— Cultural Sources of Newness

Cultural embeddedness of artistic interventions: Reflections from artful conversations

The closing event of my research program on artistic interventions in organizations at the unit Cultural Sources of Newness was the “Artful research conversation: Cultural Embeddedness of Artistic Interventions,” December 18-19 2014 at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. Building on the unit’s past seven years of multistakeholder research in this area, I invited 20 artists, scholars and intermediaries from various European countries, Korea and the US. My idea was that we would elicit from lived experiences in diverse contexts the elements of the national, organizational, professional culture (or other relevant cultural constellation) that affect the way artistic interventions are envisaged, implemented and discussed in different settings. For example, to what extent does the way the relationship between the arts and business is traditionally seen in a country influence what is considered desirable and possible in an artistic intervention? And what is the impact of the culturally shaped expectations and practices in relationships between management and employees? So many conversations flowed during the two days and two evenings that it will take some time to digest them, and each participant will make sense of the experience in different ways; here are a few of the thoughts occupying me the day after.

 

Engaging in an artful research conversation

Engaging in an artful research conversation

Warming up for the Artful Research Conversation

Since the beginning of the research program at the WZB on artistic interventions, I have been experimenting with ways of stimulating learning conversations among people with different bodies of knowledge and ways of knowing. I am not a huge fan of academic conferences at which participants summarize in 15-40 minutes papers that have taken them weeks to write, facing an audience that alternates between staring at a huge screen with the speaker’s powerpoint presentation and whatever happens to be on their own small computer screens, with short slices of question/critique/response between papers. This format is even less appropriate when the experts come from different professional backgrounds, in which compressing knowledge into written papers and listening to academic lectures are not normal procedure. However, coming completely unprepared to share expertise risks requiring too much time at the event itself. I therefore envisaged several ways to enable the participants to warm up:

First, a few days before the event I asked each participant to send me an email with two kinds of elements in order to warm up their thinking about the topic: stories and questions. Why stories? Because culturally shaped ways of doing and thinking are usually taken for granted by the members of the culture. So one way to become aware of the cultural embeddedness of artistic interventions is to look at surprising moments. Moments in which someone experiences surprise are often moments at which a culturally-shaped expectation about how things should be done in a particular setting has been challenged. So I asked them to refresh their memories about such moments, no matter how brief or insignificant they might at first have appeared to be, and to summarize the essence of the story and its cultural context. And, in addition, I asked them to send me questions about the topic that they would like to add to those I had formulated in the invitation.

The second way of warming up was to host a wine and cheese (and Christmas Stolle) evening at my home before the beginning of the event at the WZB to welcome the participants informally and get conversations flowing together.

 

Starting with wine and cheese at home

Starting with wine and cheese at home

 

What did I learn from these two ways of warming up? When given a chance to think, people have a lot of stories and a lot of questions! I had intended to draw out themes from the stories of surprise in order to structure the program for the two days, for example by assigning two-hour blocks to each theme. The stories I received were so diverse and rich that I realized any attempt on my part to impose a structure them with my academic logic would do violence to the different logics of the contributors. The multiplicity of questions deserved attention as well; if I selected those I found new and interesting after all my research experience, I risked excluding some that the participants who are not as steeped in the research findings were hungry to discuss.

So I decided against seeking to impress the participants with my powers of qualitative analysis and instead chose to dedicate the entire first morning to conversations about the stories of surprise, and the whole afternoon of that day to conversations about the questions. And I trusted that the decision about how to continue to learn from and with each other during the second day would emerge from the experience of the first day. (It did!)

And what did I learn from hosting the evening? It is a beautiful thing to do! Someone mentioned having been worried that it would be one of the stiff/superficial cocktail type of interactions, but was delighted to find a very warm, informal gathering. The many conversations that evening heightened the anticipation for learning together in the coming days.

 

Introduction to the Korean selfie

Introduction to the Korean selfie

 

Creating the space

The process over these two days proved again how important it is to create space—by preparing certain elements in advance and by making it possible for participants to make spontaneous design decisions.  We had the great good fortune of being able to hold the event in the beautiful, large wood-paneled conference room at the WZB. The space can be dauntingly formal, but it is also possible to reformat it for different kinds of group work.

ABA opens the space -- as seen by Philippe Mairesse

ABA opens the space — as seen by Philippe Mairesse

 

Creating space for lively artful research conversations

Creating space for lively artful research conversations

 

In half of the room we set up 4 tables so that small groups of 5 participants could explore, explain, and listen together, and we left the other half of the room clear, and available for whatever might come up. We covered the tables with large sheets of paper, onto which we distributed oil pastels, plasticene, small sheets of colored paper, and flexible wires. This material tempts participants to use their multiple senses during their conversations, and discourages the use of computers so that people are more likely to focus on each other than on other things (and the absence of wifi helps too). I have become accustomed to people responding quite differently at first to the art materials on the tables: some irritated or even worried that they may be expected to prove artistic skills “that my kindergarten teacher told me I do not have”, while others immediately welcome the clear signal that other forms of expression beyond the traditional academic black words on white paper. For the first time at this event I received an initial negative response from an artist, who feared that the materials were only there because of artists, and that I was reducing art to such materials. Fortunately we were able to clear up that misunderstanding and many participants found pleasure in working with their hands while they talked and listened, and during the breaks they wandered around curiously to see what had emerged at other tables.

 

The gallery collection Day 1

The gallery collection Day 1

The half of the room with the open space served initially to welcome the participants standing in a circle, so that they could all see each other and feel part of a whole. My intention was also to signal by standing (rather than sitting) that the plenary introduction would be short and the focus would be on the actual work together around the tables. And indeed, the remainder of the first day and the first half of the second day were centered around the tables, with changing constellations of participants. In the afternoon of the second day we returned to the open part of the room for a mapping exercise that some participants designed and prepared, covering the floor with large sheets of paper and inviting us to place cards and ourselves in the space.

 

Mapping discourses about artistic interventions, Day 2

Mapping discourses about artistic interventions, Day 2

 

And learning about cultural embeddedness?

There was an interesting paradox: the topic of cultural embeddedness had interested everyone to come to the event, but people’s energy drew them to many different topics, so the topic of departure appeared to be marginal. The starting points were so diverse: for sociologists it is an all-encompassing theme, but one participant insisted that there is no such thing as a cultural effect in artistic interventions, it is only about different individuals, and the individuals who choose to engage in artistic interventions are untypical anyway. Others immediately saw how the sociopolitical cultural context influences the possibilities for artistic interventions, for example the national government’s emphasis in Finland on wellbeing at work. By the end of the first morning, Kai Lehikoinen drew a model with the oil pastels at his table that helped even the skeptical participant to consider the concept of cultural embeddedness: he representing it as nested circles with the individuals embedded in organizational cultures, in turn embedded in organizational, local, national, regional, and global cultures. He included the cross-cutting dimensions of technology, the environment, economy, politics, society and culture, explicitly naming the arts as well. In that part of the discussion the level of organizational culture received the most attention.

 

Kai's initial cultural embeddedness model

Kai’s initial cultural embeddedness model

A discussion on day 2 led Henrik to draw a revision of the model, away from the concentric circles, and recognizing that organizational cultures can involve an oscillation from the local to the global individuals are not entirely absorbed by the organizational culture, they live in other cultural contexts at the same time.

 

Henrik's revised cultural embeddedness model

Henrik’s revised cultural embeddedness model

 

That drawing led to more drawings of the dynamics of embeddedness, which we realized are not fixed. We noted that managers may initiate artistic interventions with the intention of increasing the employees’ identification with and commitment to the organization, in other words absorbing/embedding them more completely into the organizational culture. This may indeed be an effect, but others are also possible: there are cases in which the experience in the artistic intervention expands the organization’s sense of what its purpose and role are in society and connects to a wider set of employee interests. This expansion can be seen as embedding the organization more in the local culture. Such an outcome is likely to be part of the agenda of stakeholders in the artworld and cultural funding bodies. On the other hand, the same image can be read as absorbing the individual further into the organizational culture, which would not be the intention of cultural funding bodies. In some cases employees may leave the organization (dis-embed themselves from the corporate culture) after an artistic intervention, either frustrated by the lack of follow-up to the experience or thanks to having discovered or developed hitherto untapped interests for which other settings would be more propitious.

 

4 dynamics of embeddedness in organizational culture and society

4 dynamics of embeddedness in organizational culture and society

Throughout the two days, elements relating to cultural embeddedness cropped up, such as different understandings of “harmony” as an objective for artistic interventions in Korea (where it is desirable) or the Anglo-Saxon organizational context (where more value is placed on art as an agent of change), and different constellations of organizations considered legitimate for funding artistic interventions in France or the United States. But it was somewhat frustrating to realize at the end of the second day some participants had resisted talking about cultural differences because they equated it to the dangerous application of stereotypes. At that moment I realized that I had naively taken for granted that people had a general shared understanding of culture. Contrary to my overall approach to the workshop process, I caught myself regretting not having planned time for a presentation about sociological theories of culture for the intermediaries and artists, whose notions of culture are rooted in other disciplines, so that we could have had a common platform for discussion. But I am confident that enough questions emerged during the conversations that future research will attend to this topic.

40 questions, connected by bridges and tensions

40 questions, connected by bridges and tensions

 

Taking things forward

Forty questions served as the basis for the discourse mapping exercise designed and led by Philippe Mairesse, Kai Lehikoinen and Victoria Brattström—and these questions were generated only on the basis of the conversations on the first day. The research agenda continues to emerge. The event served to build new connections between scholars, artists and intermediaries to take the ideas forward. Suhwan Jeon from Korea is seeking ways of launching a similar project in Asia to the Creative Clash project in Europe. The conversations showed that it is mistaken to consider the path that lies ahead for the stakeholders in Asia to be one of “catching up” with the European models, but rather to learn from some successes and avoid certain mistakes in forging their own way forward. There is no universal model. Culture matters.

One experiment I am looking forward to observing relates to the culture clash between the language and values of some business-driven funding bodies and the language and values from the world of the arts. The pressure for cultural adaptation so far has been on the arts to learn and apply the terms of business in applying for and evaluating artistic interventions. During one of the conversation sessions on the second day the social artist Ania Bas proposed a provocative alternative: what would happen if artists and organizations refused to apply for such funding under those terms, stranding the funding bodies with their money? Would they then be willing and able to learn?

It's art it's uncontrollable