First Symposium: Creating publics?

By Nick Mahony · 15 February 2012

I'm just back from an exhilarating two-days at the ‘Opening the Boundaries of Citizenship’ conference, hosted by the Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism research project, at The Open University. I saw first hand at this event how research can work as a powerful medium for organizing forms of collective sociability. I say organizing here, because this was an occasion where well over 200 people convened face-to-face (from around the world) to address a set of emerging issues related to the study and practice of citizenship. It was a wonderfully choreographed performance in its own right. A packed programme of keynotes, coffee breaks, introductions, corridors, walkways, lunches and receptions were insightfully planned and staged so as to bring this gathering to life in an incredibly free-flowing and lively way. This was also helped along of course by the highly committed group of people who were in attendance.

This experience has encouraged me to further consider the relationship between the process of generating new forms of conceptual apparatus and the process of mediating these conceptual apparatuses through forms of (not always public) performance. In this context, I was less led to dwell on how forms of knowledge production are being – or could be – re-distributed (spatially) or in terms of resources. The two-days instead made me start to think more about how different kinds of concept building processes and performances of research work with time.

I had come to view Oecumene as a research project working, first and foremost, in a long-term, even a generational (temporal) register. This may have been partly because, as a project and through the research and individual and collective thinking it supports, Oecumene is – in important ways – up-ending, re-working and renewing understandings of citizenship that have dominated occidental political theory for generations.  By witnessing at this conference just some of the sheer quantity and heterogeneity of ways that this very wide ranging project is nourishing forms of ‘live’ research across multiple contexts of contemporary practice, I now begin to see more clearly how this research process is nevertheless also engaging with/in time in a array of other ways – simultaneously. As the conference illuminated, the concept of citizenship is being reworked – directly or less directly – through a dazzling range of projects and processes in a spectrum of contexts of practice, contexts of thinking and contexts of public as well as more academic debate.

The Creating Publics project looks forward to engaging with members of the Oecumene team to discuss these issues in more detail in the months ahead. The Creating Publics project will certainly need to do this if it is to develop a clearer perspective on how social science research might be performed as a time-based media that can support processes of public creation. The Highrise project, showcased at this conference, illustrates – in wonderfully concrete as well as imaginative and suggestive ways – some of the possibilities of online interactive media for social research and public creation. It also presents a robust challenge to instrumental and linear engagement agendas.

However, as Shannon Jackson cautions:

“Our evaluations of work depend not only upon critical histories but also on disciplinary perceptual habits that can make for drastically different understandings of what we are in fact encountering. Perceptions of stasis and durationality, passivity and activity, stillness and action, might well be in the eye (and body) of the beholder. I would wager that the socio-political sense of what we are encountering will differ as well.” (p.4, ‘Social Works: performing art, supporting publics’ (2011) Routledge)

This post originally appeared on Nick Mahony's Creating Publics Blog. Nick Mahony leads the Creating Publics research project hosted by The Open University's Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance (CCIG).

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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