Psychotechne: Assessment, Testing and Categorisation

Sasha Bergstrom-Katz and Tomas Percival discuss their ongoing exhibition at Birkbeck, University of London. 

Psychotechne: Assessment, Testing and Categorisation, an exhibition curated by historian Sarah Marks, is currently on view at the Peltz Gallery at Birkbeck, University of London.

Psychotechne brings together the work of two artist-researchers, Sasha Bergstrom-Katz and Tomas Percival, to examine ways in which psychometric technologies impact institutional decision-making structures. This exhibition presents sections of two larger in-progress practice-based research projects by the artists. The idea for it emerged from a conversation with Marks about the overlaps between Bergstrom-Katz’s research around the material cultures of intelligence test kits and Percival’s engagement with risk assessment tools and prison categorisation systems. The projects share an interest in how and why testing and assessment are utilised in educational organisations, medical institutions, and the criminal justice system, and what effect they have on institutional decision-making. It became clear that an exhibition of the two projects could highlight the role of assessment technologies within institutions and explore how these technologies affect those subjected to them.

Overall, the exhibition asks how individuals are assessed and categorised via tests, forms, and data structures; paying particular attention to structures that utilise psychometric technologies. The effects of such systems are broad. For example, the outcomes of tests put children into different classrooms based on test-taking abilities; assessments are used to issue diagnoses which can change how people are viewed and how they view themselves; and behavioural and mental health screenings are used to assign categories of so-called risk within carceral and penal systems. Each project in the exhibition focuses on a particular case study in order to explore the intersections of assessment, categorisation, and testing.


Psychotechne, Peltz Gallery, Feb 2023

Bergstrom-Katz’s project On the Subject of Tests investigates the material objects used in intelligence test kits. Her project unpacks the history of their uses and, at the same time, the psychological implications of their proposed ability to “see inside” individuals. The installation features a two-sided desk of drawers which contain objects from the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-Revised (1974) and the Third Revision of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale (1973). The objects that constitute these test kits are largely re-purposed toys, games, illustrations, and puzzles, which alone hold a certain affective power.


Psychotechne, Peltz Gallery, Feb 2023

Contemporary test kits are almost exclusively made up of test objects selected around the turn of the 20th century. A puzzle of a face- first used at Ellis Island to assess people wishing to immigrate to the United States between 1912-1916- was refabricated in cardboard and included in the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (which is still used today). This puzzle-turned-test contains within it a history of play, education, immigration, and testing. In the exhibition, objects from such tests are individually paired with toys, objects, puzzles, and books, to which they are connected in historical, cultural, or associative ways. The project attempts to highlight how intelligence test kits intersect with the history of eugenics, bringing together their use within education, military recruitment, employment practices, and immigration with their material nature as a collection of toy objects.

Percival’s installation, Three Risky Acts, examines another aspect of assessment and categorisation. His artwork is part of a larger research project that examines assessment structures within the security field. This project attempts to map the contours of one such assessment system, the Offender Assessment System (OASys), a risk assessment system used within the British prison system. It aims to investigate the operative mechanics of this system and, in the process, seeks to unpack the conditions OASys enacts and restricts, to trace the subjects and objects it brings forth, and to discern the effects it exerts on the individuals who encounter it.


Psychotechne, Peltz Gallery, Feb 2023

The research process leading up to the exhibition involved collaborating with David*, a previously incarcerated person, and requesting and accessing his OASys records. This was followed by a series of conversations between David and Percival in which they discussed these records, and risk and assessment more broadly. This part of the exhibition is made up of a desk organised into three sections that each display parts of David’s OASys report. Each section has an accompanying audio piece based on the conversation with David, in which he responds to specific aspects of the system. The audio aims to recalibrate understandings of assessment processes and highlight the effects of the implementation of such systems within the prison context.


Together, these two projects situate exhibition visitors in relation to two systems with which they may or may not be familiar. Though the projects are concerned with the particularities and details of each sociotechnical structure, the exhibition also connects intelligence testing and prison infrastructures with other modes of assessment. This is highlighted by a selection of forms and diagrams from various psychological assessment systems, curated in collaboration with Marks: including a personality questionnaire, a pedigree family tree from the archives of The Eugenics Society, and a decision tree used by the Ministry of Justice in relation to personality disorder. Such artefacts evidence the interweaving histories of eugenics, criminology, and intelligence testing, alongside personality testing and the broader field of psychology.

Alongside displaying these practice-based research projects, the exhibition also offers an opportunity for engagement. Over the one month of the exhibition, this includes two sets of closed workshops: the first involving people affected by intelligence testing, and the second, co-organised by Becka Hudson, on the ramifications of OASys risk assessments. These workshops aim to operate in a two-way exchange of knowledge and critique to better understand how learning-disability self-advocates relate to both the history of testing and the materiality of historical tests, and to discuss with legal practitioners and prison campaigners the often obscure and complex managerial systems within the bureaucracy of prisons.

The exhibition, therefore, is not only a staging of artworks but is also an opportunity to open a process and to inform the ongoing research involved in the projects of Bergstrom-Katz and Percival, and the connected research in the Birkbeck’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Mental Health (CIRMH) directed by Marks. Engagement with faculty, staff and students across the various departments at Birkbeck and connected institutions, research centres and networks, has provided the opportunity to critically examine these research projects and their artistic impacts. The public nature of the exhibition means the researchers can gain insights from people who have knowledge about these and connected systems via their academic, professional, and lived experiences with educational, psychometric, and penal systems.


Psychotechne, Peltz Gallery, Feb 2023


Alongside the exhibition and workshops, the artists are also organising a one-day symposium to think further about how socio-technical systems produce categorisations in ways that are then operationalised within broader knowledge infrastructures and epistemic frameworks. The event is organised around three interconnected issues. The first panel with Margarita Aragon, Simon Jarrett, and Ageliki Lefkaditou examines the notion of intelligence in relation to race-making, containment, and definitions of intellectual disability. The second panel with Becka Hudson and Eoin Fullam addresses the use and effects of metrics within mental health. The final panel with Ramon Amaro and Anthony Faramelli explores how categories intersect with technical systems.

Psychotechne is an experiment which looks to expand an exhibition into a mode of public research. The exhibition, therefore, was not intended to display finished works but instead operate as a platform for creative engagement with a variety of people with distinct experiences, and to produce knowledge of the effects of assessments, tests, and categorisation on people’s lives. As such, the project materialised in the exhibition enacts a performative and procedural approach, privileging process and methodology over a fixed entity or outcome. The exhibition is the first step in an ongoing collaboration between Bergstrom-Katz, Percival, and Marks with many of the individuals and groups involved in the workshops and symposium as supported by CIRMH.

* David is a pseudonym

Psychotechne will be running until the 25th of March. 

The exhibition was organised by Sarah Marks and is a collaboration with the Birkbeck Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Mental Health.

The exhibition and events received support from the Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund and Marks’ UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship.

About the authors and curators

Sasha Bergstrom-Katz is an artist-researcher and PhD candidate in Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. @sashabkatz

Tomas Percival is an artist and researcher. He is a Lecturer and PhD candidate at the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Sarah Marks is a historian of the psychological disciplines, Director of the Birkbeck Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Mental Health, and Senior Lecturer in Modern History at Birkbeck, University of London. @SarahVMarks

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