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Practice Research Residency

Dr Malaika Cunningham

birds eye view of people sat at tables eating and talking
The Kitchen Is Always The Heart, Dr Malaika Cunningham. Photo by Amelia Boston

Dr Malaika Cunningham (she/her) is in residence with Artsadmin from February 2021 until summer 2023 as our Practice-based Researcher. This role is supported as part of a partnership with The Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity.

During this time, she is using her background in both social science and performance to explore three overlapping threads of inquiry:

  1. Performance and democratic spaces

Leading on from her PhD research, Malaika is interested in exploring how participatory performance can create opportunities for political discourse and imagining alternative futures. Spaces for us to gather together with strangers, as citizens, to engage with how we want the world to be are few. Yet these spaces are crucial for democracy and addressing the great collective crises we face, namely polarisation and climate change. What if the arts could offer us these opportunities in a way that re-imagines what democratic spaces could be? What if it did so in a way which forefronts playfulness, imagination, and emotional expression within political discourse?

As part of this inquiry, Malaika is exploring the use of curated potlucks as a means of creating a space which feels collectively owned. A potluck is a meal or gathering to which each of the guests contributes a dish. A space which allows for conviviality and joy, as well as disagreement. Can these spaces be joyful, challenging, fruitful opportunities for political expression and exchange?

Also as part of this inquiry, Malaika is working on a larger scale piece called The People’s Palace of Possibility in partnership with The Bare Project. They are currently building the Palace room by room through a series of residencies around the country. In Caithness (Highlands) they explored the land upon which the Palace would sit, in Doncaster they began to build the kitchen, and in Belfast they are looking at the corridors of the Palace.

Watch a film about Malaika’s residency in Caithness

  1. Collecting Real Utopias

Utopias is a major theme throughout Malaika’s work. Artistically, there is something compelling about these beautiful, idealistic, flawed visions of futures – the thin lines between utopia and dystopia. Politically, utopias offer us visions to be aimed towards, but never reached. Utopia is never accomplished, it is an ongoing process. This makes them a useful tool in creating visions to motivate change. Olin Wright’s work on utopias is also helpful here – he offers us ‘real utopias’, which offer real world demonstrations of how society could be re-built. Or, ‘accessible waystations’ on the journey to a sustainable and just future. This idea has inspired Malaika’s blog series, Collecting Real Utopias, which aims to highlight some utopian projects which already exist in spite of our destructive and oppressive social system to offer us all some hope and solidarity.  

  1. Embedding Reflection

This inquiry is about methods. Malaika is using her background in practice-based and social science research to create a new system for reflection and evaluation at Artsadmin. This work is linked to Artsadmin’s intersectional justice work around anti-racism, accessibility and inclusivity, as well as responding to a need within the organisation for clearer and more consistent approaches to evaluation. Embedding Reflection is a project to create space for robust, honest, useful and playful reflection on our work and practices. (which in turn will help to feed Malaika’s work on democratic spaces).

Art is what Artsadmin does – however, like many arts organisations, Artsadmin has primarily relied on quantitative methods to gather data (which is largely due to funders requirements). This can only capture a sliver of what goes on for staff, artists, participants, and audiences. To have a full and experiential picture of the work, a wider range of reflective techniques is needed.

The aim of this project is to introduce and embed a consistent, yet flexible, system for reflection and evaluation of Artsadmin’s work. Consistent so that we can track development and progress, as well as compare approaches and learning across projects. Flexible so that the system can be used across the wide range of projects we create. 

These threads overlap and feed one another. It is a body of work, which sometimes sits uncomfortably with itself. It is not yet clear what the specific, overall culmination of this residency will be. Performances, meals, academic papers, blogs, dead-ends, and conversations have all emerged and will continue to.

Dr Malaika Cunningham (she/her) is a theatre maker and democratic theorist. Her research explores the role of participatory theatre spaces for political discourse, exchange between strangers and imagination. She has also written on political engagement, participatory arts, and co-productive policy-making. In her research, she brings together her practice as a theatre maker and her academic background in political theory. 

She completed her PhD in summer 2020 at the University of Leeds with The Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity. She has worked as a post-doctoral researcher with the AHRC-funded FailSpace project led by Dr Leila Jancovich. She has led workshops and taught at The Central School of Speech and Drama, The University of Sheffield, The University of Leeds, and Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts.
As a theatre maker she has worked with Invisible Flock, Cardboard Citizens, Third Angel, and Sheffield Theatres. She is Artistic Director of The Bare Project, a theatre and interactive arts company with whom she is currently developing The People’s Palace of Possibility, an interactive installation about utopias, collective action, and the need for political change.

@MalaikaEliza

birds eye view of people sat at tables eating and talking
The Kitchen Is Always The Heart, Dr Malaika Cunningham. Photo by Amelia Boston
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