My life as research: tracing the edges of socially engaged & participatory arts practice

I was asked to present a brief précis of my current research at Northumbria University last week.  I thought it might be of interested to some people.  So here it is.  It’s an edited version of the presentation.  The images are a mix of my own, from my case studies and old film stills.

It is first perhaps worth explaining that this is my second year of research-based doctoral study.

As well as being a PhD candidate, I’m also a socially engaged arts practitioner and a curator with as strong a literary background as art historical.  I like to create, write, think, antagonise, agonise – although not necessarily in that order.  For me, my research is practice; my practice is research.  There are clear boundaries, blurring only occasionally, perhaps shifting a little with and against my research.  This is good.  For me potentiality often lies around the margins, where tension is an always welcome guest.

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I began my research in October 2013 with a question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  Why?  Because I was immersed within the field of participatory (or socially engaged) arts (I still am) and I was agonising over the encroachment of policy-led, New Public Management Newspeak into my practice and, indeed, the broader arts world… ‘Evidence’, ‘resilience’, ‘cultural value’, ‘economic value’, ‘inclusion’, ‘exclusion’, ‘diversity’, ‘sustainability’, ‘well-being’, ‘outputs’, ‘outcomes’ – on and on… Creeping instrumentalism.  Even seemingly positive words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘social change’ suddenly became murky through ubiquity.  My question can be simply modified to become a statement – a mantra – for many interested in this field: PARTICIPATORY ART SUPPORTS SUSTAINABLE SOCIAL CHANGE.  Really?

The research question seems as it is: superficial.  What are ‘participatory arts’? A homogenous entity?  Or does the term represent a broad range of artists working with a myriad of artistic practices spanning everything from face painting to radical political activism?  What is ‘participation’ anyway?  And does the term ‘socially engaged art’ or, even, ‘social practice’ better describe certain forms of issue-based, independently determined making art together with people?  Similarly, ‘sustainability’ can take many forms from ecological concerns to maintaining narrow art world status quos ushered in by an allegedly well-meaning Maynard Keynes.  The paramount question about ‘sustainability’ is: Whose sustainability?  Who or what is being sustained, by whom, for what purpose?  And, of course: What is the role of the state?  Does ‘social change’ relate to state agendas and issues of power?  Could notions of ‘social justice’ provide an ethical alternative?

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‘Participatory arts’ were spurned from the ashes of the Community Arts movement.  A lack of self-organisation and theoretical grounding for their multi-faceted approaches to working with people left them open to incorporation by the state on the one (inclusive) hand and marginalisation by the state on the (radically political) other.  Arts policy played an ever-increasing part in this – it still does.  Nonetheless, socially engaged art developed on the margins of the 1990s art world to represent, perhaps, a return to more radical forms of working with people.  Some call it ‘the latest thing’ – it is not!  The field’s historical and political contexts are deeply rich; profoundly influencing many of today’s socially engaged artists.  If this history is interesting to you, I recommend you read Community, Art and The State: Storming the Citadels by Owen Kelly (1984)…

SO WHAT’S MY ANGLE?

I am trying to align past and present theory with current socially engaged practice.  By exploring and interrelating theoretical and practical perspectives, I hope to illuminate the field of socially engaged practice AND influence current policymakers.  The notion of Critical Utopias forms a locus for my research.  Taking Herbert Marcuse’s The End of Utopias as a starting point, I’m exploring the notion that utopia was a derogatory term used as a tool for suppression and control.  Yet, when reawakened and set free, utopian thinking might, perhaps, offer real potential for emancipation from the dominant neoliberalism paradigm.  For Tom Moylan, tracing a vein similar to the utopianism of Paulo Freire:

The critical utopias give voice to an emerging radical perception and experience that emphasize process over system, autonomous and marginal activity over the imposed order of a centre, human liberation over white/ phallocentric control, and the interrelationships of nature of human chauvinism… The critical utopias refuse to be restricted by their own traditions, their own systematizing content…

(Moylan, 1986, p. 211)

These perspectives align very closely to critically engaged forms of participatory and social arts practice.

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WHAT’S MY APPROACH?

My approach is rooted within forms of critical theory that emanate from, but do not fully subscribe to, the Critical Theory of The Frankfurt School.  Interdisciplinary in nature, my research attempts to fuse a range of theoretical perspectives, taking the following key tenets of critical theory as points of departure: the belief that our current socio-political life is dominated by a neoliberal democracy that is both a ‘total administration’ (Adorno) and ‘one-dimensional’ (Marcuse); the conflation of diverse forms of arts and culture into a ‘culture industry’ is ‘enlightenment by mass deception’ (Horkheimer and Adorno); a deep mistrust of ‘instrumental rationality’ (Marcuse); and an eagerness to embrace and develop interdisciplinary research and practice in relation to critical theory (Horkheimer and Marcuse).  Dialectics are central to my thinking.  For me, they, along with many other elements in traditional and contemporary critical theory, offer new ways of understanding our current milieu; of (re)imagining alternatives to the suffocating cloak of neoliberalism.

There are too many other theoretical approaches to cite here.  Suffice to say that they span the Marxist politics of, for example, Frederic Jameson and Chantal Mouffe to the psychoanalytic approaches of Jacques Lacan and Donald Winnicott.  There are many paths to ‘playing’ and ‘reality’ (or realities).  Compliance is not one.

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So, from my original research question, and, like a good empirical researcher, I produced the following working hypothesis which I am testing and refining during my fieldwork:

Socially engaged arts practice may be capable, when realised through radical, performative and agonistic forms of counter-hegemonic activism and/ or greater personal and social awareness, of supporting a paradigm-shift towards a world where neoliberalism is replaced by a different type of democracy that embraces social justice, encourages grassroots participation and inspires a spirit of self-directed mutual learning.

It is lengthy and wordy but useful to my research.

Critical theory can also be considered, in its weaker sense, a distinctive methodology based upon dialectics.  Following this approach, my methodology rejects ‘the qualitative-quantitative distinction as a way of differentiating methodologies’ and is aware of and opposed to the problematic dominance of ‘societal demands for knowledge that can produce technical control’ (Morrow & Brown, 1994).  It instead seeks ‘a theory of social and cultural reproduction’ that is ‘part of a process of social production’ whilst acknowledging the impossibility of ignoring ‘the history and systematic aspects of research’ (ibid.).

My methods are empirical – ethnographic.  My investigation revolves around intensive field research that is autoethnographic – an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse personal experience to understand cultural experience.  It challenges canonical ways of doing research and representing others, instead treating research as a political, socially-just and socially-conscious act.  It uses tenets of autobiography and ethnography.  As a method, autoethnography becomes both process and product.

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(I then gave excerpts from my five longitudinal case studies.  A mix of organisations and artists.  They were presented as autoethnographic narrative.  Reflections from my field notes.  I have self-censored them for now…)

As well as the longitudinal case studies, I also have conducted and will undertake more informal discussions with people from across all areas of my research.  Each session has a focus relevant to the person’s relationship to my research.  Although short, these focused discussions form critical aspects of my overall thesis.

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But there are also many fragments. Pieces of conversations with other artists, academics, arts organisations, policymakers, etc. that I collect along the way. They are usually the products of chance occurrence; fleeting words. They are incredibly stimulating and often serve to refocus or challenge my research in incredibly unpredictable ways.

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I love collecting as many artefacts along my journey. Some are useful pieces of evidence; others mementos that may or may not stimulate some memory of past encounters. Unspoken meaning often lies dormant in these objects, waiting to find the right moment… Or perhaps not…

Of course, everything must be validated – verified. My field notes are ‘signed off’ by participants after they have read and made necessary corrections and amendments. This process is incredibly useful in developing relationships and maintaining or reinstating some degree of professional distance.

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I hope my research will be of interest and value to academics, policymakers, socially engaged artists and arts organisations. My thesis will need to navigate a careful path so as to appeal to this diverse range of people. Perhaps my autoethnographic approach will help make the research accessible?

And so, the next year or so of my life will be taken up intensively researching my longitudinal case studies, continuing to develop my focused discussions with other individuals and reading as much about the field, other relevant disciplinary approaches and theory as possible. Talking, experiencing, thinking, writing, reading, doing… Then writing up the final thesis.

My life as research…

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3 thoughts on “My life as research: tracing the edges of socially engaged & participatory arts practice

  1. ” Compliance is not one” said of Winnicott and Lacan’s theorisation of e.g. playing.and reality and identification. Think.you will find forms.of.compliance, and.its.changing.contractual.formulae, at.every stage in Lacan.and.Winnicott.

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