Between Mythos and the Curriculum: the Arcade Project as a Mode of Pedagogical Enquiry
Dr. Ciaran Smyth, Vagabond Reviews
Pedagogy is a school of thought and a weapon.
Jim Duignan, Stockyard Institute, Chicago
In the early days of Vagabond Reviews, we were necessarily observing, talking and enacting Vagabond Reviews before we could say precisely what we do. During this time of self-constitution we were afforded a carefully-mediated introduction by arts and cultural manager Niall O’Baoill to the youth and community development networks of Rialto and the struggles of the day surrounding the urban regeneration process with Dublin City Council. Based in the southwest inner city, the Rialto Youth Project is one of Dublin’s longest established youth projects. Working closely with Fatima Groups United (FGU), they have harnessed arts and cultural practices since the 1980s as a means to articulate and make visible the community perspective. FGU is a community development organisation comprising elected representatives for a number of community-based initiatives in the area. When Vagabond Reviews began work in Fatima, FGU had been in protracted and intense negotiation for over a decade with the city council, planners, architects and private developers for an equitable regeneration of their area.
As well as investing in significant arts education programmes for young people, FGU and the Rialto Youth Project spearheaded a number of significant arts-based events marking key moments of transition in the urban regeneration process. Specialising in large-scale street theatre events, they engaged hundreds of local residents over a decade-long process of infrastructural and social regeneration. In 2008, Vagabond Reviews and FGU began working together to formulate a collaborative, arts-based research initiative focused on securing and representing that rich history of arts and cultural practice in Rialto, while also maintaining a strategic focus on future provision for arts-based pedagogy for young people and adults in Rialto. Between 2009 and 2011 we collaborated with FGU and Rialto Youth Project in an intensive project series.1 It was in this context that shared understandings and relations of trust were established with Rialto Youth Project, culminating in the formulation of the pedagogical enquiry described here.
As a mode of enquiry, the Arcade Project built on that collaborative experience of knowledge production and representation to co-elaborate an arts-based inquiry between Vagabond Reviews and the Rialto Youth Project. Expressed most recently in the form of a website, the Arcade Project has explored the shared pedagogical foundations underpinning the Rialto Youth Project’s arts-based approach to youth work.2 As a research process, the project has unfolded in three interlinked phases. Arcade 1 (2011–2012) set out to explore and describe the organisation’s core values and principles of practice. Arcade 2 (2011–2014) explored and described the shared pedagogical foundations underpinning the organisation’s arts-based approach to youth work. Most recently, Arcade 2.5 (2015–2016) extended the descriptive means established in the rst two phases to encompass an overarching organisational (self)description.3
Since its foundation in the early 1980s, the Rialto Youth Project has accumulated an extraordinary embodied organisational know-how in arts-based approaches to youth work and community development. The Arcade Project has critically engaged with the challenge of transforming that embodied knowledge (know how) into explanation (say how).
Know How into Say How
… if we reflect upon our experience as observers, we discover that whatever we do as such happens to us. In other words, we discover that our experience is that we nd ourselves observing, talking or acting, and that any explanation or description of what we do is secondary to our experience of finding ourselves in the doing of what we do.
Humberto Maturana, 1988 (4)
The Arcade Project took its point of departure from this claim by Chilean biologist and radical constructivist Humberto Maturana that the domain of experience is prior to the domain of explanation. In other words, we have proceeded on the grounds that Rialto Youth Project finds itself observing, talking or acting, and that any explanation or description of what it does is secondary to its experience of finding itself already in the doing of what it does. According to Maturana’s proposition, in our praxis of living we are already living (observing, talking and acting) before the necessity of explanation (to say what we are doing). Therefore, the enactment of youth work as a particular, situated praxis of living also precedes its explanation of itself as a situated praxis of living.
Another way of putting this is that know how precedes say how. Understood as such, the Arcade Project has been something in the order of a translation of embodied know how into the domain of explanation (say how). At certain moments over the course of the collaborative research process, youth workers would express regret for the embodied skills and knowledge accumulated and lost over the years without capture, without a trace. As a counter to their regret for that gap in self-description, we would say: well, it’s hard to take notes while you’re falling off a bicycle. And yet, in the case of the Arcade Project, this has been precisely the choreography of our request – politely tapping the shoulder of youth working in its emergency flow (praxis of living), eyes focused on avoiding a hard landing, with a question: by the way, tell us what you’re doing.
Axis of Explanation
The precise research programme of the Arcade Project was formulated firstly in extended dialogue between Vagabond Reviews and manager Jim Lawlor, and subsequently with the project’s team leaders. In those dialogues it was precisely our joint preoccupations with the question of tacit and explicit knowledge that gave shape to the conceptual frame and purpose of the enquiry. We could agree that Rialto Youth Project as a network of conversations already functioned in language according to a tacit set of understandings about the enactment (doing) of youth work. However, in the absence of any explicit, self-defining statements around those shared understandings, we identified two highly-polarised possibilities along the axis of explanation.
At one extreme we identified the de facto situation as one of finding an accommodation with the mythos of the project: its ethos and mythological force. According to this proposition, in the absence of any defining self-description, it was a question of seeing how each individual fits with the mythos of Rialto Youth Project as a non-specified enactment of the ‘house style’ of youth working: its particular emphasis on arts-based approaches along with its particular political commitments. In such a contingency, the system absorbs those who make a structural fit with Rialto Youth Project as a particular praxis of living. From the outset, the Arcade Project set its sights on getting beyond this point of mythos, beyond an identity that was more like a soul than a form of explanation.
At the other extreme along the axis of explanation, in our explorative dialogues with Rialto Youth Project, we considered the appalling vista of the youth work manual. We imagined this as a sort of over-specification that would reduce youth working to its positive behavioural form. The Arcade Project attempted to plot a course between the axis of mythos and that axis of over-specification. By invoking the idea of pedagogy, we set a course between the reliance on mythological identification and the deadening weight of the curriculum.
We began to see the curriculum as the fixing of knowledge in its disembodied, procedural form: a structurally-decoupled knowledge always coming from the outside. Specifically, we considered the curriculum as an ideological formation, as though youth working could be structurally decoupled from the neoliberal forces of post-industrial capitalism that gave rise to the necessity of youth work in the first place. We began to see pedagogy as an embodied elaboration of know-how, a move into the domain of explication from an inside as a situated arena of political struggle towards an outside: the neutralising effects of the curriculum displaced by a more combative form of address. We thought of the construction of a pedagogy as the crafting of a suit of armour, as a form of self-announcement and as a tactical mode of self- definition in the face of the threat of an external, state-imposed definition.
Define or Be Defined
Broadly speaking, the Arcade Project set about the co-construction of the pedagogical praxis for an arts-based approach to youth working. Such a co-construction has been necessarily carried out under conditions of emergency. We encountered youth working as an emergent, emergency knowledge always under duress with respect to the contingent demands of its daily enactment, scarcity of resources and ambiguous relationship to the state. The very existence of youth work and its confinement to state-designated zones of ‘disadvantage’ implies structural failures with respect to the political economy of the state itself. In the light of those ambiguous conditions, youth work is subject to the vicissitudes of state investment and disinvestment, evolving necessarily as an emergency knowledge, always in the praxis of ‘living-doing’ before it can catch up with practices of explanation and pedagogical description. The self-descriptive urgency of the Arcade Project has arisen precisely in the face of state capture. This work of self-definition has been realised with a strategic awareness of the defining force of a state technocracy that would render youth working subject to neoliberal criteria of accountability, which, by virtue of its ideological commitments, already excludes structural disadvantages imposed by the state itself.
- In 2008 our unscripted introduction to FGU developed into a formal evaluation role for the Night of the Dark Angel Hallowe’en parade, a large-scale, community-led street spectacle. In 2009, the Cultural Archaeology project was our rst opportunity to elaborate a signi cant community-based mode of inquiry that harnessed the potential of the studio and the gallery as sites for the collective generation of narratives of place.
- The details of that collaborative research process have been described elsewhere. See Vagabond Reviews, ‘More Bite in the Real World: Usership in Arts-Based Research Practice’, On Curating, issue 24 (2014) (www.on-curating.org).
- Humberto Maturana, ‘Reality: the search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument’ in ed. Vincent Kenny, Radical Constructivism, Autopoiesis & Psychotherapy, Irish Journal of Psychology, vol. 9:1, special edition (1988).
Arcade I Validation Event, Vagabond Reviews 2016