Prototyping & testing for the project What Art Looks Like for the Forest
This blog describes how we have developed our research methodology to effectively understand what art means to a diverse and inclusive segment of Waltham Forest residents, to co-create a visual library of this, and to use it as a starting point for the creation of art works. It also demonstrates the lessons and improvements we have already identified through user-testing and prototyping. Finally, the blog provides examples of how we may translate these insights into artworks.
Please note this blog is invisible for anyone who does not have the URL. We have the consent of participants to share this information in this context. However, names and locations of participants have been changed to further protect privacy.
THE ETHNOGRAPHIC APPROACH proposed for OUR RESEARCH APPROACH
Art has different meanings and connotations in different cultures. As well as being correlated with different social outcomes (e.g. health and wellbeing, life satisfaction - see Arts Council, What is the Value of Art & Culture) it has more immediate personal impacts. In their book, Art as Therapy, Alain de Botton & John Armstrong argue that art has the following personal values:
Remembering - makes our experiences memorable and renewable
Hope - keeps pleasant and cheering things in view
Sorrow - reminds us of the legitimate place of sorrow
Rebalancing - shows us our good qualities
Self-understanding - help us identify what is central in ourselves, but hard to put in words
Growth - helps us understand other cultures which can contain ideas/attitudes that enrich us
Appreciation - peels us from our shells and helps us look around at the old in new ways
This evidence has informed the development of the ethnographic approach in our project. Rather than starting with a question about ‘art’, which in itself might feel exclusionary or have connotations of ‘high, legitimate art’, we propose first asking people about their own identities and the physical and visual things that brings their identity to life (and create other direct and immediate benefits such as remembering joy).
INCORPORATING LESSONS FROM PREVIOUS EXPERIENCES
As described on the web link on our relevant work, we have experience running resident engagement, participatory research and interactive art events, including as part of numerous funded projects in the Cabinet Office’s Policy Lab team, Uscreates and personal Masters projects. We have learnt the following:
we need to build trust with respondents first
keep questions open
ask people to show us, or visually describe (i.e. draw things), or make things, when language is a barrier
use words carefully as some words (e.g. even “art”) can feel exclusionary
consent is critical.
We have found that these elements are pre-requisites for successful participatory engagement. We have made them central to the participatory approach we have proposed for our project What Art Looks Like for the Forest.
PROTOTYPING AND USER TESTING
We have also learnt that whatever our initial plans, they will undoubtedly be wrong for some reason - there will be symbolisms, interpretations, implications and associations that we have not foreseen, and could disrupt our ability to obtain genuine insight from attendees. We have learnt that ‘user testing’ our materials, approach and questions will allow us to quickly iterate and improve them. We tested the cards and our approach with seven residents of the borough - friends, family and neighbours from the areas we live in and are from (St James, Chingford, Leyton - see map below).
Unfortunately we have not had time to test ways for individuals with visual impediments or other disabilities to engage, but this will be a priority going forward - our project will be fully accessible for everyone.
We developed a range of visual prompt cards to support our engagements with participants. We used them for some engagements, but not all. We found that these materials were very successful in removing initial tension or any awkwardness the respondents sometimes experienced in face-to-face questioning. They also encouraged respondents to answer the question in different ways, especially when respondents were drew or made their answers - this led to quite unexpected responses.
The testing materials were developed quickly and at zero cost. For the main phase of the project, we plan on researching and developing materials so they can easily be combined to look visually striking, whilst enabling individuals to see how their contribution is directly feeding into the visual record. Cat has used this technique as part of her Masters - see photo below. One thing we will look to maintain is the sense of ‘friendliness’ and ‘fun’ that individuals described when viewing and using the cards.
When testing our questions, approach and cards on local residents, we found they were generally effective in opening up the conversation around culture and the value of art. We found that the cards which directly referred to “art” generally resulted in closed conversations and statements like “art is not for me” or “what I’d expect to see in an art gallery”. However prompts which asked more nuanced, outcome-focused questions provide richer insight. Through questions like “what image or object inspires me/is part of my identity” residents where able to show us things which brought them visual or experiential joy - including brickwork, walking through the marshes, and calabashes from Nigeria.
Turning insights into artworks
The section below provides examples of how we may take the insights from the ethnographic research with participants, and translate this into designs and art works for exhibition at the Pictorem Gallery. Please note this has been based on practice interviews, and we have not had proper time for idea generation and iteration, including exploring materials (which would be our normal practice). However, hopefully it provides a tangible sense of how the co-creation process would work: deeper insights derived from thoughtful conversations with LBWF residents; these insights used as the inspiration for creative development of ideas into striking artworks.
We have created an asset map of locations we would seek to engage people. These are hubs where different members of the community already go. They are largely in the Leyton, St James Street and Chingford areas. This is where the three of us have existing deep roots (Stephen lives just off Coppermill Lane and is from Chingford, Endlebury Ward; Liv and Cat live in separate parts of Leyton). These areas are obvious focal points for starting our research, as we can make use of our networks in the community in these areas.
The light blue and light purple (to match the Borough of Culture branding!) show the areas which Stephen, Cat and Liv have existing good networks. The dark teal spots show the “assets” we have identified which could provide excellent, neutral venues for accessing different groups in the community. The purple spots show anonymised locations for the user testing described in this document.
DEEPER ETHNOGRAPHIC STYLE INTERVIEWS
The image on the right shows a draft questionnaire that we would use for the deeper ethnography-informed research we refer to in the project proposal (Phase 1, Research through engagement and participation).
The questions first focus on building a relationship and background information.
Importantly, the next set of questions address art in a tangential way. They explore the benefits of objects, artefacts, images, without using the “art” word which could put up barriers, or make people feel they should be taking about what they’d expect to see in art galleries.
After this discursive approach to exploring participants’ visual and material worlds, we then circle round to address art directly. There is potentially a lot of richness in comparing and contrasting answers from this question with the answers from the previous question.
Please note this is a first draft questionnaire, and we will adapt it based on reflections from the testing process described above.