Visual minutes from 'How to be a Good Neighbour' by Raquel Durán
This month we’ve been speaking to Divya Satwani (she/her) and Kaya Birch-Skerritt (she/her) from the Barbican Centre’s Creative Collaboration Department. Divya is a Producer, as well as a Facilitator, Somatic Coach and Dancer, and Kaya is an Assistant Producer.
The Barbican Centre is an arts, learning and community centre based in the Barbican Estate in the heart of the City of London. The building itself is a Grade II listed building which was built between 1971-1982 after the Second World War and is the largest of its kind in Europe. The centre is home to artists and community members hosting theatre performances, cinema screenings, talks, workshops and art exhibitions. It also houses a library, three restaurants, and a conservatory. The Creative Collaboration department was formed recently and brings together existing staff from Creative Learning, Communities & Neighbourhoods & Public Programming and the Archives team.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves and how your work relates to the themes of COTT?
Hello! For the context of this conversation, I’ve got my ‘Producer’ hat on, as a proud member of the Communities & Neighbourhoods Team, part of the Creative Collaboration Department at the Barbican Centre. Normally you’d find me working up on the sixth floor of the Barbican Centre tucked away in a corner of the office, cuppa in hand, on my laptop. I joined the team about two and a half years ago, during the national lockdown, having previously worked at Battersea Arts Centre. I’ve worked on lots of exciting projects during my time here such as Leytonstone Loves Film, a five-day community-powered film festival based in Leytonstone, launching the Community Impact Collective, a programme for sector-based peer learning based in the City of London, and the Imagine Fund - a local community grantmaking fund I produce alongside Kaya.
I also sit in the Communities & Neighbourhoods team where I work on a variety of collaborative projects from participatory grant-making, such as the Imagine Fund, to our upcoming Curve exhibition differently various which was created and developed in partnership with our Community Collaborator, Headway East London. Across our portfolio of work, our team is passionate about working with communities and other partners to decentralise power and highlight that there is a world of expertise that often sits outside of large institutions.
Our team is full of really special people who are curious, caring and above all – super passionate about making the Centre an accessible place. Working with this team is a labour of love, and over the past few years, our practice as a collective has been all about disrupting the power dynamics traditionally seen when institutions engage with marginalised communities.
We’re hyper-aware that the Barbican has so much access to equipment, funding, venue space, and networks, and more - and our mission has been to better find ways to share that power and resource with our neighbours. As part of that, we’ve been exploring different methods of evaluation, which are more creative, participatory and conversational, led by the people involved in the projects, so that we can honestly reflect on our work and where it’s going.
Could you tell us a bit more about the different types of communities that interact with the Barbican, specifically through your department's activities?
Over the pandemic, our team started looking hyper-locally at who our neighbours were. The City of London is a really interesting area with large institutions such as the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Museum of London right on our doorstep, the historic grounds of Charterhouse, thriving community centres and libraries such as St Luke’s Community Centre and Artisan Library as well as estates such as Barbican Estate and Golden Lane Estate, housing local residents. There's a real mixture of people living, working and studying in the local area and it has been our mission to learn and create opportunities with them in order to contribute to the thriving ecology of the area. We also wanted to make sure we are engaging with underrepresented communities in an authentic way by building meaningful and reciprocal relationships with them. We do this through deep relationship building through our participatory programmes as well as learning and sharing with our incredible partner organisations.
Some of the partner organisations and collectives our team have proudly worked with are Accumulate, Phosphorous Theatre Company, Headway East London, Babes In Development, Resolve Collective, Flourishing Lives and We Are Parable.
Can you say a bit about your experiences using COTT?
I had first heard about the game through my colleague Valentina Orru as we had both contributed to writing chapters in the Disrupt Toolkit, a public resource for artists and organisations working with communities, commissioned by Guildhall Music and Drama. I co-wrote the chapter ‘Shifting Power’ with two of my colleagues Lara Deffense and Anna Casey; Valentina and Maia Mackney co-wrote a chapter called ‘Liberating the Frustrated Evaluator’.
As mentioned by Divya, we were first introduced to COTT by our colleague Valentina. She put us in touch with Henry, as at the time we were in the process of planning Swimming in These Waters – an industry event looking into how institutions can build genuine relationships with communities and how creative and reflexive evaluative practices might support this to happen. We invited Henry to demonstrate the cards at this event and have continued to work with him and the cards since!
Another big part of Swimming in These Waters, and a huge part of our work is the Storytelling Evaluation Methodology which we have adopted from Arts at the Old Firestation and have been practising with our programme participants. When I found out about COTT through Valentina I thought ‘Oh cool! another evaluation tool I can play and experiment with!’.
Valentina held a practice session at the centre which I attended and met Henry. After participating in the game, I knew it was special. I loved that the quotes and theme cards were collected by artists and were really honest reflections about where we are at as a sector. I’ve now played the game with staff across the building!
How did the internal conversations facilitated by COTT go?
Really well! We used our COTT session to discuss how we want to work together moving forwards - in the context of our newly merged department Creative Collaboration which brings together the Creative Learning, Communities & Neighbourhoods, Public Programme and Archives teams. We were all pretty nervous to begin with as it was our very first time giving the cards a go but the conversations that emerged created a really exciting atmosphere where we were able to reflect, in really intentional and honest ways, about how we can work collaboratively with one another. I think the cards allowed us to feel a shared sense of collective agency over how we want to navigate new ways of working and problem-solving together.
Have you used COTT much with external partners?
Recently our team produced How to be a Good Neighbour where we invited our community partners to come along to the Barbican Conservatory and share their expertise with a variety of Barbican staff working across different departments. It was a chance for our local community partners to connect over lunch and a COTT workshop.
The cards allowed us to facilitate vital and raw conversations around different ways of knowing and producing cultural knowledge, access, disability and well-being as well as exploring how we can programme in inclusive and human-centred ways. A load of our staff (including myself) took part in the games with community members and Divya actually facilitated one of the tables.
What is it that you specifically like about the game… and actually, is there anything you don’t like?
During our How to be a Good Neighbour event, one of our main concerns was ensuring that we were facilitating a respectful, inviting and warm environment for our partners. It can be a big ask to invite people into an institutional space and into a room with loads of faces and people they don’t know! The cards immediately encouraged conversation and connection where people found similarities and differences across experiences and opinions in a playful yet critically engaging way.
One of the aspects I like most about the cards is how they guide the conversation into specific directions, in a way that feels equally held and challenging. They allow you to push yourself outside of your comfort in a way that feels very communal. There’s no sense of feeling like you might get things ‘wrong’, which is something I was nervous about initially when first playing!
I love that COTT really feels like just that – a game, almost like you’re gathered around the table as you would be with friends. It really fosters that openness and capacity for human connection.
I also love that in the game, we can’t shy away from tricky and critical questions – one’s that might not normally get asked. Every time I’ve played/ witnessed it being played it’s been super insightful, especially when you have a mixture of people interacting with one another at the table from senior leaders to local people and artists.
As a facilitator I really loved drawing the cards and with each turn, each member of the group got more and more invested – especially when there is a collective ‘OOOH’ when some of the interesting words and phrases get pulled.
I think from an access point of view, the thing I have found trickiest about each round having short time limits. I facilitated the game and it was tricky to keep people on time, especially when the quotes on the cards cover HUGE topics. Often people want space to unpack, and with a large group, this can be challenging!
Sometimes people also find it difficult to be put on the spot so I found that reminding people that it’s not a test and they don’t need to come up with anything wildly profound, helps to set the tone a bit and encourage people to relax into the game.
Yeah, as Divya mentioned, the time aspect can be a challenge when played in a bigger group, so is much better suited to smaller group settings. One way we tried to counter this was, by teaming up in twos and threes to choose and read a card. This ended up working really well for our specific context as it allowed us to pair up our community partners with staff members which immediately removed any sense of us and them.
How do you think games can change the way we work, think and/or evaluate art and cultural projects?
Often when we deliver projects, they come and go and the impact on the humans involved in the project isn’t felt widely (due to funding cycles… deadlines… etc.) we move on to the next thing; we don’t have the capacity to go and really take in the projects or deeply connect with the participants. Playing a game allows us to be present. I think games like COTT can really help to challenge preconceived notions and bring new perspectives to a particular subject. The parameters of the game mean that everyone is equal, and everyone’s contribution is of value no matter who they are in the game.
Offering the time and space to truly be in connection with one another and really have a full-bodied experience holds a lot of value that I feel can’t be captured through data or evaluation forms. In the context of the event that we delivered, it was really cool to see senior leaders in the room connect with community members and really see the value in their expertise.
Using gaming formats as an approach to evaluation allows people to take some time out of their usual schedule, slow down and be more present and intentional without getting caught up in getting things ‘perfect’. As the cards have an inherent playfulness to them, they allow you to think in a more creative and free way. I came to conclusions that I don’t think I would have if I was participating in an evaluation conducted in a more traditional way.