May 2014 at the White Building, London

Squaring the Circle research was presented to an invited group of artists, academics and arts and culture professionals in a one-day symposium event in late May 2014. Staged with the assistance of ArtQuest, a programme of the University of the Arts London that supports artists through free to access information, the symposium was held at the White Building in Hackney Wick, East London, a multi-use site comprising artists’ studios, offices, a bar and restaurant and a residency studio, which was used as the event space.

Each attendee received an invitation to the closing Squaring the Circle event based on their historical or contemporary interests or intersections with experimental arts practice. A handful of attendees had actually been involved in Arts Labs, while the majority had backgrounds in the visual or performing arts and academia.

An agenda outlining the project’s research aims worked to make these clear in advance of the event,

“Mapping and collectively exploring the impact of Arts Lab through its organisers, participants, audiences and those who consider themselves inheritors of the organisation’s legacy, our research seeks to articulate and expose the plurality of narratives involved in this endeavour and the linked organisations and individuals it reveals. Investigating the allocation of value within the more experimental, ephemeral and experiential arts has been historically difficult and this project aims to introduce new methods for the dissemination of such practices, starting with a case study based in the 1960s, which may continue to hold relevance in the present.”

After an introduction to the ambitions of the project and the aims of the day’s symposium, each of Squaring the Circle’s critical responders gave a presentation of their own observations about the work of the Arts Lab, its potential value both now and in the future and the lessons we might, as arts and academic professionals, take from its examples.

Attendees were divided into four groups, with each member of the project team ‘hosting’ a table, which was tasked with considering both the theoretical and practical issues surrounding an assigned theme. As with the cultural probes, a variety of response mechanisms was presented, from coloured pens and tables covered in paper to enable drawing or diagrams, to ceiling-mounted cameras and voice recorders to ensure conversations were documented.

Having presented eleven themes to its critical responders, the project team had reassessed its thematic parameters and reduced themes to an easier to manage four: Money, Yes Policy, Risk and Leadership. Symposium attendees were free to choose a subject area, and therefore a set table, to engage with when considering the Arts Lab example and the wider issue of determining cultural value.

Each table spoke internally around issues thrown up by the critical responders and ways of measuring the value of both the Arts Lab and contemporary experimental arts practices.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there was discussion from all four theme areas around the role of the Arts Council. From ‘Money’, “You’re actually identifying the biggest anomaly with Arts Council funding – they will only fund people now who don’t need their money. And the less you need their money, the more they’ll give you!” to ‘Yes Policy’, “…we kind of got Arts Council funding before we even started running the space…it meant that we turned into an organisation…we didn’t mean to take on this model of an organisation, but we turned into an organisation that had a structure.”

Within the four themes, there was a tremendous amount of overlap, with Leadership discussing capitalism and the free market and Risk assessing the efficacy of contemporary university Learning Outcomes.

Attendees were able to offer well-considered responses to questions about whether value could be measured meaningfully. Below, an attendee who works within Higher Education suggests that the value in risk taking whilst studying is inherent and that it is the criteria (in this case, Learning Outcomes) that needs to be re-assessed in order to fully reflect that value:

“Education is fascinating because it’s one of the few environments in society where a sense of supporting failure is absolutely embedded with our moral code…The thing, is we have these things called Learning Outcomes: ‘By the end of this unit, whatever, you will have learnt this.’ I’ve always disagreed with this because I would say you only know what you’ve learned when you’ve done it, not before you’re going to do it and if you premeditate that learning then you’ve already fixed something. We could – it would be perfectly possible to – have a Learning Outcome that says, ‘You will discover what risk-taking means.’”