Understanding Multimodalities in Arts and Social Sciences

by J.P. Singh, Editor & Evangelos Chrysagis, Managing Editor

doi: 10.18278/aia.

Multimodal Scholarship in the Arts: Challenge to Creativity and Authority

This issue on multimodalities opens conversations on what it means to represent or construct reality through artistic practices. Broadly, we also address social meanings and representations that go beyond art. The concept of modality arises out of semiotics that studies meaning-making through signs. In Hodge and Kress’ definition (1988:124), modality refers to the “status, authority, and reliability of a message.” Modality determines the value of facts presented, for example, through the modal distributions of statistics. Modalities are “semiotic resources for making meaning that are employed in a culture—such as image, writing, gesture, gaze, speech, posture” (Jewitt 2009:1).

Multimodality encompasses multiple ways of establishing facts, depending on the question or the problem. Each modal representation contains its analytical and methodological practices: “What are recognized as ‘realistic’ styles of representation reflect an aesthetic code…. Over time, certain methods of production within a medium and a genre become naturalized. The content comes to be accepted as a ‘reflection of reality’” (Chandler 2002:64). Multimodal practices challenge the singular modal status of representations rooted in texts. Multimodality steps beyond textual analysis to bring in visual representations and images, sounds and acoustics, bodies and gestures, and other cultural signifiers. We trace this trajectory through the juxtaposition of relevant empirical examples and artistic practices that are intrinsically multimodal and which push the limits of creative expression and collaboration. In doing so, they explore research ethics and scholarly production and open up possibilities for dialogic engagement between researchers, participants and academic audiences.

Arts & International Affairs has been publishing multimodal works since its inception. Multimodality is inherently creative in moving beyond words through methods and meanings that are yet to affix their epistemic and epistemological values. This issue traverses many modalities in varied forms to provide a sense of this varied landscape: the issue contains multimodal essays from artists, arts practitioners, a geodetic engineer who is a photographer, policymakers, and scholars. Their views are represented through images, films, sounds, sculpture, speeches, interviews, and traditional scholarly essays.

The essays included in the double issue spell out the potential of multimodalities to speak to meaning-making. Yet, they also point toward a more affective dimension of multimodal scholarship that precedes cognition and intellectual stimulation. This emotive capacity of multimodality is what makes it so powerful; it is also what challenges its own usefulness. In the conclusion to this essay, we attend to a few of its limitations.


The Necessity of Multimodality

Multimodal research and publishing can be challenging. More precisely, the challenge lies in uprooting or at least rethinking established research and publishing practices, which revolve around the hegemony of the written word and the occularcentrism of knowledge production. The primacy of vision for a long time hindered previous attempts at transcending the inherent visualism of academic practices, especially in the realm of publishing. But privileging textual representations over other forms of knowledge-making is not only ethnocentric; as anthropologist Elisabeth Hsu writes: “An ocular-centric culture need not necessarily result in a more logo-centric one” (2008:435). And this without even beginning to question the validity of the claim that the “West” is indeed a visual culture.

One of the main objectives, therefore, is to embrace multimodality in ways that stem from our research participants’ practices. This is not a call for uncritical cultural relativism; rather, it seeks to underscore the pluralism and heterogeneity of the term as well as the practices under its rubric. For example, in a recent article on the topic, anthropologists Collins, Durington, and Gill (2017) call for attention to the processual and collaborative nature of the research continuum, from pre-fieldwork encounters and complex media interactions with respondents to the residual, unfinished nature of research and the problematic hierarchies of scholarly publishing. In many ways, multimodality is not particularly “innovative,” in the sense that it encompasses practices that are already taking place, as any researcher knows, while it still seems to privilege the visual to the detriment of other “modes,” such as sound, especially in “visual studies.” Multimodality as an umbrella term can indeed help to foreground disparate research practices; however, we believe that its main dynamic lies in its capacity to question the existing knowledge/logos and authority of entrenched institutional publishing practices. Arts & International Affairs as a forward-thinking journal and an outlet for the creative interpretation and publication of high-quality research is at the forefront of the effort to break down textual authority.

Apart from the content of multimodality and how to adopt a multimodal approach to research and publishing, another question emerges: multimodality for whom? In other words, how do our published outputs become more inclusive? More dialogic? How do we establish a “subject–subject” relationship, not only with our research participants but also our audiences? The current issue of Arts & International Affairs demonstrates what multimodality can achieve in this respect.


Table 1. Understanding the Content and Form of Multimodal Analyses.


Figure 1. Moving from Textual Exclusivity to Multimodal Inclusivity.

There is another way to present the matrix above to indicate the movement from the exclusivity of traditional, contemplative, authoritative (or downright exploitative) research practice to inclusive dialogic communication that involves the authors and subjects in co-production of meanings.


Forms of Multimodality

Inclusivity relies on careful reflection. Reflection on our research, our relationships with research participants, and our role as researcher. All articles in the current issue grapple with these themes. The “authors” in this issue are aware of the power dynamics in the production of meanings but suggest different strategies around this.

In Harjant Gill’s reflections, multimodality entails collaboration, and thus comes with an inbuilt affordance against a single-authored work. Harjant Gill reflects on his multimodal scholarship as a visual anthropologist to underscore the shifting grounds of anthropological fieldwork in relation to the discipline’s objects of study and modes of inquiry. Multimodality and textual representation should not be seen as mutually exclusive; yet, it is the former’s appeal to the sensorium that provides a feelingful register for future scholarship.

Fraser Anderson’s self-reflective account as the former Chief Executive at Scottish Ensemble (SE) is interspersed with audio-visual material that animates his invaluable insights into SE and the ways in which small and medium-sized classical music companies can grow internationally. Not only does Anderson’s article bridge the gap between researcher and researched but also advocates a better funding deal for smaller Scottish companies, while providing useful advice for up-and-coming ensembles. It also operationalizes a vocabulary of music to think about arts production and management in current global contexts.

Sara Scarsbrook’s fascinating film and associated commentary on grounded theory in-the-making offers a highly intimate but thorough account of the process of axial coding, its physicality, as well as the manifold relations it engenders between researcher, data, space and materials—such as post it notes. It documents the sheer effort put in data analysis—a process usually not considered worthy of academic discussion—by foregrounding the mundane tasks involved in the everyday life of the analyst—indeed, ground theory in action. Sarah Scarsbrook’s notes and film reveal that grounded theory, which generates knowledge out of the deep knowledge of subjects, entails physical and mental fatigue on part of the researcher. Ironically, it is not the subject who is affixed but the researcher who is exhausted in trying to understand and code the conversations.

Jean-Benoît Falisse’s article on the emergence of Amani music festival in Eastern DR Congo highlights another important aspect of reflective research, namely that ubiquity of arts: Falisse is an economist who accidentally became involved in organization of the festival while he was in the country for his doctoral research. Notably, he co-curated six editions of the festival, the last one held in February 2019. Documenting the festival on film, and the inclusion of videos of several performers adds an extra layer of sound, movement and color to an already lively piece.

The issue also includes two conversational pieces. One is a discussion between John Reardon, Artist in Residence in the Politics Department at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Professor Rosalyn Deutsche about the project Monument for Chelsea Manning, “an ongoing attempt to permanently site a traditional bronze head and shoulders in the small market town of Haverford west, Wales.” The discussion touches on a variety of topics, from the nature of public space and monuments to identity politics and the relationship between art and politics. The interview shows that displacement of existing “monument” or sculpture installation practices in communities may not be so hard after all. The accompanying photographs blend seamlessly with the discussion to create a richly affective account of a timely and important topic.

The second is an interview between Brandon Bauer and artist Oliver Ressler on the latter’s U.S.-based exhibition Catastrophe Bonds, which explores emerging forms of democracy and grassroots initiatives in the face of multiple threats against democratic institutions. The films and photographs that frame the interview provide the necessary context for the exhibition but also constitute an inspirational and diverse collection of activist and participatory practices in their own right. Here, multimodality takes on a life of its own and becomes a journey in everyday politics across borders.

Primoz Kovacic’s “real” job is meaning-making through maps. In the photo essay in this volume, he provides a different modal map, through photographs, to suggest meanings about Nairobi and the space of Mathare within it. Taking vulnerability as his theme, he explores the interstices of everyday life in Nairobi’s neighborhoods where showing weakness could determine the boundary between life and death.

Ronald Gratz declarative speech is a different mode altogether. As a policymaker and practitioner, he refracts current political and cultural anxieties through a historical and spatial lens to propose a vocabulary of cosmopolitan responsibilities. Going beyond the obsolete concept of a nation state, Gratz describes the contours of a new vision for Europe—a Europe of cultures in which the various modalities comprising it exist in harmony.


Participatory Practices

Participatory practices have destabilized the imagination and power that produced the authoritative gaze, or the act of observation and subject positions in the arts (Foucault 2012). The control and subordination of the Orient in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1979) arises from the knowledge of the subject being the exclusive preserve of a few in the occident: “knowledge of the Orient, because generated out of strength, in a sense creates the Orient, the Oriental, and his world” (ibid:. 40). The application of Said’s ideas to knowledge production practices beyond that of the Orientalism have led to an examination of the object–subject position in which knowledge results from the authoritative gaze.

Participatory action research (PAR) unsettles the relationship between theory and practice, and the privileged position of the researcher in the production of knowledge (Huesca 2003). Most of the essays in this multimodal issue address PAR implicitly in destabilizing the author/subject position. Even Ronald Grätz’s speech exhorts Europeans, not just intellectuals, toward finding an ethic to overcome current practices of populism and nationalism. Educationist Paulo Freire’s pedagogy, that informs PAR, articulates a world in which the meaning of existence, that of humans and their surroundings, arises from a set of conversational interactions or dialogues, which allow human beings to question the story being narrated about them and the one that they might narrate themselves (Singh 2009). His notion of a cultural voice arises from a form of knowledge in which the subjects themselves produce their understandings of themselves to name their world and their existence within it (Freire 2000/1970). Aronowitz (1993:18) notes that in a dialogue “recovering the voice of the oppressed is the fundamental condition for human emancipation.”

We reported on a PAR exercise in volume 3.1 last year centered on the Edinburgh festivals in a multiauthored essay entitled “The Arts, Participation, and Global Interests.” We addressed the following question: “Can participatory deliberations motivated by the arts help us understand ourselves?”

Thirty-three Global Cultural Fellows appointed through the Institute for International Cultural Relations (IICR) during 2017–18 explored “cultural interests and values.” Their deliberations included a week of intensive activities during the world-famous Edinburgh festivals in August 2017. The Fellows attended pre-selected events at the festivals, as well as structured deliberations at the University of Edinburgh. Cultural conversations, rooted in participatory research techniques, used to explore the creation, contestation and choices around our cultural interests and values.

The 70th anniversary of the birth of the festival city of Edinburgh in 1947 offered an important opportunity to explore the cultural values that created one of the largest annual cultural interactions in human history. The global values that informed the creation of the festival resulted from the vision of a few individuals and were fostered through a network of global and national institutions (Bartie 2013). Broadly, they reflected the Enlightenment Project with an optimistic view of learning from human interactions. Seventy years after the launch of the festivals, we ask ourselves how far we have come in terms of tolerance, understanding, and respect, as well as in the spirit of universalism. However, we chose to explore the theme through participatory dialogues rather than monologic essays.

Filmmaker Guy Gotto produced several films on the participatory interactions among the 33 fellows. The overview film from documentary filmmaker Guy Gotto below describes the project and the reactions of the fellows to the seven subthemes we selected to question global cultural interests and values. These were: highs and lows questioning cultural tastes; voice and silence; role of witnessing in art; art and empathy; anger and anxiety; culture wars; and the possibilities of art to speak to a global language.

Video 1. Overview film on the Global Cultural Fellows Programme
Password is aia37

Filmmaker Guy Gotto’s reflections, reprinted in the AIA essay referenced above, address the challenges of bringing the unsettling use of a camera to record deliberations both in terms of being the “gaze” but, importantly, also for being a participant in the room.

On the gaze, he notes:

A lens is trained on you; you pose for the picture. You change how you physically present yourself for others to see. With cameras being such an intrinsic part of contemporary society, it has become a motor reflex to be aware of a camera in the room, extending the cognitive function of gaze detection.

But then Guy Gotto moves toward the obverse of the gaze as he records the participants’ conversations:

With this project I found being a silent observer particularly challenging, especially in the sub-group deliberations (prior to the group discussions). These conversations were so electric and relatable to my experiences that I found it extremely difficult not to contribute. Coming from a largely non-academic background, I found the discussions were fantastic triggers not just for further thinking, but for further research. With both broad and delicate subjects being discussed, knowing when to put down the camera is almost as important as knowing when to keep rolling.

Unlike the declarative argument of a research paper, it would be hard to note an overall macro statement that stood out to describe the experience of the 33 fellows. But that is point: the experience was complex and interactive. A social bond increasingly drew together the fellows in intense deliberations and they both challenged and converged around each other’s perspectives. But even such an intensive deliberation may not have validated the Enlightenment claim that arts engender social trust. For example, the fellows discussed how arts move people toward intense interactions and conversations, but that societies’ ways of privileging high arts and lows arts can be divisive. Arts are multifunctional and multivalenced: sometimes they bring issue to fore that individuals and groups may not want to address. What the fellows’ deliberations did reveal were the interstices and the bridges where dialogues took place. They also revealed the performative, sensory, and reason-based potential of many participants in deliberation and persuasion.


Example 2: DiY

Evangelos Chrysagis’ research on Do-it-Yourself (DiY) music practices in Glasgow is another case in point. His ethnographic fieldwork brought into sharp focus the sonic, visual and material assemblages playing an intrinsic role in DiY music-making. The ideological underpinnings of a DiY approach to music-making as a form of resistance to hegemonic authority are well known. However, while research participants critiqued the status quo in the music industry, they neither resisted nor wholly rejected relevant prescriptions and established practices; rather, they demonstrated an active desire to inhabit, appropriate and put to use spaces, materials and norms pertinent to their music-making. While such material assemblages did not become the focus of his research, they were nevertheless invaluable sources of information about DiY practices as they were integral dimensions of music events, the process of promoting gigs, as well as releasing recorded music. The sourcing and production of materials by DiY practitioners themselves also highlighted their practical circumstances, while underscoring the crossover between DiY music and art in Glasgow: several members of the local DiY network had an arts background, which constituted an essential element of DiY creativity, in turn reflecting a multimodal approach to making music.

Apart from their practical role in music practices and attesting to a pragmatic modus operandi and an ethos of multimodality, such forms of material mediation served another purpose. As Chrysagis has shown (2016), printed promotional materials such as posters and flyers, social media (particularly Facebook and Twitter), tickets, as well as the production of various music formats (vinyl records, cassette tapes, CD-Rs and MP3s) and associated artwork[1] had a dual function: they were effective technologies of publicity expressing practitioners’ desire for public visibility and recognition, while simultaneously promoting their obscurity. Perceiving these forms of mediation as both enabling relationships between like-minded actors within the broader DiY network in Glasgow, the UK and abroad, and safeguarding DiY’s ethical integrity by distinguishing DiY practitioners from other music actors, can explain their paradoxical effect of (in)visibility. It further points to the contested nature of such multimodal forms of disclosure and concealment, allowing cultural producers to exercise their “right to opacity” (Glissant 1997:189–194). As Chrysagis notes: “Instead of conflating recognition with visibility or—in Glissant’s terms—transparency, the right to opacity invites us to consider why deliberate concealment may sometimes be more empowering and beneficial for particular groups or communities of practice” (2016:294).

The intense creativity surrounding DiY endeavors is always predicated upon collaboration; it is what infuses DiY with its force but also pleasure—it is what makes it worthwhile. Nowhere is this collaborative spirit more evident than in DiY’s material manifestations, which stand as documents of collective efforts. DiY is event-based—indeed, it begins from one’s desire to make something happen—and by definition many of its creations have a transient, fleeting existence. Thus, it is the visible, audible and material evidence of activities that attest to its social and collaborative dimensions. These are the ways in which DiY practitioners document their own actions. But the trope of collaboration can be extended to include the researcher, too (Chrysagis and Karampampas 2017). The openness of DiY creativity affords a genuine—almost mundane—form of collaboration between researcher and participants; because of its ubiquitous nature, it cannot be separated from everyday action as a special realm of practice. As such, it would be difficult to tease out the formal characteristics of this emergent collaboration.

Yet, three points need to be highlighted about research practices surrounding DiY: first, research in music practices is by definition collaborative even when researchers are not participating musicians, in the sense that audiences are absolutely essential to the successful execution of music events (Small 1998). After all, being present before, during and after music events make it impossible not to contribute toward what is going on, even if that contribution is minimal, such as helping on the door or carrying stuff in preparation for the live event. Second, research participants increasingly demonstrate a nuanced understanding of what researchers are looking for and help them achieve it: in ethnographic fieldwork, for example, the traditional “informant” has become a “‘reflexive’ subject” engaged in research collaboration with the anthropologist (Marcus 2008:7). In Chrysagis’ case, this became apparent in discussions that conveyed his respondents’ knowledge of what ethnography is, what anthropologists do, and how academic research is disseminated. Third, precisely owing to the ephemeral nature of DiY activities, research outputs usually begin where DiY practitioners’ documentation of their activities ends, while also attempting to bring into view events, practices and materials hitherto neglected or forgotten. There is no “salvage” impetus to this; rather, in many instances, documentation becomes a by-product of fieldwork practice and subsequent collaboration: for example, one of Chrysagis’ case studies would upload on their website videos of gigs he had shot, while artists who regularly designed posters for DiY music events would provide him with images for academic publications.

The latter example raises an important issue about multimodal publishing, namely that, while the dissemination of research need not be a priori multimodal—although, to some extent, multimodality is a dimension of all research—it ought to be so when the subject matter demands it. Even in traditional contexts of research dissemination, such as academic conference “paper” presentations, multimodality can be present: distributing “zines” (fanzines), flyers and records or building presentations as audio-visual collages instead of listings bulletpoints have been effective presentation techniques adding a “felt” dimension to Powerpoint slides. If DiY can be perceived as a form of “bricolage,”—a patchwork constructed from a limited amount of material resources and not defined in terms of a project but by its potential use (Lévi-Strauss 1966:17–18; see also Luvaas 2012:110–111, 122–123)—then it emerges as a blueprint for research and publication practices.


Example 3: Remix Project

The development remix project that J.P. Singh undertook with his graduate students at Georgetown University over the 2004–2012 period made the participants’ aware of their agency and authorship even when translating existing materials and texts (Singh 2014). This multimodal project made the authors reflect on their own authority as cultural translators while simultaneously seeking to humanize the subjects of their study.

The project started with immersions in fictional texts from the developing world for a graduate seminar in “Technology, Culture and Development” in an attempt to understand the social complexity of people’s lives. Students became aware that even when providing a summary in class, their narration used their own words about a text found elsewhere. This led to a digital project called “Cultural Identity Narratives” that were approximately six to eight minutes in length. The students could not use their own words but remixed existing literary and audio-visual representations in piecing together a narrative.

Here are three examples:

Video 2. Kelsey Burns: Reading Lolita in Tehran, 2005

‘Hilla Meller: Father of Daughters, 2011’

Video 3. Patrick Scullin: Brasil Final Cut, 2012

The project addressed one of the fundamental challenges for international development, namely that the way we represent the developing world in our conceptual imagination is linked to the solutions and policies we propose (Singh 2017). Development thought has come a long way since the postwar era when the developing world was imagined as backward, belonging to the Third World, and in need of the kinds of solutions and technologies that made the West “modern” and prosperous. These technical solutions, unsurprisingly, did not work. They were divorced from history and cultural context.

A literary or fictional narrative is different. It speaks to both the limits and impossibilities of situating development interventions, and foremost provides a place to understand how people themselves negotiate their cultural identities, values, and lives. In the recently released Bollywood film “Gully Boy” (lit: Street Boy) Director Zoya Akhtar presents both the limits and agency of youth in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum through hip-hop. The syncretic result challenges structural practices at several levels including religion, family, class, and gender.

Video 4. Gully Boy (2019) trailer with English translations of “Asli (real) Hip Hop” song.

Remixing a narrative from the ground-up is different from a gaze far away. The Western fictional genre is replete with narratives where the protagonist finds the spiritual plenitude of one’s inner self in the hustle and bustle of the developing world. Alternatively, s/he is either running away from uncivilized people or appearing as their savior. The Remix technique makes the author aware of these biases while also forcing them to piece together a narrative from “found” texts and materials. In the examples posted above, we are left with intertextual narratives about gender from J.P. Singh’s ex-students Hillá Meller and Kelsey Burns, or the depictions of life in favelas from Patrick Scullin.

A digital remix is a translation and one that demands a close adherence to the found texts, and a carefulness in re-presenting them. The students often spoke to several themes that stood out for them in the remix project: their own reflexivity; humanization of the subjects they presented; the possibilities of locating cultural voices and agency, and the structural limitations of doing so; and cultural hybridity in any narrative. This is very different from the “othering” in most top-down narrative that stereotypes people with distinct traits, including the one that imagined industrialization for a “backward” Third World.

J.P. Singh’s student Patrick Scullin was critiqued by his classmates for presenting a narrative of violence about Brazil, which a few found to be stereotypical, even though he was merely remixing existing materials. He provides the following reflexivity for his narrative in his vimeo link:

This is a combination of three films and two writers works. All of the material is the property of the original producers and they deserve full credit. The adaptation presented here was done for a graduate school course by Patrick Scullin. It is intended to be a Cultural Identity Narrative for a class on Culture, Technology and Development. We were tasked with watching at least one film that was produced in another country, and read at least one novel from that country, and … then produce an 8-minute Narrative using music, film and literature. The three films I watched were all melancholy, and in the novel I read a man’s best friend and his wife…well, you know… he spends a lot of his time in agonizing jealousy, I choose an excerpt from a poet as well. I tried to convey that there is beauty, dancing, love making, sensuality, despair, hope, and yes, violence in the experience I had with the directors and authors I read. It is not intended to be an all encompassing judgment or expression of Brasil. It is what I felt was necessary to communicate, not because all of the things are nice to reflect on, but because that was my experience of their experience. Life is a grand opera. It is not intended to accurately reflect Brasil, it was a reflection of my experience with the art that was created there.



If multimodality is an inherent quality of our research practices and how research participants conduct themselves in everyday life, how do we translate that in academic “scholarship”? Blurring the line between intellectual achievement and sensory response eschews proper channels of research dissemination and evades definitions of academic “rigor.” Yet, as anthropologist Paul Stoller has noted, “sensuous scholarship” demonstrates “how the fusion of the intelligible and the sensible can be applied to scholarly practices” (1997:xv). “Perhaps,” Stoller asks, “it would be better for the scholar’s body to remain blissfully asleep in analytical nirvana?” (ibid:xvi). Multimodality not only awakens the researcher’s body or recognizes it as an affective nexus, conditioned by experience to tell a story via conventional media such as text; most importantly, it calls for a profound reconsideration of the different modes of narrating and of the power relations invested in the production of knowledge.

The examples above acutely demonstrate why the conventional modality of text and its notion of exclusive authority and monologic communication fail to convey the experiential richness of academic research. They subvert the force of logos by conjuring up palpable social encounters and making felt the materiality of interactions with people and things in the ethnographic field and the university classroom. In doing so, they lay bare the contours of research participation and collaboration—as well as friction—that give rise to “knowledge.” Thus, multimodality is a priori relational: it does not “represent” but speaks for itself as the embodiment of social life—its past traces and future potentials. The contributions to this double issue of Arts & International Affairs explore precisely this trajectory from social life to multimodal presentation, and tackle some of the most pressing questions about the future of academic publishing: what is the nature of authorship? Who holds the privilege of knowledge? Have academics become middlemen? Are academic journals obsolete? Multimodality, as a relatively new endeavor cannot provide answers but constitutes a provocation. The analytical practices and methodologies underlying multimodality are still uncertain and evolving (Jewitt 2009). To use a visual metaphor, shifting the frame from text to multimodality does not merely turn Descartes on his head but challenges the very nature of knowledge. As such, this is uncharted territory with all the strengths and pitfalls that such a self-reflective move involves. However, this is also a call for further specifying a research agenda for the future. Multimodality offers important ways for researchers to translate social lives in research.



[1] This is by no means an exhaustive list, which also included stage costumes and props, fanzines, websites and amateur videos posted on YouTube, to name but a few.



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