Participatory film as obdurate relic: researching gallery education

Year: 2016

Author: Thomson, Pat

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Instruction: Invite fifteen young adults to participate in a contemporary art learning project based on Yvonne Rainer’s pioneering “Trio A”. Commission Sara Wookey to run the choreographic workshop and Camilla Robinson to film it. Give the young people a selection of film-footage and support them to make short films about their experiences. Show the combined film in Tate Learning galleries (see and discuss with researchers. Funded by the AHRC cultural value programme, we did just this. We wanted to explore what we might learn from the film/ film-making and to ‘see’ what participants found most worthwhile about their experiences. This was neither an ethnographic nor a contemporary art/film project: we took part in the choreographic exploration but not in shooting the film. This was gallery education pedagogy which often involves participants working with artists to explore an idea/ artistic practice (dance) and then reflecting on their experiences using arts-based processes, and often, ‘found’ materials (film footage). The resulting film is simultaneously an archive of a live art encounter, research data, and an expression of participants’ experiences. It calls for interpretation. We see the participants’ film ‘showing’, for example: the episodic nature of the encounter; the hypnotic rhythm of the warm-up exercise; the one-ness of the group moving/working together; moments of individual reflection; and participants’ mastery of the choreographic repertoire of space, gaze, time, pattern. We recognise these, as we experienced these things too. However, when we have shown the film to other researchers, the artistic quality of the film is often problematic. It is open, raising unanswerable questions. We are asked why we did not ‘formally’ interview the participants. Our interpretation has been seen as over-privileging ‘the researcher’- in contrast to our view that the participants’ interpretations, and our own, invite other views. We see the film as obdurate method. It refuses to be translated into the linear social-realist narrative of the conventional academic journal genre. It is a relic of an ephemeral, transitory and relational event (see Lippard, 1997). The relic makes visible the ontological impossibility of transforming a live event into text, the absurdity of making sense of research data, and the epistemological challenge of the visual - always partial, a fragment of something that has happened to someone, at some time, somewhere. Lippard, L. (1997). Six years. The dematerialisation of the art object from 1966 to 1972. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.