We caught up with Seth Scafe-Smith of the Resolve Collective to talk about their work as V&A East’s first youth workers in residence and their installation and events for London Design Festival in September.
Q: What made you want to apply to be the first youth workers in residence for V&A East
There’s always an external and an internal focus. Internally, we’ve done a lot of work with young people in partnership with galleries and local authorities, thinking about how they are involved in placemaking locally, but I think the opportunity to be able to do it as part of a long-term programme was quite an important factor for us applying. We wanted to try and test some of the things that we’ve only done in quite short excerpts over the long term and hopefully do it in a realm that is quite interesting and provided us with a lot of freedom; because we’re really visualizing how an institution like the V&A can rethink its relationship with young people; so, I think there was a great opportunity for us internally.
Externally, it’s funny, because we do a lot of work with institutions, but I’m not overly bothered about them, in fact we’re instinctively critical of their historical roots, and that’s why we decide to work with them. We’re not doing it because we think ‘oh my god, everyone needs to share in the greatness of these objects and things’ but because we can take a pragmatic approach to our practice, look at these institutions and think about how relationships between the institution and the people that we work with can be improved. Rather than just thinking about how we can bring young people into the V&A, we’re very keen to take the V&A’s resources and energy outside to them as well. If they’re serious about changing their perception, especially with communities from minority backgrounds, now is a great time to think quite radically about it. That’s why we talk a lot about infrastructural thinking because then you can start to push the boat out and think to yourself ‘how can we try and match the needs of some of these communities with the needs of the institution’ which I think is different to what it was maybe 20 years ago, when you were just thinking about visitor numbers – now it’s got to be a little bit different.
Q: What role/responsibility do you think museums should have in their local area?
You know what, when I said we’re not particularly bothered about these institutions, maybe I was being a bit flippant because I’ve had the opportunity to experience them in my upbringing. We used to go museums a lot with my family or on school trips, so I’ve always had fond memories of them. In my professional life is probably where they become a less amazing thing, but I do think that they play an important role, which is one of the reasons why we’re doing this work as well. Akil (co-founder of Resolve Collective) and I don’t admit is as much but we both enjoy the work, but we also understand the flaws, and the challenges of these institutions.
Museums should be thinking about how resources can be distributed into local spaces and not necessarily all physically but also thinking about digital technologies, so that all their interest and intrigue can be experienced and understood and shared by people all over the cities that their objects existed in. Then, they can start to think about how these fill this gap that we have in our local services. We have these massive projects where people are talking about culture as an infrastructure, and about creativity as a means for change but meanwhile our local spaces, in which people do express themselves and experience culture or create art, are closing at a rapid rate. Matching those two things up and thinking about how these massive, centralized institutions can play a more positive role in some of these local spaces would be the first thing. Also, it doesn’t need to just be spaces but also events, Brixton Splash is a great example, and these are the things that I really think that are going to be of extreme historical significance.
I think what museums need to start doing is thinking about how cultural institutions can support these spaces, events and movements that are culturally significant right now, in real life, to people, while they’re alive and while they exist, rather than enable people to reflect on them when they die. They can make a difference by supporting these spaces and movements that play a significant role in certain communities and bring a lot of joy against tensions of multiple different forces like rising house prices, gentrification, and a range of different social issues.
Q: Your work involves you working with and asking young people to think about their own relationship with their localities. What’s one thing you’ve learned about east London that’s surprised you the most?
That’s a hard one because it’s not that there’s nothing remarkable about east, but because of the way we work. Akil and I investigate the relationships we’re developing and what we’re trying to build with young people rather than the information we’re collecting. It’s not that I’ve lost the fascination with the information, but it means that a lot of the information doesn’t stick in my mind, as much as the intentions of the young people. The intention is the thing that I’m most interested in, and that’s why we’re working in the way we’re working because, like young people anywhere they have amazing intent and it’s amazing to match that with their understanding of their local area.
It would be naive of me to say ‘oh, you know, some of these local spaces are really important, like Green Street’ because obviously they’re important to everyone; we always expected that to happen. But what I have really enjoyed is the ability these young people have to connect their intent and creativity and apply it to their local area. And I wonder if the context of east has something to do with it? Because there is a huge amount of development all over the area and that is at the forefront of the minds of the young people we’ve worked with. I think with all this development around, they’re in this realm of tension and it has allowed them to see examples of what they don’t like; they can see examples of where things have negatively affected their community; can see examples of institutions that have come to exist in the wrong way. I think that’s really focused them and it’s not hard to get them to start thinking about how they might do things differently. And I think that has been for me, amazing to see and makes what we’re doing so much easier and so much more interesting.
Q: If you had to pick three words that are central to your practice, what would they be?
I think I would have just said ‘community’ but I feel like ‘community’ has been coerced by design practices, specifically architects. If you mean people, you should say people and I think, for me it is the word ‘people’ because we would never design or create or work on something that is purely for our own interests and agendas. I think the worst thing, to us, would be something that is done outside of the context of people. Our work is always within the context of the people that are close to the work or are going to experience the work directly, whether it’s an artist community in Milton Keynes that we’ve been working quite closely with, or the young people from the V&A, or a residence group from an estate that we’re working on.
Interdisciplinary is another word that I think has been coerced and co-opted by design practices, but we actually are interdisciplinary by design: Akil, myself and the other founder don’t have the same set of skills; we don’t have the same experience, nor do we have the same professional or educational backgrounds. We came together from different disciplines, and we were also heavily influenced by disciplines that we weren’t, technically, ‘a part of’. I mean artists, musicians, creatives, poets, even architects; all of those disciplined influenced our work and we borrowed off of them and much of our learning is done through collaboration and sharing so that we can we continue to be interdisciplinary. What we’re trying to do is continue to learn, explore and grow – not to regurgitate the same things that we’ve done over and over again. Maybe, rather than interdisciplinary it’s outer-disciplinary; we don’t want to attach ourselves to a discipline, or a certain set of skills or method of doing things, because that’s not interesting for us. I don’t think that’s how you push yourself and produce good ideas or positive ideas and grow your creative practice.
(After a moment of contemplation)
There is a word floating in my head and it is ‘joy’. We were recently talking about creating spaces for joy and why that’s important and I think that was at the root of how we started to do the things that we did. In Rebel Space and in Passageway, from the outside looking in, it might have just looked like a bit of fun, but it was, it was extremely fun! I think that’s important because a lot of the areas that we’re often stepping into have a tension; we’re stepping into challenging circumstances and we’re looking at these different communities’ experiences, particularly negative experiences, and we’re thinking how we might use our practice to turn those into positive experiences or try and support and work with those communities. And a lot of the time it is about, or around spaces for joy, like the spaces in which you can either feel joyous or create joy or share joy with others. I think that sense is super important in our practice. So, whenever we can, we’re always trying to ensure that joy comes through our practice, even if we’re trying to interrogate and ask some really difficult questions, you can do that through celebrations, you can do that through, as I said, creating spaces of joy.
Q. What can you tell us about your work for LDF?
Our V&A Installation was an active expression of our year-long programme with the V&A East and VARI where we used the welcome desk to present our research, key themes of the residency and the amazing contributions of local young people across the year. ‘Made on Location’ sought to celebrate local value through using acquired materials woven into the fabric of the institution; scaffolding from the V&A South Kensington supplier and discarded drawers from a previous refurbishment were used to create an installation that opens a dialogue between the museum and local young people through material parallels and conceptual questions. Marbled through spray paint, the scaffold stood in contrast to the profligate marble columns that decorate the entrance of the South Kensington institution. These were decorated by the maps produced by the young people, produced in fabrics and material from local markets, and supported by seats that mapped out the research conducted by the team. Hopefully, the space was something that visitors could interact with and enjoy, and also dive into the purpose behind our residency, how these institutions exist within this complicated picture of local spaces and local values, and particularly in reference to young people in East London. It was also amazing to collaborate with Sound Advice and their Shubz at the V&A as these activities add extra fuel to the fire, forcing the V&A to take a look at themselves if they’re really serious about changing their position and role in society, particularly for minority communities.