neil cummings

Communities of Evaluation

A collaborative text assembled by Neil Cummings, Marsha Bradfield and David Cross for a  Cultures of Resilience publication. The text outlines research into communities of evaluation that culminated in #TransActing.

communities of evaluation

Values we value



Almost a decade ago, a group of artists, researchers and academics began working together as Critical Practice. Critical Practice are sensitive to the bonds that tie one to another as a community; we self-describe as a 'cluster'. A few years ago we became interested in values and the communities that produce, share and distribute them. We recognised that values are usually expressed through things, all kinds of things – from foodstuffs, artworks, currencies and living labour and distributed via a bundle of technologies, principally aggregated as markets. The most visible form of the market is a competitive one. The neo-classical economic model pictures rational individuals pursuing their own self-interest – without regard for others – as the motive force for markets. The laws of supply and demand that organise these homo economicus extrude the values, often represented as the financial price, exchanged in any community. These fundamental elements – rational agents, supply and demand and the 'efficiency' produced by price mechanisms- function in all markets, like natural laws.

Except of course, not all economies are markets, and even competitive markets don't actually work like this, or at least, only in theoretical models. And yet, outside of public museums, and some secretive private collections, art, artists and their artworlds reproduce through competitive markets. Even art and design education is riven with ‘market forces’. Why have we enabled the values of competitive markets to dominate our recent evaluations of art, design? Clearly, we inhabit a mono-culture of evaluation, and this is not resilient.

Resilient values: evaluative communities

Taking our model from resilient ecosystems -where bio-diversity is essential for their reproduction- Critical Practice set about researching and tracing diverse evaluative communities. We learnt to value other kinds of values, like care and generosity and began to prioritise cooperation over individuation and attention seeking; we learnt to overwrite scarcity with creative abundance; to value peer-networks, and conflictual and complex evaluative communities were also things we came to value. We set about building a commons of creative resources, and to distribute decision making.

We learnt to appreciate that all values and evaluation take place through social processes that bring actors together into communities of varying scales; from intimate personal exchanges – lovers gifts, to terrifying global scales - international trade sanctions. Communities of evaluation give values their emotional, monetary or material texture, and simultaneously enable these communities and the values they value to be visible. Values, especially abstract values are not qualities of things or people, but momentary judgements – value judgements – given a ‘sensible’, meaning apprehensible form, that can be transacted.

Evaluative communities choreograph the exchange of values within any given group, culture or society. These communities are scalable in number, distributed in space - near or far - and variously durational - they can be fleeting, or durable enough to aggregate institutions. As the values they value persist, the communities themselves become more resilient.

We set about identifying the values we valued and making them resilient. But how?

In an attempt to insert different values into political discourse, the New Economics Foundation designed a ‘happiness index’. In 2010 they persuaded Prime Minister David Cameron to launch a £2m plan to measure the nation’s happiness, with the Office for National Statistics collating data as people rated their own well-being and happiness. This is a double edged sword; to make happiness accountable to public policy, NEF economised happiness and gave it a price.

So, how to value and not quantify?

Through #TransActing; a market of values, Critical Practice shared our collaborative research into the complex assemblies of value that art and design can generate. We aimed to produce meshworks rather than mono-cultures and to assemble a new ‘communities of evaluation’.

Neil Cummings and Marsha Bradfield are both members of Critical Practice, and David Cross has worked with the cluster for more than five years.

related posts include Live Tracing, #TransActing's currencies or jigs, and A Joy Forever

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