Artist As Researcher? Researcher As Artist?

The Puerta del Sol square in Madrid May 2011

Last week, I attended a workshop at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society entitled “Understanding the New Wave of Social Cooperation: A Triangulation of the Arab Revolutions, European Mobilizations and the American Occupy Movement.” As is evidenced by the lengthy title, to synthesize a workshop such as this in a single blog post is a difficult task—one I’m hesitant to even try. For those looking for a thorough summary of the event, I believe that full session notes are available here.

A more valuable exercise for me, however, would be calling out the threads that stood out as particularly relevant to my work—both as an academic and as a technologist/designer. I certainly learned a great deal about Occupy, the Arab Spring, and the European based protests—especially considering the first person points of view garnered by listening to individuals such as Nagla Rizk and Lina Attalah of Egypt. Their description of the Tahrir Square uprising’s progression from collective action seeking to remove Mubarak to a polarized populous being controlled by SCAF was enlightening—certainly not a narrative I had considered to that point.

I had previously presented the progression of the Occupy movement as narrative, however. I suppose I hadn’t really thought of it as a technique; it just made sense to tell the story of Occupy Boston from a number of points of view along a timeline. As it turns out, the use of narrative was something called out during the workshop as an important method in social movement research. Something important to remember, as Alice Mattoni pointed out, is that what works as a narrative here in the US may not work in another culture.

But the way that movements spread throughout the world is through the stories they tell. As Laurence Cox noted, these waves pick up passive actors, mobilizing them for a cause. We, the researchers, have an important role in telling the stories of the movement, but, he added, it’s important to remember to tell more than just the stories we like. Rather, we must consider looking even at movements with which we don’t necessarily agree.

So good research is way hard. We know this already. When we were asked to discuss why people joined these movements and I tried to point out that the reasons are varied to the point that they cannot be summarized, I was corrected. Cristina Flesher Fominaya pointed out to me that “people who have studied social movements for years know how to answer” that question. Which sounds reasonable. A bit daunting, but reasonable.

I began—inevitably, predictably—to wonder about the role of the artist—not just in the building of social movements, but in the reporting of them. I’ve already called out a few “instructions”: use narrative, but don’t be too biased, consider how to translate heterogeneity into homogeneity. And these things seem to fit the “researcher” role. But what about the “artist” role? If an artist is telling the story of a movement as she knows how—maybe it’s by writing a novel, or by producing a painting, or maybe writing a song—does she need to consider these guidelines as well? Can’t she get away with a lot more? We call that “artistic license,” and it’s what lets us (me?) be so easily inspired by the Billy Braggs or Margaret Atwoods of the world.

After all, so much of what’s done to build these movements come from artists as well. I was intrigued by the presentation that Sash [Costanza-Chock, of CMS.861 fame] gave which highlighted the media culture surrounding the Occupy movement. As he showed some examples of media elements, Sasha pointed out that social movements have always generated narrative that move across tools and platforms—what he is exploring, however, is both the role of the individual in all of this, as well as that individual’s path (or, “life-course,” as he calls it) to the point of media creation.

Towards the end of the day, Sasha noted that the DDoS attacks began as an art project, I wrote that down in my notebook. Then I highlighted it. Then I circled it. Then I put some stars next to it. Considering what the role of “artist” is in social movements is so easily relegated to poster design or sign painting. But it’s much more: it’s challenging the system using the means with which one is most comfortable—the tools used throughout a creator’s life-course.

Can a researcher use the same means and still be called a researcher?

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One thought on “Artist As Researcher? Researcher As Artist?

  1. Pingback: MegaPost on #21M Berkman Workshop | Networked Social Movements

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