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It is hoped that the kind of work undertaken by the ArtLab points towards a significant 'turn' in our understanding of the ways in which people consume and make use of popular media: a turn towards creativity, the visual, and the imagination.

Engagement with contemporary media typically involves a complex interchange of visual information, aspirations, ideas, and references to other media, across an array of electronic and print formats. However, the traditional research paradigms have tended to treat people as audiences of specific forms and genres, and have then expected them to describe their reception and interpretation of these messages, in words, to researchers. Thus the complex, multi-layered, visual world of today's media consumption is sliced up and dissolved into straightforward, written accounts of its 'reception'.

The ArtLab studies represent a new type of research in which media consumers' own creativity, reflexivity and knowingness is harnessed, rather than ignored. In these studies, individuals are asked to produce media or visual material themselves, as a way of exploring their relationship with particular issues or dimensions of media. Examples, which appear in the projects section, include research where children made videos to consider their relationship with the environment; where young men designed covers for imaginary men's magazines, enabling an exploration of contemporary masculinities; and where people drew pictures of celebrities as part of an examination of their aspirations and identifications with stars.

This work builds upon research on media 'audiences', and sometimes it is simplest to use the word 'audiences' because it is the common word for people using and responding to media; however, ArtLab assumes that we should consider popular media as a significant element of everyday life and everyday ways of thinking. We cannot, therefore, identify particular 'audiences', because it is almost impossible to find non-audiences. We are all always media consumers and media-inflected thinkers.

Visual culture

This work is connected to the 'turn towards the visual' and the new interdisciplinary area of visual culture or visual studies. Nicholas Mirzoeff's eloquent Introduction to Visual Culture (1999) explains that visual culture "is concerned with visual events in which information, meaning, or pleasure is sought by the consumer in an interface with visual technology", which refers to all kinds of visual media, from paintings and billboards to television and the internet. Our routine bombardment of visual information is treated as a central aspect of everyday life. This is a good approach. The 'visual culture' studies profess to be about people's responses to visual media, and its role at the heart of their everyday lives. However, in practice, actual audiences and consumers are not really engaged with (except perhaps by reference to some existing studies, produced along traditional lines, where the visual may be talked about, but is otherwise kept out of play). Therefore, much of the 'visual culture' scholarship is like film studies (where the 'expert' diagnoses the true meaning of a text), whereas the ArtLab approach is sociology (looking at the role of media and visual culture in people's lives, through research with the participation of 'ordinary people').

Creativity and reflexivity

Research into media audiences/consumers used to mostly ignore the possibility that they might be creative and reflexive, thoughtful individuals. However, we can trace the emerging recognition of audience capacities, from the experimental studies where these elements were deliberately blocked out, through various stages (including studies that got people writing, such as Ien Ang's Watching Dallas and Gauntlett & Hill's TV Living; and the discussions by people like David Buckingham who found they were having to treat the 'evidence' presented in focus groups as a carefully staged performance), to newer research which has been more willing to acknowledge some amounts of creativity and/or reflexivity in participants.

Creativity here has two dimensions. Firstly, there is the everyday creativity which forms a normal part of dealing with contemporary visual culture: the desires, ideas and associations made when we link together different media images and concepts, dream up imaginary films or relationships, and engage using everyday selectivity and intelligence with the ocean of media and visual material available to us. Secondly, creativity is harnessed more directly when these studies ask individuals to produce their own media/artefacts. Here there is a more direct opportunity for people to demonstrate that creativity can be an attribute of media audiences and not just of media producers.

The new methodologies, and the problem of interpretation

The ArtLab studies, then, involve asking people to make their own media or artistic artefacts; the choices made (and not made) are subsequently analysed and discussed, and the research 'data' consists not simply of the creative product, but also observation, discussion and analysis of the process of its production and the choices made.

When research participants produce a thing, rather than just some speech, this is usually seen as a problem. If they have made a creative artwork, video or digital media artefact for one of these projects, how can it be interpreted? Who is to say what the artefact means, or what it reveals? One response is to say that the 'problem' is illusory, since the researcher always has a job of interpretation to do, whether it is on the speech generated in an interview or focus group, or - as in this case - some other piece of 'evidence'. Nevertheless, we have to acknowledge that visual media is more 'open to interpretation' - if only because its meaning may not have been translated into words, and it is in words that we are most used to finding the 'meaning' of things.

We have therefore considered a range of ways in which visual evidence can be interpreted, using precedents from art history, visual sociology, discourse analysis, psychoanalysis, and art therapy. Part of the proposed solution is the position most commonly adopted by art therapists today, where the 'expert' does not impose their own diagnosis, but instead the participant is asked to interpret what they have produced themselves.

ArtLab is run by David Gauntlett at University of Westminster, UK.

See the ArtLab projects for illustrations of this approach.

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