Let’s Never Do the Time Warp Again by Sarah Campbell


IMAGE CREDIT By Jay8085 – originally posted to Flickr as Astronomical Clock, Prague, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8371316

Time. It’s a slippery one. It drags when we’re bored and evaporates when we’re up against deadlines. Surely there are more minutes in the Teams-meeting-hour than there are in the Friday-pub-hour? But no, we all get the same allocation each day. Since mid-March, time has felt even more warped than usual – a shadowy, parallel 2020 is passing by, unlived but faithfully planned in my paper diary; visits from family that couldn’t happen, tickets to theatre shows that were cancelled. We’ve stepped out of time, and yet time keeps happening.

I have always been interested in the elastic properties of time, and especially how this relates to ideas generation and the creative process. It is something I think about a lot in delivering my role in the Arts and Culture team at the University. The mission of the Arts and Culture Strategy is to ‘activate creativity’, and that takes time – time to plan, time to deliver, time to support, time to meander, time to question, and time to try and fail and try again. Within the team, we talk about ‘holding space for purposeful encounters’ and we do this by devising programmes and ways of working that create spaces for others to enter into. These spaces are often physical (ie. getting artists and scientists in the same room) but they can also be philosophical (ie. gaining insights into different mindsets and worldviews) and have needed to be digital and virtual over the last few months. These spaces also have a temporal quality – we all need to commit to attending the meetings and workshops, to listen closely and reflect on what we hear, to be present and contribute fully, and to spend time in between reflecting on what we’ve learnt.

Time and creativity interact in so many interesting ways. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about the “transformation of time” as being one of the key ingredients in ‘flow’, a state of complete absorption in a task, where a “merging of action and awareness” takes place. ‘Flow’ states are periods of intense focus, experienced over a number of hours, but creativity needs more than just the bonfire; it also needs the slow burn, experienced over months and years. James Dyson first started working on his bagless vacuum cleaner in the late 1970s; fifteen years and over 5,000 prototypes later, his design gained market success. Sometimes it takes years to hone an idea, and sometimes it takes years for a brilliant idea to find its moment. Artist Carmen Herrera, the subject of a solo show at the Whitney in 2016, had been creating ground-breaking paintings since the 1940s but did not sell a single work until 2004, at the age of 89 (patriarchy, much?).

Between these extremes lies the middle-distance of ideas generation – those days and weeks of percolation that are needed to process inspiring content and generate something new and of value. I have yet to find a shortcut across this percolation time. Have you ever tried hatching an idea before it is ready? For me, an idea isn’t ready when it is still tangled up and bogged down in the source material and is yet to find its own form. And to resolve this, more time is often the solution – either turning inwards and allowing for more unconscious mental processing, or turning outwards and workshopping my scruffy, lumpen ideas with others.

Of course, in some contexts, a lack of time is just the ticket for ideas generation. The ‘Crazy-8’ technique (fold a sheet of paper into a 2×4 grid and then generate 8 ideas in 8 minutes, one per square) deliberately applies time pressure to by-pass self-consciousness, critique and judgement. Setting a race against the clock and generating a lot of ideas quickly are efficient means of clearing away superficial and obvious thinking and excavating down to the weird and wonderful, where genuinely new ideas are to be found.

So how does all of this play out in the day job? To share one example – Arts and Culture runs an annual programme of Creative Fellowships, where we pair University of Exeter researchers with creative practitioners in any discipline. We deliver three per year. The creative practitioners are paid for a 4-5 week commitment to spend time with their research hosts, and we ask for 1-3 dissemination events towards the end of the process to share any learning. The premise is simple, but the beauty lies in the detail. This is not about the arts illustrating the science – *yawn* – but about divergent creative practices, methodologies, interests and perspectives colliding. We want both parties to come away thinking differently about what they do.

4-5 weeks is not very long, especially when there is often a lot of new information to absorb and process. This year, we conducted the selection process in July, so that the creative practitioners and academics could have some early conversations before starting in earnest in September. We made this change in response to feedback from previous cohorts who felt their creative juices were only just starting to flow as the Creative Fellowships were concluding. With the added excitement of COVID-19, we have also relaxed the time-window for delivery. We usually focus on October-March for the rich conversations and then programme the dissemination events in the spring. However, forward-planning now feels like a relic of a previous age, along with indoor eating at restaurants and attending music festivals. What used to be my bread and butter – getting people in a room for an event and inviting an audience – is currently off the menu. Instead, we are inviting the Creative Fellows and their hosts to work responsively, capitalising on moments when we can spend time together in person, and finding online alternatives when we can’t. As a team, we are learning to ‘hold space’ in new ways, and to ‘hold time’ more lightly.

A favourite COVID-19-related tweet, posted by @WhaJoTalkinBout back in May, captured perfectly my experience of lockdown: “It’s the third month of March, every day is Wednesday, and the time is either light or dark.” Tricksier than a government advisor on a day trip to Barnard Castle, time has been flouting all the rules over the past six months. But there are silver-linings to be found. In this in-between-time, it’s possible to trial new ways of working and living. Many things are more difficult but some things are easier – our Hyperlocal project, offering 10 small arts commissions to Devon and Cornwall artists to respond to their immediate domestic environment, went from idea-germ to fully-fledged final artworks in just five weeks. The disruption to normal life allowed us to move far more quickly, pull together partnerships more rapidly, and get word out to a broader audience. If there are things you want to disrupt and change, I would suggest now is the perfect time.



Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – https://www.headspace.com/articles/flow-state

James Dyson – https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/may/24/interview-james-dyson-vacuum-cleaner

Carmen Herrera – https://whitney.org/exhibitions/carmenherrera

Creative Fellowships – https://www.artsandcultureexeter.co.uk/creative-fellowship

Hyperlocal – https://www.artsandcultureexeter.co.uk/hyperlocal


Sarah Campbell is the Associate Director for Arts and Culture University of Exeter