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

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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. 


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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