Tag Archives art

Revisiting ethnographic sites as an ongoing knowledge production practice

Is it important for ethnographers to revisit the sites where they conduct their research once their projects have been completed? Returning to the site where I conducted my fieldwork six months later indicated that the answer is both yes and no. It makes me believe that ethnography practice is an ongoing knowledge production project, as people’s perspectives and practices are always evolving.

In January 2020, just before COVID-19 was classified a global pandemic, I made a journey to the site where I did my research six months prior. I had fruitful discussions with those I had engaged with for my research: about their definition of art as a form of activism (a main finding of my research), research as a knowledge production process where researchers and participants can work together, as well as about the dialogue between academic discourse and practices in the field.

When I conducted fieldwork for my Master’s degree at ISS in Pemenang village in Indonesia in July 2019, my ethnographic objective was to explore how a small art community called Pasir Putih navigated life after an earthquake devastated Lombok, the island on which the village is situated, in 2018. I immersed myself in the community for a month, stayed in their houses in order to observe their daily life activities, and conducted semi-structured interviews with them. I consider my study a mini-ethnography because while one month was quite short and what I did cannot be considered an exhaustive ethnography, I did more than interviewing the Pasir Putih artists. I did participant observation to investigate “the strange in the familiar” in the artist’s everyday lives—and to help me understand what’s beyond the things the research participants explicitly mentioned in the interviews.

As an organization, Pasir Putih strongly values knowledge production and knowledge-sharing activities, and so the initial agreement was that because they let me to stay with them for a month, I had to come back and share the research results with them. They often asked me, “What does the outsider think of us? About our conceptions of the arts?” Furthermore, for them it was important to have a conversation about the research that involved them as participants. As Sibawaihi, one of Pasir Putih artists, told the other people in community before I presented the research results, he believed that research would help them to reflect on their position as artists in the village community.

Pasir Putih is a small art community formed in January 2010 by five undergraduate students in Pemenang village and now comprising 13 active members, of which only two are women. Most of the research community members have a Bachelor’s degree in different fields, such as communication and education studies, and none of them have attained an art degree through formal education. They have attained their skills in art by doing. When I was in the field, the artists also contributed to the community as teachers for extracurricular art subjects in junior high schools in North Lombok. On their website, Pasir Putih define themselves as an “…organisasi nirlaba egaliter berbasis di Kecamatan Pemenang, Lombok Utara, Nusa Tenggara Barat oleh pegiat kultural, aktivis media dan seniman sejak tahun 2010” (“an egalitarian non-profit organization initiated and run by cultural and media activists and artists in Pemenang District, North Lombok since 2010”).[1]

After discussing my research with the community, they told me they felt my research encouraged them to define what it is that they do as artists. Sibawaihi mentioned that being involved in the research and hearing about the findings has made them realize that what they do as artists is important for people around them. I saw their work as ‘art as activism’, while the community used art as a way to express their value in the society around them. This idea of ‘art as activism’ was based on the theories I had engaged with during my Master’s research, and it differed from the idea the research participants had of themselves. Yet they found it an interesting observation. For them, art is what they do—not just for the village community, but also from and by the village community. They rejected the term ‘activist’ to avoid being considered superior to other people in the village.

They were also interested in how research could be seen as a part of the “documentation of knowledge” that might be useful now or in the future. They saw my research as “an archive for what we do that can be consulted in the future”. Interestingly, they were curious about what my lecturers at my university thought of art. “Did your teachers agree with our definition of art?” one asked. In other words, Pasir Putih artists were engaged in knowledge production not only during the research process, but also after that.

Oka, one of the artists who was a research participant as he initiated a film screening project to re-engage village communities after the 2018 earthquake, said that he was interested in the term ‘ethnography’. He related the methodology to what they do as community artists, such as staying in different villages to screen films. From Oka’s perspective, living in communities for several months is key to an ethnographic research methodology, because it helps the researcher to understand the research subject by regarding their daily practices as well as through daily conversations. Yet he felt that my stay should have been longer for me to be able to get a better grasp of their activities.

From my perspective, it was fascinating to have follow-up discussions with the research participants and to learn that they also benefited from (if I can use this term) the exchange of knowledge during the research project. As some of them expressed in the discussion, the findings of the research help them to reflect more on their perspectives and practices as artists/activists in the community. In addition, they saw my research as “archiving initiatives” related to what they had been doing, although the language barriers (I wrote the thesis in English) meant most of them could not access what I wrote. I saw the discussion that emerged about their art perspectives and practices among the Pemenang village community when I revisited the site as an interesting dialogue between academic research and practices in the field. Furthermore, ‘revisiting the site’ can be seen as an attempt to create more equal relations between researchers and the research participants in the field.

If I think back to the fieldwork, however, I realize that it was difficult to make the artists fully engaged in the research and vice versa. Given the time constraints, it was difficult for me to be fully involved in their projects. The data mostly came from semi-structured interviews rather than informal conversations with the artists. This means that my initial plan to create more equal relations with the participants was not fully successful. Despite that, the observations of the artists’ daily activities enriched the findings from the interviews.

[1] http://pasirputih.org/tentang-organisasi/, accessed on 27 September 2019

Image: Lize Swartz

About the author:

Daya Sudrajat is a researcher and policy advocate in inclusive education issues based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She has a strong interest in knowledge production in marginalized communities and this led her to write a thesis about art as alternative development practice in North Lombok, Indonesia. She holds a MA degree from ISS Erasmus University of Rotterdam.

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Revolution and music: women singing out in Sudan by Katarzyna Grabska and Azza Ahmed A. Aziz

With the attention to Sudanese women musicians actively participating in the current uprising in Sudan, this article reflects on the history of women’s involvement in music and how their performances have acquired political claims over time.

Music in times of revolution

The ongoing revolution in Sudan started with mass protests in December 2018 (see last week’s BLISS blog), led to the overthrow of Omar El Bashir in April 2019, and to a massacre orchestrated by the Transitional Military Council on the 3rd of June, 2019. These unprecedented peaceful protests had opened up a space for the amalgamation of creative productivity in Sudan and across the diaspora, including music. Young people and women have been portrayed as being at the forefront of the resistance. The images of women demonstrating on the streets, singing, drawing and making art on the streets have flooded the social media.  However, this is a hyperbolic depiction of their actual number supported by the fact that this level of participation by them was unanticipated. The revolution has been seized by diverse women as a space to make claims for greater freedoms and liberties, including contributions to nation-building projects. Yet, these acts of citizenship (see Isin and Nielsen 2008) are highly gendered and take place within the constraints of patriarchal norms (Azza Ahmed. A. Aziz).

Music has always occupied a significant role in the multiple cultural expressions of the Sudanese nation. In the current uprising, it created a space to enact resistance and  narratives of belonging. Women amateur singers as well as professional musicians in the diaspora and in Sudan have become key voices in the message of the revolution from the streets and visibilising the political claims that are being made.

In Sudan, since the coming to power of Omar El Bashir and the Islamists in 1989, the music scene has been deeply affected. Many musicians were curtailed, went into exile, and the once popular music spots in Khartoum where Sudanese jazz and popular music could be heard were banned. It was also combined with the demise of once famous music institutions in the capital. The Sudanese government’s centralisation of power under the banner of an Islamised identity was established, and this ultimately  imposed  specific  gender codes that were legally consolidated  through The Public Order Law of 1996 that established strict rules for women’s dress code and public appearance. This measure limited the public spaces where women artists could perform both in Khartoum and throughout Sudan. Despite this, women’s political and patriotic claims within songs were not silenced.

For example, an all-female music group Salute Yal Banoot, who since its foundation in 2014, has been contributing to dismantling some of the obstacles (other examples include female members of the mixed Igd Al Jalad group, Nancy Ajaj, Al Balabil, etc). These women had to navigate arbitrary refusals by the government to allow them to perform in public on stage. Salute Yal Banoot have also been actively involved in the uprising. They dedicated their performance in Kuwait in March 2019 to those who had  lost their lives in the protests. On their facebook website, they stated that resistance could take different forms, one being music, and the need to embrace the collective of being Sudanese. They use the slogan of John Garang, the late leader of South Sudan, quoting him: ‘SUDANISM embraces all that is African, Arabian, Islamic and Christian. It encompasses religion, race and culture and expresses them as a unique identity. Thus, it is inherently irreconcilable with sectarianism of any kind.’ Here, their music and creative practice merge with the political potentialities of the nation that they enact through the diversity of the composition of their own music group.

To understand the musical role of women visible on the Sudanese scene in the current context, we need to situate it within the wider history of women as the producers of music in general and their performance of political songs in particular.

Historical take on women and music

Historically, women have had a significant place in musical production in Sudan according to different genres that have existed: hamassah (encouraging men to go to war: for example, Mihaira bint Aboud who encouraged the Sudanese to fight against the Turko- Egyptian occupation and who is evoked during the current revolution as a voice for women to emulate), sirah (songs for men at their weddings en route to the bride’s home, manaha (bereavement songs)  and as hakamats’ songs (existing in Western Sudan encouraging men to go to war). Hence, there has been a continuum of women using music to enact gendered citizenship and the current uprising is another expression of such political actions.

The history of women’s eruption onto the Sudanese music scene was not always smooth. The first public rhythms used by women were characterized by 3 beats on the daluka (a clay drum with a leather covering) and they were known as the tumtum.  They were the province of ex-slave females working in local alcohol haunts that were deemed disreputable. Eventually they became a source of emancipation for ex-slave women (ghanaya) within the urban centres of Sudan. They came to express the life experiences of working class women during the 1930s and 1940s. These rhythms became part of female wedding universes and they were equally sung by free-born female artists.

Given the popularity of the genre it was gradually appropriated by men and modified. The establishment of Radio Omdurman in 1941 made this genre intrinsic to Sudanese popular music (see also Saadia I. Malik 2003). A notable singer of this genre was Asha Al Falatiya. Asha managed to access a men’s world by shifting to the use of an orchestra. Part of her credibility as an artist was contained in the fact that she penetrated men’s world’s through her recordings that were diffused on Radio/TV Omdurman. Her political stand was well visible in a nationalistic song about defending the nation against heavy artillery external attacks where she enjoins Mussolini to  wage war in Sudan’s defense in order to circumvent  the duplicity of Hitler. This was a time when women’s feminism was still subject to penetrating mens’ political and economic worlds.

In the 1970s, certain forms of women’s singing were institutionalized and the penetration of women on the music scene was the product of liberalization and market forces. Eventually women started singing on television and the approbation of the official media elevated the profession of women singers. Their access to public stage, however, dwindled with sharia law and 1996 public order law.

The political momentum of the current uprising gave women musicians more opportunities to take risks and  re-enter more visibly the public stage in Sudan. This gives us a sense of the ongoing transformations of gender norms and gender relations more widely.

This article is part of a series on Creative Development. The first part dealing with art in the Sudanese revolution can be found here.

Image Credit: Salute Yal Bannot

PHOTO-2019-08-08-11-57-49Azza Ahmed Abdel Aziz lives between Khartoum and London.  She holds a Ph.D in Social Anthropology, with a special focus on Medical Anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Her research focuses on cultural understandings of health and well-being. She has been following the unfolding upraising in Khartoum since December 2018 and has been documenting the everyday protest practices, focusing specifically on the artistic expressions. She is also a co-researcher with Kasia Grabska in the ISS-funded project on creative practice, mobilities and in development in Sudan. 

Kasia Grabska_

Katarzyna (Kasia) Grabska is a lecturer/researcher at the ISS and a filmmaker.











Creative Development | Sudan protests: artistic acts of citizenship by Azza Ahmed A. Aziz and Katarzyna Grabska

Since December 2018, flashing images of protests in Sudan have appeared in mainstream media. This, however, barely touches upon the ongoing struggles of the changing local and diasporic dynamics of what ‘citizenship’ and belonging in Sudan mean (see ISS research project). Many acts of citizenship (see Isin and Nielsen 2008) have been most visibly associated with artistic creativity that spread across Sudan and  in  diaspora. In this article, we reflect on how art has been one of the key drivers of the revolution and the transformation of local and diasporic citizenship claims pertaining to Sudan.

The December 2018 Sudanese Revolution: A Hub of Artistic Creativity

The revolution was propelled by demonstrations all over Sudan. The demonstrations demanding freedom, peace and justice culminated in a million persons march happened on the 6th of April, 2019. Demonstrators reached the Army headquarters in Khartoum and were joined by people from all over Sudan.  Since that date, large swathes of the Sudanese population had been occupying  a space in front of the Army headquarters (midan al itisam): the sit in space. Almost two months of occupation of this space created a world where  revolutionaries could join  to realize  their objectives of freedom, peace and justice. They demanded that military forces that overthrew Omar El Bashir (representing military junta that came to power through a coup in 1989) on 11th of April hand over power to a civilian led transitional government.

Artistic and creative practice has played a seminal contribution to the development of resistance and the revolution. The genesis of the sit in space had reignited a flurry of creativity ranging from painting, photography, filming, spoken word and whatsapp messaging that conveys information about its  evolution  to diverse audiences:  the Sudanese public , the diaspora and the outside world, through graphic design, slogans, speeches, song lyrics  and live recordings. Prior to the protests, art in public spaces of  Khartoum was rare. Women artists were significantly more absent. During the sit in, the walls of the city became covered with extensive murals or art work.

Within the sit in zone a huge 3 km canvas was being prepared by artists within the premises of a technical training school. This canvas was to be presented to the public. It would encompass artistic symbols as well as the signatures of those who would represent all those who dedicated their lives to staying in place. Another zone, that was a rubbish dump, had been transformed into a space of beautiful art. This creative practice gave a clear sense of belonging and facilitated making political claims for many, regardless of gender, class, age and ethnic origin.

Art is fundamentally linked with revolutionary processes and plays an important role in creating a sense of belonging and citizenship. Through painting the walls of the army headquarters, singing in public, filming and photographing, the demonstrators performed acts of citizenship, expressing their ideals and demands for Sudan and their own understanding of rights as Sudanese people. With the digital access and the instant sharing of messages of hope, despair, and demands for justice, freedom and civil rule, it became possible to disseminate these practices across the globe both for those remaining in Sudan and those   in diaspora.

The sit-in period was characterized by protracted negotiations between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the driving force of public mobilization the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA).  This was a fraught process that included the involvement of the notorious Rapid Security Forces (RSF) militias under the leadership of Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemeti)  the second man within the TMC. On the 3rd of June at the crack of dawn on the last day of the Muslim fasting month, Ramadan, the TMC  brutally dispersed the people occupying the sit in space. Live bullets were fired on peaceful civilians and many people were mortally wounded, killed, raped and injured (see dying for the revolution BBC). This massacre was followed by measures aimed at terrorizing  civilians and executed by the RSF that patrolled the streets, randomly harassing, beating and raping. The erasure of most of the creative acts of citizenship by painting over many of  the murals on the walls of the sit in area was set into motion  in order to wipe out the achievements of the revolution and silence its call. Notwithstanding that  Khartoum remained eerily silent for 10 days with the internet quickly disabled and  people fearing to leave their homes , the mobilization rapidly persisted.

Art, erasure and making of citizenship

The erasure of art orchestrated by the  TMC,  in the aftermath of the massacre, points to the power of art and artists to create a political space for expression of citizenship. Yet, the massacre and the erasure led to other creative practices  in music and visual art that frames  new contours of belonging and political rights. During the six months of protests and especially during the massacre, many lost their lives. They were framed as martyrs. They became a motivation for the youth who started proclaiming their right not to be forgotten: ‘we will not forget and we will not forgive, blood for blood we will not accept monetary compensation’. This expresses their intent to persevere in creating a better Sudan worthy of their sacrifice. This particular narrative of how martyrs are  predominantly represented is visible in the music of Ahmed Amin.

In visual art, the work of Assil Diab, a Sudanese artist living in Qatar, illustrates the significance of remembering and documenting the sacrifices of those who died during the peaceful protests. Alongside a group of artists, she paints wall murals depicting the faces of the fallen on the walls of  their family homes. She seeks  permission  from  their families to bear testimony to the fact   that Sudan has not forgotten their sons and daughters (graffiti art).

Through art, young musicians and visual artists are constructing a new model of a deserving citizen, a martyr. The calls for freedom, peace, and justice, sit alongside other claims to citizenship depicted here through these ‘good deaths’. This medium instills that martyrs are occupying a worthy place in the hierarchy of citizens in Sudan.  This is just one aspect of how art plays into some  key imaginaries of belonging and provides a reading of diverse ways of participating in the revolution as an evolving nation-making Sudanese project  that emanates from the local and from afar.

This article is part of a series on Creative Development. A second part to this article dealing with women and music during the Sudan protests can be read here.

Image Credit: Jakob Reimann on Flickr

PHOTO-2019-08-08-11-57-49Azza Ahmed Abdel Aziz lives between Khartoum and London.  She holds a Ph.D in Social Anthropology, with a special focus on Medical Anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Her research focuses on cultural understandings of health and well-being. She has been following the unfolding upraising in Khartoum since December 2018 and has been documenting the everyday protest practices, focusing specifically on the artistic expressions. She is also a co-researcher with Kasia Grabska in the ISS-funded project on creative practice, mobilities and in development in Sudan. 

Kasia Grabska_

Katarzyna (Kasia) Grabska is a lecturer/researcher at the ISS and a filmmaker.











Creative Development | Art and Knowledge Production: Sense, The Senses and the Struggle for Control by Aoileann Ní Mhurchú and Cathy Wilcock

What is the relationship between art and knowledge production? Does art only contribute to the aesthetics or does it have any role to play in production and even in control of knowledge? This article explores these questions through an example of ‘immigration’. It is a version of the presentation given by Aoileann Ní Mhurchú at the recent ISS workshop ‘Moving Methods’, funded jointly by the CI and D&I groups.   

Across the social sciences, the study of ‘art’ is being understood broadly as the study of ‘creative endeavour’ (Danchev and Lisle 2009: 776).  Here, art is understood not only as finished products such as paintings or novels, but as ‘activities that produce aesthetic responses, critiques and affirmations’ Rosario-Ramos et al (2017: 221). This moves our focus beyond ‘high art’ and towards a variety of cultural processes such as graffiti, rap music, cartoons, and film.  Furthermore, it moves us beyond the intentions of the artist as the source of meaning, and it opens up the idea that art’s relationship to knowledge production is rooted in its activation of responses, critiques and affirmations.

Much work has already shown how popular culture can provide frames of reference about cultures and people which influence how they are ‘known’. For example, by orientalizing the colonized as victims, exotic and/or to be feared (Semmerling 2006).

In relation to the topic of immigration, there has been rich discussion around representations of the ‘good verses the bad immigrant’. In the dystopian video game ‘Papers Please’, the player is asked to assess the claims of immigrants as ‘dubious or genuine’ based on their collection of paperwork. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QP5X6fcukM&frags=pl%2Cwn An archetypal ‘immigrant’ identity has been shaped by such artistic products, which are themselves emergent responses to the same cultural milieu to which they contribute.

What has also been explored is how popular culture can challenge dominant ways of knowing the world (Magallanes-Blanco 2015). For example, on immigration, art works such as the murals along the USA-Mexico border by Mexican artist Lalo Cota have been praised for directly challenging the harmful dominant narrative of the ‘good/bad migrant dichotomy’. In a darkly humorous tone, his surrealist and satirical works play with the notion of ‘illegal alien’ by depicting sombreros in the shape of UFOs.

Pic 1

Image by Lynn Trimble

Therefore, art is about power relations: it raises questions about dominance and resistance and, is linked to struggles over control of knowledge between the margins and the centres.

Linking art to struggles over knowledge is a useful but broad endeavor. Ranciére helps narrow this down by theorizing this struggle by way of the senses. Ranciére associates art with a process of struggle over knowledge through ‘determin[ing] the relationship between seeing, hearing, doing, making and thinking’ (Ranciére 2013). Ranciére points to the role of art in engaging the senses to invoke visibility, audibility, saying ability, thinkability, do-ability of certain ideas/possibilities over and in contrast to others. The result is that art is posited as political, rather than something which can merely comment on politics.

To explain: the political nature of, for example, F.Lotus – Ai Weiwei’s installation of 1,005 life jackets floating in the pond of the Belevedere museum in Vienna – can be understood not only for its commentary on the migration crisis, but for the ideas and identities that are made visible and audible when they act on the senses of the audience.

Pic 2.jpg

As such, we need to situate such arguments within post and de/colonial literature. This has a long history of exploring how knowledge ‘has been grounded in the suppression of sensing and the body’ (Mignolo 2011b: 275; hooks 1989). In doing so, it allows us to think about the active suppression of ways of being linked to the senses under modernity (which is seen as the other side of coloniality rather than its opposite).

To go back to our example of ‘Papers Please’, a post/decolonial angle propels us to delve deeper and to ask how and in whose interests was the knowledge of the ‘good/bad immigrant’ produced in the first place?

Such literature helps us to look beyond art as a struggle over senses which can merely ‘add to’ our existing knowledge of social sciences. Instead, it draws attention to harder epistemological questions about the nature of the ‘academy’ and ‘reality’ itself. For example, it points to how a focus on the senses (re)shapes what is known as ‘creativity’ by linking this to vulnerability and the margins (Ní Mhurchú, 2016).  Additionally, it forces us to (re)evaluate as a colonial move (Mignolo 2003) the separating out of art as interpretive knowledge (grounded necessarily in the humanities) from questions about practical societal knowledge (grounded necessarily in the social sciences).

The ideas sketched here gesture towards a conceptual framework to approach the analysis of art for knowledge-production in the social sciences. Situating Ranciere’s sensory approach within the post/decoloniality literature, allows us to recognize art as a struggle for control over knowledge through the senses. While doing so, we are urged to recognize that knowledge-producing institutions are part of, and not above or outside of, those struggles.

On 22 May 2019, ISS Associate Professor of Childhood & Youth Studies Roy Huijsmans along side Assistant Professor Katarzyna Grabska and Academic Researcher Cathy Wilcock will hold a seminar regarding their joint research on ‘Migration and Musical Mobilities’. Find more information here

This article is part of a series on Creative Development.

About the authors:

Aioleann Ni MuruchuAoileann Ní Mhurchú is a lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester. Her research interests lie in the areas of critical citizenship studies, international migration, sovereignty and subjectivity, and theories of time and space. She recognises the limits of existing frameworks for understanding experiences of political resistance and participation from positions of marginality or ambiguity. And therefore engages with aesthetic forms of meaning and representation in literature and vernacular music and language.

CW bw

Cathy Wilcock is a postdoctoral researcher at the ISS, with a background in critical development studies. In her role at ISS, she is continuing her work on political belonging in the context of forced migration. 












What can social scientists know from art and how? by Cathy Wilcock

A recent workshop hosted collaboratively by the University of Manchester and the ISS sought to determine what knowledge can be derived from artistic work by asking ‘what can social scientists know from art and how?’ The workshop aimed to start conversations between those who make art and those who engage with art in their social science research. This blog article by ISS postdoctoral researcher Cathy Wilcock includes verbal and written reflections of the workshop proceedings and outcomes.

The intersection of art and the production of knowledge recently became the topic of discussion in a workshop co-organised by Cathy Wilcock of the ISS and Aoileann Ní Mhurchú of the University of Manchester (UoM). This discussion workshop was motivated by the questions: what knowledge can we derive from artistic work (defined as the product and process of any creative activity e.g. music, dance, painting, literature)? And how should we “read” artistic work in order to gain access to/play a part in producing the knowledge that inheres within it? Also, what can art offer for knowledge production that other forms of information cannot? Such questions are accompanied by an ethical question: should we treat artistic creations as potential sources of knowledge? 

Four ways of “using” art in social science

Of course, there are centuries-old traditions of academic research on the arts, but within social science disciplines this a more recent phenomena. As these traditionally realist—and initially economy-dominated—disciplines have become more open to social constructivist ontologies, concerns with representation, fictions, and the broader “aesthetic” have surfaced.

Art is being instrumentalised in social science research in four fundamental ways. First, modes of analysis developed in the arts are being borrowed into social sciences—for example, policy documents being analysed as “texts” or “narratives”. Second, artistic works are being used as data in social science studies—for example through the analysis of novels or photographs. Third, artistic methodologies are being employed during the research process—for example by asking research participants to produce creative works such as films or photos. Finally, in the era of research impact, art is being used as a dissemination tool, allegedly as a better way of communicating research findings to non-academic audiences. 

Translating methods?

This can only be a good thing, but the motivation behind holding this workshop was an uncertainty around whether we really know what we’re doing. Can the knowledge production practices developed in, and for, the arts be easily transferred to the social sciences? There are many epistemological and ethical questions to be raised about the instrumentalisation of art for knowledge production in the social sciences. And perhaps there is also a tendency to romanticise art; there are power relations involved in who gets to create art, who gets to distribute it, curate it, appreciate it, and observe it. How can we account for this in social science research?

With this problematic in mind, we asked four artists to reflect on their creative process—and to think about how making art helps them to produce knowledge, and also what and how their artistic work says to audiences. Through this artist-led discussion we went down some interesting avenues in our exploration of what we can know from art in the social sciences. 

Openness and opening up

One striking aspect of making art and interpreting it that came up in our discussion was how exposing it is. And, tied in with this, how the “knowledge” produced by it can be open and unfixed. In Michelle Olivier’s work (main image), which speaks back to prejudiced racial relations, it is an invitation to start a dialogue, rather than a direct exposition of a point of view. In being so exposed, you confess to your ambivalence, and admit to not having all of the answers. In many ways, the process of making art is a celebration of this. We are used to being goal-orientated in social science research and to strive for precision; there is little room for mess or mistakes, whereas art is often about playing, testing, and opening possibilities.

Related to this, making art came out in our discussion as an invitation to communicate. For some of our artists, the making process often began in a private realm, but it was being made with the public realm as its ultimate destination. The way that art is consumed is often a joint experience among the audience—for example, when music is performed, it is experienced collectively. One of Florence Devereux’s works involved her washing the feet of her audience (see below). In doing so, there is a connection made between the audience and the creator through the artistic process. Manoli Moriaty, a sound artist, also collaborates with a dancers and choreographers in his work.

Symbiosis - Manoli Moraity
Manoli Moriaty – Symbiosis

In each case, the collective experience was described as adding something—and often “tension”—to the work. I think, for this reason, it seemed that the art pieces themselves “exceeded the words” used to discuss them—and this would have consequences for those reading art as data for social science. Maybe the work itself is only half the story—a remnant.

Using and transforming codes

All of the art being made by the artists in our discussion to some extent relied on and also challenged codes. It is clear that we cannot escape codes—the meaning of words, phrases, and images are products of our situated knowledge. The symbol of the tea in Michelle Olivier’s Tea Map, and the symbol of feet-washing in Florence Devereux’s work, both speak to, and are drawn from, loaded and contested codes which have been developed in cultural contexts. The ideational and material resources available to artists cannot be free of those codes, but there is some agency—derived through the creative process—to subvert, ironise, or uphold them.

FloDevereux - feet washing
Florence Devereux – Feetwashing

It seemed through our discussion that this process of challenging codes is especially effective because of the potential of art to be “beautiful” or aesthetically amazing. This came through strongly in Michelle’s discussion of her piece, which refers to a racist limerick. She explained that expressing anger can be a way of shutting people down but “beautiful” art draws you in—the beauty of the piece makes you want to engage and to try to understand more. Being drawn towards it, rather than repelled from it, invites you to challenge the codes presented. In this way, perhaps art is equipped to “interrupt” understanding—something to think about in the age of academic impact and also in broader discussions around power and resistance.

Senses and sensations

Especially when discussing Manoli Moriaty’s work on sound, and also in my reflections on songwriting, the relationship between sense and affect came through strongly. Is hearing sound, with no semantic content attached to it, a pre-rational, pre-reflective form of knowing? And what happens when that sound is accompanied by the “readable content” in lyrics, as they often are in songwriting? Cathy Wilcock’s Go Golden is one example of how songwriting can be used as a form of expression.

These are recorded reflections on this exploratory discussion and there is more work to be done to link back to the original questions about what and how art can produce knowledge for the social sciences. In particular, in exploring the implications of the four key ways in which art is being used in social sciences.

The original article can be found here

Main image: Michelle Olivier – Tea Map

CW bwAbout the author: 

Cathy Wilcock is a postdoctoral researcher at the ISS, with a background in critical development studies. In her role at ISS, she is continuing her work on political belonging in the context of forced migration. In one project, which sits within the Vital Cities and Citizens project at EUR, she is looking at citizenship practices of migrants in home and host states.