Caitlin Magda Shepherd

"Art belongs not to the active life but to the contemplative life—not to the vita activa but to the vita contemplativa." Nicholas Wolterstorff

Month: October, 2016

Culture as Political Intervention


Kevin Cummins. Clubbers an the Hacienda. Date unknown. Available at


I’m interested in the links between my PhD research project Sonorous States and Stuart Hall’s definition that the generation and consumption of culture is in itself is a means of intervention; challenging dominant power relations playing out through the production and consumption of culture. In this short essay I will examine the links between art as social practice and Hall’s definition of culture as a “critical site of social action and intervention, where power relations are both established and potentially unsettled” (Proctor, 2004, p. 4).

Before I go further into this enquiry, I will briefly summarise my research. Sonorous States is a practice based PhD project, where I am looking at the relational affect of site-specific sound installations on public behaviour and political opinion. The sound works I am developing examine access to home and affordable housing as a litmus test for social and economic equality. More broadly I will be contributing to political and cultural debates on the social, and political value of the arts, and public art in particular.

Historically, culture has been dominated by a polarised debate, along with significant problems surrounding definitions, and methods for interpreting and understanding culture. In the early sense of the word, culture had more to do with the natural world than that of human design. It originally referred to agriculture and the cultivation of plants and animals. Both Raymond Williams and Geoffrey Harman have attempted to trace the intellectual history of the concept of culture. It was originally used in English and French languages. Here it referred to the tending of natural growth, either in animals or plants. Williams traced it to initial conception in the early sixteenth century and its earliest use as an independent noun in mid seventeenth century (Williams, 1976). However, contemporary definitions of culture, and the associated academic study of culture owes much to the German notion of Kulture, which was a key conceptual feature of German Romanticism.

High Culture // Low Culture – What’s the difference?


Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1876). The Ball at the Moulin de la Galette. Oil on canvas. Available at



Photographer Unknown. Reclaim the Streets Protest. Available at

Both Hartmann and Williams attach a crucial significance to the legacy of German Romanticism in the history of culture. The German term Kultur was troped against French civilisation, as human nature in opposition to mechanical artiface (Hartman, 1997). Within this term, distinctions were made at this time across Europe about what constituted culture. Kultur was broadly regarded as the high arts, which in widely accepted grand narratives of art history include the fine arts, sculpture, print, music, and dance (Wolterstorf, 2015). At the turn of the twentieth century the debate on what constituted culture was raging. However as academic and philosophical discourse around the definition and value of culture advanced, especially in the UK in the 1960’s, furthered by the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, traditional definitions were challenged and redefined by academics such as Stuart Hall, Tony Bennett and Richard Hoggart. Progress included recognizing mass culture, or popular culture as worthy of analysis and study, especially in the post world war II boom in consumerism and cultural pastimes. Another important concept in the development of cultural studies was the argument that all people are both producers and consumers of culture, and the recognition that readers are as important as authors in the construction of culture. Key to these progressions was Hall’s argument that the production and exchange of culture, is also the production of power and politics, something also developed by Foucault. For Hall, culture was not something to simply appreciate or study, but a “critical site of social action and intervention, where power relations are both established and potentially unsettled” (Procter 2004, p. 2.). Historically culture has not been deemed inclusive of activities normally deemed economic and political (Milner and Browitt, 2002, p. 5). Yet progress made by thinkers from the 1960s have firmly located the construction and study of culture as inherently political.

Building the bridge that unites the territory of art and politics, can be expedited and strengthened with concepts and theories taken from the discipline of cultural studies. Before examining motives behind the communicative efforts of Sonorous States, it is useful to examine linguistic structures, and how meaning is generated, conveyed and validated. Without time spent considering what is being communicated, how, and to whom, it seems that a politically engaged and disruptive artwork can lack the potential to engage. It is not simply a practical toolkit that I hope to add to through my engagement with cultural studies, but also expand the theoretical landscape that I situate my work within. The concepts I want to use to help in the analysis of what I want to say and to whom are manifold. In this essay I concentrate on the theory and practice of representation and semiotics, and how they as linguistic theories and methods of interpretation can be used in the conceptual development of new artwork, integral to the development of Sonorous States.


Inspiration for Sonorous States. Sound system from Notting Hill Carnival. Available at

In recognising that these two linguistic and cultural theories (representation and semiotics) are instrumental in the development of a conceptual clarity of an artwork and it’s dissemination, I will give a brief overview of both theories. In order to convey any meaning, be it represented visually, sonically, physically or verbally, language is needed. It is broadly agreed that language is a system of signs, across a range of mediums that communities use to create shared understanding. For people to understand each other, and enter from the sphere of private meaning into the public they must share a system of representation, meaning making and language (Hall, Evans and Nixon, 2013, p. 2). There are many theories used to try and explain how we construct meaning in the world. In this instance, I am thinking through a constructionist lens. This is because I personally believe that meaning and language is shaped by the cultural and society we are in, and that there is no “inner” or predetermined meaning, nor does language function to reflect consistent characteristics and meanings that occur within the world around us. Furthermore, Hall argues that it is the constructionist approach that has had most impact on cultural studies in recent years (Hall, Evans and Nixon, 2013, p. 2). The fundamental idea that underpins constructionist theory is that all meaning is constructed through social exchange, in and through language. We need to use an analysis of representation to understand what is being referred to through the use of concepts and associations. With this in mind I will be thinking through what Sonorous States seeks to represent, how it will do this and how selecting certain mediums, such as the use of sound, built structures and site-specific locations convey a political critique of austerity, deregulated private land-lords and a broader social norm of individuated neo-liberalism.

Let us now take a very brief tour through semiotics and the study of signs. Swiss linguist Ferdinand Mongin de Saussure spent much of working career developing a method to assist in the identification and analysis of signs within language. For Saussure, according to John Culler (Culler, 1976, p. 19), the production of meaning depends on language and “language is a system of signs”. Saussure acknowledged that sound, images, written words, paintings, photographs, dance etc, function as signs within language. To assist in the interpretation of signs, to help decode meaning, Saussure made a major methodological contribution to cultural analysis through the interpretation of signs. He broke down the sign into two elements. The signifier and the signified. The signifier is the word or image that is used to refer to concept of the thing. For example, the signifier of the word or image walkman correlates with the concept (the signified) of a hand-held, personal music player. Both are required to produce meaning, but this can only happen through the use of shared, consistent cultural and linguistic codes, which helps with the process of representation (Hall, Evans and Nixon, 2013, p. 16).

I will explore the theories of representation and semiotics in greater detail in another piece of writing, but for now I want to argue why an awareness of linguistics and cultural studies broadly, and specifically, representation and semiotics are valuable theories to draw in on the development of new site-specific sound works.

At this point, I take a moment to relate my practice to a theoretical interest in representation and semiotics. My art practice at large is political, but it is also an exploration and enquiry into sonic embodiment, and physical discourse set up with the wider public, in public space. In part this is a critique of the institutional elitism endemic within the art institution and the White cube, and in part it is a commitment to siting concepts and politics in the terrain of the multi sensory realm, and the language of the body. Through my practice I examine and respond to political decisions of our time, and their effect on every-day people. I am particularly interested in studying low-income individuals and groups, and representing the stories of people without financial security. I am opposed to the grand narrative of art as a cultural currency for the aristocratic and economic elite, and believe that accessible art, situated in public space can expedite public discussion, and action on political issues of our time.


More inspiration. Brixton Splash Festival (2010). Sound system on Atlantic Road. Available at

Essentially, I am concerned with generating and exchanging culture that challenges dominant economic paradigms playing out within contemporary British society. The fact that I belong to both the academy and the artistic discipline, places my work within what is traditionally deemed high culture. The pleasure and the problem for me, is that I remain critical of the dominant history of art belonging to the Bourgeoisie as a means of contemplation and leisure, both states achieved through significant expense. Although many artists and art movements have recognized the skewed relationship that art has with wealth, money and power, many movements across the 20th and 21st century have critiqued and actively opposed the appropriation of art by the rich. In particular, you can look back to the work of Modernism, Situationist International, Dada, and Fluxus movements. The interpretation of my work should be cross referenced with the language of art history, political art, and emerging discourses around urban ambiance, intervention art and sound art in public space. Alongside this, a key question is how will a wide, public audience use their linguistic codes and systems of representation to interpret the work, and will my new sound work be relevant to mixed audiences. This really can only be understood by making the work and analyzing its effect in situ. But as the new works develop it is valuable to examine the associations of certain mediums, locations and timings of the work.

Semiotics will be an interesting lens with which to analyze and interpret public response to new works coming out of Sonorous States. A big part of my research in year two will be the engagement with general publics responding to my work, and the analysis of the importance and value they ascribe to the theme and content of the site-specific sound works. When refining my research questions and surveys, that I will use to engage public with my work, I will be making time to design research probes that will help unpack what people refer to in their individual conceptual maps of meaning and cultural codes, as the they interpret and value the sound work. This aspect of my research will require further development, but an awareness of semiotics and signs in the design of my research questions will help elicit an fuller reading of the work, from a range of cultural perspectives represented by randomly selected research participants.

In an attempt to come full circle, I incorporate cultural studies as a vital vertebrate into the backbone of my practice. Subsuming Halls assertion that cultural studies is a means of political intervention and a method for challenging dominant narratives, I incorporate theories of representation, shared language, semiotics and a blur between high and low culture into my practice. By doing this I gain further insight into how best to sculpt a political response to austerity, Tory politics and a broadly deregulated rental market that is acute. I aim to do this with the intention of furthering the argument that artists have the potential to contribute meaningful political critiques, ideas and proposals to assist in reshaping political and societal values. Values that privilege individualism within society, extrinsic values of intrinsic values and competition of cooperation. As George Monbiot outlines in his recent article The Age of Loneliness is Killing Us (Monbiot, 2017) individualism is rife. “British children no longer aspire to be train drivers or nurses – more than a fifth say they “just want to be rich”: wealth and fame are the sole ambitions of 40% of those surveyed. Meanwhile, Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe and people are more likely to die from loneliness than from obesity, and levels of this malaise are growing. I refer to such analyses as it helps to spotlight the issues that are at play, and present in my mind a perfect storm of social isolation, competitiveness over inclusivity and a economic model that divides the rich and the working poor / precariat in a fatal and brutal cut. Within such a social climate I examine if public art, and public art that invites embodiment and listening as acts that help audiences engage with the work, can challenge dominant ideologies running toxic through our culture at present. The method that I will use to do situate Sonorous States and indeed the creation and situation of the work will draw heavily on theory and methodologies transplanted from Cultural Studies. Low culture is important as high culture, and shared language is the measure of a cultural identity; how will my work contribute to post digital, embodied connection, and can listening help us get there?


Culler, J. (1976) Saussure. London: Fontana.

Du Gay, P., Hall, S., James, L., Mackay, H. and Negus,K. (1997) Doing Cultural Studies; The Story of the Sony Walkman, London: Sage / The Open University.

Hall, S., Evans, J. and Nixon, S. (2013). Representation. 2nd ed. London: Sage.

Hartman, G. (1997) The Fatefull Question of Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Milner, A. (2002) Reimagining Cultural Studies: The Promise of Cultural Materialism. Sage: London.

Monbiot, G. (2016) The Age of Loneliness is Killing Us. Available at (Accessed 30th October 2016)

Saussure, F. De. (1960) Course in General Linguistics. London: Peter Owen.

Procter, J. (2004) Stuart Hall. London; Routledge.

Williams, R. (1976) Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Glasgow: Fontana.

Wolterstorf, N. (2015) Art Rethought : The Social Practices of Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.















Christian Boltanski, Faces.

Representation, Meaning and Language

In this short piece of writing I shall examine the definitions of representation, meaning, language and culture, and explore their relationship to each other. I will be mainly referring to the work of cultural theorist Stuart Hall and his book Representation.

 Representation is an essential process by which meaning is produced, and exchanged between members of a culture. It involves language in the broadest sense, and this includes visual language, spoken and written language, gesture, embodiment and music. However, the construction of meaning and its transferral is not straightforward. Describing and defining representation is a key stepping stone in the understanding of how language works, and also how language contributes to shaping the scaffolding of culture.

Lets take a look at basic terms. Hall asserts, that simply put “representation is the production of meaning through language” (Hall, 2013, p. 2). Meanwhile, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary suggests two relevant meanings for the word:

  1. To represent something is to describe or to depict it, to call it up in them in the mind by description or portrayal or imagination; to place a likeness of it before us in our mind or in our senses.
  2. To represent also means to symbolize, to stand for, to be a specimen of, or to substitute for.

Meaning is the agreed significance of a thing, place, idea, person, object, and event whether imagined or real. It is the process whereby groups of individuals refer to the same concept through the system of linguistic representation. As Hall elucidates, meaning is the way you makes sense of the world of people, objects, and events and the way you communicate them to other people in a way that other people understand (Hall, 2013, p. 3).

In order to convey meaning, language is needed. While we are on definitions, it is broadly agreed that language is a system of signs, across a range of mediums that communities use to create shared understanding. And in order for people to understand each other, and enter from the sphere of private meaning into the public they must share a system of representation, meaning making and language. And this is why the definition of culture is sometimes presented as the experience and demonstration of “shared meanings or shared conceptual maps” (Du Gay et al., 1997). Therefore, culture can be broadly defined as a demonstration of shared meanings and a shared method, or language used in the communication of those meanings.


Christian Boltanski. Faces.

However, Hall argues that a conceptual system for defining and organising shared meaning is not enough. We must be able to exchange our shared meanings, and do this more or less, consistently. In terms of understanding what is meant by language, be it visual, filmic, verbal, sonic or otherwise, Hall presents two main systems of representation, and details how they are at play in the way we construct meaning in our minds, and employ language and signs to refer to our concepts (Hall, 2013).

Before I delve further into these systems, it is important to make the distinction between visual and verbal signs. In linguistics visual signs are known as iconic signs, while written or spoken signs are known as indexical signs. For example, an iconic sign is a referent to the material object (place, thing, person, event) that bears a resemblance visually. For example, a photograph of a tree reproduces some of the actual conditions of our visual perception of a tree. The indexical equivalent however, bears no obvious resemblance to the object it refers to. The word tree does not refer in any real way to a tree (Hall, 2013, p. 7). The word tree does not look anything like trees in nature, nor the word tree sound like the nature or activity of a tree. With this example in mind, Saussure argues that the relationship between the sign, the concept and the object have no relationship to each other (Saussure, 1960). Using this logic, a tree therefore, in indexical terms could be referred to as YYZ or EERET. It is important to bear this in mind when we refer back to Halls systems of representation the help us construct meaning in the world.

 As we turn to the systems and methods use to identify and define representation, it is useful to keep this definition of representation in the fore of our minds. “Representation is the production of the meaning of the concepts in our minds through language” (Hall, 1997, P. 3). When establishing definitions about the processes employed in the construction and interpretation of meaning, Hall outlines two main systems.

  1. The construction of concepts or mental representations that are broadly agreed to refer to things in the material world, including people / objects / places / events. For example, think of the concept of a dog. The conceptual representation of a dog broadly involves concepts of hairy, four legged, animal. There is no reason the word dog should conjure such imagery, but the fact that it does is testament to the cultural construction of the meaning of the word dog. To understand meaning, we must first understand if the same concept refers to the same thing for different people.
  1. Language is the second system of representation. The shared conceptual map of meaning must be converted into language that communicates the meaning of the concept. The general term used for words, image, sounds, or gestures that convey meaning is signs. These signs represent the concepts that comprise of meaning systems which constitute culture.

They key question here, is why is this important. Why bother putting definition to linguistic systems, building methods of systemic interpretation and analysis of signs. Hall argues that without shared conceptual representations, and a language that consistently refers to similar codes, or conceptual constructs, then culture is non-existent and relationality through shared meaning is limited. Simply, we struggle to comprehend one another fully.

All linguistic expressions are signs, and therefore need to be interpreted. The process of interpretation helps us compare and contrast the conceptual associations of a shared system of meaning. For example, Hall invites readers to consider an example of interpreting meaning in his book Representation. Imagine an abstract cartoon drawing of a sheep. Readers of this abstract representation of a sheep will need a sophisticated linguistic and visual system to infer that the mark on the page is indeed a sheep. At times different readers may find themselves wondering if the oval, white shape outlined with undulating arcs and four dark rectangles attached to the underneath of the oval outline, is indeed a sheep. As the relationship between the sign (abstract drawing of a sheep) and the referent (concept of sheep), the meaning begins to slip and slide away from us towards uncertainty (Hall, 2013, pg. 5). It is in this example that the importance, and indeed function of interpretation and analysis of meaning, of language, of association is demonstrated. Without time spent analysing, discussing and sharing interpretation of the abstract sheep, how can individuals know that they are indeed reading the same text, and extracting the same meaning from the image.

In conclusion, The Work of Representation introduces us to specific definitions of meaning, language, signs, and representation. We are able to understand that Hall proposes that in order for individuals to share a cultural identity through language that a shared code of meaning must exist, along with a shared language system. Without transferrable correlate conceptual associations of signs, a shared reading of them is impossible. And without a linguistic system of signs to refer to those meanings, the communication of meaning is impossible.

He also introduces us to the idea of linguistic signs, indexical signs, iconic signs and codes; a variety of methods by which to arrange and analyse language. Time is spent introducing is to Saussure’s idea of arbitrary meaning. The fact that the relationship between ascribed between the linguistic system and the conceptual system is the marriage of arbitrary associations. However these arbitrary systems of meaning become fixed and reinforced by social conventions. For example, through repetition we all learn that a Green traffic light means go. However, there is no reason that go should be represented by the colour Green. Indeed it could be referred to by any other colour, or pattern, or icon.

Becoming exposed and influenced by the relationships between concepts and linguistics is a key factor is what turns all individuals into cultural subjects. Understanding these ideas, and making time for the dissection and interpretation of concepts and language, of unpacking meaning is important, as it can prove through the sorting of shared meaning, that individuals belong to the same linguistic and conceptual universe. That people refer to the same thing when they communicate. Early anthropologists of language, like Sapir and Whorf argue that each individual is locked into the individual “mind sets” and that the study of language is the best insight into such individual universes (Hall, 2013, p. 8). Essentially time spent understanding what meaning is, how it is constructed, by who and how it shapes understanding and relationships with a cultural context is integral to reading, understanding and participating in cultural practice.


Du Gay, P., Hall, S., James, L., Mackay, H. and Negus,K. (1997) Doing Cultural Studies; The Story of the Sony Walkman, London: Sage / The Open University.

Hall, S., Evans, J. and Nixon, S. (2013). Representation. 2nd ed. London: Sage.

Saussure, F. De. (1960) Course in General Linguistics. London: Peter Owen.

I find myself sometimes thinking of you

Worth its weight in gold


Let me introduce  Loophole for All, by Paulo Crio. This artwork was exhibited at Ars Electronica, and was my highlight of the festival. The basic concept was to undermine the idea of having a company “on paper” in countries considered financial offshore centers. The artist unveiled over 200000 Cayman Islands companies and reversed global finance machination through conceptual art.

The website promoted the sale of real identities of anonymous Cayman companies at low cost to democratize the privileges of offshore businesses by forging Certificates of Incorporation documents for each company, all issued with the artist’s real name and signature.


Paolo Crio. Loophole for All. 

Loophole for All is an example of a work of conceptual art that effectively exposes, undermines and critiques an enormous problem of our time. Tax evasion by the super rich, otherwise known as not giving a fuck. The Panama Papers scandal earlier this year, was a groundbreaking expose that showed how the international elite, really really don’t give a fuck. The files show how Mossack Fonseca clients were able to launder money, dodge sanctions and avoid tax. In one case, the company offered an American millionaire fake ownership records to hide money from the authorities. This is in direct breach of international regulations designed to stop money laundering and tax evasion.

So who cares? My case is that artists care, and there are recognised artists out there doing their thing; shining the light into the world of corrupt politics, defunct jurisdiction and incredible corruption amongst those that have it all. Before the Panama Paper leak in April, photographers Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti made the first trip to the Grand Caymen to begin a two and a half year project to demystify the worlds tax havens. The Heavens LLC (2015) is a project that reveals the inpenitrable swirling mist from the matter, and portrays the banal physical realities of the digital, international business of maximising wealth and optimising entitlement over jurisdiction.


The Heavens LCC. Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti. 2015


The Heavens LCC. Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti. 2015


Work such as The Heavens LCC matters like Paolo Crio’s work matters, because the art world is a lynchpin in  mapping and making sense of the cartography of corruption. Artists need to be aware and take responsibility for their complicity in furthering the wealth and power of the global elite, and artists who work to expose, critique and challenge these systems help erode the power of wealth through the medium of art. Essentially such artists are pushing from within. It is a cruel irony that the current issue of Frieze includes a progressive article entitled Show me the Receipts which clearly asserts the relationship between  contemporary artworks and the corrupt collection of capital assets, yet a few pages before I was offered the chance to snap up a treat in central London, with “nothing else comes close” properties starting at a very breezy £1.25m.

Mixed messaging? What is going on here? I would say double standards, mixed messaging and maybe just turning a blind eye to the contradictions printed all over the page. Or maybe its a nod to the newest on trend philosophical position. A blatant lack of integrity.

Either way, navigating the popularity of conceptual art that sinks its teeth into the political and moral maladies of our time, within the context of the contemporary art scene is contradictory in of itself. Cultural administrators, critics, curators and editors love to demonstrate social and political engagement. Celebrating the dilettantes of our time, yet they bow down to the funding from those they love to hate, and it is done without discretion. The taxonomy of contradiction is the information system that should be written up in a small handbook, for anyone interested in working in the arts, and avoiding the inherent corruption of those individuals and organisations that love to get rich, neglect the poor and flash their wealth through cultural capital. I’m still pondering my practice based response.





Punk is Best for Pretty Girls