Cath Lambert: The value of live art: experience, politics and affect

The Value of Live Art?

At mac birmingham, a popular arts complex just south of Birmingham City Centre, recent visitors could not help but see at least some of artist Brian Lobel’s public exhibition Fun with Cancer Patients (exhibited 12 September – 6 October as part of Fierce Festival). The title, bold in black on white, was visible from the busy café, and evoked curiosity, concern, disapproval and a whole host of other different emotions and responses that led many people to explore the exhibition in more depth. The exhibition documented six creative ‘actions’ based on the ideas and experiences of a group of teenaged cancer patients who have been working with Brian Lobel over a number of months. My research, ‘The Value of Live Art: Experience, Politics and Affect’ has been embedded in the Fun with Cancer Patients art project in order to try to access, explore and understand the cultural, political, social and emotional work live art can do. The value of the artistic experiences and outputs to the teenagers and their families, to medical professionals and support workers, as well as to a wider public audience, is subject to critical examination using a mixed and at times experimental bag of ethnographic and ‘live’ methods (see Back and Puwar 2012). In order to research audience’s experiences of the exhibition, this took the form of a ‘live art hub’ alongside the installation space. From this physical space we observed, chatted, listened, carried out interviews, ran workshops, and gathered responses articulated in writing, speech, gesture, image or a combination of forms. The hub was a ‘space of affect’ where long conversations and brief, speechless encounters alike were articulated and documented as sociological research.

In the introductory text for the exhibition Brian Lobel writes, ‘Instead of asking for your sympathy or pity, Fun with Cancer Patients asks for your intellectual and critical engagement around cancer’. The documentation challenges audiences to listen, watch, read or feel what the young cancer patients themselves have to communicate about their experiences of being stared at, becoming disabled, having chemo, having a hickman line hanging from their body, losing hair, losing friends, making friends, being asked endless questions, eating hospital food, facing death, having fun. These opinions and experiences may or may not resonate with visitors, many of whom have cancer stories of their own. The research has involved a good deal of story-telling and a lot of listening. I have felt keenly that sociology is, as Les Back (2007) puts it, ‘ the art of listening’. One of my hopes for the research hub is that the data it has generated will acknowledge and amplify the ‘intellectual and critical engagement around cancer’ that Brian called for whilst also perhaps helping us to understand some of the challenges around such engagements.

Sociologists do not often attend to live art, but live art is becoming more mainstream, more talked about, and increasingly likely to touch the lives of ‘ordinary’ people, even those who do not seek it out. I have a hunch that there may be something special about some live art practices, making them incredibly valuable as a mechanism for social and political change. Of course the materials of live art are simply the materials of life: bodies, emotions, objects, social and material relations, conversations, stories, memories and so on. What may put live art in a powerful position is its ability to generate aesthetic experiences from these materials, to re/order them in such a way as to create what Jacques Rancière (2004) refers to as a ‘redistribution of the sensible’, shifting the usual ordering of the sensory world we inhabit so that we may see, hear, feel, acknowledge and understand different things, and that different people and their knowledges can in turn be seen, heard, acknowledged and understood.

Claire Pajaczkowska: Compassion By Design

Tiles for interior architectural surfaces made from recycled high density polymers by people living with dementia in AHRC participatory design workshops. Credit: Julie Behseta.

Tiles for interior architectural surfaces made from recycled high density polymers by people living with dementia in AHRC participatory design workshops. Credit: Julie Behseta.

How can making art and design create better relationships inside institutions?

This research tests the idea that making art is more valuable than owning or appreciating art.

Edna (96) lives in a residential care home in Essex, with a hundred other residents and a dozen care workers. Each week she opts to join a group of residents who want to gather around the tables in the lounge in order to stitch, knit, talk and listen. Staff are welcome, if they can find time from the tasks that need to be completed. Families and visitors can join in too. Edna, like most of the residents and staff here, has never been to an art gallery or museum, but is curious to know what it means when we describe our workshops as making art and co-design. We bring offcuts and swatches of fabrics given us by manufacturers, shops and the municipal recycling centre. Families bring in materials that are familiar and personal. Individuals find their pieces of work from previous weeks and continue. Stitching seems to bring back memories. Garments that mother made are remembered and with this comes memories of childhood playtime toys, beds of the family kitchen, of setting up home in married life, of working in textiles, buying fabric at the haberdashery, knitting socks on four needles, Make Do and Mend. When we bring in catalogues of textile artists, like Louise Bourgeois, Barbara Hepworth, Tracy Emin, Grayson Perry – Outsider Art residents laugh. They call this the Workhouse and the Cheeky Girls. We show them the tiles encasing their work, made from recycled plastics from the kitchen, which make the square tiles that can be used to resurface the walls of the corridors and bathrooms in the Home. A renewed sense of purpose settles over the group’s weekly gathering as the sense of industry is part of the pleasures of the handiwork.

The tabletops are covered with pieces of cloth, threads, yarns, buttons, images, and each participant chooses the colours and materials they will work, sew, knit, fray, bind, twist, crochet , glue or stitch.

Each week brings new memories and makes links back to previous gatherings. The sense of the hands holding the materials as all work together is a bond more powerful than holding hands. The loose collectivity of individual collaboration exerts a strong gravitational pull and soon people come over to watch, to comment and to share thoughts. The quality of concentration as each pursues their own piece of work is a vivid and vibrant note of tensile strength.

How can this be recorded, noted, choreographed, documented? How then can it be evaluated? The value of this process is not only in the attention that it deflects from calling out to the doctor, nurse, care worker for something else. The value is in the quality of the attention intrinsic to this work, which enriches the moment, the day and the week. It is a culture of Insider Art.

We want to find ways of showing the value of this culture in creating a quality of attention that links our inner selves to the shared space of society. We think this quality of attention may help repair the ‘compassion deficit’ that the Francis Report noticed in the institutional care of the old and vulnerable.

Janelle Reinelt: Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution

What do people ‘do’ with their experiences? How do they process them? ‘Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution’ approaches the challenging call of the Cultural Value Project by searching for the network of associations that audiences activate when they attend the theatre. Partnering with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic, and the Plymouth Drum, we set out to trace the pattern of connections established by spectators after seeing a show. We ask what they remember shortly afterward, and in two months’ time, as well as asking some subjects about a show they saw over a year ago. We also ask whether they communicated about their experience to anybody, and if so, to whom and using what medium (face-to-face? Facebook? Phone?). We ask if the shows connect to anything going on in the world or in their private lives. And we ask what value such experiences have to our subjects, and why.

Nine productions have been chosen for the study ranging from a classic, Hamlet, to a new adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall (both at the RSC); from a new play such as David Greig’s The Events (at the Young Vic) to an experimental work from the 1927 company called The Animals and Children Took to the Streets (at the Plymouth Drum). These evenings in the theatre are rich and variegated enough to provoke a panoply of reactions from research subjects. They respond to questionnaires and interviews, and participate in creative workshops that go beyond fact-finding to stimulate imaginative associations between shows and the people who have seen them.

While this research is well underway (in October and into early November, seven of the shows have been surveyed and some interviews and workshops have taken place), we are not yet in a position to predict substantive outcomes. What we have seen is that many of our subjects (self-selected in response to an invitation to participate) are passionate about their theatre experiences and often extremely clear about assigning value to this activity. After viewing Mark Ravenhill’s Candide, one subject wrote: ‘I like musical comedies, but I also like the big subjects to be tackled and not shirked, and they don’t get much bigger than the ones mentioned [in Candide]—life choices, genetic manipulation etc.’ Many subjects communicate with partners or other family members, friends or bartenders; often face-to-face, but using social media as well. The project intends to harvest additional data from social media through establishing Twitter searches and Google Alerts to capture blog and comment-box mentions of our performances, and to use Facebook’s search facilities to capture interactions on the social network. These will provide an additional data base for our analyses.

Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution also hopes to illuminate the role of memory and time-based processes in cultural value. To ask, for example, how people remember—in images? key lines? themes or story-lines?—is to begin to understand what we retain from experiences. In asking subjects about shows they saw a year ago, we are hoping to follow the traces of theatrical experience as they become amalgamated into an individual’s life, and to query what, if anything, remains in consciousness.

In undertaking this project, the British Theatre Consortium is following up on previous research into audiences and spectatorship. Working always with both the artistic and academic communities, BTC has run four sector-wide conferences and conducted a study of new writing 2003-2009 for Arts Council England (2010). In response to John Knell and Matthew Taylor’s RSA pamphlet, ‘Arts Funding, Austerity and the Big Society’, we partnered with The Royal Society of Arts (2012) for a round table entitled ‘From Spectatorship to Engagement’ comprising 25 invited artists, scholars, and public figures to discuss different models of capturing public value. BTC has also recently partnered with Manchester Metropolitan University and The Library Theatre in a study titled ‘The Spirit of Theatre’. Focusing on a production of Mother Courage, and on the associations and memories of audiences about The Library Theatre, we investigated and analysed the meaning and effect of the work of the Library Theatre in Manchester, using oral history and creative research techniques in addition to surveys and interviews. This study has been a kind of pilot project for ‘Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution’ with which it shares the emphasis on memory and processual analysis.

As we move into the analytic phase of our project, we are especially interested in the way the micro-practices of everyday life generate or negate cultural value. We seek evidence of value attribution at the corpuscular level of individual activity within a public context.

Our research team has started a blog of personal memories and observations triggered by working on the project. See our posts and more about BTC at

Brian Garrod: Investigation the Role of Eisteddfodau in Creating and Transmitting Cultural Value in Wales and Beyond

Eisteddfodau: The crown jewels of Welsh culture

The eisteddfod is probably the most widely and best-known expression of Welsh culture, other than perhaps the Welsh language itself. The Welsh word ‘eisteddfod’ (the plural being ‘eisteddfodau’) has no direct translation into English, but it refers to a festival of literature, visual arts and performance. There is typically also a competitive element, where participants perform in competition against each other for prizes.

There are many eisteddfodau taking place across Wales each year. Many of these are local affairs, being based in a particular town or village. Many schools also hold eisteddfodau for their students to compete in. There are also eisteddfods that take place in Australia, Argentina and the USA: places to which the Welsh have migrated and settled. The best known eisteddfodau are, however, the National Eisteddfod (Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru), the International Eisteddfod and the Urdd National Eisteddfod (Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Urdd Gobaith Cymru). The National Eisteddfod welcomes around 160,000 visitors every year and has been held in its current format since 1861, although historians are able to trace its origins back to 1176. This eisteddfod moves around Wales, usually alternating between north and south, and is conducted in Welsh. The International Eisteddfod, in contrast, is held annually in Llangollen and has a multilingual tradition, attracting approximately 120,000 visitors every year. Established in 1947, it focuses particularly on choral music, with performers coming to compete in the eisteddfod from all over the world. The Urdd National Eisteddfod (Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Urdd Gobaith Cymru), meanwhile, is an eisteddfod especially for children and youth. It normally takes place in May and, like the National Eisteddfod, moves around Wales to a different venue each year. All three are televised and together form a summer season of eisteddfodau that people may attend, compete in, volunteer at, or simply watch from home.

The purpose of this project, entitled “Investigation the Role of Eisteddfodau in Creating and Transmitting Cultural Value in Wales and Beyond”, is to investigate the cultural value of the eisteddfodau. The starting premise is that the value of an eisteddfod is much greater than simply its profit or loss-making status, or even its contribution to the local economy, although this can be significant. Rather, the eisteddfodau are valuable because they allow people, both from Wales and beyond, to be entertained, to use the Welsh language, and to connect with the cultural and artistic traditions of Wales. They also build up the cultural capital of the communities from where the audience members and contestants come, helping to bring those communities together, establish and maintain interpersonal relationships and to transfer life-affirming skills from one generation to the next. Eisteddfodau also help to transmit the character and cultural values of Wales to the rest of Britain and the world.

These cultural values of the eisteddfodau have rarely been studied, and it is the aim of this project to achieve an in-depth understanding of how they are generated, consumed and transmitted. Intercept questionnaires with almost 1,000 attendees to this summer’s eisteddfodau have already been conducted, with a view to gaining a broad understanding of the cultural values involved, how they are perceived by attendees and how they are consumed. This has been followed up with nearly 30 in-depth telephone interviews, with the aim of developing further knowledge on how people connect with the values connected with eisteddfodau. The next step is to conduct focus groups with eisteddfod attendees to discover how the cultural values are embedded in communities and transmitted to Wales, the rest of Britain, and beyond.

Speaking to eisteddfod-goers, it is already very clear to us that the eisteddfodau are widely regarded as iconic expressions of Welsh cultural values. To describe them as the crown jewels of Welsh culture would be no exaggeration.