Race Matters

Research subjects or co-creators? Making public outreach count

What does it mean to collaborate with different communities as part of an arts or media project? Dr. Sarita Malik and Dr. Panayiota Demetriou of Creative Interruptions do not shy away from exploring the challenges of such 'outreach'.

Earlier this month, the BBC invited members of the public to ‘take over’ a BBC news meeting to help decide on how its stories would be covered and act as guest editors. One aim was to make the BBC more transparent in its coverage of Brexit. For BBC News editor, Kamal Ahmed, this was “one of the most enlightening days” he had experienced as a journalist. At the same time, the BBC was selecting finalists for the BBC Young Reporters Competition where entrants were asked to share stories about their lives, to be broadcast across the BBC.

These initiatives reflect the media’s apparent growing inclination to ‘consult’ with the public, hear their stories and gather wider perspectives. We are seeing similar trends across the arts, with projects aiming to boost community engagement, authenticity and diversity through this idea of ‘participation’.

This can be a matter of ticking funding criteria boxes, for example around diversity, or delivering prescriptive project briefs. They are often led by well-meaning attempts, including by artists and charities, and others dependent on public funding for whom it is important to be seen to ‘consult’. However, these community outreach projects can also have hidden agendas influenced by the vested interests of those in receipt of state-initiated funding. For example, an arts initiative that wins government funding to put on an exhibition (provided it is ‘diverse’) may reach out to people from different ethnic backgrounds, but if that arts organisation has no everyday interaction with people from diverse communities, how genuine is their ‘participation’ in the project?

While the idea of opening up content and making it more community-led is to be welcomed, participation is invariably framed by specific terms of community involvement and engagement. These terms tend to be decided by cultural elites involved in cultural policy-making. Certain ‘hard-to-reach’ communities, a coded term that is commonly used to refer to those who are most disenfranchised based on race and class lines, are typically those who are assumed to be those most in need of culture, education, and, advancement. The ‘hard-to-reach’ people are certainly not the ones framing the output.

Arts practitioners may go into ‘hard-to-reach’ communities to elicit stories, oblivious to that fact that those communities have their own highly-skilled creatives and ways of production. What’s more, efforts do not all equate with the principles of meaningfully beneficial partnerships. Community involvement often stops at the collection of stories; contributions are captured and appropriated without participants’ direct involvement in the end result. This is where instrumentalising communities occurs, and assumptions emerge that those communities are culturally illiterate. It can be said that ‘to instrumentalise’ something is to use it to achieve a different goal than that for which it is designed. Or, alternatively, to turn something which is not designed for ‘use’ in the first place, into an instrument for achieving a purpose.

Creative Interruptions: Communities co-leading on ‘community-engaged’ work

In the Creative Interruptions project, a three-year study that explores how creativity is used by those who are disenfranchised along race and class lines, we are grappling with these issues. As we try to open up new spaces for personal testimony and creative expression through methods of co-creation, we also insist on reflecting the ethics of representing ‘communities’, for example in how life experiences might be appropriated and ‘empowerment’ might be promised. 

The Creative Interruptions project, is critiquing such ideas hand-in-hand with the actual ‘communities’ involved. Together researchers on the project, community groups, and their artists/activists have interrupted preconceptions about social groups by focusing on creativity that actually grows out of so-called ‘communities’ (a term we also interrogate because it can assume that certain demographic individuals or groups represent the same thing). Also, ensuring that participants are actively involved in all stages of the project, as agents who can make claims on their own terms, is important throughout the creative practice.

This collaborative effort ensures that ‘communities’ are not treated or seen as ‘research subjects’ or reduced to ‘artistic participants’. Instead they are co-creators. With this, the project makes a bold statement significant to art, academic research, and industry, that activities should be created with, about, and for the ‘communities’, out of which works have been born.

One such example is the work that has been taking place in Peterborough. As Creative Interruptions researcher, Ben Rogaly, outlines in this recently published blog piece in Sociological Review, the research that he has been involved in has looked at what ‘creativity’ means to Peterborough-based people in their everyday lives. 

Rogaly emphasises that in the research, we have “sought to avoid defining people according to their occupations at a particular point in their lives and used a broad understanding of creativity to ask about people’s creative lives within and beyond the workplace.” The result, as demonstrated by the set of films called Workers co-produced by academic Rogaly, locally-based filmmaker, Jay Gearing, and the films’ participants is a film that ‘shows working people in some of the broader contexts of their lives - as musicians and poets, as community activists and informal teachers… as individuals whose employment conditions are onerous and whose creative capacities persist’.

If you are interested in finding out more about how we interrupt ideas of participation and engagement check out our website.

We will be discussing these and many other issues at the Creative Interruptions festival in June 2019. There will be an opportunity at the festival to see the work we have been producing with a range of individuals, groups and organisations, as well as hear us all talk about processes of working together. You can register for the festival by clicking here.

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