Tate Encounters


Editor for this Issue:
David Dibosa and Andrew Dewdney

Editorial Board:
Andrew Dewdney
David Dibosa
Morten Norbye Halvorsen
Sarah Thomas
Isabel Shaw
Victoria Walsh

[E]dition Three: Visual culture and the expanded field

This issue marks a half way point in [E]ditions, which was planned as a platform for a series of working papers, visual essays and the publication of selected research data, to accompany the two year fieldwork period of the Tate Encounters research project. Reflecting on the first three editions, it seems that the research group is beginning to recognize a supplementary function for the [E]ditions. In addition to opening up our discussions to ongoing dialogues within the wider research community, the [E]ditions provide a catalyst for the collective reassessment of critical positions on key issues within the research group. In the current [E]dition, the issue of Visual Cultures has been brought into that process.

The working papers on Visual Cultures presented in this [E]dition are a discursive form of writing in which we attempt to relate the experiences of the fieldwork to a larger field of critical enquiry. In doing this, we are attempting to refine and clarify our own explanatory framework. Such writing supplements the range of approaches taken in the development of our critical responses: each of us in our different ways keep notes of meetings and discussions; we write-up fieldwork interviews; we produce short papers for our seminar series. The working papers published here operate as a necessary working through of larger arguments and perspectives to test their practical application. The reason for wanting to make the papers publicly available arises from our overall methodological approach, which emphasises the importance of critical reflexivity and is action-orientated and participatory. We want to develop dialogue both with our participants and with other researchers whose work intersects with that of our own.

David Dibosa’s paper, Besides Looking: Patrimony, Performativity and Visual Cultures in National Art Museums, is an exploration and a further elaboration of the relations between the development of visual media practices within the research – what we have previously indicated as stemming from practice-based research approaches – and transmigrational visual cultures. David asks how perspectives derived from the study and articulation of Visual Cultures, (Hall, Mirzoeff, Evans, Rogoff) might usefully frame our understanding of transmigrational ‘viewing strategies’ and more specifically the practices of Tate Encounters’ participants. He introduces an important counter to the idea that either the art museum or the research framing can address the transmigrational viewer other than in an engagement at the point of viewing. This stresses the dynamic, rather than settled, historical sense of migrant experience that has become contained in notions of ‘heritage’, and ethnic categorisations. He looks to performativity to offer a way out of the impasse of categorisation and his focus upon transmigrational experience as fluid leads him to the idea that a corresponding art museum viewing strategy might be that “which has not yet been seen” or “a kind of seeing on the move”.

Andrew Dewdney’s paper, The Visual in Culture and Visibility in National Art Museums develops from the argument that the art museum still relegates the social reception of art to the margins of its practices and in doing so restricts the articulation and elaboration of viewer’s experience to the normative contemplative response. As a point of departure from what is considered an impasse, he points to the increasing centrality of the visual within everyday life in which personal media now offers a means of broadcast media as well as a ready means of social record. In this respect, the papers of both Dibosa and Dewdney look to the expanded field and to expanded practices of the emergent field of the academic study of visual culture to find ways forward in the development of the social practice of the museum. Dewdney’s paper notes that just as there are restrictions of viewing contained in the art museum’s practices of exhibition and display, so commercial visual media also restricts the possibilities of collective expression. It does so through the continued differences in product markets and divisions within the language and forms in which media is produced. Both papers, however, finally rest upon a discussion of the media practices within the research and find signs of hope that emergent uses point towards forms of articulating what is provisionally being framed as ‘seeing on the move’.

At the end of the first six months of the project, we took the decision to offer our participants the opportunity to become co-researchers, most of whom were, at that point, first year undergraduate students. The notion of constituting our research participants as equal members of the research team arises from two aspects of our methodological approach. Firstly, the research framework settled for an ethnographic method which emphasises participation in the research process. Indeed, we are interested in research projects which explore issues of the ownership of research findings and the status of voices within the research community. The decision to offer participants ‘co-researcher status’ was our response to these interests. The second aspect of methodology that informed our decision on co-research arose out of our concern to place reflexivity at the centre of data collection. In this sense the idea of co-researcher brings researcher and participants together within a common framework. This move clearly raises further questions regarding research skills. A further six months on, at the end of the first year of the fieldwork, the original group continue to work upon and refine their projects within the larger framework of the research. In this issue Patrick Tubridy, a founding co-researcher, continues his own reflections in images and words upon his encounter with Tate Britain in looking at John Singer Sargent’s painting of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth. What is of interest here, and discussed in detail in Dibosa’s paper for this issue, is the line of enquiry centred upon patrimony. In addition, a further group of eight participants have made research project proposals which we have discussed with them in detail and accepted as the starting point for further development. Of particular interest here is Dana Mendonca’s proposal and image/text sketch for project upon her own shifting identity within the recent expansion of the European Union.

In addition to the working papers in this issue, there is an ethnographic ‘video essay’ by Sarah Thomas in which she presents a series of three video extracts from the accumulating body of video-recording that she has been making. Through extracts, connected by short pieces of writing, which reflect upon method. Sarah Thomas begins to illustrate the distinctive features of an approach to visual ethnography that responds to the subject of the research, as well as to the conditions in which it is being conducted. There is evidence for suggesting that what Dibosa articulated as a kind of ‘seeing on the move’ is now reflected in the ways Thomas is responding as a visual anthropologist to the conditions in which the project is being conducted and those of participants’ lives. The extract from the interview of Deep Rajput visiting Forbidden Plant in London’s Covent Garden and the discussion that takes place between Rajput and Thomas has a rich resonance with what is being pointed to more theoretically as the expanded field of visual culture and could be seen to constitute ‘thick visual description’. Equally, the conversation between Nicola Oyejobi, Rajput, and Thomas ‘wandering’ in Tate Britain’s galleries is a pointer towards the importance of social dialogue for an emergent interpretative framework.

In this [E]dition one can observe the beginnings of a correlation between three distinct forms of practice: discursive writing, video ethnography and photography. The most obvious form of this is that the co-researchers’ photographic practices become the subject of comment and analysis within the discursive papers, while, at the same time, serving as illustrations to points of analysis. This is the case with the inclusion of the photographic project of Robbie Sweeny, which is accompanied by his own written reflections on the process of making a picture in the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain, during the exhibition of neo-classical sculpture, Return of the Gods. This participant practice is then the subject of comment in Dewdney’s paper in this issue. In these ways the co-researcher’s own reflections upon their practice become precise exemplifications of more general framing of observations. The video ethnography also begins the process of relating theory and practice. In this sense, the observations generated through visual ethnography provide a means for the research group to work out the theoretical and conceptual architecture of the project. Such observations are being written in the field, so to speak, close to the practical, organisational, and ethnographic studies that parallel the practical projects of our participants and co-researchers.

The research group consider that at the end of the first year of fieldwork they have established the main elements of a centred and grounded project, which over the next year can engage the original research questions in more detail and depth.