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  • Writer's pictureSofia Greaves

Arts-based research & commoning

Explaining the arts-based research process in our transdisciplinary project on Galician witchcraft

An air is a song-like vocal or instrumental composition. Air 1 begins with a melody played by violin and piano, followed by three variations of waltz, and ends with a rhythm repeating as if it never ends. The composition is based upon a ritual, "Sacar el aire" - Expel the air - practised when somebody is possessed by a spirit.

This can happen at any time.

To expel the spirit, the practitioner draws an open circle in the ground, in the open air, and prays once at each of the cardinal points turning clockwise from North, in the shape of the cross, and leaves the circle Westwards with the spirit.

Requests can be made via Whatsapp.

This is not witchcraft, as we learnt in the first of 10 planned visits to Galician women commonly labelled as witches. Ábe, Guadalupe, Eutropio and I are conducting a transdisciplinary research project: a collaboration which brings different disciplines together, and ensures that they exchange tools and practices, to produce new knowledge about a subject.

In our case, this means combining anthropology/medicine, music, art/history/economy and film.

Our project is a historically grounded enquiry which investigates and applies practices expelled by the dominant scientific paradigm: witchcraft, and art. A previous blog discussed how false hierarchies have been constructed between truth, science, witchcraft to legitimise the violent oppression of women, their knowledge and bodies (linked at bottom). This is a blog of three parts which explains art-based research and its importance, which I link to degrowth.

1. Common knowledge and common sense

You might suspect that you have "the air" through sudden loss of appetite, anxiety, crying, depression, or unexplained illness. Suspicion is confirmed by divination: asking the oracle, a composite of peneira (sieve), scissors and rosary, which we take to symbolise judging, "cutting away" and "sieving out" the bad.

Peneiriña, peneirón, dime se [nombre] tén o aire ou non. Se o tén vírame a espalda, se non o tén vírame a cara.

Sieve, tell me if [name] is possessed by a spirit or not. If they do, turn to my shoulder, if they don't, turn to my face.

As seen above, the peneira esponds by moving of its own accord. The question is repeated twice, swapping the direction it must turn to give a positive answer, to double check.

I did not have a evil spirit, but somebody else did.

On the bus back

Some of my fieldwork sketches

Divination is a strategy employed methodically using a technology with the intention of obtaining knowledge about a subject. From this follows appropriate action which is justified. But, it is common knowledge that divination is not "science." The same is said of art. Art, for all its experimentation, fieldwork, and questioning is not generally recognised as a form of research or knowledge production.


Dialogue 1. Witchcraft and Science on a neverending dinner date

Peneira: If there are different methods to obtain knowledge about the world, taking me as evidence, then our understanding of reality depends upon the questions we ask, and methods we apply. There are many perspectives and there is no one truth.

Microscope: ok

Peneira: I am a scientist.

Microscope: No

Peneira:  I am an expert?

Microscope: No. Because even if there are multiple knowledges not all have value, quality and repute - like Science.

Peneira: So what am I.

Microscope: You are a seive.

- I am a tube with bits of glass and I explain how molecules actually work. I produce knowledge with quality.

Peneira: If you say so. Ok but wait, you use your eyes to know the soil contains iron. I shove the soil in my mouth. I use taste. I do it every day. I have done it about 39494 times. Am I not an expert?

Microscope: How "arty". Not at the table please it is inappropriate also it is common sense that eating soil is not a good idea

Peneira: So I am an artist. I enable us to know that which cannot be seen.

- Can you understand the qualities of taste and smell?

Microscope: Common sense dictates that the strategies we use to make sense of the world depend upon the problem at hand. You don't need to know about taste or smell when making environmental policies. You belong in the kitchen.

Peneira: But the world is not made of numbers

Microscope: i am a machine

Peneira: What shape does our common knowledge and action take when 99 scientific papers are published representing soil as numerical values alone? How do we start to think of soil? What policies do we pursue?

Microscope: You are not making any sense. Climate change is a serious problem. We need numbers to understand the problem and make informed decisions based on expertise given by independent scientific bodies -

And reasoning thus, they arrived back at the starter.

* * *

Arts-based research responds to the problems introduced above. Researchers problematise the conceptualisation of a common sense which holds science to be "true descriptions and rational explanations, mostly in propositional form, for how things work” as opposed to “art” : a whacky, bohemian, emotive or aesthetic expression [1]. Logical action following either assumption is to exclude particular knowledges from the practice of Science and stipulations for right action. This leads to the imposition of some ways of seeing, thus 'solutions', over others, and the eradication of ways of life deemed irrational or nonsensical. The dialogue also satirises how the microscope does not recognise that it too is artist mediating the world. We can think of Science itself as a form of art and ritual.

Arts-based researchers "cannot tolerate" expertism (here embodied by the microscope) and aim to “revolutionise institutionalized classist, racist, and colonializing ways of experiencing and discoursing about human experience." To do this we use tools from the arts to collect evidence, produce meaning, and convey it to broad, non-academic audiences. ABR is a "radical, politically grounded statement about social justice and control over the production and dissemination of knowledge." [2]

Enclosing and expelling the spirit. Using inks to think about contamination and separating out the immaterial

2. ABR. For the commons

Arts-based-research emerged in the 1970s during an economic downturn, the underfunding and privatization of public services from libraries to care facilities, and increasing commodification of social relations. Such processes are referred to as 'enclosure' of the Commons, both "the physical taking over of space or a set of resources by capital", as well as the creation of a cognitive regime wherein public and communal is prized less than private and individual. Artists responded by making direct interventions, for example growing vegetables for AIDS sufferers or building shelters for drug addicts. Such socially engaged art links artistic and spatial production whilst "performing and developing forms of 'common exchange' outside of, or in contradiction to, the depredations of the market [3]."

Simultaneously, academia began to pursue a “futuristic vision of communal social science [4].” Communal here refers to the inclusion of broad, non-academic audiences in the production of knowledge, and the repositioning of the researcher from "expert" observing from the outside to an equal collaborator alongside. Arts-based research is born of the common goals of sociology and socially engaged art. It is a commoning practice: a social activity which brings participants together to share thoughts, images, and experiences around the topic or problem at hand.

We can think of commoning and the relationships it creates as a series of intersecting or nested hoops which together make up a "common knowledge."

Tools from the arts can be used to elicit common knowledge. Collage, as Howard Stein has written, enables us to “identify organizational themes, narratives (story lines), secrets, conflicts, implicit structure, and the like (Stein 2003, 85).” A collective collage addressing a theme, like sustainability or "degrowth" creates space for subjective inputs, the unsayable, natural materials and metaphor. They are a non-linear form which highlights relationships and juxtapositions: “Collage reflects the very way we see the world", it is a means to understand "the way we perceive objects stand in relationship to one another (Robertson 2000, 2)."

To understand how we perceive objects, Abe, Lupe and I have been doing automatic writing. We wish to see the commonalities and differences in our thought processes - revealed by recording thoughts which come to mind when writing, without stopping, under timed conditions.

"I don't know if I believe them but I want to"

ABR in practice

Listening to Abe and thinking about the equivalent movements and timing

ABR: "Research, represent and critique the world in responsible ways." How can we employ tools from the arts, and the actual making of artistic expressions as a primary way to understand and represent witchcraft in Galicia?

Above I am experimenting with ink to think about processes of contamination, danger and purification in the body. Abe improvises in the background. The process of making artistic expressions creates moments for a deep questioning of how knowledge is produced about a subject. For example, I choose which paper, colour, key, and why. Which perspective. Abstract or figurative. Which sources and inspiration (Satie?), and is that responsible or too witchy. Here I reflexively apply aesthetic criteria to the ritual and judge their appropriateness. I also think through my medium, ink: its qualities become how I think about "the air". Thus "painting gives form to thought in a purposeful way", it is both a "self-reflexive strategy (Jochum 2003)" and an "inquiry process" making painting more than an image (Sullivan 2008).

When I am experimenting with the ink, I am in a state of "soft fascination". Apparently, this is when new insights fall out of the sky (also called "apophatic insight") which I can confirm because I have had several eureka moments this week. In states of openness and wonder we are "free to encounter parts of the mind we rarely access, free to acquaint different parts with one another so that entirely novel connections emerge. (Popova, n.d.)." Hence painting and experimentation are useful activities in themselves. Such insights cannot occur, as Visse (2019) writes, "when the researcher is closed, inclined to categorize or capture “something” out there through language."

Art also becomes "a site for further interpretation (Sullivan 2008)." Its potential to spark dialogue is shaped by form which determines how - and whether - the audience engages with knowledge. Art forms are accessible and arresting because they appeal to the senses and emotions, sight, smell, sound, taste, which are our primary points of engagement with the world (Eisner 2002). For example, a musical performance can explore nuance and create empathy, thus bring you to know and "understand" the subject in ways which are meaningful for you.

We can think of meaning as that feeling you get which you can't express in words, so you say "very good" or "interesting." Meaning is "the unsayable", it occurs on a pre-linguistic level (Gadamer) and is beautifully described as "seeing with the heart (Visse 2019)."

As Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher of logic (600BC), stated, "You cannot step twice into the same river; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you (fr. 91)." The experience of an artwork can be described in such a way - stepping into the river is likened to a "cognitive transformation" through which we learn to think about, know and interpret the world in ways which go beyond the literal (Eisner, 2002). In our project we think of knowledge as a water body, a source, which we drink from and are changed. Equally, we are fresh waters: we introduce new knowledge about witchcraft into the river, which flows upon others.

We have chosen to perform, paint and narrate our ethnographic research because we deem these forms evocative of our experience for the audience. You can gauge from Abe the general character of the piece. In our performance of this practice, I will make four brush strokes to represent “establishing the site”, pour dark ink into saturated paper letting it stain and seep, or filter out the other side. Performance is suited to our subject: it is an embodied, living, communicative act and, like the ritual, reproduced; there are plural repeated performances with improvisations. Performance also brings together a gathering of people and interpretations, which invites discussion and debate: Performance "makes politics (Boal, 1998)."

To keep this dialogue going we will make ten musical-painted portraits of practices and record an album, performing our work widely.

3. How this relates to degrowth

Me with a pine fed placentas of new born babies to petition the tree for their protection. Our next "track"

Below, selection of objects in artist studio. “An artist is always researching, collecting artifacts, creating data, observing the world and conditions and emotions to use in their portrayal of the meaningful.” Horner 2002.

"Witches" is not really a policy area in the same way as "the circular economy." How can ABR be applied in degrowth, a field which thinks about concrete problems such as diminishing material consumption in varied spheres such as housing, agriculture, science and technology?

Arts-based research shares with degrowth a radical approach for social justice oriented around values and practices of reflexivity, commoning knowledge production, decolonising and democratising expertise. ABR also seeks to valorise knowledges and practices which degrowth wishes to integrate into prescriptions for valid action - such as the involvement of indigenous or grassroots traditions within urban planning processes. Arts-based methods offer a means to elicit such knowledges through commoning practices and give them material forms which involve and engage broad audiences in research questions. Hence ABR can be framed as a means to practice degrowth through research, and give knowledge forms which might encourage transformations in "common sense" of the kind degrowth perspectives desire.

ABR and degrowth is a "missing conversation" which I hope to develop in the coming years.

  • "How arty"

  • "Won’t take it seriously”

  • "Policymakers need concrete proposals"

  • “They won’t get it”

Heraclitus wrote, fr. 114. Those who speak with insight must rely on what is common to all. Hence the argument that policymakers "won't get art." But, are the senses and emotions not as common to all. ABR is about enabling us to know the world in such ways - to relate to one another in ways which are more than literal, and to cultivate new relationships with the environment in so doing. How can we change what is common without appealing to inner meaning? As Heraclitus also wrote, fr. 2: And though reason is common, most people live as though they had an understanding peculiar to themselves.


Common sense and common knowledge

  1. For microscopes as technologies for artists, see Peter Weibel's Molecular Aesthetics: "The fact that technology allows us to transcend the limits of natural perception and see what was previously unseeable creates a new dimension of aesthetic experience and practice: molecular aesthetics." Johnson, M. (2010). Embodied Knowing through Art. In M. Biggs & H. Karlsson (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts (pp. 141–151). Routledge.

  2. Finley, S. (2008). Arts-based research. In J. G. Knowles & A. L. Cole (Eds.), Handbook of the Arts in Qualitative Research (pp. 71–83). Sage. p. 72. ABR. For the Commons

  3. Roberts, J. 2015. "What do we have in Common(s)?" Paper given at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. December, 2013, and at Yale University, April 17-19, 2015: "No Radical Art Actions are going to help here': Political Violence and Militant Aesthetics After Socialism."

  4. Finley, 2008, 73.

  5. Stein, H. F. (2003). "The inner world of workplaces: Accessing this world through poetry, narrative literature, music, and visual art," Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 55(2): 84–93. Butler-Kisber, L. (2007). Collage as analysis and representation in qualitative inquiry. In J. G. Knowles, A. Cole, L. Neilsen, & C. Luciani (Eds.), The art of visual inquiry (pp. 265–280). Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada: Backalong Books. Robertson, B. (2000). Why collage? Retrieved April 5, 2004, from

  6. Jochum, R. (2003). Dis-positiv as role model. In H. Fassbinder (Ed.), Through the ‘net: Studies in Jochen Gerz “Anthology of art” (pp. 101–106). Cologne, Germany: Salon Verlag.

  7. Popova, M. (n.d.) "Nature and Creativity . The Science of "Soft Fascination" and How the Natural World Presses the Reset Button of the Brain's Default Mode Network." The Marginalian.

  8. Visse, M., Hansen, F., & Leget, C. (2019). The Unsayable in Arts-Based Research: On the Praxis of Life Itself. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 18, 1609406919851392. 

  9. Eisner, E. W. (2002). The Arts and Creation of Mind. Yale University Press.

  10. Sullivan, G. (2005) Art Practice in Research. Inquiry in the Visual Arts. Sage.

  11. Boal, A. (1998). Legislative theatre: Using performance to make politics. London: Routledge.

  12. There has been very little discussion of degrowth and the arts. Recently documenta15 attracted attention from degrowth for its emphasis on similar goals, values and commoning. See Willming, J. "Was documenta15 a Degrowth Art Event?" Available online:

  13. Heraclitus believed that there was one universal reason (logos) which ruled everything - "all things are one". Fragments available online, translated by John Burnet, Arthur Fairbanks, and Kathleen Freeman

  14. This argument about water is based upon my water workshop, an arts-based methodology developed for a three day workshop with scholars of Postgrowth Organisation, co-organised with Ben Robra, Alejando Fortuny, Laura Colombo and James Vandeventer.

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