Speculative Futures:
Collaborative enquiries with young people at Heart of Glass
by Emma Curd, Patrick Fox, Kate Houlton, Natalie Hughes

Poem from Running on Fumes (2021)

She once stood tall and strong. In her youth, beauty spilled from her lips, soft-spoken and
Culture oozed down her like black treacle and her veins like morphine.
Her heart pumped with vibrancy that could only be found over the water.
Her spine now folded like a photo of an ex-lover, in the back pocket of England’s old jeans.
While it began to curve and shrivel as her youth left her.
Leaving only memories of moments that once were.
Feasting on the light she’d shed.
Yet ignoring her shadow as it began to loom larger.
She once stood high on pointed toe, like a swan graceful in still water.
And now, as smog looms over her – we begin to see her demise.
A woman dilapidated and overcast.
Yet the worst of all is her broken spirit.
And surrounding her is a community that struggles to escape the inevitable drought.
Like the branches of a tree bereft of water.
Whilst her neighbours watch with a Hollywood smile.
But she will be loved again.
When flowers bloom and bonds form.
When the night becomes scarce, and people long for the next.
Rooted in history.
She will always be known.
But what she is known for no longer wants to remain stagnant.
How will you remember St Helens?

Co-written and recorded by Caitlin, Georgia, Hayley, Keeno, Lori-Marie, Louise, Nikkita, Sandy, Tyler, Vincent from St Helens College.


Heart of Glass is a social and collaborative arts agency based in St Helens, in the Northwest of England, bringing artists and communities together to make collaborative art. Working with young people (YP) through our varied programmes, we pursue the role of active listener to co-create alternative spaces for YP to tell their stories, express their dreams and ideas, as well as reimagine public spaces. Formed in 2014, four years into an existing austerity programme led by a conservative government, the organisation began as an action research project to develop an alternative framework for community arts programmes in St Helens. Initially based at St Helens Rugby Football Club and supported by a consortium of partners, our original funding support came through Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places programme, which we still receive today. 

Since then, our work with YP has been ubiquitous across all our programmes. An early collaborative project titled Baa Baa Baric: Have You Any Pull (2017) by artist Mark Storor working with a group of older men and a cohort of school children demonstrates the ambition of our early work to collaborate with YP across the town and within public spaces. The first phase of this long-term piece of work culminated in a series of thought-provoking public acts, including a group of YP from St Helens giving away 2500 posies, and parading to the town hall to present a silk banner to the council , printed with their creative writing: a manifesto for the future of the town. Since then, our work with YP has shifted to a prioritised position across our programmes. 

Our children and young people’s (CYP) programme draws on government research and statistics finding that 25.2% of children in St Helens live in income-deprived families. The town has the 4th highest rate of admissions for mental health conditions, the highest number of referrals to Children’s Social Care, and the highest number of children (1-17) subject to a child protection plan across the Northwest of England (State of Borough report, 2022). Whilst we recognise our ambition to work with YP is not necessarily only about these numbers, we are mindful that we operate within systems of scarcity, with funding available for CYP services falling by 22% between 2010/11 and 2020/21 across the UK (Barnardo’s, 2022). Overwhelmingly, the Northwest has experienced some of the largest cuts in spending on early support per child by 54% (ibid).

Through our CYP programme we have worked with; YP who identify as LGBTQIA+ with artist Amy Pennington; young carers with artist Sheila Ghelani; YP with experience of the care system with printmaker Kate Hodgson; young boxers with artist Phoebe Davies; and artist-duo Andy Field and Beckie Darlington. In this article, we foreground our experiences and work with YP by drawing on; I AM ME (2020-22) and Running on Fumes (2020-21).


I AM ME was an enquiry-based commission between artist Sophie Mahon and a group of young women (16-25) based in St Helens that evolved and culminated in a month-long exhibition. Across two years of development, the group experimented with and developed their practice across different art forms including film, photography, poetry, sculpture and installation. Through exploration of these creative mediums, the group explored issues that were important to them (such as women’s safety and women’s experiences of the town) and supported each other to develop their individual and collective creativity.
I AM ME was supported by Paul Hamlyn Foundation, a funder supporting social change and action in the UK focusing on the arts, YP, education and learning.

Running on Fumes 

Running on Fumes (2020-21) is a short film created by filmmaker Caroline Smith in collaboration with ten college students living and working in St Helens. The film explores what the local high street has to offer their community, as well as discuss the impact of Covid-19 in their own words. Through a process of enquiry, creative writing and spoken word, the group reflect on the specific needs of their community (such as more LGBTQIA+ spaces) and their hopes for the future of St Helens and their local high street.
The film and project was commissioned by Historic England – a public body that supports heritage projects as part of a wider programme called Imagine the Future of the High Street. Running on Fumes was one of ten short films created by contemporary filmmakers working in collaboration with YP across the UK. Released during the pandemic in March 2021, the films posed powerful provocations at a time when public space was (and arguably still is) contested, in areas where high streets are being challenged.


Our methods of working with YP and artists are based on creating spaces for collective voices to emerge and the understanding that this way of working «opens up a new space for cultural politics and fresh ways of thinking about culture» (Jeffers and Moriarty, 2017). In practice, this is done through processes concerning respect and encouraging the knowledge and experience of everyone involved to emerge in dialogue. We are non-hierarchical and value collective experience, respectful exchange, learning and collaboration. We work together to create safer spaces for collaboration, with moments of reflection embedded to capture in-motion learning, and project outcomes. Frequently referred to as socially engaged, or dialogic practice, we hope to return to some of the core tenets of community practice such as prioritising shared experience, authorship, empowerment, humanity, and feelings of being listened to (Matarasso, 2019). Across our programmes, methodological approaches include practices toward “The Town as an Art Centre” and “Speculative Futures”.

The Town as an Art Centre

The Town as Art Centre stems from our belief that everyone has the right to be part of the making of meaning, and that art opens up a space for thinking, sharing and challenge that is unique and necessary in contemporary society. This idea challenges widely held assumptions that art and culture can only be accessed via visiting certain institutions (a gallery, a theatre, a museum) and instead places art and culture into the realm of the everyday. Stuart Hall says culture is a «critical site of social action and intervention, where power relations are both established and potentially unsettled» (Procter, 2004). This definition is in keeping with our work to challenge systems and structures that do not necessarily serve us or our communities anymore. 

“The Town as an Art Centre” is also a method for us to work in partnership with others. This is a developing vision for us as an organisation, working in solidarity with colleagues and communities struggling with austerity and political oppression or encountering democratic deficits. Taking this approach shows our dependence on an ecosystem of partners; organisations, businesses, local authorities, schools, festivals and networks, HE Partners, community groups and campaigners. In most of the projects mentioned here, our relationships with youth-focused partners are fundamental to ensure relevance, mutual reciprocity and additional safeguarding and signposting to relevant services. For example, our partnership with St Helens College was fundamental in ensuring Running on Fumes was mutually beneficial, allowing the YP on the project to use their work with Heart of Glass to contribute to their certified degree. This was the outcome of slow and considered partnership working between producers, lecturers, and the college; and demonstrates the significance of “The Town as an Art Centre” methodology.

Speculative Futures

Our past and present work with CYPs falls under our broader programme theme of Speculative Futures, acknowledging the potential role artists and communities can play in shaping new possibilities and realities. Work within this programme includes thinking about speculative futures as “design tools” to reimagine what a future might look, sound, smell, taste and feel like to «provide visceral connections to the impacts of potential change» (Hoffman, 2022). 

At Heart of Glass, play, creation, imagination, articulation, and collectivising are central tenets of our practice working with communities. These methods are critical to our interdisciplinary programmes to hold space for visualising and imagining alternative futures for ourselves and others. The use of the term ‘speculative futures’ at Heart of Glass implies an action to challenge the current status quo through etching out opportunities for communication, sharing ideas and creating space for change. As an organisation, one of our values is to challenge dominant discourse or modes of practice (i.e., understandings of masculinity). Similarly, in the context of arts and culture, we seek to create space for listening, rather than trying to fill a quota or assign measurements of enjoyment or wellbeing as is the norm. 

Queer philosopher and author Simon(e) van Saarloos identifies the profound stereotypes about YP within our society in their book Against Ageism: A Queer Manifesto (2023) when they remark on an early description of YP as “vulnerable” in Aristotle’s philosophical text on childhood in 350BC. In the manifesto, van Saarloos points to the universalisation of the child «as in need of protection» (ibid), rather than agents with choice, agency, and the ability to know themselves. This is also echoed in recent conversations in the public sphere around age and puberty blockers, where it is acutely argued that children and YP are not able to make decisions about their gender due to an Aristotelian view that «a human child is an immature specimen» (Matthews, G., & Mullin, A. 2023). Heart of Glass’ programmes seek to challenge the status quo of defining children as vulnerable or “not yet ready” to engage in decision-making about their lives; their town; the ways they use public space; and their bodies. 

It is in this vein that our programmes are determined via extensive conversation and consultation with YP in St Helens and across Liverpool City Region. This form of consultation comprises activities including collaboration with artists and producers through creative workshops, the co-design and co-creation of projects and artworks, collective creative writing, and co-curated exhibition-making, all of which we explore in this article.

Research Principles

A lesser-known ambition of ours is to challenge normative research frameworks and evaluation methods that put YP in boxes, assign them numbers or pathologize their experiences. This is influenced by listening to the voices and concerns of the people we work with; from practitioners working in this discipline who have become cynical of the “box-ticking” exercise of applying for and receiving funding that identifies their experiences as marginalised; or working with YP across many projects who want to explore and articulate their experiences outside of numbers, boxes and “research outcomes”. This is exemplified by a work made through I AM ME, discussed in this article.

‘I AM ME’ C-Type digital printed artworks created by the I AM ME lead young artists, supported by Sophie Mahon, (2021).

The pink glitch within this artwork is the result of an analogue camera glitch and has not been digitally edited. Glitches such as these were seen as ‘happy accidents’ and became part of the group’s artistic process.

As a team, we acknowledge the ethical implications of creating writing and research in the voice of staff, producers and artists, as opposed to the YP we work with. This article allows us to undertake critical work to begin to embed co-researching methods and establish research questions. As demonstrated, the voices of CYP we work with are ever present in our work. We hope that by platforming their voices unedited – through their artwork and their testimony – we begin to imagine how we might co-write research in the future.


The issues we hear from the children and YP we work with correlates with conversations we have with parents, teachers, youth workers, and individual organisations supporting and working with YP. Within these conversations, themes connecting to co-design and co-creation, forms of activism and voice, and adolescent views of public space are prevalent.

Co-design and co-creation

Here we reflect on the collaborative processes integral to the creation of I AM ME and Running on Fumes to explore co-creative working conditions and how they are initiated and maintained with YP. For CEO Patrick Fox (PF), «as with all our projects we trusted the knowledge in the room and made space for what emerged». Paying close attention to the ways in which we communicate as part of «a democratic process» (Kelly, 2017), and the ways in which we both listen and hear is an active practice. As collaborator Dr. Fiona Whelan identifies, «asking someone to listen, hear what you have to say requires space and time» (Whelan, 2017). 

Similarly to the thinking of creative educator and cultural activist Nina Simon, we don’t typically adhere to a hierarchical taxonomy or judgement between different systems of co-creation or co-design due to the limitations and restrictions on our team and resources (Simon, 2010). Although we can attempt to cultivate power-sharing practices on the ground, the systems and structures we operate within can be state, local-authority or funding driven; and complex in their systematic approaches. As with many of our projects, co-creative projects are “demand-driven” (ibid) and can feel urgent or time-specific, whilst co-designed projects require increased ‘slowing down’; both of which hold their own value. For example, in the co-design of a current school’s project, CYP Producer Kate Houlton (KH) notes, «we couldn’t have just gone into a school off the bat and seek to ‘co-design’ a project from the off». Co-designed projects with YP come from several years of asking questions of ourselves, the YP, artists and partners we work with. Questions like “have we listened”, “have we understood”, are permanent fixtures in these reflexive conversations to develop a «shared language and trust together» (KH). Despite this approach, Kate also notes: «In a way, all our programmes have been co-designed informally. It probably doesn’t look how co-design should look [everyone in a room together with pens and paper], it is intangible through the conversations and programmes across many years». 

This way of thinking/working honours our values as an organisation to provide care and support for communities (artists, YP, partners) without hierarchy, and regard all our partners and collaborators as co-researchers; in forming research questions and embarking on journeys of co-enquiry.

An example of how co-design might be limited is demonstrated through Running on Fumes, both in terms of how the project was able to emerge and how the project was funded. As Kate notes, «we don’t always have the privilege to work with a process to ‘co-design’ projects from the beginning to end». Instead, it is about balancing reciprocity between the artist, partners and YP involved. Fundamental in this work is the producer role, «where usually a producer from Heart of Glass journeys with the creative process each step of the way in close contact with artist and community» (PF). Typically, our producers have lived experiences of some of the themes, topics and locations explored in the projects. For example, Rhyannon Parry, who supported the Running on Fumes project, lives and works in St Helens and due to this: «She was able to contextualise and recognise the locations of the film and archives such as different symbols and the importance of images included in the film. For example, different locations have different meanings for the people in the town: this is a spot where x happened» (KH). 

The producer role complements and bolsters the co-creative and co-design processes described above in several ways;
1. through the knowledge that they cultivate over long or intensive periods of time within a particular place or location;
2. with the connections and relational spheres they maintain and feed;
3. via their care for the practice, concerning people, place and the ethical implications of the work.
Producers may come to these roles via a variety of routes, some of which may be around their own identity as a person who occupies a marginal space or through their proximity to or experience of issues relating to social justice.

Voice and activism

C-Type digital printed artworks created by the I AM ME lead young artists, supported by Sophie Mahon, (2021).

Text based artworks were created in conversation with YP. Original photographs were physically and digitally manipulated and layered with statements, thoughts and questions.

This section explores the processes and considerations underpinning our collaborations with YP which centre their voice and enable activism.
This project with Heart of Glass has become a safe environment for me to open up about my life as a woman.

Gathered from a YP project participant, this quote identifies the importance of building trust. When providing a forum for young women to explore their lived experiences as a collective, it was vital that they first felt safe enough to share. Offering a space that was responsive to their needs and created solely for the purpose of platforming their voice legitimised their views, built confidence that their opinions mattered and were a vital part of public discourse when considering the present and future conditions affecting young women in St Helens. «This art was intended to give young women of St Helens a platform to send important messages through art, messages about equality, opportunities, mental health and so many more things we should be talking about».

Collaborating over a sustained period enabled the group to identify exactly what they felt was important and needed to be represented. The group curated an exhibition by selecting works from a wider body of art works they created in response to their experiences, under the guidance of artist Sophie Mahon. Sophie initiated workshops around digital and analogue photography techniques, and helped them consider effective ways of conveying messages.

Integral to this process was Kate; not only did she hold and manage the complex sets of relationships required to initiate and organise a project such as this, but Kate was also responsible for foreseeing any problems that may arise, ensuring that both the artist and the young women were protected and did not feel hindered or stifled. It could be argued that aspects of the material the group produced were activist in content and provided a voice for women’s rights in public space, and as such there was potential for the exhibition to elicit negative responses. Should this have happened (thankfully it did not), it was important that the YP were not left unsupported. Had this situation arisen and the producer had not planned for this eventuality, this could have been detrimental to the YP’s confidence; damaging their trust not only in Heart of Glass but also in their individual and collective agency as a vehicle for change.

Adolescent views of public spaces

Still from Running on Fumes, a collaborative short film made by Caroline Smith and YP; Caitlin, Georgia, Hayley, Keeno, Lori-Marie, Louise, Nikkita, Sandy, Tyler and Vincent, (2021).

The brief for Running on Fumes (2020-21) was to create a film that would engage YP in conversations about their local high street. Overall, the film was hopeful and future-facing in tone. This was noted by the commissioners and some stakeholders after the film was made. In the words of one of the YP who co-developed the film, when speaking of St Helens, they noted that community was one of its strongest features and a reason they wanted to stay in the town;

‘It’s not a bad community because if something happens to someone in St Helens, and it’s the whole mentality of one of your own’s been hurt, everyone groups together.’ 

Yet, some associated stakeholders and funders did not expect the challenging or critical voices that emerged from the call out. Caroline Smith (CS), the filmmaker on the project, was quick to point out that this brief could inculcate ‘blunt’ viewpoints and opinions from the YP. This she stated ‘‘we can’t be afraid of’ especially ‘if we truly want to hear the real opinions and hopes of the St Helens’ young people’. Examples of some of the YP observations of the town centre:

“I don’t feel like there are types of spaces for alternative teenagers.”
“No one cares about St Helens. We’re just going to be forgotten.”
“I’ve never left St Helens but why do I feel the odd one out?”

Still from Running on Fumes, a collaborative short film made by Caroline Smith and YP; Caitlin, Georgia, Hayley, Keeno, Lori-Marie, Louise, Nikkita, Sandy, Tyler and Vincent, (2021).

For context, the gradual decline of St Helens High Street is indicative of a broader cultural issue across the United Kingdom where countless British high streets «have declined to a state where boarded-up and vacant retail units are a familiar sight» (Hubbard, 2017). Beyond shopping and consumption, it is argued that high streets such as these occupy a valuable space akin to «social glue» (ibid) where residents and community members can interact or use the space as a «self-organising public service» (Mean & Tims, 2005) creating experiences and value. Juxtaposing the image of an emptying high street, the film includes many, colourful archival images of the town, showing joyful scenes of people swimming in the local lido, independent business owners standing proudly outside their shop, a carnival or procession travelling through the streets. These punctuate black and white, industrial scenescapes and more up-to-date images of the town now; including empty shop fronts and a busy bus station taking people to nearby towns and cities, like Liverpool. For Caroline, presenting and thinking about archival material became a key method to give the group “hope about how things can change” and to look “back, in order to move forward”. 

References such as documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, spoken word artist George the Poet and rapper Stormzy; are cited as influences within the project due to their abilities to speak truth to power in different ways and using different media. The aim to “speak the truth” was also identified as an important part of the project. This is in keeping with the working practices and aims of Heart of Glass “to challenge” dominant discourses in society. As part of the filmmaking process, themes of safety and public space for both women and marginalised YP felt ever present, hence, the work speaks «to broader conditions experienced by different members of our community in public, and indeed private spaces» (PF). It could be argued that the resulting film enters a «critical territory thematically and aesthetically» (PF) to speak more deeply than an account of generic experiences of the high street.  

In the words of Kate, the film felt very ‘raw when compared to other pieces commissioned’. Kate noted that the expectations of stakeholders, such as St Helens Borough Council, were quite different to the reality of commissioning YP to create a piece of work around their town. For example, the film was one of the few to feature the group’s actual voices overlaid across imagery used by Caroline. «The creative writing piece was set as a brief, the [group] went away and created a piece of writing. They made all the decisions, recorded it themselves, Caroline was presented with the finished product at the end, there were conversations about editing, but there wasn’t any need for things to be changed. Nothing was changed» (KH).

As an organisation that values and trusts the voices of YP and the role of the producer, the team felt it was our responsibility to listen intently to what the YP were expressing and provide a platform to have those unedited voices heard. Though our priority was to give space for these voices to emerge authentically, we also felt it appropriate to give some key leaders in our community a sense of what was starting to emerge’ (PF) and to limit any ‘surprises’ that it could inculcate. Maybe predictably, the invitation was not taken up as an opportunity and therefore, responses were mixed. What happened next is described by Patrick;

On the one hand, some quarters felt the film could be a productive asset in the desire to involve children and young people more directly in the design and development of the places they called home, whilst in other quarters, the legitimacy of the young people’s voice was called into question and the reaction to the film felt closed. As with all forms of public art, a range of responses is expected, but the range and velocity can never be fully anticipated.

These interactions during the making of Running on Fumes demonstrate several positive and critical perspectives of public space spoken in the voices of YP in a world dominated by the voices of adults. How this was received – both positively and defensively by different stakeholders – demonstrates the power of art (at its most potent) – ‘to validate perspectives, provide solidarity and offer visibility’ (PF) or simultaneously, to yield responses or conflict. In the context of our organisation, when this does take place (as it often does) it is our responsibility to reassure these groups ‘that their perspectives [are] valid’ (PF) especially when their voices are called into question. Importantly, producers and artists involved in these projects go to lengths to ensure that YPs feel supported when artworks are made public, both in terms of providing anonymity and ensuring communication is upheld.


To summarise, making the work described in this article public and sharing what could be described as ‘agonistic’ – the idea that conflict can be positive – ‘has given us pause to think about what structures we need to put in place to support the vulnerable states that being ‘public’ at a time like this can create’ (PF). We currently live in a time where this work can feel ‘dangerous’ whilst also being necessary to provide a space for alternative voices to be visible, listened to and heard. As Patrick comments;

The work is not the issue, the conditions the work meets are the challenge, and if art is a way of understanding the world we inhabit, the understanding we have now is that we are in a moment of challenge, a crisis of the public sphere and our ability to listen, stay with the trouble, hold multiple views, build understanding, empathy and solidarity feels like the real crisis we have to tackle.  

In this way, sharing our working methodologies and evolving research principles win this article and opening this as an element of how we co-design and co-create with YP as co-researchers feels crucial. Throughout this article, we have advocated for opportunities to create the conditions for power-sharing, co-creation and co-design with YP.  We hope by refining some of these processes and by creating alternative methods of reflection for both producers and YP, we might address some of the more hierarchical and institutionalised processes and methods of research, to dislodge the distance from the ‘researcher’ and the ‘researched’ and to empower everyone we work with as co-researchers.


We would like to thank all our collaborators including the YP from both Running on Fumes and I AM ME, artists Caroline Smith and Sophie Mahon, as well as staff from St Helens College, Historic England and St Helens Archive Service. 


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Emma Curd (they/them) is Learning Producer at Heart of Glass supporting the development of learning opportunities and resources for artists, producers, and cultural, community and education practitioners. Emma has worked as an artist-facilitator and action researcher over the last ten years in museums, galleries, higher education and community settings to facilitate research with local communities, young people, LGBTQIA+ groups, socially engaged practitioners and art workers. Emma’s research interests include voice, knowledge, power, care and co-creation.

Patrick Fox (he/him) is Chief Executive and founder of Heart of Glass. He is a producer, commissioner and senior arts leader who supports artists to engage with communities of place/ interest to create contemporary work that reflects the politics of our times. He is former director of Create, Ireland’s national development agency for Collaborative Arts and the former Head of Collaborations and Engagement at FACT Liverpool, leading the acclaimed arts and older people project tenantspin as part of his portfolio.

Kate Houlton (she/her) is the Children and Young People’s Producer at Heart of Glass, supporting the creation of dynamic and ambitious enquiry led collaborations between artists, children, young people and their allies. Kate has worked as a creative producer and project manager in the arts and cultural sector for over fifteen years with organisations including Manchester International Festival, In-Situ and Ultimate Holding Company.

Natalie Hughes (she/her) is a Producer at Heart of Glass working across the Children and Young People’s – and Learning – Programme strands. As part of her role, Natalie produces the organisation’s podcast Conversations Over A Brew, which hosts conversations between artists, researchers, and project collaborators discussing their experiences of making socially engaged and collaborative art. Natalie is also a regional editor for Corridor8, not-for-profit platform for contemporary visual arts and writing in the North of England.