Empowering research practices

Activity: Film Focus 10, ‘Empowering research practices’ – Nirmal Puwar, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK

Watch the film and make your own notes in response to the following questions:

  • Explain the idea of ‘curating as research process’ in your own words.
  • What ‘meeting places’ for ‘stories, archives and materials’ can you think of in your own research?
Download this video clip.Video player: 05-250441-nirmal-conference-clip.mp4
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So that takes us to a project that I think Tim heard me present on on cinema space. Foucault talks about cinema space being a heterotopia in terms of space, but also in terms of time. So there are multiple temporalities in cinema.

And on the screen, there are so many spaces being pulled in. But also, the site of a cinema can be a place of heterotopia. It can be a alternative way of being in the city, for instance. And Roland Barthes has these really nice snippets of observations you can call them ethnographic observations of watching people in the cinema, observing their postures, their bodies, their coats. What happens when you sink in to the seat?

And there’s a lot of work in film theory on the films themselves, but not so much work on there’s a lot of audience studies, which is different. But there’s not so much work on the cinemas themselves what happens in cinema going. And Annette Kuhn has published a book called An Everyday Magic, where she did lots of interviews with people all across the UK on cinema-going habits that they had from the 1930s onwards.

Now, the cinema is also a cite using Alan Blum’s work. I argue it’s a social scene. It can be a social scene where people go. They establish intimacy in the city, establish a sense of belonging in the city. Now, you may know the film East is East. I don’t know if anyone’s seen it. Yeah, well, you’ll recognise a film scene from there where they go to Bradford. It’s a mixed heritage family. They go to Bradford to watch the film, and there’s a lot of commotion in the cinema. And people are singing, eating. So this is a post-war period. This would be the 1960s and ’70s in the UK.

And Bradford is north of England. So I became interested in these scenes, basically, in that period of post-war history. And because they allowed us to see I think may offer us a very, very rich viewfinder on city life how cities were made if you look at these scenes cinema scenes.

And they were, in many ways, meeting places where people gathered when it wasn’t so you know, we take it for granted when it wasn’t so easy to hear songs from other cultures. It wasn’t so easy to wear clothes from elsewhere. There was quite a lot of racism in the 1950s. So they were meeting places for people.

But also, they were a meeting place for me methodologically. I was meeting stories, archives, and materials. And so, often you have a material meeting encounter, as well, in research. And I worked with a gallery to create a film called Khabi Ritz Khabi Palladium. You can watch some of it online, actually, if you type it in.

And we created an exhibition. So we sort of found some old cinema seats and created a cinema space, collected audio archive. Now, that was a brilliant project. But we were still struggling with the institutional demands of a museum. You know, they have their props – for instance, glass cabinets. They’re obsessed with glass cabinets.

And lots of description so we had lots of tension over that. And it became a public site, where we had an opening, and people arguing what’s in the film. And this was quite disturbing for the museum because they wanted it to be a happy multicultural affair. But I said it’s part of it, you know?

The process of representation is contested. This so-called community is not homogeneous. People have, you know, have different political leanings. They’ve had longstanding friendship battles with each other. But it was interesting to do it in the gallery, as well, to change the gallery space and to bring people into the gallery.

So I ended up creating a second film from the archive that was left called Coventry Ritz. And this one, you can actually watch the whole film online. And then a third film called Cinema III which actually works with a sound artist and a paper artist. So there’s many ways, many ways you can use the same material.

And it probably still feels like an unfinished business to me. Right, because in this project, what was really central was to actually disturb the public sight of the museum because there are longstanding tropes in which ethnic or multicultural communities are exhibited, you know?

They have a fascination with soirees, weddings, colourful things, cooking. This is standard inventory in which multiculturalism is done in a gallery not in a gallery, in a museum. So the first thing I wanted to do is not fall into or not – I had to disturb those expectations, which inevitably involves tension.

And so many times I wanted to give them Stuart Hall’s essay on representation. But you know, they’re just saying, who do you think we are? Why shouldn’t we reach to your core? So there are different knowledge bases that we’re building on and different aesthetics and expertise because they think, well, we have the profession of exhibiting.

And we will say, well, we’ve been dissecting exhibiting, and it’s been really limiting the frames you’ve been putting us in. We need to open that up. So that is kind of central to curation. If you choose to curate your research in a public side, then unless you’re just going to repeat their methods of representation, you have to try and get into this conversation in the most diplomatic way possible.

Otherwise, they will keep you out, as well. One thing about this project we’re so interested even though we had interviewed so many people in the city, up to this day, people will come up to me and say, you haven’t interviewed so-and-so. You know, I’ll be walking around somewhere – I’ve got a story, or in that photo that you exhibited, my uncle’s there. He’s gone now.

So what it did, it actually was a big attractor for bringing in stories and opening up stories. And my main reason for doing it was because migration is told in very predictable ways. You know, it usually has a linear pattern where they came from, why they left, what the journey was like, how difficult it was but here, how they became activists.

Now, all of that happens. All of it happens. But what usually happens in the telling of the story, the dynamic quality in the inventive way, the way in which people have their nightmares and dreams together and making their lives, they’re usually erased. So the dynamic quality of making life – it gets lost in that very predictable linear management of stories.

And my point was to disturb that. Cinema-going helped us disturb that because people – this particular cinema I worked with it was actually bought by people from an Indian workers’ collective. They bought it. And they used it as a cinema space, but they also had political meetings there.

They invited actors over. You know, they made it into a wrestling pit sometimes so that people could watch a wrestling match. They had musical performances in there. And many of these people actually were working really hard in foundries, factories, you know, sewing machine outlets.

And they came together in these places. It was the highlight of their week, basically, to go there. And most people would try to dress up like the actors before go into the cinema because usually the albums the music was released before the films. So they would look at the album some of them worked double covers and have a relationship with them.

So this allowed us to tell a very different story of migration, to not follow the normal pattern, and to think about how people made space in the city. They exerted imagination, used networks, and to not of course they suffered racism, which is one of the reasons these places were so valuable but to not just make them into victims but to also think of them, really, as actors of making lives, too.

Yes, and the other thing that brought me to this project was that my father actually when he retired, he worked in this particular gallery as an attendant. And across the country, you’ll find lots of attendants who are from the colonies- ex-colonies in their suits. My dad didn’t see it as a job. He just saw, wow, it’s a beautiful building. I wear this suit. I walk around it, and I watch. The galleries are fine.

But I suppose it was a way of, you could say, dematerialising the space itself, reoccupying it differently to change the public space in itself. And so if academics are now working with their creative methods and taking them to public zones, we need to be aware of what we’re positioned as and what we’re expected to do, what we might want to do, what we don’t want to do, and what out techniques of resistance are.

I must say, it’s extremely exhausting doing any of this exchange. And I came back running to my office, you know, when these creative projects finished. I actually love sitting in the library just, like, it’s me, my books. I’m writing. Obviously, all of this feeds into you, and it affects you. But there’s is a different kind of intellectual and emotional labour involved when you’re negotiating. And that’s a part of the process.

End transcript
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The video with Nirmal Puwar and the questions in the activity draw attention to the role of creative public engagement using the research process of exhibiting. In her work, Nirmal refers to this as ‘curating sociology’ (Puwar and Sharma, 2012). She argues that researchers can ‘engage with the academy and beyond, by turning to and deploying cross-disciplinary collaborations that engage in creative knowledge practices – as drama, event, exhibitions, installations, film production and music performance, for example’ (p. 40). Key to this is the idea of curating as a research process that ‘embraces creativity and experimentation in the production of public knowledge’ (p.43).

Ethnography, self and intersubjectivity

Stories from the field