personal – I felt
    • vulnerability with regard to particular issues
    • overwhelming, ordeal, exhausting
  • social behaviour – I noticed
    • etiquette, turn-taking, roles
    • how difficult it is to make truly collaborative decisions
    • different personalities, for example whether people like uncertainty or not.
  • what came up about dialogue
    • trying to really hear and listen
    • the importance of using words clearly
    • the people may have been too likeminded
    • the importance of expectation
  • issues, insights arising from  the conversation
    • the problems of labelling people and therefore not seeing them any more
    • [lack of/limitations of] communication can be an issue in the community
    • the ubiquity of change



Because I thought a lot about contingencies at the planning stage I found it easier to ‘think on my feet’ than usual. The group having met before felt comfortable and even joyful, yet still with challenging and divergent views. The exchange of gifts seemed to be special to people, some mentioned this in their feedback. It was interesting to learn what people wanted to talk about.


I almost derailed the conversation when an issue came up that affected me personally. I don’t think such issues would necessarily be something to avoid in this kind of conversation. But the artist needs to be prepared and aware of her own vulnerabilities in order to act professionally!

I would have liked to take a photo of the bowl of gifts and/or of people choosing them.

other thoughts

Helguera talks about the ‘construction of a community or temporary social group through a collective experience’ (Helguera, 2011: 9). This raises issues about what happens afterwards. Are we creating expectations of permanence? How can this be avoided if the project really is temporary? I learned the importance of clarity around this. Where does a project end –  I have to know, and yet  also be open to that changing, in some situations? Might a physical exchange provide a symbolic memory of the event, and possibly a closure point?


On the other hand, he also notes that ‘the effects of the project may outlast its ephemeral presentation’ (Helguera, 2011: 12). I think this is something I would hope for, outcomes that may be unforeseen but are ongoing. I like the idea that something new might come to life and grow as new connections are made and new networks formed. I’m excited by what may happen to a project at the point where the artist lets go. If she can succeed in creating a rich experience and sharing ownership of it, all kinds of potential becomes available to the participants: reproducing the experience, developing it, and creating new fruitful interactions.

Helguera, P., 2011, Education for Socially Engaged Art, New York: Jorge Pinto Books