HIGHEST RECOGNITION FOR IMPACTFUL RESEARCH IN REF21 ART AND DESIGN

PRACTICE RESEARCH VOICES: JENNY EVANS TALKS TO NEAL WHITE ABOUT THEIR AHRC AWARD

ARE WE TALKING ABOUT CLIMATE REALISM? JOL THOMS ON ANNA TSING AND JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER IN CONVERSATION

CREAM (Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media), University of Westminster, is a world-leading centre and pioneer in practice-based, critical, theoretical and historical research in the broad areas of art, creative and interdisciplinary practice. 

CREAM runs a dynamic programme of exhibitions, screenings  and talks throughout the year. CREAM researchers take part in wide ranging academic and public engagement activities, reflecting the diversity and international scope of our research culture. For upcoming programmes visit events.

Doctoral Programme

The CREAM doctoral programme hosts a thriving international community of researchers exploring issues in art and design, film, photography, moving image, ceramics, cultural studies, art and technology/science, and music.

HIGHEST RECOGNITION FOR IMPACTFUL RESEARCH IN REF21 ART AND DESIGN

CREAM scored the highest recognition for impactful research according to the UK’s Research Excellence Framework 2021. The results, published on May 12, confirmed its place as a world-leading centre in art and design with an outstanding research environment. 

The REF2021 panel for the unit of submission Art and Design: History, Practice and Theory judged 100% of CREAM’s impact case studies to be world-leading (4*). 86.7% of its research outputs were judged to be world-leading and internationally excellent, with a majority in the highest category: 51.8% of CREAM’s submitted outputs were classified as world-leading (4*), and 34.9% internationally excellent (3*). CREAM’s research environment was classified as 90% world-leading (4*). Overall, 70% of CREAM’s research scored 4*. The Times Higher Education GPA ranking has placed CREAM in the top five.

May Adadol Ingawanij and Neal White, CREAM Co-Directors said:

“We are delighted by this stunning result and are grateful to the very large number of CREAM researchers that have made this possible. Special congratulations to the Black Music Research Unit directed by Mykaell Riley, the Ceramics Research Centre directed by Clare Twomey, and Joshua Oppenheimer for leading projects with phenomenal social and cultural impact. 

In the year that CREAM celebrates its 20th anniversary, the REF2021 result is an unequivocal recognition of the strength, impact and diversity of our research culture. We have strong, proud roots as a Centre for practice and interdisciplinary arts research with a global contemporary focus. In our third decade we resolve to play a leading role in nurturing the next generations of researchers engaging with key global issues through artistic and creative research.”  

PRACTICE RESEARCH VOICES: JENNY EVANS TALKS TO NEAL WHITE ABOUT THEIR AHRC AWARD

Jenny Evans (Principal Investigator) talks to Neal White (Co-Investigator, an artist and Co-Director of CREAM) about their Arts and Humanities Research Council award; Practice Research Voices (PRVoices).  

Stuart Cumberland, Installation view, The Painting Show, Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius, Lithuania, 2016 

Started in January 2022, the PRVoices project has built on the foundation work carried out at the University of Westminster between 2018 and 2021 – a collaboration with CREAM and its practice researchers – to develop an institutional repository platform that captures, shares and makes discoverable not only traditional text based publications and datasets but all research outputs including the non-text based outputs and collections that are created as part of practice research. PR Voices aimed to review the University of Westminster approach to art and design portfolios submitted to the Research Excellence Framework 2021 and identify how they could be scaled to meet the needs of researchers, not only in art and design but also other practice research disciplines, such as architecture, music, performing arts, media and beyond.  

NW: Drawing on your expertise in Libraries and Research administration, could you talk about how you see the project scaling up from capturing, preserving and making discoverable (where possible) the audit of our own REF portfolios to informing standards to enable the capture of all practice research? 

JE: University repositories were originally developed to enable (mainly STEM) researchers to share their research publications and make them open access. More recently there has been a move to share research data (including software) via data repositories. This has resulted in platforms that are focussed on these types of ‘outputs’ and discoverability mechanisms (e.g. Google Scholar) that recognise these – often a single file, usually a PDF. Also, STEM researchers, care less about how their research looks in repositories, whereas arts researchers do. 

NW: In other words, many of our colleagues are concerned that our research does not always look great in many repository solutions, and these are incredibly varied. 

JE: Exactly. When I joined the University in late 2016 (from Middlesex) I was very aware of this landscape and when I discovered we had the opportunity to work with an external company; Haplo (who developed our online research environment for staff and graduate researchers) to build a repository that could not only handle publications and data but also practice research – I jumped at it. This was something that could only happen with buy-in from our research community. I was extremely grateful to be able to work in such close partnership with colleagues in CREAM. 

NW: I had worked very closely with Library colleagues in my previous institution to try and improve how we captured practice research in our institutional repository. So when I joined CREAM at Westminster, a pioneer in practice research, there was already recognition that we needed to address this area, and Prof Tom Corby (now at UAL) had seen the opportunity to use the software to improve how we managed/prepared our REF submission. While this didn’t all quite happen in the order we planned, we have made a huge amount of progress – which has resulted in the recent publication of some of our REF2021 portfolios 

Why does this matter? So much work goes into preparing our portfolio submissions. In the end, REF de-railed our plans a little as the REF Outputs module development took priority and there just wasn’t time in the end to use it quite as we planned. However, what Jenny and her team (Repository and Open Access Manager, Nina Watts and Research Data Management Officer, Holly Ranger) with input from colleagues in CREAM, have launched is a repository that recognises and reflects the nuances of practice-based arts, design and media research, and what can be made open access from our REF2021 portfolio submissions. 

Mykaell Riley: Bass Culture, [screenshot], doi.org/10.34737/qqvqz 

JE: What struck me was that our arts (and architecture) research, both very high performing areas within the University, were simply missing from the institutional picture of our research activities. Research funders don’t mandate open access for practice research, and anyway open research for these disciplines looks a bit different – it’s a combination of open access and data sharing – where you might not make every single file openly available, but you can capture them together, make open those elements that can be made open, and then the rest can be hidden from public view.

This is also really important in terms of preservation of this research – you cannot preserve content you haven’t captured. 

NW: When we say preservation, we are talking about actions supported by policy and strategy to ensure access to files, and therefore knowledge of process, methods and insights in the long term. So how did we get to the PRVoices project? 

JE: Over the past 3.5 years, I have spoken at many conferences about the work we have done and the lessons we have learned. What was clear was that many different communities including researchers and practitioners but also repository managers, research data managers, archivists, records managers, curators, librarians, software developers and research managers, were struggling with this. So bringing together these voices was so important, as was having that recognition from a research funder.  

We were also able to contribute our perspective about everything we had learned to our data gathering colleagues at Goldsmiths, as part of a report commissioned by the Practice-Research Advisory Group, and authored by James Bulley Ozdin Sahin (2021) ‘How can practice research be shared?’.  

Finally, in order to effect real change, this work had to engage a diverse international community. Discoverability of research links to search engines like Google, also connects up to metadata, which is what enables different systems to talk to each other. While persistent identifiers (like DOIs) make it easier to find research and researchers, all of which are internationally recognised standards. These standards don’t work very well for practice research and we had been working with colleagues at Jisc to raise awareness of this. Once you get these standards right then all the relevant software/systems can recognise this research. And the organisations that own these standards need to know that the community agrees on what this research looks like. That’s why taking it beyond Westminster and bringing on board Jisc, the British Library and Kings College London was so important. 

NW: In terms of defining the PRVoices Project, we are taking institutional based knowledge capture and moving beyond this to see how we might create an open access standard, so that other institutions, including those beyond academia, can produce knowledge based on these standards without the draining investment of resources, time and energy. 

JE: PRVoices is one of a number of projects funded by AHRC’s Scoping Future Data Services for the Arts and Humanities call which underpins their infrastructure for Digital Arts and Humanities (iDAH) programme, part of a strategic approach to arts and humanities infrastructure that aims to enable knowledge with impact. (We are also collaborating with the SPARKLE project, led by the University of Leeds). Our project focuses on using and updating existing open-source software and open standards, enabling the work we do to scale to other software and so benefiting all those engaged in and supporting practice research. It will also inform a platform bid to AHRC to develop an Open Library of Practice Research and its associated supporting and enabling environment.    

NW: Thanks Jenny. We look forward to seeing how the project progresses.

 

ARE WE TALKING ABOUT CLIMATE REALISM? JOL THOMS ON ANNA TSING AND JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER IN CONVERSATION

Figure 1: No Happy Ending, Anna Tsing, Rosie Thomas & Joshua Oppenheimer

Artist and researcher Jol Thoms offers his reflections on No Happy Ending: Storytelling at the end of the world, the recent CREAM Documentaries of the Imagination discussion between lead researcher and award-winning filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence) and Mushroom at the End of the World (2015) author and anthropologist Anna Tsing. In this conversation, the radical thinkers and makers focussed on a critical question concerning communication in the inevitable planetary condition of climate catastrophe, asking: “How on Earth do we tell stories if indeed there may be no happy ending?”

“To use the world well, to be able to stop wasting it and our time in it, we need to relearn our being in it…What tools have we got to help us make that reach?”

– LeGuin in Tsing et al. (2017, p.15/16)

 “I feel embarrassed when I say feminism and people do not think revolution in service of every living thing

– Lola Olufemi (italics in original, 2021, p.13).

“While story opens us to pain, doubt, and vulnerabilities, it also opens us to healing”, writes Annie Chau in Feminist Activist Storytelling (2020, p.98). In their conversation Joshua Oppenheimer and Anna Tsing (who are referred to as O&T from hereon) are suggesting that we need to stay with the trouble, to accept the pain, the existential angst of the calamitous situations rapidly unfolding around us. It is through this type of sober honesty and clear-headedness that leads to a generative cognitive dissonance that we might refer to as an approach to ‘climate-realism’. If there is to be any ‘healing’ from this position, it might include recovery from a centuries old trance, the old western logic with a fetishistic allure – what they refer to as a type of ‘magical realism’ – one that slyly invents an endless supply of products and resources to be metabolised and excreted without any repercussions. For Mark Fisher (2009) persistence of Capitalist realism “depends on this fantasy structure”, so, “How do we imagine a future without this kind of magical realism?” O&T ask.[i]  

Figure 2: Feral Atlas, curated and edited by Anna L. Tsing, Jennifer Deger, Alder Saxena Keleman, and Feifei Zhou, Stanford University Press, 2020 (Open Access) www.feralatlas.org © feralatlas

To attend to these heavy questions Storytelling at the end of the world began with a tour of Tsing and her collaborators’ open-access online compendium of ‘Anthropcenic infrastructural ecologies’, the edited and curated digital humanities volume www.feralatlas.org (2020). As a collective critical storytelling experiment and a radical form of pedagogy, Feral Atlas, with all of its text, artworks, poetry, and feral entities, “suggests new ways of thinking about thinking”, and renewed ideas about what constitutes a map.

What constitutes a map is critical to consider for a number of reasons, not the least because they’re a significant way that we represent and understand space and relations, but here I’d like to highlight cartographies use in law and governance: the description of property and land-ownership, in Environmental and Biodiversity Protection, and in the interpellation of ‘Natural Assets’ newly essential to Capital and Finance (what Marxist Ecologist John Bellamy Foster has termed, ‘The Great Expropriation’).[ii]

In ‘The Great Derangement’, Amitav Ghosh challenges literature’s failure to address or attend to the climate emergency in any relevant fashion. Of course, here, with Storytelling, we’re speaking beyond the discipline of literature, recognising any epistemic, ontological, or cosmological reality as predicated on the telling of stories. Oppenheimer asked, “how do we tell stories about what’s at stake in telling stories?” It’s a line of questioning getting deeper into the motivations or bias humans build into the stories they tell, and the stories they tell about themselves (and nonhuman others).

Without attempting to be deflationary Tsing said that Feral Atlas might be a multi-scalar approach to thinking and visualizing ‘the claustrophobia of being in a world made by our own garbage’. As capitalist economies and their militaries’ garbage pile amasses from the bottom of the Ocean, through the soil and groundwater, up into
the atmosphere, and mineralizing in all planetary bodies, we begin to understand the scope of their concern, and the idea that there can be no happy ending. But might that be a nostalgic approach from a puritanical perspective? For whom can there be no happy ending? Eve Tuck (2009) informs us that “damage-centered research” can
magnify the very harms it seeks to mitigate. So which of the human communities or generations deserves that shame?

Figure 3: Stop Ecocide International website: www.stopECOCIDE.earth

The World has become a terrifying place

O&T began their conversation with a reflection on Mushroom at the End of the World, how it exposed that “the world has become a terrifying place”, within which “it has become difficult to know how to make a life”. Here it could be interesting to reconsider the very notion of ‘a life’. What does it consist of, in an expanded, embodied sense? Tsing reflects on the holobiont:

“The most exciting thing in biology is the recognition that no species lives by itself… We exist for [multicellular life] as much they exist for us. We’re their patch – but it’s in every level too – we can’t digest without bacteria in our bodies; so many insects can’t reproduce without a specific bacteria; organisms can’t come to maturity without bacteria; the production of oxygen – none of us can (or do) live by ourselves”

To elaborate on this realisation it might be helpful to think with artist Himali Singh Soin and artist, educator and scientist Phoebe Tickell (aka Solarpunk Girl). What happens when stories are no longer ‘ours’, meaning they’re no longer so obsessively anthropocentric? In a world where ‘we’ humans are beginning to understand ourselves in deep time processes, fuzzy-boundaried porous beings that emerge, fruiting like mushrooms from a network of mineral, bacteria, virus, liquids – what collaborative stories can be told from this poly-perspective: the expanded notion of holobiontt? [iii]

Drawing on Jane Bennet, Ian Bogost, Jan Zalasiewicz, and Tristan Tzara, Himali Singh Soin’s SIlicontology (2017) lecture-performance champions this renewed mode of knowing our ‘selves’ as multiple – what Fred Moten’s organizing aphorism “consent to be more than one” might also attest.

“Silicontology is an assemblage of invisibilities: a tangle of intimate distances between human and nonhuman entities…. May(be) a speculative ecosystem, a forest of curious, dystopian, dangerous, deluded, shimmering whispers… coded with the ghosts and absences of the deleted and drowning”.

Figure 4: Himali Singh Soin performing Silicontology in ‘New Worlds’ curated by Alice Bucknell at Somerset house in June 2022. Photo by author.

Artist-scientist Tickell helps us embody this particular flavour of expanded being in her meditation at AmbikaP3 and the Serpentine’s A Circle in the Mind of a Fish presentation in December 2018.[iv] In this deep time meditation we become aware of the saliva of a dinosaur passing through our own fleshy hydrological system, and we feel the shells of ancient marine creatures in our calcium structures, our bones and bloods deeply entangled in the creaturely histories of Earths entangled biologies.

This slow fragmenting of a suffocating anthropocentrism at the heart of capitalist realism is necessary and refreshing and can contribute to renewed storytelling in the face of the ecological conditions we’re facing. This decentering of the human from linear space and time represents a conceptual renewal, a transitioning mindbody for planetary subjects and their stories, one that evades and eludes the straight jacket of a deeply flawed and darkly limited Western onto-epistemology. Good examples of climate realism might be Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh (2019), Richard Powers’ The Overstory (2018), Joan Jonas’ Moving Off the Land (2019) performance, or Cauleen Smiths video Songs for Earth and Folk (2013). An all-time favourite of mine is the video by Ted Chiang and Allora and Calzadilla’s: The Great Silence.

In the Storytelling discussion Tsing asks, “So, in a sense are, we ‘human beings’? Are we ‘ourselves’?” And she answers: “No – we don’t know what ‘ourselves’ is – we are also hosts and colonies of blue green algae”. This is a beyond-boundaries (poly-)perspective, a form of continuum-thinking I have been interested in for the last decade. I wonder what this ecological situation that disrupts classical boundaries of what constitutes any ‘thing’ also means for storytelling in the face of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s articulation of intersectionality? Could this gesture towards a form of healing from the exhaustion of hetero-patriarchal hierarchy; of the modern individual; of being only one?

Figure 5: Blak Outside creative collective founded by Carole Wright is a grass roots led, intergenerational, supportive of social housing residents, QTIBIPOC (queer, trans, intersex, Black, indigenous people of colour) inclusive community.

Hope and the end of the world

Oppenheimer and Tsing discuss how they’re interested in a “Hope that’s not an attempt to erase all the terrible things – hope as a term can still be useful to us,” they say, “but only if we don’t allow it to be passive”. The conversation of Oppenheimer and Tsing does generate an active hope, and it is unfortunate that there isn’t enough space here to reflect on all of their great ideas, questions, and provocations. In the context of ‘creating a tragedy from which we can all learn’ they they criticise the type of hope that popular media seduces societies into, which performs activism for us without our need to actually engage and demand. In Capitalist Realism Mark Fisher (2009) stated that this tactic of capitalism leads to a passive condition he calls ‘reflexive impotence’. This “can only be threatened,” he writes, “if [capitalism] is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort”(p.16). Stories without happy endings can still offer hope because they open us to vulnerability and offer a strategy towards defeating the ruin inducing logic of Capital that performs an anodyne ‘activism’ for us.

Green imaginaries of active hope like solarpunk really inspire me, and offer narrative strategies for a broken present-future.[v] It’s important to keep our strategies both critical, climate-realist, and motivating. New stories that create new kinds of taboos on an international scale might be able to do that. And as yet another ‘end of the world’ looms, (here we can think of the ongoing historical condition of colonialism as a form of eschatology, or Walter Benjamin’s insistence that history is not a linear progression but an ongoing cycle of catastrophe’s), riffing off LeGuin: what tools have we got to convince people to make sacrifices? Perhaps a cultural shift towards unhappy endings is a way towards that – because sacrifices need to be made. While solarpunk might attempt to eschew the question of sacrifice, it may need to contend with this aspect of climate realism in the future.

I began this commentary with Olufemi’s particular understanding of feminism because I believe that perhaps one of the most salient responses to their questions may be, “we tell feminist stories”, where feminist means caring, honest: with no bullshit – climate realism ‘in the service of every living thing’ recognizes social justice within the very notion of climate. Climate realism might then be an intersectional frameworkinformed by the likes of bell hooks, Max Liboiron, Gloria Anzaldua, Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, Olufemi, Tsing – and so many others – while also being multi-generational, informed by youth as much as elders.

From their discussion, it seems that O&T are grappling with some of the deepest questions facing planetary subjects in the 3rd decade of the 3rd millennium. By the end their emphasis is on activism: “Activism in its most effective form is changing the story: changing the structure of how we work together; enlarging the group of people with whom we might work together; to form coalitions to find common ground – including to alliances with non-humans as well as humans”.

So what’s got you active?

Figure 6: Unidentified Mushroom. Photo by author.

[i] In Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (2009), he states, “this treatment of environmental catastrophe illustrates the fantasy structure on which capitalist realism depends: a presupposition that resources are infinite, that the earth itself is merely a husk which capital can at a certain point slough off like a used skin, and that any problem can be solved by the market”.

[ii] Since November 2021, so called ‘Natural Assets’ have entered the international market as a new category. Multinational corporations have begun illicitly buying up huge swaths of land and water the world-over, “often expropriated from indigenous populations and subsistence farmers” (2022, np). See Foster’s articles: “Nature as a Mode of Accumulation: Capitalism and the Financialization of the Earth” (2022), and “The Defense of Nature: Resisting the Financializaton of the Earth” (2022) in Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine.

[iii] Holobiont is a multispecies nesting concept that emphasises how lifeforms are communities and pluralities of living things, from the micro to macro scale, which is often attributed to Lynn Margulis. It refers to the many types of bacteria, viruses, and beings living on and inside one another and is one of complex life’s essential strategies for the production and maintenance of earthly beings’ bodies. A human is a holobiont made of up thousands of bacteria, eukaryotes, viruses. An expansion the holobiont thinks the a/biotic atomic histories that go into the genealogies of beings, from the mineral, gas and liquids, etc. of Earth’s deep time necessary for multicellular life. See the next endnote for an elaboration.

[iv] See: Phoebe Tickell, (2018). Entangled, networked and blurred boundaries.

[v] Solarpunk is a growing, emergent ‘memetic engine for imagining a better world’. There are a lot of resources online, but one place to start might be: Solarpunk: A Narrative Strategy, a Memetic Engine w/ Jay Springett and the ‘Solarpunk Girl’ Interview on the Green Pill.


Bibliography

Ahmed, S. (2019). Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press.

Chau, A. (2020). “Feminist Activist Storytelling: Transforming Identity and Building Resistance”. Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education32(2), 91-101.

Fisher, M. (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? Zero Books.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.

Olufemi, L. (2021). Experiments in Imagining Otherwise. Hajar Press.

Tsing, A. L., Bubandt, N., Gan, E., & Swanson, H. A. (Eds.). (2017). Arts of living on a damaged planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene. U of Minnesota Press.

Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard educational
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