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:

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:


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.

Charlotte Gilmore: The enactment of cultural values and taste-making within contemporary classical music

Our research tackles a case study at the ‘hard end’ of cultural value; we explore both taste-making and cultural value in contemporary classical music. Our interdisciplinary study, which is supported by Creative Scotland, comprises of two case studies based on performances given by our research partners Red Note contemporary music ensemble and Psappha, also a contemporary music ensemble. Red Note is Scotland’s contemporary music ensemble and Psappha is Manchester’s new music ensemble. There are similarities between the ensembles in the musical styles but the audience, location, musicians and management teams are all different.

Our methodological approach acknowledges the complexity of cultural value. Within society there are diverse range of values and meanings associated with these values, especially in relation to cultural value. We propose an innovative way of exploring this complexity, and that is through taste-making. Taste-making is a situated activity that rests on learning and knowing how to appraise specific performances of a practice (Gherardi, 2009). In this way music can be understood by studying the social and organisational practices of its creation, performance and communication, as well as its enjoyment; these are all music practices. Taste shapes and is shaped within difference practices and is refined through negotiation and reflectivity, in order to express aesthetic judgments of it (Gheradi, 2009). For example gaining pleasure from music is a form of attachment socially supported by the respective communities of practice, which have developed vocabularies and specific criteria of taste and value in order to communicate, share and refine the ways in which such practices are enacted. This research will involve exploring such enactments of taste-making among the different communities of music practitioners.

Specifically, our Research Question is: how are cultural values and taste-making enacted in a contemporary music setting, and what are the consequences of that for practice. We will explore taste-making among music practitioners within the empirical setting of a contemporary music performance. These practitioners will be musicians, creative directors/managers as ‘insiders’ of the practice and also actual and potential audience members (firstly those who attend classical music performances but have never attended a contemporary classical performance and secondly those who have never attended a contemporary or classical music performance but who have an interest in arts and music), as ‘outsiders’ of the practice.

We aim to develop insights from the selected setting for broader application in the creative industries and beyond. In addition we seek to activate learning from the research in skills and capacity building for the practitioner, policy and academic communities.

Link to Red Note ensemble playing a piece which the projects work was based around: