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Letter to the editor


Faculty Editorial to the Spectrum 10/16/15

The UB art project incident and follow-up conversations are dichotomized into questions of art versus racism. But—as others have noted—the project and responses to it seem more like social experimentation. As an education researcher, I’ve been asking myself, “What if Ashley Powell’s art project had been a research experiment?” The research concepts of external review, informed consent, and debriefing—none of which exist in the art world—have helped me interpret the incident and the varied reactions.

External review: refers to outside discussion and decision-making about the ethics and merit of a project before it is carried out. Review must be conducted by an objective third party.

  • a. Using the art project lens, Powell committed one obvious violation: posting in public spaces requires approval per UB’s Code of Student Conduct. But UB is not the only place dealing with questions of art in public spaces, or art with social consequences. To reduce the issue to a posting rule being broken seems to lose the forest for a tree. More important, because Powell and her instructor considered the signs art, no one helped them decide about its risks versus benefits and the likely consequences of its installation. Also, the fact that Powell is African-American has been featured in every report that I’ve read.
  • b. Using the research study lens: If the art project had been a research study, formal human subject protections would have been in place and several violations are evident. First, there would have been external review to assess the study’s legal and ethical implications, the consequences for all participants including any special vulnerabilities of certain participants, and the potential risks compared to benefits to participants and society at large. The race/ethnic identity or other background characteristics of the PI (principal investigator) is not relevant to determining whether proposed research is ethical. That’s because as head of the study, the PI is assumed to be in a position of greater power and knowledge than the research participants. Given her unequal power, plus the PI’s personal investment in seeing the study carried out, the PI is assumed to be biased in determining the study’s effects on participants. Hence the need for external review.

Informed consent: provides potential participants in a project with information they need to decide whether they want to participate.

  • a. Art project lens: Because the signs were installed in a public space, there was no perceived need for informed consent; how to obtain informed consent actually seems like a ridiculous question. For example, how would the artist inform all the possible viewers of her art?
  • b. Research study lens: Research is often conducted in public spaces, and the U. S. Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects (AKA the Common Rule) specifies that research includes “manipulations of the subject or the subject's environment that are performed for research purposes.” Because Powell didn’t collect data on individuals, her project falls into a grey area and doesn’t clearly qualify as research, even though she manipulated the environment. Still, it’s worth expanding on what would have been in place, if the art project had been research. A consent form (or other information) would have notified participants of the project’s general aims and the potential risks and benefits. Participants could have opted in or out of the project. There would also be contact information for the review board that approved the project, and contact information for the PI or principal investigator. The provision of contact information aligns with UB’s posting policy, as well.

2. Debriefing: refers to sharing information after a study, to reveal anything that was kept hidden during participation that may have affected or shaped participant experience.

  • a. Art project lens: Debriefing as defined in the research world is not typical, and the artist has no formal responsibility to interact with participants. Participants are instead assumed to reflect on their own about how they were affected by a project. After posting the signs, Powell revealed her identity as the project’s perpetrator, and shared her point of view in her Spectrum editorial, which included a desire that students of color confront their feelings, as she did through her project. She also appeared at a public forum.
  • b. Research study lens: Though not mandatory in every study, after research that involves deception, the Common Rule states that “it may be ethically required or determined to be respectful to provide the subject with pertinent information after the research is complete.” Following a study or experiment, participants undergo a required, formal debriefing process, where the study is explained to them in full by the PI or affiliate. They have a chance to ask questions and register any complaints or discomforts (as at the public forum).

As a researcher and not an artist, I can’t speak to the validity of Powell’s project as an art form or an expression of creativity. I also appreciate the point of view that universities remain places where students are pushed to grow and evolve, rather than be protected from ideas that are uncomfortable.

At the same time, a large number of students have been hurt and now feel unsafe on UB’s campus. Before coming to Buffalo, I was on the research faculty at the University of Virginia. During the 8 years I was there, UVA confronted serious issues of sexual violence and student safety, diversity and the legacy of slavery, and communications between those in powerful positions at the institution and those with less (perceived) power, the students and faculty. University-wide protests and impromptu forums became the norm. UVA President Teresa Sullivan implemented a series called “Dialogue Across UVA”, for all members of the university community to discuss topics that are too often avoided—topics like race, class, oppression, mental health, and so on. Facilitated by university counselors, forum and Dialogue discussions usually raised more questions than answers and attracted individuals who were already committed to equity and a culture of inclusion. But even with such challenges, these discussions provided an opportunity open to the entire community to reflect, engage, and show caring for one another on a “real” level—a real-life, not intellectual or academic level.

That the group of UB students who were profoundly affected by Powell’s project is large enough to organize and peaceably demonstrate—which takes courage and initiative—at President Tripathi’s address last week means something, and reminds me of different occasions on UVA’s campus when the student body was hurting.

It’s too late for prior review, but it’s not too late to express sincere concern and validation to the students who have reached out to ask for engagement and leadership from those in power at UB. Many students reported feelings for personal safety upon seeing the signs. As part of a research team working in the Charleston, SC, community that was targeted in this past June’s mass church shooting, I don’t blame them. Threats to physical safety are everywhere for people of color, and emotional responses tell us when it is safe to walk around and when it isn’t. If we as a UB community ignore or downplay students’ responses to a perceived threat, the damage to our community may be permanent, with costs that exceed intellectual or artistic merit.

--Claire Cameron


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