Cultural Adaptations has benefited from the learning gained from the failures of past projects. Here, we explore the experiences of one of our partners, TILLT, in their work undertaking embedded artist projects over the past 17 years, as well as from researcher Chris Fremantle on how failure is often a central concept in creative and cultural projects.
To do something new is challenging. To work outside established or expected norms; to seek collaboration in traditionally separate fields: it can be hugely beneficial to take an experimental approach, but it is not without risk of failure.
Despite this inherent risk, it is difficult to acknowledge and discuss failure. Projects are under pressure to report successes to funders and partners, and no-one wants to think that their time has been wasted. However, to fail is a valuable outcome in itself – contributing learning that is potentially even greater than that which would have been gained if everything had gone perfectly to plan.
Examples from TILLT
Based in Gothenburg in western Sweden, TILLT is a non-profit organisation working to create a sustainable society where art contributes to human growth. It does this by initiating development projects where art and culture meet the challenges to society in different, non-artistic arenas.
It achieves this by creating projects in which artists and organisations meet and work together to develop creative and innovative processes (often around topics such as communication, innovation development, idea generation, leadership, values and diversity). In the case of the Cultural Adaptations project, TILLT and the Gothenburg city region are working with artist Ulrika Jansson and municipal housing company, Poseidon, to explore the impact of climate change on a local housing development.
Although this is the first time that TILLT has focused on climate change adaptation, they have more than 17 years of experience in working with other societal questions such as, diversity, integration, elder care and gender equality. Here are a few examples of what they have learnt from project challenges and failures over the years – and where things can go wrong!
Trust between embedded artists, participating organisations and project staff is key
In one early project, the relationship between the artist and the organisation they were embedded in broke down. As a result, the artist left the role and the project ended early.
Collaborating in new ways and with individuals and organisations unfamiliar to each other’s ways of working and communicating is very challenging. One thing that helps overcome this is a shared sense of trust between all those involved.
Now, in all projects, regular meetings are held between all parties, ensuring opportunities to highlight and communicate areas of potential conflict and identify ways to overcome these together.
Prepare for the clash
In one particular past project, an embedded artist chose the provocative theme of ‘death’ to challenge an organisation that was struggling with its internal co-operation on an initiative. It prompted so much discomfort that the organisation was upset at the outcome and ended the project.
There is sometimes the mindset that ‘only from great conflict can come great art’ and that creative intervention must be disruptive to create any real change. Furthermore, often for those outside of the cultural sector, working with artists or making art can create some anxiety – people can feel uncertain about the outcome and about their own contribution.
To overcome these barriers, TILLT now explicitly works with an organisation to identify and support a participant group; managing expectations and trust in the process.
Good project management and planning saves the day
In one of TILLT’s previous projects, the divergence between what was planned and what happened was so great that it caused significant team stress, extra time and resources to bring it back on track.
Planning and funding a project is different from delivering one in practice, particularly when creativity is a central feature. Involving the delivering team in the application process, acknowledging assumptions and being clear about the expected outcomes throughout can help prevent things going off course.
TILLT used the learning from this project to change how they work across all their projects; prioritising cooperation and communication.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”
Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho, 1983
As an action-research project, Cultural Adaptations is undertaking both formative and summative evaluation of our works; seeking to capture learning and evolve the project as it develops.
One of our evaluators, Chris Fremantle, has previously written on the perceptions and understandings of failure and how they affect the artistic process. Some key insights from his work:
- Artists often judge the majority of their work to be failures. Sometimes this is because of the gap between the expectations of different people in the process as in the TILLT examples. TILLT’s approach is intended to reduce misunderstanding in key areas. But their approach is also intended to create as much space for the artists’ own ways of working and in particular experimenting.
- This balance is key. One of the important reasons to talk about failure is because without accepting the possibility of failure we can only do what we’ve already done and know how to do. This willingness to accept failure is essential if we are trying to do something different or new. TILLT’s agenda is to tackle ‘wicked problems’ – problems that have no correct solution.
- Whereas a technical failure can be easier to identify, other failures are often subjective. For example, one project can take place, but different judgements by the participants can identify it differently as either a success or a failure.
- Both science and the arts use experimentation, which requires a willingness to fail (as Beckett says, ‘Try again. Fail again.’). The difference is in the form of analysis, where science breaks things down to understand them, the arts have an open-ended approach, not necessarily knowing what success will ‘look like’.
- There is great potential to draw rich learning from failure and reflect more deeply and constructively than may occur if something is immediately successful. If failure is not acknowledged, then this is not possible. We certainly shouldn’t turn our back on our failures, whether they are failures of project management or experiments that seem to have failed.