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The Process is the Goal
A Candid Discussion about Research in the Arts
Cobi Krieger and Tatiana Vahan
How do researchers navigate the challenges that arise while creating data-based representations of their communities and ensure that their results will promote justice and equity? In our data-driven world, research must be democratic and multivocal in the way it reflects its subjects. This is especially true for research that is justice-seeking in nature, aimed at improving equitable access to resources in the creative community. We, Tatiana Vahan and Cobi Krieger, are arts practitioners who collect, analyze, and report data about creative communities in Los Angeles (LA). We have conceived and executed data-dependent studies in pursuit of justice, equity, and sustainability for our respective professional communities. Krieger, an arts administrator whose focus is on the arts administration workforce, worked with the LA County Department of Arts and Culture (LACDAC) on a study about the relationship between compensation and diversity among entry-level arts administrators in the region. Vahan, who is an artist, focuses her research on LA’s visual artist communities; she created the Los Angeles Artist Census, a data-driven study of how local visual artists are faring in their lives and careers.
As the communities of artists and arts administrators often overlap and cross-pollinate, so do our practices. In the discussion that follows, we speak about our respective studies, our own challenges as members of the communities we are documenting, our drive for a more just creative ecosystem in LA, and the impact we hope our work will have. The following discussion took place on November 19, 2020, in LA. We edited the transcript collaboratively. The annotated transcription below includes minor adaptations developed by the authors. Slight variations between the audio and narrative are intentionally designed in order to increase clarity and provide additional context.
How the Projects Began: Observing Inequities and Challenging GatekeepersCobi Krieger: I wanted to start our discussion with the story of how we first met—I had heard about your project, the Los Angeles Artist Census, from mutual acquaintances, both artists and arts administrators based in LA. One day, at an event in the morning, another colleague mentioned you. Later that day, I attended a panel discussion for researchers in the arts, and you were sitting right next to me. Do you remember this?
Tatiana Vahan: I do. It was very serendipitous!
CK: It was. As we got to know each other better and learned more about each other’s respective work, we realized we have many things in common. Let’s begin with you explaining the Los Angeles Artist Census.
TV: The Los Angeles Artist Census is an artist-driven data research initiative that I began organizing two years ago. It utilizes feminist and democratic research methodologies as a way to gather and share information about the needs of LA County-based visual artists.
The Census grew out of another artist-driven project that I organized two years earlier, which was called bar-fund. bar-fund involved working with fellow local visual artists to fundraise and distribute unrestricted grants to other local visual artists. The idea of creating a grant for artists, by artists, was a response to the reality that artists are rarely in the position to choose how resources are allocated in their art community. Grant money is typically controlled by people or institutions in positions of financial privilege, and therefore power. Historically, these groups reflect a more homogenous perspective, and their members are emblematic of the systemic inequities that exist and are perpetuated in our society.
The idea for bar-fund also grew because, out of everyone in the art ecosystem, artists have the best understanding of their communities. We are the ones who are creating the work. We are at each other’s kitchen tables. There's a more personal relationship between artists, and so there is also a deeper understanding of what is happening behind the scenes in a way that non-artist participants within the art world are less familiar with.
When artists receive grants, they are not only receiving monetary support but also visibility and validation, all of which help advance their careers. Grantmaking institutions are shapers of what is deemed “valuable” and “worthwhile”—what is preserved and what is historicized. So artists, I felt, should be in this position.
I observed a similar hierarchical dynamic in the realm of knowledge production, particularly in traditional research methodologies, and I wanted to bridge the participatory approach and collective ethos of bar-fund to the Los Angeles Artist Census.
LA County is the most populous county in the US, encompassing visual artists with many different experiences and backgrounds—some have gallery representation, some have student loan debt, some receive financial support from their family, some are struggling with homelessness. Diversity within this community is further complicated by an intersection of social identities, such as race, gender, queerness, ability, age, and so forth. So, similarly to my work with bar-fund, it was important to try to de-center my own voice as much as possible, and to conduct research to include a multiplicity of artists’ voices and perspectives.
CK: Both of our studies focus on gatekeepers, namely how they prevent equitable access to and distribution of resources. You’re thinking about visibility as well as tangible resources. My study’s point of departure is how a creative career can be a resource in itself, and one that is often difficult to access.
Many arts administrators, myself included, struggle to access work and to gain experience. Part-time and seasonal jobs, as well as gig and independent workers, are very common in the creative economy. This means full-time jobs can be scarce and the job market can be competitive. However, I believe this scarcity results in an unhealthy competition leading to the reality we know today, where working as an arts administrator is a privilege. Should getting a job in the arts, and thus the opportunity to contribute to and shape the art world, be a privilege? It shouldn’t be, but it is.
I soon realized that the challenge to access jobs is made even harder by under-compensation. Given the rising cost of living in LA and other cultural urban areas where creative jobs are typically available, unless you have some sort of substantial individual wealth or at the very least a higher socioeconomic background, it's very hard to progress in the creative workforce earning a typical entry-level salary.
Race and socioeconomic status are deeply connected. This means that if the creative workforce poses barriers that are socioeconomic, these will effectively act as racial barriers too. If we want our workforce and creative ecosystem to be diverse, we have to make creative careers available to everyone, regardless of their access to individual wealth.
From my own research perspective, this meant looking into possible relationships between compensation and diversity. My research is an attempt to measure disparities, which is another shared goal of our two studies.
Democratizing Data: Seeking Polyvocal Research PracticesCK: While you observe the lack of data about artists in LA County and are working on a solution for it, you seem to be very conscious that other opinions outside of your own should be involved in forming that solution. Where did this awareness come from?
TV: As an artist myself, when reading through research authored by arts organizations about artists, it was frustrating to see how the research was framed in a way that did not serve our needs and was removed from the reality that many of us experience. It was a direct example of inherent bias that is intrinsic to any kind of research. For this reason, a big aspect of my Census research process has been to work with local visual artists so that a diversity of voices is present in the research. This began by my hosting a public presentation at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (LACA), an experimental, artist-run archive, where the idea for this research was initially discussed. Then there was a workshop series at Navel, an artist-run space in downtown LA, where a group of artists worked together to develop a survey that covered issues related to artists’ housing, healthcare, employment, income, and debt. Most recently, we partnered with the Feminist Center for Creative Work (formerly known as the Women’s Center for Creative Work), an intersectionally feminist art space in LA, to attempt a collaborative analysis of the data we collected. Artists and arts organizations also played an instrumental role in distributing and circulating the survey.
With artists overseeing the research, we can gather and provide data that is often overlooked or misinterpreted by the institutions that ordinarily conduct this research.
CK: That’s amazing that you had the ability to shape your own process independently. I've heard you say this before, and I think it's so important to emphasize—you're not working as an organization.
One of the differences between our studies is that after I developed the idea for mine, I had the opportunity to conduct it with the LA County Department of Arts and Culture (LACDAC) as a consultant. I work with their Director of the Research and Evaluation Division, Bronwyn Mauldin, so I have mentorship from an experienced practitioner. Also, the department will publish and help create an audience for this study.
Speaking of Mauldin, who is also a writer, we both loved one of her publications, a zine titled Democratize Your Data: A Guide for People Who Collect Data About People.
TV: Yes, I found her zine at the LACDAC's Arts Datathon, which was a day-long event that invited the public to participate in a series of workshops covering various approaches, skills, and strategies for engaging with data research in the arts. I had just begun organizing the LA Artist Census when someone told me about the Datathon, so when I stumbled in, I didn’t know what to expect. The event was inspiring—by the end of the day my understanding of the possibilities within data research had greatly expanded. It was a foundational experience for developing the Census.
I also found Mauldin's zine there. That was the first time I had seen such a clear visual representation of the idea I had for approaching data research. I took a bunch of copies and later asked Mauldin for more. I gave them to people who came to visit the Census office because they were a great educational tool for artists and for anyone who isn't familiar with the process of data research—how it is typically done, versus the democratic approach that Mauldin illustrates. Of course, a big part of data democratization is incorporating community into the process and having those conversations that are helpful for bridging the community to the work. This was also at the core of the Arts Datathon.
CK: I like a particular quote from the zine: “Nihil de nobis, sine nobis,” which is Latin for “nothing about us without us.” When I submitted my research proposal, I relied on knowledge of research methodologies and data types that I’d gained during my previous studies. To be honest, the idea to collect qualitative data and interview fellow arts administrators was mostly intuitive, and not an explicit attempt to democratize my process. The zine gave me new language to support my intuition, language I had not previously encountered so clearly presented.
As it turned out, what the LACDAC really responded to in my proposal was the fact that I wanted to include stories from entry-level arts administrators, to interview them and ask: How many jobs do you have? Where is your rent money coming from? What is your biggest portion of debt? And overall, what is your experience of the income you’re able to earn? These things matter, but someone looking down from a bird's eye view, from a museum board, for example, wouldn’t necessarily consider asking these questions or see value in the answers. I think I learned just as much from speaking to about a dozen arts administrators about their financial stability and choices than from surveying almost 200. It's so profound what you can learn from a story and from someone in the same boat as you are.
TV: Yes, exactly. You are providing space and visibility for their experiences, which will inform how you analyze the data as well.
The Challenge of Disembodiment and Quantitative DataCK: In our professional dialogue, you’ve referenced works and literature by artists and practitioners who aren’t traditional researchers, but who have helped you form your own voice as a researcher. They’ve also greatly inspired me, so I thought you could share more about your favorite ones.
TV: Since I’ve been working on the Census for two years now, it’s usually always in the back of my mind. It shapes my point of view when I engage with materials that are seemingly unrelated to it, and I find new meanings in these unexpected connections. One example is a work by Adrian Piper, an African American conceptual artist now based in Germany. She had a retrospective at the Hammer Museum in 2018, which included a work called Food for the Spirit. The creation of the piece began when she was reading Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, which is a very heady, existential text. She read it during a period of time when she was focused on practicing yoga, fasting, and other body-conscious exercises. As she read, she noticed that she was losing touch with her body—both from being so intellectually immersed with the philosopher’s abstract ideas and because the ideas she was reading about, and the canon from which they came, don’t take her body into consideration–particularly her mixed-race, Black, cis female body. And so she took regular breaks from her reading to stare at her reflection in the mirror, in some cases undressed, each time attempting to reconnect with her body before returning to Kant’s text. The work is manifested as a series of photographs taken while standing in front of the mirror, repeating this exercise of reconnecting.
The piece particularly struck me because it relates to one of the consistent concerns I’ve had while working on the Census, which is the tendency to lose sight of the individuals behind the numbers, each with their own unique human experience. Because of this disembodiment, artists’ actual experiences, their personal narratives, and the politics projected onto them as individuals, can be lost in the research process.
I have been a massage and body worker for nineteen years now, so of course embodiment is something that I actively practice and consider. I printed out Adrian Piper’s piece after I encountered it and tacked it to the wall of the Census office as a reminder to always try to come back to the body. When I'm in this intellectual or heady space, when doing this research, when looking at the data, to remember that this is about flesh and actual experiences—my own, and those of many others.
CK: I've never heard you explain that in such detail. I, too, love Adrian Piper's work and think the idea of embodiment and the challenge of disembodiment in research is so important to consider. I experienced this challenge while collecting data about compensation, which is often thought of only in quantitative terms. However, by collecting complementary qualitative data, we can learn so much more than the dollar amount someone earns. So, in addition to talking numbers, I asked, for example, if low wages reduced one’s sense of self-value or one’s faith in having a stable career in the arts. Indeed, one of my favorite parts of this study was getting closer to fellow arts administrators, having discussions one-on-one, and trying to identify shared experiences using many people’s words.
While the discourses about diversity in the arts and economic growth in LA County’s creative economy are robust, I was unable to find a source that connected compensation and diversity in the creative workforce. So I felt there was a unique opportunity to present compensation in the broader context of arts administrators’ experiences.
TV: That’s a great example of how qualitative data creates a stronger, more personal connection between the reader and the research.
Finding Our Voices as ResearchersCK: I want us to talk about a book you introduced me to that we both enjoyed, Creating Social Change through Creativity: Anti-Oppressive Art-Based Research Methodologies. We shared an overwhelming sense of connection to this book. How did you find it?
TV: I found it through an organization called the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, who had it listed on their website. There is a chapter in the book about the organization and its process.
To provide some background for readers, the book is a collection of twenty essays, in which different researchers describe their attempts to acknowledge and remedy problems within the research process. The book was an exciting discovery because, similar to Mauldin's zine, it raises issues that I had been thinking about and presents them through projects that address them head-on. I'm still reading through the essays, but I think as a whole it was a wonderful find with regard to creative and artistic approaches to these issues.
CK: Absolutely. As researchers, we’re confronted with many questions and decisions we haven’t faced before. When you learn that other scholars have faced similar challenges, you feel more understood, comfortable, and confident.
There was one essay I really liked, “The Role of Privilege and Oppression in Art-Based Research: A Case Study of a Cisgender and Transgender Research Team” by Owen Paul Karcher and Christine Caldwell. The authors share in great detail and candor the gaps in their own privileges in terms of professional seniority, body image, and gender.
From the beginning I made cognizant efforts to address my biases when thinking about how to share the data and findings I collected. While the essay isn’t related to the topic of my study, I loved it because of how it was written, like a journal, using a very vulnerable and transparent voice. This made the essay extremely relatable, and helped me continue to confront my bias as a researcher while shaping my voice and perspective.
What are your thoughts about your own voice and how to share the data you collected?
TV: Throughout the project, I have been thinking about Trinh T. Minh-ha, who is a writer, researcher, theorist, and filmmaker. I have to be careful when speaking about her work because it is exactly about the problems that arise when speaking about.
She points out problems of representation that are rendered by mediums that we often think of as authoritative, for example academic writing or documentary filmmaking. These mediums utilize an “objective” or “neutral” voice, which, as we discussed, is also prevalent in the type of research that we’re both doing. This supposed objective voice establishes a hierarchical divide between those who produce this knowledge, the “experts,” and those who are the subject of this knowledge. It's also brimming with gaps and fissures due to this performed neutrality which ignores the inevitable bias in every voice.
Minh-ha articulates her ideas and observations consciously, acknowledging the context and medium through which she is articulating them. Her voice is both authentic to herself and intentionally evident to her audience. In her writings, films, and lectures, Minh-ha’s use of language also deconstructs internal hierarchies within language itself and counters this supposed objective voice.
These ideas are also the foundation of feminist research practices, as outlined by Donna Haraway in her essay “Situated Knowledges,” as well as Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein in their book Data Feminism, among others.
What is put forth as true is often nothing more than a meaning. And what persists between the meaning of something and its truth is the interval, a break without which meaning would be fixed and truth congealed. The interval is the space between two things, many things, an interstice. A body who is not one thing but rather embodies multitudes that resist reductive categorization, resist binary laden forms and dominant modes of thinking, resist the hard boundaries between you and i, i and we, of self and other. the interval blurs to illuminate new possibilities for ideology and practice along spectra, not a single spectrum. —Trinh T. Minh-ha “The Voice of Multiplicity.”
Minh-ha especially inspires me as I’ve been thinking about my own voice and hand in the research, because her work is so embodied; it is the opposite of the falsely portrayed neutrality that is typical in this work.
Research as ExperimentCK: Did you have any struggles related to particular language or phrasing?
TV: Yes. While writing the questions for the Census survey, language was something we struggled with. As I mentioned earlier, a group of artists collectively wrote the survey. Artists can be more critical about meaning and language, which is helpful when you want to address its nuances. However, this had us going in circles and resulted in a lengthy, clunky process. So I decided to adjust our method to working one-on-one.
This trial and error, which I don’t want to associate with failure, is one example of the imperfections that arise when experimenting with new research methods.
CK: I love how you refer to experimentation. Recently, I attended a webinar hosted by the Wallace Foundation titled “How can Nonprofit Arts Organizations Plan for the Future with So Many Unknowns?” I especially enjoyed how the speakers talked about adopting an experimental approach towards their work. They were all executive-level arts administrators, and they were suggesting we look at work like an experiment rather than like a race toward certain deliverables. Really, the more I say it the more I embrace it. The point they were making, and the reason I loved this approach so much, was that experiments, by definition, don’t result in failure. Something happens and you learn, but there's no failure because you’re open to any and all outcomes.
To me this approach is liberating, because I can be quite precious in my work. I remember being nervous when I crafted my own survey instruments. I had counsel and support thanks to my supervisor, but I was worried about asking the wrong questions or leaving something out. I kept returning to this image of me sifting through data and wishing my survey had included another question, or that a question was worded differently.
Also, looking at all types of research as an experiment shifts the focus from the accomplishments to the process–so much so that the process itself can be seen as the accomplishment. This promotes more doing, more motion, more change.
TV: Yeah, the experimental part is still hard for me, but the Census has evolved in a way that it never could have without experimentation, and now it has a life of its own. It has many new aspects and directions in which it can grow. To me, that’s exciting and part of what has kept me so engrossed in it.
CK: Lots to explore in both of our future practices!
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- Tatiana Vahan, “bar-fund,” accessed March 16, 2021, http://tatianavahan.com/project/bar-fund/.↵
- “About,” Los Angeles Contemporary Archive, accessed December 12, 2020, https://www.lacarchive.com/about-0.↵
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- “Arts Datathon,” LA County Department of Arts and Culture, accessed March 31, 2020, https://www.lacountyarts.org/learning/arts-datathon.↵
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- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: The Modern Library, 1958).↵
- Moshoula Capous-Desyllas and Karen Morgaine, Creating Social Change through Creativity: Anti-Oppressive Arts-Based Research Methodologies (Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing for Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).↵
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- Moshoula Capous-Desyllas, Karen Morgaine, Owen Paul Karcher, and Christine Caldwell, “The Role of Privilege and Oppression in Art-Based Research: A Case Study of a Cisgender and Transgender Research Team,” Creating Social Change through Creativity: Anti-Oppressive Arts-Based Research Methodologies (Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing for Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 37-56.↵
- Trinh T. Minh-ha, “Biography” last modified 2012, http://trinhminh-ha.squarespace.com/biography/.↵
- Trinh T. Minh-ha, “The Voice of Multiplicity” (public lecture, The Wattis Institute, California College of the Arts, San Francisco, CA, November 7, 2019).↵
- Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 575-99, accessed December 12, 2020, doi:10.2307/3178066.↵
- Catherine D'Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein, Data Feminism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press LTD, 2020).↵
- “Video Replay: How Can Nonprofit Arts Organizations Plan for the Future with So Many Unknowns?,” The Wallace Foundation, November 13, 2020, https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/pages/reimagining-the-future-of-the-arts-a-webinar-series-from-the-wallace-foundation-session-3.aspx.↵