Experimental Methods for Exploring Environmental Encounters

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Holloway, University of London
Department Name: Geography


It is well recognized that a host of aesthetic strategies - from artistic practice to visual culture more broadly - respond to and even move for action in the face of current environmental change and ecological crises. A key question remains however; "how do the environmental encounters configured by critical art contribute to alternative ecological imaginaries and futures, and foster practices of environmental citizenship?" That this question remains largely unanswered is the result of i) the lack of research methods for exploring the environmental encounters configured by art, and ii) the need for a more sophisticated querying of the components of these cultural experiences, to ask, in short, how does art go to work in the world?

The need to query the nature of art's audiencing and the environmental encounters it can catalyse -simply put the experiences of environmental art- has become a common refrain across communities concerned with the transformative possibilities of these arts practices. This includes diverse groups of artists, art theorists, geographers, environmental scientists, and museum professionals and arts and sciences institutions. Working alongside 2 partner organizations who develop art-science collaborations (Arts Catalyst, London, and Swiss artists-in-labs, Zurich) this RDA responds to these issues by way of a 3-phase project, guided by 2 key aims:

1) To experiment with methods through which to explore the environmental encounters catalysed by art works and their accompanying programming
2) To conceptualize these encounters and the 'components' of cultural experience that constitute them

In addressing these aims the proposed RDA extends the PI's previous work on the transformative effects of art, and responds to specific questions raised by 2 previous research grants on which she worked, exploring respectively, the 'Cultural Geographies of Landscape Art' and 'Art-Science Collaborations: Bodies and Environments.' The latter, an AHRC-NSF funded project, was an international multi-sited ethnography of 6 art-science projects, including the 2 partner organizations. It explored how these projects transformed the subjectivities, knowledge and practices of artists and scientists involved. Emerging during this study, but beyond its scope, was a set of further questions concerning how art-science collaborations go to work on their audiences.
As well as having an intellectual force regarding conceptualizing the experiencing and 'work' of art, such questions are highly relevant at a time when multiple stake-holders across the arts and sciences are looking to justify funding, and enhance the benefits of their projects, especially with respect to questions of science communication and engagement. Further, and as with the arts sector more broadly, there is a need to substantiate the often anecdotal evidence upon which claims of environmental arts' impacts rest, as well as, interestingly, a desire to critically reflect on the very ideas of 'evidence' and 'evaluation' that circulate in current funding and policy contexts. The hope across the sector is for the evolution of ideas that are more responsive to the particular aesthetic, social, institutional and political conditions of these projects and organizational ways of working.

In response to these issues the RDA unfolds in 3 phases:
Phase 1 Organisational Consultation
Ethnographic work with partner organisations exploring ideas of evaluation, evidence, environmental encounter, and the existing methods used to examine audience engagement.
Phase 2 Methodological Experimentation
Developing and testing an assemblage of methods to explore the environmental encounters constituted by art, including ethnographic, visual and participatory techniques, and the use of social media.
Phase 3 Conceptual Reflections:
Drawing together results with theoretical ideas of art and transformation, and disseminating findings to academic and non-academic audiences.

Planned Impact

This project will most immediately reach, and potentially impact upon, the following beyond-academic audiences:

1) The two partner organisations: Arts Catalyst and Swiss artists-in-labs:
The PI's existing research with the partners identified a series of questions/demands that this RDA begins to address. Principally these concern: i) evidence and understanding of art-science projects' audience engagement ii) the research methods needed for such understandings iii) issues around the existing ideas of 'evidence' and 'evaluation' these organisations have to work with.

2)Stakeholders in art-science and the wider art and environment community: eg. PI's and partners' networks including The Wellcome Trust, Natural History Museum, Science Gallery (Dublin), Science Museum, Cape Farewell, Art-Science Museum (Singapore).
Conversations during the PI's past research indicate that the issues of the RDA's partners are common to a range of other stakeholders. This community will benefit from the evidence base and the experimental methods regarding environmental encounters that the RDA will develop, potentially utilising this in grant and project development, and adapting the methods assemblage for their own 'evaluations' where appropriate.

3) Policy makers, funders and science communicators concerned with evidencing and evaluating art-science projects: eg. PI's and partners' networks including Science et Cité (Switzerland); British Council; Dana Centre; Arts Council England.
The intermediaries who fund and commission art-science projects and science communication/engagement practitioners keen to explore the possiblities of the arts will also benefit from the evidence base, experimental methods and critical thinking around 'evidence' and 'evaluation' the RDA will deliver.

Pathways to Impact:
Learning lessons from previous research the RDA will pair targeted activities at the culmination of the grant with opportunities for knowledge exchange and impact during its lifetime. This is important to ensure maximum benefit for the 2 partner organisations. Further, the PI's existing international art-science world networks together with the partners' networks will ensure a wide circulation of findings.

1) Social Media Strategy:
The RDA will launch a professionally designed website and a dedicated blog, as well as using Twitter and Tumblr. In addition to promoting the research, these tools will develop ongoing discussions with partner organisations and others, and feed-back preliminary results and emerging ideas during the RDA life-span

2) Research seminars with partner organisations during phase 1 of the project:
Stimulated by readings and artefacts these seminars will discuss ideas of 'evidence,' 'evaluation' and 'encounter', building partner research capacity and contributing to their strategic planning. Key reflections will be posted on the blog after the events.

3) Interim report 'Encounter, Evidence and Evaluation' from phase 1, posted on blog and circulated through PI's and partners' networks.

4) Final seminars with partner organisations to feedback and discuss results.

5) 1/2 day workshop (London) invited participants from PI's networks will include representatives from Cape Farewell; Wellcome Trust; Natural History Museum; Science Museum, Science Gallery; Royal Geographical Society; National Maritime Museum.

6) Final report, including material on experimental methods, evidence base and reflections on encounters, evidence and evaluation will be posted on the RDA website, partners' websites and widely circulated.

7) Commentaries for Nature Climate Change and Leonardo. To publicise RDA findings to wider audiences in art, science and science communication/engagement the PI will write 2 commentary papers. The paper for Nature Climate Change will respond to both ongoing discussions in that journal and the Nature editor's request that the PI keep them informed of her ongoing research in this area.


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Description Three key sets of findings resulted from this project:
1) More open discussion of the cultures of evidence used to report and describe the cultural value of art-science projects is needed.

There is a potential mismatch between the singular, rich and nuanced ethnographic stories I was looking to tell and the "evidence" culture that funders and organizations create around cultural value. While my data was valued for offering points for refection on best practice and shaping on-going discussions around audience engagement, it was notable that in outward facing discussions the data was most often valued was illustrative extracts, often situated as "anedoctes", to accompany more qualitative data. As Friedmann (2013) has noted, in bringing together art and science, one of the enduring issues is the very different valuations of how to understand whether something is good, it is not only then than "tests" of value would be based on different ideas of evidence, but that "value" itself is potentially understood very differently.
There are a number of possible responses. On the one hand, it suggests the need to continue to develop a range of different forms of data for arts organisations so that they are able to build the cases they need in the current funding climate, as well as to reflect on best practice and how to evolve their work. On the other hand, this conforming to the current rhetorical power of particular forms of numerical data, can also be challenged, helping to cultivate alternative evidence cultures around cultural value that challenge these rhetorics. Here the ethnographic methods and thinking of Science and Technology Studies might provide useful tools, with philosophers such as Isabelle Stengers seeking to challenge knowledge and practices, to slow down accepted reasonings and make space for different ways of knowing and doing to emerge. It could be argued that what is needed now is such a slowing down of the reasoning of the current questions of "value" with respect to culture, to create futher opportunities to "arouse a slightly different awareness of the problems and situations mobilising us" (Stengers 2005, 994). In this case to enable us, but also the funders and evaluators to think harder about the concept of "value" beyond a numerical rhetoric.
2) Bringing together existing arts and humanities and social science research methods offers rich tools for researching the "value" of environmental art.
The methods testing that was carried out here did so in the context of a set of dimensions for thinking about encounter that I was keen to investigate, and a sense from art theory and practice that evolving ontologies and forms of art required new forms of research and new modes of writing.
One set of conclusions to draw concerns the conceptualisation of these methods. It was clear that as we build increasing numbers of studies about what it is that art does in the world, and how indeed it does it, a rather different suite of methods are going to be needed than those we might perhaps have once associated with art history and theory. Responding to the evolving forms of art work, and the expanding sets of questions asked of them when we consider issues of 'value', requires us to be attuned to the social, affective, sensory and cognitive aspects of the 'work' art does, and to develop methods appropriate to these. While on the one hand, to develop such methods is clearly to innovate, it is also to realise that arts and humanities and social science already offer a rich set of methodologies and techniques which can be drawn on to examine these questions of cultural value.
A second set of conclusions to be drawn concern the practicalities of researching cultural value, and principally the temporalities of these studies. The focus of the research I was carrying out understood 'value' to have been created at the point of encounter, in the gallery, in the local community. It is clear that 'value' can not be understood only in such temporally defined ways. As one exhibition visitor said in response to a question in an on-line questionnaire about the 'new ideas of the moon' they gained from Republic of the Moon (completed a few hours after their visit) "Too early to describe sorry....its a seed sowing, not a quick win type of show". It seems further longitudinal studies of cultural value are needed, studies that track from the conception of the project through its life-span, to its varied sites of display, and beyond, to think about the longer term transformative effects of these environmental encounters.

3) The "environmental encounters" that art works can create can be thought of in terms of, Inspiring, Storying, Sensing, and Imagining.
Four types of environmental encounter were discussed in the context of the research findings: inspiring, storying, sensing and imagining. These dimensions point to the need to consider the spaces and times of cultural value carefully.
In thinking about the environmental encounters as inspiring, as after Von Humboldt conceiving of aesthetic practices not as a separate and lesser form of knowledge than science, but a way of knowing that in fact stimulates other forms of enquiry, we need to appreciate cultural value as outlasting and overspilling the space-times of the site of the primary encounter with the art work. For, this is more than a question of "what was learnt" in the course of an exhibition visit, but rather how were new spaces and possibilities opening up for other ways of knowing, new to the individual, if not to others. The recognition of 'storying' as a tool for political thinking, for taking individual or community ownership over large scale questions and narratives- here of 'big science' and geopolitical concerns - resonates with wider work that revalorises the potential of story-telling for a whole range of social purposes. It is worth noting here that 'storying' is of value not just for creating particular forms of environmental encounter, but should also be appreciated as a method for thinking about cultural value itself. If stories offer powerful and potent means to engage and empower individuals, celebrating the singular and rich over the generic, then this seems very apt for the sorts of 'evidence' of cultural value that were being called for above. Finally, whilst each of these modes develops a sense of the kinds of environmental encounter that are being created by the art works, what needs further research is the link between these forms of encounter, and a better understanding of how it is they might bring about transformations of subjects, knowledge and practices. In other words, we need to think further about the kind of 'work' art does in the world by conceptualising and telling stories of the sorts of transformations that these encounters bring about.
Exploitation Route My findings might be taken forward in the following ways.

1) They provide the basis for calls for further methodological development for the study of the encounters art works develop.

2) They begin to complicate ideas around the cultures of evidence required by arts organisations and suggest the need for further work in this area to help evolve these discussions with arts organisations

3) They point to the need for further work on the kinds of effects- on publics, on scientists- that art can have in the field of environmental change. This might be of use to a range of parties looking to explore the possibilities of art with respect to these fields.
Sectors Creative Economy,Environment

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Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
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End 02/2018
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