Wednesday 17 March 2010

Jenny Holtzer at the Baltic

I went to Newcastle last weekend to see the Jenny Holtzer exhibition at the Baltic which occupies, albeit sparsely, two of its floors and with the room pictured viewable from the top floor viewing balcony.

There are a number of paintings on the walls of which I recall three genres: magnified emails censored in black ink; prisoners hand prints; and maps of the planned invasion of Iraq. This is an exhibition concerned with the Iraq war and hence there is a standing sense of outrage at the war itself, its origins in oil and the use of torture but also more abstract or general issues of violence and sexual violence.

But the focus is the LED installations which are surpisingly visually gripping. One runs the length of a large room: ten strips of yellow LED display showing text running away from the door and apparently into the wall at the end. This slowly spells out fragmentary text: at times, perhaps, describing acts of violence or rape, at others much more anodyne. I spent a number of minutes reading another display which - during that time - described oil prices and OPEC policy in newsroom abbreviations. Yet another displayed brisk (political) slogans (Protect me from what I want) though I wasn’t sure what valence I should ascribe to them (I was reminded of Travis’s comments on the way language itself doesn’t represent the world as thus and so.)

Seeing the exhibition on a Sunday morning a further element of the experience was to hear the words being slowly read out by the children brought for a cultural morning out by their parents. Their flat toned recitation was an interesting counterpoint to the stripped down context of the displays themselves.

But with a sense that surface attraction and meaning are in a kind of tension in much contemporary art, I wasn’t sure what to make of the displays. Whilst de- and then re-contextualised in an art gallery, the use of text itself seemed a kind of cheat: a short cut to significance it perhaps did not finally earn.

Friday 5 March 2010

Can there be generalisable research via community engagement?

The mainstay of the field research of ISCRI (and one of the constituent departments within it: Ethnicity and Health) is the community engagement model. Over the last ten years and more, UCLan researchers have used this to find the views of particular communities on particular issues (sometimes ‘hard to reach’ communities and taboo issues) especially when this has been needed to focus government policy and resources.

An integral aspect of the process has been the incorporation of social benefits. The research process involves the active participation of members of the target community who thus benefit from training (in research) and education (getting onto a degree programme) and thus an inflow of money into, and ongoing support for, the community in question. In return, local knowledge of the views of local communities can be more easily accessed by people who have local credibility.

Although ISCRI has a good reputation in this area, the approach does carry some essential tensions (about which I had an interesting conversation with Alastair Roy; in fact, warming to his critical theme, he almost seemed intent not so much to praise the community engagement model as to bury it). One obvious problem is that the local researchers are trained for only limited amounts of time. So the expertise ISCRI markets is at one stage removed from the coalface. Or, to put it another way, it is an ongoing task to ensure the quality of that local research.

Second, the focus is narrow and concerns local communities. So the claim has to be that the research approach or methods used for particular communities is bespoke and locally appropriate. But this suggests a regress: in order to measure the validity of research methods in particular local contexts, one would already need a valid meta-level research tool to assess the ground level tool. Sadly that too would need to be local. I’m not sure how this challenge could be addressed in principle although there is a practical fix.

That emphasis on locality suggests a third challenge: the approach potentially yields an understanding of communities in their own local terms. And that may well resist handy generalisation. In a crude slogan (with which I’m unhappy), an idiographic approach resists codification in nomothetic terms.

I suspect that the solution for these problems includes a weakening of the idiology of the community engagement model while retaining its practical virtues. Whilst it might work well for merely local knowledge (if the genuinely idiographic were possible), its broader validation needs an essentially general element. Ali, for example, suggested a model of partnership between experienced researchers and local trainees. The compromise would be that the research agenda would be couched in broader rather than merely local terms. The results would be more portable and more generalisable. But there would be less to the Winchean idea that communities expressed themselves in their own terms. But perhaps giving that up is more of a sentimental than a substantial loss.

The death of academic lunch

Last night I went to the leaving party of Kamlesh Patel, the head of the school (the International School of Communities, Rights and Inclusion, or ISCRI) in which I work. Given his personal role in setting up first his original department and then later the School, it was unsurprisingly rather a melancholy affair and I decided not to linger very long. In part, I left because, although I’ve been at UCLan nearly 5 years I have always felt that I arrived too late: that I wasn’t involved in the early and no doubt revolutionary days. But perhaps that’s always the way with institutions. At Warwick University, I missed (by 20 years!) the days of university and department (cf nation) building, of, for example, alcoholic work-free Friday afternoons: an idea now utterly alien and weird to modern university culture.

Today, by chance, was a ‘quarterly staff meeting’ (nee ‘staff away day’) and an opportunity too get a feel for how things will change with a new Head of School (the very sound Chris Heginbotham, the man who persuaded me to come to UCLan in the first place) but also the deteriorating financial environment for UK universities. Details of the latter make very depressing reading.

Now I am not a huge fan of such days: a whole day out with no progress on email and the ‘to do’ list, let alone research, and with only a nebulous immediate aim (the real aims are, I think, longer term). But, on the other hand, there’s a very welcome chance to talk to other members of the school working in different disciplines. And it’s funny that that remains an issue. Again back at Warwick, I got to meet colleagues from other departments when accompanying my Head of Department, Greg Hunt, for his lunchtime beer. The culture of academics meeting for lunch was just coming to an end. I had,eg., the final pint of beer pulled from the closing Staff Club on my first such visit. Thereafter Greg and colleagues would lean awkwardly against the main commercial bar.

Four years earlier, I began an administrative job at the LSE with, as a key role, taking a substantial lunch and talking to academics in their exclusive Senior Common Room (the irony that an institution started by the Fabians policed its SCR by pay grade was clear to all). This not unenjoyable task, aside from the fact I’m a stranger to a much by way of lunch, was premised on the fact that academics would take the time off to be there. I rather doubt it would work now.

I mention this because one of the clear ongoing tasks of the School is to learn to be more collective or perhaps corporate in its research, even whilst its undergraduate programmes remain discipline specific. The harsher economic climate drives that need. At the same time it is no doubt because of the increasingly financially orientated higher education system that the kind of social practices that sustained happy interdisciplinary alliances disappeared.