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COTT, Norms and Storms

This post is adapted from a paper I gave at a symposium in April 2023. The event, hosted by the University of Leeds, was called Participation: Norms and Storms. It aimed to explore how participation in art and culture is often mediated by societal norms, but also how terms like ‘co-production’ and ‘public engagement’ can become uncritical and normative within art practices.

The event offered the opportunity for me to explore a few themes that I think are central to COTT, both as a method of evaluation and as a disruptor to habitual uses of discourse. My overall intention is to connect the implicit norms that come along with cultural participation, specifically in relation to evaluation, with the explicit rules COTT imposes on a meeting. I’ll start by outlining some themes I’ve come across in arts evaluation, using The Old Fire Station’s (OFS) Meaningful Measurement Inquiry as a ballast to my argument. I will then draw out some more general norms in relation to politically-orientated discourse; Finally, I’ll explain why I think the game counters some of those issues.

In April 2023 I went to Marmalade Festival in Oxford to attend a session on meaningful measurement in arts and culture. Marmalade is an annual festival of ideas that focuses on ways of thinking through ideas of power and place. It is a collaboration between OFS, Oxford Hub, Oxford City Council, African Families in the, UK, Active Oxfordshire, and Lankelly Chase Foundation (the primary funder). I came across the festival and OLF through COTT’s inclusion in the Disrupt Toolkit (we talked about this with Barbican Staff recently in the blog). The Storytelling evaluation methodology, developed and used by OFS was also in the toolkit. OFS’s research into meaningful measurement (Cassidy, 2023) rang true in so many ways. Jeremy Spafford and Sarah Cassidy of OFS described a landscape of evaluation that is oversimplified through an obsession with quantitative metrics like attendance figures, aimed at satisfying funders with quick, bite-size information, but that doesn’t get to what it’s like to actually take part in a project. Organisations can’t learn and develop, or become more effective if they don’t understand what participation in a project is like. Value is more than a statistic, it's human, lived, highly contestable and complex. OFS showed a series of bullet points that aptly summarised current trends in evaluation:

  • It fails to align with our values.

  • It can undermine relationships and trust.

  • It often focuses on demonstrating predetermined outcomes rather than understanding what actually happened.

  • Time is wasted collecting data which doesn’t tell us anything, but grantees are required to collect in order to report to funders.

  • There is pressure to overclaim.

  • It’s orientated around demonstrating success, which means we are less inclined to hear the voices of dissent, and to learn from failure.

  • It can be reductive and fail to reflect the complexity of lived experiences.

(Cassidy, 2023, p.4)

Rather than embedding learning into organisational practices through an emphasis on dialogue and centring the experiences of those involved in cultural projects (Cassidy, 2023, p.1), the picture of evaluation OFS paints is one where evaluation is seen as an annoyance to be done to satisfy funders. This can lead to evaluation becoming a stock collection of habitual uses of language, that although sound critical and reflexive, are often normative to a specific group or organisation.

Some of these issues connect to wider problems of public discourse, particularly if they have a political aspect. In the 1990s, Nancy Fraser (1997) pointed out that “participation means being able to speak ‘in one's own voice’, thereby simultaneously constructing and expressing one's cultural identity through idiom and style" (p.83). This is relevant as it highlights that only certain people are seen or heard as having valid things to say in many contexts. In a hypothetical meeting, some people’s voices are much louder and understood to be more serious, rational, or relevant. Fraser points out that this phenomenon might have more to do with a societal norm based on the identity of the speaker, rather than the content of what is being said.

While the curtailing or silencing of certain voices could be mediated by cultural institutions, this is not always the case. Fraser (1997) goes on to say that institutional settings can be understood as “culturally specific rhetorical lenses that filter and alter the utterances they frame; they can accommodate some expressive modes and not others” (p.83). So, some contexts found in cultural institutions might purport to give voice to people through co-produced or participatory projects but they, perhaps unwittingly, serve to frame discourse to their own benefit, flattening the nuanced complexity that might come from a person’s voice. The dissent and complexity highlighted by OFS might not have a place through certain cultural lenses. Incidentally, Nancy Fraser wrote those lines over 25 years ago, but they still feel disappointingly apt.

In her discussion of the grammar of subjective political identification Aletta Norval (2006) emphasises that the simplicity and familiarity of our terminology can be the root of our difficulty in being able to hear each other's voices. She says “in our practices, we display an unhesitating attitude, a familiarity, which is indicative of the depth of assimilation of those practices” (Norval, 2006, p.234). We might become so used to the kinds of things we say when we evaluate that it all just becomes ritualised1. Words like engage, participate, or community are all highly contested and complex, but all come with the day-to-day discourse of cultural production. Often, “under the rubric of subjectivity and agency, [political terminology] focuses on providing an account that may bolster or improve existing normative commitments” (Norval, 2006, p.239). Norval is saying that although we might try to speak critically about political subjects, there’s a danger that we will just compound social norms.

When Fraser and Norval’s ideas are considered in tandem with the issues of meaningful measurement, a picture forms of a restricted space for discourse. On the one hand, only certain voices seem valid and are given the space to be heard, on the other, the negative view of evaluation often means people approach it uncritically, relying on stock uses of language that lose their teeth and become powerless over time.

So far this has all been about problems, what about some solutions? To take a step back, I’ll now talk about a few features of COTT that try and counter the issues I have been discussing so far. Some of the rules of COTT, the things that make the set of cards a game, are also the features that help to counter the unhelpful view of evaluation offered by OFS. This will not be a full explanation of how to play COTT, for that you can look elsewhere on the website. There are two rules in particular that I think are worth highlighting. They are both very simple but have a significant effect on the possibility of articulating and hearing voices in a given context.

The game is structured so that each player has two minutes to speak uninterrupted. At the end of the two minutes, everyone has three minutes to respond. These two minutes allow people who might not speak much or speak confidently the chance to articulate their views. The same rule also stops those people who dominate from talking continually and taking up too much space in a meeting. Along with the encouragement or restriction timing imposes people are encouraged to listen closely to each other because they are required to respond to what has been said. As much as a game based on speaking, COTT is a game about listening.

Furthermore, the rules of the game ask that a player choose a quote card that they’d like to speak about. This gives an element of choice. The chosen quote card is placed next to a randomly picked theme card and keyword card. To my mind, an important feature of the game is this combination of choice and chance. The player is faced with some language that they chose, and other words they could not anticipate. These sometimes tricky, sometimes serendipitous combinations often highlight different aspects of the words a player is faced with. For example, in the image at the top of the post, a person might say they wanted to talk about ‘community’ in this sense, but when they see ‘exploitative’ and ‘place’ it makes them think of community in a different way.

I do not want to frame COTT as solving every problem associated with art evaluations. However, over time using COTT on large and small projects, I have thought a lot about how it counters many of the social and practical norms associated with ingrained evaluation methodologies. We have collected feedback systematically through BE PART, and unsystematically in other situations. Sometimes games are best kept private, but as a facilitator, I can still learn a great deal, even if there is no record of the interactions.

On this blog, we have heard about how the game can balance power and create room to explore people’s ideas, while also not allowing players to plan what they’ll say in an evaluation context (see our conversation with Urška Jež). The game can create a “formal space that’s also like chatting at the pub”, fostering a sense of collective responsibility for the conversation, and in turn for evaluation (see our conversation with Jenny Salmean). This is all very positive, but we’ve often wondered what people do after the game. Although there are inherent benefits to critical reflection, sometimes people aren’t sure how to take the realisations from the game out into the world. This issue relates to a deeply ingrained idea that cultural practice should have an outcome, rather than a process being in and of itself worthwhile. As Sarah Cassidy (2023) says “embrace complexity – life is messy, and impact doesn’t always fit in a box” (p.1). Through my work with COTT, I’m still trying to understand where impact lands, and the various forms it can take.

To connect these themes and rules found in COTT back to more general ideas of political discourse it's worth highlighting the ability games have of pulling players out of a general stream of life. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1989) thought games were very important. He said, “in playing, all those purposive relations that determine active and caring existence have not simply disappeared, but are curiously suspended” (p.107). It's not that we’re in a different world altogether, but we can notice that world through the play. He thought players become mastered by the games they play, leading him to say, “first and foremost, play is self-presentation” (p.112), it’s a form of active self-reflexivity. To understand and assign value to art and cultural practices, it helps to step outside of them, to gamify our conversations.

The above speaks to why players might benefit from gamified evaluation, but we need to account for how various views interact and can come to change, how the player's justifications and articulations come to be held and altered through interaction. I’ll return to Norval (2006) where she suggests that by “recounting ordinary practices in an extraordinary fashion [it’s possible to] make visible the confusions upon which many accounts of meaning rest” (p.233). She goes on to say “this precise putting together of novelty and tradition, of simultaneous contextualization and decontextualization, is exactly what facilitates overcoming the logjam between accounts of political subjectivity” (Norval, 2006, p.238). We are not only asked to listen to other people’s articulations of a given context but we are asked to hear ourselves as well. A mirror is put against the things we might have become so used to saying, they’ve become hidden from view.

The game’s structure directly addresses some of those earlier norms of discourse and evaluation by levelling the playing field. The power dynamics, by no means left behind, are momentarily altered. If we follow Gadamer, the game might also highlight those power dynamics. No single voice can dominate, and everyone gets a turn. Players must try and listen to each other and that means everyone can bring their own personalities and experiences to the table. Everyone playing is evaluating, they are all experts in the narrative that shapes their own conditions.

New combinations of people locked in a game of language we always use, mixed with language we don’t expect, can lead to new insights and maybe new ways to approach the framing and interpretation of value.

Henry Mulhall July 2023


[1] The religious connotation is intended. Practices repeated over and over again to satisfy an abstract higher power… like a god or a funder.


Cassidy, S., 2023. Meaningful Measurement Inquiry – what have we learned? The Old Fire Station, Oxford.

Fraser, N., 1997. Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “postsocialist” Condition. Routledge, London.

Gadamer, H.-G., 1989. Truth and Method. Bloomsbury, London.

Norval, A., 2006. Democratic Identification A Wittgensteinian Approach. Political Theory 34, 229–255.

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