Peoples Research Seminar 2

Thursday 27 January 2010 

The People’s Research Seminar of Thursday 27 January 2010 (the first of its series), was dedicated to discussion of the processes and problems encoded within social research processes. The session began with a introduction to Mass Observation, before opening this up to a wider, current platform. Among the People assembled were Brad Butler and Karen Mirza (from the creative collective no.w.here, who previously held a residency with the Centre for Possible Studies), Elizabeth Kim, a PhD student from California exploring the social history of art markets, Benoit Loiseau, whose interests include alternative models for education, and Fari Bradley, a radio programmer with strong interests in the power of media to dissolve prejudice. 

Though it was founded in 1937 by literary and Surrealist sociologists, the Mass Observation programme still holds great relevance for the Centre for Possible Studies as the first attempt of its kind to map the everyday social practices of London’s urban communities. A direct link exists between the two moments in the form of the Free Cinema School. Originally launched in February 1956, with the screening of four independent works at the National Film Theatre, London, the founders of this conceptual movement emphasised in their manifesto ‘a belief in freedom, in the importance of people and in the significance of the everyday’: a statement redolent of the processes of aesthetic democratization which were in the air at the time. Re-born through No.w.here’s Free Cinema School (a filmic collaboration with the local community held at the Centre for Possible Studies, July-September 2009), this contemporary project continues the ethos of the ‘significance of the everyday’ where its originators left off. 

Though Mass Observation had the indirect effect of shifting aesthetic registers, bringing things that had previously been ignored as mundane and insignificant (shopfronts, graffiti, train conversations) to the forefront of the public imagination, it came with its own set of ethical problems, as indicated in the ambiguous subject of the movement’s title: is this, as many have asked, observation by the masses, or of the masses? Tom Harrison, a founder of the movement interested in ethnographic practice, was described as having an affection for his subjects as anthropologists have an affection for their apes; a damning comparison. Critical opinion weighs heavily on the latter interpretation, and the inherent patronization implicit within the research practices of the ‘scientific Observers’ sets a problematic standard for anyone operating in the field today. How, this People’s Research Seminar asked, is it possible to avoid the pitfalls of objectification, when practicing social observation? Can observation ever be impartial? Is the answer that observation must be displaced by engagement? And, if so, how does a researcher go about engaging?

Key issues that were highlighted during this discussion included the need to alter the hierarchical chain of production employed by Mass Observation, which passed observations of the working class upwards through a filter system, at the pinnacle of which stood the person who would organise and publish the information, using it to their own agenda. The voice of the narrator, it was urged during discussion, is an outmoded thing of the past: there must be no mediation, no translation, between public voice and institution. Control, in an ideal, unbiased situation, would have to be surrendered. Another source of tension, for the researchers attending this discussion, was the lack of boundaries imposed by Mass Observation, which aimed to survey the broad entirety of contemporary life.

From this point, the discussion group moved on to a discussion of Barbora Pivonkova’s photographic investigation: ‘General Unsafe Crowd Behaviour’ (2010-11). As a visitor to Britain, a country with one of the highest surveillance rates in the world, Pivonkova felt the level of observation on London’s busy streets to be palpable. Using the story of Jean Charles de Menezes as a starting point, she has attempted to capture those fleeting instances in which crowd behaviour is seen to shift from acceptable to unusual, to a potential public threat, as determined by a power above the level of the general crowd. A constructive critique of this photographic project was held amongst the group, and urban social phenomena such as correct behaviour on London’s Tube (in Belgium, for comparison, there is no ‘right side’ of the escalator), and the oddity of queueing, were discussed. Movements such as the Camberwell Bench Project were drawn on as sources of inspiration for disruptive intervention in public space. Questions for further reflection were posed by the group: are we coerced into adopting ‘general safe crowd behaviour’ by the State, or is this something that is inculcated amongst ourselves? Can we restructure the process through which it is brought into being? At the least, it was decided, researchers can draw attention to these tacitly accepted moments of public interchange, and finally, plans for a speculative lexicon of street behaviour were discussed.

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