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Arts-based research, expressive forms and uncertainty

Arts-based research is being used in and between a variety of fields. From the arts and humanities to the social sciences and health sciences. It is a rapidly expanding methodological approach that is providing opportunities for researchers to conduct studies in alternative ways from standard and generally more settled forms of qualitative or quantitative research. I will be drawing on the work of Tom Barone and Elliot W. Eisner (2012) in the book Arts-Based Research to consider arts-based research through the notion of what they term the expressive form, and the importance of uncertainty in this type of research. As Barone and Eisner argue, the expressive form, and the ability to work with uncertainty, are two important characteristics of arts-based research.

Arts-based research and the creation of expressive forms
According to Barone and Eisner, arts-based research entails the creation of expressive forms. The expressive form constitutes a broader way of encoding knowledge that could include emotion, imagination, and paradox. The process of making an expressive form entails an attention to contexts, associations, materials and formal elements. It is a thoughtful undertaking where meaning is not necessarily driven by language. Learning and thinking emerges through the particular handling of materials in contexts. Arts-based research, in this sense, is inquiry through experiment, exploration and fabrication, but guided by looking, observing, and attending to what is experienced of the world. Creating an expressive form involves being attentive to the world and perceptive to its relations, nuances and subtle shifts. Details and forms and the slippages of meaning is important in creating these relations. Because this type of research is conducted within a specific context, it raises questions about the researcher’s positioning in terms of the role of the subjective, and of perspective in selecting and arranging details. The creation of an expressive form, and an engagement with it, however, can be considered the pursuit of understanding, and the process through which understanding is created through arts-based research. It is the expressive form that invites attention of the viewer, and through our engagement with it, a type of empathetic participation which expands what we know, believe, do, or feel. It is by attending to the expressive form that our experience is deepened and broadened.

Expressive forms and their relationship to uncertainty
Working with expressive forms, however, always involves a degree of uncertainty. Their meanings can shift as people make them, or engage with them. Artistic processes and objects are evocative and create forms of feeling that further understanding of contextual issues pertaining to people, places and situations. This type of meaning making, however, does not necessarily relay facts or clear positions. For Barone and Eisner, the purpose of arts-based is not to report in a way that makes definitive or closing statements, it is to challenge, to question, and to spark conversation, and to do so through processes and research outputs that employ, or entail aesthetic dimensions. The underlying aspect of arts-based research that is of interest to Barone and Eisner is that there seems to be a shift in arts-based research away from research practices that are finalise and summarise, and that attempt to reduce the inherent uncertainty of the social wold through a range of verifiable knowledge claims about the social world. While Barone and Eisner do not argue that there is no use for approaches to research that attempt to create certainties of aspects the world, they do maintain that arts-based research processes can provide alternate views into aspects of the world than approaches to research which attempt to simplify aspects of the world are able to provide. According to Barone and Eisner, the expressive renderings of human affairs through artistic processes allows individuals the opportunity to gain access to aspects of the subject matter that is studied that would otherwise be beyond their reach.

According to their view, arts-based research is open to dislocation, disturbance, disruptiveness, and disequilibrium. This is because arts-based research is open to nuances, revisions, the slippage of meanings, and ambiguous conjunctions. This means that arts-based research can work with non-linear relations and jumps in meanings or associations. The complex processes driving arts-based research makes this type of research particularly adept at working in a complex social field because it can pay attention to things that are relatable, take a position to those relations, and still remain interrogative of those relations. The malleability of arts-based research processes and products enables this research approach to work with the uncertainty that is entailed in complex systems. For Barone and Eisner, in fact, the ability to work with uncertainty is a characteristic strength of arts-based research. It is useful to be able to work with uncertainty and with processes and tools that remain adaptable to uncertain contexts, because the social world is filled with variations, transitions, transformations and slippages of meaning. The way uncertainty functions in arts-based research could be understood in the sense that arts-based research does not necessarily tell, but requires the maker and participant to engage with the expressive form, to experience it within a particular context, and to interpret and work with the meanings that might remain latent, or are made possible through that encounter. These projects can employ a variety of sensory modalities that challenge language lead research, and through our engagement with the expressive form, we may see things that previously remained imperceptible. Projects that employ arts-based research methodologies, Barone and Eisner propose, are able to create alternatives to prevailing assumptions about social phenomena, and enable us to experience facets of the world in new ways.

Arts-based research as creating questions and conversations
The expressive forms that emerge through arts-based research projects create questions that may persuade others to look again, may influence people to revisit their judgments, or can move conversations into new directions. This is because arts-based research does not necessarily provide final positions, but rather, presents positions that remain open to interpretation, and are malleable after the interpretation. The end point of arts-based research, then, is not to create a singular and unchanging statement about an aspect of the world, but rather, to generate questions and experiences, thereby influencing aspects of the world. While this engagement could be in an academic domain, because arts-based research does not only involve language based argumentation, but also forms that might look or feel like less like research and more like other forms of cultural production, aspects of these types of projects can be relatable, and even interesting, to a broader public.

This relatability of research to a broader public can perhaps be seen in projects such as the Sex Worker Zine Project, and the Izwi Lethu Newsletter project. The zines of the Sex Worker Zine project are stories about aspects of sex workers’ lives, but span a range of subject matter pertaining to the everyday. The stories that appear in the Izwi Lethu newsletter are also about aspects of lived experience of sex workers, but are more focussed on reporting events, or creating awareness of issues. In both these projects, however, expressive forms are made that a broader public can read and learn from, without it overtly being presented as research. It is through the particular form that the zines and the newsletters take, the choices that are made in the presentation of details of stories, and what Barone and Eisner would term a reader’s empathetic participation with the work, that the potential for understanding, learning and conversation arises in these research outputs.

Barone, T. and Eisner, E.W. (2012) Arts-Based Research. SAGE Publications: USA.

Oliveira, E. and Williams, Q.E. (2015) The Sex Worker Zine Project. Makhado and Nelspruit workshops.

Oliveira, E. and Vearey, J (2016) The Sex Worker Zine Project: A Participatory Arts-Based Project. Johannesburg. The MoVE Project

Schuler, G., Oliveira, E. and Vearey, J (2016) Izwi Lethu: A Participatory Arts-Based Project. Johannesburg. The MoVE Project

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