Marcus Coates’ School Of The Imagination and Sociological Imagination(s) By Claire Levy and Harriet Smith

…imagination is the capacity to shift from one perspective to another from the political to the psychological; from the examination of a single family to comparative assessment of national budgets of the world… It is the capacity to range from the most impersonal and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human self and to see the relations between the two.” (7: 1959)

C. Wright Mills : 1959: The Sociological Imagination :Oxford University Press


I’m sitting with my eyes closed. I can hear Marcus describing how I’m in a room – it’ s a room I know, my parent’s living room. There’s a hole in the floor under a chair. I move the chair and jump down the hole. In order for this journey to work, I must concentrate on my imagination, letting my mind’s eye wander to familiar places. Marcus tells me I’m at a tree. Again I see one I’ve seen before – I’m mining my memory bank for images to create this story. And then he leaves me – I must continue this journey without him – I walk along a mossy bank, next to a stream, I sit in the water and it feels cool – the sun is strong, no need to worry about getting chilly… I meander like this for a while, feeling very relaxed, but it’s not quite like dreaming – then Marcus says I must go back to the tree and he leads me back up through the hole and back into the living room. What follows is a sharing session with my fellow journeyers – we’ve all been sitting in a circle, each reaching into our imaginations for a journey which we try to compare notes on. Marcus leads us through this conversation and is helpful and reassuring. It’s slightly bewildering, like waking up from a massage..”

Claire’s journey

During the summer of 2013 we embarked on a journey with performance artist Marcus Coates and his team to research and evaluate his new project: The School of the Imagination.

Marcus Coates and Nomad were the 2013 winners of an annual award for a participative art project, commissioned by Create London on behalf of Bank of America. ‘The School of the Imagination’ aimed to draw on Coates’ shamanic techniques, and used the imagination to find new ways of solving problems and answering questions in the material world. As researchers, we were new recruits to the CUCR, commissioned by Create to evaluate several projects taking place over the summer months.

The CUCR approach to evaluation is – like much of its work – thoughtful, evolving and emphasising a reactivity throughout the process. There is no form filling at the end of a project, rather researchers are implicated from the beginning and work with project organisers to embed the evaluation into the practice. CUCR’s approach comes from a recognition, following Savage et al 2011 ithat research methods have a social life. As such, methods are fully of the world that they are also active in constituting. Taking this proposal seriously allows us to reconsider the ways we go about evaluative research. This is a field which has been heavily criticized historically for its role in instrumentality and governmentality. Rather than being an instrument of governmentality, evaluation can also be can also be a form of criticality and action research. The research we undertake, which is integral to the project ‘delivery’ is shaped by a number social actors contributing to it on an on-going basis, well before the research can be framed as a ‘product’ or as an ‘outcome’.

At our initial meeting, Coates explained that they were drawing on the work of Augusto Boal and his ‘Theatre of the Oppressed,’iiwhich works along the principles of the audience being allowed to intervene in performance and direct and participate in it. Boal in turn was greatly influenced by Friere’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’iiiwhich emphasises a dialogic learning between teacher and student: the lines of power being horizontal rather than vertical. We were to find that these theories tap directly into the participative nature of Create’s original brief and were manifested throughout the Coate’s project.

The East London theatre group Cardboard Citizens, who work with homeless people, helped to recruit participants. Their approach also draws on Boalian techniques and this had fed into Coates’ early research into the project.


The School of the Imagination consisted of a week of workshop sessions. Participants worked in groups and individually; utilising journeying techniques used by shamans; using subconscious imagining to address external questions and issues. These sessions were facilitated by Marcus and filmed by a crew from production company Nomad. The director of Nomad is Michael Smythe who has worked with Marcus for many years.

The venue for the work was Teesdale Community Centre in Bethnal Green, which is a small hall with a beautiful community garden, surrounded by brick council blocks. The heat of July meant all windows were open in the surrounding flats and sounds echoed through the garden. The journeying vocal call, collectively termed ‘Yoike’ filtered around the garden each day, and sometimes people would hang out of their windows to watch and comment when the group were working in the garden.

The workshops sessions followed a strict time pattern, the importance of the schedule made a potentially destabilizing process easier to cope with, giving the participants parameters for the work and regularity to the rhythm of the week. As well as the regularity of the scheduling, the journeying took on a pattern which offered reassurance and contributed to the sense of authority amongst the participants that emerged later. The structure for the journeys – warm up exercises and precursor activities to the journey itself – was mapped out and stuck on the wall, thus reinforcing the ritual, the intention of the process, the client, and the sense of security within this.


Marcus adapts shamanic practices and ideas into rituals and processes that situate themselves firmly in the now: the urban present of our culture. For example the group made ‘Eye-curtains’ out of sunglasses and Tipp-Exiv; utilizing components of our throw away world that are around us rather than using traditional materials. Marcus explained that in his view, traditional shamanic tools operate as mystifying objects, and he therefore prefers to use objects relevant to our own culture.

We understood that we needed to become both immersed in the project, and at the same time utilise a methodology to hold our observations together; we therefore saw ourselves not as observer/ experts, but rather as forming a partnership, which was evolutionary and co-operative, allowing us to share back observations and theoretical understandings whilst absorbing what and how events took place.

Part of our integration into the group was to help serve lunch each workshop day, which helped us to find our place, while we also hung around with the group during breaks and joined them when they worked out on the street in Bethnal Green.

We participated in a rehearsal session the previous week, held in part for the film-crew to see the set up and for Marcus to try out some of his techniques. Having experience of shamanic journeying helped us to understand what was going on, and how the participants were feeling. We could relate to what they were going through and comprehend the problems of interpreting the journey messages – reading the meanings both individually and collectively.

We had our research questions, which related to the commissioning body’s concerns. However, the process of participating in the project opened up questions about Frierian practice and how horizontal lines fit into a view of evaluation which involves sharing experiences rather than expertly taking information and judging others. We also reflected upon how shamanic practice can speak to social research and we even wondered whether journeying could become a valid evaluation tool.

Involved in a shamanic journey is the idea of first setting an intention. This is very important, as it is easy to ask the wrong question or not to fully understand what one is asking. Once the group had worked with questions from each other, the team endeavoured to introduce external ‘clients’ who had questions or concerns for which they might want an answer. At this stage the group worked with the client to form a clear question: a journey intention, which was then answered through images produced during the imaginary state. There is always more than one answer and these answers are not always conjoined. For a shaman, or a group of shaman, learning how to interpret the journey is skilled and takes experience.

In journeying, getting the intention precise is a skill; in evaluation getting the questions right is also a skill, but one that can shift throughout the process as things become visible : concerns made apparent. Yet, just as the School of the Imagination required a very firm structure (formulated through the film routine, the journey process, and the daily timetable ) in order to evaluate in a participatory way we found we needed to have a clear working structure to enable our observations to be formulated within a meaningful methodological framework. And as researchers we also needed to be able to differentiate between observations as noise and observations as data.

Research Evaluators as Explainers?

There were moments when we were struck by our inside/outside position to the project. On the Thursday the group were taken onto the street to do spontaneous ‘mini-journeys’ for passers by. This felt quite exciting as members of the public stopped to ask us what we were doing. But as apparent team members, these questions came to us too. As researchers we found ourselves torn between our participation in the moment (helping the camera crew and finding participants,) and being asked directly by passersby what was going on. This had implications for us as well as Marcus and Michael : Should we have stepped up and given an account? Isn’t that what we were there to do after all? But to give account, suddenly on the spot without agreed permission to speak for the group, was not something we felt we had clearance to do. Finding the line then, between participation, ownership, permission, and explanation, in and outside of sociological practice proved a challenge, perhaps one that shifts on every occasion, or perhaps becomes clearer with experience.

The process had performative qualities that challenge mainstream notions of problem solving, and the dynamics and meaningfulness of community consultancy. This parallels some types of evaluation and could be viewed as playing with critiques of professional community consultation as a performative (PR) production. This type of consultation is sometimes seen as a tick box exercise providing evidence for pre-made ideas decided upon by experts and now it was being turned on its head by a community group answering the questions of professionals. In our own way we were attempting to usurp notions of evaluation as being a tick box ‘add-on': being performers in the project rather than observers after the event.

The final consultation involved the group visiting Department of Health researchers in City hall: the participants took on the role of experts advising experts. This evidenced a knowledge production practice turned on its head : where experts were put into the role of amateurs, and were given the answers without use of theoretical tools or statistical measurements. The tools now used involved the human imagination, but used in a specifically focussed and participatory collective way.

The work was both funny and serious: people were walking around in Tipp-Ex sunglasses making strange noises. But it also reminded us of the process of clowning where truth is often delivered as humour. It became apparent that people find the idea of this project funny, and yet there are deeply serious issues being addressed. The Department of Health researchers were very interested in the journey information and extended their consultation by over an hour.

Perhaps one of the most important elements to have become apparent is the relationship between self, group, and society. For example, one participant recounted meeting a zebra during one of the journeys, she explained that this was because she tends to see life in very black and white ways, and needs to be more aware of grey areas. However, this was read as both a personal message regarding herself, and also understood in relation to the journey question, which was focused upon the Syrian conflict which at the time was in a stalemate between sides. The group’s individual journeys showed many collectively shared symbols, which suggested an individual and collective imagination working in tandem. We gained an understanding of how subconscious symbols also reflect social ones and within the reach of the project experienced how people came together through this process.

This was a project which succeeded through the coherence of the close-knit group members – who quickly grew to trust each other and indeed us; which we concluded was due in part to experienced and sensitive project management, but also due to the nature of the imaginative journey work. The ability of individual members to ‘attune’ enabled the collectivity of the group sessions to manifest. We aimed as researchers to actively share the experience of the group in order to pick up on the collective ideas, concerns, and symbols. We were able to play with preset notions of evaluation, and pre-thought research questions with their imaginary or expected answers and to just ‘allow what happened’ within a structure of qualitative methodology which seeks to give account with as much accuracy as possible. The project found its strength in the opening up of perceived social hierarchies, listening to all and responding to their experiences. A lesson for us as evaluators and researchers.



Images by Michael Smythe and Claire Levy.

Claire Levy and Harriet Smith are researchers at CUCR, Goldsmiths College. Harriet is currently working on her PhD researching what participatory arts methods can bring to understanding how urban people develop environmental sensitivity, while Claire is a film-maker and lectures in documentary practice and production at Middlesex and Bristol University.
Marcus Coates’ School Of  The Imagination and Sociological Imagination(s)is published in Streetsigns, the journal of CUCR.
To see further articles from this edition go to : 

Notes :

i The Double Social Life of Methods,John Law, Evelyn Ruppert, Mike Savage,CRESC, Open University, CRESC Working Paper Series,Working Paper No. 95, March 2011

ii Freire, P. 1996. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London. Penguin.

iii Boal, A, 1979 The Theatre of the Oppressed,London,Pluto Press

iv To help the shamanic practice by excluding most vision, leaving just enough for the body to find its way around.


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Gentrification Without Displacement in Shoreditch by Joon Ian Wong


First came the Young British Artists. Then it was Banksy and his cohorts. Now, it’s the million-dollar startups of Silicon Roundabout. Shoreditch and its brick-walled, Victorian warehouses, has been branded a cultural quarter since the Young British Artists moved into the hollowed out light-industrial area on the City’s edge in the early ’90s.

But even as the various cultural industries — first the artists, then the “brandals”, now the app-makers — briefly “shine and burn”i, they have proved to be essential tinder for property developers, as Pratt notes in his 2009 survey of the area.

Now Shoreditch is poised on the cusp of a new wave of development that will see the addition of 50-storey residential towers to its skyline for the first time, and an unprecedented amount of new, high-density housing. The new towers will be built on sites left fallow by their owners for decades. So just who is being affected by these developments? Is Shoreditch gentrifying without displacement?


Coming developments and local responses

Shoreditch has several large sites that have laid derelict for years. These brownfield sites, which include the former Bishopsgate railway goods yard, are finally being put to use. Developers have won planning approval from Hackney council for almost all the sites on the border of the City and Shoreditch. Sites that haven’t yet been approved, like the goods yard, are undergoing intensive public consultation driven largely by the developers, before planning permission is sought.


Together, these brownfield sites will account for up to 3,051 new residential units. For context, compare this to the Olympics athlete’s village in Stratford, just a few stops east on the Central Line. That complex accommodated 17,000 athletes and officials during the 2012 Games, and it was then converted into a residential complex with 2,800 units, or about 90% of the size of the planned developments in Shoreditch.

The planned increase in residential density is accompanied by millions of square feet of new office and retail space. One common response from nearby residents is similar to that voiced by Gary Sharkey, who rents in a newbuild near the goods yard site in Tower Hamlets. I interviewed him at a public consultation session of the goods yard set up by the developers’ consultancy in the summer of 2013:

I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said, referring to the tent pitched on the goods yard site containing scale models and lined with information boards about the proposed project. “It seems effective [at consulting with the public]. I look forward to getting more from the site than I do now.”

Residents can hardly be faulted for expecting more from these massive brownfield sites. When a new elevated park and repaved throughways are promised, as in the case of the proposed goods yard plans, a positive response from local residents can only be expected. But this sets up a dichotomy between a mixed-use development aimed at the more affluent, with its attendant public realm improvements, and a wasteland that is left largely closed to the public.

As one local campaigner, the historian and broadcaster Dan Cruickshank, put it at the opening speech of a new pressure group called The East End Preservation Society, the goods yard is simply an example of developers “squatting on” important sites until market conditions suit them. Residents end up supporting developers’ proposals in the absence of more imaginative or inclusive alternatives.

A relative lack of existing residential density — particularly owner-occupied properties — means that there is less organised community action on development and planning issues. This is the sentiment expressed by Johnny Vercoutre, who owns a building on Shoreditch High Street. His home is an homage to the 1930s and the man himself is habitually clad in period dress. He has lived in the area for 20 years. He remarks on the difficulties of local lobbying in the area:

There are not that many homeowners [in Shoreditch],” he says. “We’re on our own.”

The gentrification argument


Andy Pratt points out that owners of light industrial spaces within the Shoreditch Triangle were often relieved when they disposed of their property in the area. Unlike the narrative of commercial or industrial gentrification, in this case, the displaced property owners welcomed the move out of the area. Again, this upsets the narrative of wealthier incoming gentrifiers displacing existing residents. In the case of Shoreditch there were no existing residents to displace.

Thus, the narrative of ‘commercial or industrial gentrification’ may not be one of forcing out, but willing flight,” Pratt writes of the area’s industrial landlords.

Andrew Harris in his 2012ii paper studying the links between the YBAs and Hoxton, suggests that gentrification scholars have failed to incorporate cultural landscapes and aesthetic registers in their analyses. He wants to bring the place-branding of Shoreditch into a dialogue with the socio-economic processes of gentrification. This is further problematised by the fact that the process of gentrification taking place in Shoreditch does not necessarily create displacement.

But as Harris notes, quoting Hackworth, “the production of urban space for progressively more affluent users” is taking place in Shoreditch. The areas “transformation” shows a kind of “class-based process of neighbourhood change” that takes place without displacementiii.

A short history of Shoreditch


Shoreditch rose to prominence as an artistic hub linked to the Young British Artists in the early 1990s, largely driven by the many parties, festivals and events initiated by the late art impresario Joshua Compston, with an explicit place-branding agenda, as Harris’ work tells us. The artists, many supplied by the East London Line from Goldsmiths in the south, were attracted by hollowed out Victorian light industrial spaces and cheap rent arising from the neighbourhood’s blighted reputation.

But by the 2000’s Shoreditch, and its synonym in the cultural imagination, Hoxton, had descended into self-parody. It was seen as emblematic of New Labour’s ‘Cool Britannia’ and spawned the satirical rag The Shoreditch Twat, which lampooned, among others, the incoming residents it labelled the ‘Marlyebone Tunnellers’, who could always pop back into their more salubrious West London environs as needed.

Perhaps it was fitting that during this period the area provided a canvas, quite literally, to the self-described “brandalist” Banksy, whose spray-painted stencils on the walls of the area critiqued consumer culture by mocking it in various ways. The Bristol vandal kick-started his international career with an ‘exhibition’ in the Rivington Street tunnel, white-washing the walls and then stencilling on them, pulling off the feat dressed as a builder on official business.


Today Shoreditch trades on both the contemporary art blooms of the YBAs and Banksy’s street-level critiques. It remains “on the edge”iv, as Pratt has written, but it has been branded part of ‘East London Tech City’, also known colloquially as ‘Silicon Roundabout’, a cluster of technology start-ups that are given state support to promote things such as ‘innovation’.

But the inter-weaving of borough-wide social deprivation with a brand of knowingly provocative artiness has produced a certain pervasive style associated with the area. Style is generated by certain “technologies of glamour”, as Thrift has noted, and Shoreditch itself has become a space “in which every surface communicates something”1v.


Joon Ian Wong is a journalist and graduate of MA Interactive Media: Critical Theory and Practice. 

Gentrification Without Displacement in Shoreditch is published in Streetsigns, the journal of CUCR.

To see further articles from this edition go to : 


i Pratt, A.C. (2009). Urban Regeneration: From the Arts `Feel Good’ Factor to the Cultural Economy: A Case Study of Hoxton, London. Urban Studies 46(5-6), p. 4.

ii Harris, A. (2012). Art and gentrification: pursuing the urban pastoral in Hoxton, London. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37(2), pp. 226–241.

iii Ibid. p. 10.

iv Pratt, A.C. (2009). Urban Regeneration: From the Arts `Feel Good’ Factor to the Cultural Economy: A Case Study of Hoxton, London. Urban Studies 46(5-6), p. 8.

v Thrift, N. (2008). The Material Practices of Glamour. Journal of Cultural Economy 1(1). p. 17



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Fairytale of New Addington by Les Back

Derekpic White Stag

Alex Hopkinson has worked as a bus driver in south London for ten years. I visited him early in 2014 to talk about his father Derek’s Christmas lights. The Hopkinson’s family home on the corner of Homestead Way, New Addington is fabled for its electric Technicolor decorations – each December from the eighties the house was lit up like a giant beacon of festivity.


Derek Hopkinson grew up in Hoxton, East London and as a boy worked in the East London markets. Derek picked up the patter and brogue associated with that world. Alex, now in his thirties, explained: “My father was a real showman… Everyone that met him loved ‘im… he was like a magnet… he never turned anyone away.”


In 1997 the London Weekend Tonight TV show ran a festive competition for the best decorated London home. It was the second time they had run the competition and a neighbour nominated the Hopkinsons. They won and when the film crew visited with the good news and when Derek was asked why he did it he told the reporter – “It’s just pleasure, just pleasure”. The prize included a trip to Lapland but here was a small hitch, as Alex explained: “the conditions were it was Mum and Dad and two kids under the age of 16. I was already at college and my brother is six years older than me. So of course my Dad done his charm and rang them up and said ‘Oh we can’t afford to do it can you still let everyone go’ and they said ‘yeah’. That was one of the first times we had been on a plane, ski mobiles, skiing reindeer rides – it was great fun.”


I asked Alex whether he thought there was something unique about working-class men of his Dad’s generation. “There is yeah…” Alex replied. The larger than life local characters that ran Sunday football team and had a love of life. “Oh yeah, enjoying themselves. It’s all lost now people are too busy now, doing their own stuff now – not caring about no-one else”.


The family moved to New Addington in 1984. New Addington is home to 20,000 residents, many of them from working-class families that were allocated a council property here on the edge of London in the sixties and seventies. Seven miles from central Croydon it has always felt a bit remote. Early residents referred to it as ‘Little Siberia’ signaling that sense of cold isolation. John Grindrod documents how building estates like ‘Addo’ were actually part of a noble scheme of post war reconstruction that aimed to offer working people a healthier and better environment to live in.1


After a few years the Hopkinsons started to externally decorate their home at Christmas. Alex Hopkinson explains tells me it was his father Derek’s idea: “My mum’s birthday is the 3rd December. As a single parent in the 1960’s my nan always tried to make sure that mum had as much as the other children and worked every hour to make sure this happened…this included Xmas decorations up by her birthday. Dad just carried this tradition on but in an even bigger way!!”


The Hopkinson’s were not the only family to celebrate Christmas in this way. By the nineties there were numerous homes on the estate decorated in lavish colour, with glowing snowmen and Father Christmases shining out of the pitch darkness at night. Sukdev Sandhu writes that houses that stick out from timid suburban conformity appear both “heroic and lonely”.2 Christmas kitsch in ‘Addo‘ has that kind of exceptional boldness. Driving around this year there are fewer illuminated houses than in previous Decembers. Austerity is biting like the cold North Downs’ wind.


When I left home over thirty years ago almost no-one outside Croydon had heard of New Addington. Tia Sharp’s tragic murder, Emma West’s racist tram rant, the riots of 2011 and the episode of Secret Millionaire featuring computer mogul Bobby Dudani undercover on the estate changed all that.3 To outsiders New Addington became a short hand tag for the work-shy underclass, benefit scroungers and cultureless ‘Chavs’. In November 2013 The Croydon Advertiser published ‘well being scores’ for the borough and the New Addington and Fieldway estates came bottom: the worst places to live in Croydon.4


The estate was a place of improvement for many working people offering them a first real stable home, an escape from slum clearance and post-war austerity. During the seventies home ownership was very low, confined mainly to the oldest part of the estate built in the thirties named after Charles Boot who envisioned Addington as a ‘garden village’. Thatcherism changed this and the level of home ownership during the eighties increased rapidly, as residents took up the ‘right to buy’ their homes. Families like my own and the Hopkinson’s bought their council homes.


The estate is much more socially variegated than outsiders would have it. Home ownership on the estate is 38% in Fieldway known locally as the ‘New Estate’ and 55% for the older ‘red brick houses’ in New Addington ward. This is relative low when compared with 69% for Croydon as a whole.5 The homes decorated extravagantly at Christmas are often – although not exclusively – the red-brick ones. The festive illumination of these homes does not simply reflect their economic status or spending power, rather the Christmas lights are a seasonal gift to the estate as a whole.


Derek Hopkinson died in St Christopher’s hospice, Sydenham in 2004. Alex put up the Christmas lights that year and decided to “leave it at that”. They sold some of the ‘blow mould’ decorations that Derek had imported at considerable expense from the United States. In 2013 Alex wanted to rekindle the tradition in his Dad’s memory to mark the tenth anniversary of his passing.

Off King Henry's

I asked Alex what it takes to put on a show like this. “It’s tiring but worth it for the people’s faces. We started back in October.” The roof was first thing to tackle with the help of a couple of mates. Alex continued: “When we started doing it people came up to us and said ‘oh we remember when we brought our kids around.”


On Sunday 1st December the Hopkinson’s Christmas lights were ‘turned on’ and it was a truly extraordinary spectacle full of excitement and festive anticipation. A picture of Derek Hopkinson was mounted on the front of the house decorated by 10,000 lights, luminous reindeer, choirboys and of course Father Christmas himself. Four hundred people assembled in front of the house in expectation, news had spread through word of mouth and Facebook. A local grandmother asked via Facebook if her grandaughter – Ellie – could switch them on. When Ellie flicked the switch at 7 pm the Hopkinson’s treated their neighbours to a firework show launched from their back garden. One of Alex’s friends played Father Christmas and handed out 170 bags of sweets to children over the course of nearly two hours. They served teas and coffees from an urn in front of the house raising over £500 for charity on the night. Kids and parents from all over the estate came to witness the gloaming spectacle on a cold night.


I asked him if people think he is mad to invest so much. “It was something I thought he [Derek] would have wanted. Dad liked it so much, it was sort of like part of him. Next year it won’t cost me half the amount.” It has cost him £1,500 so far, not an inconsiderable amount for a man supporting a family on a bus driver’s salary. Then there will be the extra £150 on top of their winter electricity bill. “I done it for the local people,” explains Alex. He carries more of his father in him than he realizes.


It has been a tough time I say to Alex. “Yes, Tia Sharp and the riots [of 2011] I think it just needed another cause to start to enjoy themselves again. That’s why I put up the ‘Wishing Tree.’” In front of the house is a tree with tags and a Sharpie pen. It is smothered with scribbled messages to lost loved ones and messages to Father Christmas from kids.


Hard times have hit and unemployment is rising and local house prices are soaring. People cannot any longer afford to buy their council homes. In 2012 Croydon Council received 119 expressions of interest in ‘right to buy’ but the initiative resulted in just two sales.6 Elderly residents – many of whom are widowed – are being forced to remortgage their homes to private companies in order to avoid sliding into poverty. ‘Right to buy’ brought affordable council housing to an end and the risk now for low-income families is a return to the impoverishment of pre-war slums.7


You can do a class analysis of London with Christmas lights,” writes China Miéville astutely.8 In December class distinction can be discerned through peering through the window of most London homes. In poorer homes “the season is celebrated with chromatic surplus”; while the rich and middle-class “strive to distinguish themselves with White-lit Christmas trees”.9


Driving to New Addington seems to support Miéville thesis. In affluent Beckenham homes are bathed in subtle white light sometimes with a luminous electric stag grazing on the lawn. “Ah good taste, as Picasso may or may not have said, what a dreadful thing,” writes Miéville. I am sure he would approve of New Addington where entire houses are illuminated with multi-coloured electric excess.


I put this to Alex and ask him if there is a relationship between social class and Christmas decorations. He nods knowingly: “I think it’s people who have never had nothin’ who like to give back to people. You always find people who are poor always give and people that are rich don’t… and that’s the reason they stay rich for.” We laugh as he continues. “When you think about it a lot of the rich people they sort of don’t give to people and that is the reason why they’ve got money.” Is that why they’ve got their classy white lights, I ask? “Exactly” he concludes.


The money raised from the collection box in front of their house will be donated to St Christopher’s Hospice. “Up here obviously a lot of people go there either with cancer or other illness. They were fantastic and allowed my mum to sleep in the next bed during his last few days so that they could be together. The money we raise will be given to them to help enable their work to go on,” says Alex.


At the heart of this story is an ordinary miracle. In contrast to the glitzy consumerism of the supermarkets and shopping centres that profit from Christmas, this is a spectacle of community – a gift given for free in hard times by a family to the estate. You can see it reflected in the faces of the children as they laugh excitedly and come to admire the glowing colours of the Christmas lights. There is no better tribute to Derek’s memory, one of New Addington’s best-loved characters.


As a child Kirsty MacColl lived close to New Addington.10 In her famous collaboration with the Pogues, Fairy Tale of New York – the greatest Christmas song of all time – she sings with Shane MacGowan “And the bells are ringing out. For Christmas Day.” Somehow the Hopkinson’s festive decorations are reminiscent of that stirring refrain. Long may their electrified lights shine chromatically on the corner of Homestead Way at Christmas time.


Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths College, London

Fairytale of New Addington is published in Streetsigns, the journal of CUCR.

To see further articles from this edition go to : 


1 Grindrod, J. (2013). Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain.Old Street Publishing. see pp. 432-433,

2 Sandhu, S. (2007). Night Haunts: A Journey Through the London Night. Verso & Artangel. p. 22.

4 Data Blog: Where is the best place to live in Croydon, Croydon Advertiser,

5 See Strategic Partnership Croydon (2009) Fieldway Ward Profile. and Strategic Partnership Croydon (2009) New Addington Ward Profile.

6 Bury, R. (2012). ‘Right to buy falls flat’, Inside Housing, 21st September.

 7 See Meek, J. (2014). ‘Where will we Live’, London Review of Books, 9th January.

8 Miéville, C. (2012). London’s Overthrow. The Westbourne Press. p. 29

9 Ibid. p. 30

10 see Back, L. (2003). ‘Flame Immune to Wind: The Songs of Kirsty MacColl, City, 7 (1). pp. 107-111.


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Elections and Silver Stories from the Black Sea by Claire Levy


Bucharest is hot and noisy. The bus inches through the rush hour traffic. I notice a car literally wrapped around a lamp post, which causes some consternation amongst my fellow passengers. Traffic police whistle at the slow moving convoy. I learn later Joe Biden is in town, staying across the square from us. On TV news he talks of Romania’s importance to the UN. A Romanian colleague comments : ‘We’d rather have Biden than the Russians‘.

I ask at the desk for a recommendation for dinner and we eat pike’s roe and sheep’s cheese followed by cabbage stuffed with goose and pork and duck. Everything is good and goes well with the local red wine. The old town has been remade – there is construction everywhere. It feels like Bucharest is re-writing its history to make it cleaner. At the red and white brick church we can hear the priest saying mass through a loudspeaker. People cross themselves vigorously as they pass by.

We pile on the mini-bus. We are leaving Bucharest and driving 300 miles south to the Black Sea town of Constanta. This has been the main seaport in the country, as well as a holiday resort.The hotel receptionist advises visiting the Casino on the front. In the brochure she proffers it indeed looks like an impressive building, although not a Casino anymore.

Once we reach the outskirts of the Bucharest, the roads quieten, we bump along the motorway. The landscape is flat and green.


We are here for meetings and workshops with our Romanian partners in the next phase of the Silver Stories project. This EU funded Leonardo project is on its 2 year course to establish and refine methodologies for working with elderly people. Goldsmiths is the evaluation partner. Digital storytelling is being used in a multifaceted way : as a training tool for professionals who work with the elderly; also as a means to reach those who are older and isolated, or have Dementia; or want to use the technologies around them but don’t know how. Our hosts are to show us their approaches to the storycircle and application through the comprehensive network of libraries as training centres, throughout the country.


We hear inspirational stories from local women who have taken part in the project to date: One of whom has written 6 novels since being introduced to computing and how to use the simple software on offer. In Romania you are seen as ‘old’ at 60 and many living in the provinces are very isolated. Other participants told us how they could now keep in touch with their children working abroad as now they know how to use Skype. Many of the groups, which were brought together through the project are encouraged to keep in touch with each other via Facebook. The digital storytelling was just the beginning of a new technologically enhanced social life.


One morning before beginning our workshops at the library, I see a sign on the corner of a street, detailing the number of kilometres to Roma and Londra, while the km count to ‘Uniunea Europeana’ is zero. We are in the middle of the EU elections and it is felt keenly here. Although the roads are a mixture of new and smooth and rutted and pot holed, Provincial Romania doesn’t look quite so refreshed as the capital. We see some workers scraping off old yellow paint from lamp-posts and repainting them. One of our Romanian hosts tells me the mayor is doing this before the elections, but there is too much corruption here. ‘There are free buses for people with a pension under 900 lei a month, but he is fiddling money elsewhere in the city’s budget.’

I see children in the touristy harbourside cafes doggedly trying to sell their roses to us and others who are eating by the water; while other kids work their way down the lanes of stationary traffic asking for change.

All the while Europe is gearing up for elections. Feeling the urge to gorge on news, I see Nigel Farage stating his arguments on Euro-news, while I dip into a Channel 4 news package on my phone. It features a UKIP rally in Croydon where the steel band, hired to ‘create a party atmosphere’ packs up when the members realise who has hired them. My family was forced to move out of Eastern Europe to UK in the early part of C20th because of the rise of anti-semitism there. I don’t feel that this entirely defines me, but UKIP rhetoric forces me to put this part of my history centre stage. I am in Mittel-Europa as a member of a project which tackles the increasing and international phenomenon of an ageing population and celebrates how approaches in 6 European countries might be used in tandem and how methodologies can be shared and improved upon.

But there are contrasting views on the idea of a European identity. Mila Moshelova discusses how foreign policy within EU countries has difficulty in ‘identifying and integrating common interests this further impedes the emergence of a European identity.’ i And along with these ideas on foreign policy, there are long standing arguments over the nature of European identity and how EU funding for culture and educational projects tries to create a European identity that doesn’t exist, indeed Meinhof contends that with 

European identity’ scholars are fishing for something that in fact does not occur naturally.ii

And yet, there are other ways to measure feelings of ‘European-ness’ : through action.Favell (2005) contends that our cross border behaviour, such as buying property abroad, handling a common currency, looking for work in a foreign city,…buying cheap airline tickets,… joining cross-national associations—and a thousand other actions facilitated by the European free movement accord is as much about being European as EU regulation.

These ways of being European (that can all be counted, or interrogated for meaning), are notably also enjoyed by many who overtly profess themselves to be Eurosceptic or to have no European identity at all. Thought of this way, we may indeed discover ‘social identities’ that are genuinely transnational, if they turn out to be rooted behaviourally in new forms of cross-national action and interaction.iii

In this sense perhaps the Silver Stories project falls into the category of ‘European action’ : collaborating across borders, sharing ideas, facilitating new understanding through this local and cross border work : Potentially encouraging convergent ideals and finding identity in coherent goals. For me, this confirms why the EU is important. Why it matters. It’s not just about EU quotas and being ‘told what to do by Brussels’ but about collaboration.


Claire Levy is a researcher at CUCR.

For more information about the Silver Stories project go to :

i“European Identity in a Transforming Political Space: Eastern Enlargement and its Challenges”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Saturday 15 February 2014,, displayed on 13 June 2014

iiEds. Hermann, R. Risse, T, Brewer, M. 2004 Transnational Identities : Becoming European in the EU.Rowman and Littlefield. Oxford.

iii Favell, A. Europe’s Identity Problem. In West European Politics, Vol. 28, No. 5, 1109 – 1116, November 2005


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Enabling and disabling environments with SDA by Charlotte Bates

How do you experience and make sense of the designed environment as you go about your daily life? The question underpinned our activities with members of the Bits and Pieces group at Southwark Disablement Association (SDA) on Friday 14th March 2014. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the daylong workshop offered a collaborative and friendly arena to try out different methods and tools for understanding and representing disabled peoples’ experiences of the designed environment. Through a series of activities, we invited the group to show us places in the local area that are significant to them, from streets and pavements to buildings, public spaces and transportation, and to tell us about their experiences of inclusion and exclusion therein.

The day began with a participatory mapping exercise, through which we began to explore meaningful places and to highlight things that facilitate or impede movement and mobility, from the position of bus stops to the provision of toilets. We then introduced ways of recording these experiences, from photography to sound recordings and video. Each method or tool was discussed as a means to think about, and illustrate, what makes enabling and disabling environments. The following extracts, written by the workshop team, offer a reflection on and insight into the day as it unfolded. We would like to thank the Bits and Pieces group and the SDA staff for inviting us to the Centre and for participating so enthusiastically in the workshop.


Photographing the Street Environment by Rob Imrie

Trying to get around the street environment, and using buildings and transport, can be a challenge to all of us. There are lots of things that can get in the way, or make it difficult to gain access to places we want to go to. Using street photography as a way of drawing attention to design features that we think work well for us and those that we think are inappropriate and make life harder, we explored the street environment around the Centre.


These four photographs, featuring Alyson, illustrate the common problem of a lack of joined up thinking and design by those charged with implementing the redesign of streetscapes. This street was re-designed three years ago, as part of a programme of new housing development that included building a new Centre for the SDA. However, the implementation of the street’s design, in relation to ease of use by people with mobility impairments, and especially individuals dependent upon the use of a wheelchair, leaves a lot to be desired. As the photographs show, the dropped kerbs are built into car parking bays that enable a vehicle to block the route way of users. Alyson drew attention to the fact that when you come off one of the paths onto the road there is no corresponding kerb cut to take you up the other side, leaving no alternative than to navigate along the road and be exposed to traffic. She also found the kerb cut gradients too steep to be able to self propel up them and was left dependent on some one to push her up onto the pavement, hardly a scenario for independent living.



It appears that the streets around the SDA have been re-designed with less than due attention to the needs of those who use the Centre itself. The Centre is very well designed and the issue is not one of getting in and out of its front door, but rather how the environment beyond it can be joined up to encourage a continuity of movement and mobility so that people do not have to be dependent on others to enable them to get from place to place. The lack of attention to basic design details has more or less rendered this impossible for some people in the immediate environs just south of the SDA Centre.

The Rhythms of Walworth Road by Kim Kullman

There are five of us moving on the pavement alongside the busy Walworth Road on a sunny spring afternoon. We have equipped ourselves with four cameras, including one headcam, two handheld cameras and one mini-cam attached to the handlebars of a tricycle. Before setting out on our journey, we have decided to use our cameras to engage with the rhythms of Walworth Road, that is, the diverse ways in which our group and the others around us are moving.

It turns out that most of us know the area very well, some having lived near Walworth Road in the past, others living here currently. Although this is familiar territory, the presence of the cameras seems to change our relationship to the place and its people, bringing out qualities and possibilities that we have rarely paused to consider before. One good example is the way Angus films the different surfaces of the pavement we are moving along, or the way Colin skillfully uses his camera to engage with everything and everyone moving past us on the street: cars, buggies, buses, dogs, cyclists, old people, young people.

We decide to head towards the nearby East Street Market. Dylan, who wears the wide-angle headcam, is turning his head left and right to capture the people and vehicles that we encounter along the way, creating a lively panorama of the street as we approach the market. Dylan says that he visits the market regularly, although as a wheelchair user he avoids Tuesdays, when the area is too crowded for him to be able to move comfortably. When we enter the market, the whole atmosphere around us seems to change, and the traffic noise from Walworth Road recedes as we are enveloped by the patchwork of sounds, smells and sights that characterises the place at this particular time of the day.

We have attached a mini-cam to the handlebars of the tricycle of Isayas, and, as he moves between the narrow gaps between the stalls and customers, the camera traces his fluid maneuvering. While there is considerably less space than on the pavement, people demonstrate a certain flexibility and smoothness in the way they negotiate this crowded space, giving room to each other as they pass by. Colin stops to chat with an old friend, and Dylan engages with one of the market stallholders, ending up buying a new leather cover for his iPad. All of us seem to enjoy this space. At least this is the impression one gets when speaking with Colin, Angus, Dylan and Isayas, who praise the market and the surrounding area, saying that they like its diversity. It is with these thoughts in mind, then, that we decide to return, through the hubbub of Walworth Road, back to the Association.


Feeling the park by Charlotte Bates

We’re heading to Burgess Park. You can see it from our meeting point just outside the Association – it is not much more than 200 feet away, with a zebra crossing to help us navigate the light flow of traffic and take us across the road to the park entrance. Our mobilities are diverse, and our means of moving around include a combination of wheelchairs, walking sticks, and bodies of different capabilities. I move among the group, sometimes pushing a wheelchair and bending forward to talk with Linda or Derek. As we move along, I begin to realise that the park is not as close at it first appeared. It is not the distance that I have underestimated, but the time and effort it takes to get there. Still, the warmth of the sun is inviting and the feeling among the group is convivial. We cross the road, and the people in wheelchairs grimace as the tactile paving reverberates through their bodies. David pushes a wheelchair off-road and onto the rough grass, amiably teasing Derek about the possibilities of wheelchair travel while reminding the group of the purpose of this outing, which is more than social. Our task is to explore how the seemingly mundane textures and surfaces of the local environment feel, and how they shape our experiences and alter the routes we choose to take.



The park offers a range of surfaces for us to experience, from gravel and grit to smooth and rough grass, but for the most part we choose not to venture off the concrete path, which guides us to a seating area that offers a stopping point for those already weary. It becomes clear that we will not be going any further – although sunny, it is still a little cold and we need to preserve enough energy for the return journey. Besides, just beyond the concrete path the surface changes to a gritted area, which seems uninviting. As we sit, rest, and chat, it becomes apparent that this is new territory. The park is unfamiliar to most of the group, and there are clear but invisible barriers all around us. Sensing the environment differently through our individual bodies, which are more or less sensitive to the textures of the world around us, we begin our return, back down the concrete path, over the tactile paving, across the road, and along the pavement to the Association, carefully negotiating litter, potholes, cracks, and crevices, while sharing the stories of our lives as we go.


Mapping the ‘Other’ Senses by Alex Rhys-Taylor

With the aim of moving through towards Burgess Park and onto the high street, six variously disabled participants and I left the SDA. My intention was to prompt reflection on participants’ ambient sensory experiences of space: the way slopes on pavements necessitate efforts to balance, the way different surface textures prompt pain and offer relief. Before getting more than 2 metres from the front door of the Centre I stop and pause, note-pad in hand, to explain exactly what it is I would like the participants to be sensitive to:

So I want you to think about your sense of balance, any internal feelings of pain or relief that a particular space might evoke and…”

Without missing a beat one participant responds “Can we do this somewhere in the sunshine? We’re standing in the shadow and I left my coat inside.”

From the front of the Centre we moved out of the day-long shadows cast in the canyon between new high density housing blocks towards the park. Predictable obstacles get in the way. A car is parked over an access point in the pavement designed for wheel chairs and baby strollers. It isn’t the car’s fault. White lines that mark the parking space, for residents of the new housing development, cut right across the pavement access point. So we take a diversion down a side street. A zebra crossing is commended by participants for its flat entry and exit points, gravelly paths in the park are critiqued for sending tremors of pain up the back of a spinal injury sufferer. Those that wanted to use the park at night highlight a paucity of lights. Others point to the pleasurable soundscape of the park. It is often difficult, as one wheelchair-bound participant pointed out, to hold a conversation with an able bodied person for the distance between each other’s ears and mouths. Noisy high streets make it practically impossible to converse. The ambient hub-bub of the park however, facilitates communication.

As we move through the park, only 250 meters from where we set off, participants start dropping off. Not because of an impaired sense of balance, or even acute pain, but simply fatigue. A recovering stroke victim is the first, stopping at an invisible barrier that he is simply  too exhausted to move beyond. After about 45 minutes of ambling through the park and surrounding streets, pointing out inaccessible shops, poorly marked junctions and badly kept pavements, I have just three participants left; one in a motorized wheel chair, another without a motor with her friend pushing her. I’m warming up, in full swing even, having, I thought achieved some degree of empathetic understanding. I’m enthusiastically pointing out things that might cause difficulties “What about this? Or this?”. Then my participant in a wheelchair says something. I can’t hear her because of the traffic. Her assistant turns to me and says, slowly and clearly as though I might have impaired hearing. “You see, she’s cold. It isn’t like for you and me. She’s doesn’t warm up moving around”. I look down and see the goosebumps on the top of her arms. We head back to the Centre.

I had set out to gauge the importance of ‘the other senses’, mainly introspective senses, to disabled bodies in the urban environment. Importantly, the exercise was bookended with references to thermo-sensitivity. Of all the sensory capacities that able-bodied people take for granted, this strikes me as one of the very least thought about. Even when environments neglect to cater to normal ‘heat sensitivity’ we nudge a thermostat or grab an extra layer without thinking twice. Yet for those with impaired movement, circulation and nerve damage, an environment’s inability to cater to their thermo-sensitivity, is commonplace. We survived bumpy pavements, obstructive cars and badly marked junctions. It was, however, a largely unexpected lack of warmth that ended the exercise. Only it shouldn’t have been unexpected. It was the first thing that anyone pointed out.

Rob Imrie is Director of Universalising Design Project

Charlotte Bates  and Kim Kullman are researchers,

Alex Rhys Taylor is Co-Director of Centre for Urban and Community Research


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Exhibition : THE FUTURE OF ART IS URBAN 30th May – 14th June

‘ The Future of Art is Urban’ is an exciting 2 week exhibition, focussing on : ARTISTIC RESEARCH PRACTICES AND METHODS IN SOCIAL SCIENCES


Curator :Katalin Halász

Featuring : Alexandra Baixinho | Viktor Bedö |Dominika Blachnicka–Ciacek | Luca Damiani | Sara Faridamin | Holly Gilbert | Katalin Halász | Felipe Palma | Harriet Smith | Philippa Thomas | Christian von Wissel

PRIVATE VIEW Friday 30 May, 6-9pm at Enclave, Resolution Way, London SE8 4NT


The Future of the Artis UrbanArtistic Research Practices and Methods in Social Sciences blends the borders between art and social science. It presents a wide range of different social research practices in which knowledge is produced through artistic approaches. Participants use the city as a site for artistic research and experimentation; of confrontation and interaction.The exhibition discovers how visual researchers unfold and reveal the implicit aspects of the social in the urban space. Practices and processes of artful social research become alternative models of thinking and knowing.


13 June from 3-9pm Enclave, Resolution Way, London SE8 4NT

In an Urban Game session by Viktor Bedö, participants will play a smartphone-based game in the urban space around the gallery, and discuss urban game design as prototyping and mapping tool for urban design and research.

The events diary also includes talks by academics Michael Guggenheim, Bernd Kräftner, Nirmal Puwar, Alex Rhys-Taylor, Alison Rooke and Monica Sassatelli who will explore key themes of the exhibition: the intertwining of aesthetics and city life, the politics of art in the city, artful methods in sociology, and bringing science into urban space.

The screening of the film ‘The Region’ by Felipe Palma will close the day of special events on 13 June.

30 May – 14 June

Open Wednesday to Saturday, 12-6pm

For additional information, images or interview requests please contact:


Supported by:

Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths

Goldsmiths Annual Fund

Goldsmiths Sociology Department

Methods Lab, Goldsmiths


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Rethinking the Cultural Value of Evaluation by Alison Rooke


Art and creativity are increasingly used to solve urban problems such as job creation, area regeneration, social inclusion and community cohesion. Today creative and cultural strategies are the familiar handmaiden to rapid regeneration and creeping gentrification. Artists and other precarious creative sector workers have become a necessary part of capitalist production. As the cultural theorist George Yudice’s points out, ‘Art has completely folded into an expanded conception of culture that can solve problems, including job creation. Its purpose is to lend a hand in the reduction of expenditures and at the same time help maintain a level of state intervention for the stability of capitalism. (Yudice 2004: 12)

Focussing on the city, urban commentators and theorists have examined the complex relationship between art and urban change. ((Loretta Lees, Slater, and Wyly 2007)) examining the instrumental uses of art and culture as part of a wider critique of governmentality. Zukin’s 1977 study of the symbolic economy examined the ways in which New York artists were unintentionally the ‘pilot fish’ of gentrification (Zukin 1989). The presence of studios and galleries is attractive to local and global property speculation. (During some recent research in a Post-Olympic borough we were informed that the opening of a high street gallery close to a tube station immediately adds eight thousand pounds to local property values). The consequences of this are rising property values and the displacement of existing residents unable to afford rising rents and property prices. This is of course so often followed by artists’ own displacement as corporate interest and speculative investors move in to extract maximum value from the areas increased attractiveness to investors in search of the ‘edgy’ or ‘bohemian’ parts of the city. (see e.g. Bowler and McBurney, 1991; (Deutsche 1998) , (Zukin 1996)).

Artist and arts organisations occupy a problematic position as agents of urban renewal. Artists working with participatory or community art, ‘social practice’, often find themselves commissioned to produce spaces of community participation, delivering social and cultural interventions. Frequently social practice and ‘art education’ is aimed at publics, or ‘communities’ who do not frequent institutions of ‘high culture’ such as galleries and museums. In spite of good intentions, artists are often deployed in these processes to produce socio–economic change and social cohesion (L. Lees and Melhuish 2013). They are intermediaries in potential social conflicts and but also significant actors in consequent social fragmentation. These interventions therefore raise interesting questions about the value of cultural activity and the values of cultural institutions delivering opportunities for active participation.

This complex socio-economic and cultural context raises the question of how to evaluate these interventions. Evaluative research is intrinsically enmeshed in the question of cultural value and values: What counts as ‘culture’ amongst creative industry professionals? How can we understand the value of cultural participation? What are the cultural values of those bodies that require evaluative research? Who is evaluation for? Is it for funders? Should it be useful to those taking part in it? What should it look like? Can it only ever be a report? Where should it go? Will it just sit on a shelf gathering dust? Or can it be more ‘lively’ and ‘inventive’.

I recently received two AHRC awards to run Cultural Value Expert Workshops. The AHRC’s Cultural Value Project1 seeks to establish a framework that will advance the ways that we understand the value of cultural engagement and the methods by which we evaluate that value. It takes as its starting point “the actual experience of culture and the arts rather than the ancillary effects of this experience” and thus seeks to challenge some of the economic valuations of culture (see for example O’Brien 2010, and the subsequent HMS Treasury ‘Green Book’. which overlook the experiential and phenomenological characteristics of cultural activity. Debates over the terms through which evaluation should be conducted reflect a political and economic climate which emphasises the need for empirical justification for monies spent on the arts in a context of substantial cuts and fiscal austerity. Evaluative research is often an exercise in ‘cost benefit analysis’ and providing evidence of a Social Return on Investment, bolstering the case for ‘evidence-based policy making’.

Evaluation methodologies are an indicator of the epistemological values of those concerned with measuring and evidencing ‘value’. However, for many organisations receiving public and private funding to deliver arts and cultural interventions, evaluation has become a technocratic hoop to jump through in an endless mutual narrative driven by cultural policy shaped by instrumentality and accountability to funders. CUCR have been involved in the evaluation of urban cultural interventions as well as debates about how this work should be evaluated for two decades. (In April this year, CUCR’s ‘Has the Tide Turned?’ event marked 20 years since CUCR was established when we embarked on the evaluation of Deptford City Challenge Regeneration Programme in the mid-1990s. At this point the re-narration of Deptford as a cultural quarter was merely a local manifestation of a national policy which sought to draw on the cultural industries to drive investment in deprived post industrial locations).

The scramble to systematically measure the value of the arts and culture raises questions about ‘the social life of methods’ (Savage 2013) specifically, the ways that research methods are implicated in an intellectual differentiation between scientific and humanities expertise. Attending to the social life of methods draws our attention to the histories of and motivations for evaluation and the ethics and aesthetics of these sociological entanglements. Within the academic community, evaluation is often looked upon as insufficiently critical field of research, falling between a rock and a hard place; criticised as complicit with neoliberal governmentality and methodologically shaky and insufficiently robust. The systematic ‘framework’ and ‘toolkit’ approach to evaluation has been critiqued by a number of theorists as ‘excessive simplification’ (Belfiore 2010) excessive instrumentalisation (Tusa 2002, 2007, Hytner 2003) too ideologically biased and a form of advocacy (Selwood 2002, Belfiore, 2002).

In conversation with Dr. Sophie Hope at Birkbeck and working with Imogen Slater, Dr. Alex Rhys Taylor and an ever evolving team of skilled and capable researchers at CUCR we have been carrying out evaluative research which seeks to challenge the orthodoxies of ‘external evaluation’. Our work is driven by a desire to open up evaluation as an opportunity for critical and collaborative research. We recognize that evaluation is an instrument of governmentality. Evaluation is usually a requirement of funding, and to a greater or lesser extent imposed on those delivering participatory and socially engaged art practice. However, it can also offer organisations and individuals a valuable opportunity to reflect on their engagements with the social, learn lessons and provide a platform to debate the value of art and participation with wider publics, funders and policy makers. We see critical and collaborative evaluative research as a significant form of public sociology, bringing sociological understanding of social life and creative interventions into social life to a “thick vibrant, active and diverse public’ ((Clawson et al. 2007: 5).


CUCR’s evaluative research offers a critical and reflexive perspective on the ‘norms’ and ‘forms’ of evaluation and points towards the affordances and capacities which are mobilized in and through social research methods.Opening up evaluation as a space to interrogate cultural value, instead of evidencing value raises uncomfortable questions: what happens when criticality is ‘allowed? Can it meet a desire to learn from and improve the effectiveness and reach of arts-based social interventions? Can it connect research and creative practice to wider a project of critical thinking, reflection and knowledge production. Conducting evaluation places academic researchers in interesting uncomfortable positions ((Jones 2013). When working with third sector and smaller arts organisations, universities are often the larger and more affluent players in these partnerships. However, within the wider context of the cultural value of UK university research this kind of work is not considered an indicator of esteem, unlike large grants from research councils. Although this kind of research is often labelled ‘consultancy’ or ‘enterprise’, this language merely reflects its position in the university economy, rather than the relationship of partnership which depends on teamwork, co-production and trust, and so often, good will between the academy, its publics and institutional neighbours. Rather than evaluation being a case of methodological simplification, it is in effect a form of action research, which requires negotiating complexity, working in partnership with an ethical commitment to criticality and collaboration and change. This means that researchers, like ethnographers, navigate a path between ‘etic’ and ‘emic’ (Headland, 1990) perspectives, simultaneously making sense of the extrinsic and intrinsic cultural values of a project. Evaluative research is a significant site where struggles over recognition and cultural value between and among professionals and participants become apparent. It is the skilled work of the researcher which produces an account of a project which is not merely about identifying ‘success and ‘good practice’ but is one of holding up a mirror, communicating complexity whilst making space for individual and organisational learning and reflection.

The CUCR AHRC Expert Workshops examined two areas of policy where questions of value and values are contested to consider the work that evaluative research should do and to interrogate the tensions at the heart of arts –based social interventions. These were ‘Art and Mental Health’ and ‘Art and Regeneration’. The first workshop, entitled “Creative Collisions and Critical Conversations” brought together mental health and social care practitioners, artists, gallery arts education practitioners, funders, theorists, researchers and artists currently working at the interface between the arts and mental health to facilitate a much needed vibrant exchange. The idea for the workshop came about through CUCR’s ongoing evaluation of an innovative multi-agency partnership between arts education arm of South London Gallery and the South London and Maudsley’s (SLAM) Parental Mental Health Team. ‘Creative Families’ consists of a total of sixty art sessions for parents experiencing mental health problems and their children. The tensions which have arisen in this interdisciplinary and inter-sectoral encounter made the contrasting cultures and values of the arts education and health sectors apparent. There were tensions between the gallery’s desire to be inventive, responsive, indeterminate and a desire from health and care practitioners for a clear replicable model. There was also a tension between a model of working, (rooted participatory practice), which sought to flatten hierarchies between ’experts’ and ‘participants’ and a health sector’s desire for clear boundaries between professionals and service users. Uniquely, this interdisciplinary partnership combines two approaches to evaluation. CUCR are carrying out a formative evaluation of the projects as it develops, focusing on the partnership and the delivery of the project. Simultaneously Institute of Psychiatry is conducting a clinical outcomes assessment identifying on the impact on participants using quantitative measures. The combined evaluation of this project facilitated dialogue regarding these contrasting approaches to understanding and evidencing the affective, cognitive and aesthetic dimensions of art/mental health. These were at times difficult, but also intellectually productive. The discussions which have arisen out of this collaboration led to the idea for the Cultural Value workshop.


The second workshop ‘Curating Community’ brought together academics, educationalists and practitioners from community development and range of arts practices including socially engaged art practice, participatory theatre and participatory arts. This workshop examined the relational and agonistic dimensions of arts participation within the context of urban regeneration. (Kester 2004) (Bourriaud 1998), (Mouffe 2013) (Bishop 2012) (Bishop 2006). The evaluation of participatory projects that work with communities, or aim to bring communities together so often collapses the complex relational dimensions of these encounters into ‘individual impact’. In doing so such evaluations so often elide the relational and agonistic difficulties of these processes, passing over the tensions, difficulties, disagreements between those taking part on all levels. In this workshop Experts were encouraged to consider the value of antagonism and heterogeneity ((Laclau and Mouffe 2014) in participatory arts? Making apparent the conflicting positions of stakeholders in arts participation projects has consequences. It challenges the ways funders imagine the causal relationship between ‘action and impact’. However, this is a risky strategy for organisations that are reliant on charitable and public funders demanding evidence of ‘value for money’. Participants also discussed the relational and agonistic politics of evaluation itself. The demand for evaluation conducted by ‘external experts who are seen as ‘objective’ effectively outsources research expertise. In this process opportunities to increase the research capacity and reflective learning within an organisation are lost. Conversation focussed on alternatives to the current evaluation orthodoxy and pointed to some of the structural and institutional policy drivers which are barriers to change.

A more extensive account of the workshops will be available soon an the AHRC Cultural Value Blog at

Images taken as part of the SLG Creative Families with Davina Drummond and Lawrence Bradby’s project showing art work produced with parents and their children.

Dr Alison Rooke is co-Director of the Centre for Urban and Community Research.

Belfiore, E. (2002) ‘Art as a Means towards Alleviating Social Exclusion: Does It Really Work? A Critique of Instrumental Cultural Policies and Social Impact Studies in the UK’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 91–106.

Belfiore, E. (2010) ‘Is it really all about the evidence? On the rhetorical aspect of cultural policy’, paper delivered at the 2010 edition of the International Conference on Cultural Policy Research, 24-27.

Bishop, Claire. 2006. Participation. London; Cambridge, Mass.: Whitechapel Art Gallery.

———. 2012. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London ; New York: Verso Books.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. 1998. Relational Aesthetics. Les Presses Du Reel edition. Dijon: Les Presse Du Reel,Franc. Clawson, Dan, Robert Zussman, Joya Misra, Naomi Gerstel, Randall Stokes, Douglas L. Anderton, and Michael Burawoy. 2007. Public Sociology: Fifteen Eminent Sociologists Debate Politics and the Profession in the Twenty-First Century. 1 edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Headland, T. N. (1990). A dialogue between Kenneth Pike and Marvin Harris on emics and etics. In T.N. Headland, K.L. Pike, & M. Harris (Eds.). Emics and etics: The insider/outsider debate. Frontiers of anthropology, v. 7. Newbury Park, Calif: Sage Publications.

Jones, Hannah. 2013. Negotiating Cohesion, Inequality and Change: Uncomfortable Positions in Local Government. Policy Press.

Kester, Grant H. 2004. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. 2014. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. 2nd edition. London ; New York: Verso Books.

Lees, Loretta, Tom Slater, and Elvin Wyly. 2007. Gentrification. New Ed edition. New York: Routledge.

Mouffe, Chantal. 2013. Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically. London ; New York: Verso Books.

O’Brien D. Measuring the value of Culture. Report to the Department of Culture Media and Sport. Available at [Accessed May2014].

Yudice, George. 2004. The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era. Durham: Duke University Press.

Zukin, Sharon. 1989. Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. Reprint edition. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press.


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