Background to the Research

An introduction by Compass Live Art

Over 10 years, Compass Live Art is an independent organisation that has developed a specific residency to commissioning festival model aimed at artists working in the public realm. Projects are many months, sometimes years, in the making and are developed with local participants whose lived experience makes them experts in the issues being explored. For 10 years we have produced the Compass Festival in Leeds – socially engaged, interactive live art in the public realm. Through the invitation to participate in a Compass project and in the mode of presentation during a Compass Festival edition, we have tried to removed barriers to access for the people of Leeds. This might mean siting a project where people live, work or play, rather than in a gallery, museum or theatre. It could be removing a ticket price or running a project over a long duration and incorporating flexibility into how long it takes to engage with in order to remove the need for advance knowledge, booking or an abundance of ‘time to spare’.

We are aware that the term co-creation is widely interpreted. The model we have developed is led by artists who collaborate with participants creating a community of interest around each project and we believe it is under researched. Our varied projects invite different levels of engagement. We want to know if more engagement equals more impact and where exactly in relationship to the zeitgeist of co-creation or work is positioned.

From our own evaluations we have anecdotal evidence of the impact of our work with communities – they enjoy participating and the care we take – but we have lacked capacity to investigate what degree of agency they experience and whether this has longer-term impact in their lives.

We hoped to revisit with participants and artists what they wanted to get out of their involvement with past Compass projects, look in depth at our 2022 programme and monitor engagement, and be able to return participants long after certain projects from past editions to reflect and draw meaningful insights. We’d also like to return to artists from previous festivals to explore any long-term changes they may have made to their practice or expectations of making work with the public.

From this we would expect to gather a robust evidence-based understanding of the impact over time of the work we do. A chance to review in detail our current practice, learn how we may improve, share this learning with others, provide a framework to experiment with new approaches and move into our next phase of development with good evidence of our value, and a secure understanding of the impact we have on participants’ lives.

From this we might learn and inform ourselves as to how to start another decade of ‘making with’. 

An Introduction to the Research

Our research collaboration set out to explore the experiences and impacts of ‘making with’ Compass Live Arts. We wanted to do so by utilising participatory and creative research methodologies that mirrored the creative practices of Compass. Through ‘researching with’ we explored the cultural values and experiential qualities that both artists and participants ascribe to different relationships of ‘making with’. The projects two main strands employed different ways of working, dialogical workshops with Compass Artists and walking interviews with Festival participants. At a time when the arts are turning to co-creation and participation in order to engage new and different audiences, these approaches provide us with insight into the impact of ‘making with’ on arts engagement.

At the same time as there has been increasing interest in co-creation in the arts, the same is true with academic research in what is sometimes described as a ‘participatory turn’. This shift has operated in parallel, with research subjects and arts audience alike increasingly seen as active participants, invested with valuable lived experiences and a sense of agency.

 This collaboration offered an opportunity for mutual learning across arts practice and arts research. As researchers and professionals, we are both concerned by relationships of withness – how do we understand our mirroring processes of making with and researching with? What are the distinctions between authentic, tokenistic, forced or emancipatory participation? What typologies and methods will help us understand the non-hierarchical differences of experience and value? This project used relational forms of researching (the conversation, the walking interview) to investigate relational forms of practice (co-creation, interactive, participatory). Our shared objective was to increase our understanding of what happens when we make/research/practice with people. We believe these insights, and the techniques developed, will support the arts sector in better evidencing the impact of various forms of participatory practice.

Matthew Reason,
Professor in Theatre and Director of the Institute for Social Justice, York St John University

Lauren Hall,
PhD Researcher, York St John University

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