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Introducing Distant Voices: Coming Home

I am currently co-investigator on a 3-year collaborative action research project, jointly funded by the ESRC and the AHRC called Distant Voices: Coming Home. I am joined in leading this by Principal Investigator Professor Fergus McNeill from the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at Glasgow University, and Co-Investigators Alison Urie from our host organisation Vox Liminis, and Oliver Escobar from the University of Edinburgh. Also a key part of the research team is our research associate Phil Crockett Thomas (based at the University of Glasgow) and PhD researcher Lucy Cathcart Froden.

The project uses a range of innovative, inherently creative and community-based methods to investigate the challenges of re/integration for those ‘coming home’ after punishment. The project intends to turn conventional understandings of ‘offender rehabilitation’ on their head by concerning itself not with narratives of ‘correcting offenders’ but rather with exploring and changing how they are received on return to ‘outside’ communities. It focuses both on experiences of coming home and the challenges involved in that for the returner, but also, crucially, on the role of receiving communities, societies, institutions and spaces in making such a homecoming what it is.

We attempt to combine creative practices (principally songwriting and sharing of songs), research, and knowledge exchange to enable dialogue and learning about re/integration amongst these communities – and thus to practice and support it. As a collaborative action research project, the research is guided by a ‘community of enquiry’ and of creative practice made up of a wide range of people with different forms of experience of ‘coming home’, be that first hand, professionally, via involvement in helping others to ‘come home’, or via researching or exploring those things academically or creatively. Together for the past three years we have been developing and undertaking three types of activity:

  • Firstly, ‘Co-creative inquiry’ – where participants have been working (often with professional musicians) to write songs that explore, represent and reflect on coming home. So far, songwriting sessions in prisons and community settings have produced over 180 songs in this way in working with over 170 participants.
  • Secondly, ‘Co-creative’ dialogue’ – where those songs are shared through live performances (including at Celtic Connections festival, Glasgow, CTM Festival, Berlin, Union Chapel, London, Hidden Door festival in Edinburgh, a series of house gigs in the homes of members of the community and in a tour of Scottish prison settings), podcasts, and the release of studio recordings as albums and EPs.
  • Thirdly, in ‘Co-creative discovery’ a ‘core group’ of that wider community use a range of social science and arts-based research methods to undertake, communicate and embody the learning that has been happening through the project. This includes a practice-led-research component, led by myself, that provides another level of interpretation, using songwriting to explore and present interdisciplinary connections and correspondences between different forms of data collection and knowledge creation across the project.

This final type of activity – co-creative discovery – and the role of songwriting practice in that, is key to the focus of my activity in the project, and will be the subject of a series of blog posts beyond this one. The project uses collaborative action research as its principle method of research and combines creative practice, social-science-based and arts-based research methods with knowledge exchange. This is because – as the research team stated in our application to the funders – “evidence from pilot phases of the project showed that co-creative practices generate particularly strong research relationships and exceptionally rich data through which experiences, thoughts and feelings are revealed and represented in interesting and challenging ways” (McNeill, Urie, Scott, Escobar, 2016). Approaching the subject through these co-creative activities rather than directly (such as through interviewing) helps us to get at some of its complexities and explore them in a rich and interesting way. Most importantly, the process of creating things together, and the results of the co-creation (the sharing of songs that have been written in this way) builds and strengthens relationships, understandings, support structures and community with participants involved. It actively does some of the work of re/integration as it proceeds.

The core group and also the wider community of enquiry are therefore engaged as a collective of equals in undertaking the research: in reflecting on data from the project, collating learning, critically reflecting on the process, designing and undertaking the collection of more data as it is required and in co-creation activities.  The practice-led research activities that I have been engaged in developing work alongside these processes and aim to explore interdisciplinary connections and correspondences between different forms of knowledge created across the project. These outputs aim to provide a second (‘meta’) level of interpretation (and perhaps also a form of triangulation) between the outcomes of these varied practices. The formation of major pieces of creative practice from the resources created by a complex, interdisciplinary and wide-reaching project such as this, treats the data in a unique way – usually by approaching it looking for areas of ‘resonance’, threads of meaning, or locuses of productivity rather than through coding processes or seeking thematic commonalities etc. – and thus produces quite unique understandings or perspectives on it.

Not only that, but when working in popular music songwriting, the tacit and functional knowledge of songwriters as to what is likely to be emotionally resonant, widely connective on a human level, engaging for a wide public audience and connective between performer and audience, is engaged within this process. This leads to outcomes that not only point to the areas of learning that might be most effective in engaging wider publics in dialogue around pertinent issues, they also produce musical outputs that aid processes such as empathy, affective solidarity, or re-perspectivising for audiences. These sorts of actions are crucial with relation to some of the forms of attitude or behavioural change and the challenging of stigma that have been shown to be required for successful re/integrative processes within communities.

NOTE: Time has moved strangely. There has been a pandemic that has tossed us all aside from our usual everythings. I have had another baby and sliced out a year of my working life to focus on an entirely different creative nurturing project. So although I am only just introducing this project to the blog here, this month is actually the final month of the Distant Voices: Coming Home project, and this week we are presenting some of the final outputs of the project to the public in a festival called ‘Bridging the Void’. Over the next few days I’ll be posting more about the outcomes of this project and how we developed them. I guess it’ll be like a Netflix binge watch blog bonanza. A whisk through the long-grown, slowly developed processes that Distant Voices has produced.

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