Pau Cata: Theory as Practice: Creative Research on CeRCCa’s Local Context

School for Curators and Critics of Contemporary Art
Season 13
2nd Year (September 2010–May 2011)

Series of Lectures on Curatorial and Institutional Practices

Pau Cata (Consell Comarcal Llorenc del Penedes):
An artist at the CeRCCa Residency. An auto-ethnographic perspective

Thursday, February 10, 2010 at 20.00
SCCA Project Room, Metelkova 6, Ljubljana

The present text is an adaptation of my MA dissertation in creative media arts for London South Bank University (LSBU) in 2010. The paper was the skeleton supporting the main element of my dissertation research, the documentary A Winter Ritual. A Winter Ritual is a practitioner-based creative exercise documenting everyday processes involved in the construction of a space and the creation of a place in relation to experienced local interactions and my acquired theoretical approaches. Making use of alternative visual anthropology, A Winter Ritual is an experimental auto-ethnographic and micro-sociological documentation of the local context of CeRCCa, Center for Research and Creativity Casa Marles, a residency programme I developed in my hometown of Llorenç del Penedes, a small village near Barcelona.

A Winter Ritual embodies the dualism between what we understand as ‘theory’ and what we experience as ‘practice’, and is a critique of this dualism. This critique is further explored in the text that follows.

The documentary can be viewed here:


‘Everydayness’ in theory

Since the end of the 1970’s, and responding to challenges posed by what some call processes of globalisation, mainstream academic research in the social sciences and curatorial studies has witnessed a growing interest in the reinterpretation of theories of ‘practices of everyday life’. The reprinting of work by Michael de Certeau (1988), Gaston Bachelard (1994), Henri Lefebvre (2005) or Yi-Fu Tuan (2008) has been accompanied by a plethora of studies and aesthetic representations on the theory and practice of ‘ordinary’ people’s use of space and place. This ‘usage’ is seen by some as a platform on which previously unnoticed social behaviours and cultural representations are reproduced, developed and confronted.

Most of these studies try to interpret strategies used by individuals and groups, proposing that, ‘in the fluid social web, the ”weak” makes use of the ”strong” and create for themselves a sphere of autonomous action and self-determination’ (de Certeau, 1988). It is in the quotidian that intertwined, labyrinthine and relational landscapes become the perfect setting from which these strategies and useabilities can be enjoyed, described and theorised. And it is through these landscapes that the new ragpicker, the ubiquitous flaneur, the social scientist and the new curator walk aimlessly though cities in search of new ordinary actions to be deconstructed, even over-analysed.

The aim of the present paper is not to discover the reasons for the actual crisis of representation within the social sciences, or the consequences of the possible academic commodification of theories of ‘everyday life’. The concern of this study is not to underline the sometimes arrogant, but nonetheless wise ‘dis-interestedness’ of social scientists’ object of study (that is, the social realm itself), or to criticise the unnoticed danger that could suppose the compulsive search and generation of theoretical content. The focus of this paper – which could more precisely be qualified as an experiment – is to undertake a researcher-based exercise using a self-analytical methodology to investigate my own experience of a place and space. Its aim is to break down acquired theoretical knowledge, while at the same time testing its utility. This self-analysis is achieved by creatively documenting, and critically commenting on, a series of ordinary activities and local rituals in the context of Llorenc del Penedes, the village where I grew up. These activities and rituals marked my ‘everydayness’ when living in CeRCCa, an interdisciplinary living and working space for creativity and cultural research developed since January 2008 as an integral part of my MA in creative media arts at LSBU.

Following Bruno Latour’s deconstruction of doctrines of social science (Latour, 2005), I would venture to say that the present research is intended as a sign, a small dot in the tortuous line that draws the boundaries of a new way of understanding the social sciences, an approach based on the potentialities of inter-subjective creative research as a means to move away from generic conceptualisations and an obsession with objective frameworks.


Academia as ‘tribe’: the disconnection from reality

‘But it was then the age of faith, and money was poured liberally to set these stones on a deep foundation, and when the stones were raised, still more money was poured in from the coffers of kings and queens and great nobles to ensure that hymns should be sung here and scholars taught. Lands were granted; titles were paid. And when the age of faith was over and the age of reason had come, still the same flow of gold and silver went on; fellowships were founded; lectureships endowed; only the gold and silver flowed now, not from the coffers of the king, but from the chests of merchants and manufacturers, from the purses of men who had made, say, a fortune from industry, and returned, in their wills, a bounteous share of it to endow more chairs, more lectureships, more fellowships in the university where they had learnt they craft’.
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (2004, p. 11)

In 1928, when Virginia Woolf was asked to deliver a lecture on women and fiction and she produced a long essay on a writer’s need for economic freedom and independence of space in order to create. This conclusion was defended in such a manner that the essay became a critique of the cultural context in which women writers were seen as morally and intellectually limited. In the quotation above, Woolf makes explicit a personal reinterpretation of the evolution of an university, which reinforced this conception of women’s limitations by cementing the patriarchal nature of the institution itself. Furthermore, the internal functioning of the university materialised the patronising patina in which the construction of academic discourse was framed.

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf’s well-documented intuitions are further developed in a debate embraced by critics of the university as an exclusive and prototypically male-centred institution. She argued that this institution was unashamedly devoted to disseminating a highly convenient way of understanding the world on the basis of the interests of individuals eager to justify and expand their class ‘status quo’, an institution for generating knowledge that she had no problem putting into stand when affirming: ‘As I leant against the wall, the University indeed seemed a sanctuary in which are preserved rare types which would soon be obsolete if left to fight for existence on the pavement of the Strand’ (Woolf 2004, p. 9).

In her essay, Woolf makes quite evident the sense of detachment and the intrinsic anti-popularity of academic research. In fact, this is a feeling I experienced when trying to explain the present project to various individuals I thought relevant to it. In the context of social research, this anti-popularity is not a straightforward aversion to the institutionalisation of theory itself, but a reaction that reflects the indifference to the theorisation of the social in its object of study. In fact, in more cases than one would expect, the hermeticism and etymological constructions of the discipline establish mysterious boundaries that create a cosmology that is of interest only to its builders.

In its origins, by embracing the methods of the natural sciences, social science created for itself an elevated platform from which the social could be envisaged and studied by creating a comfortable distance between academia and its object of study. This distance was regarded as a condition sine qua non for the creation of accepted knowledge. In short, the mirage of objectivity as the only means to undertake accepted scientific research created what some thought a much needed and desirable detachment from reality. This was the seed for the removal of a certain kind of individual (intellectual, white, western middle-class male) from human counterparts, creating a selected and selective self-congratulatory V.I.P. tribe.

The division between everyday experience based in non-intellectual contexts originated from actions and practical interactions, and the creation of academic knowledge erected on the theoretisation and schematisation of others’ actions and interactions, are indeed two different ways of responding to what surrounds us. It is in our interest to underline the specificities of academia as a structure of knowledge production that, by means of an intricate ritualisation of practices, can be seen as a coloniser, a regulating force to tame the wild, the unknown, and the monstrous. Making reference to Foucault’s theories on ‘The Order of Discourse’ (1981) John Tomlinson defines ‘the monstrous’ as ‘a way of describing what lies beyond our own intellectual boundaries in the same way as the medieval cartographers imagined monsters to inhabit the lands beyond the know world’ (Tomlinson 2001, p. 210). The monstrous in our case would be the difficult task of trying to analyse, academically, the everyday experiences of CeRCCa’s local context.

In contrast with what could be termed popular knowledge, academic knowledge has been seen as the most elaborated and scientifically valid. In fact, academic knowledge has been a discourse that, through a positivist analysis, has become paradigmatic of the western approach to knowledge production, and understood as the best way to describe and study ‘the social’. As Foucault argues, academic disciplines enforce control of discourse by establishing their own rules of what counts as legitimate knowledge within their boundaries. ‘Discourses must be treated as discontinuous practices (…) but can just as well exclude or be unaware of each other’ (Foucault 1981, p. 67). Academic knowledge production works as a discourse that creates direct restrictions on non-scientific approaches to reality, ‘places a taboo on certain subjects, elaborates rituals around the circumstances of speech and restricts the right to speak in certain contexts to qualified people’ (Tomlinson 2001, p. 209). It is, then, a discourse with fixed norms and rules, a discourse that bases its reproduction on western scientific methodologies, and works by what Foucault would call ‘practices of containment’ and ‘procedures of rarefaction’, all of which concepts are of interest to academics themselves.

What I am interested in here are not only the interactions and power games that exist between these different ways of materialising and interpreting our experience, but also their supposed functionality. The question, then, is how to measure the dialogic potential of different ways of talking and thinking about the social. In short, how to fit the circle of lived experiences into the square of academic texts and, most importantly, the need to do so.


Who speaks?

Again Woolf’s reflections will be our starting point to explore the problems of the legitimisation of academic discourses. But why hers – why not use a quote from the innumerable academic studies on the everyday? The answer is quite simple: with her creative sensibility, Woolf inexplicably touches, indeed massages, our own lived experiences, making us feel both comfortable and relieved, and in fact, understood:

‘What was the truth about these houses, for example, dim and festive now with their red windows in the dusk, but raw and red and squalid, with their sweets and their bootlaces, at nine o’clock in the morning? And the willows and the river and the gardens that run down to the river, vague now with the mist stealing over them, but gold and red in the sunlight – which was the truth, which was the illusion about them?’
Virginia Woolf, A Room for One’s Own (2004, p. 18)

Indeed, she does not try to look for angles in the circle of everyday life; on the contrary, Woolf seems to follow paths of creative organic thought that leave aside the theoretical pretentiousness that lives in shadowy invented corners, to embrace the uniqueness and fluidity of the detail. In her autobiographical account, she welcomes subjective perception based not so much in rational thought, but in intuitive reflection. As she says, ‘Instinct rather than reason came to my help.‘ (Woolf 2004, p. 6). By making use of creative prose, she syncretises two well differentiated spheres of knowledge production: academic theory and everyday experience.

As Ben Highmore rightly points out: ‘Theory is often a dense and abstruse form of writing, often designed to throw into crises widely accepted and practiced beliefs (…) For instance, theorists often promote the values of ”rigorous” thought, ”systematic” elaboration and ”structured” argument: but what if rigour, system and structure were antithetical and deadening to aspects of everyday life?’ (Highmore 2002, p. 2). As described by Highmore ‘The everyday is a plethora of irreducible particularity, yet across this unmanageable actuality is a language of ”woven threads” that ”bind us together”, that point to the possibility of mapping a heterogeneous, diversified and complex totality. While the everyday is unpredictable and indeterminate, there is within it the possibility of mapping its equivocality, of situating its ambivalence at the centre of the social.’

The question is, how to draw such a map, and why.


Method, methodology and anti-methods?

What follows is an example of how not to approach the difficult task of seeking the best methodology with which to develop a visual anthropological experiment that has as its aim the documentation of one’s own everyday experience. This methodological description does not attempt to explain a regulated and valid model, but functions as an account of how I developed the form and content of the visual project A Winter Ritual.

Contrary to what most research manuals advise, the development of the present creative visual experiment was not preceded by a search for the most appropriate methodology with which to develop the project. In fact, the procedure was reversed. So, more than the information provided by the ‘theoretisation’ of the method, what was most influential was the experience of the practical application of some of these methods, with the particular feature that the process of conceptualising the methodology was developed after the realisation of the documentary, not before. In short A Winter Ritual was deeply influenced by the visual documentation pieces of Mario Garcia Torres’s What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger (2009), Bruno Latour and Emilie Hermant’s Paris: Invisible City (2004) and Edgar Morin and Jean Roush’s Chronique d’un Eté (1961). Besides this choice of an un-methodological approach, the documentary I presented as part of the World of Art Series of Lectures organised by SCCA–Ljubljana could be considered as what has lately been conceptualised as arts-based auto-ethnography. What follows is a description of this (anti) methodology and an explanation of how, quite unconsciously, I put it in practice.

Auto-ethnography is a political project that started twenty years ago. While ethnography is a social science method of research that describes human social phenomena based on fieldwork, in auto-ethnography the researcher becomes the primary participant/subject of the research in the process of writing personal stories and narratives. Auto-ethnography can include direct observation of daily behaviour, the unearthing of local beliefs, perceiving and recording a life history, and in-depth interviewing. Rather than a portrait of the other (person, group, culture), the researcher constructs a portrait of the self.

Using artistic production as a vehicle, arts-based auto-ethnography acknowledges the power of art to interrogate, inform and challenge more traditional systems of linear, text-based research. The artistic process is acknowledged as a legitimate method of collecting data, and the resultant artwork is disseminated as the product of vigorous research. Arts-based research makes art the basis of the research. However, the variations that artists/researchers emphasise in their praxis change the base to contiguous relationships with art such as: art-insight, art-embodiment, art-meaningful living, art-inquiry, and art-imagination. This type of inquiry often involves interpretations of literature, interviews, journals, poetic writing and diaries, and perceives as seamless the relationships between knowing, doing and making. In many scholarly circles, this is a controversial methodology, criticised for its unreliability and often idiosyncratic and vague processes. While the controversy is accepted, auto-ethnographers also acknowledge the delight in the challenges and potential of this methodology, and continue to develop processes that broaden traditional research paradigms. Art-based auto-ethnography poses a challenge to theoretical and methodical research by introducing subjectivity into the core of the investigation, opening the door to multiple representations that have as an anchor the creative documentation of experiences framed by the social and cultural context of the artist/researcher.

Due to the nature of my research, the fact that I had to reinterpret theoretically what I was doing proved problematic. I tried to express this disjuncture by combining vernacular language with quotations from theoretical texts and personal reflections. The aim of this strategy was to underline not only the inadequacy of academic language when trying to make sense of ‘the everyday’, but most importantly, the limitations of that language. So, while for some, events need to be theorised in order to be understood, for the majority of people, this is unnecessary. In short, the theorisation of the everyday can in some cases be informative, and in others, redundant and un-productive, and in all cases, non-dialogic.

This disjuncture brings us back to the dilemma regarding the nature of what we describe as ‘theory’ and what we describe as ‘practice’, or the conflicting division between thought and action. In my view, this dualism is contraposed to the necessity of academic discourses to decompose dualism’s inaccessible conceptualisations in order to engage other participants in the discussion, while at the same time be constantly supported by practical actions and self-analysis. In the specific case of the lived place and space of CeRCCa, my fundamental preoccupation was based on the disjuncture described above. Coming from a context that propitiated critical thinking through theoretical research (the university), I suddenly found myself in the context of Llorenc del Penedes and CeRCCa, where there is so much practical work to do, and where reading academic books is regarded by for most as a somewhat elitist activity which is of very little interest in the everyday life of anyone.

The methodology used has to be seen as an attempt to experimentally disarticulate systematic and taken-for-granted procedures of approaching ‘the social’, from the perspective of a creative amateur. It will be then the subjective description of these everyday, microscopic interactions that I have been aiming for. This documentation will be unfinished, unpredictable and indeterminate, and will respond to the ephemeral and contradictory nature of social encounters and personal experience.

As de Certeau assertively quotes from Virgil’s Aeneid: ‘The goddess can be recognised by her steps’ (Aeneid, I, 405 from de Certeau 1988, p. 97)

I like to think that my research has been about following in her footsteps.


Video of the lecture (



  • Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space Massachusetts, Beacon Press, Boston, 1994.
  • Michael De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press LTD, Berkeley, 1988.
  • M. Foucault, ‘The Order of Discourse’, R. Young (ed.), Untying the Text, Routledge, London, 1981.
  • Ben Highmore, Everyday Life and Cultural Theory, Routledge, London, 2002.
  • Bruno Latour, Reasembling the Social, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005.
  • Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. 1, 2 and 3, Verso, London, 2005.
  • John Tomlinson, Cultural Imperialism, Pinter Publishers, London 1991.
  • Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place, University of Minnesota Press, Mineapolis/ London, 1977.
  • Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, Penguin Books, London/Virginia, 2004.

Web documents: