QUANTIFICTION - a conversation

by Kate McIntosh and Dries Douibi

1. Quantifocus

Dries: QUANTIFICATION? It’s a huge topic and we don’t have much space to discuss it here. Let’s accept that we’re going to do some brutal oversimplification and see how far we get... First, what is quantification?

Kate: The most basic definition of quantification: it’s a scientific method for gathering and simplifying large amounts of data. It relies on the rationalist belief that we can construct mathematical models of reality that make sense and expose truths. This is fine in ‘hard’ sciences that are largely based on mathematic theory, but when applied widely in the messy social field quantification methods become problematic. The gap between the model and reality is very difficult to understand.

Nevertheless in a neoliberal political climate quantification is the dominant tool to generate data for evidence-based policy making and is therefore a powerful motor in the political process and language. Consequently ‘quantitative thinking’ is becoming naturalised as a [management] mechanism and a [social] psychology to evaluate ourselves, our experiences and all kinds of worth – and I think it has a subtly violent and profound effect on the ways we interact with each other and legitimise value.

D: We could say that the most positive aspect of ‘social’ quantification is that it seems to make large historical trends apparent – the kinds that are difficult to see close-up in the day-to-day, such as population growth or housing prices. But the great weakness is that quantification processes must exclude aspects that are difficult or impossible to measure, and data that doesn’t quite fit the research model – as well as any values that the researchers are simply unaware of since only pre-defined territories can be measured. And yet in many cases this ‘irrelevant’ information is also the core knowledge of the social field in question.

K: Because of these limitations, I think social quantification is both a weak and persuasive tool - which is a dangerous combination. It has a comforting but deluding appearance of clarity.

D: Quantification methods feel intimately linked to economic thinking and the evolution from ‘citizen’ to ‘consumer’. Everything becomes an investment, including public goods and funds, and every (social) penny invested must be monitored for its return in order to legitimise further investments. In this way policy decisions grow from economic ideology rather than any deeply considered social ideology.

2. Quantifriction

D: Let’s say we recognise quantification mechanisms in our daily lives - from viewing ratings that influence the content of television and news websites, statistics on racial difference, defence of austerity measures, efficiency reports on hospital performance, the balance between academic research and the pressure to publish... But can you give me a clear example where you find quantification in your own arts practice? Why you are interested in this subject?

K: A year ago at a festival in the UK I was asked to give every audience member a paper to fill out with a list of beurocratically worded questions evaluating themselves and their experience, immediately after their encounter with my artwork. I refused, and was surprised to be in a difficult conversation with the organisers who couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t put people through this mechanism. They considered it a positive offer and a way to get to know the audience. If this is the desire I think there are so many better ways to stimulate exchange, particularly in a festival context. But of course this form was actually deeply attached to statistical evidence demanded by their funding organisation.

D: What is the main difference between your own performance practice where sometimes you ask questions of the audience, and here how the festival asks questions of its audience?

K: Questions and exchange are not the problem for me! Quite the opposite. But it’s the social expectations and motivations behind knowledge-exchange that matter, and in this case the questions (and therefore the information) that were asked smelled strongly of an efficiency, a target to be reached, an instrumentalisation of people’s experience. The language was bland and unplayful, deliberately unprovocative and bureaucratically ‘fair’. Most strikingly the request was antisocial because it gave no opportunity for live negotiation, discussion, relation. No way to challenge or extend yourself and others, no questioning of the questions. Real negotiation between people is far messier and more meaningful than this, and proposing this kind of ‘instant feedback’ to a government body is deadening to our experience of an artwork. But more importantly it’s isolating and deadening to our skills of complex social exchange, and this is the problem on a wider scale. Of course the UK has a different social climate to Belgium, but I think there are signs to observe there.

D: I had a similar experience recently after a hospital visit when I was given a feedback questionnaire with fixed questions that the hospital management could digest. It completely removed any normal social negotiation and meaningful exchange that you might have with a doctor for instance. It was basically dehumanising, and therefore I didn’t give feedback even though they did a wonderful job.

3. Quantimplications

K: As you said, quantification is the main political tool for evidence-based policy. It brings heavy management and external regulation on all social sectors, as well as the demand on those sectors to provide proof-data of their success according to very restricted value criteria, often economic. We spoke a great deal about the political mechanism of this, but since we don’t have room here to detail the whole argument, can we summarise the consequences you and I think it brings?

D: Yes! To be short and blunt, we concluded several things:
One major consequence of quantitative thinking is a depoliticised social climate. This happens in several ways.

Quantified data enables policy and decision makers to have a very simplified view of any particular field without a deep knowledge of it. Political decisions can be based persuasively on the numbers, without the requirement to defend action with a developed ideological argument – instead percentages, success rates, efficiency and cost effectiveness figures are offered.

Under the pressure to provide these kinds of proof data, each social sector starts to transform into a goal- and outcome-orientated mechanism that deals only in measurable values. Any intangible or immeasurable values tend to fall out of this evaluation system regardless of their real necessity, which can create big disturbances of internal function and exchange within the sphere.

There’s also much less opportunity for people to negotiate knowledge and values between themselves through work and social interactions, because goal-achievements are externally imposed and regulated. As these negotiation skills start to disappear, so too do people’s trust in the possibility of ideological argument and in their own capability to make judgements about values. This has a circular effect leading a public back to dependency on the apparent logical truth of quantified, trustworthy ‘proof’.

In short, in this depoliticised climate there is little room for a diversity of ideological argument, and less experience or trust in such arguments. There is also an extinction of immeasurable values, and an inability to articulate or defend these values forcefully.

4. Quantifingerpainting

K: OK let’ s talk about values then. It seems to me that the arts field is particularly imbued with all kinds of immeasurable values, effects and affects, so its ‘efficiency’ will always resist quantification attempts and real commodification. Who can say for how long and in which exact ways a profound artistic experience stays with an audience? How could one measure the productivity of imaginatively destabilising one’s own identity? - or of intense aesthetic pleasure? - or the playful rearrangement of meaning? Why would it be interesting to measure these? Instead it seems more important to argue the value and need for such exploration, for this kind of exchange – and not exclusively in the arts either, but in society as a whole. The articulation of this necessity will not be based on quantifiable ‘proof’, but on ideological arguments for a vitality of life in a diversity of meanings.

D: In our meetings we asked ourselves ‘what is it that we are exchanging in arts contexts?’ and we began a complicated and incomplete list of values that we feel are manifesting in the territory of art. These included (in no particular order): shifts in consciousness, instinctive connections, the absurd and obscene, alternative routes of sense, space for the bored disinterested dispossessed disenfranchised and those who choose to refuse, play with chaos, experimenting with norms, humility, sensorial experience, affect, non-language based communication, joy, narrative and the deconstruction of it, space for the unarticulated and unreadable, rewiring reference co-ordinates, conflict, pleasure, anger, embracing failure difficulty absurdity and humour, abstract meditation, redefining time, experimentation with identity, and encounter with the ‘other’… Basically our discussions pointed to (among other things) a society that would value and encourage contexts that play with transformation, reflection, provocation, and experimentation.

K: There was also a strong indication that all this play is not instrumental towards an outcome. In fact its value lies exactly in its openness to unforeseen consequences for everyone involved.

So far, so good. The next step is to articulate meaningful public contexts and spaces for these exchanges to occur…

5. Quantistrategics

D: We proposed earlier that quantification actually prohibits many of the values we’re interested in, simply because these values are immeasurable (or rather they escape the measurement tools of quantification), causing them to remain unrecognised and to disappear from public debate. So how can we interact with this drive to quantify?

K: During our discussions we considered three different strategies towards this political mechanism of quantification. One option is to embrace and use quantification in a positive sense - to make new definitions of what we want to have quantified and be very careful about interpreting the figures produced. A second strategy is to resist quantification strongly by pointing out the poverty and violence of it as a methodology, to dismantle it as a social mechanism. The third option, and perhaps the hardest to grasp, is to remove ourselves entirely from the territory of quantification as a discussion - refusing to engage with it, and instead looking for new territories with other languages to redefine values in ways that don’t need or engage with quantification at all.

Personally I find the first option too problematic. It’s dangerous to get imbedded in a conversation with quantification because it’s too often founded on values that are incongruous with reality as we perceive it. Meanwhile the logic of interpreting figures can swing in many directions far too easily. There’s a study from the Netherlands showing that the quantity of art production has risen while the number of art ‘consumers’ has dropped. This graph can be interpreted in at least two different ways. One is: there’s too much art for the low demand, therefore we should drop production. The other is: art is being made and we want to engage with it, therefore we need to raise the numbers of participants attending. These interpretations show two divergent senses of value that can be argued from the same data. It’s easy to think it’s the arguments that are the problem here, but in fact the real problem is the demand to interpret that particular arrangement of numbers at all, and therefore being forced into the reduced corner of reality that they so persuasively represent. Before dealing with data, an ideological position needs to be articulated - not the other way around. A thorough criticism of quantification’s weaknesses and limitations would be helpful too.

D: Recently a coalition of cultural support organisations (VTi, BAM, FARO, Locus,...) commissioned Pascal Gielen and his team to summarise a large amount of international research that’s been done to quantify the effects of culture on society. Apparently they focus on this statistical evidence because this is the information the government actually demands. In addition to these figures Gielen articulates an (unasked for but important) ideological argument for valuing culture and the arts.

But to me there is a danger in trying to relate these two kinds of information or argument to each other, since in fact they have little correlation. We may be better off insisting on the dissonance between these approaches instead. When you defend the arts by using a research that proves people who go to see dance performances are 10% more healthy then people who don’t… I hope that the people advocating for the arts realise that not every defence is a good defence. Once we get involved in a certain language and a certain debate it’s difficult to get out - and in the poor debate of the poor language of numbers we will definitely get lost.

K: I remember you once questioning who commissions this kind research and asking ‘what if’ the art community itself commissioned it as opposed to the government…

6. Quantinfection

D: If we say that quantification is particularly poor at expressing immeasurable and ephemeral values then we obviously need to find other ways to express those values. Who is responsible in the art field to develop and advocate these arguments?

K: I think public discourse is meant to articulate the values we care about, and this is everybody’s responsibility. But institutions represent the public interest in their social sphere, so it’s important that they make a clear political articulation of the values of their field. My personal feeling is this institutional discourse is currently weak – and it is made weaker by the demand to produce evidence-based policy data. I think that strengthening real discourse goes hand in hand with resistance to certain (if not most) quantification demands from policy makers, and instead insisting on the development of alternative value-arguments. Concretely, in the performing arts for example I think this is the task of institutions such as VTi and oKo, as well as individual venues, festivals, curators, media...

D: What is the responsibility of artists in this model?

K: One responsibility of artists is in the conversations they already have with institutions. Belgium is lucky enough to still have relatively strong institutions, which should have the potential to be accessible public pathways of communication towards the government. At the moment artists can have an overly dependent relationship with art institutions, if they have any relation at all. But rather than pursuing only independence from this, I think it’s interesting to re-evaluate this dependency and replace it with a more engaged and demanding exchange with institutions. We can experiment with what institutions are there for. This means artists being articulate and insistent when we vocalise our thoughts in the conversations we cultivate with institutions - including the development and defence of important values, and requesting that institutions embody and communicate these clearly to the public and government. It also requires that institutions and artists be receptive to this exchange.

D: The performing arts field in Flanders used to be organised around theatre companies. Perhaps there was a clearer link then between the artists, institutional theaters and policy makers. This direct link got lost when artists no longer organised themselves in companies. It should be the responsibility of the artists now to think about other ways to organise themselves individually or in group, so they can together enrich the value-discourse and (re)find a stronger link between institutions and themselves. When we do, we should keep in mind that institutions have their own agenda, and one of the points on their agenda is to survive. This can be good because it creates stability in our field. But we don’t have an artist organisation which functions on the same macro level. Artists can individually ask institutions to better articulate values towards society, the media, and the government. But if many artists are in favour of this, why don’t we voice these concerns in group, and make the institutions responsible in group.

K: We’ve focused on the arts field in our discussion here but of course these are urgent concerns for all social spheres. The strongest forms of quantification have not yet arrived in Belgium, but they are not far away. The demand to quantify will become stronger, and it will be bound up with a distribution of resources according to values that you may or may not agree with. This puts citizens in a weak position to negotiate what values are important to them and what they want to do with resources. So reclaiming and re-articulating these negotiations on a social and political level is very important.

Kate McIntosh & Dries Douibi
Brussels 15/04/2014

These personal reflections are part of a much longer conversation over several months, which was also influenced by four group-discussions among artists organised by SPIN. This research will be continued in a laboratory setting during KFDA 2014. If you want to contribute or share your thoughts, please mail to info@spinspin.be www.spinspin.be