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July 14, 2016
The 9th International Conference on Cultural Policy Research was held last week at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul, South Korea. I was there, along with several CCPS colleagues, PhD students and graduates for what was a very stimulating few days. Seoul, the first Asian venue for this conference, was a setting which was timely and appropriate. Korea has been the home, in recent years, to a vibrant re-imagining of state-led initiatives in culture in relation to city regeneration, cultural diplomacy and the cultural economy, culminating in the hugely regionally and globally successful Hallyu wave of music, film and TV. These achievements, now retrospectively re-branded into a strategic vision for Creative Korea, provided the backdrop to the event as researchers and policymakers gathered to learn from, reflect on and contextualise them in the longer history of the project of cultural policy.
Personally the week started on a rather sombre note, having escaped an especially damp UK summer, dampened a bit more by the deepening gloom of the post-Brexit political crisis and arriving in a Seoul that was being brushed by the edge tropical storm to welcome conference go-ers with a thorough drenching. This, and jet-lag, might have accounted for the rather downbeat tone in the opening session on the Changing Role of Cultural Policy in the 21st century – and certainly all the speakers in various ways identified the Brexit vote as reflecting a significant change to the global context in which research in the field could operate. For me it was hard to get away from the sense that if, among the already proliferating interpretations of the meaning of the result, Brexit was a vote against a vision of a tolerant, outward looking UK, then British cultural policy itself, and its attendant research community, had also somehow failed. The catharsis of discussion, though, and the reminder that other places in the world (including the Mexico of Gonzalo Enrique-Soltero’s contribution) faced challenges in the social and cultural landscape which were even more immediate than those in the UK, helped me to re-focus on the on-going contributions that research in this field should still aspire to make. This re-awakening was helped by an opening ceremony in which performances of traditional Korean dance and music were accompanied by some slick video introductions to Seoul and to Korea and by some words of introduction from eminent local dignitaries and the organising committee. I’m often struck by how international conferences are so much better at this kind of thing than we are in Britain and, while the cynic in me might reflect that there’s nothing academics like better than being told how important we are, the warmth and sincerity of these greetings made for a very welcome start to the week’s activities.
The rest of the programme was packed with papers and themes. Amongst many potential highlights I’ll pick out three memories from the sessions I saw. First were from the sessions and papers which were addressing the theme of cultural work. Some years ago an influential paper asked where work was in creative industries policy. On the evidence of these sessions (including about ‘Inequality, Meritocracy and Wellbeing in the Cultural Industries’ and ‘Artistic Survival and Public Policy’), it is still being looked for and found in diverse places as researchers attempt to identify and to explore the realities or delusions of work in the creative sector. I’m writing a new module on this topic, and the papers and discussions I saw here will be of great use in shaping these issues on behalf of our students. Second I was really struck by a paper from Takashi Ishigaki on the use of film-showings as a mechanism for re-building community bonds in Tsumani-struck Japan. The author had worked as a volunteer on the program and displayed images of films screened on the side of buildings in village squares or in community centres, for children and adults, all provided free by local distributors. It offered a nice reminder of the important work that apparently simple forms of cultural participation can do in re-establishing ‘normal life’ in a traumatised region.
Finally the closing plenary, featuring an address on 'Cultural Strategies of Urban Regeneration in the Instagram Age' from Sharon Zukin, author of the influential Loft Living, with a discussion from an associated panel, was genuinely memorable. This was not least a result of its location in the spectacular setting of Seoul’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza, itself perhaps exemplifying the kind of ‘McGuggenisation’ that the panel and others introduced and critiqued. Alongside the celebration of the potential of the nomination of cities as ‘creative’ Professor Zukin also reminded us of the ambiguities and tensions in this process. For all the celebration of such initiatives, they might also be complicit in the re-shaping of the city as a façade for the aesthetic delight of the elites of global finance, or for extracting value from tourists rather than the cultural enrichment of its citizenships – a point made forcefully by a local discussant, Professor Dong-Yeun Lee of the Korea National University of Arts. It was a telling discussion that highlighted the inherent tensions between visions of culture (and the city) for policymakers as, on the one hand a thing to be produced and consumed and, on the other, a space to be lived in and shared.
It was especially nice to experience all this with colleagues from the UK cultural policy research community, as well as several of our PhD students – some of whom were presenting and responding to papers themselves, and some of whom, as Seoul natives, were able to act as valuable restaurant guides too. That, and the return of the sun by the end of the week, made for an inspiring and energising conference. My sincere congratulations and thanks to the organisers for their hard work in putting it together.
July 10, 2015
Photography by Alex Kharlamov
In 2014 I was awarded funding by the Institute of Advanced Teaching and Learning for an academic fellowship project. The Mediasmith Project was an experimental and particpatory series of workshops and events exploring transmedia and documentary making approaches to research. We borrowed from the expertise of filmmakers, producers, creative technologists and web developers to investigate how web-native and digital storytelling, digital media production, coding and other digital tools could inform the research process.
The final event, the Popathon x Mediasmith Project Storytelling Hack Jam took place in February 2015 but the learning has continued to inform new developments behind the scenes. Many of the methods we explored are about to be put to the test in a large-scale public research project about the public understanding of supply chains; MyChainReaction.
Professor Jan Godsell, Professor of Supply Chain Strategy at WMG, was a keen participant in the Mediasmith Project workshops. During the first workshop one of the models of transmedia practice that I proposed was the creation and presentation of a film or digital asset as a seed or provocation for discussion and the creation of new narratives. By the time the third workshop had taken place (May 2014) Jan had already put a small production team together. They produced a short film about supply chains with the intention of provoking a wider public debate about them but why stop there?
Supply chains and public participation
Jan is intrigued that there is no shared definition of supply chains within academia, despite the fact that they are recognised as a discreet disciplinary field. She also suspects that awareness and understanding of supply chains amongst the wider public is relatively poor. "The issue of supply chains is of national importance. Supply chains are key in supporting economic growth, contributing to increasing both GDP and employment levels. Supply chains touch almost every aspect of our daily lives but many of us don’t know or realise this and we want to know why.” These considerations proved fertile ground for the development of a research impact project that could not only test these assumptions, but do so by inviting the public around the world to participate.
The research team consisting of Jan, Antony Karatzas, a research fellow at WMG, Rob Batterbee, IT Manager for Student Careers and Skills, and I submitted a proposal to the ESRC Impact Accelerator fund. The core of the project combines crowdsourcing, social networking and storytelling in a website designed to both generate research data and increase public engagement and understanding as more and more people take part. The site features an engaging example of a local supply chain, bringing to life the story of Stroud based ice cream maker Kate Lowe. Kate lives in a village where she is well known for producing delicious honeycomb ice cream. Her mother makes the honeycomb at home in Norfolk and posts it to Kate who then makes the ice cream in batches using other locally sourced ingredients. Kate’s ice cream is infamous at dinner parties and family gatherings but her ambitions are to develop a brand and sell her ice cream more widely. Website visitors are encouraged to reflect on their own participation in a supply chain and share their stories which are simultaneously pinned on the MyChainReaction map. In doing so they also answer a couple of simple questions about their knowledge of supply chains which will generate quantitative data for further research.
The website is, however, just one part of an integrated transmedia approach. We have also reserved funding for an artistic commission in which artists will be invited to respond to the themes of the project and the stories that emerge. Their work will be presented at the Global Supply Chain Debate, to be hosted at the International Digital Lab at the University of Warwick in November 2015.
Appealing for public participation adds a whole layer of marketing and communications activity usually reserved for the dissemination of research rather than the research process itself. We have debated the ethics of allowing research participants to see others' stories (but not responses to the research questions) at length, initially worrying that this may bias their participation. However, audience participation is an inherently social activity - participation depends on the motivation that stems from seeing what others have posted and the willingness to share. This decision making process impacted on the intrinsic design of the website. Should we prime the audience with a working example whilst restricting access to the crowd sourced stories to those who had registered and completed the research questions first? Or, should we make this content accessible to everyone in the hope that this will motivate others to take part? Creating such a ‘walled garden’ felt counter-intuitive and, given that the only criteria our research respondents need to satisfy are a) the possession of a valid email address and b) a story to tell, the risk of skewing the user generated content seemed to be outweighed by the social imperative to join others and take part.
Supply chains are perhaps not the most accessible and people friendly subject so another challenge has been to find the right language by which to describe and pitch the project. Discussions of food security, provenance and sustainability have done much to highlight the importance of supply chains in relation to food and agriculture, hence our working example, but they remain less visible in other areas of public life. It’s also a question of semantics as we may well be referring to supply chains but in different terms or contexts which, we believe, have nothing to do with them e.g. the arts, education, medicine, etc. We also wanted to promote the cause and effect relationships that our interactions with supply chains produce so, after much head scratching, we arrived at the concept of a chain reaction. This gave us a unique hashtag and a call to action (with a little help from Diana Ross and RCA Records); ‘Get in the middle of a chain reaction.’ It has even inspired a spoof sing-a-along video, produced by students on the MA in Creative and Media Enterprises, designed to raise a smile and promote the project.
Ninety-five Not Out
We are acutely aware of the ambition and novelty of our approach. So far we have ninety-five stories and counting. If you are reading this why not add one more to the #MyChainReaction map?
August 28, 2014
Very pleased this week to receive a copy of a new edited collection to which I have contributed. The Cultural Intermediaries Reader, edited by Jennifer Smith Maguire and Julian Matthews provides a comprehensive and critical overview of an influential concept in theoretical and empirical research on the creative industries. Identified by Pierre Bourdieu as strategically significant figures in in the field of culture in the France of the 1960s, ‘cultural intermediaries’ were members of those then ‘new’ occupations – advertising, marketing, public relations etc. which were concerned with the supply of ‘symbolic goods and services’ and engaged in the processes of identifying, shaping and circulating tastes for new products and lifestlyes. In the fifty years since, such industries have become even more significant, both in their relative scale and in their apparent sophistication. Workers in them have also, through such assumed characteristics as their creativity, dynamism, and their blurring of distictions between work and leisure become models for workers in other industries. An accompanying valorisation of youth subcultures, new technologies and emerging forms of urban living has appeared to place these kinds of workers in the vanguard of social and cultural life – although some well-placed satire has also helped to prick the more grandiose claims made for their significance.
The essays in this collection provide a timely critique of the original concept and also point to some developments of the theoretical language, drawing from the now far more established field of cultural economy which has complicated the distance between cultural production and consumption which the figure of an intermediary depends on. Contributions from the editors, and from influential voices in the field including Liz Mcfall, Sean Nixon and Toby Miller unpick and critique the claims made for cultural intermediaries and for labour in the ‘creative economy’ more generally. These essays are complemented by case studies of empirical work in specific fields of mediation including from Liz Moor on Branding, Victoria Durrer and Dave O'Brien on Arts Promotion and from Warwick’s own Lynne Pettinger on fashion retail.
My own contribution is also in this latter camp and provided a welcome opportunity to revisit research originally undertaken as part of my PhD into workers in the retail book industry in the early noughties in the light of the developments in this field since. Most significant here is the increasing dominance of online forms of retail and the accompanying digital means of mediation. The rise of online retailing was arguably a continuation of a story that had begun much earlier in this particular field. In the UK and US large retail chains had, since the early 90s dominated the book retail landscape, taking advantage of the rational and logistical technologies of modern retailing to reconstruct a field with a long history of shaping literary tastes. Such chains placed smaller stores who were unable to benefit from economies of scale in their negotiations with publishers under particular pressure, and shifted the power relations in the book industry away from publishers and towards powerful retailers and supermarkets able to pile ‘em high and, following the end of price maintenance policies protecting books from the market in the early 90s, sell ‘em cheap. The rise of Amazon effectively beat these firms at their own game, combining the logistical power of computing technology with a mail order - and then through Kindle and e-books, a digital- mode of delivery which physical stores can't compete with in terms of either space or price.
One consequence of this story is the change in the role of the book shop worker. Once imagined as a ‘profession’ amongst service work, and even as a means of entry into the publishing industry, the re-organisation of book retail over the last thirty years has also arguably involved processes of deskilling of its workers. The booksellers of the past might have been intermediaries in the classic sense, taste- makers whose expertise and enthusiasm enabled them to provide guidance to their customers. Processes of rationalisation have undermined the power of that expertise - for better or worse - such that the bulk of the day-to-day work becomes passing a barcoded product, linked to a electronically organised centrally managed stock-database through a till on behalf of a consumer who knows what s/he wants. Workers and firms in my study were often able to negotiate the tensions in this process. Workers were able to insulate themselves from the low pay and insecurity of service work through the pleasures of working with things they loved. Firms were able to use worker enthusiasm as a resource in shaping the semiotic meaning of the shop space – so crucial, so the story goes, to the ‘experience economy’. This accommodation is threatened by the digital context in which the apparently rational calculative consumer meets the algorithmic means of recommendation of the digital retailer, rendering any form of face-to-face mediation at best marginal and at worse an expensive indulgence.
The on-going consequences for these changes for cultural workers and for processes of cultural consumption – in this and equivalent fields - are yet to be worked out. The essays in this book should give students and researchers some useful context to understand the processes at play and provide the theoretical and methodological tools to help think them through in the future.
June 26, 2014
Just home from an enjoyable couple of days in Utrecht at a conference, International Perspectives on Participation and Engagement in the Arts, organized by the networkbrought together by Leila Jancovich and her team at Leeds Metropolitan University. The two day conference explored the issues of meaning, measurement, method and values which continue to animate debates about the arts and culture and their relationship with their broader publics. An impressive range of papers and presentations, began with reflections from the playwright America Vera-Zawala on her work in community-based theatre, one example of which concerned the impact of the closure of a mill on the Swedish town of Norrsundet. A play was written and produced with the local community at the precise time of this trauma and, amongst the many fascinating aspects of this process, what stuck with me was the relationship between the artist and the community and the vexed question of who had the responsibility for creative decision making. Participants expressed considerable anxiety about taking control over the direction of the project in deference to the accredited expertise of the theatre professionals. They in turn, for reasons relating to their commitment to the integrity of the process they had initiated, were equally reluctant to impose the right way to proceed. It was an impasse resolved by nothing more complicated than time and dialogue, through which participants took eventual ownership of the narratives of their own experiences.
This story had a perhaps surprising echo in a plenary from Andrea Bandelli about processes of participation in the management of science museums. Science, Andrea reminded us, is not a democracy, although this does not mean that scientific processes, and priorities should not reflect democratically established priorities, or that scientists are not required to communicate with the publics who fund them. There was a degree of fear, expressed by the boards of science museums in Andrea’s study, in managing this balance, especially as science is so regularly deliberately or accidentally, misrepresented in public discourse, as either saviour or villain. There was a telling piece of evidence, though that perhaps this fear was partially misplaced. When asked, attenders of science museums wanted there to be public representation of some form on museum boards. At the same time, when asked if these lay board members should have an executive role in decision making, attenders seemed happy to defer to the experts. Both these stories might be interpreted as evidence of an impulse to be involved with decision-making that gives a lie to one of the more abiding narratives in this field, that of the ‘deficit model’. So much of the official discourse relating to participation starts from a working assumption that people lack some capacity which prevents it. Too often that serves to cement the position of the institution or individual accredited with the means to fill the deficit, who are all too ready to pay lip service to the notion of participation but are also reluctant to embrace the accompanying challenge to their own authority that it brings. It was gratifying to hear some critical voices on this topic in many of the presentations.
CCPS was well represented by both me and Maria Barrett, who presented some initial findings from her research project into the theatre audience of Liverpool. I was presenting some further 'work-in-some-kind-of-progress’ thoughts about participatory arts work as work, which I first blogged about here. It was really useful to think and talk this through in this forum, which included artists who had lived through the processes I was examining. It was especially exciting to meet up with the Artworks team which has been engaged in an extensive sector analysis and important empirical inquiry into this topic. Hopefully these conversations can be productive and ongoing.
In keeping with the mission of the network, the event brought together academic researchers with policy makers and arts practitioners. This sounds blindingly obvious but is difficult to do, and especially difficult to do well and there are inevitably some grumbles in the process. These might be, depending on which camp you’re in, about ‘rigour’ of research, about the use of theoretical ‘jargon’or abstraction, about the fetishisation of anecdote or personal experience or the search for ‘practical’ applicability or the critical examination of assumptions. Such debates can be uncomfortable – exemplified by the intense looking at the floor of some academic colleagues when it came to actually participating in composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven’s Saturday lunchtime interactive music performance. More seriously, such discomfort might stem from public forums like this also being places where professional identities in all these areas are performed, and where stakes in the territory are marked out and defended. That might be inevitable - but the organizers are to be commended for creating a comfortably uncomfortable space for people in these different fields to talk to, rather than past, one another. It was certainly a thought-provoking couple of days in developing my own research. Utrecht was a lovely place to visit and my thanks go to our hosts and organizers for their hospitality.
October 03, 2013
The new term started for students on our GMC course with a talk from a visiting researcher - Dr. William Merrin, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics and Cultural Studies at the University of Swansea. William’s talk on Media Studies 2.0 threw our newly arrived students into the deep end of debates they will be wrestling with over the coming weeks and months – about the profound social, political and cultural issues underpinning the ever-changing media and technological landscape and, as interestingly, about the role of Media Studies as an academic discipline which doesn’t just reflect on these issues, but has been, throughout its history, active – and even complicit- in shaping them.
William’s whizz through the history of the development of media technologies emphasised that the contemporary mediaworld had been shaped by the coalescing of two different stories of innovation – one focussed around technologies of broadcasting and one around computing. These developments were not just a consequence of brilliant inventors providing technological solutions to practical problems – they were also bound up with cultural processes and assumptions about the best ways to communicate and the best ways to manage information in complex societies. It is the convergence of these stories in the late 20th/early 21st century which marks the distinctiveness of this period, as the computing side of the story squeezes out the broadcasting side. Whilst TV, radio, film and print– the dominant media in Media Studies 1.0 might look and sound like they did before – to audiences (or users as William suggests they might better be called) and to academics in this field - they are now, almost exclusively, produced and circulated through digital code.
This accelerated convergence has a number of paradoxes within it. On the one hand it appears to bring enormous opportunities for more access to the technologies of media production, which escape the traditional relationships between communication, order and power (William showed us a YouTube video made by his 10 year old son, explicitly against his parental wishes). These are means of mental and symbolic production not available to the audiences of recent history. On the other hand, the audience of the past could be anonymous if it wished. The users of the present, by contrast, leave their digital traces for commercial and state interests to feed on –so that even in benign liberal democracies like the UK our Facebook likes become a commercial resource over which we or indeed our elected representatives have limited control and your Twitter feed might land you in jail.
The professional expertise of scholars in Media Studies has been bound up with texts, representation and audiences. In Media Studies 2.0 these might not be where the urgency of debates are, in comparison to knowledge about regulatory frameworks or access to the means to understand and re-work code (to hack, in other words). For those in the arts and humanities more generally, interested in the consequences of the digital, these are important challenges, which raise questions about our focus and priorities and about the kinds of skills students – and indeed teachers – might need to live and work in this emerging media infrastructure in ways which might help shape it for the future.
It was a provocative presentation, and William was good enough to share chapters from his forthcoming book with us. He also shows an enviable commitment to how Media Studies 2.0 might challenge traditional models of gatekeeping and authorial academic authority by blogging them here.
For us in CCPS this year also represents Global Media and Communication 2.0. Our founding director Jonathan Vickery is concentrating on developing a new MA program on Arts, Enterprise and Development and Joanne Garde-Hansen has taken over as our Course Director this year. I’ll record my thanks to Jonathan for his work in setting up and managing the programme for the last two years and look forward to working with Jo. I hope that, on GMC this year, as teachers and students, we can try and rise to William’s challenge.
February 26, 2013
(photo: Natalia Buckley)
Innovation can end in failure. But failure can also be the starting point for innovation. Last year, together with Ruth Leary and Katherine Jewkes, I was part of the Happenstance Project, an attempt to understand how creative technologists introduce and embed innovation into arts organisations. The report on that project is now available via the NESTA website.
Ruth Leary introduced the word Happenstance to describe the haphazard, undirected process of innovation we were to observe in the three arts organisations. The creative technologists came from a culture of 'fast failing', making rapid prototypes, finding out what worked, hacking bits of software, experimenting and problem-solving. Failing, and learning from failure, was integral to their innovative process. The arts organisations then responded to these interventions and attempted to make sense of them, either applying, redirecting or simply rejecting them.
One of the guiding principles of Happenstance was 'agile' methodology – one resident even displayed a version of the Agile Manifesto (with added cats) as a poster in one of the arts organisations. Agile methodology allows objectives and outcomes to be continually re-evaluated through daily updates. Instead of frontloading objectives at the start of a project, or evaluating after it’s finished, in agile methodology progress is continually reviewed and small changes in direction are introduced to put the project back on track. Talking, preferably face to face, regularly and openly, is vital. Agile methodology evolved in the software industry where teams of developers had to ship software packages to tight deadlines. In our case the Happenstance technologists had to complete their work within a structured timetable of two five week residencies or 'sprints', spread over three days each week. As with Amabile's characterisation of a creative process allowing 'autonomy around process', the parameters for innovation were clearly defined, but process and outcomes were not, leaving the technologists free to experiment and play. In the end this leap of faith was rewarded - the arts organisations avoided micromanaging the residents and were rewarded by new pieces of software and hardware, new approaches to project management and communication, and better understanding and confidence in managing technology. Random inventiveness generated valuable innovations.
A particular talking point for the research team throughout Happenstance was participants’ differing attitudes to failure and risk. The technologists had nothing to fear - apart perhaps from a threat to their own self-expectation and professional pride. They were used to taking risks, and they were used to things not working and having to be fixed - such is the nature of technology. The arts organisations by contrast were playing for high stakes. The management teams were rising stars in their field. The organisations were accountable to funders, audiences and to their staff. Happenstance itself was a high profile publicly funded project. The arts organisations came from a culture where accountability to public funding and the scale and ambition of their work meant that failure was not an option. The technologists' mantra - fail fast, fail cheap, fail often - felt distinctly alien.
Yet the technologists' approach to failure also felt familiar. All of the organisations had experience of working with artists - in residencies, exhibitions and other projects. Failure is integral and inuitive to the work of artists. The creative process is iterative - artists and writers usually progress through a process of experimentation and editing rather than a single moment of magical thinking. When breakthroughs do occur they are even more likely to be subjected to reworking, cross-examination and self-doubt. One could say that self-doubt is the necessary flipside to confidence in the artistic process - starting with the courage to try something new, artists also need the humility to doubt their best efforts. Theatre rehearsal, script development or poetry all depend upon failure and repetition to hone an idea - repetition with a twist. False starts and restarts are the painful stock in trade through which the big idea eventually emerges.
We saw all of this in the work of the technologists. They were imaginative, bold and creative in their thinking - but also always ready to start again, try something else, giving up on one idea or method in order to try another. If something went wrong, it wasn't a disaster. This methodology was something of a revelation to the staff of the arts organisation used to planning and accounting for every resource and outcome..
One unexpected lesson of the Happenstance Project was that arts organisations needed to learn to fail. And of course to learn from failure - nobody should make the same mistake twice. Failure is still a dirty word in the arts and this is not likely to be a popular message with funders. Yet failure is usually a better teacher than success and it is surely an integral part of innovative processes in the arts and in technology. According to Clayton Christiansen, the innovator's dilemma is that success locks the innovator into a particular technology or market, making it much harder for that successful innovator to adapt as markets and technologies evolve. By contrast failure helps us to adapt and to innovate, to try something new. That has to be a good thing, especially for people working in technology or the arts. The condition for this is that managers, funders, institutions and investors need to be less prone to stigmatise failure and to fetishise success, to be tolerant of failure and to learn the art of self-doubt. Perhaps we can post a slogan, ‘Learning to fail’, on their office walls...