‘Thinking Beyond Measure’ workshop

Dr Jackie Reynolds

Thinking Beyond Measure Workshop

(Workshop contributors: Professor Lynn Froggett, Dr Ali Roy, Dr Julian Manley (University of Central Lancashire). Michael Prior (Situations).

Last week, I spent an interesting and energising day at a workshop in Birmingham that focused on one of the other AHRC Cultural Value projects. I’d signed up to go as soon as I saw the publicity, as the overlaps with our own project were clear. It promised a ‘ground-breaking new approach to research and evaluation in the arts’:

“Building an evidence base is fundamental to making the case for the arts; finding arts sensitive methods to gather and analyse data has become one of the primary challenges for the arts sector. How often have you felt something was missing from the stories revealed by social science based approaches? Researchers from theUniversity of Central Lancashire (uclan), working with arts producers Situations, have been developing an innovative new group based method – the Visual Matrix – to move beyond overt measures of impact and unlock the deeper story of an artwork’s effects on the imagination. This could then be used alongside quantitative approaches to form richer, more complex evaluations.”

This was intriguing: this ‘deeper story’ and the role of the imagination are exactly the things that we’re looking at in terms of the development of empathy and compassion. So I caught the train down to Birmingham and then a taxi to find a hidden gem of an artist-run café and exhibition space called ‘Eastside Projects’ in a back street in Digbeth.

The day was introduced by Prof. Lynn Froggett, Director of the Psychosocial Research Unit at the University of Central Lancashire. The project, we were told, was examining the cultural value of two pieces of public art. The rationale for the research was dissatisfaction with existing methodologies for evaluating public art, and two case studies had been chosen in order to test out the new approach.

Both case studies were linked to the North Devon town of Ilfracombe. In the summer of 2012, the town was host to Alex Hartley’s Nowhereisland (see http://nowhereisland.org). Not long afterwards, a 66-foot high bronze statue Verity by Damien Hirst was loaned to the town, where it dominates the harbour front (see http://www.damienhirst.com/verity) The research aimed to explore the town’s on-going response to these large-scale, high profile public art projects.

Dr Julian Manley, the Research Associate for the project, then went on to explain the methodology for the project, and how we would be able to experience a ‘taster’ version of the process. There were, he explained, three stages to the process: framing, the matrix, and discussion/interpretation.

We were asked to go into the adjoining room, where the chairs were laid out in a ‘snowflake’ pattern (so that people were sitting facing in various directions) – which we later found out was an important aspect to the methodology. There was a projector screen in the front of the room, and we all turned around to watch a series of images relating to the Nowhereisland project. It looked a lot of fun – crowds of people gathering with flags and banners, a community festival feel and all set in a fairly traditional looking seaside resort. We watched the images in silence and when they had finished we turned away from the screen and were invited to respond to what we had seen. Had it prompted images in our minds? Any recollections, memories, reflections?

There was a bit of uncertainty, hesitancy at first. What was expected? But the responses soon began to flow, with people speaking one at a time, sometimes sharing a memory….sometimes saying something that had clearly been prompted by reflecting on what someone else had said. There was a quiet, almost reverential atmosphere…..I think I kept my eyes closed until about half way through!

I didn’t speak in the first session: I’m the kind of person who will stay very quiet until I understand exactly what is going on! And at this point I was feeling a bit sceptical. Was this really going to be some ground-breaking approach to evaluation…..or just a focus group with a twist?

Having continued to give their responses for about 20 minutes, this session ended and there was a short break. We went off for coffee and came back to find that the chairs were now arranged in a standard circle. We had moved into the ‘discussion and interpretation’ phase of the process, in which we were asked to highlight what the important images were that had emerged during the matrix, and where the thoughts and images related and connected. The facilitator (Julian), mind-mapped these on flip chart paper on the walls, often checking with people whether they thought that particular ideas connected before linking them up. So after the initial shared reflection within the group, this stage of the process then involved people making sense of and interpreting some of the earlier comments and ideas.

We then went through the same 3-stage process for the ‘Verity’ statue. People were now more sure of the process. I also felt happier to contribute my thoughts – when I could get a word in with the increasing enthusiasm in the room! In some ways, it was also easier responding to Verity. Nowhereisland had been a big, complex project involving lots of people and activities. Verity, on the other hand, is just a single statue.

I still had a lot of questions about the process….and it was clear at the question and answer session that others did too. My big questions were about the group dynamics that might be involved. We were a group with a common interest, and all of us, to some degree, confident in expressing our opinion. We also had some shared knowledge and understandings due to the focus of people’s work. The approachhad also been used very effectively, we heard, with school children…..but again, this suggests a common level of understanding and trust. Someone else raised a similar question, and we were given examples of where the method had been used effectively with vulnerable groups, and also with mixed, self-selecting groups in Ilfracombe. The researchers explained how the approach was designed to be non-intimidating – for example, the arrangement of the chairs, so that people felt less ‘in the spotlight’, and the emphasis on the total freedom to contribute one’s own thoughts/recollections, rather than having to respond to something that someone else had said.

One of the strengths of the project was that it also used a more traditional focus group for people to collectively respond to the art, and to reflect on it. And this is where the approach become increasingly convincing. We all know that a small number of voices can often dominate focus group discussions; that it can take a great deal of confidence to contribute, and the discussions can go off at total tangents. This approach, by contrast, invites short, but deep reflections – and doesn’t require the usual rules of discussion, whereby one point tends to follow on directly from another. Randomness in the matrix would seem to be quite a positive thing!

On returning to the afternoon session, which focused more on the analysis of the data, we heard that analysis of the matrix data and the focus group data had revealed further advantages of the former over the latter. The team found that in the focus groups, people tended to be rather literal, and instrumental in their responses (for example commenting on the ways in which Verity had been good for the regeneration of Ilfracombe), rather than the more imaginative responses in the matrix, which tended to reveal the aesthetic and emotional impact of the work.

As the researchers talked more about the process of analysis of the data, the rigour of the approach was also emphasized. As in grounded theory, the process was rooted in a hermeneutic cycle, in which the research team constantly returned to the original data, to ensure that the findings were grounded in this. Several weeks into the analysis, an external person had been invited to respond to the emerging findings as a way of cross-checking them. Further cross-checking occured with reference to a research panel, and the findings were taken back to participants. The researcher’s own reflexive stance was also explicitly acknowledged. I would suggest that all of this is good practice generally in terms of qualitative research, but nevertheless important to highlight.

By this point, I was feeling quite excited about the usefulness of the visual matrix in our own Cultural Value project. In particular, I was thinking about how I could try it out with the six of us who will be making the visit to Lidice in June. It will be a way of responding collectively and deeply to what we see.

One question remains for me. That is – the extent to which the Visual Matrix moves people away from responding to the original artwork, and results in them responding to what others in the group have said. Several other people in the workshop were also pondering this. Several people suggested that it was about both: the responses were rooted in the context of the artwork, but inevitably influenced by other people. I couldn’t decide. On the one hand, one of the characteristics of qualitative research is the shared meaning making. That is why we reflect on our role as a researcher before, during and after a research interview, and why we recognize that what people contribute to a focus group will almost certainly be quite different to what they would say in a one-to-one interview. Yet, my feeling was that the role of the imagination within this method was a critical one. And also the rate at which people contributed their thoughts, memories and images. When people engaged their imaginations collectively and responsively, how much more quickly could their responses move away from the original artwork than if they were focusing on more instrumental concerns?

It seems to me that part of the answer lies in processes that build this group reflection into an artwork. The shared meaning making becomes part of the artwork itself, rather than an ‘add-on’ activity that happens later. There are so many ways in which this could happen – and some of them were discussed as we drew towards the end of the workshop. I went home inspired, and eager to test out the researchers’ comments that there would seem to be no other approach that would have worked as effectively in gaining people’s in-depth, emotional responses to these public art projects.




Connections, connections, connections; it’s all about connections

Connections, connections, connections; it’s all about connections

by Dr Kelvin Clayton, Postdoctoral Researcher

The great thing about doing research, particularly inter-disciplinary research like this project, is that you just do not know what connections are waiting to be made, and for me, improving our understanding of something (like our understanding of the potential for art and culture to develop reflection and empathy across geographical divides) is all about making connections. My plan this morning was first of all to catch up on various articles and research material that had been deposited in the project ‘dropbox’. However, the down side of research is that often you feel that you are just wasting valuable time. You have little idea as to how valuable an article may be until you have read it, and even skim reading a number of them can sometimes feel a loss of precious moments – the loss of part of your life that you will never see again. That was how I felt for the first half hour at least. The material I was reading was high on rhetoric and fashionable phrases, but low on substance.

There was though a reference to a recently published report by the Arts Council: The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society. Skimming through this I came across the following statement: ‘Perhaps the strongest way in which arts and culture contributes towards citizenship and social inclusion is by strengthening social capital.’ Now that is an interesting connection. The notion of social capital can be traced back to Robert D. Putman’s now famous article ‘Bowling Alone’, which I had read some time ago but had not thought about for some while. Rereading it reminded me that for him ‘social capital’ refers ‘to features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit’. These social networks, he adds, ‘foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encourage the emergence of social trust’ and ‘facilitate coordination and communication, amplify reputations, and thus allow dilemmas of collective action to be resolved’. You get the idea. He then proceeds to lament the decline (in the USA) of civic engagement and mentions a few areas that (at the time, in 1995) were counter trends. There was, though, no mention of arts and culture.

Now from the above connection between ‘art and culture’ and ‘social capital’ two further connections suddenly materialised – to my own work on norms (and then onto some earlier research I had done for the project on empathy and sympathy) and to a whole body of work on social networks, particularly the difference between strong and weak social ties and the relative importance of the latter. From these thoughts on social networks (again, an area that I had not actively thought about for several years) two further connections sprang to mind that returned me to the current research project, the problem of understanding empathy / sympathy across geographical divides, and some material that I came across for the first time a couple of weeks ago about ‘connective aesthetics’. Oh, and just to really labour the point, also to an idea that appeared in the novel I’m attempting to read before falling asleep.

An area of philosophy that I am particularly interested in is social ontology – what society actually is. In previous research I have argued that what we generally regard as social structures (our norms, laws, institutions etc.) are what I term ‘expectations’ that have been codified to various degrees, and that these ‘expectations’ emerge from our developing interaction with other people and our world such that in any given situation they inform us what we think will happen or what should happen. The details of my argument to support this are out of place here, and anyway are not particularly relevant. What is relevant though is that according to this argument these ‘expectations’ develop as a result of feedback from the responses of others to what we say and do, from what G.H.Mead refers to as ‘taking the attitude of the other towards ourselves’.

The reason that I mention all this is that it connects with the work of the psychologist Martin L. Hoffman on empathy. Hoffman’s research suggests that what we term empathy is more than just an affective response, it is a developmental trait that passes through various ‘pre-verbal, automatic and involuntary’ stages before (hopefully) becoming a ‘cognitively advanced’ mode, one first requiring language and then employing role taking. Moreover, for Hoffman, ‘empathic distress’ (which is affective and self-focused) has to be transformed into ‘sympathetic distress’ (which is cognitive and other-focused) before any voluntary action to help the other can take place. In relation to the aims and objectives of this project I think that this differentiation of empathy and sympathy, and the ability to generate or provoke the latter out of the former, is important.

The other line of reflection that I referred to above concerns social networks. Much has been written over the years about the complex and dynamic nature of these networks, but the aspect that I was reminded of is the difference between what has been referred to as strong and weak social ties. Strong ties are those established within families and very cohesive groups and communities, between people who know each other well and have a great deal of common interests and shared beliefs. These, however, are not the important one in terms of ‘community health’ or ‘community flourishing’. The weak ties are those between mere acquaintances, are those that make bridges ‘into distant and other-wise quite alien social worlds’ (to quote Mark Buchanan, Small World). A preponderance of strong ties can make a community insular and slow to change, whist weak ties allow it to be open to new and creative influences. Weak ties then, between distant communities, can be good for both, not just the community that is (perhaps) being helped by the other. The question remains, though, as to how to foster these weak ties through the development of empathy / sympathy.

Which brings me to the final connection, to the aptly named notion of ‘connective aesthetics’. I came across this phrase about a month ago in a paper by Carol S. Jeffers – ‘Within Connections: Empathy, Mirror Neurons and Art Education’. In it Jeffers surveys the results of neuro-scientific research into the controversial subject of mirror neurons to explore ‘empathic social interaction’ in the classroom. Leaving aside whether there is such a particular type of neuron, this connection is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, because neuro-networks behave in a not dissimilar manner to social networks, and second because however caused imitation, mimicking the actions of others, is the first step in Hoffman’s developmental model of empathy. It appears to be well accepted that there are certain facial gestures (like fear or disgust) which are universal, and when seen can be imitated, and when imitated the feeling that produced them is reverse engineered. In this vein, Jeffers talks about ‘connective aesthetics’, an ‘imaginative and reconstructive process in the human brain.’ She suggests that such simulations ‘as induced by gesturing hands, signifying tools and strokes, expressive faces, and harmonious connections, provide the foundation for embodied learning.’ She illustrates her point by reference to a former student of hers:

Having once copied a similar piece as faithfully as she could, Molly explained that she felt a special connection to Cezanne – to the apples and bottles, to his brushwork, his knowledge – and had imagined her hand reaching into the painting to grasp one of his apples and all that it signified.

I have no idea how seriously to take this idea, but I do find it totally fascinating. Moving beyond the simple imitation of facial gestures and the reverse engineering of the emotion that gave rise to them, this suggests the possibility of producing some deep connection with another person through the imitation of the process that produced their work of art. It’s certainly an idea worth pursuing. And just to push this idea to the limit, last week I came across the idea expressed in a novel that I’m reading. Here the character speaking is referring to composers like Beethoven and Ravel:

Into their music these composers poured their fiercest beings. When a pianist memorizes a piece, he or she gets to know the dead man intimately – giving rise to all the pleasures and difficulties such an intense relationship implies. You learn Mozart’s trickery, his ADD attention span. Bach’s yearning for acceptance, his intolerance for shortcuts. Listz’s explosive temper. Chopin’s insecurity. And thus when you set out to make their music come alive in concert, on stage, in front of thousands, you very much need the dead man on your side. Because you are bringing him back to life.

Marisha Pessl, Night Film (London: Windmill Books, 2014) p199

Making connections not just with those people separated by space, but also by time? How far can we take this idea? Anyway, the connections do not stop here. Who knows what connections you will make during or after reading this? Who knows what further connections I will make after posting this? And of course, the potential connections exist in many dimensions – emotional, cognitive and social to name but a few. All that really matters is the dynamics of forging connections.

Early Reflections

Early Reflections on our Cultural Value project by Dr Ann O’Sullivan, Postdoctoral Researcher

What is compassion? What is empathy? What is under-standing? When I was eighteen I went for an interview to become a nurse because as I stated ‘I want to help people’. Does this make me compassionate? When I watch wildlife programmes on the television if there is any indication that an animal is about to be hurt I have to turn it off immediately. Does this make me compassionate? If my sister is hurting then I am hurting, is this empathy? If my partner is sad then I am sad, is this empathy? As a student counsellor I was trained in active listening techniques in an effort to be empathic of my clients’ situation. I would listen to their stories and try to ‘stand in their shoes’ but with no prior relationship it was very difficult to say I was empathic. It seems that what comes with ease with close family and friends takes much more effort with those at a distance. I struggled with empathy in my counselling practice, it just never came naturally. With intimates, one has the relationship on which to build a bridge of empathy; with clients, one has the narrative, the story that they tell of the self. There are certain fields of counselling such as narrative therapy that suggest that empathy is not something that one has for a client but something that one co-constructs with the client. The language space between the client and the counsellor is the space in which empathy must be constructed through the telling of a particular type of narrative, usually a problem narrative.

I am interested in the Lidice project because of the focus on empathy and compassion alongside an interest in narrative. There are so many ways to look at narratives from a completely structural point of view in that they have a beginning, middle and an end, to an interest in what the narrative conveys i.e. it content. The interest in the narrative for its content is the basis of a lot of qualitative research whereby we accept at face value that the content of the narrative is representative of some external reality. I am much more interested in what narratives do or the function of a particular narrative. Why this particular narrative at this particular time in this particular context. Everyone who enters the door of a therapist’s office does so knowing that they are going to tell a particular kind of story, a problem saturated story. Everyone who enters a doctor’s office will tell a particular kind of story usually an illness narrative or a narrative put together of clues to indicate a particular illness. Go to an AA meeting and they will have their own genre of narratives to tell. But above all my interest is the way in which narratives are strategically put together to construct a particular type of self.

I begin to wonder if particular types of narrative elicit empathy or compassion more than other types. The problem saturated narrative may elicit compassion the rising above adversity narrative may elicit empathy. The dominant narratives of our own lives may make us particularly susceptible to the same narratives told to us as the audience, just as we are drawn to particular genres of film or literature.

A busy week on our Cultural Value project

After two months of interviews and focus groups, involving academics and artists/creative practitioners, last week saw the first of our working group meetings. A number of artists and academics have agreed to work with the project team to develop new resources for the design and evaluation of arts projects and museum exhibitions in ways that better recognises and demonstrates their value in terms of empathy, compassion and understanding.

The artists included a community artist/photographer; a writer/playwright; a public artist and an arts charity co-ordinator. The project team who were there at the workshop included Jackie, Janet, Ann, John, and Kimberley. At the start of the workshop, we shared some interesting quotes from the focus groups and the interviews. We asked people to choose quotes that resonated with them or particularly interested them. This led to interesting discussions about the barriers to empathy, ’empathy fatigue’, and ways that people have engaged with empathy with museum displays. One of the quotes in particular highlighted the way in which focusing on individual stories and the common everyday of experiences of people (regardless of their differences), can have the greatest impact:

…when you go in there, there is twelve artefacts in glass cabinets around the outside and it’s not your traditional sort of storytelling museum. It just said the person’s name, their age, the fact that they were married or whether they had children and then it told an anecdote about their last days and so the one that absolutely and completely got me was it said underneath one that this guy was talking to his son and he just wanted the war to be over so he could go home and have chicken and chips for his tea. And that kind of just kicks you in the chest and I think that for me is the most powerful museum exhibition I have ever seen… And I think as well if hadn’t have known where I was in the world that could have been anybody from any nationality or any religion. It didn’t force you to have those kind of stereotypes or think that happened somewhere else. It actually made you realise that is was just a normal person with a family so I think that was why it was so powerful really.

Lecturer and Research Lead: Holocaust Archaeology

Ann then gave a 20 minute presentation about the emerging research findings. We want the new tools and approaches to be informed by the research, and so an important part of  the workshops is sharing and discussing the findings. Various evaluation techniques linked to empathy and compassion (quantitative and qualitative) have been mentioned by participants and some of these were also shared and discussed. We had an interesting discussion about whether it might be possible to adapt some of the measurement tools that are used in the field of health to apply them to arts projects. There is a certain resistance to doing this, which is not surprising given the context of the work, particularly with the focus on storytelling, which would strongly suggest qualitative approaches. One of the participants had been involved an arts project about Stoke-on-Trent and Lidice, which prompted unsolicited submissions of poetry from audiences about their response to the story. The idea of people adding their own new stories in response to an arts project is clearly hugely valuable and appealing.  However, at this stage we’re considering a wide variety of approaches to evaluation, and are ruling nothing out.

A point that has been strongly made throughout the project is that of the value of artists actually setting aside time to discuss and reflect upon important issues that impact on their practice (like empathy and compassion). It was noted that this could be done both in an online setting and face to face (with cake – an essential part of our meetings!). Such opportunities for interaction could certainly be part of an on-going strategy to explore the value of arts and culture in relation to empathy, compassion and understanding.

Jackie Reynolds