Fergus McNeill: Distant Voices, Coming Home…

Professor Fergus McNeill, University of Glasgow, Wednesday August 23rd 2017, The Old Hall, Girton College, Cambridge, with a response from Sarah Hocking, project Coordinator for LandWorks CIO.

Abstract: This workshop combines presentation, performance and discussion in order to explain and explore the ‘Distant Voices: Coming Home’ project. This 3-year ESRC funded project blurs the boundaries between creative practice, research and knowledge exchange in an effort to enrich our understandings and practices of re/integration after punishment. The workshop will explain the three pillars of the project: (1) Co-creative inquiry (through songwriting and other creative practices); (2) Co-creative dialogue (through sharing songs in public events and through a range of media; and (3) Co-creative discovery (through collaborative action research and practice based research). The workshop will include performances (by Donna) of 5 or 6 songs co-created in Distant Voices.

Fergus McNeill Presentation ISRF

Response from Sarah: It was a particular privilege to write the response to Fergus McNeill’s session, having frequently cited his work throughout my Criminology degree. His thinking on desistance shaped much of my own as I moved into my role at LandWorks. Fergus combined presentation and performance to share the Distant Voices project with us; an innovative collaboration between songwriters and a wide range of people who’ve experienced the criminal justice system from different perspectives.
Ordinarily when Fergus shares recordings from the Distant Voices project, they tell a bit of a story to help the listener situate the writer. This time we were guinea pigs for an ‘experiment’ where we listened to the the music completely ‘cold’ and were asked to share our reactions.

The group was particularly affected by the second recording titled ‘Blankface’, a piece with a simple acoustic guitar backing and powerful poetic lyrics:

Tick by tick and line by line
Thread by thread now you weave mine
A web of shadows, a silk spun tomb
A windowless room, windowless room

The lyrics depicted the system as a spider’s web; the more you struggle against it, the more tightly it weaves around you. The lyrics also poignantly spoke of the lack of human connection in probation relationships. This was especially pertinent for the research group who had been discussing the value, above almost all else, of developing meaningful trusting relationships in any intervention wishing to support reintegration after crime.

Fergus ended the workshop with some final recordings. The group was silent as haunting vocals filled the Great Hall with ‘Never Got to Say Goodbye’, a stark reminder of the often-forgotten collateral damage of a prison sentence. People are forced to grieve the death of a loved one alone, and separate from their family. The recording was emotive, and elicited a strong response from the group, which gave rise to an interesting discussion around the purpose of creative works. Although a key part of the Distant Voices project is to share the art with wider audiences to get more people talking and thinking about reintegration, Fergus is mindful not to use affective methods to elicit affective responses. Interestingly, and unusually, the project was not set up to measure or prove any therapeutic benefits of being creative. Rather, it was to demonstrate the potential for creativity to be a force for social change.

The most meaningful point for me was that Distant Voices, and the countless other examples of projects working tirelessly in our communities to bring about change, are yet another reminder that by simply doing ‘stuff’ together we can do something about social exclusion. We are making community.


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