Deveron Projects, Annual General Meal (2022)
This month we’ve spoken to Jenny Salmean from Deveron Projects, an arts organisation based in Huntly, Scotland. They work collaboratively to develop socially engaged arts practice locally, nationally and internationally. Their projects connect artists, communities and places through the process of making art and they do this through a methodology called the Town is the Venue - this is to say they do not have a fixed venue and work across the town and with their communities, trying to break down barriers to contemporary art, share a multitude of cultures, and effect positive social change.
Jenny has worked in rural Aberdeenshire since 2018, firstly as Programme and Communications Manager at Scottish Sculpture Workshop, and more recently, since 2022, as a Producer with Deveron Projects. Jenny is passionate about supporting artists and works to embrace accessibility, rurality and community, in all its complexity and multiplicity. Before moving to Aberdeenshire, Jenny worked across galleries, artist-led spaces and communities in Edinburgh; including Inverleith House / Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, Rhubaba Gallery and Studios, WHALE Arts and Collective.
Hi Jenny, thanks for talking to us. Could you start by telling us a bit about you and Deveron Projects?
Hello! I’m Jenny Salmean, a Producer based in rural north-east Scotland. I’m a part of the team at Deveron Projects, an art organisation in Huntly. Huntly is a small town of 4000 people around an hour’s drive from Aberdeen. The town is a centre of service provision in the local area, surrounded by smaller villages, industrial farmland, forestry and private estates. Deveron Projects has been active in Huntly for almost 30 years, working with socially-engaged art practice. Now, we generally understand this to mean working in the open, collaboratively with artists, people who live around Huntly and community partners, in the process of making artwork. These artworks take many forms, from sound walks to monthly critical film clubs, from a climate justice youth group to a woodland dedicated to peace, among many others.
All of our work aims to create relationships between people and connections across binaries; from local to global, histories to futures, and economics to ecologies, among many others. For us this is a way to explore and understand a wide range of socio-political subjects with our communities, never shying away from difficult or complex current issues. This currently includes climate breakdown, queer ecologies, hospitality, colonialism and migration.
In what kind of context have you used the COTT?
I first learned of Cards on the Table when working at Scottish Sculpture Workshop, where we were leading on the evaluation of an EU Large Collaboration Project called BE PART, with Sophie Hope and Henry Mulhall. Deveron Projects, however, also has a connection with the game as Sophie used to be a member of our Board of Trustees – we have a first edition deck of cards! It seems apt that we recently used the game in the charity’s governance – as part of a playful Annual General Meeting (AGM).
Last year's AGM was recreated as an ‘Annual General Meal’, in collaboration with artist-in-residence and chef Kawther Luay, to recognise the importance of hospitality in our work. Instead of the usual presentation format, we designed a three-course meal for over 30 guests, which formed the agenda for the meeting. Guests included our current Board of Trustees, the staff team, artists-in-residence, Deveron Projects’ friends and neighbours, together with community partners. Everyone who chose to come along was invested in Deveron Projects through their different relationships with the organisation, yet brought different experiences and histories of our work to the table. As far as I know, this is the first time we had formally invited reflection on the organisation as a whole, from a cross-section of our communities.
Cards on the Table was played in small groups of four guests, along the length of the dinner table, in the time between the main course and dessert. Each group brought together a member of our team with three others, who had all engaged with Deveron Projects in different capacities and over different timescales (some as much as 20+ years, others for a couple of months). We shuffled and split two decks of cards between all the groups, and invited everyone to reflect on their experiences of Deveron Projects – projects, workshops, events, or even internal workings such as employment or charity governance, using the cards as prompts as per the game rules. In the time we had allocated, we were able to play one, chaotic but joyful, round of COTT.
What do you and don't you like about COTT?
The game was instrumental in guiding conversation and reflection, creating space for people to think critically about their personal experiences of Deveron Projects.
Deveron Projects is a long-term resident of Huntly (27 years). With this, a huge amount of what the current team and wider public understand of the organisation’s history and identity is via hearsay, myth and storytelling. Beyond the institutional narrative, and even within the documentation of previous work, people’s lived experiences of Deveron Projects’ working practices, relationships and organisational culture are mostly invisible - swept up in project archives and organisational methodologies.
In this instance, Cards on the Table facilitated a different conversation around Deveron Projects and invited people who have engaged with the organisation and its work to speak critically of their experiences, positive and negative, rather than recounting dominant stories of projects such as the Weeping Willow Tree, the White Wood or the Town is the Garden. The game supported participants to draw connections between their experiences and a deeper understanding of the work we do. We were (perhaps naively) surprised at how quickly it led groups to a discussion around specific and complex issues present in our work, and in socially-engaged practice more widely. For example, what’s the impact of project-by-project working and is this sustainable or ethical? How do we create solidarity over what often seem insurmountable divides? When working in endless crises, how do we centre relationships and intersectional care? Of course, this is a summary in my words, but COTT created a space where these questions and concerns could be voiced by members of our communities, based on their personal experiences of the organisation. It’s exciting that this reflection and ‘narrative busting’ could happen at our AGM, within a space of governance.
How do you think games can change the way we evaluate?
I’m not sure if this is specific to games, but I think for us an alternative approach to evaluation needs to be relational - centering people and their relationships. In lots of ways COTT enables this! As a game, it requires group reflection and connection, within a structure.
This ties into our ongoing attempts to build place-based and appropriate structures for evaluating our work, that are in line with our values and supportive of Deveron Projects’ communities. To hear and understand multiple, differing experiences of our work creates greater accountability to our communities, than counting heads, or collecting de-humanised and non-intersectional equalities data - both of which currently form a significant portion of our formal evaluative work. We’re trying to figure out; how do we evaluate in ways that are generative, not extractive? How do we hear, convey and record the broad experiences of our work, from multiple perspectives? How does evaluation support us to break down barriers to our work for local communities?
Working in a small community, like Huntly, we come to know everyone who engages with our work personally, whether they are simply coming along to a regular event such as a Friday Lunch or working more closely with us and artists on a project. Currently, one of the most useful and regular ways we receive feedback is through informal conversation, when we bump into each other in the street, in the shop or pub, or are chatting after an event. This feedback is often offered to the team on a basis of friendship and conviviality, usually one-on-one, on the community-members terms. Although we can collect testimonials and quotations from these conversations, recording and evidencing the experiences and opinions shared this way proves challenging. Perhaps there is something in centring relationships in our approach to evaluation that can create space for trust and accountability, in conveying and recording feedback?
COTT has shown us that it’s possible to create more formal spaces where people feel able to give feedback, in ways that are equally as discursive as chatting in the pub. The game creates collective responsibility within a group for giving and receiving feedback. It also showed me that multiple perspectives and experiences can comfortably exist within one space. We’ll keep this in mind as we continue to develop our methods and approaches to evaluation.