Hannah Hull believes in the importance of critical thinking for socially engaged arts practitioners, now the subject of one of the modules on Cred-ability’s training programme.

Image of workshops with pegs

The opportunity to develop the Critical Thinking module (part of Cred-ability’s training programme for delivering arts projects in prisons) was an opportunity for me to address a series of really important issues faced by artists working in the criminal justice system. Some artists complain about limitations but they are often only perceived limitations. That is not to say that the obstacles are imaginary, but we can take an entirely different route, a more difficult one, but the easy route will never produce any truly great projects.

The aim of the module is to provide space for artists to reflect on how they approach the development of ideas, in other words, to think about thinking. Students are invited to challenge the very foundations of their practice, to reach new conclusions about their ways of working. The module is intended to catalyse and develop a student’s critical position and approach to working in prisons, as opposed to imparting specific knowledge and an 'industry-ready' approach. It is full of critical tasks and exercises designed by like-minded artists; this lends a sense of collectivity in the mission to prioritise critical thinking in social art projects. Artists working in social contexts are particularly vulnerable to being instrumentalised by the agendas of others, and trying to create some space for creative and alternative thinking can be a lonely task .

It is key that students develop an understanding of their own politics in relation to crime and the prison system, and how these will sit within the prison environment

One important aspect of the module is that the group is curated. There is a mix of disciplines and levels of experience, including those who are already working in prisons and want to rethink their methods. This allows the participants to learn from each other and form strong bonds for mutual support.

It is key that students develop an understanding of their own politics in relation to crime and the prison system, and how these will sit within the prison environment. I also address any myths or preconceptions the group might hold about prisoners themselves, including any over-romanticisation of the situation of the prisoner.

In order to create good artwork in prison you need a clear understanding of the purpose of your artform. This varies from one artform to another and one artist to another. This module suggests that you should be producing high-quality art and not compromising your practice through assumptions about the context you will be practising in. By having a good understanding of your creative values, you are more likely to be able to navigate the complex terrain of a prison environment and come out on the other side with a truly innovative creative project under your belt. The course will help you to articulate the essence of your artform and gain a deeper understanding of others. Students will decide what they think is the most interesting way of working, with the most integrity, however difficult this may be.

Although the Cred-ability course is for artists interested in working in prisons, the aim is that students come away with a wealth of tools that they can apply to all aspects of their art practice. Here is some feedback from two students:

  • “The course really had me consider my position when it comes to criminality and why I have interests in this area. It gave me the space and confidence to explore ideas, with a very empowering and diverse group. I have never considered myself as academic or research-based, but found that I came away from each lesson eager to learn, research, explore and discuss the topic in more detail.”
  • “I have discovered lots about myself, my practice, my views on the criminal justice system and I feel empowered to want to take this further.”

Hannah Hull is an artist and researcher.

This module was developed with the support of Seeds for Growth, and the Institute of Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths.

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