Impact case study
Being in Touch: Inspiring Cultural Engagement through Creative-Critical Writing
Unit(s) of assessment: English Language and Literature
Research theme: Global Heritage
School: School of Arts and Humanities
Dr Sarah Jackson’s research on the body and communications technologies brings together creative writing, contemporary literature and philosophy to explore the idea of ‘being in touch’. Taking her research beyond the academy, she has curated a public engagement programme that has:
- enhanced artistic practice and cultural production
- produced new forms of literary expression
- resulted in sustained changes to institutions’ cultural programming.
Central to these activities are innovative methodologies that blend creative and critical writing. To deliver this programme, Jackson has curated more than 30 creative-critical writing workshops and interactive events involving around 500 participants aged 16-65+ from 15 countries. She has inspired the creation of new literary works on the theme of ‘being in touch’, including a digital app, crowd-sourced online exhibition, touring exhibition, and short animated film.Jackson has translated her research ideas into creative-critical programming, including radio essays, interviews, podcasts, documentaries and short films. She has also worked closely with regional, national, and international partners including the BBC, the Science Museum Group, UNESCO Creative Cities, and the BT Archives.
A BBC-AHRC New Generation Thinker, AHRC Leadership Fellow and award-winning poet, Jackson combines critical and creative practice to examine the relationship between the body, technology and writing. She produces hybrid texts that operate across formal and disciplinary boundaries, exploring how interdisciplinary and collaborative forms of writing can generate new critical insights, inspire artistic production, inform public debate, and promote ways of being in touch that reach across cultural, institutional and national divides. Central to this work is her leadership of NTU’s Critical Poetics Research Group (CPRG), whose 25 members develop innovative writing methodologies that engage diverse communities with contemporary socio-political and cultural concerns.
Jackson’s approach to being in touch addresses two linked themes: tact and technology. Her work on haptic studies is published in multiple scholarly and creative forms. Her poetry collection Pelt (2012) was inspired by literary and critical work on the concept of the skin as an interface between self and world. She developed her work on touch in an article in New Writing (2012) and significantly extended this in her creative-critical monograph Tactile Poetics (2015). Investigating how literary texts touch readers, this monograph both examines and enacts the relationship between literary texture and theories of feeling. Related outputs include a critical essay ‘Touching’ (2020) – which considers how extreme environments mediate the perception and expression of contact – and ‘A Conversion Disorder’ (2015) – which blends fiction, autobiography, philosophy and criticism in order to offer new insights into the different textures of literary language. Since 2016, Jackson’s work on being in touch has focused more intensively on remote contact, interrupted connection, and literary telecommunications. After editing Ten Poems on the Telephone (2017), she investigated telephony in a creative-critical article (2017). With Bostock (University of Plymouth), she also published a hybrid essay (2019) in which the authors exchange voicemails to explore being in touch at a distance. This essay stemmed from an international event on the ‘Unidentifiable Literary Object’ curated by Jackson and hosted by the CPRG, culminating in a co-edited special issue of parallax (2019). In 2018, Jackson won AHRC funding to develop her work on telecommunications in partnership with the BT Archives and Science Museum.
Generating new ways of thinking that influence creative practice and increase cultural participation and engagement
As a New Generation Thinker, Jackson has generated new approaches to the idea of being in touch through creative-critical programming for the BBC. Selected broadcasts include: a discussion of lyric touch in a Radio 4 documentary entitled ‘Every Little Touch’; an essay on touch in Antarctica for Radio 3, selected for Radio 4 Pick of the Week; and an interview on Radio 4’s Today Programme discussing her discovery in the BT Archives of correspondence between Sylvia Pankhurst and the Post Office about phone tapping. Other BBC outputs include: ‘The Mystery of the Missing Telephone’, a short film on Sherlock Holmes for BBC Arts Online; ‘Daisy Bell: The Voice and the Machine’, a 20-minute documentary for Radio 3’s Sunday Feature; poetry on the body commissioned for Radio 3’s Words and Music; and several Free Thinking interviews for Radio 3, including features exploring the history of Hull’s telephone booths and the influence of John Giorno on poetry by the telephone.
Jackson has extended this work on being in touch with a range of community groups and cultural institutions. Designed by Jackson to explore new ways of bringing communities together to consider contemporary issues, Re:Vision was a three-year, international creative-critical writing programme for both aspiring and experienced writers. It began in 2017 with a free nine-week workshop series at the Broadway Cinema, Nottingham, in partnership with Writing East Midlands and Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature. In 2018, Jackson and CPRG colleagues were invited to Katowice, Poland, to deliver, as part of the UNESCO Creative Cities public conference, four creative-critical writing workshops on topics including surveillance and telecommunications. As CPRG lead, Jackson helped to design four workshops led by Group members in 2018-2019 (in UNESCO Creative Cities Dublin, Tartu, Ljubljana, and Granada), and a 2019 intensive six-week online creative-critical writing and mentoring programme for 17 emerging European writers; in 2019 she travelled to Pereira (Colombia) to lead the final workshop. This workshop series included sessions on technology, telephony and contemporary culture. A total of 110 writers from 10 countries participated in the workshops and 371 members of the public attended related discussions; participants included teachers, carers, financial advisors, graphic designers and those out of employment. Evaluations repeatedly evidenced two clear outcomes: workshops enhanced participants’ creative practice and improved their understanding of the issues addressed; 82% generated new writing ideas, 74% improved expression of ideas and 76% were inspired to write about workshop topics.
Jackson’s research led to her co-organising the 2019 Writing Skyscapes collaboration between astronomers, photographers and writers at Creswell Crags Museum and Prehistoric Gorge. Featuring creative-critical workshops in a cave and poetry readings at night, it allowed participants to reflect on and write about how we experience the sky through various astronomical communications technologies. Evaluations showed that 100% of participants generated new ideas for writing. In 2020, Jackson’s research also resulted in ‘Five Bodies’ (launched November 2020), a collaborative partnership with Nottingham Contemporary, with workshops led by international writers exploring contemporary bodies, environments, and technologies.
Bringing her work on telephony to new and diverse audiences, Jackson also created three public events for the 2017 BA-AHRC Being Human Festival. Switchboard included a creative-critical writing workshop at Nottingham Industrial Museum (where visitors interacted with telephones from the Museum’s collection not normally on display); a BT-supported pop-up event in a phone booth, with anonymous voicemail messages left by members of the public; and a spoken word event. Extending this work as part of her AHRC Leadership Fellow grant, Jackson’s Telepoetics event brought together archivists, curators, writers and the public to explore how the telephone operates across literary, critical, personal and political domains. Originally scheduled to take place at the Science Museum, the symposium was held online (due to COVID-19) over 10 days in 2020; the project webpages received 7,172 views from 40 countries over two weeks. Also in 2020, Jackson curated an online crowd-sourced exhibition of literary telephones; featured in The Guardian, it includes 90 nominations of international literary texts spanning over 130 years,
Inspiring and producing new forms of artistic and literary expression
Working with writers speaking more than 10 languages, and offering mentoring opportunities and commissions, Re:Vision culminated in the 2019 collection Writing the Contemporary: Poetry & Postcards from UNESCO Cities of Literature, edited by CPRG members with contributions by Jackson. New poems written during the Writing Skyscapes project were shared with the public during a two-week exhibition at Backlit Art Gallery in Nottingham, which moved to Creswell Crags from 15 April – 19 July (30,900 visitors to site from April-July 2019), and then to the European Dark Sky Festival and Symposium, Mayo Dark Sky Park in Ireland (1-5 November 2019), where further activities extended the project’s legacy.
As part of her AHRC-funded Crossed Lines project, Jackson commissioned new work for and edited the Dial-a-Poem mobile app, a free resource providing access to 63 contemporary poems by writers from Africa, America, Asia and Europe. Read aloud by the authors and translators, the app invites users to reflect on the relationship between poetry and calling. It has brought to the attention of a wider public the work of international award-winning poets such as Lyuba Yakimchuk (Ukraine) and Ather Zia (Kashmir). Poet Lisa Kelly testified to the value of the project, describing her visit to the BT Archives enabled by Dial-a-Poem as ‘extremely generative’, explaining that she learned about the role of the telephone with d(D)eaf communities, and that it resulted directly in three new poems.
In partnership with the Science Museum, Jackson also created an online collection of original art and literary works from a diverse group of practitioners exploring the role of the telephone in cultural production and reception. The Exchange, commissioned during COVID-19 and reflecting a shift towards calling during lockdown, features works by writer Will Self, transmedia artist Maya Chowdhry, beatboxer Danny Ladwa, poets Lisa Kelly, Serge Neptune, Nadia Nadarajah and DL Williams, and sound artist Aura Satz. Inspired by Jackson’s own research, artworks were created in response to heritage objects in the Science Museum’s collection – including an undersea cable, a manual switchboard and a rotary dial – and made available to the public via both the Science Museum and project websites.
Jackson also worked with Compass Collective, a non-profit theatre company supporting young people seeking sanctuary, on the Calling across Borders project. Through online workshops held during lockdown, Jackson inspired eight young refugees and two young ambassadors to explore their relationship with the telephone, and to leave voicemail messages exploring loss, the idea of being in touch, resilience and hope. Developing writing and performing skills, these voicemail messages have been made into a short animated film which was launched 18 February 2021.
Influencing sustained changes to institutions’ cultural programming
Jackson’s research has led to sustained changes in cultural programming, including wider adoption of creative-critical approaches. The Director of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature and Chair of the Global Network of 29 UNESCO Cities of Literature confirmed the value of critical-creative writing in facilitating ‘new conversations with both local and global communities’: ‘Its impact on our approach and thinking has led to the incorporation of Re:Vision workshops in our future programming’. This included showcasing Re:Vision at the Granada Book Fair (2019), and funding CPRG activities in Pereira, Colombia. The impact of Jackson’s methodology is corroborated by other cultural partners. The CEO of Writing East Midlands described ideas engendered by the creative-critical approach as ‘a shot in the arm for our work’; Writing East Midland’s annual writers’ conference in 2018 incorporated creative-critical workshops for the first time. Creswell Crags’ Communications and Programmes Manager said that Writing Skyscapes had led to a focus on the site ‘as a place of creativity and inspiration’; changes to programming include ‘more space for creative workshops’, and ‘increased engagement with creative networks locally, and online’. Artistic Director of Compass Collective described the ‘incredibly successful’ format of Calling across Borders as ‘inform[ing] our future planning’; as a result, ‘we are keen to explore more ways of programming small scale, closed creative writing groups to explore and tackle relevant issues’.
Drawing on the outcomes of Jackson’s research, the BT Archives also produced a short film of Jackson’s research to showcase ‘academic-archivist collaborations in business’. The Head of Heritage reported that this partnership introduced their collections ‘to wider audiences, often in new and innovative ways’, explaining that the partnership ‘caused us to re-evaluate and re-think how we reach out to new users and researchers’, and confirming that a new collaboration with Central Saint Martins ‘was directly inspired by Jackson’s approach’. Describing Crossed Lines as ‘exemplary of how academic collaborators can bring fresh and unexpected insights to enrich visitors’ experience’, the Science Museum’s Head of Research and Public History noted that the online dimensions of Jackson’s project ‘proved to us the value of online communication of the research enterprise. This is a permanent lesson for us […] and we will be applying it in future collaborations and projects’. Confirming the value of Jackson’s creative-critical approach, he stated: ‘We will be able to use this collaboration to suggest the potential of our collections to future research collaborators for creative reinterpretation by artists and scholars’.
- Jackson, S. Pelt (Bloodaxe Books, 2012) [poetry collection]. Pelt won the Seamus Heaney Prize, was longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award, and was described in the TLS as ‘one of the most assured and exciting full-length debut collections in recent years’.
- Jackson, S. ‘So Close: Writing That Touches’, New Writing, 9:3 (2012), pp.408-418 [creative-critical refereed journal article]. DOI: 10.1080/14790726.2012.693096. ‘This is an engaging and lively piece of work; interesting in thought, and interesting in discussion’ (referee endorsement).
- Jackson, S. Tactile Poetics: Touch and Contemporary Writing (Edinburgh UP, 2015) [creative-critical monograph]. Described in Oxford Literary Review (2017) as ‘a superb and important read’.
- Jackson, S. ‘A Conversion Disorder’, Oxford Literary Review, 37:2 (2015), pp.217-242 [creative-critical refereed journal article]. DOI: 10.3366/olr.2015.0165. ‘Illuminating… [it] exemplif[ies] while performing ways to read and to think of writing and/as reading’ (referee endorsement).
- Jackson, S. ‘Derrida on the Line’, Derrida Today, 10:2 (2017), pp.142-159 [creative-critical refereed journal article]. DOI: 10.3366/drt.2017.0153. ‘a stimulating new contribution to the debate on Derrida’s writing on the telephone, on the connection between Derrida and Cixous, and on the notion of communication at a distance’ (referee endorsement).
- Jackson, S. and C. Bostock (eds), Unidentifiable Literary Objects: A Special Issue, parallax 25:3 (2019) [creative-critical special issue; includes an introduction (pp.241-7; DOI: 10.1080/13534645.2019.1624321) and essay Between Calls: Together in the Garden (pp.333-350; DOI: 10.1080/13534645.2019.1624327) both co-authored by Jackson.