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Evaluating evaluations

Updated: Jan 26

Image credit: Christa Holka

For this edition of the blog, we've been speaking to Malaika Cunningham, a practice-based researcher and performance maker. Her work explores the possibilities of interactive performance and installation in creating democratic spaces, most often with Yorkshire-based company The Bare Project. She has a PhD in participatory performance and democratic theory and recently completed a 3-year practice-based research residency with Artsadmin during their involvement in BE PART. Malaika was a great help in preparing the evaluation report for BE PART. She is also a trained Theatre of the Oppressed practitioner and has a growing practice in the overlaps between food and participatory performance.

How did you come to BE PART?

I came to BE PART through Artsadmin, where I was a practice-based researcher in residence for about two and a half years. My research and practice are focused on the overlaps between participatory arts, democracy, and environmental justice. BE PART felt like a really obvious fit for me within Artsadmin - something for me to get involved with and support. 

What do you think the relationship between research and evaluation is?

In practical terms, research and evaluation have sat separately for me. Evaluation has always been something that I've used within my artistic practice, whereas research is something I've used in academic contexts. Maybe the difference is linguistics, in terms of how I’d describe them methodologically. I think actually, the methods that I would use in terms of gathering materials would be pretty similar across evaluation and research. Maybe the difference for me, comes from how you analyse what comes out of each process. I think, evaluation practice is embodied in the data collection phase, whereas research goes deeper in terms of how we analyse or sit with the ‘data’. 

For example, in playing COTT as part of an evaluation for an art project - that feels like the bit of the evaluation that's most alive and most useful for everyone. The thing that everybody in the room who was involved takes away with them is the conversations and reflections that come up as part of the game. Whereas within my research practice, there’s another step after that, which involves writing up findings - evaluating the evaluation in a way. I’d maybe analyse that stuff more deeply, and maybe more painstakingly connecting it to a wider context or theory. Maybe that's where the line sits, in the analysis afterwards, rather than in the methodology

Could you say research is about attaching findings to wider ideas of knowledge? Whereas with evaluation, the terms are set by the project itself, and that could possibly include a funder’s ideas. Maybe evaluation is more about capturing experience(s) - sometimes to justify funding?

And it doesn't need to necessarily have a theoretical framing. The project and its endpoints are lighter, I think.

In more practical terms, what did your role at Artsadmin involve, not just concerning BE PART?

It depends on the day, it was a very varied role. My role was split between four different sets of activities really – but I’ll just mention two. First and foremost, my role was to essentially create artistic, practice-based approaches to democratic space. That was mainly realised through designing, delivering and evaluating a set of potlucks with a group of invited academics, artists and activists. Each meal was set around different themes that explored how we collectively own space and the role of food within that. Food has become a really important part of my artistic practice over the past few years. 

Other things included designing the People's Palace of Possibility, which is a much larger scale, practice-based research piece that I've been working on. That predated my time at Artsadmin and I've continued to work on it since I left. The People's Palace of Possibility is a big project where I’ve done quite a lot of writing and reflection around ideas of utopias and how those ideas interplay with democracy and arts practice. 

There was another strand that formed when I’d been at Artsadmin for maybe a year. It became apparent to me that their evaluation process, like most arts organisations I've worked with, was predominantly responsive to funder’s demands and primarily based on quantitative data. This came up particularly in relation to the anti-racism work that Artsadmin does. I was in a working group that was looking at audience and participation. We realised that we didn't have any qualitative data or feedback from people who were using the building in different ways, based on what their experience was. All we had was numbers, which made it difficult to think about and evaluate, in terms of what we were doing towards anti-racism goals, and what we could do differently. Emerging from that, I supported Artsadmin to create a big evaluation strategy that would sit alongside all of their projects. Alongside their art projects, their delivery of things like BE PART, and their work on anti-racism. 

This strategy is called Embedded Reflection and was designed using Failspace, which was something that I worked on previously. My day-to-day role included designing that template and offering training to staff on how to use different data collection techniques. We implemented something called the ‘critical friend protocol’, which is quite a standard technique, but Artsadmin hadn’t really used it before. Every project now has a critical friend who isn’t directly involved in the project. There was a lot of admin and figuring out who would be the critical friend on what project and checking up on them and making sure that that was actually happening at an arts organisation that is consistently over capacity. 

Could you tell me a bit more about Potlucks?

The Potlucks series emerged as we emerged from the COVID lockdowns of 2020/21. It was the address the question of how we might create spaces which offer the conviviality we craved so deeply at that time, whilst not feeling overwhelmed. I think that food, and specifically the collective ownership of food, can offer this mix – by offering a space which is just a little bit hosted by everyone. How does it change a space if everyone comes with their own offering – not just to be hosted, but to also have some of the ownership of the occasion? That feels particularly important in terms of thinking about the role of artistic practice within creating democratic spaces. 

During the events, an invited audience each played a role in creating a shared meal, a number of the guests would also bring a ‘toast’ of some kind which fit the theme of that potluck – a game, a poem, a reflection of their work, or even (on one occasion) a honey tasting. The Potlucks are still under development for me – for me this work is an artistic project, a gesture of hospitality, as well as a practice-based research method.

Do you think there’s a connection between how you use Potlucks and how COTT works? I mean in terms of creating situations that are casual and social - situations formed around what you could call non-serious activities. What do you think it is about either games or potlucks - convivial methods - that can change an evaluation context in some way?

This is something I think about a lot in relation to mini-publics and democratic spaces. How methods that involve food or games or artistic practice could change a context like a citizen’s assembly. I think these formal political spaces face a similar set of dilemmas to evaluation/research into participation. For me, I think there are two main issues or possibilities for this work. 

One is a change in the type of inclusivity of that space – not necessarily in terms of who is in the room, but who feels able to speak within the room, once they’re there. Who feels able to speak and confident within that context can shift when you bring in gaming. In a traditional evaluation meeting, the people who talk a lot tend to be senior management, and it tends to be men, etc, etc. As soon as you bring in something that's slightly more playful, or informal, the people who feel able to speak shift. 

The second thing is what people feel able to say when we are in a space which is playful, and funny. Particularly in the UK, humour is a really big one. We can somewhat hide behind humour in order to say things that are a bit more honest. In the context of theatre, like when you have a Theatre of the Oppressed space, people feel able to challenge authority and challenge the rules of the game, when they feel safe, because they're playing, or they're laughing. Using humour like that can be more difficult within an organisation because everybody has to see each other the next day when we're all working in an office together. There's a lot of politics under the surface. But when it's a group of strangers, or people who are connected like participants and workshop leaders, or participants and staff, people are less worried about hurting feelings or being rude. You get to things more quickly when you're playing.

You’ve used COTT many times, could you talk about ways it’s worked well, but also ways that it hasn’t?

The timed nature of the game works well. In particular, the fact that everybody has this time stamp to talk. Then in turn, maybe an element that doesn't work so well is you need somebody who's going to be strict with the timings, and who's going to actually follow the rules. The problem with rules-based games in these evaluation contexts is people think “Oh, we'll just break the rules”, and then they don't really play the game. The rules don’t necessarily transcend the dynamics of the people playing  - for example, if you give the timekeeper role to a junior member of staff, and the person who's talking is their senior and loves to talk, then the time thing can be quite challenging. When it works though, it works really well because I think it immediately equalises the space and that’s where the challenge comes in. The game takes you into interactions, conversations and directions you wouldn't necessarily go in. 

COTT is iterative, we go in directions we wouldn't necessarily think we would go in. That can be quite useful for people who come into an evaluation space with set ideas about how a project went, what worked and what didn’t, and they’re ready to say certain things. COTT completely disrupted that, which is useful. 

Within BE PART, COTT could be a challenge because there were so many languages spoken - I think this might even apply to some participant groups we worked with at Artsadmin - Maybe there is some language in the game that is quite challenging for people with English as a second language or people who don't have much formal education. That could be a bit of a stumbling block. Some people lose confidence in talking because they don't necessarily know what the words mean. But that doesn't happen a lot, it happened more in Riga than it did in London.

Because I know the game well, I often don't realise that some of the language is quite specific. It’s only in more practical moments of playing or demonstrating the game that I realise the difficult phrases.  I don't think the cards are particularly heavy on art speak in that theory-laden way but someone pointed out to me that the language on the cards is very arty in a kind of evaluation/participation kind of way. It takes those people to help me see the language on the cards which in turn helps me see my position within these dynamics a bit more.

We have that with the People's Palace as well. We've got a set of questions that we ask people in situations like the radio station. We were in Rotherham, and some teenagers were coming to take part. The words that they struggled with surprised me - you can't know other contexts. Utopia was a word that they didn't know, they'd never really come across before. They didn't know what it meant and you've got to be prepared to break things down. The language that you're using in some contexts is going to alienate some people regardless. Slang from Rotherham would alienate me. There are words they used that I don’t understand. 

I find moments when a familiar word is unfamiliar to someone else very interesting. When you have to describe the meaning of utopia, for example, it makes you think about how well you know what the word means. Similarly, moments when a word has very strong associations for a person; this happens with COTT’s theme cards sometimes. For example, people have very strong associates with the word ‘management’, but it doesn't have to be fixed in the ways people think. It highlights the often negative experience people have of management and can help people think about management in new and constructive ways. 

As you mentioned with COTT, people can ignore the rules on timings. On the one hand, these methods are exciting and can disrupt evaluation situations, but then also, people can get used to them and start to find ways to work around the disruption. Do you see a way to avoid that kind of manipulation? 

That's interesting. I’m not sure it’s always a bad thing to manipulate a method so that it fits the context you're sitting within. All of these methods have been designed for a specific context that often in your research don't find yourself in, and they don't quite work. So I think it can be good for people to change or manipulate them. 

You mentioned that you work with the Failspace framework. Could you say a bit more about how Failspace and COTT might or might not work together? 

I do think that there are ways that COTT and Failspace could work together, but I think they're getting at different things. Failspace is an overarching template and format that I've used on artistic projects and projects that Artsadmin do. It offers categories for how to think about the success and failure of a project concerning publics, participation, profile and all of these different aspects. COTT is more of a way to journey through a project. 

COTT was designed as a game to be played with and between the different stakeholders and roles within a project, right? Whereas Failspace, although it includes methods, is more of a framework. Having said that, within Failspace, there are some useful games and exercises. There’s the wheel of failure, which is more of a visual exercise where you shade/colour in a wheel, according to a scale of success and failure. Or there are postcards that you can use. 

One thing that needs to be considered with all of these methods, and it’s the same with potlucks, is that production values matter. If we're using art space methods and one of the reasons people want to engage with them, and one of the ways the methods change spaces into something convivial, or maybe more honest, is partly the materials that we're using. You know, the meal is delicious, the cards are well designed, and the illustration within the Failspace materials is beautiful. These things are really important. 

I hadn’t thought about methods in those terms. Part of the way these methods work is that it makes players really look at what you're doing. They ask participants to step outside of the general stream of activity and realise the things they’re holding or eating. The quality of the aesthetics makes you people take a step back. 

Yes, and makes your participation feel more worthwhile. 

What's difficult about using these methods in your experience? 

It’s always hard to find time. People just want to tick evaluation off and get it done. Committing to play a game is a really difficult thing because even though we're in an arts organisation, we don't necessarily think that play is something for us. We think that play is something that we deliver to other people. There are a lot of barriers to being able to set aside time in a working day that’s already too full. There are always funding applications or copy for a marketing pack to write. Setting a time and making the space to play a game is harder than just having a meeting. That's one barrier and will be a barrier for any arts-based method because the act of doing art feels like a luxury or not urgent or never the thing that should be at the top of the agenda. 

Also, as a researcher, I think it's really difficult to translate what we gather from playing a game into a text.  

I was going to ask, these playful situations, which we know are enriching and useful are very hard to capture. It’s difficult to evidence the change they might make. How can we record these convivial contexts and productively analyse the data, in a research or evaluation sense? How can we take it beyond just the conversation? 

Did you mean the evaluation of the method, or do you mean what we gather from doing the method?

Even though the methods and situations they facilitate might be exciting, we often seem to fall back on traditional coding, for example, where the researcher is separate from the context they’re researching. How do we avoid listening to recordings of people talking and dealing with that data in traditional academic and possible extractive ways?

The analysis phase of research is so yoked to what the outputs of research are, right? For example, a PhD is a fairly rigid format. So is a journal or book. Within practice-based research, there are outputs that we accept and we look at that aren't so rigid. Maybe that’s useful, but also maybe it can be more confusing because there are fewer rules which can make it harder to understand what's going on. In terms of a journal article, we're always going to have the issue of analysis done using art space methods being reined in and put into a text-based format. Maybe if we borrow from ethnography and use a richer form of description we can kind of get beyond that. Rather than listening to recordings we could take a more fieldnote approach. With the potlucks, I took that approach more, but I haven't formally written any of it up yet. I'm starting to do that now that I have some writing time. I think richer forms of description could be better at responding to body language, the atmosphere of the space and things like that, rather than just what was said. It could be a better way of responding to the atmosphere of a space. Maybe that's the way we move beyond just recording fun focus groups. Creative writing is one of the ways that we can hold complexity as an output, which I think is more popular in certain disciplines. Fundamentally, the box that we need to fit this stuff into is extractive and limited. I don't know how to change that, that feels massive. 

This all goes back to the difference between Evaluation and Research. I think what we’ve just talked about is a problem for research, not for evaluation. Often the end point for research is a journal article or book. The end of evaluation is those gatherings, it is those meetings. There are often reports to write and some stuff for funders but actually, the important bit is playing that game, having that discussion, or having that meal. These things can be the evaluation and the main output. Those are the experiences people leave with having learned from. People don’t often read the reports, maybe the funders or some very specific audiences, but often they don't. 

Do you think methods like COTT and potlucks are partly responsible for a shift in attitude towards evaluation and what it's for? Away from just gathering numbers and writing reports?

I think Leila (Jancovich) would probably disagree with me here because she thinks arts organisations have more power than they realise. But I think until funders begin to ask for different approaches to evaluation, arts organisations are going to continue to write the reports so that they get the next tranche of funding because their lives depend on it. If they did evaluation differently, the funders would have to respond. But I think, mainly the Arts Council, holds most of the power here. Some trusts and foundations are beginning to do evaluations slightly differently. Joseph Rowntree is looking at more interesting ways of doing evaluation. But I don’t think those reports aren't going to go away, and actually, I think that there is importance and value in knowing the quants. Funders need to know that stuff and so do arts organisations that are publicly funded. Knowing how many people and who was engaged is useful. But I think the value that sits with things like COTT is within the space of COTT, it's not in the report that is written afterwards. The value is for the people gathered around that table, because they think about their work differently from having done the exercise. It’s more of a problem for researchers and academics because we have to write up the more formal, rigid thing afterwards as well. 

We don’t think about going beyond a text-based or verbal approach to evaluation enough, I think that that remains unexplored. Maybe that’s something we need to think about and look at. COTT might shift a context and who can speak, but what could be more radically is thinking about some kind of nonverbal responses. Putting that into a journal article is really hard. I think there's a lot to learn from visual methods and I think they’re underused within arts organisations. Depending on the demographics you're working with, if you're working with young children, playing COTT is probably not going to work. Or if you're working with adults with learning difficulties, same issue. What methods can work in these situations? Or, again, when we're working with a group that has multiple different languages, and maybe don't speak English, what games could we play? Some of the demographics The Bare Project work with in Sheffield don't speak English. What can we do to find out more about their experience of being in a project that is not text-based? I don't know the answer to that, but it’s something interesting to think about going forward.

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