Culture as Political Intervention

by Caitlin


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.