When introduced at a conference last year, I was shocked to hear the person introducing me, laugh and say that they didn’t know what my research was about. As the person introducing me was my supervisor, this effectively tells the audience I am failing at communicating my research…an altogether inauspicious way to begin my presentation. I resolved to not publicly acknowledge the gap in understanding between my supervisor and myself whilst privately absorbing the pain of his words as they pressed into an unhealed childhood wound. I resolved to carry on with my presentation and address the comment directly with the party responsible for the insensitive public utterance. Something I rarely do, as past efforts to resolve misunderstandings after the fact, have always gone, spectacularly wrong. However, as I am currently framing my research as an auto ethnographic study – I decided to treat the ‘situation’ as a ‘critical incident’ that could offer some insight into my research area which is cultural mediation. I am in the early stages of a practice-led project, researching art appreciation in art galleries and museums with a focus on photographic and video works that feature the performed body enacting activism – often but not always, the performed body of the artist themselves.
As a professional cultural mediator working in contemporary art galleries, who works with complex culturally encoded objects, how do I approach strangers to talk about personally and politically difficult artworks in a way that honours the work, the audience, the institution, the cultural context and … myself? In this blog post in relation to the above incident I am particularly considering the following questions:
- How can I be sure that I am not pressing up against old wounds amongst the embodied embrained and situated individuals (Braidotti, 2019) who make-up the collective of people viewing the work together and about whom I know very little?
- Whose wounds am I trying to avoid: theirs/mine/ours?
- How do I navigate the risks inherent in speaking our thoughts aloud, generated in response/relationship to a complex intercultural artwork and to each other?
- How do I honour the assemblage of people, ideas and things that make up the living intra-action? (Barad, 2007)
Vital question for all those involved in cultural mediation, or what I am tentatively calling artful-relational-cultural-mediation, in an attempt to more clearly expresses the kind of nuanced, embodied and affective cultural mediation I am interested in researching, and championing. In my professional practise working with artworks that enact activism I acknowledge the risks and also acknowledge that I see it as my obligation to be an active agent in these rhizomatic, (Deleuze and Guattari, 2018), diffractive (Barad, 2007) encounters with artworks at the heart of the exchange. My practice has convinced me that working with artworks as catalysts to deepen our understanding of the human condition has the potential to opens us up to an authentic intra-action (Barad, 2007) within that particular collective/assemblage. (Deleuze and Guatarri, 2018). I acknowledge that there is likely to be some discomfort and excitement in an exchange that challenges prejudice and I also have to admit that I am at once both excited and challenged by the ‘work’ of that. I am also aware of the risks inherent in cultural mediation, one of which is to disengage or alienate the audience rather than drawing them in – closer to the work, to each other and to themselves.
In my practice of cultural mediation, part of my aim is to dialogically address and problematise our relationship to current issues, ideologies, framings, prejudices, interpretations, and questions that could likely benefit from collective scrutiny and revision. My aim is to invigorate the desire in each of us to engage authentically and with integrity, to take responsibility, to be accountable for our thoughts and our actions, to act ethically and with kindness and generosity as we reach towards new levels of understanding. Apathy is the enemy. Although, to keep quiet for fear of causing offence seems a reasonable decision, after all we are social beings and whilst we have a desire for autonomy, ultimately, we need each other. The decision to keep quiet for fear of offending may lead us to miss the chance to examine, in the company of others, our strongly held but perhaps no longer relevant or productive opinions and beliefs. Perhaps we resist asking difficult questions for fear of what the question may reveal about us or about each other. Public utterance in the company of stranger’s risks exposing our ignorance, our prejudice, our bias, our gaucheness, and naivety or perhaps just our taste – a deeply class-based, political tool of segregation and humiliation.
The way I am addressing these questions for cultural mediators will revolve around pedagogic and performative practices and the ethical implications of cultural mediation in both situated and virtual platforms. These questions are framed under the following general enquiry. What obligations are incumbent on the cultural mediator when navigating complex intercultural artworks: to the group, to the artwork, to the cultural institution that is housing/hosting the event, and to ourselves. The Kantian imperative that obligations do not flow from consequences but instead from a core expectation that we should treat ourselves and others in ways consistent with human dignity and worth, (Israel, 2014, p.15), is becoming a central concern for this research process.
How to navigate intercultural artworks, which sit somewhere on the continuum between subtly addressing cultural biases to pugnaciously confronting bias head-on, without entrenching prejudices further and causing more distance between people is at the heart of my research questions. An equally weighted aspect of this research is to explore how to resist disrespecting the integrity of the encounter by being insincere. The impetrative is not for people to think the same as each other, but for us all to be able to look in a generative way that opens us up to the potential to make our world anew through deep and active engagement in the exchange. In my recent conference paper Art as Invitation, (McCarthy 2020), I introduced Donna Haraway, American Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness Department and Feminist Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, United States, concept of worlding. I applied the concept of worlding to support my proposition that we can make the /our world anew together in each encounter. In particular, I am applying the concept of worlding to cultural mediation as the joint venture of being engaged in a dialogic encounter with intercultural arts, led by a cultural mediator whose pedagogy is responsive to that particular assemblage of people and things in that particular place. I posited that cultural mediation provides the opportunity for us to be:
collectively engaged in a process of worlding. Donna Harraway’s concept, which I understand to mean turning the noun ‘world ‘ suggesting something fixed, into the verb of worlding – where the imperative is not simply to exist but to make ‘with’. This presentation works with Haraway’s invitation to step aside from our habitual ways of thinking and knowing. Haraway tells us: “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with. (Haraway, 2016, p. 12, cited in McCarthy 2020).
Defining the parameters of what cultural mediation might look like in action is open to interpretation and in my professional opinion will be informed by the personality, knowledge, and skills of the mediator. The position the mediator takes within the host organization can, and will, influence the atmosphere created during the ‘event’. As I am framing my project as auto ethnographic research, I will at times be personalizing my research questions: What gives me both the motivation and the right to want to facilitate cultural mediation that is provocative, disruptive and unpredictable whilst also being joyful, engaging and predictable-enough for the audience to ‘gamely’ join me in the ‘work’ of the encounter? I am using the word game in the following way, The game approach is an attitude of ‘gameness’ that is characterised by an intention to eagerly and intrepidly explore an artwork, (McCarthy, 2018), Whilst this article was written for an education journal the ‘gameness’ of approach is something I advocate for adults and children alike. I especially advocate a position of gameness for those in a position of influence whom by default can become non positional, informal cultural mediators themselves during gallery jaunts, for example: a teacher, a parent, a friend, a media commentator including those of us who use social media as our public platform.
Perhaps I can turn to the Socratic method in defence of my unflagging commitment to seeking out the ‘how’ and ‘why’ we hold the ideas we hold and whether they are still fit for purpose. In case you are dusty on what the Socratic method entails – here it is in a nutshell. The Socratic method of enquiry asks us to constantly question our beliefs and assumptions at every stage of our understanding until we can no longer find fault in our thinking – therefore arriving, at least temporarily at a momentary truth/clarity. The Socratic method asks us to be vigilant in our thinking and guard against holding ill-considered opinions by constantly scrutinizing how and why we hold the opinions we hold. Opinions held too long without scrutiny risk committing us to ways of being in the world, based on ideas and even worse ideologies that no longer serve us or our community’s best interests. Having said that I also am aware that the ancient Athenians put Socrates to death, an ostensibly, politically motivated decision as he was challenging the status quo of his times. I might also suggest and not altogether flippantly that he was put to death because he was so annoying – approaching people as they went about their daily life in the Agora (town square in ancient Athens) and asking them to explain their often long-held and not carefully scrutinized opinions. An approach if we transposed that to our local plaza which would not be warmly received. But may I suggest that this kind of deep questioning does belong in contemporary art galleries, indeed in my view all instances of cultural mediation should be predicated on reaching a deeper understanding of what it means to be human and live an ethical life, that if I apply the Kantian imperative translates to an imperative thatcultural mediators, obligations do not flow from consequences but instead from a core expectation that we should treat ourselves and others in ways consistent with human dignity and worth, (Israel, 2014, p.15). I will be examining the axiology (values, aesthetics, and ethics) of cultural mediation, throughout this research.
I like to think about a contemporary version of the Socratic Method in this way: as a collective investigation, still earnest and enquiring but with a shared obligation to welcome what the artwork is generating. Any answers, revelations, conclusions will always be conditional, because as Hans Gadamer (1997) says. ‘An artwork is never exhausted.’ Elizabeth Garret in an essay on The Socratic method first published for The Green Bag in 1998 and reprinted and modified for The University of Chicago Law School’s introduction to the Socratic method, describes it thus, ‘The effort is a cooperative one in which the teacher and students work to understand an issue more completely. …Socratic discourse requires participants to articulate, develop and defend positions that may at first be imperfectly defined intuitions.’ (Garrett, 1998) The essay also makes note of the trepidation students may experience when encountering the Socratic method. As an experienced cultural mediator, I am aware of both the challenge and reward of an investigative, dialogic method informed by the Socratic method and am also aware of how challenging it is not only for people to articulate ‘what they think’ but how challenging it is for us to even know ‘what we think’. I rarely tire of trying to understand why people think what they think, and how they arrive at their opinions, including myself. I also have empathy for people trying to articulate what they think about an artwork, when they have only just ‘met’ the work. I am also endlessly curious about what people are happy to reveal about themselves and what they might choose to keep private. I am interested in what can be said aloud and what remains in the shadows, because the speaker deems it won’t be socially ‘acceptable’ to the group. In a bid to still search for authenticity but not be tripped up by the confrontational nature of the questions ‘why’ and the obligation it raises to ‘defend’, it is sometimes more productive to ask how: how did you arrive at that decision, observation, point of view etc. and in artful-relational-cultural-mediation this ‘how’ should be directed through the artwork. The artwork is the shared cultural ‘event’ that you all have access to, it’s a container for the happening and operates as a third party through which difficult dialogue can be depersonalised. For example, What elements in this artwork are leading you to draw that conclusion – the artwork is the shared ‘event’ something we know we have all seen/encountered. When side conversations occur to which some/most are excluded, such as introducing a body of knowledge or experience that belongs to only to one or some of the group. I liken it to sitting at a dinner party and instead of sharing the meal, bringing in take out for you and a friend and eating it in front of the other guests – not conducive to bringing the group together. That doesn’t mean experience outside of the focus artwork cannot be reference, but it needs ot be navigated so that it operates as an inclusive not exclusive dialogic thread.
It is a good thing to remind oneself that as a cultural mediator working with contemporary art, when one poses questions, the person receiving that question can find it intimidating as they may not feel able to defend their still nebulous ideas about an artwork they may have only just ‘met’. When we pose questions, we are effectively putting the burden of proof on the other person, which can be argumentative, not to say questions shouldn’t be used, but one should consider how and why one is using them. Often, it can be generative to pose questions as a way to collectively navigate the work and therefore answering the questions becomes a collective endeavour, perhaps even in conversational pairs to allow space for a more multi-vocal responses to develop.
I am framing artful-relational-cultural-mediation both within the tradition of an engaged pedagogy as described and practiced by bell hooks, and within the traditions of Parrhesia – Greek for speaking frankly and clearly and without intimidation – something I have been accused of/admired for. Within my research I am also going to consider the caveat by Cornel West, prominent and provocative democratic intellectual and Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. West says that Parrhesia must/should be based on Paideia – Greek for deep learning. Cultural mediators are often working with naïve (natural or unaffected) audiences, so asking them to express their opinion requires that we honour all utterances not just the ones that support the status quo. Whilst also being incumbent on the mediator to navigate how to open, closed opinions and introduce an element of doubt that allows for movement that, one hopes, can lead to deeper understanding for the whole group. Eve Sedgewick says, that the task of the left is not to tell people what they should feel, but to begin with the much more difficult question of understanding how people do feel, and then trying to figure out how such feelings do change and can be changed. Cited in Grossberg, Lawrence, & Behrenshausen, Bryan G. (2016).
To return to the initial ‘incident ‘which was the catalyst for this reflection:
Before addressing ‘the incident’ I listened to my audio recording of the event only to discover that my supervisor did not say the words I clearly heard in my head. They did however laugh after reading the introduction I had submitted and then say ‘thank you Naomi for those words’. Apparently, I took the laughter extremely personally. I didn’t really believe I hadn’t actually heard those words, so I listened to my recording again, only to confirm that the words ‘I still don’t know what Naomi’s research is about’, were indeed never said – except in my mind. Reminding me to be careful what I listen to – including myself.
Barad, Karen. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.
Braidotti, R. (2019). A Theoretical Framework for the Critical Posthumanities. Theory, Culture & Society, 36(6), 31–61. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276418771486
Gadamer, H. G. (1997). Reflections on my philosophical journey. The Philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer, 768, 768.
Grossberg, L. & Behrenshausen, B. G. (2016) Cultural Studies and Deleuze-Guattari, Part 2: From Affect to Conjunctures. Cultural Studies (London, England), 30(6), 1001-1028.
Kelly, S. Deleuze and Guattari Studies, May2018, vo 12, No 2 pp 147-184
McCarthy, N. (2018) A game approach to art appreciation for children: Encountering artworks with a spirited, plucky, brave and daring disposition [online]. Australian Art Education, Vol. 39, No. 1, 2018: 146-159.
McCarthy, N. (2020) Art as Invitation, Emerge Conference, WSU.