Research questions

Wonderland was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through ‘follow-on funding’.

The project needed to meet several criteria to receive this funding, including “to explore creative ways to widen and deepen community engagement”.

Amanda Ravetz, the lead academic on the project was able to apply for the funding because of her involvement in earlier research considering the contribution made by artists to connected communities research.

Wonderland built on this earlier work. It explored one aspect of the findings: that artists bring a particular way of knowing to research.

This knowing is unlike many other kinds of academic knowledge. It depends centrally on the senses and sensory stimuli, affect and emotion, reflection, connection and relationship, on holding open spaces, on multiple meanings and possible interpretations of images, on processes of making, on uncertainty and ‘not knowing’ and often on a different sense of time from ‘everyday’ time. It attempts to hold these things together rather than pull them apart to stand apart from them, to reduce or translate them into a different, “more rational”, or measurable or easily packaged set of data. It is sometimes referred to by artistic researchers as “felt” knowledge. It is from this way of knowing that certain artworks are made.

For example, thinking about the art of photography used in this project the artist who led the workshops, Cristina Nunez, writes:

“A photographic work of art as I understand it is an image that encompasses multiple and sometimes contrasting meanings: it deals intimately with the human condition, it contains a rich diversity of stimuli to thought and feeling, it has a special relationship with time…all within a single harmonious configuration of visual and formal elements” (Nunez 2008 “The Self Portraiture Experience”).

In Wonderland we wanted to prioritise “felt knowledge”, to put it centre stage in a project with people in recovery from substance mis-use. We wanted to understand whether and how “felt” knowledge gifts creativity and connectivity.

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The research was also concerned with ideas of utopia. It was funded as part of the 500th anniversary of the publication in 1516 in Latin of Thomas More’s famous book of that name. There have been many interpretations of what “utopia” means since More’s work was published, but most retain some of the original sense of his story – an imagined state in which there is no poverty or suffering.

As well as wanting to explore the benefits to participants of “felt knowledge” we speculated that recovery itself depends on being able to mobilise a utopian impulse. To recover is to transform oneself and one’s relationships to self, others, and to older habits of consumption; recovery requires endless renewal of hope that things can be better; it also means harnessing anger and other difficult emotions as forms of advocacy – speaking out about injustice and poverty and developing new forms of citizenship. Like utopia, it is a process that can never really be completed – we are always in recovery.

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Our concerns with felt knowledge, with recoverism and utopia came together in a research question:

“How can an understanding of the utopian aspects of recovery experiences, in association with artistic research, contribute to mutually supportive, resilient and connected communities?”

We can break this down a little further:

  • can “felt” knowledge, catalysed by art and artists, help people in recovery feel more connected? If so, how does this happen?
  • are we justified in thinking about recovery as utopian – a process that takes us away from suffering and poverty? If so, how is the linking of these two ideas useful?