Creativity & Cultural Labour, Cultures of Creativity, Representation

A PhD Overview in Three Acts: Cauldrons, Super Bowls and Export-grade Joy

Dr Camilo Solinti Soler Caicedo

On January 11th, 2020, on a final wrap-up fieldwork visit, I was approached by a hip-hop dancer, who had seemingly heard of my research on salsa:

Brayan: They told me you are doing a research to find out why the best dancers always come from the ghetto
Camilo: You could say… that’s exactly what I do
Brayan: Why is it then?”

In a few words, Brayan “Dancer LP” sent me back to the initial motivation of my doctoral research: why is that the most skilled and popular dancers of popular rhythms come from the most deprived or marginal environments and, furthermore, how can their embodied knowledge and skills be used to overcome such marginality?

The first part of the question, as explained to Brayan, could be presented by three factors: precarity, cross-fertilisation, and simmered learning. By examining my two case studies, namely the south of Bogota and the boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth in London, I was able to identify that by the time salsa dancing became an established practice in the decades of the 70s and 80s, these areas were largely inhabited by populations of immigrants: African-descendants in the case of Bogota and Latin-Americans in the case of London.  These populations often counted on a very limited economic or social capital; hence their only option of investment was on forms of embodied capital, of which salsa dancing was one of them. However, in addition to their disposition to embodied practice, there was also the possibility of sharing and transmitting knowledge within these marginal, yet extremely diverse, communities of immigrants in both Bogota and London. Sharing knowledge, and an overall sense of community, in social events involving dance was crucial for the cross-fertilisation of salsa dance as capital in these areas, which I denominated cauldrons. Finally, the shared, collective and informal conditions that fostered this transmission of embodied knowledge allowed many people, who could not afford large investments of money or time, to develop their skill in a slow and community based mannered, to which I refer to as simmered learning.  Ultimately, this modality of diversified and simmered learning in precarious environments is what allowed the creation of an embodied capital that would become increasingly valuable with the expansion of the global market of salsa.

Precisely, the second part of the question that motivated my doctoral research explores the possibility of integrating that local knowledge to global markets to foster economic and social development. Less than a month after my chat with Brayan, on the 2nd of February, I celebrated my birthday by writing the conclusions of my thesis. Simultaneously, the Latin-pop singer Shakira celebrated her own birthday by performing – next to the other big Latina, Jennifer Lopez – at the Super Bowl half-time show in Miami, which reportedly reached 103 million live viewers on TV and has over 175 million views on Youtube. Interestingly enough, these two singers had commissioned dancers that I personally know from both the salsa scene in Colombia and the commercial dance scene in London, in both cases coming from the marginal cauldrons of these cities. The reasons for dancers of popular rhythms from marginal areas performing next to Shakira and JLo can be many, particularly considering that the performance makes strong statements on Latin identity, immigration, and women empowerment vis-à-vis the political climate in the US. However, from my research, I am able to propose that beyond the mesmerizingly fast footwork and impressive acrobatics of Colombian salsa, there are common elements between the local/embodied knowledge and the global markets that are linked to the colonial and post-colonial history of Afro-diasporic dances. First, it is not gratuitous that most of the dances used in this performance (from the extremely local champeta to the hyper-transnational commercial), as well as most popular dances around the world (from hip-hop to kizomba), are the product of the development of dances of African heritage in different parts of the world, predominantly the Americas. This particularly due to the marketisation of, but also empowerment through, human bodies and their movement that has been taking place since the slave trade and plantation systems in the Americas, which in turn has led to complex processes of transmission and identity of embodied knowledge (e.g salsa has been seen as either Afro-Antillean, the Caribbean, Nuyorican, New Yorker, Cuban or Latin at different times and places and by different communities).  To understand these complex processes of negotiation, I developed the crucial concept of alegropolitics in tandem with Professor Ananya Jahanara Kabir. This refers to the efficaciousness of these dances to communicate and transmit an affect related to joy, but specific to Latin dance, hence its Hispano/lusophone etymology. This alegria operates as a pleasant and positive affect that often attracts transnational audiences into many of the currently popular dances, thus granting them – and their original practitioners – a place in global markets. What is interesting of this specific type of joy – and which I believe contributes to the understanding of its use by Jlo and Shakira to perform immigration, gender equality and racial politics – is that it does not operate as a denial of suffering, discrimination or any other painful affect, but it is a rather powerful social instrument to reconcile pain and joy, and to process post-colonial traumas beyond barriers of intersectional class, gender and race identities.

Fast-forwarding another month to my Viva, on the 17th of March, I was delighted to see that both examiners were enthralled by this nuanced, multidirectional and intersectional approach to what I ultimately called the export of the embodied capital of Colombian salsa, and that it was decided I would receive a pass without corrections. Similarly, I am happy that my conceptual tools have helped other scholars in the development of their own analysis of social dance. Lockdown took place in many cities (including Bogota and London) within a few days, which has made the popular dance scene more precarious, yet even more resilient. This has made my analysis increasingly more relevant and, therefore, I am currently looking forward to further utilise the conceptual tools of my PhD in developing specific interventions in the dance industry to foster economic, social and emotional development.

Creative Economy & Cultures of Production, Creativity & Cultural Labour, Cultures of Creativity

Creative Economy Research Frontiers Seminar Series – Creative Work and Gender: Barriers and Activism

Dr Tamsyn Dent & Dr Kate McMillan

Dr Tamsyn Dent and Dr Kate McMillan both presented research as part of the Creative Economy Research Frontiers Seminar Series, organised and hosted by CMCI and DISCE.EU in partnership with the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC), Nesta. The event, Creative Work and Gender: Barriers and Activism was the third in a series of four research seminars developed by Dr Roberta Comunian of the Cultural, Media and Creative Industries Department at King’s College London with the PEC which invited research that addressed emerging challenges relating to the creative economy. This seminar included papers that explored new forms of big data that identify gender barriers in the creative sector and collaborations between HE and grassroots organisations to develop such research. Dr Dent presented her work developed in partnership with the organisation Raising Films that addressed the experiences of ‘carers’ working in the UK screen sector and Dr McMillan presented a number of research projects into the lack of equality for female artists in the visual arts includes the annual report ‘representation for Female Artists in Britain’ developed through her ongoing collaboration with the visual arts organisation, the Freelands Foundation.

Dr Dent’s paper, ‘Gender, Sexuality and Care in the UK Screen Industry’ presented findings from a research survey that targeted carers working in the screen sector. Carers are defined anyone, (including children) who looks after a family member, partner or friend who needs help because of an illness, frailty, disability, mental health problem or an addiction. Raising Films is a community and campaigning organisation for parents and carers employed within the UK screen sector and it was following consultations with members that the absence of data specifically on barriers to screen labour faced by carers, as opposed to parents was identified. The full findings from the carers survey can be read in the report. This paper concentrated on a relationship that emerged from the data between sexuality and care, looking at the experiences of stigma and rejection from colleagues and employers faced by men in same-sex relationships when combining caring responsibilities and screen labour. The research complicates notions of caregiving as a gendered activity and expands the case for more in-depth intersectional research into barriers relating to caregiving and creative labour.

Dr McMillan’s paper on the representation of female artists within the UK’s commercial gallery was based on quantitative data on the representation of female visual artists taken in 2016 and 2019 and a series of qualitative interviews with gallery directors. Dr McMillan’s work explores the significance of representation within the UK’s commercial sector as related to value and recognition at the institutional level. This has a particularly problematic consequence for female artists who are significantly under-represented at the commercial level. The detailed level of analysis illustrates patterns of inequality linked to the size of the gallery, the gender of the director and unconscious bias relating to concepts of motherhood and value. Dr McMillan also presented findings from the Freelands Foundation report which analyses the visual arts sector more widely and its uneven opportunities for female artists. The findings can be accessed through the report available online. The most recent report will be launched in Autumn 2020.

Below you can watch a recording of the seminar:

Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Digital Culture, Representation

Facebook as Focus Group Tool

Katrin Schindel

Faced with the impossibility of conducting research in person due to the current pandemic, many researchers find themselves looking for alternative online methods. This often poses new practical and ethical considerations, with some academics trying out online research they might not have encountered yet. Since my PhD project has been designed as an online study, I believe it might be helpful for fellow researchers to share some of my insights.

In my doctoral project, I examine articulations of “intersectionality” in digital feminist activism in Germany. In addition to a discourse analysis of the websites/blogs and social media of two activist case studies and online interviews with self-identified feminists/activists, I also plan to conduct online focus groups with my interview participants. Designing the latter has posed the biggest practical and ethical challenges and is hence what I will focus on in the following discussion.

Online focus groups offer a series of advantages: they make it possible to reach participants not only in other locations, but simultaneously in different geographical areas, which has the benefit of eliminating travel time and costs. Considering that my participants will be located in Germany, this would make these concerns obsolete. Moreover, online focus groups can be conducted both as synchronous (all participants are online the same time) and asynchronous (participants contribute in their own time; potentially over a longer period of time) practices. They can also be conducted via video group chat (e.g. Skype), simulating a face-to-face focus group, or in written form, like in a chat or forum. Written online focus groups also have the benefit that they automatically produce a transcript. Some may worry though that written focus groups won’t produce similar rich data compared to in-person focus groups, but as Underhill and Olmsted (2003) have shown, the quality of computer-meditated focus groups and groups conducted in person does not vary significantly. While the latter may have produced more words in total, both generated about the same amount of new ideas.

Another worry might be that using online focus groups requires a lot of technical know-how and funding for software. While this may be true in some cases, researchers should ask themselves if these platforms are really the best choice for the project in question. In my doctoral research, I am looking at online discourses on three different social media platforms. It is therefore sensible to conduct my focus group research using one of the examined platforms. Facebook, with the option to set up private discussion groups, appears to be a great fit.

Of course, there’s a number of ethical issues in using Facebook for data generating purposes. For instance, Facebook’s data policy means that the platform will save all data conducted throughout the research. However, since participants have already signed up to Facebook, they should be familiar with this policy. Another issue is that Facebook is a commercial platform that operates for profit. According to Fuchs (2014), the more time a user spends on Facebook, the more data, and thus economic value, they generate. Consequently, asking my focus group participants to spend more time on the platform by taking part in a discussion group would mean asking them to generate more data, producing an economic gain for Facebook, and essentially asking my participants to perform free labour. While this dilemma must not be underestimated, I also recognise that – as with most ethical questions – there is no perfect solution.

Ultimately, the benefits of using Facebook in my study outweigh the disadvantages. Ease of use is one of the benefits of using the platform. As mentioned above, since participants have already signed up to Facebook, I won’t have to ask them to sign up and can be sure they are aware of how Facebook works (Dinhopl 2017). Facebook also allows users to express their opinions, thoughts, and feelings by implementing emojis, gifs, pictures, or videos. Similarly, the focus group moderator can use videos or newspaper articles as well as polls to alternate between discussion topics. Furthermore, the layout of Facebook groups can both work as a forum and chat at the same time, giving participants more flexibility in when and how they are going to engage with the discussion topic. The reply function (@username) allows participants as well as the moderator to respond to individual messages.

However, there is still one potential problem in using online focus groups that I haven’t discussed yet – conducting focus groups online means both participants or third parties (besides Facebook itself) could make copies of the discussions. To minimise the risk of confidentiality breaches by participants, I have designed the following measurements: first, by signing the consent sheet, participants agree to keep everything posted in the Facebook group confidential. Second, since I will set the privacy settings of the groups to “closed” and “hidden”, the groups will not come up in any searches (neither Facebook nor Google or other search engines) and participants will only be able to enter by invitation. Moreover, when joining the group, participants have to read the rules/code of conduct and they have to select that they agree to them. By clicking on the ‘about’ section, group members can find the rules and re-read them at any time. In addition, the groups are kept relatively small with only 4 to 5 participants per group. Participants will, therefore, become familiar with their fellow group members quickly, which will make it less likely for them to break confidentiality. Finally, participants will be given the opportunity to set up an anonymous Facebook account solely for the purpose of the study, in case they are not comfortable using their private account. That said, full confidentiality can still not be guaranteed, however, this is never the case, whether the focus group is conducted on- or offline.

Surprisingly, culture and media researchers have not been at the forefront of online focus group research – a field pioneered by social health and medical scientists. And despite a growing number of online focus group research, I have only come across a small number of studies using Facebook as group discussion tool (Lijadi & van Schalkwyk 2015; MacLeod et al. 2016; Buelo et al. 2020). Hopefully, the current situation will lead to more culture and media scholars catching up on digital methods and online focus groups in particular.