ShipShape presented at the Tandem Europe final meeting in Athens. Photo by Constanze Flamme

ShipShape – A Voyage of Discovery

Tandem Europe participants Kate Strudwick (Llanhilleth, Wales) and Gabriele Sutera (Copenhagen) have worked together on ShipShape, a collaboration that brings together a Danish eco-ship - the Hawila Project where Gabriele works, and a Welsh community arts organisation, Head4Arts for which Kate works, in developing a “toolkit” providing a multi-arts participatory experience for young people as a context for exploring the impact of industrialisation, prompting debate about environmental issues and inspiring positive action. They share their Tandem experience in this story detailing the process and impact of their collaboration.

ShipShape presented at the Tandem Europe final meeting in Athens. Photo by Constanze Flamme

The value of the collaboration of Hybrids

What do we mean by a “hybrid” Tandem? Essentially this is where cultural managers of two very different types of organisation get together and learn from each other. Operating as part of a hybrid is quite a scary thing. It is not always an easy route. It takes us out of our comfort zones and propels us into different ways of working that we cannot recognise in our own practice.

However, it brings many benefits too:
  • it challenges us to see things from another perspective,
  • to step up or step back,
  • and dares us to trust each other
Photo by Constanze Flamme

Who we are and where we are

Kate visits the Hawila project

Head4Arts is an outreach organisation with no fixed premises. It has a staff of two people and everyone else is commissioned on a freelance basis. Head4Arts works with partner organisations and local communities across a defined region – and has a very close relationship with the network of artists engaged to deliver their projects.

Hawila Mind Map

In contrast, Hawila Project has a very obvious asset in the beautiful wooden ship, and there are no employees – instead, there is a loose network of volunteers around a core team of dedicated individuals that manage the operation. The team is multinational and, although berthed in Copenhagen, the ship has the potential to travel to other ports and is not tied to any particular community.

What we do and how we survive

Head4Arts is an arts-led organisation. Its mission is to bring inspiring arts experiences to the most disadvantaged communities, creating opportunities for people to participate. It works alongside other agencies working to address issues of poverty, using cultural engagement as a means of helping people transform their lives. This work is able to attract public funding and Head4Arts is substantially supported by the Arts Council of Wales.

The Hawila Project has a broader mission that includes an overriding responsibility for restoring the vessel. Culture, science, education and environmental activism are all important parts of what they do or aspire to offer. One of the challenges they face is how to balance the different elements and how to generate income to subsidise the things that they need to do.

Why we chose to work together

Gabriele and Kate

Serendipity brought Head4Arts and Hawila Project together – and it is said that “opposites attract”. The two hybrid organisations came together to explore an issue of importance to both – how to create an engaging way of raising young people’s awareness of the realities of globalisation in the way in which goods are transported across the world by sea, and the impact that this has, both environmentally and socially. ShipShape was born from a desire to inspire debate and prompt people to explore how things could be done differently, and more thoughtfully, in the future.

Gabriele at the Library

Kate's learning curve:

1 – Tandem does things differently.
At the beginning of the project I tried to develop the project in the way that is most familiar to me (you outline a plan in a funding bid, the bid is accepted and then you focus your energy on delivering that project following that plan). It took a while to understand that we were being given a more interesting opportunity – to use the project as the context for exploring our collaboration and the learning resulting from this.

2 – Just because you get it – it doesn’t mean that everyone does.
Head4Arts works with multiple partners, with many projects being developed simultaneously and always exploring how value can be added to projects (sometimes covering multiple agendas) and how different strands of work can interconnect. This is easy for us. Welsh Government has spearheaded a very joined-up approach between cultural and social agencies and this has become embedded into the way in which we operate. For us it makes perfect sense to see how every element of what we deliver connects with other agencies and agendas, but it could look like a very unfocused and complex way of working to someone unfamiliar with it

3 – Learning what makes us tick and how this is perceived by others
This experience has helped me better analyse the way in which I work. I realise like to design a project that addresses a main issue and then look at all the other possible ways of using this opportunity as a catalyst for delivering other theme areas in the spirit of “why do just one thing, when you can do dozens of things at once”. Head4Arts has a very detailed business plan and I understand exactly how this connects to the work of colleagues from other agencies and to the overarching priority strategies of Welsh Government. This gives a context and the confidence for me to explore all avenues of “added value” in a way that must sometimes mystified my Tandem partner. I want to consider things as broadly as possible, looking at the bigger picture and then honing down and choosing how to go forward. This contrasted with Hawila’s perspective – a fear of diluting the project with too many aspirations and a belief that a simple idea done well was more likely to succeed. For me, exploring all the potential links beforehand helps me to create something that is genuinely useful to other people. I’m beginning to understand that, viewed from another perspective, it might seem like just an uncontrolled a whirlwind of vague ideas. Both ways of working though are equally valid.

4 – It’s about time…
We have different work patterns and it takes a while to synchronise. I can see now that there are clear optimum times for the Hawila team to work on the restoration of the ship, dictated by the seasons and the availability of the volunteer workforce. To have a chance of working collaboratively it was necessary for me to slow down. This brought its own pressures as the delay to the start of the project meant that it now coincided with the parental leave of a key colleague, the induction of new staff members and the workload of other big projects- all sources of additional stress.

Gabriele in Athens

5 – Stepping back…
My first placement days on the Hawila took me well out of my comfort zone. Temperamentally, I like to be busy doing something and I discovered that it was difficult for me to be there just as an observer. Gabriele was as generous with his time as was possible, but I could see he was under lot of pressure with tasks that needed completing on the restoration and felt sad that there was little I could do to help. I found a way of dealing with this by observing from the floating pontoon at the aft where I could absorb the atmosphere whilst playing my flute. This also gave me the chance of making a creative response to my environment.

6 – Stepping up…
Another dimension to the “hybrid” was lifestyle. I admired the commitment to a more sustainable way of living and this genuinely raised my own awareness of the unsustainable lifestyles we lead, cluttered by so much stuff we don’t need. Our age difference was also more obvious, but I recognised that this was not a barrier for us being able to learn from each other. I challenged Gabriele’s reluctance to accept the role of Cultural Manager – sometimes we don’t choose the roles that we grow to fit. We explored his central role in the organisation, as the “glue” that holds things together and made space to consider this from a perspective that was a step back from the daily schizophrenia, giving time to discuss it and for him to emerge with, maybe, a new ownership of his place as “the reluctant cultural manager”.

Hawila aft

7 – Introducing the family
A large part of my willingness to agree the basic shape of the project was my inability to commit to anything before we had appointed the full artistic team. I realise that this is because the involvement of professional artists is fundamental to the way Head4Arts operates – it simply feels wrong to make all the decisions before everyone is around the table. I had not properly understood how important this is to me, nor had I articulated this to my Tandem partner. I envisaged the task as advertising the commissions to practitioners with relevant community arts experience with a brief that would enable them the freedom to be adventurous, fully engaged with the work, inspired, and challenged. What Hawila produced was actually a project overview and ideas, rather than the more recognisable artists’ brief Head4arts expected, highlighting our different experiences of cultural commissioning. It was clear that we didn’t always understand each other’s use of language. A new version was drawn up incorporating the spirit of both documents.

8 – Always “Doing it Together”
Our Tandem journey had had already used a variety of methods including reference to “the collaboration canvas, “shadowing”, “tea talks, “mentoring” and “the dialogue interview” – we didn’t call them that, but we recognised retrospectively that we had used these methods. In Leeuwarden we experienced the “case study”. Our Tandem colleagues listened attentively to the difficulties of the artistic team working together “at a distance”. They unanimously recommended an easier approach where each Tandem worked on the project separately, then shared the work and selected the elements we both wanted to take forward. We chose to ignore this and take the more difficult route of working collaboratively throughout. This had its problems and frustrations but, ultimately, we both felt that our journey would be richer, if rockier!

9 – It’s good to be hybrid!
Our voyage took the Welsh team to Copenhagen for an amazing shipboard experience and back to Wales for a Valleys adventure. By making everything collaboratively, we were always sailing into the teeth of the wind – our sails powered by the creative energy in the room. This was sometimes stormy – and there were times when we lingered in the doldrums. There were moments when our ship was barely afloat but, together, we navigated our vessel to places that we had never imagined. The beacon that guided us was one of mutual respect and trust and this was our lifeline in entering unfamiliar waters. The hybrid life can be challenging, complex, unpredictable and risky – but it’s always exciting and I am certainly glad that I stayed on board.