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Friday, June 9 • 11:15am - 11:35am
To Have & To Hold: Female Social Imaginaries

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To Have & To Hold is a body of socially engaged practice, commissioned in 2019 by the Arts Council England and Chester Council, and is planned to conclude in late 2023. The work is informed by three almost-forgotten geographically specific narratives that all in different ways offer perspectives on gender and power. The primary aim of this body of work was to create conditions for new social participation with these historically distant and increasingly overlooked narratives, both for a local and wider audience. As a collection these narratives bring together fascinating rituals, strange tales of hope, self-sacrifice, and embodied female power.

Folklore allows us to consider past realities and re-experience the specificities of socio-cultural imagination (Bettelheim, 1976) and potentially learn from past practices, problematic representations, and expressions of community knowledge. Formative research explored how these three tales in different ways codified female aspiration but also revealed that they were simultaneously losing their embeddedness to their local communities. As such a secondary aim was to open up discussions around the role and usefulness of situated folk-heritage and explore any implications when this form of knowledge is increasingly used as touristic cultural capital.

The concept of marriage is used as a multifaceted device: to marry the past with the present, as a plot anchor in the original folklore and more allegorically in the practice itself, where virtual interactions are intentionally married with material and site-specific experiences. Part of this work was developed during the COVID-19 pandemic, in which physical interactions were limited, creating interesting additional boundaries for developing engagement.

The project uses a variety of media in an attempt to foster accessible social engagement through Augmented Reality (AR), sculpture, visual art, and participatory co-creation workshops. In terms of methods, I used critical design practice (Dunne & Raby, 2013) to draw out key analogical motifs (e.g. lungs, water, stairs) to agitate the issues normalised in the original narratives. These motifs intentionally functioned as prompts and provocations to allow myself and the participants to ideate around the entanglement of gender and power, and as a way to foster more "sentipensar" (i.e. emotional, socio-political, self-aware) responses (Borda, 1987, Fisher, 2021). The associated participatory workshops were used as a way to re-introduce these original texts to local community groups. Co-creation of artworks, and creative methods were used in these workshops to enliven context, opening up group conversations and help to ‘hold’ the space for deeper reflections and invite community-led re-imagining of the narratives.

To summarise, in advance of the project's conclusion and final analysis late 2023, I will share with the conference delegates an overview of To Have & To Hold as a body of work, its strategy for creating new social participation, including a rationale to the media and technology used. I will also discuss my approach around critical practice and the use of analogical motifs, drawing on my experiences as practitioner-maker and facilitator - specifically considering the successes or challenges of this work. Lastly, I will seek to offer preliminary insights around the larger question of ownership and value of folklore-heritage, as shared by my participants and my own experience.

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Boyd, D. (2008). Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics, PhD Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.

Dunne, A., & Raby, F. (2013). Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press.
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Fisher, B. (2021) “Mestiza Consciousness and Sentipensamiento—Ontologies for a Feminist Instituting” In Instituting Feminism OnCurating Issue 52. Ed. eds. Dorothee Richter, Helena Reckitt.
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Thompson, S. (1955) Motif-index of folk-literature: a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends. Indiana University Press, 1955-1958.

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avatar for Donna Leishman

Donna Leishman

Associate Professor, Northumbria University
Donna is an Associate Professor in Communication Design at Northumbria University. Prior to this she was Head of Communication Design at The Glasgow School of Art and at Dundee University. She is a digital media practitioner and interdisciplinary researcher. In her career she has... Read More →

Friday June 9, 2023 11:15am - 11:35am EDT
ARC E-02