Key question:

What is the relationship between cultural democracy and the commissioning of art to effect social change?

NB: This page was written in '08. I have been developing my methodology since then. Currently, I am working on my practical projects: a series of 'performative interviews' with artists, funders and commissioners about experiences of the limits of critical / political art practice and also 'critical friends', a group of staff and associates of Stream (an arts organisation in Greenwich) who are developing creative ways of investigating, critiquing and feeding into the commissioning of art, specifically in relation to Stream's Peninsula art programme in Greenwich.


We operate on many levels, walking and dreaming, as we make our way through a topic; but then we foreshorten the whole process in the service of a consistent conclusive, voice or genre. I wanted to resist that a bit.
James Clifford on Routes. In Site-Specificity: The Ethnographic Turn, p.62.

I am using the structure of a website to map my research. The format of a website means I can add to, edit and open up to scrutiny and feedback my ongoing research into socially engaged practices. This suits my research more than the fixed format of a blank word document that requires the research to be laid out in a linear fashion. The website satisfies my desire to make connections, cross reference and deal with this research in manageable chunks that can grow and co-exist. The content I build here will eventually have to be filtered into a word document, bound into a series of sensible, concise chapters. Until I get to this stage though, I'll see what happens here.

This page was constructed in 2008. For a more up to date version of my draft methodology click here.

Shortcuts to sections of this page:

Creating a matrix of criteria for critical and/or political socially engaged art
I want to draw up a map / matrix of (conflicting) criteria for what constitutes criticality / politics in socially engaged practice and use this to test the extent to which these criteria are met, exceeded or abandoned when funded. This may of course lead to the abandoning of the map/matrix itself (or elements of it).

I have identified a number of writers and practitioners who have tried to locate and promote a certain way of being critical and /or political, which I explore in my literature review. Some criteria reference each other while others offer opposing views. The matrix will be a site to place these differing suggestions and see where the overlaps and contradictions lie. Included in the matrix will be elements of the Manifesto of Possibilities: Commissioning Public Art in Urban Environments, a project I have developed with Cameron Cartiere at Birkbeck College. It is the specific angle of criticality and political intent of socially engaged practice I am investigating and so I will be taking this element of the Manifesto forward in my research - the extent to which it informs and opens up dialogue with people about the repurcussions of promoting the professionalisation of public art on the practice's ability / potential to be political and critical.

Applying the matrix:
Based on three projects (see case studies section), I would like to revisit these projects and discuss with the participants, artists, commissioners and funders the extent to which the project has been critical and / or political (what do we relate to in the matrix for example), and how has the economic framework interfered with, enhanced or hindered the project.

In order to revisit these projects I will try a range of different research techniques. These include:

Research where I am present
Workshop and one to one interviews with people involved in the projects

Research where I am not present
Online survey
Questions to funders about their impressions of the criteria for critical / political potential (to what extent will they fund political / critical work)?
Employ someone else to carry out interviews with the discussions remaining anonymous.

These parallel activities will feed in and out of my theory and practice:

'Sketches' of fictional accounts / proposals and provocations to test the extent to which art can be political /critical.

A collection of documentation on projects that have been refused funding on the (acknowledged and unacknowledged) grounds of being too critical / political.

A Community of Practice
Parallel to my investigations of three specific projects, I would like to set up a 'community of practice' - a network of people (practitioners, architects, participants etc) that can act as a forum for considering more broadly these criteria for shifting notions of criticality / politics in the wider economic realities of socially engaged practice. This will be a chance for me to touch base with a number of other practitioners who can share their experiences, concerns and ways of dealing with some of these contradictions in their work. This will take the form of a series of informal meetings, walks and picnics in the summer (2008).

Part of this 'community of practice' may be an invitation to people to 'say the things you've always wanted to say' about what goes wrong, is under the radar or just brushed under the carpet in the commissioning (and evaluation) process as perhaps that would be a way of mapping these moments of 'criticality' or maybe reveal when the process turns political. This will be an anonymous service on a wiki, providing a space for a rant at someone in particular (names can be changed) or the telling of a personal story. A kind of service for unsolicited, no holds barred barrage of true stories. A place to get it off your chest and reveal the truth of the public art / community art process without fear of retribution. It could be open to all - not just artists but also those on the commissioning side.

I could use a small percentage of my AHRC grant to commission a series of essays over the year that could form the main structure of this wiki. How can I use this funding (most of which of course I need to live on) to commission others to 'reveal all' and speak openly about the horrors they have experienced! Will this paint a picture of the impossibility of funding political / critical art? Will this be a way of me testing the extent to which I am being paid to be critical?

Background to my methodology

Action Research
I often use the term 'action research' to describe my practice but what does it actually mean?

My definition: I use it to describe all the things I do - a continual line of investigation with a series of manifestations, experiments and distractions along the way. The research is activated because it is not an objective account of an alien subject but connected to and leading to effecting some kind of change (at least that is the intention). It is not research for the sake of research (could we replace the word research for art here?), it leads on to something else, another action, meeting or encounter. There is a knock on effect, not always one planned or expected. It can take you off in another direction. Action research does not happen in isolation, it is inextricable from practice.

The term was first used by by psychologist Kurt Lewin in his essay 'Action Research and Minority Problems' (1946). He described action research as comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action and research leading to social action that uses a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action, and fact-finding about the result of the action. [wikipedia]

According to the American website, Centre for Action Research, action researchers:
seek evidence from multiple sources to help them analyze reactions to the action taken. They recognize their own view as subjective and seek to develop their understanding of the events from multiple perspectives. The researcher uses data collected to characterize the forces in ways that can be shared with practitioners. This leads to a reflective phase in which the designer formulates new plans for action during the next cycle. Action Research is a way of learning from and through one's practice by working through a set of reflective stages that helps a person develop a form of "adaptive" expertise. Over time, action researchers develop a deep understanding of how forces interact to create series of complex patterns. Since the forces are always changing, action research is a process of living one's theory into practice.

One can apply action research directly in the PhD research, but also as a method in the practice of socially engaged art more generally. The characteristics (method / criteria) practiced in some socially engaged practices are shared by action research practices of the social sciences, such as:

- Participatory Observation:
This method of research was developed by anthropologists in the early 20th Century such as Bronislaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead. It usually involves living with or spending time with a group of people, participating in their way of life, learning their language and becoming (as much as possible) part of that group. it is usually equated with qualitative (rather than quantitative) research.

- Participatory Action Research:
This method of research was developed by Paolo Freire and is based on his notion of critical pedagogy, a process of learning and researching that involves the students/subjects in the research as co-authors rather than the 'expert' or teacher imparting knowledge or researching others.

- Cooperative Enquiry
This way of working was developed by John Heron (1971) and Peter Reason. As with Freire's Participatory Action Research, this method involves a process of researching with people rather than doing research on a community to the extent that they become co-researchers and co-authors of the results of that research.

- Praxis intervention
This method takes Participatory Action Research a step further and works on the 'participants' (i.e. everyone involved in the study, including initiators, funders etc) to 'reflexively work on their respective 'mentalities'; in other words, develop a self-critical awareness (not just enacting change on the external world). This is based on the Marx's notion of 'false consciousness' and is thought to be a possible way out of such a state. If false consciousness is not knowing or ignoring the ideological control that capitalism keeps in place, praxis intervention can wake us up and shake us into consciousness.

These four methods could be read as getting increasingly ideal in terms of how one should perform research. This progression can also be seen in the 4 stages of public art outlined (at different times and different places) by Lacy, Hutchinson, McGonegal.

How does, for example, praxis intervention relate to criticality in socially engaged art practice? What are the consequences of praxis intervention and how does it relate to social inclusion and capacity building? Are these still mechanisms to ensure a continued state of false consciousness; what are socially engaged practitioners doing to re-enforce that state?

The Artist as Ethnographer

The relationship between art practice and ethnographic research methods was explored by James Clifford in The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1988).

I find myself now more a participant than an observer. I particularly value the textured perspectives from geo-political 'peripheries' and 'marginal ' places that anthropological ethnography still delivers. James Clifford in Site-Specificity: The Ethnographic Turn, p.62.

If anthropologists wanted to exploit the textual model in cultural interpretation, these artists and critics aspire to fieldwork in which theory and practice seem to be reconciled. Often they draw indirectly on basic principles of the participant-observer tradition...Yet these borrowings are only signs of the ethnographic turn in contemporary art and criticism. What drives it? (p.180, Hal Foster, The Return of the Real)

1. Anthropoglogy is considered the science of 'alterity'
2. Anthropology takes culture as its object of study
3. Ethnography is considered contextual, the often automatic demand for which contemporary artists and critics share with other practitioners today, many of who aspire to fieldwork in the everyday. (p.182)
4. It is interdisciplinary
5. It incorporates a self-critique

When the other is admired as playful in representation, subversive of gender, and so on, might it be a projection of the anthropologist, artist, critic, or historian? In this case an ideal practice might be projected onto the filed of the other, which is then asked to reflect it as if it were not only authentically indigenous but innovatively political. (p.183)

The activist (tries to) occupy an 'impossible place' (Benjamin, The Author as Producer)- trying to get there is the occupation of many anthropologists, artists, critics and historians.

Foster goes on to talk about how artists have been citing their work in social issue-based contexts and have become interested in 'mapping': ethnographic mapping of an institution or a community is a primary form of site-specific art today. (Foster, p.185) [e.g. Martha Rosler, Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, Steven Willats, Allan Sekula].

Such mapping may thus confirm rather than contest the authority of mapper over site in a way that reduces the desired exchange of dialogical fieldwork. (Foster, p.190)

...these ehtnographic mappings are often commissioned. Just as appropriation art in the 1980s became an aesthetic genre, even a media spectacle, so new site-specific work often seems a museum event in which the institution imports critique whether as a show of tolerance or for the purpose of inoculation (against a critique undertaken by the institution, within the institution). (Foster, p.191)

I am trying to find what the motive and impact of this 'imported critique ' might be. Foster suggests that in order to remap and reconfigure the museum, it may have to work inside it (e.g. Fred Wilson and Andrea Fraser). He picks up on the fact that such projects also act as marketing for the institutions that fund them (becoming an 'ambiguous public service', Foster, p. 198).

Pseudo-primitive fetishes and pseudo-ethnographic artifacts resist further primitivising and anthropoliogizng though parodic 'trickstering of these very processes. Such practices, he says, disturb a dominant culture that depends on strict stereotypes, stable lines of authority and humanist reanimations and museological resurrections of many sorts. (Foster, p.199)

He sites the reaction against art turning too political in footnote 50:The Whiteny Biennale in 1993 housed many politically engaged work and then turned to 'stylish irrelevance 'in 1995.

Foster calls for reflexivity to avoid over-identification with the other through framing the framer as he or she frames the other. However,
What does critical distance guarantee? Has this notion become somewhat mythical, acritical, a form of magical protection, a purity ritual of its own? Is such distance still desirable, let alone possible? (p.203)
He thinks perhaps the (politically aligned) left over-identifies with the other and the right exploits their disidentification to 'build solidarity though fantasmatic fear and loathing.'

Contact Zones
Mary Lousie Pratt in her 1990 essay Arts of the Contact Zones developed a theory of creating spaces where different cultures could come together. James Clifford (1996) thought the museum could offer such a place as an alternative to its imperialistic reputation, to the extent that the museum becomes a place of 'mutual exploitation'. I would like to consider these tactics of contact zones when arranging group workshops where people from different backgrounds, professions and experiences can come together to discuss the politics of socially engaged art.

There are many models, toolkits and frameworks used to evaluate socially engaged art practices. As mentioned above, I will extract elements of these, where relevant, in the making of my matrix of what makes socially engaged art critical and / or political. I do not intend to evaluate the effectiveness of these toolkits, rather I would like to investigate:
1) Why we are obsessed with evaluating art that is funded (I tackle this in the literature review where I look at the history of evaluating art in the UK)
2) What happens when we test the matrix and push the limits of evaluation as a 'useful' practice.
Through the practical part of my research, I would like to experiment with scientific, poetic and political modes of 'evaluation' (or evaluation as art practice). There are times when evaluation takes on a life of its own and becomes a parallel project to the one being evaluated. What happens when the evaluation takes a political stance and turns into a campaign? What if the evaluation has more impact not as a scientific report but as a visual or written work of art? Am I able to be more critical / political as a paid or unpaid evaluator / artist / curator, and how does that label mean different rights or restraints?

Read my talk on evaluation for the launch of the Manifesto of Possibilities (31 January 2008)

Fictions, spectres and docudramas
What is my relation to the material I am gathering, collecting and analysing? Is there scope for me to present a parallel story of fictional accounts, myths and half-truths? What is the 'evidence' I am gathering and can the poetic / fictional / mystical have the potential to effect change compared to more statistical reports?

There will be layers of translations of material. What are the different ways /styles of treating that material?

Analyses, translations, outcomes, suggestions and ways forward
What am I trying to discover and how will it be useful or relevant to other practitioners, policy-makers etc? My research will hopefully result in some concrete outcomes:
- a new framework / matrix for mapping criticality / politics in socially engaged art
- evidence of funding supporting critical / political work or evidence of this being dependent on the criteria of criticality.
- evidence of the extent to which it is possible to be critical / political when funded
- an understanding of the 'industry's' response and method of managing , supporting or rejecting critical / political work
- a survey of how when criticality / politics in art is compromised, and when it is not.
- evidence of a rejection of socially engaged art by some artists and a return to more authored and autonomous practices due to the restraints of funding.

Issues, obstacles and potential problems
Researching my own projects - there may be problems when I am interviewing people that mean they will not be honest about their interpretations of the project. I will look at the different relationship I have to the participants when I am labeled artist, curator or evaluator.
How can I introduce my own voice and recognise my own subjectivity in the research? How will this be interpreted (or rejected?) when it comes submitting my thesis?
What are my political, ethical and ideological biases in relation to the subject of my research? When does the research turn into a campaign and what are the problems and possibilities of this?
If I am using non-transparent / undercover research methods to achieve unbiased results, what are the ethics of this?




Talks and workshops: