Encounters began in 2003 when co-founders Ruth Ben-Tovim and Trish O’Shea took over a disused shop in Sharrow, Sheffield, to open a creative dialogue about their rapidly changing local neighbourhood. Since 2009 it has been based in Totnes, Devon, and works mostly locally across Torbay and South Devon, in urban and rural contexts, with some national and international interventions. Ben-Tovim remains and forms the core creative team along with Shelley Castle, Anne-Marie Culhane and Lucy Neal, supported by two administrative staff, all freelance and part-time. Its annual turnover fluctuates but at present is approximately £150,000, with roughly 60% received from Arts Council England, just under 30% via commissions, and 10% from trusts and foundations.
Mission: bringing people together to shape a creative, caring and connected world
True to its name, Encounters exists to “bring people together”. That sounds simple: the complexity lies in the organisation’s sense of purpose, what creative director Ruth Ben-Tovim describes as a desire to “create the conditions for a creative, caring and connected world in which all can learn to flourish together, leading sustainable, expressive lives within the earth’s ecological limits”.
This happens through a “focus on the imagination. We use a range of practices including performance, making, installation, writing, personal story-telling, mass creative visioning” – a set of tools made bespoke to each situation or commission, through which people can “co-design the space and the art works that come out of that dialogue”. Through these spaces and processes, people are encouraged to “exchange ideas and experiences to create a deeper understanding of themselves, each other and the wider natural world. We bring people together in order to look at who and how we are in the world at this time and who we want to be in the future: how we imagine the future, how we can look – on a whole-system level – at how people, places and planet can work together, and how we can enact that collectively, to initiate positive change in neighbourhoods, towns and bio-regions.”
From shops to bridges
Encounters began in 2003 when Ben-Tovim and her co-founder Trish O’Shea were living in Sheffield; both artists, they had been delivering “large-scale creative consultation and action-planning as part of regeneration initiatives” elsewhere in England and wanted to apply this thinking closer to home and on a more micro scale. They decided to take over a disused shop on their local high street in Sharrow, “a very culturally diverse area”, and set out to “challenge ourselves as artists to explore the art of participation more deeply”.
It was in the Sharrow shop that Encounters began to shape the methodology it still uses today in a lot of its work. “The place starts empty and grows over time as it fills up with people’s contributions: their thoughts about people, places, the wider world. The tools we use tend to be quite low-tech, and range from writing on a blackboard in response to open-ended questions: for instance, ‘what makes you smile?’, ‘what do you fear?’, to collaging a picture made up of photographs of an area, to writing about a journey you’ve made to live where you live on a luggage label in a suitcase of clothes, to leaving a memory or story on a large scale map. It’s important that people are able to choose for themselves how they interact. Over time the place fills up and a co-authored set of ‘artworks’ are co-created that reveal a very diverse but inter-connected story about the past, present and future of that place.”
“Over time the place fills up and a co-authored set of ‘artworks’ are co-created that reveal a very diverse but inter-connected story about the past, present and future of that place.”
The Sharrow Shop project was funded by Arts Council England but, “because of where it was placed, and some of the methods and tools that we were using, quite quickly we began to be commissioned by a neighbourhood forum or a local community development trust or a statutory sector agency wanting to have a more effective dialogue with the people they were representing”.
Encounters has continued to divide its time between self-generated arts-funded projects and commissions from the non-arts sector, including the NHS, local councils, voluntary sector organisations and community development trusts. Even if the starting point is different, two characteristics remain common factors: “we tend to work in public space; we create spaces, or we take over spaces” and “we use creative approaches to facilitate a dialogue”. In the case of commissions, that dialogue can be “between service providers and service users. We see ourselves as able to be bridge builders and space holders for an exchange to happen between a civic institution and its participants – many of whom might never have experienced or participated in a more formal art context before.”
“We see ourselves as able to be bridge builders and space holders for an exchange to happen between a civic institution and its participants – many of whom might never have experienced or participated in a more formal art context before.”
Invitation and innovation
Encounters has developed a methodology for how that exchange happens which it calls “the Art of Invitation. How you invite people to participate, how you invite people to leave a trace of themselves behind, how you invite people to vision the future: that’s an art and that’s one of our practices. We’re experimenting all the time between how people can be a witness and a participant, playing around with those roles and breaking that barrier between them, in effect to model for people a) that change is possible and b) that it’s possible to be part of that change by stepping into that role of a participant more easily.”
In accepting commissions from non-arts organisations and institutions, Encounters is of course accepting invitations itself, both “helping to create opportunities for cultural commissioning” and “delivering outcomes around social cohesion, community engagement and collaborative visioning”. Ben-Tovim is aware of the argument that art is instrumentalised through such social or civic commissioning, but finds it “reductive. As an organisation we’re committed to, as Suzi Gablik has said, ‘making arts as if the world mattered’. The arts’ role is to nurture a changing society, and the nurturing we need right now – when we are in a climate emergency – is to be able to imagine how collectively we’re going to adapt and evolve to a radically altered energy environment. The technology and the blueprints might be there to do some of that – but we don’t have the social innovation to create the vision or need to use them. Art can speak differently: artists can be agents for change, for innovation, it can bring people together in a room that other sectors can’t, to find meaning and purpose and engagement for people of all ages and backgrounds.”
“The arts’ role is to nurture a changing society, and the nurturing we need right now – when we are in a climate emergency – is to be able to imagine how collectively we’re going to adapt and evolve to a radically altered energy environment.”
The traces left behind
Just as the invitation made to participants is bespoke to each project, so the expectation around legacy is flexible between “longitude, and catalyst”. Ben-Tovim explains: “There’s a place for leaving something in the trace and the history and the imagination of a community; there’s also a place for catalysing infrastructure and new ways of working. Often our legacy is a sense of shifting perspective around an individual in terms of their own agency or their own feeling of belonging in a place or stewardship of the natural world: a sense that their contribution matters and that they have actively participated in the process of change. And often there’s a legacy in the new methods, and more collaborative ways of doing things, between organisations and communities.”
Ben-Tovim illustrates this by describing a set of key projects:
- Encounters Shops: Dewsbury
In total Encounters has now occupied 11 shops; in Dewsbury it did so for six months as part of a European-funded town renaissance project led by Cultural Development Agency Loca for Kirklees Council. The shop became both “a participatory art project in itself, and a visioning consultation process, with regeneration master-planning going through it”. Visited by over 1000 people, over time the shop became a place where a “quite culturally divided community” developed “dialogue, vision and optimism”.
When there is a seeming lack of connection within a place, Encounters convenes dialogue and exchange between different groups of people in playful and imaginative ways. These exchanges “reflect back to people a different story about where they are and who they’re living with”.
For instance, Encounters A Little Patch of Ground, an inter-generational food-growing and performance project, began life bringing residents together from across Liverpool as part of Capital of Culture; later Patch groups in Devon and east London were twinned, travelling to visit each other’s gardens and performances at the end of the projects – some leaving their towns for the very first time. In Peterborough, launching the RSA’s art and social change programme, Encounters worked with residents across the city “to go on minibus tours to each other’s part of the city, taking each other on personal story tours around their neighbourhoods”. And in Torbay, residents from the often divided three towns were brought together on themed conversation boats.
- Town Centre Visioning
The Transition Network is “a movement of about 350 local groups internationally, who are looking together at a positive response to climate change and resource depletion”. When facilitating one of its international conferences, Encounters “designed a tool called Transition Town Anywhere, which involved 300 people visioning, then making physically with cardboard, bamboo and string, and finally enacting a high street of the future, based on well-being, and care of people, place and planet”. Encounters used this tool recently in Eastleigh at The Point bringing different groups together to imagine a future Eastleigh of interconnection.
- Residents’ rights
Currently Encounters is working on a joint commission from Torbay Culture and Torbay Council, “to involve residents in residential care homes in co-creating a residents’ rights charter. Care is an important theme for Encounters, using the same values around care for people and care for the world that help us achieve our mission of creating the conditions for a world in which we can flourish together.”
Ben-Tovim sees the challenges Encounters faces in both global and local terms: “We’re living increasingly in a time of uncertainty, of increased polarities, climate emergency, social system breakdown. There’s a real question that needs to be asked about what the role of the arts is in this time.” She means that positively, in terms of the difference art can make – but acknowledges that: “Even though in these times there is even more of an argument for the case that culture matters as a powerful force for individual and societal change, austerity and uncertainty can cripple risk-taking and innovation, and one of the challenges for us is how to keep working with non-art sectors, to keep evolving holistic systemic change. And, because we’re a relational practice and put people at the heart of it, we want to be part of a conversation that doesn’t alienate.”
“Austerity and uncertainty can cripple risk-taking and innovation, and one of the challenges for us is how to keep working with non-art sectors, to keep evolving holistic systemic change.
Recently Encounters has been the recipient of Elevate funding from ACE, which has encouraged a shift in its thinking, “to really see ourselves more as a learning organisation, developing new ways to share the learning and knowledge we’re finding through our work and passing on more of our experience through training in The Art of Invitation, and mentoring”.
Some of that will happen via a new project, The Making of Chrysalis: “a mobile arts-culture-learning space that we’re going to co-design and build with five localities in South Devon, as an exemplar project that looks into how we can work with a wide range of people to explore sustainable challenges through the act of co-design and making. The idea is that Chrysalis will become a social enterprise in itself: a beautiful resource for communities, and a living, breathing example of our values.”
Be My Guest Touring Sofa (photo Lizzie Coombes)