Reflecting on Interrogating Form: Creative and Cultural Participatory Practice

I am an artist, currently doing a part time practice led PhD at Chelsea school of Art alongside my studio practice based in Edinburgh. My impression from the day was that the two speakers, Harriet Hawkins and Caitlin Cahill, and most of the invited panel, shared an interest in using arts practice in mixed method research with a particular interest in how arts practices in a formal sense might be used to increase the impact of their research.  Cahill shared some great case studies of what I perceived as research as activism – fully addressing and blasting through any sense of the passive observer academic and clear from the outset that this was no time (especially in Trump USA) to sit on the sidelines – that “the cultural terrain is a site of struggle”. This is work that is fully collaborative and agenda driven – the notion of worldly work was raised by Hawkins whose methodology is rooted in participatory action research and who has arrived into geography via art theory so in a sense embodies the interdisciplinary agenda of the day. Cahill mentioned in passing that she did not consider what she and her colleagues were doing to be arts based research but there was no time for questions so I couldn’t ask her about that, although it intrigued me. Whose agenda drove the work and the ethics of authorship and authority were touched on by several speakers and this could easily be a subject for another session.

Hawkins presentation made me reflect on who shoulders the participatory burden in work where the researcher may be facilitating a pre-conceived process which is then followed by participants who actually do the creative work on the day. Looking at slides of the art making (drawing) done by participants of one project, I was reminded that drawing as a practice is understood differently by different people, so asking people to ‘draw’ may need to be considered and structured. The drawing that many people do who are not habitual draughtspeople is often more like ideograms or pictographs – a kind of illustrative writing with very little thought given to gesture or the performativity of drawing, or to the material properties of the medium which as a trained draughtsperson and contemporary artist I would tend to foreground. These notions of defining one’s terms – who defines them and how – is central to my own practice as ‘artist’ is a similarly plurally understood and sometime counterproductive term. Hawkins raised the notion of expertise and authority, and one of the panel members, Michael Richardson told us of the resistance he encountered, bordering on fear in male participants asked to draw. As this was a day dedicated to form this seemed a central axis worthy of further interrogation.

Cahill’s presentation was fast paced and packed with references to be scribbled down. There was also a super speedy but highly effective moment where were asked to answer key questions about our intentions and the impact of our research. I am normally phobic about the over instrumentalisation of my artistic practice, but the speed with which we had to scribble replies to these questions seemed to free me up and dislodge the care with which I usually rein in hubris, enabling me to imagine potentialities that I might not normally voice. I was aware that my own mealy-mouthed ambitions might well not sound quite the battle cry that the presentations of the morning invited. As I return to my studio and office I will endeavour to ‘stress test’ the logic of my use of a situated relational practice in terms of cultural democracy and social engagement. As a day looking at form, I did sometimes find myself wanting to raise artists like Elizabeth Price or Roman Ondak who are doing something more about ways of knowing and not knowing. Art has an odd relationship with intent; in the circles I move, art which is heavily prescriptive in terms of how it should be read or experienced is ‘bad’ art. Cahill raised some of the ethical and epistemological issues around intent with a slide captioned ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. In particular she raised some interesting points about secondary audiences for art made with and for a specific audience. This is directly relevant to my own practice where I have developed a formal method of consent and redaction which is driven by considerations of significance and localised meaning making. The afternoon panel was a series of shorter presentations of case studies of the researchers’ own practice using arts based research methods. These very practical but still theorised and scholarly presentations gave us all a chance to consider our own practice in relation to the speakers. The panel was made up of people who identified primarily as artists as well as those who were primarily geographers. The audience were similarly mixed as far as I could tell although my sense was that the audience was predominantly from university social science departments.  I was there as an artist wanting to learn from social science methodology and share an understanding of art as a way of exploring a subject and connecting with participants. It was fascinating to feel the differences and similarities between the disciplines – so close in intent and method in many ways. I would be very interested to take part in a day where the panel were almost all from fine art departments but with a research or methodological interest in participatory geography (such as myself) to see the mirror image of the day and be able to really dig deeper into the overlaps and affordances.

Emma Drye

Chelsea School of Art