Researcher in Residence

In the period April-July 2015 I acted as Researcher in Residence attached to an exhibition (‘Im Bau’ by Aideen Doran) at the Grand Union Gallery in Birmingham, UK.

What follows is an exploration of the researcher-in-residence model; a description of what was undertaken in relation to this specific exhibition; and a listing of some of the headline thoughts that were outcomes from this activity.

The researcher-in-residence is not an extensive practice, certainly not as widespread as writer-in-residence. It is not particularly well-defined and that gives the opportunity for further work to understand what different models might look like. There are, in any such exploration, a number of existing models that can be drawn on.

Writer in Residence

A number of diverse organisations have recently had a Writer in Residence. These have included art galleries, schools, national and civic trusts, voluntary agencies, library services, national public bodies, hospitals, prisons, museums and an airport.

In the usual form of this, the organisation – itself or via an intermediary – decides to host a Writer (usually capitalised thus); advertises the post, setting out what the terms and conditions are and what qualities are looked for in the appointee; and attaches the writer to itself for a certain length of time to undertake various duties.

The activity of the writer draws heavily on researching the host organisation – its collections, its people, its history and values. This forms the base for the writer’s own production of text and, usually, for the engagement of staff or visitors in writing activities based on the same research. It is essentially activity in one setting; using content from that setting to produce content for potentially different audiences in different settings.

Writer in relation to an event

In March 2013, in contrast to the Writer in Residence model, I attached myself, uninvited and not necessarily wanted, to do some writing of my choosing at a scale and of a type decided by me, visiting ‘Metropolis: reflections on the modern city’: an exhibition held at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery from March to June 2013. This brought together two areas of interest to me: contemporary art and cities. Adding the third interest of writing created the opportunity for me to act, in relation to this mix of urban issues and themes in contemporary art, as a self-appointed ‘writer in relation to’ the artworks in the exhibition.

I committed 3 hours per week visiting the exhibition and making notes, with a further half-day per week writing and editing – somewhere in the region of 50 hours in total. The aims were to test out the notion of ‘writer in relation to’; to produce, by the end of July 2013, an output of up to 8 pieces of fiction (each at least 2000 words) and 3 or 4 pieces of nonfiction (each at least 1000 words), and to make these available electronically via my website and via email as appropriate.

I did some background research. I collected the usual publicity leaflets and information from the Museum & Art Gallery website. I signed up for a couple of guided tours where staff talked about putting the collection together, curating the exhibition, what various pictures meant to them and so on. I made my own notes on the impacts that the varied artworks had on me and from the short pieces of text mounted alongside each work.

The writings that resulted from this undertaking are found at

Artist in residence

This provides time for an artist to creatively respond to the procedures or content of a host organisation. The residency usually culminates in the collaborative production of a work of art that will then enhance the experience of visitors or of staff in the organisation. In some models this creates an opportunity for artists to be hosted alongside writers, researchers and others to form a short-term creative community.

Research residences

There are examples where a higher education researcher or early-career academic has been able to spend time within an organisation in the creative sector. This brings the research specialisms or expertise of the researcher into alignment with particular issues for that creative organisation.

Embedding the researcher in a structure

The separation of university-based research and organisations wanting to use research in product development has not helped in getting evidence-based progress. There is a current academic focus on how best to get research evidence built more into practice.

One model that has been tested, on a smallish scale in medical or educational settings, is bringing the researcher closer to organisational teams’ daily activity, having the researcher embedded in the organisation.

An example would be placing an anthropologist in an organisation as a member of the workforce, but also acting as participant-observer researcher in that organisation. An excellent recent fictional representation of this is Tom McCarthy’s ‘Satin Island’. There has been at least one example of including an anthropologist in a public art event but this was largely to observe and document the audience as part of the artwork.

More often the researcher is embedded directly in the delivery team, as more than participant-observer, as something closer to participant researcher – able to get inside the host organisation’s thinking and processes. This can involve a researcher whose expertise is in things such as innovation, delivery models, or change models. Or it can involve a researcher with expertise in the organisations substantive content. In either case the researcher in residence needs high level social skills to act in this particular way.

Researcher in Residence at Grand Union’s ‘Im Bau’ exhibition

Out of the link to my own research interests in cities, development, change, planning and contemporary art, I was invited to undertake a researcher-in-residence role in relation to Aideen Doran’s work that was built on material from the archives of Birmingham City Council Planning Department, bringing this together with her own thinking and research around the city as a space that shifts and is regenerated; a place of artistries, economics and ideologies.

What was asked of me – loosely? The initial outline was that I voluntarily attended every Friday afternoon for the duration of the show. During that time I was to:

  • get familiar with the exhibition’s format, content and themes
  • bring in my own understandings, research interests, experiences
  • guide any visitors into some of the thinking and intentions behind the exhibition
  • capture any observations, insights, linkages made by audience visitors
  • email a regular set of thoughts, observations, extensions etc. to the artist and curators

This covered the ‘residence’ part of the activity, but what of the ‘researcher’ role?

Research was already substantially written throughout the content and structure of the exhibition. The show itself was described as being an experimental research project, with the space acting as a research lab of sorts. Aideen drew on her own researching of sets of archival materials, referencing other pieces of research on artistic and architectural developments and ideas. Much of the content as a whole was based upon notions of experimentations within Birmingham and elsewhere as places were built and rebuilt. Im Bau already had a great deal of rich material and work that had gone into it, was there anything more to add?

There were some initial puzzles for me to get clear in my own mind.

To what extent was I simply in residence, in attendance, with some average level of engagement, and to what extent was I an active researcher of things? To what extent was I responding to the exhibition, and to what extent was I helping shape it as an experience for visitors?

Was the activity predominantly a focusing down on the content (The gallery space; the exhibition; the procedures) or a looking outwards to see what could be disseminated or published?

The Research might include:

  • Researching relationships with the audience: engagement; responses; reactions; audience/community contributions (without straying over into evaluation).
  • Researching the contents, subjects and themes.
  • Research that helped bridge what the exhibition and the artist were trying to explore and the real-life experiences of residents of the city.
  • Researching any intent or impact inbuilt within the exhibition: The active social puzzles that the artwork was seeking to address.

There were things that I brought into the exhibition (taken more widely than the gallery display, to include ongoing exchanges with the curators and the artist). These included:

  1. Articles that had some tangential, or direct, relationship with the Im Bau focus: A reprint of a 1963 article describing the exciting new development of Birmingham???s Ring Road as an armature for the city; links to articles on the redevelopments in Birmingham that were referenced in Im Bau; links to more general articles on the role of edge-spaces in cities and on the importance of buildings that are at the heart of civic life eg libraries, railway stations; an article on the growing trend to see everything as Curated; articles on redevelopment of concrete tower blocks as part of gentrification and privatisation trends in city housing; link to sites showing what other cities (New York, Vancouver) might have been like if their urban motorway proposals had not been abandoned; and articles relating to the idea of layers within cities.
  2. Links across from other exhibitions: One at London’s ICA gallery that had created an artwork out of an archived collection; some New York exhibitions on decent cities, megacities and inequalities.
  3. Recent Birmingham planning documents: Birmingham Big City Plan; the city’s Sustainable Community Strategy; the Kerslake Report on how the city was governed and managed; data on the locality around the gallery and some of the proposals for its future development: These were all things I was very familiar with or had worked on.
  4. Connecting ideas from my own work as a researcher and a writer: Writings on cities, both factual and fictional; writings on Place and Identity; a contribution to a Writing the Future publication that explored the multi-personality nature of cities such as Birmingham.

Each week, I tried to take a different approach to the material and to the ideas it was putting forward.

One approach was as anthropologist researching the nature of this cultural activity: Asking myself various questions and undertaking various observations. What is this thing called ‘Art Exhibition’? What is it composed of (beyond being a layout of tables, sheets of paper with designs on, copies of articles, lumps of concrete, books, slides to be viewed, display boards with circular cut-outs)? How do visitors/participants react when they first enter the room? How do they respond to the artefacts? Are there differences between visitors who are within the art world and those who are local residents of the area where the gallery is situated? Are there differences in experience for those who are regular gallery-users and those who are there for the first time (some of whom had only come because I was there)? What role does the support literature, or the artists talk, or the launch event, perform?

One approach was to think about timeframes. This was a current exhibition; it was contemporary art; it addressed issues of today. It did this through looking at the past. There were aspects that might, for some local residents, be read as reminiscence. It contained references to changes with time: Why not sweep the past away when there is a future to build? People were invited to be time-travellers, to delve into the past; to try to get into the minds of people who no longer exist but whose thoughts remain in the physical shape of cities. Visitors were being invited to use the past in order to reflect on now, or to speculate about potential futures.

One approach was to link exhibition content and themes with my own writings on cities, on change, on place, on planning, on learning – bringing my existing sets of thinkings and filtering these through the form and content of the exhibition – and, conversely, taking the forms and content of the exhibition and filtering these through my own research framework.

One session tried to align the flows and changes and ideas from the exhibition with the flows, changes and ideas in the physical redevelopments of Birmingham, as a city constantly shifting and reinventing itself. Viewing things first through a Birmingham lens, then a New York lens, then a Las Vegas lens, then an ‘imaginary city’ lens.

Another session included a consideration of the various functions of the artist, the curator, the gallery, the funder, the audience and the researcher: both in relation to the exhibition and in relation to the city as a curated artwork, an exhibition in its own right: a city wanting to put on a good show as a modern European city.

Yet another session was focused on the local visitors and residents. During all of the sessions visitors (covering a wide spectrum of people) had been keen to talk with me and managed to see me as part of the exhibition. They had different levels of engagement with the world of art; moved round the exhibition and engaged with the content and layout in their different ways; with a number making personal links between aspects of the exhibition and their own lived experiences, including the way redevelopment had changed their lives or reflecting on the potential future redevelopment of the area in which the gallery (and this exhibition) was sited.

Each session was different dependent on what type of researcher I chose to be on each visit: anthropologist researcher; sociologist researcher; urban studies researcher; researcher for writings (as with ‘Metropolis’); historical researcher (delving into 1963 copies of ‘Concrete Quarterly’ journal or going back to my ‘History of Castle Vale’); researcher trying to get more of a grip on contemporary art practices (extending my thoughts on the contemporary, thinking about what makes this a work of art as opposed to a display, considering where it might fit in a Birmingham-wide flow of art that included ‘Metropolis’, Bill Drummond, New Art West Midlands, courses at the end of MA Contemporary Art courses and much more).

Whichever research head I had on, week by week, the same threads of thinking kept recurring and were revisited, spirally, from different aspects. These were always dual-edged (about the exhibition and, at the same time, about cities) and were along the lines of:

  • the overlaps and differences across artistry, design, engineering, making (and remaking), planning, policy-making and funding.
  • centres and neighbourhoods, parts and wholes, transportations and flows.
  • armatures, scaffoldings, networks, interactions, supports, buttresses (physical, social and intellectual).
  • views of the city: gaps that allow the long view as well as the close-up, resident views and visitor views.
  • exhibition, gallery, display, collection, archive, memories, artwork, curation.
  • layerings: vertical, horizontal and in time; physical, social, economic and emotional; the scale and pace of layerings, with people trying to keep up with change.
  • differences and similarities across types of cities – variously labelled: invisible, hidden, impossible, planned, sustainable, liveable, walkable, walking, gridded, decent, human, learning, world, superdiverse
  • intimacy and the intimate city, where groups can know each other; where people can know the city well enough to feel intimate with it, rather than intimidated.
  • complexities and contradictions; things being not a singularity but made of parts jostling and brushing against each other, always only partly known and partly understood, always in negotiation, interplays in space and across time; things as systems.
  • established and newcomer (people, ideas, art); traces and memories; threads of history tying things to their past whilst planning for an uncertain, precarious future.
  • maps, images, representations and realities
  • civic spaces, public spaces, private spaces, public/private spaces; the privatisation of space and the relocation of people and activities.

There were weekly emails, as ‘collected thoughts of the day’ – sometimes rambling, sometimes cogent, sometimes sticking to the detail of the exhibition, sometimes straying into wider thinkings. As the weeks went by there was an extension of my own thinking on cities, change, decision-making etc. There was also a process of trying to distil some of the thinking down into a set of short headline-sentences that could be put out via Twitter (via @geoffbateson).

At the end of the placement these scraps of thinking were gathered under the hashtag #Im Bau and put up daily on Twitter as a series of my ‘Top 20 Thoughts’ around Im Bau. These were intended as prompts for others to follow their own related lines of thoughts, and are listed below:

#Im Bau 20: Place for residents’ sensitivities and emotions- beyond simple ‘audience engagement’: City as platform for contests/acquiescences

#Im Bau 19: Dialogics and Decencies. What does it take for a city to be decent? To be good enough? How does ‘progress towards’ get discussed?

#Im Bau 18: Cities as works of art. Cities as curated entities. Cities making an exhibition of themselves, putting on a good show.

#Im Bau 17: The opportunities of the new: Opening ups and closing offs – of imagery; of materials; of methods; of constructed lives.

#Im Bau 16: In trying to capture shapings and reshapings of place: the map was never the landscape. It has always been about people.

#Im Bau 15: A city can be hard to see. It can remain hidden in clear sight. There are invisibilities; things overlooked; facets unremarked.

#Im Bau 14: Armatures, zones, flows and transformations. Shifts in materials and ideas. Road layouts for people to structure their lives around.

#Im Bau 13: Types of cities: Smart; Learning; Global; Resilient; Walkable; Liveable; Invisible; Walking. Labels of value or simple slogans?

#Im Bau 12: Death and Life of great cities; Growth and Decline of planning ideologies; Rise and Fall of architectural styles.

#Im Bau 11; Agency/structure. Triangulating People, Place and Economy. Residents living out lives but not in conditions of their own choosing

#Im Bau 10: Complexities and Concreteness: Newer, emergent and agile developments rub up against older (heritage) things fixed in stone.

#Im Bau 9: Elites and Inequalities. What shapes a city – economics, politics, urban theorists, star architects, heroic planners, residents…?

#Im Bau: 8. Puzzles of leadership, decisions, acting & contemporary cities, in context of complexities. What is ‘right’? How would you know?

#Im Bau: 7. Place as planners/architects/thinking/doing: How things work out; how they don’t. Ways of engineering a city; artistry of a city.

#Im Bau: 6. People find their own ways of maintaining sense of understanding and intimacies in midst of issues of contemporary city livings.

#Im Bau: 5: Layerings in cities: Physical, social and emotional layerings get differentially locked into city architectures and landscapes.

#Im Bau 4. Residents of places left to keep up with the scale & pace of change: All the retentions and removals; the permanence and ephemera

#Im Bau 3. Each city is different – but seem to be recurring features (some real; some intangible) that may get applied across all cities?

#Im Bau 2. Imagining a city: Ways of uncovering and exposing imagined futures: All the possible still-might-be or might-have-beens.

#Im Bau: 1 Cities want Grand Plans, intended futures. How are things determined as ‘best’ ways forward? Do things progress or sink into dust?

A future article will use a framework, developed from these twenty headings and the preceding bullet-point list of recurring threads, to set out some of the broad lines of thought that emerged from being this researcher in residence.

Meanwhile, I can genuinely say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, gained a lot from it and (hopefully) contributed appropriately in response. I am grateful to Cheryl Jones and Kim McAleese at Grand Union gallery and to Aideen Doran for the opportunity.

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