How many forms of communication actually exist?
Research ‘dissemination’ was once the order of the day, and would involve telling an audience about the research and its findings with the hope of resolving issues attributed to limited public understanding. If we want research to be woven into the fabric of society, and whilst art, visual culture and the spaces they inhabit are well suited to doing this, there is a whole world out there.
Beyond (or After) Text
It could be argued that a dense text does a good job of being a mothership or bible to underpin research, but a bad job of catching the eye or seducing a consumer. It’s quite right to say don’t judge a book by its cover, but when it comes to books and a variety of other things, we all do, all the time.
Digital spaces like websites have the capacity to play the role of mothership in the 21st century. It would therefore be useful for practitioners to consider about how a project or communication strategy might translate from the page to the digital world and then into the sensory world. Putting something online or in the public domain does not necessarily give it an automatic audience. Pathways are required in various forms to direct audiences back to the mothership.
When selecting books from a library, I naturally skip the ones without pictures or a well-designed cover. My senses are making judgments for me whether I like it or not. One of the key books that informed this text, Rancière (2009), has been checked out three times in a decade from the library. I found my way to it by word of mouth. What does this tell us? My critique of the written word isn’t its inability to paint a picture (although arguments could be made for this), more that it lacks the peripheral energy needed to make visually stimulated people pick it up and keep reading. Research that stays in pure text form also leaves itself open to questionable interpretation, topical alignment and being reduced to soundbites when it enters the news media. Seeing the book as one moment in a large flow of things (Lehrer, 2018) is a far more accurate and balanced way to look at the place of texts in society.
The Exhibition (and Beyond)
There is currently a big difference between an exhibition at a major art gallery or museum and a ‘research exhibition’ in and around an academic institution. Research and design are fundamental parts of exhibition making. Any exhibition, regardless of its context, has elements of research at its core. The art world is the home of the royalty of this mode of presentation, and to be fair they’ve had a few hundred years practice.
Successful marriages of art and research have resulted in some very engaging exhibitions. What about the interplay between art and research made them appeal to audiences? Death: The Human Experience (2016) posed big public interest research questions like ‘What is a good death?’ and ‘Is it your right to choose?’ alongside examples of when art and death have crossed paths. Others have brought together multiple tangents of human experience in response to recent events (Manifesta 12, 2018), from the perspective of a particular part of society (Refracted, 2017) or through art (From Africa to the Americas: Face-to-face Picasso, Past and Present, 2018).
Outside of any art discipline in academia however, with no curators or designers around, ‘research exhibitions’, until very recently, have not bypassed the imagination of a world fair or trade show. The word heavy poster, or slide show is still the staple presentation media of the academic. Any curatorial involvement in this area would have an immediate and revolutionary impact on how research is consumed inside and outside the classroom. The recent impact and engagement agenda at universities has resulted in some very interesting new spaces, but only shoots of quality exhibition concepts.
These concepts tend to manifest as practice based art-as-research projects or a researcher being paired with an artist, the outcome being a one-off artwork that looks to somehow artistically represent the research, art trying to ‘draw’ science or express scientific themes. One practice trying hard to represent the other for the sake of it. Group exhibitions that are thinking about the presentation of this work in a gallery context like Visions of Science (2018) or Images of Research (2009-18) bring together these type of organised marriage collaborations. Basing the concept around the novelty of a competition is problematic and seems to devalue a potentially interesting assemblage of practitioners.
It is of no surprise that those who ponder research communication and the curatorial can see the home comforts of the exhibition as a good place to start, or even set up shop. This might seem especially appealing with the possibility of provoking a ‘turn’. However, the creative spirit of the artist or scientist takes most pleasure in the light-bulb moments made in the spirit of discovery.
However hard it may be to hear for those with a vested interest in the arts; people who value art and attend exhibitions on a regular basis are a niche group in society. Within Europe, 37% of people asked said they had visited a museum or gallery once in the last year, 31% a public library (TNS Opinion and Social, 2013). Those outside of this niche group may only attend art venues when visiting a new city or if they’ve received an invitation to do so, maybe not even then. If one mistakes this group as the ‘public’, ‘society’ or even the majority, one is in danger of either overestimating the reach and impact of ones activities or preaching to the converted. As soon as we start talking about communicating with large numbers of people and entering public consciousness we have no choice but to look outside of the museum walls and beyond the exhibition as the primary (or preferred) mode of presentation and discourse in curatorial practice, for it is here that we live.
The potential of video makes it one of the most versatile and efficient forms of communication that exists in contemporary society. Where photography once overtook painting as the shower of truth, this title is now held by video. We see it used in one way or another by all disciplines. Its appeal is in its ability to straddle both education and entertainment. It can be the documentation, the art and the data. It can show us things in the cold light of day, or whip us into an emotional whirlwind. Quite often it is a mode of presentation that puts the viewer in control of how, where and on what device it is watched.
The hosting of video content online means it cannot be lost, degrade or take up local memory. A digital archive and platform like YouTube or iTunes U exists in perpetuity, providing routes to other content through playlists and access to back-end data via analytics. Further versatility through sharing and embedding means video can be in multiple places at once, watchable on most devices. Privacy settings also allow owners to control its viewership and wider reach.
Holy Water by Tita Salina & Irwan Ahmett (2016) is a unique piece of work in the way it uses video. It documents the collection of used syringes in public places and the distillation of the liquids inside back in to pure water, which is then taken to a local church. The liquid is branded as true holy water because it has “travelled to hell and back”. The video, along with a vile of the water is then framed as the artwork within a gallery setting. Here we see the versatility of video; it is both the art, the documentation and the vehicle by which it is consumed all at the same time.
Art (and Beyond)
Art history shows us that emergent fields need to behave in certain ways for publics to notice them. We think about art differently depending on our experiences and affiliations. Some think of it as a tool to express something like drawing and painting, others hold it aloft as having some kind of divine power, and some people see it as an abstract frivolity. It could be that art has been elevated to divinity in some circles because it’s such a good sensory and experiential tool (School of Life, 2013). In the modern world research should be granted equal access to the divine order of art because ultimately research is actually the difference between life and death (and the quality of both), between heaven and hell on Earth, or a man-made apocalypse.
Grayson Perry understands that the art experience and the religious experience are quite closely aligned (St Pauls London, 2015). Whilst some consider him a national treasure, he is also the contemporary darling of the multi-form approach of communication. Presenting documentaries and appearing on TV programmes, books in various guises, art objects in museums, art gallery exhibitions, a Reith lecture series, films, writing for newspapers and magazines, radio programmes and social media.
French philosopher La Rochefoucauld (1613-80) is someone whose decision to change the form of his outputs became, not only a vehicle for philosophy and a part of public consciousness, but was absorbed into language itself. In the company of artists, writers and intellectuals in 17th century salons, he devised one-line philosophies by workshopping them with an audience, like a comedian trying out new material at a comedy club. This culminated in The Maxims (1665-1678). In an era of mass poverty, illiteracy and big, expensive philosophy books, the ability to impart ones work via word-of-mouth was literally priceless. A personal homage to this comes in the form of an artwork. An appropriated portrait of La Rochefoucauld appearing to prophesise the invention of Twitter. “Twitter gives us the opportunity to put La Rochefoucauld’s genius in to action in our own digital salons” (School of Life, 2015)
Another thing that appears to separate humans from other species is our unquenchable thirst for pleasure and laughter. It would be fascinating to know when on the evolutionary timeline animals first started to find things funny, and why. Unlike the comparatively niche audiences of text, exhibitions and art, the curator of research is interested in exploring tools and outputs which have universal appeal and borderless reach – and comedy ticks both those boxes. We all like to laugh.
Life would be tragic if it weren’t funnyStephen Hawking
Comedy, apart from providing us with relief and pleasure, has a lot in common with art. It reacts to an observation, experience or emotional resonance, expressing it through a chosen medium to an audience. When a painter sees something profound they make a painting of it, a sculptor makes a sculpture, a photographer takes a photograph, a comedian builds a joke around it. The effect a well-written and well-delivered joke can have on someone can be compared to that of good modern art, or a process of knowledge transfer. It is such a good delivery system for information because it can cover hard topics and give pleasure at the same time. It is almost literally the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Delightful. A pleasure-seeking people are also a forgetful people.
Comedy’s other form of genius is to make us remember things long after we hear them. Comedians are like blacksmiths, shaping something, then burning it in to place on our brains like a brand. We might say comedy has undergone an educational (or even journalistic) turn in the past two decades driven by American TV shows (The Daily Show, 1996-, Last Week Tonight, 2014- and Patriot Act, 2018-) satirising the news with some journalistic rigor of their own. The most watched TED talk of all time is Sir Ken Robinson (TED, 2006) talking about education systems with no visual aids. It feels like a series of anecdotes in a stand-up comedy routine. John Leguizamo (Netflix, 2018) takes the idea of the comedy lecture one step further with elements of theatre and performance beamed straight in to our living rooms.
The Manufacturing Economy (and beyond)
Even though the industrial revolution has come to define the modern era, at first glance the manufacturing economy may appear to be the odd one out in terms of a sector to analyse. It is seen in some circles of art, design and research as a place with no soul, no moral compass, even the direct cause of many global problems. But in other circles selling a marketable product this is a direct way to measure success. Do you sell paintings? Are you funded? One of the most common questions a creative practitioner will be asked is, “Does your work sell?” If not, is there an immediate assumption it must be bad?
Whichever way your moral compass points we cannot ignore the fact that manufacturers of all persuasions have spent this modern era experimenting with ways to communicate their ideas to audiences in the pursuit of profit, the great motivator in a capitalist democracy. When money is the prize, the greedy don’t waste their time on the ineffective.
Over time structures have been scaffolded around the manufacturing economy to communicate its philosophy and products to people clearly and efficiently and make its outputs easy to consume and understand. These include things like multi-platform advertising, the high street, trade/distribution networks and brands etc. The marketing of outputs goes as far as to find ways for us to associate our inner needs and desires with them (Century of the Self, 2002). If we see research and knowledge as equally, if not more, important for today’s society then we should look to build similar structures around this. Manufacturers have found ways, by mistake or design, to populate the neutral (public) space that we all inhabit with their products and visual reminders.
As we’ll see later, some universities already see the value in having a presence on the high street. What other lessons can we learn from this sector? If this seems an uncomfortable question, it could be that aversions to using certain tools for research communication likely come from an objection to what it has been used for in the past, not the effectiveness of the tool itself in doing its job. Tools are inherently neutral, connotations are not. You can still hold a strong ethical position whilst using the tools of the manufacturing economy.
Rancière (2009) discusses capitalist modes of production in terms of ‘left-wing melancholy’ and ‘right-wing frenzy’. That despite our best efforts to come up with new and innovative concepts and ideas of production and presentation we are in fact opening up new cracks for exploitation by capitalism, ‘the beast’! We can see this playing out in advertising, with Sex Pistols aesthetics and music by The Buzzcocks used by McDonald’s UK (2017) to promote their Big Flavour Wraps. The ultimate in anti-establishment appropriation by the establishment. Rancière challenges us to investigate this power dynamic further, suggesting there is more to be unearthed than “…the endless task of unmasking fetishes or the endless demonstration of the omnipotence of the beast.” This investigation tends to fuel a kind ‘inverted activism’ (Rancière, 2009), which aims to improve capitalism rather than try and fight against it. De Botton (2013) calls this ‘enlightened capitalism’. “A system attuned to economic reality… but focussed on providing optimal good and services.” In other words, quality over quantity, more considered innovation.
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (2014) tells a story of the knowledge economy in America, in particular the paywalls that block people from accessing academic journals. Swartz (founder of Reddit) was a programming prodigy who saw digital libraries like JSTOR as holding knowledge to ransom. He embarked on a campaign of ‘information activism’ to set this knowledge free and bring public access to the public domain, an act which ultimately led to his death. Here we see the double edged sword of capitalism, a system which measures the value of everything in monetary terms. Swartz went about using his knowledge and skill with computer programming and coding to ‘hack’ these systems to highlight unfairness. You could argue that Wade Davis’ skill-set of trans-cultural diplomacy (George Stroumboulopoulos, 2013) would have been a better fit in this arena. This speaks to the frustration we all have with rigid, inefficient systems, but asks; what are you going to do about it?
Pollution in its many forms is a major by-product of capitalist modes of production. We can see on our streets, hedgerows and beaches, and in the stomachs of dead animals. The micro-political act of care here might be to pick it up, but what next? Curatorial dreaming tells us we can do anything. It could be melted down using a local re-processor and used to form a town centre statue of some description, inspired by Sleeping Shepherd Boy (Laric, 2016), building on current international statue debates. This could lead to the design of new high-visibility clothing, launched at catwalk fashion shows in the street which inspires a ‘post-trash’ movement. Would acts such as these just prop up a failing system in a world that “…drops depleted uranium all over the Earth, letting nuclear weapons off under the sea, and the rest of us, what are we going to do? Sit at home with a special light-bulb and a bag-for-life!” (Hughes, 2011). Or do they inspire a culture shift?
Czech guerrilla artist collective Ztohoven don’t necessarily break from capitalist modes of production, but use (or hijack) them for their own means in order to show to the dominant culture that which it has done. In Media Reality (2007), by animating a nuclear explosion into a seemingly live broadcast on TV they used curatorial dreaming to project a nightmare with the aim of entering public consciousness and sparking change. There are echoes of Orson Welles famous radio dramatization (War of the Worlds,1938) in this work, a desire for their ‘art’ to enter public consciousness in a more nuanced way.
Rancière (2009) suggesting it’s always the profit hungry ‘right-wing frenzy’ doing the stealing and appropriation might not be such a melancholic theory after all, for it reveals two things: One, tools can be modified to serve whoever is using them. Two, in doing this, others can inadvertently test methods of presentation before you in a variety of contexts with good size budgets. But what others do cannot be our only source of enthusiasm, for our sensibilities may ultimately direct our destiny.
The Wider Cultural Landscape
The ‘Wider cultural landscape’ looks to describe the landscape we live in. It would include all spaces and ‘things’ in society, public and private, that form the cultural experiences of everyday life. We might see this as the whole from which disciplines (or subjects) are divided. Rancière (2009) calls this ‘the forest of signs’ through which we communicate and sculpt the world, as we want it to be. This landscape is made up of things like architecture, town planning and thoroughfare, interior design, fashion, technology, entertainment, language, art, aesthetics, sport, advertising, goods and services, food, education and our attempts to shape nature. It is in this landscape that ideas gain traction, the place where we experience “…the human capacity to transform something into emotions” (‘Alex Atala’, 2015).
An issue bubbling within this cultural landscape is that of appropriation (or re-appropriation). On one hand this is seen as copying or stealing, on the other a love letter or homage to the source. Appropriation is something which transcends all levels of society. Whether it’s religious buildings, like Palermo Cathedral in Sicily, which have been occupied and modified by various religions over time, or fashion brands like Louis Vuitton and Dior using art and religious iconography to add to the seductive quality of luxury products.
Graffiti and tagging, particularly within European cities adopts locations and insignia frequented by shops and public services. There’s an underlying understanding or appreciation at work here. That the tool(s) you’ve chosen, or appropriated serve their intended purpose. Meaning they are placed in order to come into contact with the desired audience, or achieve a desired effect, by association or otherwise. In other words the appropriated is deemed successful in the eyes of the appropriator. What if this understanding was applied to research communication? What is the world like if mathematical equations or public service announcements were spray-painted in public space instead of crude or aggressive ramblings?
If you said to a marketing or public relations person that you want to change the world, but to so you will use one form of communication, in one location, you’d be laughed out the building. So like Zeldin (1998), with no limits or boundaries to where the search can take place, we can look at the specific vehicles that have been employed across this landscape. When looking one must care more about what exists, less about its current or past incarnations. We are then left with a table of elements with which to pick from in the communication of research and the selection of outputs.