Intervention into the Real

What is it?

Art-based interventions into the everyday have been a common genre of performance art and of activism since the 1970s. They can become a set-up for Participatory Art Based Research, if intervention and observation, action and reflection are put into relation and context around the intervention as such. Art-based interventions into the everyday can therefore be thought of as a format of action research (Lewin 1946), or as a “Reallabor” (Groß/Hoffmann-Riem/Krohn 2015), a more recent format of participatory research that has emerged in the context of green technology and its implementation.

Rather than aiming at public attention, as for instance the Viennese Actionists did with their art interventions in the 1960s, this art-based research often serves a supporting function in local transformations. In proximity to intervention research (Kratochwill et al. 2012), this research set-up gives new impulses to a given field that can then be evaluated. The involvement might take up an activist position or follow an impetus to share and explore an alternative perspective on general social questions. The intervention can also facilitate the emergence of new practical solutions, which can then also be seen as research outcomes. The format offers a possibility to understand how unique conditions shape social transformation. From this perspective, struggles resulting in social transformation can also be seen, analysed and valued as research. Social transformations can be supported, facilitated and presented through artistic means, as in Michael Ziehl’s research project Building Symposia Gängeviertel (2015), which was located within the social and political transformations in the Hamburg neighbourhood Gängeviertel (Ziehl 2018).

Intervention into the Real can also have a more ethnographic, less activist approach, in which the intervention aims at changing practices in a public experiment for the sake of researching the performativity of the everyday, as in the research project by Sebastian Matthias (groove space series 2014-2016), who intervened in the choreography of club dancing in Berlin to investigate figurations of groove (Matthias 2018).1

What is researched?

Interventions into the Real can include research on all questions of everyday life and of contemporary forms of living together. Generally, growing insights from the humanities into the performativity of the everyday build an important basis to understand, develop and set up performative interventions as research. Though related to knowledge and theory from ethnography, sociology, psychology, performance studies and other disciplines, this research format is in radical conflict with older scientific concepts of research, where research is expected to take the form of an observation or reading that is not interfering with its object. Intervention into the Real, in contrast, research transformation and change – precisely by being a part of these processes. Hence, Interventions into the Real as a format intentionally combines academic knowledge and interventionist art with other forms of knowledge crucial for the everyday: practical or strategic, problem-driven (Yes No Maybe 2013), but also tacit or bodily knowledge. The research set-up treats these different forms of knowledge as equal and therefore creates outcomes on different levels.

Interventions into the Real often take a social phenomenon as a starting point for defining a possible research question or practical knowledge gap. Contemporary key challenges can often be identified in a condensed version in the practical engagement with specific local problems (Schneidewind/Singer-Brodowski 2015: 12). The social phenomenon contains stable, ongoing or repeating activities in which the performative set-up can be tested. The format also aims at exceptional local situations that present a specific challenge that needs solving.

As the research question often relates to a distinct challenge, the format requires precise inside knowledge of the practice, which can only be obtained by being an active part in the researched field. This enables the researcher to connect to other actors and to initiate a participatory research process. As a research format, Intervention into the Real produces knowledge of the local system, including knowledge of performative protocols in their spatial, temporal and bodily dimensions, knowledge of power relations, of the competences of local actors, of the distribution and usage of resources, as well as of legal/political frameworks. It also produces knowledge of subject positions, of goals and orientations, needs, desires and wishes of actors. Furthermore, transformation knowledge combines an understanding of the possibility and reasons for the success/failure of the intervention and its transferability into different contexts. Transformation knowledge connects with motivations, personal histories and values. (Ziehl 2020, Schneidewind/Singer-Brodowski 2015: 12) Hence, there are different degrees of engagement in an Intervention into the Real: The researchers lead the intervention, the co-researchers are actors explicitly taking part in the intervention and finding a solution for the given challenge, and the participants are either actors in the field who do not engage explicitly in the participatory research, but live and act inside the context, or who come to the intervention as an audience and as witnesses.

Artistic means

As dramaturgies and stagings of situations are the prime expertise of the performing arts, they provide the required knowledge for setting up events that intervene into the everyday.

As a research format, Interventions into the Real will enter into a dialogue with a given field instead of replacing it with a spectacle. Only in the interaction with the field in question will the research set-up provide insights into the performativity of the field, as well as into alternative solutions and strategies for the field.

Based on lived experience of the co-researchers, the artistic event is implemented in relation to problems, conditions or practices imbedded in the specific social space. Thorough pre-analysis is the basis for a prognosis on rules, behaviour, practical problems that need solving, etcetera, on which the planning of the intervention can be based. Often, interventions are designed or devised by modulating observed rules, ways of working or choreographies to be found in the field. Objects or ideas ( Laboratory Report 2017) can be inserted into the social process. Situations can be relocated, restaged and actors or other practices can be added to the process in question. These interventions often rely on art discourse and artistic composing techniques such as choreography and their respective aesthetics. However, surprise is an important characteristic of this format as interactions within emergent processes always include factors with unforeseeable outcomes (Groß et al. 2005: 12). Acts of modulation, refiguration, and translation need to be conducted from the discursive, but also from the actual physical perspective to develop the artistic intervention further. As in a rehearsal process, trying out things is the most effective way to proceed. At the same time, the intervention creates analytical distance and self-reflection with regard to standardised processes. As in a rehearsal process, observation and intervention, action and reflection have to be brought into a feedback loop to move the research forward. Documentation has to be interwoven into this process and should itself be process-based. Generally, the use of artistic interventions enables discussion and imagination of what is possible; it interacts with the collective imaginary.

Potentials, problems and outcomes

The use of artistic composition tools provides a useful and unexpected range of instruments for a critical engagement with a situation. Artistic tools are designed to develop and produce events that have the potential to come up with surprising suggestions for transforming a given situation.

Social processes are investigated and transformed, tested beyond language, through corporal interaction with local dynamics. The artistic interventions or performative acts can be performed in everyday situations or as an event that is specifically staged and framed as an experiment. If the intervention is executed as a special event, it has to be prepared carefully as there is only one chance to get results. In particular, the engagement of the (local) participants as well as the methods of documenting the event are crucial components in capturing the results of the intervention. If participatory research is framed as such, the format can initiate a learning and empowerment process for all participants. However, each member, especially when taking an activist position, will have certain interests and expectations regarding the challenges in question. This proximity of the participants to the research subject has been problematised by traditional research institutions (Strohschneider 2014).

A single intervention might be sufficient for testing a hypothesis, but a series of interventions might strengthen the argument, create more awareness and impulses in the field. Of course, results will change as soon as actors in the field adjust and get used to the intervention.

If the intervention is embedded in an everyday situation it needs to be integrated into quotidian processes to enter into a dialogue with them. The intervention needs to be clearly performed and carried out as planned to ensure comparable results. Therefore, the researcher needs to inform co-researchers such as performers and make them aware of their role and their required performance. Under certain conditions, the interventions have to be short-lived so the space is not turned into an art space. If the local visitors approach the action as they would an art space, their reaction and behaviour will resemble that of an audience, and local participants might shift from the position of active participants into that of passive observers (especially in public space). Participants then might want to meet the expectations of artists/researchers and established rules might be suspended not as a transformation of the everyday but in response to a perceived artistic intention.

Generally, Interventions into the Real tend to produce a critical awareness of the distinct line between art and reality, which can be crossed and re-established several times. This can sometimes become a cause for conflict – especially when an intervention was successful but its actual implementation into reality fails (because it is politically or financially not possible). In cases like this, the artistic proposal might create disappointment and produce an alienation with the social process. This may influence ongoing processes in that social space and can have negative consequences for some actors. The Intervention into the Real is placed in real world situations and does not create a protected space. Researchers need to handle the modulations and interactions with care. There might be severe real-life consequences for people if the intervention is not done respectfully and with caution.

Sebastian Matthias, Kathrin Wildner


response by Michael Ziehl


1 Further references can be found in Weingart/Carrier/Krohn 2007, Ziemer/Reimers 2014, de Certeau 1984, or in the Charta for Advanced Practices that was launched by the European Forum for Advanced Practices (EFAP 2019).



de Certeau, Michel (1984): The Practice of Everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

EFAP (2019): A Charter for Advanced Practices. Available online:

Groß, Matthias/Hoffmann-Riem, Holger/Krohn, Wolfgang (2015): “Einleitung“, in: Groß, Matthias/Hoffmann-Riem, Holger/Krohn, Wolfgang (eds): Realexperimente – Ökologische Gestaltungsprozesse in der Wissensgesellschaft. Bielefeld: transkript, pp. 11 26.

Kratochwill, Thomas R./Hitchcock, John H./Horner, Robert H./ Levin, Joel R. Odom/Samuel L./. Rindskopf, David M/ Shadish, William R. (2012): “Single-Case Intervention Research Design Standards”, in: Remedial and Special Education. Hammill Institute on Disabilities. 34(1), pp. 26 38.

Lewin, Kurt (1946): “Action Research and Minority Problems“, in: Journal of Social Issues. vol. 2, no. 4, pp. 34 46.

Matthias, Sebastian (2018): Gefühlter Groove – Kollektivität zwischen Dancefloor und Bühne, Bielefeld: transcript.

Reimers, Inga/Ziemer, Gesa (2014): “Wer erforscht wen? Kulturwissenschaften im Dialog mit der Kunst”, in: Sibylle Peters (ed): Das Forschen Aller – Artistic Research als Wissensproduktion zwischen Kunst, Wissenschaft und Gesellschaft. Bielefeld: transcript, pp. 47 61.

Schneidewind, Uwe/Singer-Brodowski, Mandy (2015): “Vom experimentellen Lernen zum transformativen Experimentieren – Reallabore als Katalysator für eine lernende Gesellschaft auf dem Weg zu einer nachhaltigen Entwicklung“, in: Hollstein, Bettina/ Tänzer, Sandra/Thumfart, Alexander (eds): Schlüsselelemente einer nachhaltigen Entwicklung: Haltungen, Bildung, Netzwerke. Zeitschrift für Wirtschaft- und Unternehmensethik. 16/1, pp. 10 23

Weingart, Peter/ Carrier, Martin, Krohn, Wolfgang (2007, eds): Nachrichten aus der Wissensgesellschaft – Analysen zur Veränderung von Wissenschaft. Weilerswist: Velbrück Wissenschaft.

Ziehl, Michael (2018): A real world laboratory for urban resilience Dissertation. Available at:

Ziehl, Michael (2020): Koproduktion Urbaner Resilienz – Das Gängeviertel in Hamburg als Reallabor für eine zukunftsfähige Stadtentwicklung von Zivilgesellschaft, Politik und Verwaltung. Berlin: Jovis.

Works / Projects

Kowalski Hannah, Yes No Maybe (2013), Hamburg.

Matthias, Sebastian, groove space series, 2014-16, Berlin/Zurich/Freiburg/Jakarta/Düsseldorf/ Tokyo.

Ziehl, Michael, Building Symposia Gängeviertel, 2016, Hamburg.

Michael Ziehl, Future Viability through Cooperation: the Renovation of the Gängeviertel/Laboratory Report, 2017, Hamburg.