One of the things that has enthused me most this year was attending and presenting at Amateur Creativity, an international symposium organised as part of the AHRC-funded project Amateur Dramatics: Crafting Communities in Time and Space. I presented on work emerging from the Cultural Intermediation project concerning what I labelled a ‘gallery of the gutter’ but more formally ‘state-sponsored amateur cultural production’.

The event, which took place at Warwick University, was a generous pace in which to share ideas and one that was genuinely productive for me. As I explained in one comment at the event, I’ve been interested in the amateur since I wrote my MA in Cultural Studies several years ago.

Screenshot 2015-12-10 10.13.19

One of the things that inspired me about the symposium was the various ways in which we think about and describe amateurism which connected themes in my own work as well as activities across the Birmingham School of Media and the research conducted by my colleagues. As a result of my enthusiasm and reflections I presented at one of our weekly research events organised under the aegis of our Popular Music Studies research cluster and Nick Gebhardt.

Nick organised a session in which several colleagues gave ten-minute presentations on their current work and I took the opportunity to organise my thoughts as “‘”You cannot start off and be Yehudi Menuhin’: Some Notes on Amateurism’. The quote, if you don’t know it comes from the Sparks song Amateur Hour. As is often the case, colleagues were forensic in their questions about my ideas and generous with their ideas, particularly in response to my suggestion that ideas of the ‘amateur’ connected with a wealth of practice across our collective work.

Nick and I had a productive brainstorm afterwards, picking up in part ideas he’s developed in his new book on vaudeville (Music is our Business: popular music, vaudeville and entertainment in the United States, 1882-1929. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).

In order to capitalise on the enthusiasm emerging from discussion of the amateur and a general recognition of the productive nature of the concept for anchoring common concerns we decided to organise an informal symposium of our own in order to engage a wider group of scholars across the Faculty of the Arts, Design and Media.

We took a cue from a call for panel I’m developing with Dan Ashton of Southampton University which we hope to organise at the next ECREA conference. Here is some of the brief:

The role of the amateur raises questions about the nature of creativity, status and economics and indeed the definition of ‘creative industries’ across fields such as publishing, fine art, fashion, craftwork, photography, film, music, gaming, broadcasting and informational areas such as journalism, documentary and current affairs etc. Furthermore, the nature of the amateur troubles the boundaries of institutions and production in the wider cultural ecology.

This workshop seeks to bring together colleagues and students in ADM with an interest in exploring ideas of the amateur in a mutually supportive, informal and workshop-based setting.

The workshop ran yesterday in the back room of a pub next to campus with 15 of us giving 5 minute papers. Amongst other attendees (one of whom was BA student who came from London for the afternoon), two gave impromptu presentations on their work.

Subjects encompassed, amongst other things, nineteenth-century poetry, amateur pornography, Trinidadian steel drum players, big data, music technologies, ‘etsypreneur’ mums, video gaming and hyper local journalism. Read the abstracts and line- up here.

The image below captures some of us at the workshop and the setting gives a sense of how much like a ‘free and easy’ style event it was.

Discussions of amateurism in the 'free and easy' style.

Discussions of amateurism in the ‘free and easy’ style.

I think that all who attended found it an invigorating session. For my own purposes I’ve several pages of notes and names of authors to follow up and work through with Nick Gebhardt on a proposed paper so I’ll add more on that at a later date.

What to do with the wider energy and contributions however? Well, we’ll certainly follow this up with further discussion (the amount of presentations and our ‘Gong Show’ approach meant that we had little time for reflection) and further presentations. What we would like to do is to capture and circulate the pithy insights presented in a timely and apposite fashion. While this might lead inexorably to an academic collection we’d like to present something a little more reflective of our empathetic approach to ‘amateurism’ so watch this space.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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