The Creative Publics Lab is a social innovation lab where post-secondary students and local practitioners experiment with art and media to design and create new ways of engaging the public in local social and political issues.
Mission and Purpose
The purpose of Creative Publics Lab is to demonstrate how post-secondary institutions can become innovation hubs for new forms of political participation and media-based community organizing. The mission is to bring together post-secondary students with local practitioners to work on experimental art and media projects aimed at engaging the public in local social and political issues.
Drawing on methdologies associated with social innovation labs, the Creative Publics Lab conducts 'civic experiments' in collaboration with post-secondary instititutions.
Origins and Development
Creative Publics Lab (CPL) grew out of the PhD research of Tara Mahoney, a student in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University (SFU) and the creative director of local non-profit, Gen Why Media. Gen Why Media uses art, media and public events to engage young people in social and political issues. Creative Publics Lab builds on the work of Gen Why Media and brings it together with SFU School of Communication, which has a long history of supporting and facilitating grassroots political engagement through projects such as the Media Democracy Project. The idea for the Creative Publics Lab arose out of a need expressed by students within the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University for tangible opportunities to use their communication knowledge and capabilities to promote social justice and political engagement.
The International Centre of Art for Social Change played a key role in the founding of the lab by providing support for the first experiment in the Fall of 2015 which set the groundwork for subsequent projects. The CPL has since worked with several community groups, art collectives and social enterprises including the Tin Can Studio, Woodshop Worker’s Cooperative, Apathy is Boring, and Woodward’s Community Singers who have helped shape the direction of the CRL through their feedback and participation. Through research and iteration, the student participants have also provided key input into the development of the lab.
Over the past decade, social innovation labs or ‘social labs’ have grown in global popularity across post-secondary institutions, government and social sector organizations as a way to invent, adopt or adapt new ideas through interdisciplinary collaboration. Creative Publics Lab is an effort to stimulate and test new ideas for how student can better engage with local political issues through their course work. By teaching students how to use communication theories, methods, and practices to intervene in local issues, the CPL aims to go beyond raising students’ awareness and show them how art and media can be used to intervene and take action in strategic and creative ways. While Creative Publics Lab is the first lab at SFU focused on participatory politics, there are other efforts within SFU to use the social lab model as a way to engage students in the areas of local economic development (LED Lab), urban planning (City Studio) and environmental sustainability (Change Lab). Rationale for the Creative Publics Lab emerged from the research of PhD student Tara Mahoney and her analysis of emerging forms of participatory politics. Despite spending more time in postsecondary institutions than any generation before and being the most educated generation of all time, students leave post-secondary programs without learning basic skills for applied political communication. This is the case despite younger generations facing a political environment of mounting debt, diminished job security, increasing costs of food, tuition and housing, and a convergence of challenges caused by the threats of climate change and intensifying income inequality. In the face of these collective challenges, digital civic literacy, community organizing, and political communication competencies have never been more important as is the need to support new forms civic engagement.
Since the late 1980s, engagement with traditional political institutions in Canada has seen drastic declines across the population and particularly among young people. Many commentators have chronicled this widespread civic disengagement, whether measured through participation in community affairs, political party membership, voter turnout, trust in institutions or people, the quality of public discourse, or attention to or knowledge of public affairs. As a result of the erosion of democratic institutions, the increasing decline in the support for establishment politics and a growing sense of powerlessness among citizens, political engagement is in a process of transformation. ‘Being political’ has expanded to include a vast range of ‘participatory’ socio-political behavior associated with digital forms of political expression and organizing.
As younger generations are retreating from established political institutions and processes, new forms of political engagement are emerging that work largely outside formal political institutions and manifest as practices of self-organization, networked communication, ‘do-it-ourselves’ maker culture, and short-term conditional affiliation. “Participatory politics” is an overarching concept that encompasses these emerging currents of political engagement and is defined as “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern”. The contemporary usage of term is rooted in theories of participatory culture  that emphasize contemporary and historic efforts by grassroots communities to exert greater control over the means of media production and circulation, including amateur publishing movements in the nineteenth century, the grassroots radio movement of the early twentieth century, and various forms of underground press and radio efforts in the 1960s.
Nowadays political participation not only describes voting in elections, writing a letter to the editor, going to town hall discussions, or becoming a member of a political party. Instead, activities such as making a video, sharing media, starting an organization, signing a petition, circulating news, building an app, joining a political group online, crowd-sourcing policy, and organizing a community event are increasingly how publics are exerting political agency. Expressions of participatory politics can be seen in the growth and influence of "netroots" political associations  and networked social movements , both of which have gained prominence in the past decade and play an increasing role in citizen participation. Participatory politics can also be observed in the economic sphere, where there are substantial efforts to ‘democratize the economy’ through peer-to-peer infrastructures that are gradually becoming the general conditions of work, economy, and society. The common theme joining these efforts are the deployment novel tactical repertoires and organizational strategies that utilize the affordances of the new media environment.
Organizational Structure, Membership, and Funding
The International Centre of Art for Social Change provided support for the first experiment of the lab in the Fall of 2015 which set the groundwork for subsequent projects. The CPL has since worked with several community groups, art collectives, and social enterprises, including the Tin Can Studio, Woodshop Worker’s Cooperative, Apathy is Boring, and Woodward’s Community Singers who have helped shape the direction of the CRL through their participation. Through research and iteration, the student participants have also provided key input into the development of the lab. Seed funding for the first two experiments of the Creative Publics Lab were paid for through student engagement and research grants within Simon Fraser University. The organizers designed the engagement methods iteratively, in response to course themes, student consultation, and the needs of the community partners.
Specializations, Methods and Tools
Creative Publics Labs is a social innovation lab specializing in civic experiments: small-scale projects that use cultural and media production to test how theoretical ideas can be applied in the real world. Interventions are designed to open up new areas of inquiry and find new ways to engage the public issues of common concern.
Each of the lab civic experiments is designed to achieve the following objectives:
- Capacity Building: Facilitate civic literacy and professional development of post-secondary students through collaborative relationships with community organizations. Through community-based learning models, the lab connects students with the social sector in order to build capacities in project management, digital storytelling, public art interventions, issue framing, event planning, media relations, and citizen journalism.
- Community Engagement: Re-imagine the student course work as a way to practice dialogue, community organizing, and cultural production through working on local political and social campaigns.
- Research: Provide a space for research into the connection between the theories of civic media and the practice media-based community organizing.
The Lab's experiments use a wide variety of participatory methods and tools including but not limited to:
Activities within the Lab:
Within the lab, participation is iterative and looks different depending on the nature of project or activity. For example, in the case of the public policy collage experiment, participation involved people making collages, singing, and drawing in a public space. In the case of the photovoice experiment, participation looked like students interviewing and photographing local community organizers, writing compelling short stories, and mounting a public art display in the lobby of the university showcasing the profiles. In the case of planning micro-utopias, it looked like students using art-based facilitation technique to imagine alternative societal futures.
Post-experiment Participation and Action:
The lab experiments culminate in some type of public action, which can take the form of an event, appearance in the media, an exhibit, an intervention in public space, and so on. This allows for the work of the participants to be showcased in a public forum, diversifying the kinds of voices present in public discourse. For instance, in the case of the public policy collage, the collages and drawings were displayed in prominent public spaces in the weeks leading up to the federal election and the project was covered by several local and regional media outlets.
While the experiments conducted within CPL have yet to directly address decision-makers, they have sought to operate as a model for how creativity and art-making can be used to engage publics in politics. The participatory arts approach of the CPL creates the conditions for dialogue amongst diverse publics through art-based activities rather than verbal discourse. This approach makes it accessible to a diverse community who did not need to have extensive knowledge of politics in order to participate. It has allowed for listening through quiet one-on-one conversations about issues that mattered to the participants and were being expressed through the art. The act of physically making art also acts as a social lubricant, allowing people to focus on working with their hands which takes some of the intimidation out of talking about politics with a stranger.
Civic Experimentation and Participatory Research:
Civic experiments are a form of participatory research in that they attempt to solve a problem — creating effective forms of participatory innovation — through engagement with affected parties. There are three types of participants in the Creative Publics Lab: students, community partners, and the public. The students are recruited in the same way they are recruited for courses — through university communication and standard course-selection procedures. The lab focuses on students because educated people in their 20s and 30s are often early adopters of new forms of communication technology, which put them in a unique position to take advantage of participatory politics. Community partners are recruited based on the degree to which they address key issues that have been identified as priorities for the lab. Ideally, the Lab's partners are organizations that are both innovating in the area of participatory politics and need help with engaging citizens, mobilizing public opinion, and influencing decision-making. The public is recruited through online and face-to-face projects designed and executed by the students in collaboration with community partners.
Experimenting with a variety of methods and tools has positive outcomes for participants (capacity building), and provides qualitative and quantitative data on the efficacy of the techniques for researchers and practitioners. Field notes, interviews, and written reflections from participants provide evidence that activities have created meaningful opportunities for experiential political learning and community dialogue. For instance, the interview and survey data from an experiment using public policy collage demonstrated that the method increased the motivation of participants to vote in the election, positively interrupted the patterns of everyday life, and created a political space where participants could quietly reflect on their complex feelings around election issues.
In another lab experiment using the photovoice method, pre and post survey results with students indicated that the community engagement aspect of their projects enhanced students’ ability to communicate about social issues in a real world setting and helped them to see how the course subject matter can be used in everyday life. The majority of students who participated also expressed how the project helped them become more aware of the needs in their community and the interactions with the community partner enhanced their learning in the course.
Major Projects and Events
Art-making and the federal election (Fall 2014)
This experiment was conducted outside a course and was part of a research initiative which brought together artists, students and community members to participate in art-making inspired by social and political issues leading up to the federal election in October 2015. In collaboration with mobile art studio Tin Can Studio, CPL traveled to four sites and set up interventions where participants had the opportunity to explore election issues through various forms of art-making including collage, photography, videography, chalk art and improvised choir.
Participatory Youth Media Cultures Course (Fall 2016)
This lab experiment was conducted in conjunction with Communications 427: Participatory Youth Media Cultures, an advanced lecture/seminar examining the development of contemporary youth media cultures. Creative Publics Lab partnered with national community engagement organization, Apathy is Boring, to facilitate the production of photovoice projects that document how young people are working together towards progress on local political and social issues. Student projects contributed to the 150 Years Young: a signature initiative of the Canada 150 celebrations, which aims to showcase the diverse, conventional, and unconventional ways young people are building more resilient communities across Canada.
Seeing Power: Art and Micro-utopias (Spring 2017)
This lab experiment was conducted in conjunction with Education 837, a graduate seminar examining the relationships between contemporary media cultures, aesthetics, and politics. Creative Publics Lab assisted in the development of projects that explores the concept of utopia. Through a series of workshops, student developed project proposals for speculative micro-utopias – imaginary public spaces and interactions that gesture toward a desired future. Students were encouraged to critically reflect on the current socio-political issues that concern them, chose a theme to focus on and imagine solutions that are unrestrained by time, money, and expertise. Then, with support from the instructors and local practitioners, students engaged in a process of ‘pragmatic utopianism’ – figuring out how they might make their dream projects into reality. Among others, student projects included a pop-up community centre, a summer camp for mental health professionals, an immersive video projection installation, and an intergenerational, intercultural storytelling initiative.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
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