circuit conference

Conferences. We all get to go to them and sometimes we present. Sometimes we even organise them. This year Nicky Sim got to organise a very important conference – the first of a series of wrap-ups of the Circuit programme. It was held at Nottingham Contemporary on March 10th.

Circuit is/was a four-year programme funded by Paul Hamlyn. It brought art galleries and youth organisations together to provide cultural programmes and festivals for young people who might not typically be engaged with an art museum.

We are connected with Circuit in two ways – Nicky has conducted ethnographic research into ‘partnership’ through a TATE – Nottingham AHRC funded studentship, and Becky Coles and I are doing a longitudinal study of 21 people engaged in the ‘youth’ programming/curating collectives. So Becky and I were there, as well as Nicky of course.

The conference theme addressed the possibilities, risks and challenges of developing democratic practice between young people, youth organisations and galleries. (Young people are defined as 15-25)

The attendees came primarily from the ‘youth’ and ‘gallery’ sectors with a few other people, researchers and arts administrators, added in.


The proceedings were a mix of presentations and discussions with some time for ‘table’ conversations.

Some of the learnings of Circuit were clearly on show, both as displays and in the discussions. Youth Collectives have taught galleries that

  • successful programming for young people is inter-disciplinary – film, music, visual and performing arts together
  • young people need to see themselves represented in gallery activities
  • there has to be something for me, something that is relevant to me
  • activities have to offer something – personal development, the opportunity to socialise, new connections
  • activities have to be free and accessible.

Difficult questions were raised and some of the more obvious tensions emerged – the terms ‘young people’, ‘diversity’ and ‘hard to reach’ were an ongoing issue. The hierarchies of power within galleries, the continued attacks on the youth sector and informal education, the possibility of institutional critique becoming a programme of concrete activity challenged all of us.

Becky and I were both pleased to discuss the gallery as a ‘gig’  economy and the parlous state of employment in the arts in general and for young adults in particular; this is a major issue emerging from our research.

conference line drawings by @askthefaces, a Nottingham based artist

Nicky and Rachel from Circuit did a great job in organising the conference. Nicky’s commitment to ensuring that a wide range of views were on the table was enacted through the programme. The process and the topic were congruent.

I’m sure all of us left with some key things to think about and  even perhaps with a concrete action in mind.




On Monday 16th March Pat, Nicky and Louisa attended a seminar held by the Tate Learning Research Centre at Tate – it focused on the interconnections between the ethics of research based participatory art, arts based participatory research and participatory research in the arts.

Pat co-hosted the event with Emily Pringle, and she had the job of keeping a public running record of the events.

We are now thinking about what kind of publication might follow on from this event. There is not a lot already available which students might use, and we are sure there is both room and a need for something which addresses this particular nexus of fields and practices.

starting our circuit research

Rebecca Coles, the researcher on the project, explains the thinking behind the research:

Our Circuit project draws on an approach known as ‘qualitative longitudinal research‘. It asks how young people forge lives and subjectivities in response to circumstances patterned differently by location, class, gender, religious and ethnic and cultural processes. It follows the changing meanings and significance that these give to experience and events over time and the interplay between intention and imaginative possibility and social structural circumstance (Thomson, 2011). Researchers engaged in this kind of research also consider the roles of particular institutions (McLeod & Yates, 2006). By engaging in recurrent interviews discussing the past, present and future, it aims to follow the details of how these processes take place over time: their slow accumulations and tipping points (Farrell, 2006).

Circuit Tate Liverpool

We will meet around 20 members of the Tate’s Circuit programme, in galleries across the country, five times over eighteen months.

We hope to produce some general findings about the experiences of these members in education and work and in relation to home, family and relationships. What kinds of people are they becoming? What are the affordances of the art gallery for these different young people?

Even at this early stage already themes are emerging. For some the gallery is a safe space in which to take a break from ongoing struggles or to approach them differently: a time “where it is possible to be/do/know/live together differently” (Thomson et. al., 2012). For others it is an occasion to learn skills and to be treated – and even paid – as a professional: a time to experience themselves and be recognised as competent (Henderson et. al., 2007) and to engage in activity where what happens ‘counts’ in its artistic and social aims and outcomes and in relation to a future career.

We also hope the project will diverge from the traditions of qualitative longitudinal research. Rather than produce one description of the passing of time, we aim to compose multiple accounts – stories – with our participants. What stories do they choose to tell about the passing of time and the place of the gallery in their lives?

We have been thinking about time, self  narration and storytelling in relation to the research.

Time and stories

Storytelling is a matter of time, on many levels. For Walter Benjamin, a story requires recurrence. A teller takes what he tells from experience (direct or handed down) and makes it the experience of his listeners, who will then share it. Unlike information, which must be new, a story “sinks the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring it out of him again”. A story also requires duration. To hear and remember a story requires mental relaxation and self-forgetting. Stories also contain their own telling of time, different from historical time. Hundreds of years can pass and be of no significance to a story.

How, over time, will our participants build a story, incorporating new events into several re-tellings? How do they experience time? Is it ‘like dominoes’, as one has already put it, or ‘fragile, like ice’, as another has described it? Is Circuit a break away from time, or a way to move things forward? Across what kind of time will participants tell their stories – will all be encapsulated in one moment or will they cover decades? Will they be smooth successions of events or will they jump back and forth?


While writers have long explored the classed and gendered histories of self-telling, today self-narration and self-performance seem to have even greater significance. Unlike stories, which are more lessons than self-reflections, self-narration is a contemporary form of discipline. As Beverly Skeggs (2010) writes, the self today generates its own legitimacy via the display of reflexive techniques of self-interrogation and emotional control. But the psychological depth needed for self-governance is something only some are able trade on. Others are positioned as ripe for transformation.

What do our participants make of being asked to narrate themselves? Is it a familiar form to them? One used in and out of Circuit? Do their stories to assert the power of their ability to narrativise about their own life? Or are they strangled by silence or a matrix of existing discourse which speaks them? Which stories have they already re-told many times and which are emerging only now? Which self-narratives are passed down from others, and from institutions, and of which are they the innovators?


According to Michael Taussig (2011), what anthropologists do, most of the time, is deal in stories. The point, he argues, is not to sift through the heterogeneity of these stories to find some underlying truth but to work with a multiplicitous and fragmented reality. Stories are the point. Taussig writes of his research diary like he writes of stories. A research diary moves ahead day by day, but it can also be read and re-read – it also brings separate moments of time together, anarchic as to the supposed laws of history. It keeps a foot in the immediate and sensuous and in narrative, resisting distillation as information. And yet it is also some kind of material contraption, a comfort which stands in for thought and experience, which stands in for the truth of what happened.

The gamble of this project is that the writing of such a diary can be a collaborative process. Can a diary be shared between those who appear in it? Can we, between ourselves and our participants, generate a shared practice of storytelling?


Benjamin, W. (1999) Illuminations. London: Pimlico

Farrell, S. (2006) What is Qualitative Longitudinal Research? LSE Discussion Papers in  Qualitative Research. London: LSE

Henderson, S. Holland, J. McGrellis, S. Charpe, S. & Thomson, R. (2007) Inventing Adulthoods: A Biographical Approach To Youth Traditions. London: Sage

McLeod, J and Yates, L (2006) Making Modern Lives: Subjectivity, Schooling And Social Change. Albany, N.Y: State University of New York Press

Skeggs, B. (2010) The Moral Economy of Person Production Sociologia: Revista do Departamento de Sociologia da FLUP 20 p. 67-84

Taussig, M. (2011) I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My  Own. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Thomson, P., Hall, C., Jones, K. and Sefton-Green, J. (2012) The Signature Pedagogies Project: Final Report. Newcastle: Creativity, Culture and Education

Thomson, R. (2011) Unfolding Lives: Youth Gender and Change. Bristol: Policy Press

circuit longitudinal research

Pat Thomson and Becky Coles have just been awarded funding from the Tate Circuit programme.


Mostyn Gallery:Circuit Victorian extravaganza

Circuit is a four-year national programme connecting 15-25 year olds to the arts in galleries and museums working in partnership with the youth and cultural sector. Led by Tate and funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, it provides opportunities for young people to steer their own learning and create cultural activity across art disciplines.

Our research focuses on fifteen to twenty young people who are involved in the Circuit programme. We will work with them to document their lives over the next two years. We hope to show the multitude of decisions these young people make about themselves, their lives and their present and future lives and the ways in which their contemporary arts engagement is implicated.