‘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.