The New Creative
A few weeks ago I attended a symposium on New Creative Audience Studies at the Tate Britain in London. I offered to write a review of the event, as I thought I'd probably be covering it anyway in my blog. Now I've written it it's a bit of a monster!
It would only be right to let readers know that in advance and in return for this offer I received a free (signed!) copy of Web Studies 2, David Gauntlett and Ross Horsley's most recent book. I read the introduction on the train home from the symposium and even though I'd had two cans of Stella, still found it engaging and very readable...
6pm Friday 21st May 2004
The poster image is a photograph by Francesca Woodman, Self-portrait talking to Vince, Providence, Rhode Island. The artist looks at the camera, her mouth wide, a glass-like substance spilling out and twirling upward. I cannot unlearn that the artist killed herself aged 22, so am aware that this knowledge is part of my viewing the picture, but rejecting any bullshit romantic notions about artist suicide, I still think this image communicates the pain and fallibility of miscommunication, the frustration of language, the violence and helplessness of not having the words.
So paradox alert, here I am, writing about how art can communicate in a way words cannot, that words are inadequate. And now I'm switching to talking about methods of research and evaluation. Because what I'm leading to in my roundabout way is that it's fair to say that very little meaningful engagement can be engendered when the sole form of communication is filling out questionnaires.
1.40pm Wednesday 19th May 2004
The type of gorgeous sunny day where you pay 50p extra to 'eat in' so you can sit on steel chairs on the pavement by a busy main road, wearing shades and getting soot up your nose. A group of 37 assorted researchers, academics and me are gathered in a high-ceilinged room in Tate Britain for a symposium entitled 'The New Creative Audience Studies'.
Organised by the Centre for Creative Media Research (CCMR) at Bournemouth Media School, the afternoon is a series of presentations on 'new visual, creative research methods being used to understand the place of popular media in people's lives'. The speakers have all been using these creative research methods to different extents with young people. I speak to a Phd student sat next to me and wonder why am I here again?
3pm Thursday 12th February 2004
Arts Council North West have organised a strange selfcongratulatorthon event entitled art04 at Contact theatre, so local arts organisations can network, discuss opportunities and feel pride in the fantastic scene we've got going on up here. Punctuating the backslapping was a rather interesting panel debate chaired by Alan Yentob.
Of the various points that were chewed over, a particularly meaty issue was that of evaluation in the arts. A general audience backlash against tick-box social accountancy, and predicting/proving 'audience benefit' was countered by a sense that the Arts Council too were hungry for better measures of the arts. To encourage practitioners to be challenging and vital, a focus shift is important.
Risk seemed to be an important part of the debate, and as the audience composed mostly of arts organisations, the commissioners and administrators, we were encouraged to regard ourselves as artists too, and take creative risks in the work we dealt with. A man who worked for a local council commissioning public art, stated that when he commissioned something, he was disappointed if it turned out as he had envisaged it - he wanted to be surprised. Brilliant! I thought. But hang on, before we get carried away, how does that balance with public money and accountability?
So when artists and arts organisations want to try new things and take risks with less instant or easy-to-get work, is it possible to justify lower audience figures by stating better quality of experience for those that do attend? How do you measure quality of experience?
And here I am back at the limits of questionnaires. And for The Bigger Picture - a public art experiment, these aren't even really an option, unless they're attached to clipboards, which are generally attached to those people who carry clipboards, that I'll happily cross the street to avoid.
So recently I have been thinking about the more creative approach of video diaries, collage, drawings, photos, a blog(!). But I am also aware that as great as these methods are in themselves for gathering data and understanding about responses to projects, without a bit more understanding of how they work, and a solid structure to fit them all together in, they could end up in an anecdotal mishmash. So in search of a clue, off to the Tate I go!
2pm Wednesday 19th May 2004
David Gauntlett, director of the Centre for Creative Media Research (CCMR) at Bournemouth University, is wearing a striped shirt, diagonal blue on white. Throwing a stern word towards the empty chairs of AWOL rsvp-ers, he lets rip a full throttle launch into an introductory presentation on creative research methods at breakneck speed - watch that powerpoint go!
The content of this presentation is similar to that of Gauntlett's inaugural lecture, given on June 2nd, the slides of which are online here. But the transcript that goes with them won't be up for a while, so here are my notes on the basics.
Most approaches to research focus on instant descriptions in language. Language is always foregrounded.
An observation I found funny/familiar was that anthologised studies on Visual Culture often have the same theme in their introduction - everyone reads images in different ways and everyone's reading is valid. Then the rest of the book seems to contradict this approach by stating How To Read visual culture, generally from an art history or film studies context.
Gauntlett is interested in the place of words in visual culture. He shows the example of a project where children were asked to draw a famous person they would like to be. They were then given questionnaires to interpret their own drawings. Ideally Gauntlett would have preferred to use interviews and discussions rather than questionnaires, but was restricted by time.
At the bottom of the questionnaires the children were asked to write three words that would be used to describe the celebrity that they would also like people to use about themselves. The responses were not necessarily as would be expected from an instant response, rather the children had filtered their thought through the action of drawing and then analysing their own work.
So here we can question how much of the value of this exercise comes from its reflective nature. How much of the results are down to the amount of time drawing? Would any sustained activity reap similar results?
Gauntlett states he would prefer if the research involved children doing what they liked to reflect their answer to the questions. I wonder, can CAS be approached with no 'fixed' question, with the creative process itself determining the questions - or is this scary for researchers automatically programmed to start off with questions they are seeking the answers to.
How creative is creative audience research if there is always a question? Much creativity seems oppositional to definition, with exploration and ambiguity losing their essence if funnelled into conclusions. While the current balance that Gauntlett is exploring seems to place the creativity in the data production stage rather than the method of analysis, it would be interesting to see how far this could be pushed through all stages right up to the presentation of findings. (But how would creativity work at the method of analysis stage - the creative application of theorists? Hmmm, maybe I'm getting a bit lost here.)
In fact, the presentation stage already seems something that Gauntlett has licked. The powerpoint is peppered with visual diagrams and his various websites display someone with a keen sense for accessible and eye-catching images. Someone asks whether he has attempted the drawing approach with older participants, and he reflected that adults seem much less willing to draw. I attempted to draw some pictures for this review, but a woman was looking over my shoulder, and I kept getting tempted away by wordy note-taking. I direct any fellow tentative scribblers to Gauntlett's latest web outing, the 'a drawing a day project'.
A lot of this creative approach with children seems to relate to the Creative Partnerships scheme, which is a government initiative run via the Arts Council that focuses on using creativity in the curriculum. It partners arts organisations (such as Cornerhouse) with local schools in economically and socially challenged neighbourhoods to develop projects where creativity can help the curriculum - so rather than replicating what's already happening in arts or media classes, it can focus on areas the schools wish to develop such as maths or science or citizenship.
It occurs to me that while the focus of work like Gauntlett's drawing CAS is on the children it is also important for researchers to look at the impact their process has on the teachers present, and feedback their techniques if CAS is to provide a viably sustainable form of research. It becomes obvious from the speakers throughout the symposium that this form of research yields much enthusiasm and pleasure for the researcher!
2.30pm Wednesday 19th May 2004
Sara Bragg, researcher at the Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media at the Institute of Education, London and at Sussex University, is wearing a stripy top, green, pink and brown horizontals. Bragg has used CAS research methods to compile a government report on young people's attitude to sex and the media.
Teenagers in schools were asked to keep diaries/scrapbooks which were then analysed. The approaches to the diary/scrapbook task were varied. Some reacted as if it was homework, some were more candid.
I wondered if this presented problems of genre - diaries are traditionally personal private items unlike say weblogs which are essentially public. Research participants may be more likely to write the 'truth' of their experience, more readily/explicitly than they would simply speak to a researcher or fill in a questionnaire. The distance and personal nature of a diary mean it is more likely to be used as a cry for help, with the writer imagining that the reader will understand and be able to help.
One of the examples included a girl who in her diary detailed the fact that some of her friends had had multiple sexual partners under the age of legal consent. While I'm sure there are a series of well heeled arguments on the ethics of being a researcher and when there is social responsibility to intervene in potentially dangerous situations, it occurs to me that particular care must be taken with Creative Audience Research methods.
If creative activities are more revealing of emotional depths than traditional methods, and thus more interesting to researchers, are researchers prepared to deal with this possibility of outpouring? When opening this can of worms, CAS can be seen to have the potential to be exploitative in its quest to get juicier results.
It was quite difficult in a 20 minute presentation to get to grips with the whole project, but it was not clear whether the diaries/scrapbooks were used as a talking point for students to reflect on or whether the items produced were used and analysed as research results themselves. Without that layer of participants' self-analysis, Gauntlett's CAS model would seem to urge researchers to be wary of using psycho-analytical, art history, or film studies approaches to 'reading' the work for answers.
3pm Wednesday 19th May 2004
Ross Horsley, PhD candidate at the University of Leeds, is wearing a stripy jumper, black and grey horizontals. Horsley is presenting a work-in-progress PhD study of male identity through audience relationship to men's lifestyle magazines. This study featured a wider age-range of participants, who produced their own covers of made-up magazines aimed at men.
One of the starting points of the research was a magazine produced by young women entitled 'Slutmopolitan', a parody of 'Cosmopolitan'. Hooray! A good opportunity to take things away from a literal level and look at the place of sarcasm in research? All those tasty and confusing Haraway-style feminist discourses encouraging the use of irony and parody in forwarding theory.
However, a lot of the participants seemed to have taken the task at Face value (ho!ho!), and it was difficult to unpick the serious from the satire in some of the examples cited. There was also an element of participants wanting to distance themselves from 'typical audience' (and thus their own reactions?) when creating their own covers. Could it be that the flipside of the reflective nature of the process is to invite from participants distanced over-analysis and extreme readings? This was all highly interesting and will no doubt be lots of fun for Horsley to unpick as filtered through the participant's feedback.
A couple of thoughts, the first being that the older participants get the more people want to create something of 'quality'. Whilst with the children's drawings in Gauntlett's study you felt the children were easy enough with the concept of their drawings just being as good as they could draw them, Horsley's participants had gone to town often feeling the need to accurately replicate the production values of real commercial magazines. How can this striving for quality be taken into account in the reaching of data conclusions?
Which leads on to my second thought, which was that observation of the creative process could also be an important source of data, looking at the different approaches people take to creating their creative research data. Some way of tying this into CAS?
A question/suggestion from the audience regarding the questionnaires Horsley used for the participant's self-reflection stage: Would the research work better if there was less emphasis on 'what you should be thinking about'? Just write 'Tell me about it' so the writer can write as much or as little as they want.
3.30pm Wednesday 19th May 2004
Break time! Quick, outside and run to sit on the grass and feel the sun for ten minutes. Some thoughts that came to me during breaktime:
There has been no talk of using artists and facilitators who are not part of the research team, to get the creativity going. Can all researchers consider themselves experts in creativity? Can the quality of experience be improved by using professional artists? Particularly when it comes to things like video making skills.
How much CAS links in with current media studies practices - especially the making of magazine covers, or music videos. What can be learnt about how to approach these creative endeavours and their analysis from the current media studies curriculum.
What are the exhibition points for the creative outputs? How seriously are the artworks taken? Does it help motivate participants if they know their work is likely to be seen, and how does this affect the work that's made?
What happens to the creative output after research? Who gets to keep it?
3.45pm Wednesday 19th May 2004
Merris Griffiths, lecturer in the Dept of Theatre, Film & Television, University of Wales Aberystwyth, is wearing a stripy vest, green and pink diagonals with flowers. Griffiths has been looking at media influence on children, focusing on how children understand the technical production values and structures of adverts, through participants drawing their own versions of toy commercials.
Griffiths states that drawing works well because it is free from the jargon that often comes as part of discussions with researchers. It also works well in a bilingual context - which lends to situations where diversity is an issue.
The work took place within art lessons. The students were re-imagining techniques from a dynamic to a static medium. Some of the work took on the conventions of the medium. This included extreme camera angles - from above, as well as the direct gaze of toy characters as they would be displayed in the final shot of an ad.
Griffiths had been working with the same group of children for five years and knew them well. When group discussions about the work took place she separated kids who didn't like each other so discussion would not go beyond the work they were discussing. It was shown here that peer group assessment had the potential to undermine relationships with the children if their outpourings could be held up to ridicule, and certainly influence the outcomes of anything produced if they knew their work would be discussed. It was suggested that participants were more likely to be wounded if their creativity as well as their beliefs could be criticised.
I may be a black-hearted cynic, bit it also occurred to me that in CAS work with children, researchers must be particularly wary of mushyness of the Barrymore 'kids say the funniest things' variety when looking at their drawings. Users of a CAS approach must be careful to avoid the seduction of being mentors and art teachers, that feeling of pride when the kids produce something in an 'awww look what Tommy's made' or 'look what I helped Tommy create' kind of way.
4.15pm Wednesday 19th May 2004
Geoff Lealand, Associate Professor in Screen and Media Studies, University of Waikato, New Zealand, is not wearing a stripy top, bucking the trend and going for a black shirt instead. Lealand has been exploring new ways of understanding and appreciating children's use of media through drawings and roleplay.
Lealand opens with a polemic against survey research. He states that in research one method alone is never enough, and researchers must pick'n'mix methods appropriate to their study.
Lealand presents two studies using drawing. In the first kids drew aerial pictures of their fantasy bedrooms. The proportions of certain objects they had drawn, such as giant video wall, or huge speakers (but probably not the portal into another dimension), were used to reflect upon the children's attitudes to certain media. These drawings were passed around, prompting ethical questions about the ownership of original artwork.
In the second, children drew pictures of their favourite Lord of the Rings characters. Drawn from memory, some were highly detailed. Geoff saw roleplay and fan-boy-dom at close quarters, as children acted out scenes from the films. Again in the 20 minutes I don't feel I really got this study, the conclusion seemed to be that kids like Lord of the Rings, and it all felt quite anecdotal.
Lealand believes the best research is when researcher and subject are having fun. He prefers researching children as they constantly surprise whereas with adults he always knows what they're going to say. This seems to be geared toward getting results that excite the researcher. Would the approach work if looking into the banality and frustrations of children's response to media? Also, perhaps the idea of 'fun as an incentive' and 'exciting research' would be a good approach to using CAS with adults?
4.45pm Wednesday 19th May 2004
Closing discussion time and my brain's just about melted.
One point raised was the importance of the introduction the researcher gives of themselves to the participants. This should be clear to account for audience expectations - ie. Who the participant believes will see the final result - who they are aiming it at, in order to help the research.
Then some folk from MORI piped up that they have been using CAS approaches for years and offering a paying incentive. However they commented that they perhaps hadn't thought so much about the process and the participant's relationship to the work and where it ends up afterwards, and they endeavoured to consider this. "We're not bad people because we're commercial" they also added.
Gauntlett then rounded up by stating that the website www.artlab.org.uk is to serve as a hub for similar projects, and those working in field were invited to participate.
3pm Friday 11th June 2004
Kate Taylor is sat down at her desk and finally gets round to finishing her review. She is very glad she is not getting marked on it. However, she does still feel the need to end with some conclusions relevant to her own project.
I found the symposium very interesting in sparking ideas for possible data gathering for The Bigger Picture, and am convinced that a creative approach to research can yield a wealth of fascinating results. The elements specific to young people will feedback into the Cornerhouse education projects, and I will share my notes with the whole team as we are looking into new ways of evaluating the projects.
I also feel I have got my head round more of the possible pitfalls of these forms of research. Now I just have to formulate ways of analysing participant's responses (both creative and self-analytical) into something structured specifically for the project... I will keep the blog posted when I do.
Recommended further reading that I couldn't manage to crowbar in hotlinks to:
Tessa Jowell's essay on art being less concerned with audiences
...and a reaction from The Guardian
My favourite Action Research study into Public Art in Birmingham using creative techniques
The Arts Council's New Audiences Programme. I also recommend ordering the book I Liked Everything, celebrating new audiences in the North West.