WHAT CAN FEEDBACK LOOK LIKE? (33:23)
How can feedback be structured? Is critique a form of research? The Critical Response Process (CRP), developed by Lerman, is a technique for eliciting critique on anything “from dance to dessert”. Together, with the help of several CRP facilitators, we’ll break down the process, and then consider additional modes of providing feedback.
CRITICAL RESPONSE PROCESS
CRITIQUE AS RESEARCH
What do you consider the qualities of productive feedback and evaluation?
KIRSTEN WALSH Welcome everyone to Podcasts on Process! My name is Kirsten Walsh and this episode’s theme is critique -- what can feedback look like?
No matter what you’re doing or who you encounter over the course of a typical day, there’s a good chance you’ll receive feedback. It could be around something professionally significant like a current project, or a small comment on your choice in footwear that day. But either way feedback is inherent in how we interact with others.
Critique for me can be synonymous with criticism. And criticism is often a bitter word to swallow. However, I can recall classroom and professional settings where the feedback I received inspired me get back to work, and to work hard! So what are the qualities of a productive critique?
More than 20 years ago, Liz Lerman began developing what she would eventually call the Critical Response Process, or CRP for short. Liz has taken this process across the globe to a variety of institutions. and in this next clip, you’ll hear Liz during a workshop in Scotland with 2 theater-based organizations.
LIZ LERMAN The critical response process is actually a pretty simple process with a lot of complexity buried in it, originally I made it because I wanted to give and get better feedback from the work I was making as a choreographer. Over the years I've come to see that the process is useful in more ways than that, but that is its initial form and that's how I initially teach it. It turns out you know we get feedback about everything we get feedback every second for most of our lives as we're walking around seeing things, visiting things and the nature of our judgments really interesting to me so sometimes I think of it as a way of partnering your critical judgement opportunity to say everything you want to say but to be patient about how and when you say it.
KIRSTEN As an emerging curator, studio visits are critical to my practice. These conversations form the basis of a lasting relationship between an artist and a curator. I needed the right conversational tools for the feedback I was being asked to give to artists. So I went searching...
In this episode, we’re going to hear from four guests and we’ll go quickly through the 4-step CRP process. Then, you’ll hear from John Borstel. John helped develop, iterate and write about CRP with Liz. And then from Karen Stults and CJay Philip, two Baltimore-based practitioners recently trained in CRP. And then we'll hear from Joe Basile, co-editor of a recent MICA publication called Beyond Critique.
CRITICAL RESPONSE PROCESS
So what is the Critical Response Process and why is it valuable? What makes it different from many other frameworks for getting and receiving feedback? I want to make sure we have a basic foundation on the process, so let’s walk through the four steps with John Borstel. And remember, we’re using the term artist here, but this process has been used by teachers, administrators, scientists and engineers.
JOHN BORSTEL I'm John Borstel. I like to describe myself as an artist working at the crossroads of performance, photography, and text I also like to think about artistic practice as embracing a number of other things I do. Which includes facilitation of various experiences, teaching, humane critique, advocacy for the work of other artists, and writing as it might manifest itself in blogging, interpretive writing, proposal writing, that kind of thing. So I've practiced a lot of that sort of work over 21 years here at Dance Exchange. Starting as Development Director evolving into a roll called Humanities Director, and more recently since I've gone to part time, the laudable title of Senior Advisor with Humanities as my portfolio.
Critical Response Process, as devised by Liz, was our response to the discomfort she was experiencing in a lot of settings as an artist—getting reviewed in the newspaper, as somebody who was leading an ensemble, devising a process to some degree and needing to have conversations with the artist that she was collaborating with, as somebody who is being brought onto college campuses and shown work by students and expected as an authority to deliver some kind of meaningful statement to them about their work. And recognizing in that moment that she was often telling people how to make work that wold be like hers as opposed to really understanding what their work needed to be about. So she was having this kind of discomfort which really led her to start thinking about really what do you want critique to be. What does make it valuable? And ultimately to define this, we wanted an experience of critique, of feedback on artistic work-in-progress to be one where we leave motivated, where we leave wanting to get back to work on what it is that we were working on. Not either saying it's perfect so I don't have to change anything or wanting to go to our rooms pull down the shades and sleep for 3 days.
It's a four step process that engages people in three distinctive roles. The roles are: the artist who is presenting the work, a group of responders and that can be one person or like 200 people, though ideally its somewhat smaller than that, and there's a facilitator. And the facilitator is a key role because there are steps and protocols to be followed. It's not just that the facilitator is someone who lays down the rules. The facilitator is someone who needs to make a series of nuanced judgement calls based on all kinds of variable factors.
KIRSTEN OK—on to the 4 steps.
JOHN So the process starts with a showing of the work and then we go to something called Step 1, which we call "statements of meaning". Each step of the process has some degree of inquiry in it. Inquiry is a core value of the process, so there is a question in each step. Step 1 question come from the facilitator and it usually goes something like this: What is exciting, meaningful, memorable, stimulating, interesting, evocative about the work you just saw?
KIRSTEN This is a chance for responders to acknowledge what is functioning in the art work and where the artist’s intentions have been met.
JOHN With Step 2 a dialogue ensues between the artist and the responders. It's the artists who initiates the dialogue, the artist gets to ask questions about their work. In responding, the responders can give any honest answer to the question based on their own experience, but what they can't do is change the subject of the question, so they can talk about the thing that's really burning for them.
KIRSTEN Here the facilitator can help the artist dig just a little deeper to get at a burning question if necessary. John notes that these questions should be on the artist’s learning edge and their needs.
JOHN Then we move on to Step 3. In Step 3 the dialogue between the artist and the responder is reversed, and the responders get to ask questions of the artist. There is one very particular protocol around this, which is that the questions need to be stated neutrally so that if you have a burning opinion that's driving a question you need to find a way to ask the questions so that the opinion isn't revealed. This can be challenging for people when they first are introduced to it. It's sometimes about re-framing—framing bigger, framing smaller, thinking about the larger category—but being pointed enough so that you'll get the artist to talk about the things that are of concern to you
KIRSTEN For the responders, Step 3 is an exercise in understanding your opinions and learning how to frame them, so those opinions lead to dialogue. And the questions in Step Three can also be motivated by curiosity to. They do not need to be rooted in an opinion.
JOHN So in Step Four comes the opportunity for responders to express opinions. Again there's this very specific protocol. This is another area where the facilitator is vigilant and involved. We ask the responders to phrase a request to offer an opinion which goes like this: I have an opinion about your pallet of colors would you like to hear it?
And the artist at that point has the opportunity to say yes or no. The artist maintains a degree of control and agency over what they are hearing. That said in most cases, in my experience, the artist will say yes to that request for an opinion. And the artist is more inclined to say yes, if the person who is presenting the opinion in Step Four has been actively engaged in the process up to that point.
KIRSTEN So, those are the 4 steps to the Critical Response Process. Liz and John will tell you that it is a relatively simple process, but deeply complex once you're inside of it. Here’s John again with an insight that I believe is necessary to understanding CRP.
JOHN I've given this introduction about discomfort for many years, but at one point a few years ago I discovered, oh people think we're going to make all the discomfort go away. And actually no good process of critique will make all the discomfort go away. Actually when you're doing work-in-progress and your really embracing it as work-in-progress—which means I don't have it all figured out yet—I'm in a place of vulnerability about this work, I'm putting it out there and opening myself up. Something's at stake here, it matters. There's natural discomfort in that moment.
Likewise, if I ask you what are you really think of my work, well I've put a certain level of responsibility on your shoulders. You know I'm calling you to some higher purpose in that conversation. So we can use a platform to make it really functional, but if its really working we're not going to feel comfortable and happy every moment of it. There's gonna be some discomfort. Can we partner the discomfort that's functional and make it work for us and get rid of all that other "baggage-y" stuff that has to do with people having different expectations? Or it has to do with authority and hierarchy getting in the way of a useful conversation, and has to do with competition? All of which can be functional, but if we can take it out of the conversation for the moment of getting the feedback, then that's going to be more functional. That's some of the theory behind [CRP].
KIRSTEN I’ve known and worked with our next two guests for just about two years now. You’ll understand in a moment why I asked to interview these two, but let’s start with introductions. Karen Stults and CJay Philip are Baltimore-based practitioners and community advocates.
KAREN STULTS My name is Karen Stults and I am the Director of Community Engagement at MICA. The Office of Community Engagement is sort of an umbrella entity within the college that seeks to provide tools and resources for both members of the MICA community that are either experimenting in, and or excelling at, using art and design as tools of change as community building tools. And also serving as sort of a public interface with community organizations to the agencies outside of the MICA bubble—as we like to say— and sort of seeking to be a front door to the college for current and potential community partners.
CJAY PHILIP My name is CJay Phillip and what I do is always a challenging question for me, because there are a lot of different things in that category. So I will just list them off. I'm the Artistic Director of Dance and BMore, and we are a multi-disciplinary company. We have dancers, poets, musicians, singers, and we love to mix and match. And also we love to engage our audience. So often times we ask our audience to do percussion with us, or to sing with us, or to move with us. So that's a little bit about Dance and BMore. We also design programs specifically for everyday people to be able to dance with us as well, and build community through dance. Whether it's families with our FazaFam Family Jam or seniors with our Forever Fit and Fun: 55 and older club. We love designing programs that allow everybody to experience movement and experience how that draws people together.
KIRSTEN Through the Facebook grape vine, I had heard that Karen, and CJay, along with a bigger group, had just completed the Critical Response Process facilitation training with Liz Lerman and John John Borstel. This is a multi-weekend intensive where the trainees practice CRP with each other, and bring in guest artists to present their work for review. I asked Karen and CJay, why CRP? Why become facilitators? Whats the value you see in this process and what do you think the future of CRP is going to be in your personal and professional lives? I believe their answers are examples of how CRP can be potent for the working lives of artists, and powerful for our daily interactions.
KAREN That is a great question and I'm glad you asked it that way this time. Because I really do feel like, I did enter into this first as Karen. Second as hat #1, hat #2, and hat #3. I was personally drawn to do the training and to do the work just because I think communication is so critical. It's so magical when we do it well. And it's debilitating, It's devastating when we don't.
In very early interactions with Liz it was so clear to me that she, she has such a presence and such an awareness. And is so tuned into the person she is listening to or speaking with at any given point in time. She has this beautiful way of navigating a conversation where you leave the conversation feeling enriched. And you're like I don't even know what just happened there. But you DO know, and I think it's because you do feel heard. You don't feel judged. You've gotten useful information but you've been affirmed. I was so inspired by that, and I wanted to develop that skill personally for myself.
I think the two really amazing tools from CRP that are useful—even if you never use it again in a work context, but jut in your daily interactions—are these two tenants around being curious, withholding judgment, and asking permission. Because all three of those things happen in the CRP process.
CJAY I think that first one of allowing it to be about the artist. And they are on a journey and their learning curve, their journey, is different than mine. That timetable of the journey is different than mine. Its different from the other person who saw the performance, and the other person, and the other person. And so if it's about the artist I've got to pay attention to the artist and where they are in their path. Not try to push them past because I think they need to be somewhere else. So that and then body language. I mean, I always say to people body language is actually my first language. I don't know if that's true but its certainly something that I pay attention to. And it's really use full in paying attention to it as a facilitator. Or a facilitator-in-training I should say. Because it tells you a lot about how the artist is feeling. When they are feeling eager to hear, when they are game, and when they are starting to feel flustered, or when a wall goes up and it s getting to be too much. Or when there is a wall there that has nothing to do with the art, the craft, but has everything to do with their person—the 30 years that they spent before they ever walked in this room. That that's just how they are and then how do you find a place to get them what they need, even if they're distant.
JOHN If you ask the right question—when you've had this experience on occasion—the artist has presented work that is definitely work-in-progress, it's unresolved. There is an idea there that's a burning idea for them, but it's not showing up in the work. If you ask the right question and suddenly they get passionately engaged, there's content and meaning in what they're saying, there is a sort of vividness to their presence. And then when that happens you've got all this stuff to work with in terms of a dialogue with that artist, be it a student or another artist, that can then direct them to seeing new possibilities. Did you recognize the gestures you were making and the energy you were projecting when you responding to that question? Is that an area you really need to drive your research in for the next stage? Things like that, that's revealed through the right kind of question and then refined through the opinion that you get to. When you don't start with that the real nugget of power I think lies in this process, and why I feel it's different from kind of the standard critique model that tends to operate in academic settings.
CRITIQUE AS RESEARCH
KIRSTEN At the end of my first year of graduate school at the MICA, I stumbled across a book called Beyond Critique: Different Ways of Talking About Art. And my discovery of that book just happened to coincide with my first exposure to Liz’s Critical Response Process. Beyond Critique is a series of essays from 10 MICA faculty, looking at the variety of ways feedback happens in the classroom. Here’s Joe Basile, the co-editor on this publication.
JOE BASILE I'm Joe Basile. I'm the Associate Dean of Liberal Arts. I'm also an art historian and I specialize in classical art in ancient Greek an Roman art.
KIRSTEN And you teach art history classes here at MICA?
JOE I teach at history classes, yes, one class a semester. I'm teaching a class on archaeological field methods that focuses primarily on the kinds of field methods that artist-in-training, and designers, and architects can bring their skills to archaeology. It's called "God's, Graves and Scholars" which is the name of a classic archaeology text from the early 20th century
KIRSTEN So I wanted to talk to you today about the MICA publication from 2013 called "Beyond Critique". You wrote for it, but you're also the co-editor with Susan Waters-Eller. Can you talk a little bit about how this came to life?
JOE Sure. It was a project of a number of faculty and committees, especially the Cultural Expansion Committee and was meant to be a venue for starting a campus-wide discussion on critique. Which is obviously central to the mission of the college or central to how the college delivers its mission. It's still a central concept in art education, even though its an ancient concept and is one that people argue a lot about. So this was meant to create a venue for faculty of the college to explore the issue of critique. It comes out of the Cultural Expansion Committee because one focus of the book is on critique, on innovative approaches to critique that approach the issue of diversity. The recognition that a college classroom today is a more complicated and diverse environment than it was 100, 150 years ago when critique was still being practiced at the Maryland institute. So it seeks to focus on how faculty address issues of diversity. And I think one of the things we found as we were collecting essays for the book was that the faculty themselves presented a diverse view of what critique is. The essays run the gamut from very traditional organic views of the critique, as the kind of conversation that happens in the class without rules, without guidelines, to notions of critique based on brain science. My co-editor Susan Waters-Eller that's one of her areas of research, of interest. So that's the point of origin.
KIRSTEN So at least from several of the chapters or essays that I read it's not just diversity of students, but it's the diversity of the critical reviewers as well.
JOE Right, right. Very very different voices, but also maybe it wasn't our intent. It presents a view, its a snapshot almost of how critique is practiced by key faculty at MICA over the last 20 or 25 years.
KIRSTEN Joe describes how, as a new art history faculty member, he was invited to a studio art critique. He says that like many art historians his knowledge of art was principally theoretical, and while he had taken some drawing classes in college, there was no “critique” of his work.
Joe writes in his essay for beyond critique, “As the [crit] progressed I noticed… that many students were using their work as a way of thinking through a problem or experience. And that the discussion fostered feedback that [the students] intended to incorporate in a revised version of their [work].” To me that sounds like an experiment, a research-based experimenta. Here’s Joe again describing the book Figuring it Out, by archaeologist Colin Renfrew, and to the idea of critique as a form of research.
JOE In an art and design institution who is not only seeing work on display by contemporary artists, but also seeing how artists are being trained, it occurred to me that the critique is kind of method of research. When I do my research and I write an article for a peer-reviewed journal it goes to those reviewers and they are they critique it. They are critical of it, they say these things need to be changed—we challenge this assumption, you don't support this idea—comes back to me I have to respond to that.
We're typically not in the same room although there are venues where that does occur. If I'm giving a paper at a conference then you are engaged directly in the kind of critique process. And while the stakes are different and the scale is different, when you're talking about undergraduate education as opposed to graduate education or as opposed to your practice as a professional, its all of a piece, right?
The differences are of degree, not of kind. What I came to realize and maybe this seems obvious to an artist-in-training, but I think its not obvious to people who see themselves as outside of that world that sphere. What I came to understand was that students were engaging in research through the critique. Being exposed to contemporary art through this duty of [Renfrew] as a college administrator, and that having contact with artist seeking to understand that, this was a window into the mind of makers in the past. Not only that but [Renfrew] came to understand that what contemporary artists are often doing is the same thing that he does as an archaeologist. An archaeologist takes objects, things that are made, thinks about them, thinks about what they say about the world and what the maker maybe was trying to say about the world. Even if that object is something that we would call utilitarian. You design an object out of materials to respond to the world and to promote a behavior. Renfrew came to understand that that's what many artists do. They use materials in the world to speak about the world and to promote behaviors. So he came to call art making a research strategy and especially modern and contemporary art making.
KIRSTEN The topic of this episode is likely the most selfish of the series for me. Feedback, critique, criticism, evaluation—these were just as significant to my graduate education as my textbooks and the lectures. But I am still scratching my head over the culture of critique. My peers across MICA and I have discussed all kinds of feedback. The highs and the lows, the motivational and the discouraging experiences. I’m determined to better understand the culture of critique for artists and makers.
And I believe that if we can couple the idea of critique as research with neutral questions and inquiry, then creative work will and can propel forward. And it will leave artists motivated to keep doing what they do.
LIZ I just keep saying over and over again, as you've heard me say, what makes us think that honest feedback has to hurt? What is that about? I mean it's true that people get really good feedback in Critical Response. I mean they can't wait to go back to work. They'll say to me later, "but you know it wasn't really feedback". And I'll say, "oh, it's because it didn't hurt."
So you don't even know how to receive it or where to file it because it didn't hurt. That's crazy. And I say over and over again, you can say the whole [opinion] including how bad it was, you just have to be patient. You cannot say it all at once. Did I tell you when I was at RISD, I did Critical Response a few months ago, right before my talk i had to walk through a room of architecture students getting feedback...
KIRSTEN Today’s Creative Challenge was actually poised at the beginning of the episode—Its the question I asked at the very start.
After hearing Liz and our guests talk about critique, I want to now from you what do you consider the qualities of productive feedback and evaluation? Submit your response to the creative challenge in several ways! You can do it from the website and the “respond” page there, with the hashtag #podcastsonprocess, and by calling our phone number! Your contributions will be added directly to each podcast page and I really want to hear what you have to say.
This episode and the whole series would not be possible without the incredible team around me. So I have to say thank you to a few folks. Thank you to the faculty of Curatorial Practice, to my extraordinary mentors, and to my support team from The Contemporary. The music you'll hear in this series was composed and recorded by the remarkable Ruby Fulton and the band, Nudie Suits. And thank you to Estelle Kline and Sean Tubbs, my audio engineer magicians. Thank you to my dear classmates and beautiful friends in Curatorial Practice and to my husband, my unwavering volunteer and MacGuyver on all of this.
And last but not least thank you to Liz Lerman, the stunning artist who graciously opened up her life and process to me.