NEW AUDIENCES DEVELOPMENT AND ACTION RESEARCH PROJECT 2002
by Kuljit ‘Kooj’ Chuhan for Virtual Migrants Association.
An innovative experiment in understanding audience dynamics explored through (i) informal public spaces relative to gallery spaces, (ii) refugees and asylum seekers as an active audience, and (iii) artistic engagement driven by social content.
The research was focused around the ‘Terminal Frontiers’ exhibition with particular emphasis on the ‘Desti.Nation’ portable installation. The full report can be read and downloaded from the New Audiences website www.takingpartinthearts.com/content.php?content=875 , although the summary of this can be read below:
1. Executive Summary
1.1 Centering on the “Terminal Frontiers” production and exhibition project about and involving refugees and asylum seekers, the action research used a system of touring a satellite installation around public and community spaces in combination with a central gallery space to examine whether this experimental model of exhibiting the work encourages new audiences to use the central gallery space, and also encourages engagement with the artwork itself. To deal with this in a meaningful way, further questions about identity and portrayal by and of asylum seekers, the audiences’ engagement with form and content, and further take-up of this approach were also asked.
1.2 Although formal methods (in particular audience questionnaires) were used in the early stages, a clearly observation-led approach was adopted due to the resulting inappropriateness of the methods in the early stage. This process contributed a useful understanding of the difficulty in defining ‘asylum seekers and refugees’ as a coherent group or audience. The variables in such a project are considerable, and due to the broad remit of the assumptions and related questions, these were not easy to reduce. Considerable and useful discussion and analysis has been employed to arrive at the final conclusions.
1.3 The research found a clear demand for refugees and asylum seekers to publicly affirm their identity and influence their own portrayal to the general public. Furthermore, a socially-engaged art practice involving asylum-seekers and refugees can and does deliver a richer understanding of, interaction with and closeness to asylum and immigration issues. However, when using socially-engaged art installations as satellite works then proper interpretation and contextualisation are critical to levels of engagement.
1.4 It was found that galleries can be and are willing to be influenced to adopt such a satellite exhibition strategy provided a social engagement or education/outreach agenda is reasonably central to their ethos, since to do this is to go against the grain of gallery funding and organisation.
1.5 The involvement of a charged social theme was found to be clearly effective in encouraging new audiences and higher audience numbers, whether in a gallery or otherwise. This does not, however, indicate that the audience will engage with the work; this depends on the work itself, interpretation and contextualisation, and also the audience’s identification with the subject.
1.6 There was no substantive evidence to suggest that satellite exhibited works, at least in the ways implemented here, are an effective method of encouraging new audiences to visit centrally located (gallery) works, unless part of a workshop or interpretive scheme. A longer time period with a range of works, better interpretation and education, appropriate contextualisation and better matching with localised interest and communities are all variables that are likely to influence such an outcome.