David Cotterrell: Squaring the Circle: Examining cultural value through a re-evaluation of Arts Lab

Squaring the Circle

  1. A Lab is an ‘energy centre’ where anything can happen depending upon the needs of the people running each individual Lab and the characteristics of the building.
  1. A Lab is a non-institution. Its boundaries should be limitless.
  1. Within each Lab the space should be used in a loose, fluid, multi-purpose way.
  1. Anyone who is interested in changing anyone’s attitude to anything is committing a political act

We at the Covent Garden Lab have certain philosophic attitudes to the world, and we hope to show others by word and deed that these political/philosophical attitudes can be transmitted via non-traditional political media. Every person is a medium; use it carefully!

Philosophy and Characteristics (according to Jim Haynes and taken from International Times, Oct 1969)

Our project focussed on the often imitated, referenced and idolised original Arts Lab. It existed in Drury Lane, London as a short-lived experimental cultural space, set up by Jim Haynes and Jack Henry Moore in Covent Garden and operational from 1967-69. Hosting a gallery, theatre, cinema, café and discussion space, Arts Lab was the first ‘process space’ of its kind in the UK and provided a model for future Arts Labs to follow around the UK. Arts Lab was used as a space to experiment with new ideas and art works, empowering audiences and participants.

The research into Arts Lab and the ideas that it embodied and/or represented has been conducted using several methods, including desk research, exploration packs and interviews. Orlagh Woods’ ‘CSI’ style mapping of evidence began to reveal connections between fragmentary archives, internet sources and printed materials. However it is interesting that, relative to most contemporary organisations, comprehensive documentation was not readily accessible. This bears no relation to the intensity or importance of the activity that took place, but instead reflected a position, almost unthinkable for most UK arts organisations today: a deliberate refusal to document its achievements and evidence its track-record, because, as David Curtis quietly explained, ‘We believed in the ephemeral’. Some evidence does exist through the careful archiving of the short-run posters, journals, letters and photographs. However, the real insight remains with the pioneering artists, organisers and cultural explorers who spent time at Drury Lane during its two year first incarnation and who volunteered to share their fascinating memories with our project.

As a result, our research has centered around interviews with founders, participants and audience-members. We have tried to deconstruct some of the myths surrounding the organisation and to consider perceptions of its significance and influence.  The key interviewees readily volunteered to describe their memories, to discuss their understanding of its core philosophies, and their analyses of its achievements and challenges. The interviews offered comedic anecdotes, warm recollections and, at times, poignant suggestions of regret and reminders of mortality.  Through the veil of nostalgia we sought to understand why an organisation, so widely recognised, existed for such a short time and how much can defensibly be claimed for its legacy.

It is interesting to explore an organisation that appears to have resonated in ways that would have been difficult (and perhaps even audacious) to predict during its lifetime.  The core philosophies of Arts Lab, encapsulated provocative ideas which are widely lauded but frequently not adopted as practically implementable today: a democratic, evolving and self-determining organisational structure; completely responsive planning; a ‘Yes Policy’ enabling access to the Arts Lab stage and public platform to any and all proposals; an acceptance of failure as a valuable component of experimental work; a refusal or inability to conform to the accounting, organisational and administrative conventions necessary to achieve stable funding; fierce independence and an intrinsic belief in the value of its activities.

The outcomes and the level of cultural impact actually achieved by this chaotic and amorphous organisation would certainly have vindicated an investment of the modest funding that it required to survive. Ironically, from the founders’ point of view, it was an absolute refusal to predict or define these potential outcomes, which allowed it the potential to innovate – while arguably guaranteeing its itinerancy.

Today, challenged by pragmatic realism, funding structures and by the struggle to find metrics to consider the value of ideas, which we intrinsically find interesting, we appear to be more readily able to argue for the historic significance of experimental activity than for its continuing importance. The archive of responses, audio, transcriptions, photographs and other evidence focuses on Arts Lab, but also provokes challenging questions, which have contemporary resonance.

Arts Lab and its story offers a provocative, utopian and poignant evidence base from which to consider structural and intellectual challenges to promoting experimentation, courage, risk and investing in activity where the outcomes are not certain in the hope that extraordinary results could occur. While ArtsLab existed in the 1960s we hope that the concluding stages of this project will encourage consideration of the intellectual and circumstantial challenges to realising similar goals today.

It is interesting that we still find that the privileges of enfranchisement, sustainability, influence and platforms are often accessed through identifying tolerable roles within mainstream culture, markets and institutions. Despite Arts Lab’s rich legacy of artworks, artists’ careers and arts organisations, the idealism of half a century ago, did not lead to the wholesale change in the cultural landscape that some of the participants had expected.

As we allow ourselves to explore the evidence further, it seems increasingly surprising that the parameters and restrictions of funding regimes, institutional support and governmental understanding have not evolved further to accommodate and prioritise the experimental, discursive and open-ended practice which has produced so much of the innovation that we now champion within contemporary culture.

Eleonora Belfiore: The politics of cultural value: Towards an emancipatory framework

As a cultural policy scholar, the question of cultural value has always fascinated me, as it goes to the very core of how public policies for the arts and culture work. The reason for the centrality of the cultural value question to cultural, and more specifically arts policies (which is the area on which my own work focuses) has been explained very succinctly, but also compellingly, by Richard Hoggart in The Way We Live Now. Here Hoggart says that the problem is, quite simply, that “there will never be enough money”. As a result, “Choices will always have to be made, judgments-between”. These choices and ‘judgments-between’ are clearly both driven by, and the reflection of, a society’ predominant cultural values.

Whilst judgments of value are the bread and butter of cultural policies, the label ‘cultural value’ has captured the imagination of researchers, arts sector professionals and even creative producers in a way that is revealing. Part of the fascination with cultural value lies, I would argue, in the hope that it might get cultural policy debates ‘unstuck’ from the focus on the ‘instrumental value’ of the arts and, especially post-austerity, their ‘economic value’ as central to justifications for public ‘investment’ on the arts and culture. As a consequence, the cultural value debate in the arts seems to have focused predominantly on a celebration of the value and importance of the arts. This has resulted in a advocacy driven effort to evaluate, measure, capture and demonstrate such value in the hope that it might convince policy makers, and even the Treasury, that the arts are worth spending public resources on even in times of austerity measures and wide ranging cuts in public expenditure.

Driving my project is the intention to problematize this approach to cultural value and to question this prevailing understanding by bringing into focus the degree to which cultural value is in fact something that is continually defined and redefined, contested and fought over: it has a clear relational nature and it involves power struggles and vested interests. As Janet Wolff (1981) puts it,  “Understanding art as socially produced necessarily involves illuminating some of the ways in which various forms, genres, styles, etc. come to have value ascribed to them by certain groups in particular contexts”.

The allocation of cultural value therefore is an inherently political process and one in which power relations play an important role. There are winners and losers in struggles over value, as shown by the recent debates over the significant unbalances in per capita cultural spending between citizens living in London and those in the rest of England, which have been estimated as being £69 and £4.60 respectively. Similarly, the conclusion reached by both academic research and the analysis of Taking Part data that a degree and a professional occupation are the most accurate predictors of engagement with publicly funding cultural experiences, also poses serious questions of social justice and fairness in relation to how the arts funding system operates in England and how it might be see to effectively compound social inequalities. This is, of course, highly problematic, considering that widening access and participation are central to the rhetoric of arts funding, and opens up questions of fairness that the cultural value debate must engage with.

The central aim of the project then, is to explore how concerns with fairness and social justice might be brought into public discussions on the value of the arts and culture and cultural policy research. To this end, the project is exploring whether the concept of cultural value might be harnessed as part of an emancipatory intellectual, cultural and political project aimed at achieving greater social justice, and what role of cultural policies might play in facilitating this.

I am working with the concept of ‘misrecognition’ as developed, among others, by Nancy Fraser and considering whether publicly funded initiatives and projects that aim at redressing it might be a way for cultural policy to embrace and promote social justice. To this end, I’ve partnered with Cultural Solutions UK to look at a participatory project that they developed and run in 2012, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Working closely with the educational charity Lincolnshire Travellers Initiative, the Cultural Solutions team worked with children and young people from the Lincolnshire Gypsy and Traveller community and their families to work on a ‘cultural heritage conservation project’. The project was interestingly called ‘Our Big Real Gypsy Lives’, which makes explicit the intention of the project to redress the misrecognition caused by Channel 4’s highly successful but controversial programme ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’.

Photo by Katie Smith

I was interested to discover how the project came about, what challenges the project team and the community artists working with the Gypsy and Traveller families encountered. I’m trying to establish what can be learned from their experience about the potential of a participatory arts projects to work as a vehicle for recognition and for the more equitable redistribution of ‘cultural value’ for the benefit of a community whose negative public image, disenfranchisement and ‘social abjection’ (Tyler 2013) has been significantly affected by another cultural product – and one that has generated substantial economic value as well as popularity with the TV public.

The fieldwork for the research has involved semi-structured interviews with the team involved in making the project happen and a number of key participants, including Gordon Boswell, whose Romany Gypsy Museum – a veritable labour of love and dedication – features prominently both in the original community art project and the research.

The picture emerging so far reveals that cultural work of a socially engaged nature can bring fruits, but requires a remarkable commitment on the part of the delivery team, flexibility and good communication, and that theories of recognition and ‘right to memory’ (Reading 2011) can go some way towards refreshing cultural policy studies and bringing a concern for social justice to the fore.

Trish Winter: A Somatic Ethnography of Grand Gestures Elders Dance Group

‘Close your eyes and watch your breath’

says Paula, and there’s a little giggle in the room.  We obediently close our eyes, and I watch my breath enter in a cold rush, prickling the edges of my nostrils.  It triggers a kind of release in my throat, before being sucked into lungs which I imagine as monstrous tree branches, waving and pulsing in the dark cavity of my chest.  This watching takes in a universe of sensation – the temperature and movement of air into my body, the muscular stirrings, tensions and releases involved in both breathing and sitting still, the temperature of the room registering both on my skin and from inside my body as the occasional shiver.  Here I am in a chilly church hall in North East England doing fieldwork for my somatic ethnography of Grand Gestures elders dance group.

This project asks about the place of bodily sensation in cultural value through a case study of older people dancing. In particular the study focuses on the somatic senses, the cluster of senses that relate to touch.  This includes the external sense of touch on the skin, as well internally felt senses such as kinaesthesia (the sense of movement), proprioception (the sense of position in space), balance, and something that we might call physical empathy – that sense of physical connectedness that can be felt as we dance together.  A key part of the experience of dancing, these senses are not much written about in the body of academic and arts professional publications that examine the impact of dance on health and well being among older people.  But, for example, how does the development of a heightened sensory awareness feed into an understanding of one’s self and identity? Or what is the place of touch and physical empathy in the building of a community through dance?

I’ve approached the ethnography as a collaboration with the dancers of Grand Gestures and their lead artist, Paula Turner.  This group of men and women, aged from 54 to 90, meet once a week as part of a project, Creativity Matters, run by the charity Equal Arts. Through interviews, participant observation and a range of creative exercises, we are exploring together the value that these older dancers attribute to their dance activity, and the place of somatic sensation in that.  We’re also addressing some thorny questions about how sensory experience, subjective, sometimes fleeting and tricky to describe, might be articulated in words and in other ways.  The dancers are energetic and engaged participants in the research, and we’re generating a vast amount of research material such as reflective writing, drawing and painting, pottery, film, and sensory diaries, as well as interviews and fieldwork notes.

As we enter the final two months of the project, ideas and themes are starting to emerge from this potentially overwhelming volume of ethnographic material, and it is both exciting and daunting to be starting to tease out some responses to my initial research questions.  I’ll be taking these back to the group for their feedback and I look forward to seeing my project’s results take shape as a contribution to the Cultural Value Project.

Trish Winter, University of Sunderland, is the Principal Investigator of the project, A Somatic Ethnography of Grand Gestures Elders Dance Group.  It runs from 31st December 2013 to 31st May 2014.  Equal Arts is the project partner. You can read more about Grand Gestures, Creativity Matters, and Equal Arts on the group’s blog: http://creativitymatterseq.wordpress.com/.

Alis Elena Oancea: Developing Innovative Methods for Configurative Capture of the Cultural Value of Arts and Humanities Research

The value of arts and humanities research has long been the object of political debate, administrative regulation, and scholarly argument. Arguments for the contribution of the arts and humanities to wealth creation, institutional health, positive community dynamics and wellbeing have coexisted (and often clashed) with those for the intrinsic value of cultural experiences.

As international organisations, public bodies and governmental agencies in numerous countries have found, indicator frameworks, guidelines and assessment toolkits, and surveys have not been able to identify and capture the components of cultural value. Methodologies for cultural measurement have been proposed, including cultural-economic measures, measures of cultural freedom, community cohesion and cultural vitality indices, measures of well-being and personal development through cultural experiences, digital impacts, and societal, environmental, health and educational impacts. Yet, despite these many efforts to measure the cultural value of research, assessment and funding requirements have typically foregrounded problem-solution and impact indicator-driven approaches. As a result, relatively static and linear accounts of the links between research and cultural benefits have become the norm. There is space further to develop balanced conceptualisations and in-depth, textured methodologies for exploring and articulating cultural value from research.

This study uses conceptual, methodological and empirical work to try to move beyond dualist arguments about intrinsic vs. instrumental value, articulating vs. measuring value, or social accountability vs. economic accounting. It recognises both the synergic interactions between epistemic, technical and “phronetic” aims of research (Oancea and Furlong, 2007), and the diversity of interpretations and practices of the impact of research in the full range of disciplines (arts and humanities; social sciences; natural and mathematical sciences; and health and medical sciences – Oancea, 2011, 2013). The study explores comparatively the limits of linear notions of value and impact in the arts and the humanities, as well as cross-disciplinary cultural value-related practices arising from shared contexts for academic work.

Having explored the extensive literature that underpins this area, and carried out purposeful sampling to determine institutions and individuals to contact, the research team has conducted over 70 in-depth, extended interviews with participants from ten different arts and humanities disciplines and from extra-academic settings. The interviews investigated not only academics’ perspectives on cultural value, but also explored the opinions of partner organisations – cultural, third sector, commercial and community, among others. A small-scale survey of research administrators is also being carried out. Two events on research impact have been convened through the philosophy forum of the Oxford University Department of Education (speakers: Dr Claire Donovan; Prof Patrick Dunleavy; Dr Eleonora Belfiore).

One of the intentions of the study is to produce, jointly with the participants, visualisations of research value and networks in different disciplines, thus revealing the complex balance of field-distinctive interpretations and common practices. Seventeen network visualisations have been drafted to date.

The underpinning concerns for texture, diversity, nuance and ecology make the methodology developed through this study particularly relevant to work in the arts and humanities. Through this methodology, for example, seamless connections were revealed between research generation and cultural benefits in the arts, which can be obscured by the requirement (e.g. in the REF) to separate sharply, for assessment purposes, scholarly research from creative practice and cultural experience.

Methods for Configurative Capture of the Cultural Value of Arts and Humanities Research, AHRC Cultural Value Project, 2013-14. Oxford University Department of Education. PI: Dr Alis Oancea; researchers: Dr Jeanette Atkinson and Dr Maria Teresa Florez; interns: Samantha Seiter, Sijung Cho and Kyeongwa Lee. Contact: alis.oancea@education.ox.ac.uk.