DFA study summary

This practice-based research explores plurality (Lahire, 2011) in contemporary art, through the design and implementation of a series of collaborative multi-disciplinary projects and the dissemination and analysis of the artistic work produced. Artists, like the writers studied by Lahire (2006), commonly lead double or multiple lives, often as a response to economic precariousness.  At a time of disruption and transformation of established practice provoked by a succession of global challenges (for instance, the Co-vid19 pandemic, persistent social injustice and accelerating climate crisis), this study explores the creative potential of the ability to move between multiple and diverse contexts and forms of activity, and the benefits of the critical dialogues this facilitates. This includes consideration of the form that multi-disciplinary enquiry and community focussed art might take in a post/perpetual pandemic world.

Addressing complex, pressing and persistent environmental, social, economic and health issues (frequently described as ‘wicked problems’, a term coined in the context of planning policy by Rittel and Webber, 1973) has increasingly required researchers, practitioners and citizens to cross disciplinary and professional boundaries to work collaboratively, drawing critically on diverse forms of theory, knowledge and practice. This extends beyond institutionalised areas of expertise to include community, indigenous and everyday knowledge and practice. Working across disciplines brings a range of ethical, ontological and epistemological perspectives into critical, and potentially productive, dialogue (Maniglier, 2021). Whilst the distinctive contribution made by the arts to multi-disciplinary enquiry has long been acknowledged (see, for instance, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Health and Well-being Research Portfolio), how artists combine and traverse areas of expertise in their own practice, however, appears to have received little attention. Butt (2017), for instance, has noted that there even appears to be an ambivalence amongst professional artists about the relationship between their art practice and academic appointments. Artificial intelligence, and wider cultural uncertainty about professional boundaries and expertise, has led to an erosion of distinct professional identities and the creation of more fluid and hybrid forms of practice (see Susskind and Susskind, 2015). This increased porosity between domains of practice creates opportunities for artists to both work collaboratively across contexts and draw creatively on aspects of their own ‘non-art’ activities, prompting the further development of ‘the plural artist’. Working collaboratively with communities, for instance, leads artists such as Wendy Ewald to assume a pedagogic role (Azoulay, 2016) and to explore the ethical issues that are raised by this form of relationship with participants, whereas artists such as Mark Dion adopt the practices of other disciplines (for instance, archaeology in his 1999 work Tate Thames Dig) in producing art that questions institutionalised knowledge (Ross, 2006). Lahire’s notion of plurality also raises critical questions about the relationship between theory and practice, reinforcing the potential for individuals to inhabit the worlds of both theorist and practitioner, as is evident in the work of, for instance, Janet Laurence (see Gibson and Laurence, 2015).

Through critical reflection on the working processes developed in a series of community focused projects and analysis of the work produced, this practice-based study seeks to explore what it is to be an ‘artist and …’, and how this might contribute to reconfiguring the arts in a post/perpetual pandemic world and to acting and thinking differently about the relationship between the human and the more-than human. The projects themselves will focus on particular locations, activities and communities in east London, and the work produced will combine digital and analogue photography with other media, including field-recordings, video, artefacts, maps, documents and archival research.  The reflexive nature of the study will be reflected in the production of a public hyper-textual journal charting the development of the work alongside the production of art works for the viva installation and accompanying report.


AHRC (no date), Arts and Humanities Research Council Health and Well-being Research Portfolio. Online https://ahrc.ukri.org/innovation/health-and-wellbeing-research-portfolio/ [accessed 28.01.2021].

Azoulay, A. (2016) ‘Photography consists of collaboration: Susan Meiselas, Wendy Ewald, and Ariella Azoulay’, Camera Obscura, 31(1), pp. 187–201.

Butt, D. (2017) Artistic Research in the Future Academy. Bristol: Intellect.

Gibson, P. and Laurence, J. (2015) ‘Janet Laurence: Aesthetics of Care’, Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, (31), pp. 39–52.

Lahire, B. (2011), The Plural Actor, Cambridge: Polity.

Lahire, B. (2006) La condition littéraire: la double vie des écrivains, Paris: La Découverte.

Maniglier, P. (2021) ‘Problem and Structure: Bachelard, Deleuze and Transdisciplinarity’. Theory, Culture and Society, 38(2), 25–45.

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973) ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’, Policy Sciences, 4(2), pp. 155-169.

Ross, T. (2006) ‘Aesthetic autonomy and interdisciplinarity: A response to Nicolas Bourriaud’s “relational aesthetics”’, Journal of Visual Art Practice, 5(3), pp. 167–181.

Susskind, R. and Susskind, D. (2015) The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Methodologies and Processes

As described in earlier posts, I use photography with community and activist groups in a variety of ways, including the use of participant photographs to explore life-worlds, collaborative production of images for advocacy and the production of images as a personal lyrical response to specific urban contexts in flux. The means of presentation of the work and engagement with an audience mirrors the process of production in the creation of multimodal collections around a theme, which are offered to others as a resource for the production of narratives, and the use of non-gallery spaces for pop-up exhibitions and workshops. These exhibitions and workshops are as much a part of the process of producing my work (in that they enable feedback on work presented which in turn influences future iterations of the work and provide opportunities for collaborative practice) as they are outputs (in the dissemination of the outcomes of the projects). In the early stages of each project the primary focus is on building relationships and trust, leading to identification of photographic work that would be of use to the community. The resulting repositories of images form a resource that can be used by the community in press reports, campaigns, promotions, funding applications and so on. For example, I made images of religious artefacts found in clearing the banks of the river for the River Roding Trust, which have been used in making presentations, for instance to the local Interfaith Forum. They now form the basis of an exhibition available to schools and community groups and is being used to advocate for the care of the river and surrounding area (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: Andrew Brown, River Roding: Sacred River, exhibition prints on Foamex, 2020.
Figure 2: Andrew Brown, River Roding: Sacred River exhibition, Barking Moorings, installation shot, April 2021.

Other images made in the area are being used in funding applications, for instance to Transport for London for the creation of a river path and campaigns, for instance by the CPRE London for ten new London parks (Figure 3).

Figure 3: River Roding Trust, Roding Edgelands Campaign, 2021.

Alongside building these repositories, I am doing archival research with local libraries and museums (delayed due to the furloughing of archive staff), collecting artefacts and making images and field recordings which will form the basis for my own work to be exhibited in the area. This form of exploration through physical immersion in a place and exploration of its materiality, history and inter-connections bears a resemblance to the process of Deep Mapping (Bloom and Sacramento, 2017). At the initial speculative stage in the project, I have produced several series of photographs, in this case exploring the entanglement of the human and the more-than human in this particular place, for example the Home series (Figure 4) which explores a tragic burnt-out encampment in the bushes by the river and the Carrier series (Figure 5) focusing on plastic waste entwined with the branches of trees between the road and the river.

Figure 4: Andrew Brown, from Home series, 2021.
Figure 5: Andrew Brown, from Carrier series, 2021.

Other series also involve experimentation with the form of photographic image making, particularly relevant given proximity to the former Ilford Limited photographic materials manufacturing plant, including the Colour Shift series (Figure 6), which involves improvised home processing and the Plant Phenols series (Figure 7) which uses Karel Doing’s (2020) phytogram process with Ilford films and papers and locally foraged materials.

Figure 6: Andrew Brown, from Colour Shift series, 2021.
Figure 7: Andrew Brown, from Plant Phenol series, 2021.

With pandemic management measures currently in place, this work will be exhibited outside (for instance, along the pathway alongside the river and on concrete plinths between the highway and the river). Archive collections, artist books and portable exhibition materials will also be created, and these will be used in workshops (which will also feed material into the collections). Inspiration for this comes from five principal sources. Firstly, collections of facsimiles of historical documents and other images, texts and artefacts that are used for first-hand engagement with materials in developing an understanding of historical periods and events (for instance, Jackdaws – see Figure 8).

Figure 8: Jackdaw, The Restoration of Charles II

Secondly, the collections of artefacts and images carried by migrant and displaced groups, explored for instance by the Refugee Hosts project (refugeehosts.org). Thirdly, the use of collections and portable exhibitions by artists, such as Marcel Duchamp’s La Boîte-en-Valise  (1935-41) and Dayanita Singh’s Museum Bhavan (2017), which consists of box sets of accordion books and prints stored in bespoke cases with portable stands, enabling others to construct their own exhibitions from her work. Fourthly, indigenous forms of pedagogy, such as the use of artefacts and collective sense making in Australian aboriginal communities explored by Simon Munro and colleagues in the Yearning to Yarn project (Munro, 2019). Finally, the juxtaposition of photographic images alongside maps, infographics, illustrations, artefacts and other materials, for instance in Richard Misrach and Kate Orff’s multi-disciplinary Petrochemical America (see Figure 9) and installations and books such as Mark Dorf’s Kin (Dorf, 2018).

Figure 9: Richard Misrach and Kate Orff, 2012, two spreads from Petrochemical America, New York: Aperture.

As Palmer (2013) has pointed out

‘there is nothing inherently more democratic or progressive about collaborative photography; the photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 were, after all, a product of a group exercise in torture. However, thinking about photography in collaborative terms invites us to reconfigure assumptions about the photographic act in all its stages’. (pp. 122-3)

In writing about her collaboration with photographers Wendy Ewald and Susan Meiselas, Ariella Azoulay (2016) cautions that collaboration can, indeed, become ‘a weapon in the hands of an oppressive regime’ (p.188). For Azoulay, collaboration is inherent in all photography, regardless of the intentions of the photographer, as there is always some form of encounter in the act of making a photograph. This alerts me to pay attention to the form of encounter, and questions of authorship, ownership, knowledge and rights, and more broadly the ethical issues that these encounters raise for all forms of artistic practice. The ethical issues raised by collaborative work have been explored in detail by others working in this way, for instance Anthony Luvera (see, for instance, Ewald and Luvera, 2013, and Luvera, 2008) and Gemma Turnball (2015). Whilst I am not engaged with the kind of social documentary and representational form of collaborative photography described by Turnball, it is important to learn from and attend to the issues that this work raises regarding authorship, agency, expectations and form of relationship with participants. These are equally important in understanding the shift to usership (Wright, 2014) and what this means for plurality in artistic practice (Lahire, 2011) more generally.

This reflexive exploration of plurality in art practice through production of and reflection on my own work requires the creation of a range of multi- and trans-disciplinary projects over the course of the doctorate. To this end, I am building on existing links and networks to explore opportunities for collaborative work with researchers at UEL and UCL, with London Prosperity Board members and with community groups in Newham, Redbridge and Barking in Dagenham, and around the Olympic Park.


Azoulay, A. (2016) ‘Photography consists of collaboration: Susan Meiselas, Wendy Ewald, and Ariella Azoulay’, Camera Obscura, 31(1), pp. 187–201.

Bloom, B and Sacramento, N. (2017) Deep Mapping. Auburn, IN: Breakdown Break Down Press. Online at https://www.breakdownbreakdown.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/2017-Deep-Mapping-bookweb.pdf  [accessed 20.03.21]

Doing, K. (2020) ‘Phytograms: Rebuilding Human–Plant Affiliations’. Animation, 15(1): 22–36.

Dorf, M. (2018) Kin, New York: Silent Face Projects.

Ewald, W. and Luvera, A. (2013) ‘Tools for sharing: Wendy Ewald in conversation with Anthony Luvera.’, Photoworks Annual, (20), pp. 48–59.

Kress, G. (2009) Multimodality: A social semiotic approach to contemporary communication. London: Routledge.

Lahire, B. (2011), The Plural Actor, Cambridge: Polity.

Luvera, A. (2008) ‘Using children’s photographs’, Source, Issue 54, Spring 2008. Online at http://www.luvera.com/using-childrens-photographs [accessed 11.11.20].

Misrach, R. and Orff, K. (2012) Petrochemical America, New York: Aperture.

Palmer, D. (2013) ‘A collaborative turn in contemporary photography?’ Photographies, 6(1), pp. 117–125.

Singh, D. (2017) Museum Bhavan, Göttingen: Steidl-Verlag.

Turnbull, G. R. (2015) ‘Surface tension: Navigating socially engaged documentary photographic practices’, Nordicom Review, 36, pp. 79–95.

Wright, S. (2014) Toward a Lexicon of Usership. Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum. Online at https://www.arte-util.org/tools/lexicon/ [accessed 10.11.20].

Current and future practice

Whilst the roots of my practice lie in photography, over the past two years my work has increasingly become multimodal (Kress, 2009), combining and juxtaposing photographic images with text, soundscapes, maps, documents and artefacts. In this work photography is seen not as a singular practice, but as a diverse set of social, cultural, aesthetic and technical practices, shaped by context and involving a range of both analogue and digital means for the production, processing and distribution of images. My current work focuses on the relationship between human activity and the natural and built environment in urban contexts in flux. This exploration overlaps with and is enriched by engagement with other artists working in different media and with practitioners and researchers working in other fields and disciplines on related issues and questions. I create the context for this work by working collaboratively with community and activist groups in a succession of projects focused on a particular place or set of issues.

My practice as an artist has developed alongside professional work as a sociologist and educator. I have until recently seen these as separate but related domains of practice, to the extent of avoiding overtly sociological and educational themes in my artistic work. This has created a space in which my artistic practice can grow and now opens up the prospect of the development of a constructive interaction and dialogue between my activity and expertise as an artist, sociologist and educator. The increasing involvement of artists in multi-disciplinary activity and enquiry has led me to consider: (i) what distinctively can the arts bring to multi-disciplinary projects and (ii) what are the implications of individual practitioners working in two or more domains? The latter question relates to what sociologist Bernard Lahire (2011) has referred to as ‘plurality’. Lahire (2006) has studied contemporary writers, many of whom combined writing with other professional work, constituting a frequently hidden ‘double life’. Rather than see this other profession as an unwelcome but necessary distraction from writing, as Richman (2010) notes, it can be energising and animating, and illustrates how we develop a plurality of values, dispositions, skills and relations in order to inhabit multiple social worlds. Through the work produced in the course of each project I aim to explore this constructive entanglement of art and non-art, alongside the messy entanglements that the work itself addresses and from which it arises.

Beyond this, the substantive focus, or content, of the bodies of work produced will depend on the context within which each project is carried out. In the first year of the programme, the context will be a residency with the River Roding Trust. The work will focus on exploration of a slice of untended urban edgeland (a term coined by environmentalist Marion Shoard; see Farley & Roberts, 2011, p.5) that lies between a major road and the river as it passes through a formerly industrial area of east London. The roads that run alongside, the railway lines that cut across, the power cables which rise above and the wastewater which flows below act to contain and define the space in relation to human activity and permeate it with the constant roar of traffic and petrochemically derived air, ground and water pollution. These infrastructural technologies transport people and commodities though the area and provide no services to the place itself. From a posthumanist, non-anthropomorphic perspective, this place is, however, more than the mere product of human carelessness and exploitation. The entwined component parts precede, and will likely exceed, human presence, and at the intersection between green and grey ecologies (Wolfe, Jafari and Gomez-Luque, M. 2018) the place provides opportunities for exploration of human and more-than human entanglement in the present and over time. Art in this context actively engages in a dialogue with a range of alternative discourses, including late-capitalist economics and legal regimes relating to access, ownership, ecological sustainability and nonhuman rights. In subsequent years, the various settings of the projects will influence the substantive content of the work. The unifying principle across the projects is a concern for multi-disciplinary enquiry and plurality.


Farley, P. & Roberts, M. S. (2011) Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness. London: Jonathan Cape.

Kress, G. (2009) Multimodality: A social semiotic approach to contemporary communication. London: Routledge.

Lahire, B. (2011), The Plural Actor, Cambridge: Polity.

Lahire, B. (2006) La condition littéraire: la double vie des écrivains, Paris: La Découverte.

Richman, M. (2010) ‘Bernard Lahire and “The Double Life of Writers”‘, New Literary History 41 (2), pp. 439-441.

Wolfe, C., Jafari, G. and Gomez-Luque, M. (2018) ‘Critical Ecologies of Posthumanism’, New Geographies 09: Posthuman, pp. 177-184.