Participating without power: The limits of instrumentalised engagement with people & place

This is a copy of my abstract submitted for the forthcoming Creative People and Places conference entitled (unbelievably) People, Place, Power.  It was rejected.  Perhaps it was not academic enough or badly written?  Or perhaps it might have been a little challenging for some panel members?  Anyway, I stand by my words…

Make a Wish, Bentley Street Art, Right Up Our Street

Make a Wish, Bentley Street Art, Right Up Our Street, Doncaster.  An example of Creative People and Places programming.

 

ABSTRACT

The proliferation of projects seeking to increase participation in the arts can appear bewildering. From Creative People and Places to Education, Learning and Outreach teams sprouting from almost every arts and cultural institution across England, the race is on to engage as many people as possible in the arts – not just as audiences but also as participants (although audiences can frequently be participants and participants are often audiences).  Attempts to engage new people in new places or new people in old places can be spectacular (good for attracting large numbers of people); sometimes dressed-up as ‘grassroots’.  The troubles are two-fold: initiatives seeking to ‘democratise culture’ – existing state-approved culture – to encourage more people in more places to take part in existing state-funded provision; and, they always turn participants (people) into numbers, state-sanctioned categories – data for evaluations and reports that ‘evidence’ success at every opportunity.  People become numbers, places little more than coloured pins on territorial maps.

Initiated by the state via (not very) arms-length bodies, initiatives like Creative People and Places and all of the other institutional outreach activities are funder-initiated.  The terms of engagement are determined many miles away from the places where people don’t take part in the state’s authorised arts and cultural offer; in ivory towers that always reinforce class ceilings, by people who see, for deeply ideological reasons, the under-participating masses as in dire need of a good dose of ‘civilisation’.  Power in the hands of the few.  Not institutions who must, according to funding criteria, tick boxes.  Not uncomfortable ‘new’ partnerships tasked with delivering art to new people in new places.  Not artists often paid less than recommended rates to carefully comply with increasingly prescriptive project briefs and outcomes that perpetuate division of labour and precarity.  Certainly not people: the participants.  They have no power other than to choose whether to participate in a ‘trickle-down’ offer of what amounts to little more than the scraps from the table of our long-standing oligarchy, the English cultural elite.

Is this an attempt to colonise people and places?  Another gilded Trojan Horse harbouring cultural agents armed with state-sanctioned wellbeing, inclusion, diversity and employability – creative ‘salvation’ disguising the sanitisation of the ‘masses’ with our nation’s soft power weapon of choice?  Are arts professionals, artists, a myriad of partners performing as little more than depoliticising missionaries, mercenaries and middlemen (and women)?

This paper seeks to reveal the limitations of state-initiated arts and cultural projects as well as spurious notions of ‘empowerment’ by examining them in terms of homogeneity, universality and technocracy. Whose values really underpin cultural value?  Who are ‘we’ and who are ‘we’ trying to ‘engage’?  Whose culture are ‘we’ trying to (re)make and why?  Do ‘we’ need new infrastructure; more managers?  Perhaps people in areas of low cultural engagement have their own forms of culture that some may just not consider ‘cultured’?  Has the ghost of Matthew Arnold stirred once more?  Cultural democracy offers a different view of people power, so why is it loathed by the state?

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The Values Of Opposition in Socially Engaged Practice (a response to Anthony Schrag)

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Ken Saro-Wiwa Memorial Bus, large format digital print, part of Doing Nothing is Not an Option, Michael McMillan and Platform London, Peckham Platform, 2015

 

I was, like Anthony Schrag (and others I know), infuriated by the recent ArtWorks Conversation at BALTIC 39.  Anthony has written a little about the pairing of Ilana Mitchell (Wunderbar and other things) and Darren O’Donnell (Mammalian Diving Reflex) today in a piece entitled The Value Rant, but his rant was not at them and not (directly) at ArtWorks or their ‘critical conversations’.  Anthony was, like me, incredibly annoyed by the idea that socially engaged or participatory art (it would seem you can call it what you will nowadays – but that’s a topic for another post) could and/ or should be ‘scaled-up’ and professionalised.  But that wasn’t what really angered him.  It was the incessant droning of an ‘excited’ hipster political student that set free a passel of possums from their cage.  (To be clear the excited hipster didn’t sound or appear particularly excited with anything other than his own drawn-out ideas and self-aggrandisement.)

The thing is that I had intended to blog about the event the very next day as I was so angry.  But (oddly for me, perhaps) I decided against it and put the event down to another one of ‘those ArtWorks things’ – a now very familiar feeling.  Having read Anthony’s humorous-yet-deadly-incisive ‘rant’, I felt compelled to respond to several issues and personal opinions he raised.  They’re incredibly important and at the heart of much of the ongoing debate (bickering?) that has dogged our field of practice for years.  There are, I believe, many areas upon which Anthony and I (broadly) agree but there are several places where our views diverge.  For me this is a good thing.  We both enjoy the oscillating thrills and pulsating challenges that only tension can invoke (although perhaps Anthony may not entirely agree…)  I will not discuss the event other than to say that I struggled to get beyond Ilana’s brilliantly idiosyncratic thinking and making, and the instrumentalism inherent within Darren’s work.

So what do I think Anthony and agree on?  We both are clearly very sceptical at the very least to institutionalisation, professionalism agendas, instrumentalism, ‘scaling-up’, best practice, toolkits – basically anything homogenous – because we believe our practice is and must always be relational, dynamic, and respect the autonomies of artists and people taking part alike.  As Anthony says, ‘the very things that are unreproducible, un-scale-up-able, un-repeatable.’  But where he sees attempts to totally administer socially engaged art as the product of wayward best intentions, I see authoritarian technocratic control and oppression.  Where he finds positivity in at least some aspects of the ArtWorks project, I am deeply suspicious of their intentionality.

I found the ‘man-bunned politics student’ to be very boring and rather naïve yet almost ludic at times.  He made me grimace, smile, laugh.  Where he unleashed Anthony’s ‘angry possums’ from his mind, he filled mine with cartoon hind legs and badly drawn donkeys.  He genuinely believed that the examples of practice he had witnessed were ‘new’.  He did not know about socially engaged or participatory practice and that’s fine.  Tedious for those of us who’ve spent a long time practicing and studying the ‘expanded field’; interesting and exciting to him.  But Anthony is entirely right that the practice is ‘not new’, doesn’t (mustn’t). ‘be professionalised’ and is certainly not ‘a new saviour of art.’  For me, the politico-hipster wasn’t ‘ill-informed’ or ignorant, he was rather unaware of the history of our practice.  There are many people like him within the Art World as well as outside it.  That’s fine.  Marginal practices are often (wrongly) believed to be ‘new’ when first encountered whether through touristic exploration or strategic colonialism.  I’d go as far as to say that what matters most to us – histories, theories and practical nuances – matters least to interested attendees of critical conversations, participants, people who don’t like ‘art’, or other people from within the Art World.

Of course, Anthony wasn’t really rattled by our moustachioed interloper.  He was (is) angered by the opposing forces of instrumentalising institutionalism on the one hand; activism and political agendas on the other.  But I take issue he seems to suggest that those with activist and/ or political agendas/ ideologies do not know enough about the field’s history or theoretical underpinnings.  This is simply not true in every case.  In opposing these oppositions, Anthony places himself in the middle alongside some other ‘lovely, passionate people’ who are, like everyone, flawed and being crushed by institutionalism and those who do not understand (although I suspect the crushing comes mainly from one direction only).

I share Anthony’s passion that socially engaged practice is primarily about ‘what happens between and with other people‘ and, of course, people want to influence others but there are many forms this may take from authoritarian control to utopian imaginings and liberation.  Anthony is also right about the need for practitioners within the field to ‘come together’ much more than we tend to do at present.  However, I am very sceptical about developing a ‘continuum of practice’.  I believe that the field must be broad and must include tension: internal oppositions; never consensus.  Indeed, Anthony is hesitant about formal definitions within the field.  Interestingly, he also thinks that we must understand which direction ‘we might be heading in’ as well as who our potential allies are and those ‘who might not know what they are talking about’.  In response, I’d suggest: we can have multiple directions; and that our allies (theoretical and practical) might include many activists as well as others from other fields and other cultures – activists who do not seek to control others but who do, like all of us, have beliefs, ideologies, political affiliations, and most importantly biases that make it impossible  for anyone (artist or otherwise) to divorce themselves from this ‘baggage’.  Sometimes, however, the baggage can be good.  There is no such thing as values-free art.  We cannot dismiss, as Anthony does in a comment to my reply to his blog post, any work that may be, or be suspected of being, political or activist or state instrumentalist for that matter of being ‘not art’ – of being a form of ‘social work’.  That’s not to say that much of what’s being peddled as participatory or (now) socially engaged art isn’t deeply instrumental, controlling and stigmatising at worst and ‘social work’ at best.

I think that there’s a fine line between Anthony’s position on socially engaged practice and my own.  For Anthony good socially engaged practice must enable ‘shifts in thinking’ by ‘unravelling’ the world without trying to change people’s minds; I agree but would add that we can work with people to create open spaces where people can challenge their understanding of themselves and the world through creative practices (whether artist-led or otherwise) and that this process might help some people to better understand their place in the world as it is today as well as to begin to envisage other ways, new potentialities that they have within their power to struggle to make real.  A long but perhaps necessary addendum.  This is political and revolutionary.  It does not foreclose on possibilities or individualities.  It is not pluralistic democracy.  It has no fixed agenda any more so than the many excellent examples of socially engaged art’s heritage that Anthony carefully lists in his post – examples that are (at least where named or labelled) all deeply political and often activist in nature.

Perhaps Anthony and I can agree that socially engaged practice must be oppositional (and agonistic?) in ways both he describes in his blog and I attempt to do here.  Perhaps opposition is one of the directions for our field of practice.  Perhaps activism is another.  Sophie Hope (chair) certainly seemed to indicate her absolute frustration that we (the field) don’t say NO – don’t oppose the status quo – when she admirably summed up the event’s proceedings…

Quality in participatory arts: fit for whose purpose & in need of qualification?

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Doctor Faustus in a magic circle, Woodcut, 1648

I have always been perplexed when people talk of “quality”.  It’s a strangely powerful word, given that it is essentially neutral.  Colloquially, people say things like, “He’s a quality player,” meaning that the person has an excellent footballing attribute (or attributes): goal scoring, tackling, whatever.  In science and philosophy, a quality is one element amongst a host of attributes (or qualities) that make up an entity – each quality can be good, bad, etc.  In business, quality refers to fitness for purpose, defined by a company in relation to their chosen target market’s expectations; it is often qualified, internally, by judgments of what is “acceptable” and “unacceptable”.  Clearly, the word “quality” has different interpretations in different situations but always requires qualification.  So, when I hear the term used in discussions about art or artistic practice, especially when delivered without qualification, I always shrug.

Let’s be honest, quality in art usually means (and is usually qualified as meaning) “excellent” (or at least “good”).  When used without qualification, quality still implies “good” or “excellent”, so why not be honest?  Well, we live in times when “excellence” can sound elitist so, perhaps, it’s best not to say as much.  We also use quality to refer to an aspect of a work of art in relation to its other qualities.  There are qualities in art objects and art processes.  And, of course, we’re well aware of the creeping managerialism that seeks to standardise arts practice with the aim of professionalising the arts (and artists).  This is good for funders and policymakers and good for academia but not necessarily for artists.  And what field of the arts is most prone to attempts at standardisation and professionalisation?  Participatory arts.  So, when I saw Quality in Participatory Art by ex-Helix Arts Chief Exec, Toby Lowe, on the #culturalvalue initiative website, I was intrigued (Lowe, 2015).  This blog post attempts to critically respond to some of the perspectives raised in the essay in the form of a discourse analysis.

The #culturalvalue initiative curator Eleonora Belfiore introduces the essay by situating “quality” as “… a key criterion to establish where funding should be directed” (Belfiore, 2015).  She immediately follows this by asking: “What is ‘quality’? What does it look like? How can we recognize it? And who has the authority to decide what is of quality?” (ibid.).  I think this seemingly naïve position masks her understanding of and role within the debate.  Belfiore makes this clear by placing “quality” amongst the “fundamental questions of arts policy” – a place “where discussions of cultural value usually run aground” (ibid.).  She then points out that, although widely referred to by “policy makers and funders”, they “shy away from defining” what constitutes “quality” in the arts (ibid.).  I wonder how this allegedly ill-defined term can be considered, as Belfiore does, “a key concept in cultural policy” (ibid.)?  Surely, policy should be built on firm foundations, not the slippery mudflats of an artistic estuary with many aesthetic tributaries?  I contest that cultural policy makers know full-well what they mean by “quality”.  They mean “excellent”, “good” or “high”.  These are dangerous words in today’s publicly funded arts world; close to the supposedly bygone days of a “few but roses”.  It is also worth mentioning that when quality is qualified as “excellent”, etc., it creates a dialectic: for every “excellent” there must be (at least one) “poor”; some “fit for purpose” and others “defective”; “acceptable” and “unacceptable”.

Nonetheless, Toby Lowe boldly attempts to make a case for “quality” in “participatory art” – another poorly defined term, as we shall perhaps see…

Lowe begins by stating that “quality” will inevitably be part of the cultural value debate “because we are bound to value the cultural experiences which we feel are good” (Lowe, 2015).  It is immediately apparent that he equates “quality” with “good experiences” (ibid.).  I wonder, however, if it is possible that “we” (itself a slippery term as we shall see later) and other audience members and participants might also find value in experiences we do not make us feel “good”?  Are we really only seeking the “good” in arts and culture?  Lowe then suggests “quality in any arts discipline” is often subjective (ibid.).  I couldn’t agree more.  Yet, once again, “quality” is portrayed as a single entity rather than a host of attributes.  Furthermore, need these “qualities” always be subjective?

We then come to a definition of “participatory arts”.  Lowe describes it as: “meaning the range of arts practice in which an artist (of any medium) facilitates a creative process with people” (ibid.).  This is an exceptionally broad definition and, as a result, deeply problematic – vague.  Owen Kelly warned in 1984 about the dangers of a “‘strategy of vagueness’” the left the community arts movement to be increasingly “led by the funding agencies” (Kelly, 1984, p. 23). Lowe, in his open definition, mimics the non-definition arrived at Harold Baldry’s The Report of the Community Arts Working Party, commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1974. The Baldry Report became “the foundation of the Art Council’s policy towards community arts” until at least 1984 (Kelly, 1984, p. 15) and, arguably, still remains pretty much in place today.[1] It is here worth remembering that “community art” was reinvented in the 1990s as a “seemingly-innocuous alternative, ‘participatory arts’” (Matarasso, 2013, p. 1). For François Matarasso, this transition signalled a move “from the politicised and collectivist action of the seventies towards the depoliticised, individual-focused arts programmes supported by public funds in Britain today” (Matarasso, 2013, pp. 1-2). I could not agree more. Furthermore, “participatory arts”, as is clear from Lowe’s ambiguous (non-)classification, can be considered “neutral and descriptive” – little more than “a method applied to all other forms” (Matarasso, 2013, pp. 6-7).[2] I wonder, then, how “participatory arts” practice can, when so broadly “defined”, attempt to begin to describe work within the field as “quality” (meaning, as I have already mentioned, “excellent” or “good”)?

According to Lowe, “participatory arts is the artistic discipline that most frequently asks the question: ‘who gets to make art?’” (Lowe, op. cit.). Expanding on this assertion, Lowe explains that participatory arts:

speaks most regularly of the importance of equality in the cultural voice that people have: who gets to represent themselves authentically within our culture? And if the people who are asking these questions aren’t also having conversations about what good work looks like, then the practice that is done in their name will soon become stale and uninteresting (ibid.).

I wonder who is speaking here. Who asks the questions: “Who gets to make art?”, “Who gets to represent themselves authentically within our culture?” and “What does good work look like?” Who really gets to “speak” for and on behalf of the disciplinary field of participatory arts? Of course, artists ask these questions frequently but, in the context of cultural policy, they are, perhaps, questions posed by policymakers, academics and ‘arts leaders’ – now well-versed in drowning artists’ voices. What about the public and participants? I don’t believe “they” ask these questions very often (if at all). Also, I’m not entirely sure if “the practice that is done in their name” refers to participants, artists, policymakers, academics, arts leaders, or some, or all. Lowe’s ambiguous statement seems to relate to participatory arts practice doing art in the name of someone; perhaps ‘the people’? I contend that participatory arts are often “done to them” (participants, non-arts people) by us – well-meaning artists or instrumentally rational institutions (arts organisations, funders, policymakers, academics, etc.)

Lowe’s contention that “the massive inequality of art-making opportunity” must be addressed by improving access to the arts for “those who have least access to cultural capital” (ibid.) is commonly accepted by many in today’s field of arts and culture; certainly nothing new; virtually uncontested. Yet, positing that “those who have the least… deserve the best” (ibid.) is unusual. Is Lowe here suggesting that everyone deserves to “get to work with the best artists”, using “the best equipment and materials, because their stories matter” (ibid.), or just those most culturally disadvantaged? I support, of course, the need for cultural democracy within arts and culture. The field is still far too unequal – elitist. But should we really be striving for abstract notions such as “the best”? What is “the best”? Who defines it? I wonder if Lowe is unintentionally speaking for them, “the people”, in a rather paternalistic manner, on behalf of (some) of us.

In situating participatory arts as a practice often aligned to (or even, I contest, directed by) social policy, Lowe illustrates how “debate in this area has become infected with the notion that you can judge the quality of the work by the outcomes it produces” (ibid.). The capitulation of participatory arts into little more than art as a form social work has a long history and is deeply problematic.[3] That “quality” is judged by outcomes when working towards goals driven by social policy is inevitable – a Faustian pact that will always end in fiery torment. Of course, there are other ways to define and measure (or experience and know) “quality” or more “the qualities” of a particular work of art – object or process – but that is, perhaps, worthy of another more thorough debate. It is certainly not particularly well-addressed in Lowe’s essay. Instead, he moves quickly to ask “what do we need to do put this right?” (ibid.). The answers, for Lowe, lie in understanding that it’s “critical reflection that makes our practice better” because it’s the “only way we can learn and improve” (ibid.).

Here, we begin to notice the discussion about “quality” morphing into the realm of “best practice” replete with peer reflection tools, “group crits”, open conversations. Nothing wrong with these techniques, but I wonder if Lowe’s approach is not veering here toward the dialogic. Participatory arts is a field fond of dialogic open conversation. Perhaps it is this type of approach that leads Lowe to lament: “Too much of previous discussion about what quality practice looks like in participatory arts has melted away…” (ibid.). His solution is to carefully document the “critical conversations”. But note that “best practice” has shifted again to become “quality practice”. Surely Lowe is talking about good (or best) quality practices here? Do practitioners need this? Well, it depends on whether we want or need more toolkits and better best practice guides. I’m not sure all (or most) artists do and, given the complex relational dynamics between artist and participants and between participants themselves that are so critical to the participatory arts process, whether it will be possible to ‘define’ anything other than a range of necessarily homogenous qualities. What would they then be used for and by whom?

Finally, Lowe summarises key aspects from his own report entitled Critical Conversations: Artists’ reflections on quality in participatory arts practice (Lowe, 2014). Starting with the “theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of participatory practice, which link to relational and dialogical aesthetics”, Lowe goes on to identify authenticity, “rigour”, “good participatory work”, “quality materials and equipment”, “professionalism and rigour”, “rigour, discipline, and professionalism”, amongst an extensive list of characteristics derived from a series of critical conversations with artists. For me, many of these words are reminiscent of management-speak that, whilst undoubtedly important elements of practice, lack any distinction or any form of critical analysis. For Lowe openness is important. He ends his essay by stating:

The more we are each able to be open about the complex judgements we make, and the uncertainties we feel about those judgements, the better all our work will be (ibid.).

I have big problems with “judgements”: a term laden with inferences of power – whether certain or uncertain. Nonetheless, Lowe seems to conclude by suggesting that openness will make participatory arts practice “better” – not “best” nor “excellent” nor “good” – not even “quality”. I conclude that Lowe’s essay actually describes a host of qualities that, whilst often unqualified or misleading qualified, offer insight into the vast array of attributes that affect the process and product of working in participatory arts. It is, however, important to note that what we see in this essay is participatory arts practice in all its anything goes, apolitical finery. There are other, more radical, more issue-based forms of practice in this field – for example, socially engaged art. Whilst socially engaged practice shares many characteristics (dare I say qualities) with participatory practice, the focus is much more sharp; the suspicions of institutions and policies far more acute. For me, this is a distinction I am exploring in my on going PhD research and in my practice. Rest assured, there will be no attempt to define “the quality of socially engaged art”!


[1] For more information about the Baldry Report, see Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels (Kelly, 1984, pp. 15-20)

[2] For more about the transition from “community art” to “participatory arts”, see All in this together: The depoliticisation of community art in Britain, 1970-2011 (Matarasso, 2013)

[3] For detailed analysis of the alignment with art and social work, see, for example, Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels (Kelly, 1984)

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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#ParkingSpace @thestovies – some images from a great weekend in Dumfries with The Stove & @openjartweets

I was invited to talk about The New Rules Of Public Art at The Stove’s Parking Space event on Friday.  Stayed around for some of Saturday too…

Amazing people. Great atmosphere and spirit. Nice art, films and participation. All in a disused but still open NCP multistorey car park in the heart of the Scottish town of Dumfries…

Thank you for inviting me!

‘Pilots to Practice’–reflections about an ArtWorks PHF participatory arts conference

Yesterday, 9th September 2014, I attended Pilots to Practice at BALTIC – a ArtWorks North East conference about participatory arts.  I presented a PechaKucha entitled above ground level: old as new, new as old – social practice in a post-industrial port (see my previous post below for the presentation).  I also wrote a review of an ArtWorks publication about research into participatory artists’ practice for the #culturalvalue initiative.  I was a bit critical in the review.  I was (apparently) ‘provocative’ in my presentation.  This is my reflection about the day.  (Reflection is, it would appear, very big in participatory arts right now…)

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I’m just going to be brief.  My aim here is to attempt to scratch a niggling itch that developed at this conference.  I’ve felt it before.  It does not go away.  I think it is, in fact, growing…

The itch results from the appropriation of ‘participatory art’ and ‘participation’ by everyone for everything in which people are in some way involved in art.  There is nothing wrong with this.  People can call what they do whatever they want.  Most of the discussions here were about ‘loosely’ participatory, often artist or organisation-led, forms of participatory practice.  There were some nice examples of ‘community art’ used for obliquely political purposes and of anger at the system.  There was a good breakout session that briefly but effectively introduced ‘dialogic practice’.  I tried to be honest and differentiate forms of social practice.  People seemed to like it.  It stimulated a brief discussion about the de-politicisation of socially engaged or community arts practice, which was interesting.  But, nonetheless, the itch crept and crawled around me…

I think the scratchy itch is a product of artists who think social practice is about leading people, pied piper-like, into doing art their way, to their, sometimes seemingly narcissistic agendas; audience members having sudden epiphanies (echoed by the chair’s closing sermon, complete with mock-amens and ironic hallelujahs!); neutral research about the importance for space for artist reflection; a proposed participatory artist network called PALS; over-invested long-term project members hoping for further funding.  I won’t go on.  Scratch.  Scratch.

Don’t get me wrong.  Events like this (and there are many like this) are fascinating.  Stirring me to do my practice differently.  Fascinating for my research.  Initiatives like ArtWorks are, of course, useful.  They won’t change the (arts) world.  They can’t.  There are too many vested interests; too many believers.  My family were (are) evangelists.  I can spot preachers a mile away.  I know ‘preaching to the converted’ when I see it.

My problem is that the preaching is (unlike that of my Grandmother) weak and bland.  Not radical.  Not potentially emancipatory.  Blurry.  Fuzzy.  Safe.  Not a paradigm-shift.  Perhaps subtle elitism?  Rebuilding the ramparts of an old status-quo.  Be honest.  This will not change the world.

When’s the next one?

‘above ground level’ – old as new, new as old: grassroots social practice in a post-industrial port

This is my presentation for Paul Hamlyn ArtWorks North East ‘Pilots to Practice’ conference at BALTIC.  I gave this as a PechaKucha – using a narrative performance style of delivery.

It’s about dot to dot active arts’ current project, ‘above ground level’, taking place in Blyth, Northumberland.

Please make sure you use notes button at bottom right of window.  So you can see my narrative.

It was well received at the conference.  I’d love your comments and feedback…

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Click the pic or the link below to see the presentation…

https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=506D631092AC8D21!18861&authkey=!ALznQ1K_jOArSG8&ithint=file%2cpptx