Performing Research presentation 2013

This was a Performing Research presentation speech in 2013.

Presenters: Sasha-Rose Giles, Lenina Ofori, Timothy Doolan and Adelina Ong


Good afternoon

Our research question is
Attaching Youth to Urban Arts: exploring the significance of attachment between young people and ‘risky’ art?

So… can you attach youth to urban art?

We’d like to explore the significance of attachment between young people and ‘risky’ art because we recognised a relationship between the young people and the Urban Art which offered a ‘secure base’ something we recognised in John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory.

Conceptual Framework

Attachment Theory is “when a child engages in an activity that results in accessing or maintaining proximity to another who the child believes is better able to cope” (Bowlby 1988: 19).

Observing the behaviour of infants gradually exploring the environment, increasing distance from the carer, Bowlby suggests that the child uses this person as a “secure base”.

Donald Winnicott observed, “After a few months…most [carers] allow their infants some special object and expect them to become, as it were, addicted to such objects.ʼ These become, ʻthe first ʻnot meʼ possesionʼ known as the ‘Transitional object.ʼ and in the play with the object the child continues to develop. Through this ‘creative living’ as Winnicott calls it, as the child develops. The object is replaced with environment. A key discovery for us is in the ‘potential space between the individual and the environment’ (Winnicott 1971: 100) known as the, ‘Third area’ (Winnicott 1971: 102)

This is where ‘cultural experience’ is located and this, ‘potential space happens only in relation to a feeling of confidence…that is confidence related to the dependability of the …[or carer] or environmental elements, confidence being the evidence of dependability that is becoming introjected. We would argue that in that ‘Third area’ there is potential for our artists, often struggling with ‘that feeling of confidence’ to work out some form of attachment to their ‘urban art’. Winnicott asserts that …attachment behaviour is a characteristic of human nature throughout our lives, from the cradle to the grave. (Bowlby, 1988) But to what extent could this potential form of attachment alter the course of those characteristics?

We interviewed many young people who have dedicated their lives to urban arts, some choosing to make careers out of their passion, across a wide field of disciplines.

Prezi Urban Arts

We are using the term urban arts to describe art forms that take place in public spaces and have an element of risk or stigma connected to them.

“Like dropping in on a quarter pipe or something on a mini ramp…You should just do it properly and get over that fear because the only barrier is in your head. Like everyone can do anything.” H, female skateboarder

Skateboarding, graffiti and street dance resonated with the idea of physical risk and spoken word and music represented for us, an emotional ‘risk’ as we find these forms emotionally ‘transparent’, requiring great vulnerability from the performer. However, as H says, the “only barrier is in your head”. Once they overcome fear, they find a sense of identity, empowerment and belonging.

We went into this research with a passion for young people hoping to find something and we realized it’s not just the art, it’s where it is, who it represents and what it means to them. We found that urban artists struggle to be taken seriously and this echoes Giroux’s observations that youths are “bearing the brunt of a system that leaves them uneducated and jobless and, ultimately, offers them one of the few options available for people who no longer have available roles to play as producers or consumers ­ either poverty or prison. ” (Giroux 2012).

As part of the research we wanted to engage in a practical interactive way with Urban Artists. We initially planned to facilitate a workshop in Urban arts. However recognising that the youths are the experts, we chose to borrow from Friere’s “cultural synthesis” (Freire 2005: 179), not assuming a position of authority or superiority but rather, meeting the youths on their own territory expecting them to teach us.

Visual fly-thru Prezi map with each tube station
We explored Urban arts from London, Luton and Singapore. We visited Trocadero, Royal Festival Hall and interviewed street artists, walking with them to Waterloo and making spoken word on the way. We did a graffiti walk following a map tipped by an Internet community on starting at Whitechapel through Brick Lane to Old Street tube. We followed a homeless sculptor through Shoreditch on a Unseen Tour by the Sock Mob. There was an air of pretentiousness and restriction in galleries, but an overwhelming sense of freedom in urban arts. We found the street gallery astounding. (Show the collage of graffiti).

Psychogeographically, the graffiti provided a visible voice for the community. Ranging from

collages of racially fragmented identities in Whitechapel,

to woodcuts of elderly isolation threatened by invisibility in Bricklane,

to spray-painted precision lines of depression and despair in Old Street

To newspaper sticker monsters for a child with leukaemia.

Psychogeography, popularised by Guy Debord and The Situationists in the mid-1950s, is defined as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals“ (Knabb 2006).

For us, the sprawling graffiti in London represents freedom.

Speaking personally, It reminds me of the one legitimised graffiti wall that I have in Singapore. It reminds me of what one has to risk in order to overcome fear.

Urban arts are publicly spectacular form of play that has spilled out of the home, into the streets, creating “a differential space through which the city is rendered a site of play and pleasure, surprise and critical possibility” (Dickens 2008: 3). To borrow from De Certeau, this play is a form of publicly spectacular perruque where one “finds ways of using the constraining order of the place…without leaving the place…he establishes within it a degree of plurality and creativity” (De Certeau 1988: 30).

James Thompson advocates the need for applied theatre practitioners to make alliances with “performance artists who specialise in public spectaculars, site-specific interventions and transgressive perruque-like critical acts” (Thompson 2011: 41). Urban arts matter because they are publicly spectacular critical acts of perruque.

Box 2 – Methodology, Conceptual Framework and Key Terms all weaved

Looking through the eyes of the youth in their urban habitat at the dialogue between attachment and creative possibility
the surrealness of liminality; is there a sense of belonging displayed by youth from graffiti to territoriality?
Our methodology of performance ethnography, juxtaposed with psychogeography
Finally through research of youth participation in urban arts we will experience their reality!

That spoken word piece was an example of performance ethnography.

The liminal pedagogical space provided by performance is complimented by the transparency and non-hierarchal position an ethnographer hopes to acquire. ‘liminality/liminal space, […] is defined, according to cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, as a site of transformation and a space where different networks come into conflict’ (Turner cited in Gokturn: 2010) Therefore by way of communion, of the two performance and ethnography offers an opportunity through liminality and as Turner states a ‘relatively undifferentiated community, or even communion of equal individuals’ (Turner 1969:96) is now possible, it becomes a ‘forum for cultural exchange’ (Denzin, 2003). Denzins’ 2003 Performance Ethnography, offered insight into this unconventional and non institutionalised research style-concerned mainly with the people it is researching.

As researchers we are aware that we cannot completely divest ourselves of our stereotypes, biases, socio-political views and culture.

Through performance, we are reassimilated into their society, which can be the place they perform in or the streets they spray in. For example, I performed spoken word with Kareem in Waterloo station, where we caused a minor congestion.

Through performance ethnography, the topographical views are eradicated from our minds at least, seeking to find the rationale behind their social behaviours, their cultural activities, and in our case their art forms.

Therefore we look at the participants somewhat hermeneutically, exploring theory and notions from the outside, then experiencing participation with the urban artists, and returning to the outside to reflect and assimilate new knowledge.

Trust comes into play. The researcher surrenders something and the participant is able to see that person is sincerely interested in them. ‘What is included here is an exposure of self only insofar as it takes us collectively “somewhere we couldn’t get to otherwise”’(Behar cited in Grady 2000: 19).

During this research, as we take part in the urban arts, emotions can be evoked in ourselves as researchers, emotions that young people may feel daily. Being able to experience their reality ensures we do not label them or make assumptions about youth ‘at risk’. We acknowledge Conrad’s argument that the “list of risk factors is so long that all youth might be said to be, in some way or other, ‘at-risk’ nowadays” (Conrad 28).

Our research methodology presents the opportunity for us as researchers to look into the kinesis ‘the struggle/movement’ of the performances. Denzin quotes Conquergood as he speaks of the eradicating of ‘sedimented meanings and normative traditions’ (Conquergood cited in Denzin 2003:4) through performance. It is the ability to contextualise the behaviours through the kinesis thus challenging misconceptions about the participants that makes this methodology all the more desirable to Denzin and to ourselves as researchers.

We spoke a little of psychogeography in our introduction. Psychogeographically, I noticed there was a distinct difference between Kareem in London and Third Eye Premonition in Luton. Kareem had more opportunities in London to further his craft and was happy, passionate and engaged. Third Eye wrote and spoke monotonously that no one in Luton could help him grow as a spoken word artist. G says, “I am from Nigeria, but live in north London Edmonton and there is nothing in my area for my form of art, well as far as I am concerned”.

The risky art that we research is counter hegemonic, challenging the ‘dominant order’ of what is formally defined as art, and the groups partaking in it are often deemed unconventional themselves, therefore it is imperative that we integrate rather than interrogate,

Tim: participate rather than insinuate

Lena: challenging outside preconceptions,

Tim: ignorance,

Lena: topographical views

Tim: yet very importantly also challenging characteristics

Lena: the participants may be accustomed to

Tim: from Turner’s ‘outsiderhood’ (Turner 1974:237)

“If I stopped singing I’d go back to the Natalie that wouldn’t talk to anyone.” singer

When they grow up, adolescents practice territoriality, identifying with their area and representing their area as a sort of super place attachment. Massey says, ‘Territoriality in each case grows out of a deeply ingrained, learned place attachment. It is not just a product of material conditions, although they are important, but about values and practices that are shared between young people and are transmitted across generations’ (Massey in Skelton & Valentine 1998: 32)

In a 2008 case study on territoriality for Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Kintrea et al found that “territoriality is associated with disadvantage”, the research strongly supports programmes that are designed to create alternative opportunities for young people and offer them positive ways of affirming themselves other than on the streets” (Kintrea et al 2008: 7).

We believe that urban arts could offer such alternative opportunities.

So do the youth find a truth
In the arts that they use
Or does the graffiti that they spray help get out internalised speech
Do the skateboards that they float on help them to reach
The happiness they may lack at home or institutions in which teachers teach
Does the spoken word they patter out give them a platform to preach
Does it enable us to come face to face with their true feelings
In order to gain understanding and meaning
Have they become attached to the their risky art
Using it as a safe place to offload matters of the heart.
Sasha takes over Prezi

Box 3 – Findings & Significance
In analysing the “significance” of attachment between young people and ‘risky’ art, we focused on four main stakeholders:

1. The Family

“My brother passed away a couple of years ago so that was a really big blow and downfall of my life” – N

Sat in a dilapidated old pub in East London that looked derelict from the outside, the base was pumping from the music studio inside from young people mixing music and others rehearsing their dance. The pub was like a house, old sofa’s, heaters. The noise was just like a family gathering. Amidst this, Natalie told me, about losing her brother.

She said, “So with people that have lost family members I want to make them know that, yeah it’s hard at the beginning but you can get through it at the end of it and you can do stuff to dedicate them.” – N

“We are not a crew, We are family…I will stand by my crew, if anyone starts dissing my crew.” – W, street dancer

LIke a family that provides basic needs and emotional support, the urban arts community provides the social capital for employment and emotional support for youths. Bboy Felix says, “The general misconception about street dancers is that we are all delinquents and we all have no education, and we’ve got nothing better to do with our lives than to dance on the street.” (Huang in Seah 2013) But many of the young artists we interviewed have successfully challenged this perception by creating a career for themselves through urban arts. Felix owns a dance studio that employs 16 street dancers as teachers and certainly has helped to develop the street dance industry in Singapore.

Linking back to Winnicott’s “third area”, urban arts is an important cultural experience and a form of play provides “alternative opportunities for young people and offers them positive ways of affirming themselves” (Kintrea et al 2008: 7).

2. Youths

The word ‘expression’ is used frequently by the artists interviewed. The idea that these art forms give opportunity for young people to express themselves in a society where they rarely feel they can, is exciting but also disheartening.

E says “I have a different life. (Laughs) So our main thing…was to have, not persona’s but be the people that we wanted to be, that we are not brave enough to be”.

Our findings confirm that youths find a strong sense of self through urban arts. They find the courage to express themselves and in doing so, create braver versions of themselves. We suggest that urban arts could therefore set a strong foundation for youths to navigate a path towards being confident adults who have the opportunity to turn their talents into their profession.

3. Society

J says, “society tends to label young people as lazy and work shy but we aren’t. We just don’t get enough opportunities. Young people are so hungry to learn and so passionate and enthusiastic. I think people need to know that” (J, One Youth Dance).

Giroux opines, “Already disenfranchised by virtue of their age, young people…find themselves living in a society that seeks to silence them as it makes them invisible” (Giroux 2012).

As alluded in our introduction, urban arts offers a publicly spectacular way of disrupting the hegemony, ‘as a valid cultural experience, in no way inferior to funded arts activities “from theatre to digital art” (Arts Council 2013). Whilst we acknowledge a complex tension between urban artists and the ‘art world’ that is beyond the scope of this research, we observe the desire of youths to be recognised as professional skateboarders, graffiti artists, spoken word poets and street dancers.

We recognise that some urban artists interviewed have become teachers and role models in their own right. They actively contribute to the growth of the urban arts scene, opening up new possibilities and professions for others. They strengthen the security of attachments within the “third area” by being mentors to other youths.

So what has this research taught us as applied theatre practitioners?

Psychogeography and performance ethnography gave us a peek into the perspectives of the urban artist at different stages of their craft. From tentative exploration, to feeling supported and confident; playing in the “third area” whilst strengthening the attachment for other young artists within; all this whilst consciously building support within the larger society for their craft.

We learnt a lot from them. If youths are a major focus of our work as applied theatre practitioners, we need to engage youths based on who they are, what they are interested in.

To borrow from Freire’s ‘cultural synthesis’, we do not come to “teach or to transmit or give anything, but rather to learn” (Freire 1993: 161) with the youths, about their world.

If we want to engage young people better then we need to learn to speak their language better through urban arts.

Through our research we’ve met youth crying out to be heard
And we were able to hear them ‘cos their language we learned
4 academics doing or speaking urban you say it’s absurd
Yet through our liminal standpoint they knew that we cared

They opened up to us in ways you never thought they would
The reason is because at last they felt understood
We learnt about their risky art ,their lives now and childhood
Can youth be attached to risky arts we found that they could

Speech written by:
Timothy Doolan, Sasha-Rose Giles, Lennina Ofori, Adelina Ong


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