Harriet Hawkins: Experimental Methods for Exploring Environmental Encounters

It is well recognized that a host of aesthetic strategies – from artistic practice to visual culture more broadly –respond to, and often move for action in the face of, environmental change and current ecological crises.

Environmental art, as examples developed by the AHRC funded Landscape and Environment Programme demonstrate, is wide-ranging; encompassing different mediums, (e.g. performance and body art; participatory art, story-telling) themes, (e.g. local myth and lore, pollution, imaginative and exploratory engagements with scientific data-sets) and philosophical positions (e.g. encounters with animate earth-matters).

Despite the popularity of these art forms, and the recognition of their inter-disciplinary value within and beyond the academy, it is equally well recognized that we lack an understanding of the nature and importance of the environmental encounters that these works catalyze, as well as those encounters catalyzed by the curation and programming associated with these art works.
This research has set out to explore the environmental encounters configured by arts projects. It has focused on projects developed by two art-science organizations, Arts Catalyst, a project-based art-science commissioning and curatorial agency located in London, and Swiss artists-in-labs (ail), an art-science residency programme based in Zurich.

The challenge: researching encounters- theorizing encounters

Previous research I was involved in on the geographies of art-science collaborations highlighted two issues that needed further engagement, issues that the “Experimental Methods” project took up.

Firstly while the earlier project studied how art-science collaborations transformed the artists and scientists involved, re-shaping their knowledge making practices, and reorganizing relationships between individuals and technologies, what we did not explore where the effects of the resulting art work on audiences. The need for this information on audience experience was reinforced in the course of conversations with the international organizations we collaborated with on this project. These organizations wanted an evidence base that offered reflections on the strengths and weaknesses of their practices, this evidence would enable them to develop their practice, but also to underpin claims made to public and private funders in the art and science worlds alike.

Secondly, one of the reasons the previous project had not been able to develop effective material on audience experiences related to the lack of a coherent and appropriate set of methods by which to research audiences and their experiences. As a result, in order to develop the evidence base noted above, what was needed was more foundational work on the research methods that would enable the study of audience encounters with environmental art works.

At the heart of the research project that evolved therefore sits a key tension, namely that while a diverse array of philosophical frameworks have formed the means for conceptualizing arts’ ‘environmental encounters,’ what we often lack are methodological discussions and evidence bases to complement these abstract theoretical modes, thereby extending examinations of these encounters and their transformative potential.

The “Experimental Methods” project responded by setting out to explore what kind of methodology, and what sorts of research methods, might be appropriate for researching the environmental encounters that are catalyzed by environmental art works, whether they be embodied experiences of the environment, assertions of dynamic earthly matters, and atmospheric ‘airy’ materialities, or the creation of ‘radical publics’ through participatory arts practices.

Research is focused through three key questions:

1) What are the forms and experiences of the environmental encounters configured by art projects?
2) What ideas of ‘evidence’ and ‘evaluation’ are appropriate for exploring such encounters?
3) What kinds of methods can help us to engage with these environmental encounters?

In exploring these questions “Experimental Methods” will engage with some of the key aims of the Cultural Value Project, namely, developing both conceptualizations of cultural experiences –‘reopening the question of what engagement with cultural activity does for people’– and experimenting with innovative methods by which we can understand and evaluate these experiences. In addition to the project report, outputs will include a series of project seminars aimed at arts organizations as well as academics, it will also include academic papers given at conferences, and an edited collection on “Geoaesthetics: arts and environmental encounters”

Harriet Hawkins is a senior lecturer in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the PI on the nine month “Experimental Methods for Engaging Environmental Encounters” project. She is author of Creative Geographies: Geography, Art and the Making of Worlds (Routledge, 2013), which introduces some of the work that underpins this research project.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s