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About City

Thomas Whittaker

MPhil/PhD student

Department of Culture & Creative Industriesnull


Title of thesis:
Community engagement in public art: An examination of public art policies in East London

Dave O'Brien and Jo Littler

Course start date and mode of study:
Oct 2012 / Full-Time

Summary of current doctoral research

Thomas's current work uses the example of participatory art practices that take place within East London to examine how public or community participatory art projects introduce or reinforce particular social discourses. As such, his research is concerned with considering the absence of neutrality behind such practices, particularly the frequently held argument that participatory art practices give the participants a legitimate and independent 'voice' of their own. The unique character of his work is arrived at through the application of particular theoretical positions to the practice of participatory art in order to illustrate this argument. Most notably, it seeks to examine such practices within East London through the context of 'city habitus', an adaption of Bourdieu's habitus which seeks to recognise location and locality as a dynamic, rather than an incidental or secondary, social component. Further, the thesis is concerned with discerning parallels between participatory art practices and the number of texts concerned with the interconnection and relevance of Foucault's conception of governmentality to the art gallery or museum - namely, the position that galleries can be considered governmental instruments that seek to engineer self-steering mechanisms in order to ally individuals to socio-political objectives without governing individuals within the private sphere. Finally, Thomas intends to move from questions of institutional control to the control of the artist him or herself - questioning the autonomy of the participant and thus challenging the commonly held assumption that participatory art acts as a 'bottom-up' structure that encourages creativity and the free-expression of individual perspective as celebrated in Wagner's 'The Artwork of the Future' through the "passing over of Egoism into Communism" and the "surrender of authorship by the artist."

Research interests

  • Urban cultural policy
  • Public, participatory and community art
  • Urbanism
  • Foucault and governmentality
  • Gentrification
  • Multiculturalism
  • Community and the individual
  • East London.

Higher education background and previous experience

  • MSc Political Theory - London School of Economics
  • BA (Hons) Economic and Social Studies - University of Manchester

Conference presentations

  • 'Creative Processes and Conceptions of Space in East London' presentation for Radical Space conference at the University of East London (2013) and 40th Association of Art Historians Annual Conference (2014)
  • British Sociological Association Annual conference (2015) on 'Bourdieu and the City: Tower Hamlets through the context of City Habitus'


  • Lecturer for 'Contextualising Cultural Policy' undergraduate course (2013/2014 and 2014/15)
  • Tutor for Culture MA (2014/15).

Social media

twitter - @thomthumb84