Supervisory instability: an exercise in resilience, flexibility and gratitude

My thesis was originally titled, On the Road to Damascus: theorising transformational encounters in Art Galleries and Museums, I had nominated that it would be auto ethnographic, practice-led and I would write in a ficto-critical form. I lost my primary supervisor due to COVID redundancies and  have been in conversation with a temporary primary supervisor for a couple of months now. The locum comes from a quantitative, empirical, sociological background with a bias against practice-led research and a honourable commitment to helping to set me up for success in my PhD journey. He has challenged me on every level, philosophically, conceptually, personally, and ethically. In particular, alerting me to the challenges of doing practice-led research. In his ambition to ‘reign me in’ and save me from my expansive nature, which means my research project is far too big and unwieldy and ultimately unachievable as a PhD, he has been pressing me up against the many weaknesses in my project outline,  my research capabilities, and my Romantic nature. I am reflecting on his advice and it may be that my research will be better served if I move away from my original intention to develop a practice-led project focussed on my professional practice of cultural mediation, which is focused on facilitating conversations with diverse audiences  in contemporary art galleries.

Along with personal revelations about my own strengths and weaknesses I have discovered that I have made mapping my field of enquiry difficult by calling my pedagogic practice –  cultural mediation. I chose to situate my professional practice of facilitating conversations in art galleries in cultural mediation rather than  learning and engagement,  as cultural mediation and its political imperative, resonates with my conceptualisation of my practice and also more clearly “evok(es) questions of negotiation which are at the heart of working between artistic  objects, institutions, their social contexts and the people who encounter them” (Institute for Art Education of the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste [Zurich University of the Arts]. (2012). Time for Cultural Mediation. Swiss Arts Council. p.13).

The French term Mediation Culturelle, grew from a political imperative for cultural democratization, which was infused with the revolutionary zeal of French politics. In the 1789 French Revolution which overthrew the monarchy (King Louis XVI). the revolution was among other things, a violent response to widespread discontent at the economic and power inequality between the rich and the poor. The modern political imperative for cultural democratization, whilst having its roots in the French revolution, was significantly informed during the 1960s by the sociological identification of the gap between access to culture and the ability of all citizens to actively engage with the arts in their town, region, nation (Bourdieu and Darbel, 1969).  In France, access to art and culture for people from all social categories is considered a democratic right, and cultural democratisation as a modern political imperative has been written into French arts policy since the 1960s. Democratic access to culture is also enshrined in the International Declaration of Human Rights. Article 27 1. ‘Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.’  But access and participation are not the same thing and by the 1990s public cultural institutions around the world, recognized a responsibility to ‘provide the necessary symbolic conditions for approaching art’ (Montoya 2016, np).

My research is focused on a curated selection of photographic and video artworks that examine the complexities of contemporary identity, feature the performed body (often of the artist themselves) and that enact activism. I am concerned with examining the what, the why, the how and the consequence of engaging strangers, through a process of cultural mediation in meaningful conversations about contemporary art that has its genesis in the artists’ intimate, lived experiences of foreignness, displacement and trauma.

In its broadest sense cultural mediation, ‘generally refers to the process of gaining and negotiating knowledge about the arts and social or scientific phenomena through exchange, reaction and creative response’. (Institute for Art Education of the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste [Zurich University of the Arts]. (2012). Time for Cultural Mediation. Swiss Arts Council. p.14) My motivation to examine the efficacy of cultural mediation in navigating differences illuminated/elevated/negotiated  through conversations in relationship to contemporary art, is to consider how effective cultural mediation can be in support of gallery and museums publicly funded, political imperative to act as democratic, civic spaces of social, aesthetic and political engagement that contributes to personal well being and social cohesion

The scope of my research ambitions are apparently too large and too hard to prove. Wrangling them into submission so that they resemble an achievable PhD project is my next challenge. As part of that challenge I am thinking of giving up my practice-led angle and instead I am considering interviewing people (as interlocutors) who view their work in the visual arts, as a form of cultural mediation and that believe the arts have the capacity to contribute to creating a more just society. I am inspired by Mary Zournazi’s, 2000 thesis, The Poetics of Foreignness.

I am deeply interested in thinking about the efficacy of cultural mediation, working with contemporary art that enacts activism, as a catalyst to trouble certainty and that proposes ‘uncertainty as an ethical position’. (Kauffman cited by Sentilles, 2018). It seems my PhD journey is going to give me much opportunity to examine that claim!


Bourdieu, P., Darbel, A., & Schnapper, D. (1991). The love of art: European art museums and their public (p. 53). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Darbel, A., & Schnapper, D. (1969). L’amour de l’art: les musées d’art européens et leur public. éditeur non identifié.

Institute for Art Education of the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste [Zurich University of the  Arts. (2009-2012). Time for Cultural Mediation, Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council. (p. 15)

Montoya, N.  (2016) Cultural mediators and the democratization of culture in the era of suspicion: a triple critical legacy, Hypotheses, Published April 28, 2014 · Updated June 2016

Sentilles, S. (2018) Draw your weapons, Wheeler Centre

Universal declaration of Human Rights,

Zournazi, M. (2000). A poetics of foreignness.