Curating Research

Working in the emerging fields of Visual and Sensory Sociology implies searching for ways by which visual and sensory research tools and findings can make an intervention in the production of public knowledge. This is, that the visual and sensory means applied during research become productive not just as inspiration, companion or appendix to the written piece, but productive in their own right and speaking their own language. Visual and sensory knowledge – or more generally speaking: creative knowledge – are specific ways of knowing, different to that of intellectual abstraction to which they tend to resist when caught and translated into textual description and interpretation. It is in this light that the practice of curating acquires heightened importance. Curating Research is about handling research (Bolt 2010). It is about listening to and bringing into relation the visual and material qualities inherent in those forms of research that draw on, or develop through, artistic practices. And it is about exploring “curating as a research process” (Wells 2007) that in itself allows sociological enquiry – in all its possible forms, visual-sensory or not – to re-imagine, re-arrange, experiment with and expand its methods and ways of communication (see Puwar and Sharma, “Curating Sociology”, forthcoming).

Thus, if Visual and Sensory Sociology claim to be able to find distinctive approaches into researching the social, they have to find ways how to recognize, maintain and make flourish the uniqueness of such visual-material (creative) knowledge when introducing it into the ‘conventional’ channels of knowledge production in the social sciences. Curating Research shows the potential to be such a way. The medium ‘exhibition’, as a space, way of doing and a set of tools for research, can expand our means by which to challenge the material and sensory relations of the social. And it can help us to engage with publics inside and outside academia by using “other ways of telling” (ibid.).

Curating the city and Curating Research are two interventions that aim at contributing to find such ways. The first being an exhibition about the making of an exhibition and the second being a public talk about the art of exhibition making, both events invite to discuss the possible tools and spaces offered by curatorial practices in order to access, present, put to work and challenge creative research and knowledge.

please have a look and join the discussion.

Curating Research aims at exploring curatorial praxis as the means and stage for artistic research in the social sciences. The public talk asks about the politics and ethics of exhibiting as well as about the possibilities provided by the communication medium ‘exhibition’ to open up new, or different, spaces for thought and action.

As a reference point for the discussion we will draw special – yet not exclusive –attention to the tools and techniques inherent to curatorial practices in the field of critical urban studies. What possibilities emerge through the medium ‘exhibition’ for investigating, thinking, and changing the city?

Curating Research is an initiative by the urban research collective Citámbulos, the architecture collective NMA and Akademie Schloss Solitude. It takes the exhibition Curating the City – an exhibition about curating an exhibition about Mexico City – as an opportunity and spacial-haptic starting point for the discussion.

The public event invites curators, exhibition visitors, social scientists, and all those, who use artistic resources for their research, to reflect on their curatorial tools. It aims at exploring ways in which exhibitions and artistic knowledge production can become methodically firm and critically productive means for intervening in society.

Curating the City addresses the question of how curatorial practice and exhibition space can operate as active thinking spaces within urban research. The exhibition is designed as an open archive and workshop conversation with the interdisciplinary urban research collective Citámbulos whose homonymous project on urban phenomena in Mexico City has been shown in Berlin, Mexico City and Copenhagen (among others) in recent years. By means of a dialogue between specific exhibition pieces, excerpts from the publication Citámbulos: Guide to the Marvels of Mexico City and the collective’s Manifesto, Curating the City invites reflecting on ‘the art of listening’, ‘imagination as method’ and ‘remarking the unremarkable’ of our cities.


so what is vis soc all about?

Is it Visual Sociology or Sociology of the Visual (world)? Is it practice or theory? Observation or intervention? Documentary or analysis? Qualitative or quantitative methods? Or both? Or all of it? Is it about perception or about images? Concerned with process and the making of worlds through seeing or with time and space fixed on film or within a combination of zeros and ones? And what about text? Isn’t the layout of each page (and web page) a visual message, too?


here is a – quickly compiled and not conclusive – list of web pages that wonderfully demonstrate that there is plenty of answers… Have a look yourself:


And here some thought developed at Goldsmiths… by Les Back (in: Back, Les. 2007. The Art of Listening. Oxford; New York: Berg):

“The quality of the images operates outside of language and the conventions of The Word. Yet, at the same time, there is something to be listened to in these silent portraits. Part of what is compelling about them is that they contain voices that are present yet inaudible. We have to listen to them with our eyes.” (Back, 2007: 100)

“the lens is not always about the control and fixing of subjects. To see photography as merely a governing technology misses the instability and complexity of the drama that unfolds on either side of the lens. […] It is a mistake, I think, to see the lens as only looking one way. […] Cameras in this context are like windows that look out onto the street, and through which the street looks in.” (Back, 2007: 104)

to make sense of these quotes, please have a look at the following images by Anthony Luvera — although not the ones Les Back refers to in his book — at

visual activism

French street artist JR is ‘turning the world inside out’ by means of a large-scale art project encouraging participants to print and paste their image in public spaces around the world… (a note by the Guardian here)

Dutch graphic designer and journalist duo Haas&Hahn convert a hillside favela into a brightly-coloured model neighbourhood

British artist Banksy shows Middle East politics new ways by ripping open the Jerusalem wall with nothing more than spray paint


cartoon artist Carlos Latuff intervenes (in)directly from his studio in Rio in the uprising on Tahrir square by drawing up and instantly circulating the visual commentaries that people need to express their cause…

… The common claim of these and other projects is to be able to change the world by making both the world as it is and the change has it happens visible: in everyday life (definitely on the street yet increasingly also on the web it seems). Whether or not successful in achieving the specific aims of each project, they give an example of the visual arts’ possibilities – and growing confidence – for making their voice seen in creative local and trans-local (urban) interventions. Yet the strong focus on images of this kind of visual ‘street politics’ also attracts criticism routed in the concern that the social dimensions of life, space and politics are too fast and too easily thrown over board pursuing streamline communication design and maximum media impact.

Where do you stand? And where does this practice figure within the methods and theory of visual sociology?

A ISA T05 call for papers is open (here) till December 15th, 2011. Comments are welcome, too.


key logic

A note on selecting

Michael Guggenheim on the visual critique session, Spring term 2011:

I think for all kinds or work, academic and artistic, selecting material is key. An argument, visual or written is largely based on directing the audience by selection. Being in the middle of a research process one is often unsure about selections and overwhelmed by the richness of the material and/or afraid that there is not enough material.

There is a great danger to throw all material at the audience. This can make sense, it can even be necessary, but very often it just veils the fact that one is afraid to take a stance or that one doesn’t know what to ask of the audience. Because the attention of the audience is limited throwing 100 photographs at them rather than 2 results in the same amount of response. Except with 100 hundred the response is much less precise on the level of the individual picture.

To learn from a crit session (but actually any piece of work) it is thus really important to think about selection of materials. Do I want to talk about juxtaposition of different media? Then I show one photo and one minute of video. I want to discuss how to frame my subject? Then show several images, movies, audio clips of the same event. Do I want to engage in ways of how to use my personal voice in research through juxtaposition? Then show the same pieces of material in different forms of assemblage, etc.

In any case, it is key to ask for any sentence, any photo, any second of video one adds: what do I add here? Is it necessary for what I want to convey or discuss or does it merely distract and dilute?

This is very difficult to do, I know from my own experience, but it is key both to learn from others and to produce strong works in the end. And specifically with audiovisual works, once one has found a key logic to work with material, everything falls into place.

on-line journals

Two new journals exploring (and expanding?) the ‘open’ possibilities of writing (visual) social sciences (on the web).

CCC  (critical contemporary culture)

The on-line journal “envisions an alternative cultural-intellectual public space. In our contemporary moment, the combination of theoretical reflection with engaged cultural practice is as important as ever. CCC is committed to re-imagining, cultivating and supporting such work and their alternative public spaces.”


The on-line journal’s motivation is “to create a community of like-minded people, whose academic interests extend beyond the bounds of university or conventional scholarship, whilst drawing inspiration from a range of contemporary discourses within the academy.”

thoughts on Studio Sociology

The notion of doing sociological enquiry “in the studio” understands research as a practice of thinking about a particular topic in a physical and experimental manner. The studio is understood as a space of theoretical and hands-on intervention with the data, permitting the researcher to reconfigure this data according to any pre-set and/or arising research questions.

This approach implies perceiving the collected data as material, as flexible and/or mouldable, plastic data objects and situations that bear a variety of meanings within their appearance or material characteristics. Data, understood as plastic material, can be ‘sculptured’, that is ‘worked on with the hands’ from all intervening aspects that are attached to the data. Thus, the data can be actively enacted to reveal all the information contained within it. It can be explored as multi-dimensional data-entity (in the language of quantitative methods one could call it a data set but must not leave out of sight the understanding of this set as all data combined in one single data-material) that integrates conventional as well as contextual and sensuous data conditioning this data and our understanding of it throughout the ‘journey of analysis’ it makes while being collected, coded and interpreted over the time of the research project. Studio Sociology therefore not only emphasizes understanding the social world as highly complex, but offers (1) a way of thinking that allows the researcher to maintain this complexity throughout the entire research project and into possible dissemination strategies, and (2) a way to incorporate a reflexive moment while working on the data-material in the studio in order to interrogate the complexity of the research process itself.

Studio Sociology is a concept developed by Nina Wakeford, director of Studio INCITE and convenor of the Visual Sociology programme at Goldsmiths. It has been discussed in the seminar in October 2010.

text by Christian v. Wissel