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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