A Women’s Issue?

By Catriona Meighan.

Starting work on Highland Culture Collective’s 15-month engagement programme as one of the three experienced artists in residence began in a similar way to other projects: get informed, research extensively, and most importantly get in a dialogue with those whom you are going to be working with.

Working with women, children and young people affected by domestic abuse has already led me to question my ways of thinking on some matters and strengthened my belief in the power of creatively engaging with people and communities. It isn’t difficult to engage with people who have encountered trauma in their lives, what might be considered difficult are the facts that accompany those traumas, and how that appears in a national and global context.

Figures released in 2013 by the UK ministry of Justice, Office for National Statistics and the Home Office included:

One in five women in the UK is the victim of a sexual offence and it is estimated that one in four will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. [1]

Just two pieces of data, however as with many self-contained statistics, the issue is more complex. Complex, layered, and far reaching.

Researching into domestic abuse and women and children’s experiences, it became quickly clear how little I knew, how much was assumed and the bias and lack of awareness there appears to be in our society of these themes. [2]

Scratch beneath the surface and a multi-layered issue affecting every part of our society is uncovered.

A few examples:

  • Women offenders: almost two thirds of women in prison are reported to be survivors of domestic abuse, [3]
  • Homelessness: domestic abuse is the leading cause of homelessness for women in Scotland, [4]
  • Rehoming women/families – current concern of availability and suitability of housing, [5]
  • Children experiencing indirect and sometimes direct forms of abuse,
  • Addiction, drug and alcohol dependency,
  • Poor mental health, self-harm, suicide.

This isn’t just a women’s issue – it affects everyone – we all probably know someone who has been impacted directly or indirectly by abusive situations or experiences – sexual offences, domestic abuse, adverse childhood experience for example.

You may not know whom of your friends, family, acquaintances, or colleagues have been affected – that doesn’t matter. What does matter is how we, as a society and as individuals work together to understand, become aware and act.

One of the key concepts research highlighted is victim blaming [6] – why didn’t she leave, why did she let that happen to her, I wouldn’t put myself in that situation etc. – these narratives take the focus away from the perpetrator and are damaging and misleading.

When we approach working with people, we need to value them as experts in their experience, giving them a voice, listening, and hearing that voice. Whether this is working with a school class talking about their playtime experience and deciding what activities they want to participate in, or an over 60’s group recounting their early life experiences, or a woman explaining how she’s still on high alert years after escaping an abusive relationship: everyone has a story, an experience and each is as valuable as the other.

It can be difficult to dampen down our biases and our preconceptions about what we think we know about someone, their situation, or topic. We can read, inform ourselves, study academic literature – however, hearing first-hand accounts make it real, tangible and something that has an urgency to work with.

What can creative engagement be for when it seems like the problem or issue is so huge, complex, and widespread it is almost not worth trying?

Take it back to the individual – can we give them an experience that is meaningful, something that can be built on or to explore a creative experience which gives them time, agency, and something to focus on? Something which holds them in the present but perhaps removes them or suspends them for a time, away from everyday life or spirals of thoughts.

This can come in different forms – creative activity can be a conduit for conversation, for sharing experience, meeting others with comparable situations, making friends: the list is long.

The gift of time for yourself isn’t always yours to give.

Often women who have experience of abuse haven’t had or been allowed this kind of time for themselves during their abusive relationships. When you are accustomed to certain patterns of behaviour, unlearning or adapting to another way can take time and is sometimes so inherent that the natural reaction is to resist or hold a belief that it isn’t deserved. Holding women in that space and time is essential, reflecting the professional and moral commitment that you have made.

This is your time, what would you like to do?

We have walked, we have listened, we have talked, we have made marks, we have printed, we have drawn, we have designed, we have drunk tea and coffee, we have been together, we have given and taken space and time.

It isn’t about the end result, what we might produce, what we may make – it is so much more about the experience and the long-term benefits to both groups and individuals we work with and us as artists working alongside. When I think about an outcome I might like to see, I think about the trust and relationships built up over the length of the project – with participants, with host organisations. I think about levels of confidence rising. I think about women gaining back their sense of identity and worth. I think about how each experience has impact, even if it is on a small scale – if it matters to one person, that is still a success. I think about how I can best use my platform to raise awareness, challenge others’ thinking, assumptions, biases.

I return then to thinking about how it is everyone’s issue – our considered societal norms can be questioned, and small shifts can make a difference. What small shift will I make, will you make?

References:

[1] Bates, L. (2014) Everyday sexism. Simon & Schuster, London.

[2] See for example < https://www.majorfamilylaw.co.uk/lack-of-public-awareness-of-domestic-abuse-gove-promises-reform/>

Only one in five adults believe it is easy to tell what counts as domestic abuse, according to new research undertaken by the charity Citizens Advice. The research involved surveying 2,000 British adults and also revealed one third were not aware domestic abuse can happen between former partners.

[3] Women in Prison (n.d.) Key facts [online] Available from<https://womeninprison.org.uk/> [13th December 2021]

[4] & [5] Cairns, I. & Callendar, I. (2020) The Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Scotland’s Criminal Justice Responses to Domestic Abuse: Part 1 [online]. Available from <https://www.abdn.ac.uk/law/blog/the-impact-of-the-covid19-pandemic-on-scotlands-criminal-justice-responses-to-domestic-abuse-part-1/#_ednref1> [13th December 2021]

[6] Taylor, J. Dr (2020). Why Women Are Blamed for Everything. Constable, London.

A Reweirding Proposal


By Hector MacInnes.

(i)

A ship called Bistromath (and we are in Douglas Adams’ seminal Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy trilogy) features a cloaking device call a “Somebody Else’s Problem Field”. When engaged, this renders it invisible to, or at least unseen by, passers-by.

                “An SEP” explains the Hitchhikers fandom page, “can run almost indefinitely on a torch or a 9 volt battery, and is able to do so because it utilises a person’s natural tendency to ignore things they don’t easily accept, like, for example, aliens at a cricket match. Any object around which an SEP is applied will cease to be noticed, because any problems one may have understanding it (and therefore accepting its existence) become Somebody Else’s Problem. A starship taking the appearance of a large pink elephant is ideal because you can see it, yet it is so inconceivable, your mind can’t accept it.”

HMP Inverness, the only prison in the Highlands and Islands, is similarly cloaked in a Somebody Else’s Problem Field. It is situated in the Crown area of the city, almost as centrally as it’s possible to be, and is closely surrounded on all sides by houses, B&Bs, hotels, restaurants… It is (I’ve been searching for measures that might raise a smile from the staff) a single 4 par golf hole from M&S. And yet, the number of people who know it’s there is surprisingly small, limited mainly to those who have a reason to know, and the folk living on the four streets that run down each side, reminded by the “Prison Watch” notices facing their front doors that it is, in a small and probably only theoretical way, also their problem. For almost everyone else, though, the Somebody Else’s Problem Field works pretty well, and has done since 1902.

Part of its effectiveness might be down to quite how much it looks like a prison. Unlike some more recently built facilities, whose modern glass facades maintain a dry municipal ambiguity, HMP Inverness looks inconceivably (unnoticeably) carceral – high and uninterrupted stone walls, with doleful Victorian cell blocks, coils of barbed wire and a flag pole visible over the top. The prisoners serving their sentences there are triple-locked behind further layers of SEP fields: they spend their days cloaked inside the prison’s device but, as individuals, they are hidden by their own, which run on various cartoonish stereotypes that we don’t like to think about. Should those fail, a backup is available which shows them to be so overwhelmingly unlike those stereotypes that we are unable to assimilate them into our worldview.

(ii)

It’s hard to imagine anything more disruptive than a prison to that vision of the Highlands which has been saturating the think-piece market over the course of the combination-pandemic-and-climate-crisis. Even though (after hard work and strict measures) the old High Highland Kitsch of shortbread tins and Jimmy hats is now mostly contained to small outbreaks in Edinburgh and Glasgow, the picturesque ecotopia of bothy life, rewilding and sustainably made waterproofs which has replaced it, has the potential to be just as shallow. “I’d go today,” wrote Philip Larkin of his own imagined elsewheres, reminding us of the imagery’s long pedigree, “Yes, swagger in the nut-strewn roads, crouch in the foc’sle, stubbly with goodness, if it weren’t so artificial, such a deliberate step backwards.” 

Neither image of the Highlands can easily accommodate the existence of a prison (not, I mean, the prisons we think exist, but the ones that actually do). Nor can they easily accommodate the poverty, lack of housing, addiction problems and poor mental health which keep a prison over-populated. These things are not part of the aesthetic package. To be fair, though, if prisons in the Highlands of Scotland are aesthetically anomalous, they are also just geographically anomalous – the Highlands is a big place, and you can go a long way without seeing one. The next closest prisons to HMP Inverness are a 108 mile drive to the east, or a 110 mile drive to the south. To the north and the west there are none. For what it’s worth (and I’ll do this in miles, not in golf holes), the crow flight distance from Barra to the north of Shetland – both of which call Inverness their ‘local’ – is about 360 miles, the same as the distance between the two furthest apart prisons in England which have another 111 prisons lying in between.

The prison just isn’t consistent with dominant experiences of the Highlands. It appears in that context as ill-fitting, as a disturbance, and as unheimlich – a German word normally translated as ‘uncanny’ but more literally meaning not home-like. It may as well be a starship shaped like a large pink elephant – not just out of sight and out mind, but out of scope.

(iii)

Before I had started working with the Highland Culture Collective, I had long been thinking about how my creative practice could engage with overly aestheticised visions of rewilding, many of whose proponents seem all too willing to Photoshop the Highlands I know and love: its idiosyncratic communities, its irreverent traditions and its ramshackle alt-iconography of Volvo-carcass-sheilings, tune names, hydro schemes, oil rigs, accordionists, in-jokes, pylons, hi-viz, badly behaved faeries, badly behaved ferries, and so on. In thinking about the presupposed incompatibility between this Highlands and the Highlands of Ecological Potential (and how the two are going to have to co-exist) I had been mulling over the term “Reweirding”: a word for resisting attempts to bring the Highlands to heel under any one vision; an appeal for the region’s basic right to multiplicity, grass-roots experimentation and vibrant incoherence.

The word was self-evidently too sweet to be a totally original coinage, so it was pleasing and unsurprising to find a handful of other people deploying it in related ways, and writing pithier summaries than I could. Matt Colquhoun, blogging as Xenogothic, was one:

“Many a Guardian columnist has sought the rekindling of this relationship to our wildernesses through a sort of romanticised primitivism, but in charting and recognising our histories we mustn’t claw for an illusionary past. Rewilding is nothing if it’s devoid of a tandem cultural consciousness raising that is built around collective activity on the commons. We don’t need our spaces ‘rewilding’ but ‘reweirding’.”

The Highlands remains, for whatever reason, a magnet for visions of romanticised primitivism and illusionary pasts, all of which seek to attract attention to some aspects of the place, and mask other aspects behind an SEP. It’s also worth saying that not all of them are delivered upon the Highlands from the offices of Guardian columnists, or the tax havens of absentee landlords – many are also home-grown. Reweirding the area, then, isn’t just drawing attention back to the odd, or to the many alternative and less romanticised ways of representing place. The ramshackle alt-iconography I listed above is, of course, not “the real” Highlands either, but just my own cutesy-quirky list of faves. More important are the possibilities opened up by reweirding to use our creativity and imagination to remind people of the interconnectedness between the stark beauty or the rich history, and the prison or the food bank or the queue outside the pharmacy. To remind ourselves – especially those of us who see the Highlands’ potential to lead the way into a sustainable future – that the parts we might find weird, unheimlich and difficult to accept, are not Somebody Else’s Problem.


Wise Guys photography classes

Words and images by Evija Laivina- Artist-in-Residence for the Highland Culture Collective at the Highland Print Studio. Image above by Tony Pinner.

Wise Guys is a group of men aged over 50 who first met at the Highland Print Studio in 2011-2012. Highland Print Studio created the project in response to research by Age UK and other organisations that showed that older men are at risk of loneliness and isolation because they have less possibilities to engage in community activities.

Since then, it’s now ten years the Wise guys have been meeting, and I had a great opportunity to meet them and teach photography. Wise Guys are my very first photography students!

Alison McMenemy, director of Highland Print Studio says,
“It has been a pleasure to watch our Wise Guys progress over the years. Wise Guys have been great ambassadors, appearing on radio and telly, to promote men behaving creatively! I’m thoroughly enjoying watching them rise to this new creative challenge that Evija is setting them.”

A white woman does a star jump by the river-bank. To the left, an older man is photographing her.
Shutter speed exercise. Lauren performed some marvellous jumps.

As this was my first group, I learned to prepare a programme, initially planned for eight lessons. It included basics of photography and getting familiar with such photography terms as shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and basic photography techniques and post-processing of the images in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom.  The goal was to learn basics and open creative ideas and make the first steps in finding their own photographic language.

“Shape” exercise- photo by Terry Henderson

For me, an artist who works with lots of intuition and hasn’t paid much attention to the technical side, this was a great challenge. I received many interesting questions about the technical aspects of photography. Even when I knew how to use my camera very well, passing this knowledge to other people wasn’t as easy as I imagined. Wise Guys had quite a mix of cameras- from phones to DSLR’s. That was an interesting experience learning all the different gears they had, and I learned so much alongside the Wise Guys.

A bald man wearing a red puffer jacket takes photos of the river.
Tony takes photos of the river.
In the Highland Print Studio, amidst printing equipment. two men take photos of objects on a table. They are in front of a big window, which looks out onto old buildings across the river.
‘One item, ten photos’ exercise

We learned photography basics in a fun way by doing some creative exercises. For example, in one of the exercises, each Wise Guy was given an item and took ten different photographs of this item. They could alter it, place it anywhere, and think about light and composition, but they could not add other things. Such restrictions help you to think differently and are great for training your creativity. In another exercise, they had to choose one location and, by following prompts, had to take lots of different photographs in the location. I love the result. Wise Guys found some interesting corners and noticed some strange shadows and reflections we don’t usually see. As a result, they have great photographs from the city centre, the same streets we run through in a rush without much thinking.

Shadows- of a lampost and a Co-op sign, fall on a building and pavement.
Shadows, photo by Howard Spenceley, “Choose the location” exercise.
“Texture” exercise- photo by Trev Jonson

Since the beginning, I was following Wise Guys’ ideas and suggestions, customising the lessons according to their interests. By their suggestion, we decided to create a Wise Guys group portrait inspired by the artworks they love.

As inspiration for the wise Guys group portrait image, Ken Currie’s painting, Three Oncologists, was chosen after debates. We decided to create this image in my studio. I let them self-direct the photoshoot, and they were so good at it that they didn’t need much support.

© Ken Currie – Three Oncologists (Professor RJ Steele, Professor Sir Alfred Cuschieri and Professor Sir David P Lane of the Department of Surgery and Molecular Oncology, Ninewells Hospital, Dundee).
4 older men take photos within an art studio. They are surrounded by photographic lighting equipment.
Wise Guys in my studio

I really love their sense of humour and incredible enthusiasm. In one of the sessions, we planned to practice portrait photography, Wise Guys brought lots of interesting props and one of the participants, Trev even had a full Steampunk suit.

Two white men in conversation in the Highland Print Studio, holding mugs of tea. One is dressed quite casually, sitting down. The other man stands, wearing a steam-punk suit and top hat.
Coffee break.
A white man with glasses holding a folded piece of paper in his mouth, which spans outwards like a giant bow-tie.
Richard posing for a portrait exercise.

Now we are preparing for the Wise Guys first photography exhibition which will open in December at Highland Print Studio. After a short break in November, we will continue our classes in December and learn even more photography and storytelling techniques.

Poster for WiseGuys' photography exhibition, running throughout December. 

 at the Highland Print Studio, 20 Bank Street, Inverness.
Poster for Wise Guys’ upcoming exhibition.

Starting up

Hello there!
I’m Lauren- the project manager for the Highland Culture Collective. This is me on the left here – from recent a visit to see artist-in-residence, Sinead at one of our partner organisations, North Lands Creative.

For the last month or so, the Collective’s 5 artists-in residence and I have been connecting with people across the Highlands, who we might collaborate with over the next year. It’s been really exciting to see the different connecting themes and interests that are sparking between the 5 artists- who all work in totally different mediums, from sound to photography, from Gaelic theatre to visual arts.

The 6 of us are spread across the Highlands, so are are really excited to actually meet all together in person next week- Covid permitting of course.

In this blog space, each of the artists will write about their artistic process – both to give you a bit of an insight into what’s going on, and as a record of what we’ve been up to during this year. I hope you’ll join us along the way!