Creating the void: collective change in shared isolation – Farrell Renowden in conversation with researcher Karen Gray

Creating the void: collective change in shared isolation – Farrell Renowden in conversation with researcher Karen Gray

Karen Gray, 25th May 2021

Farrell Renowden is Head of Cultural Partnerships at Age UK OxfordshireAge of Creativity Director, Equality Diversity Inclusion Champion at Age England Association and one of our ‘Connecting through Culture’ project’s expert advisors. We spoke at the end of April 2021 and amongst other things, we discussed what COVID has taught us about digital or ‘blended’ approaches to arts and cultural participation involving older people. This blog presents highlights of this conversation.  

How would you characterise the ‘shift to digital’ during the pandemic? and has there been a timeline for this? 

It’s gone in stages. There was that period of everybody scrambling to get online, but it soon became clear that there wasn’t enough understanding around people who aren’t online, and that the groundwork hadn’t been done to explore the nature and quality of the connections that are possible there. That was when I set up a kind of ‘non-digital’ working group of people who were grappling with these issues. It felt important to explore how to work in ways that weren’t digital, given the urgent needs of older people and the uncertainty over when and how the lockdown would ease.  

Lots of organisations across the country developed physical creative packs, some going out with essential care packages and into places like care homes where access was difficult. Producing our own pack, we experienced the logistic nightmare of printing and packing in total lockdown, but, in discussion with other organisations, we also spent time reflecting on whether we could make this response sustainable longer term.  It has been hard to know whether these responses were an effective one-off or if they are evolving into a new approach to delivery. 

Over the summer it felt like things began to change again. The Black Lives Matter protests really challenged people to think again about inclusion. By the autumn we were thinking about digital in quite a different way and grappling with different issues of logistics and quality.  By this point, focus had moved to ‘blended’ approaches – that sweet spot between the online and offline that meets people ‘where they are at right now’. As a non-digital working group we were evolving into this space, but still uncertain about how best to deliver on multiple platforms, or what it would mean for participants and practitioners.  

And now? 

It feels we’re in for yet another shift. Online seems to have evolved dramatically and the sophistication of the offer is astounding in such a short period of time.  But this has come at a cost.  Freelancers have had to think on their feet and shift their practice with little support or training.  Larger organisations have invested in their offer and more digital cultural content seems to be being monetized.  While this may be a necessity for the survival of the sector, it means we may have another set of barriers to contend with in terms of equity of access to culture.  

Organisations are also shifting back towards in-person work again.  We know that for some older people who never made the transition to digital, this is a welcome relief, but we also know that confidence across older populations to take part in face to face activity is still really low. And there is still lots to unpick about the odd middle-ground blended space.  

A collage of a person

Description automatically generated with low confidence
Participants in the ‘Framing Oxford’ project. Credit: Helen Fountain and AUKO. 

Yes. I’m interested to know more about what blended means in this context. 

I can tell you what it meant for a project we delivered: this was the post-lockdown adaptation of a project, originally designed to take place in person in our local heritage centre. The aim was to work with a group of older people to create a new archive based on their local area. With in-person participation no longer an option, we felt it was important they could take part in a way that worked for them.   

We offered the opportunity to take part on Zoom, by phone, by email, or through the post. We could have run two projects in tandem – one offline, one online – but we were keen to pilot a ‘third way’ where participants weren’t segregated by the communication tool they chose.  We felt it was important to give people the option to move between channels if they wished or if their circumstances changed, with the content staying the same. We also wanted to maintain a whole group feel so that everyone felt part of the same project.  

We are used to going with the flow and responding to the needs of the group, but the blended approach added yet another dimension. Our participants had equal status in the decision-making processes; they weren’t guinea pigs. Our shared anticipation of the unknown helped created a safe space where we all contributed to shaping the project and refining the approach. In the end the group made a short film as the final community archive, as well as adding new items to the collection, including transcripts, paintings and photographs – but no one knew quite what would happen at the start.  

What were the benefits of doing it this way? 

It meant we were able to involve people who were housebound or shielding. The project also reached people it wouldn’t have done if it had been face to face. One lady was receiving end-of-life care at home and although she sadly subsequently passed away, she was able to take part. Others had really significant caring responsibilities. It was important that, although the participants didn’t know each other at the start, they had a neighbourhood and community in common, so they were able to bond through that. We also saw real shifts of online confidence happening, with people moving from taking part by post to phone to online with support.  

And what challenges did this way of working bring? 

Time and resources. We were confident about the quality of the creative content, but the delivery was totally different to anything we had ever done before, and that was hard. 

The project raised a lot of questions for us. What does active or passive ‘engagement’ or ‘participation’ look like when it is happening on screen, on the phone, through the post or on email? How do you recognise when it is working well? How do you create and maintain the feel of being in a group when people are taking part in different ways and at different times? Are some artforms better suited to this kind of approach than others?  

It also raised ethical issues. It is harder to see whether something arriving with a participant through the post is causing harm. There is also a worry that we may be starting something we won’t have capacity to follow through on. And evaluating this kind of work is still new for most of us. 


Description automatically generated
Age of Creativity Festival 2021 Roadmap

Where do you see as the opportunities for the future? 

Although the past year has been very challenging, it has never felt a better time to be involved with creativity and culture in the age sector. It’s funny how, pre-pandemic, creativity and culture was definitely seen as an add-on: people might say ‘yeah, it’s nice and we definitely get the value of it’ but then it was difficult to move the agenda forward. The pandemic has driven home the fact that it’s not just ‘nice’, it’s essential.  We genuinely felt like key workers during the pandemic. Perhaps more strikingly, the people in the ageing sector also perceived us in that way.  The momentum for change now feels palpable. 

I’ve noticed funders placing more emphasis on the role of community connections than before. There seems a greater need for partnership-working. And, with the larger, often building-based organisations coming back into the picture as people return from furlough and the move to re-open, they are finding that some of the smaller more flexible, community-focused, place-based arts and non-arts organisations – and individual practitioners – have developed a stronger voice, because it is they who have been delivering this essential cultural work throughout. Through it all, culture never stopped, it’s just been happening in different ways – and continues to do so. 

Farrell Renowden: @FarrellRenowden 

Karen Gray: @kcrgray 


Event: Older people and cultural participation: where next?

Older people and cultural participation: where next? – Co-developed by Age of Creativity, CADA & University of Bristol Connecting through Culture as we age project team

07/07/2021 10:00 AM – 12:30 PM BST

University of Bristol

This event is for those working with older people, including practitioners, arts and cultural organisations and researchers focusing on arts and cultural participation and/or interested in digital inclusion and social connectivity.

The aims of the workshop are:

  • To reflect on and share stories of what we have learned concerning older people, digital inclusion, social connectivity and arts/cultural participation during the pandemic
  • To condense this learning in order to communicate it to funders and policy makers
  • To identify what we want to explore now and in the future and what is not yet known in this area

Speakers will offer unique insights into their experiences of working with older adults to deliver cultural activities during the pandemic, including examples of best practice, innovative methods and lessons learned.

Breakout rooms will provide opportunities for smaller group conversations and opportunities for discussion: What have we learnt and what do we want to communicate to funders and policy makers? What are the key questions the sector needs to be exploring going forwards?

We hope attendees will leave the event having learned some new ways to engage with older people in this area and having made new connections with others working in the field. The event will feed into future activities and create connections for attendees with the ongoing work of Age of Creativity, Creative Ageing Development Agency and the three year ‘Connecting through Culture as we Age’ project. Learnings from the event will be summarised and presented to policy makers and funders.

While we understand that it is not always entirely accurate we intend to enable live transcription from Zoom during the event which we hope will improve accessibility. We encourage attendees to post messages in chat, respond to an in-event poll and participate in breakout rooms during the more interactive parts of the event.

We understand it is not always possible for people to attend events without financial support and therefore have offered 5 bursaries of £75 on a first come first serve basis which have now all been applied for.

Unfortunately we are not able to fund more than 5 on this occasion. We will inform the five bursary recipients in advance of the event taking place. If you are not emailed in advance of the event to be advised that you have been awarded a bursary then you will have not been successful.

Our Schedule

Welcome and Introduction

Following a welcome and an introductory segment from Principal Investigator, Dr Helen Manchester, we will begin our guest speaker sessions. For each session speakers will give a provocation of around 5 minutes before moving into breakout rooms for discussions. Find our speakers listed below.

Session 1

Credit Eoin Carey

Speaker: Anne Gallacher, Luminate, Scotland

Title: Creative ageing and digital connection during the pandemic: what did we learn?

About: Anne Gallacher is Director of Luminate, Scotland’s creative ageing organisation. Anne has worked in the UK arts sector for over 30 years including posts with West Midlands Arts, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Watford Palace Theatre, as well consultancy work and a number of non-exec roles.

Speaker: Kate Parkin, Equal Arts, Newcastle

Title: The importance of ‘holding’ open emotional spaces in digital work with older people

About: Kate is the Creative Age Programme Manager at Equal Arts, a creative ageing charity based in the North East of England. Kate is responsible for overseeing the organisation’s training and arts and health programmes including the production of creative projects in hospitals, community, care and cultural settings. She has significant experience in establishing inclusive, dementia-friendly practice with and for people living with dementia. Kate is currently a North East Champion for the national Culture Health and Wellbeing Alliance. She also volunteers as a Director of Wunderbar, a Newcastle based community interest company specialising in playfully disruptive performance and multi-disciplinary projects.

Speaker: Andy Barry, Royal Exchange, Manchester

Title: We’ll Be in Touch – a creative phone service for older people led by older people

About: Andy Barry is a theatre maker and director who currently leads Manchester’s Royal Exchange Elders Company. In 2021, he was in The Stage 100, a list celebrating individuals who helped the theatre industry survive the Covid-19 crisis. During the pandemic Andy originated and led a number of digital projects with older people.

Speaker: Jeanne Ellin

Title: Older Alice down the digital rabbit hole

About: Jeanne is a Connecting Through Culture As We Age co-researcher. Here is how she describes herself and her life: “I am an Anglo Indian woman, exploring the challenges of her 70’s. No saga type retirement, just an artist in a small bungalow. With more enthusiasm than energy more ideas than money. So much still to learn and enjoy. Wonderful that writing is not something you retire from. Child migrant, left India just after 8tth birthday., I worked as nurse, counsellor and community artist. Most recently writer in residence in a hospice. Not sure I could ever not write. Short fiction is my least well practice medium…most comfortable with poetry and also nibbling away at my fantasy novel.”

Speaker: Bridget Deevy, Bealtaine, Ireland

Title: How going digital impacted Age & Opportunity’s Artist in Residence in a Care Setting initiative during the longest lockdown in Europe.

About: Bridget Deevy has worked as Arts Programme Assistant Manager with Age & Opportunity since 2018 managing flagship initiatives such as the Artist in Residence in a Care Setting initiative and the Bealtaine Festival. Bridget has over 10 years arts management experience working in areas such as venue programming, festival management and education.

Session 2

Credit Lydia Stamps Photography

Speaker: Maddy Mills, Entelechy Arts, London

Title: Cultural (dis)connection – what does the experience of culture via digital mean for our offline communities?

About: Maddy’s work is grounded in the belief that feeling connected to a community – in whatever form that takes – helps people lead healthier and happier lives. Previously working at organisations including Southbank Centre, Kew Gardens and Bloomsbury Festival. She also founded the Family Volunteering Club.

Speaker: Emma Dyer, Alive Activities, Bristol

Title: How do we effectively co-design/produce technological interventions that allow older people to stay connected with each other and their community?

About: Emma started her career as a user centred service designer working with across a number of Design Council initiatives. Since working for Alive she has become an expert in co-production with older people.

Speaker: Fozia Ismail, Arawelo Eats & Dhaqan Collective, Bristol

Title: extract, produce, repeat. Where is the change for minoritized older communities?

About: Fozia Ismail, scholar, cook and founder of Arawelo Eats, a platform for exploring politics, identity and colonialism through East African food. She is a resident of Pervasive Media Studio at the Watershed and co-founder of dhaqan collective, a Somali feminist art collective based in Bristol.

Speaker: Kate Duncan, City Arts, Nottingham

Title: Approaches to Evaluating our work in Creative Ageing

About: Kate Duncan is Programme Director – Wellbeing at City Arts in Nottingham. Kate manages a portfolio of health programmes in Nottingham. City Arts has worked with older people for over 10 years in partnership with health and care professionals, cultural and heritage organisations.

Speaker: Kristina Leonnet, Centre for Ageing Better

Title: Digital Inclusion Support

About: Kristina Leonnet is Senior Innovation and Change Manager at the Centre for Ageing Better. She works to bring about change by working closely with partners and people with lived experience to develop forward-thinking ideas which provide practical, scalable solutions.

Speaker: Lucia Arias, FACT, Liverpool

Title: Reflections and questions emerging from You’re on mute, FACT Liverpool

About: Lucía Arias, FACT’s Learning Manager, has led a number of learning projects that worked with hard to reach young audiences and teaching practices. At FACT, the learning programme focuses on art commissions and how the collaborative work of artists and participants can engage general audiences in contemporary conversations.

Speaker: Farrell Renowden, Age of Creativity

Title: Age Sector reflections- community based responses to creativity and digital since lockdown

About: Farrell Renowden is Head of Cultural Partnerships at Age UK Oxfordshire, leads the Age of Creativity and is Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Champion for age England Association


Welcome and Introduction

Helen Manchester, University of Bristol


Introduction to Session 1 on Storytelling: What have we learned?

Helen Manchester, University of Bristol


Creative ageing and digital connection during the pandemic: what did we learn?

Anne Gallacher, Luminate, Scotland


The importance of ‘holding’ open emotional spaces in digital work with older people

Kate Parkin, Equal Arts, Newcastle


We’ll Be in Touch – a creative phone service for older people led by older people

Andy Barry, Royal Exchange, Manchester


Older Alice down the digital rabbit hole

Jeanne Ellin, Bristol


How going digital impacted Age & Opportunity’s Artist in Residence in a Care Setting initiative during the longest lockdown in Europe.

Bridget Deevy, Bealtaine, Ireland


Introduction to breakout room discussions

Questions to consider:

– Reflecting on the stories presented and your experiences, what have you learned?

– What would we want to tell funders, policy makers or others about what we have learned?

Helen Manchester, University of Bristol


Breakout rooms Session 1

All speakers and attendees




Introduction to Session 2 on Future Provocations : What are the key questions we need to be exploring going forwards?

Helen Manchester, University of Bristol


Cultural (dis)connection – what does the experience of culture via digital mean for our offline communities?

Maddy Mills, Entelechy Arts, London


How do we effectively co-design/produce technological interventions that allow older people to stay connected with each other and their community?

Emma Dyer, Alive Activities, Bristol


extract, produce, repeat. Where is the change for minoritized older communities?

Fozia Ismail, Arawelo Eats & Dhaqan Collective, Bristol


Approaches to Evaluating our work in Creative Ageing

Kate Duncan, City Arts, Nottingham


Digital Inclusion Support

Kristina Leonnet, Centre for Ageing Better


Reflections and questions emerging from You’re on mute, FACT Liverpool

Lucia Arias, FACT, Liverpool


Age Sector reflections- community based responses to creativity and digital since lockdown

Farrell Renowden, Age of Creativity, Oxford


Introduction to breakout room discussions

Questions to consider:

– From the provocations, which do you think are the most important issues we need to explore further, and why?

– Are there issues which havent been mentioned which should also be explored?

Helen Manchester, University of Bristol


Breakout rooms session 2

All speakers and attendees


Next steps

Helen Manchester, University of Bristol


Crowdsourcing creative methods

Crowdsourcing creative methods.

By Helen Manchester, 27th April 2021

Our project is researching arts and culture but also drawing on creative, participatory methods in order to do so. 

The aims of the first work package of the project are to work with our community partners; WECIL, KWA and BSWN to recruit 7 co-researcher from each of the three communities we are working with and to build their trust. We will then use ethnographically inspired methods to work with them to find out more about their experiences of digital inclusion, arts and cultural participation, social connectivity, and how inequalities might intersect with the above. As we are still living with the consequences of COVID 19 we knew we needed to design a toolbox of creative methods so that our co-researchers could choose what felt right to them as we begin to build trust and relationships between the team of researchers, community partners and co-researchers.

The first phase of the research involved a workshop with researchers and practitioners interested in creative research methods and creative research design. We invited practitioners from the charity Alive who have been working digitally with older people for many years and innovating during the various pandemic lockdowns to continue and grow these connections. We invited some of the brilliant doctoral students at the School of Education to join the core research team, bringing their expertise in creative and participatory methods.

In the workshop we heard about Alive’s work during the pandemic in connecting older people in care settings and in the community through telephone meet up calls, the online dance classes delivered from Argentina into care homes in Bristol, UK and the intergenerational encounters that had been developed between young and older people through swapping poetry , artwork and growing seeds together. Drawing on these ideas and extending them we crowdsourced ideas for methods that might help us to better understand the everyday lived experiences of the co-researchers. Rather than simply interviewing them about, for instance, the kinds of devices they own or how confident they are in using them, or asking them how many people they see in a day we wanted to focus instead on how digital media is embedded in their everyday lives, routines and places (specifically in their homes). We are interested in how arts and culture might be experienced in the mundanity of the routines of everyday living, how older people from our 3 different communities experience digital media in sensory, embodied and affective ways and how these experiences might both increase and decrease feelings of, and opportunities for, social connectivity. We believe that our experience of digital technologies and the content of digital media is part of the everyday temporalities and materialities or the ‘textures’ of our homes. 

As we worked together, using a digital platform to collate our ideas, we were able to discuss in detail the kinds of methods that we thought might work well in order to research the everyday experiences of the co-researchers we will be working alongside. Methods that were suggested included: dairies e.g., video or audio diaries, written diaries or photo diaries or collages of a ‘day in the life of’ using magazines and other images; third voice poems where conversations with our co-researchers are then turned into poetry alongside local poets or secondary school students; using maps to understand how and where social connections are being made and places in the city where arts and culture are enjoyed; telephone conferencing focus groups where images are sent out beforehand to elicit responses and co-production activities already used successfully by Alive to co-design arts and cultural activities, based on people’s interests. 

The next stage in our project will be to develop these ideas and begin to pilot them with our community co-researchers.