Absurdity, Absurdity, and Absurdity

Dave Ball, currently pursuing a practice-based PhD at Winchester School of Art, presented ‘Absurdity, Absurdity, and Absurdity‘ as part of Conversas series at Schillerpalais, Berlin, 29 Nov 2017. The following are his reflections on the event.

 is a regular series of thematically diverse talks held with the aim of creating discussion and dialogue, where audience members are encouraged to interrupt and ask questions, and presenters are warned against preparing “too tightly”. I decided, therefore, not to give a conventionally coherent presentation of my work or my PhD research, but instead treat the event as a public testing-ground for some of the more speculative elements emerging out of my research into absurdity.

The plan was to present a series of examples of what I’d identified as eight variants of absurdity observable in works of contemporary art. Since those categorisations were, to a degree, based on my own intuitive assertions about what would or wouldn’t constitute “absurdity”, I was very keen to test them out publicly.

The talk began with a short screening of one of my own video works, which was greeted appreciatively, followed by a brief introduction to my research. As soon as the presentation turned to the work of other artists, however, the atmosphere in the room became unexpectedly heated. In fact, the very first slide shown (a photo by Thomas Ruff of a man inelegantly attempting a handstand on a leather chair, legs flailing in the air) received an immediate rebuttal that “Why shouldn’t we do handstands on chairs? Why is that absurd? That’s so conservative!”

In fact, almost every slide I showed initiated some tirade or other on what various audience members seemed to consider an affront to their intelligence, their outlook on life, or at least their conception of art. My gentle conceptual enquiry into whether or not the works could be considered absurd was frequently met with an impassioned and resounding “no!” Whist some of these protestations could easily be dealt with through reasoned argumentation or clarification of concepts, others unearthed genuinely fertile grounds for further investigation. But what took me completely by surprise was the level of passion, conviction, and emotion with which the audience responded to the topic. Absurdity, as was repeatedly made clear, really matters – and not just to this particular PhD researcher

Pictorial Address and Seriality in Art

Jason Kass recenlty completed his PhD at Winchester School of Art. The title of his thesis is ‘Cognitive Aspects of Pictorial Address and Seriality in Art: A Practice-led Investigation’. In this post he offers an overview of the nature and scope of his research.

My doctoral research explored the perceptual and cognitive processes that underlie spectatorship of pictorial artworks and incorporated insights into the production of new works of art. The fundamental premise of my research was that artworks exist as part of the visual world and are subject to the same visual processes as ordinary scenes and objects. Applying existing empirical findings from cognitive psychology to spectatorship of works of art allows for a more complete understanding of pictorial address.

Using theories and methods from psychology to understand the experience of artworks is not in itself novel. The field of empirical aesthetics boasts a wide literature comprising experiments around aesthetic preference and art appreciation. My research differs based on my position as a visual artist rather than a scientist and my emphasis on relating psychological findings to existing art theory and art historical narratives. The incorporation of practice-based research in the form of producing new works of art (Fig. 2) also brings a different perspective to an established yet often divisive discipline.

Figure 1. Installation shot from PhD exhibition.
Figure 1. Installation shot from PhD exhibition.

Within the thesis, I focused on seriality as an aesthetic strategy and the mode of address offered by serial works of art. Serial artworks have previously been theorised, in particular by Coplans (1968), who established a distinction between serial artworks that comprise multiple discrete but related instances and pictures produced along the masterpiece model. Fer (2004) has said about seriality, “It brings with it a whole set of assumptions about the nature of aesthetic experience as direct and spontaneous” (p.4).

My research sought to reveal the direct impact of seriality on the experience of the viewer by way of cognitive and perceptual processes. In the first instance I considered Monet’s painted series of the Rouen Cathedral. A proto-serial artwork, Monet understood the importance of exhibiting the nearly thirty paintings depicting different light and weather conditions being exhibited together.

I consulted theories of concept formation and face recognition that speak to the ability to form a stable mental concept from a set of varied instances: a feature essential to navigating a complex visual world. Findings within the study of face recognition indicate that the process may involve retaining invariant information across instances while eliminating extraneous superficial details; a process akin to averaging (Young & Bruce, 2011).

Figure 2. A subset of nearly thirty paintings by Monet of the façade of the Rouen Cathedral (left) and an averaged composite of a subset of the paintings created in Photoshop (right).
Figure 2. A subset of nearly thirty paintings by Monet of the façade of the Rouen Cathedral (left) and an averaged composite of a subset of the paintings created in Photoshop (right).

Applying this same premise to Monet’s cathedrals it is possible to infer that the variation in colour and luminosity across the paintings prompts the viewer to form a stable mental concept that lasts long after the in situ viewing (Fig. 2). With regard to art historical narratives, this implies that Monet’s series are as much conceptual as they are perceptual in nature, which runs counter to Duchamp’s well-known exclamation of Impressionist artworks as purely retinal in nature (Krauss, 1990; de Duve, 1996). I explored these findings through photography, drawing and found images (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Series arrived at by dropping a portrait of my mother into Google’s ‘search by image’ function. The work responded to ideas of concept formation and Barthes’ writings in Camera Lucida (1981).
Figure 3. Series arrived at by dropping a portrait of my mother into Google’s ‘search by image’ function. The work responded to ideas of concept formation and Barthes’ writings in Camera Lucida (1981).

The second case study examined Warhol’s use of serial repetition in works from his Death and Disaster series that repeat a gruesome image multiple times across a single canvas. Warhol said, “when you see a gruesome picture over and over again it doesn’t really have any effect” (quoted in Goldsmith, 2004, p.19). He presumed that repeated exposure to an distressing image results in a ‘deactivating’ of the negative affect.

Employing existing psychological findings regarding repeated exposure (Zajonc, 1968) it is possible to infer that viewing artworks from the series ultimately leads to an increase in negative affect for the viewer, despite an initial increase in positive affect as a result of repetition. This is due to increased access to the negative semantic content, also a result of repeated exposure (Reber et al., 2004). Related ideas were explored through practice-based research responding to Hunter’s (1973) ”aesthetics of boredom” (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Installation shot of interim PhD exhibition.
Figure 4. Installation shot of interim PhD exhibition.

Through future research I hope to build on my dissertation as a model for the exchange of ideas between experimental psychology, art theory and art practice. Although within the dissertation I did not conduct original empirical research I believe there is scope to expand on the theoretical frameworks that I developed through experimentation. I am also keen to further disseminate my findings through practice-based research resulting in creative outcomes that can be publically exhibited.


List of References

Barthes, R. (1981). Camera lucida: Reflections on photography. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Coplans, J. (1968). Serial imagery. Pasadena: Pasadena Art Museum.

De Duve, T. (1996). Resonances of Duchamps Visit to Munich. In R. Kuenzli & F.M. Naumann, Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.

Fer, B. (2004). The infinite line: Re-making art after Modernism. Hartford: Yale University Press.

Goldsmith, K. (2004). I’ll be your mirror: The selected Andy Warhol interviews 1962-1987. New York: Caroll & Graf Publishers.

Hunter, S. (1973). The Aesthetics of Boredom. In S. Hunter and J. Jacobus eds. American Art of the 20th Century: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Krauss, R.E. (1990). The story of the eye. New Literary History, 21(2), 283-298.

Reber, R., Schwarz, N. & Winkielman, P. (2004) Processing fluency and aesthetic pleasure: is beauty in the perceiver’s processing experience? Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8(4), 364–82.

Sagner-Duchting, K. (2002). Monet and Modernism. Munich and London: Prestel.

Young, A. W., & Bruce, V. (2011). Understanding person perception. British Journal of Psychology, 102, 959–74.

Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9(2), 1–27.


Cartographic Operations – Exhibition

PhD Researcher Abelardo Gil-Fournier has contributed work to an exhibition, Cartographic Operations, at the University’s L4 Gallery space. His work appears alongside that of WSA Staff, Ian Dawson, Sunil Manghani and Jane Birkin. 

Cartographic Operations
L4 Gallery, February – March 2017

In Bernhard Siegert’s ‘The map is the territory’, he refers to the idea of ‘cartographic operations’. The suggestion is that our way of seeing the world is not simply represented in maps, but that map-making is itself a play of competing signs and discourses producing our subjecthood. These are the coordinates we come to live by, which in turn influence the marks and signs at our disposal when we seek to make and share representations of the world. This exhibition brings together three alternative cartographic operations with the work of Jane Birkin, Abelardo Gil-Fournier and Sunil Manghani and Ian Dawson (see ‘Exhibited Works’ below). The exhibition was devised to complement Beyond Cartography: Safeguarding Historic Maps and Plans, an exhibition in the Special Collections Gallery that showcases maps from the University of Southampton Library’s Special Collections, illustrating the challenges that these objects bring to conservators before conservation or long-term preservation takes place.

Cartographic Operations runs from 20 February to 20 March and sits alongside the exhibition in the Special Collections Gallery, Beyond Cartography: Safeguarding Historic Maps and Plans. Private View:  Tuesday 28 February, 5pm to 8pm. [Sign up via Facebook]

Exhibited Works

Jane Birkin, 1:1 (2017)
Jane Birkin, 1:1 (2017)

Jane Birkin, 1:1 (2017) [detail]
Jane Birkin, 1:1 (2017) [detail]
Jane Birkin, 1:1 (2017) [detail]
Jane Birkin, 1:1 (2017) [detail]
Jane Birkin’s 1:1 is a direct mapping of infrastructure behind the white space of display. It is ­a piece produced by performative procedure: a regulated operation where authorial control is established at the outset and rules are strictly followed. Electric current and metal are plotted using a DIY store metal/voltage detector and the information transferred simply to print.

There are literary precedents for mapping at this scale. In Jorge Luis Borges’s short story On Exactitude in Science cartography became exactingly precise, producing a map that has the same scale as its territory. And, in Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, a German professor tells how map-makers experimented with the use of ever larger maps, until they finally produced a map of the scale of 1:1. ‘It has never been spread out, yet’, said the professor. ‘The farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight!’ In this case, the gallery wall is covered, shut off from light and eyes. Although 1:1 is an impassive engagement with the rule-based activity of cartography, it simultaneously performs an affective act of display.

Abelardo Gil-Fournier, Marching Ants (2017)
Abelardo Gil-Fournier, Marching Ants (2017)
Abelardo Gil-Fournier, Marching Ants (2017)
Abelardo Gil-Fournier, Marching Ants (2017)
Abelardo Gil-Fournier, Marching Ants (2017)
Abelardo Gil-Fournier, Marching Ants (2017)

Abelardo Gil-Fournier’s Marching Ants draws upon historical photographic sources of landscape transformations driven by the building of large water irrigation infrastructures as part of 20th century Spanish land reforms. The work is a reminder of the use of forced labor to transform the lines of maps and diagrams into tunnels and channels in the earth. An economic exploitation of political repression that took place during more that 20 years within Penal Colonies that have been since then removed and forgotten.

The marching ants effect, also known as marquee selection, is the animated border of dashed lines often used in computer graphics programs where the dashes seem to move slowly sideways and up and down, as ants marching in line. It is the visible sign of a potentially immediate transformation within the surface of the screened image. Considered from the point of view of an aerial landscape, operations such as gridding, ordering or leveling land, the marching ants are a form of cultural technique, the tracing of an interaction between imaging technologies, environment, geography and governmental knowledge

Sunil Manghani and Ian Dawson, Not on the Map (2017)
Sunil Manghani and Ian Dawson, Not on the Map (2017)
Sunil Manghani and Ian Dawson, Not on the Map (2017)
Sunil Manghani and Ian Dawson, Not on the Map (2017)
Sunil Manghani and Ian Dawson, Not on the Map (2017)
Sunil Manghani and Ian Dawson, Not on the Map (2017)

Sunil Manghani and Ian Dawson’s Not on the Map is an image-text installation built into the gallery space. It draws upon maps held in the University’s Special Collections, picking out details from a volume of Spanish maps from the Ward Collection and military maps of Portugal taken from the Bremner Collection. These details are placed in dialogue with tracings from early and recent figurative works by Jenny Saville – the noted contemporary British artist associated with the Young British Artists of the 1990s and well-known for her large-scale female nudes. The rendering of her work here offers a play on the distinctions between perception/sensations and geography/landscape, which combined with details from real maps only blurs and disorientates our ways of reading lines, sites and points of view. In recent work, Saville shows bodies together, such as an infant wrestling in a mother’s arms, couples embracing, a fight, and children playing in the sand. Such scenes take us into uncharted territories, which we might liken to the enigmatic inks of long forgotten maps. Unlike the spectacle of the body in Saville’s early work, the configuration of images staged here pose as private, idiosyncratic landscapes made up of no single definite lines.

AMT Reading Group

Archaeologies of Media and Technology (AMT) research group has started organizing a reading group on media theory. The reading group had its first meeting in October with the aim of initiating a lively forum for discussion amongst students and faculty whose interests overlap with AMT. The research group itself—an office for theoretical and practice-based work in media, design and art, in relation to both contemporary culture and cultural heritage—had its inaugural conference, Future Past Tense, earlier the same month.

We meet at the PhD room in Winchester campus fortnightly to discuss selected texts that relate to themes and topics, concepts and issues in contemporary media theory. The work range from German media theory to new materialism, from issues of power and politics to the role technologies play informing what is produced as material reality.

Some of the first sessions had a particular emphasis on the theorisation of ‘cultural techniques,’ with a couple meetings dedicated to explore the writings of some of the key theorists of the area: Bernhard Siegert, Cornelia Vismann and Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. The discussions revolved around the limits of such conceptualisation in analysing the emergence of objects and processes in contemporary media culture.

We also convened a seminar in collaboration with the PhD studio week to address “critical technical practice” and discuss current approaches to media and art research from a practice-based perspective. It involved issues around making and unmaking and the questions of media technologies as epistemological and aesthetic frameworks. A range of relevant art practices and projects (such as art group YoHa and Critical Engineers) were discussed, as well as the work of the participants. Michael Dieter’s ‘The Virtues of Critical Technical Practice’ was the key text for this workshop.

Recently, we have been increasingly occupied with the problems surrounding life and politics in the present: thinking, writing and making about/with media and technology in the midst of ecological catastrophe. The first port of call in this journey was Donna J. Haraway’s recent book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, which will inform coming meetings.

AMT directors Jussi Parikka and Ryan Bishop have been collaborating closely with Berlin based digital media arts festival transmediale. A product of this dialogue is the reader, across & beyond, which has been published to mark the 30th anniversary of the festival. The books is edited by the directors of AMT with transmediale’s Kristoffer Gansing and Elvia Wilk. We will engage with the articles, as well as artworks, that reside in this book in the coming sessions.


If you are interested in the reading group, please contact us:

Jussi Parikka / j.parikka@soton.ac.uk

Yiğit Soncul / yigit.soncul@soton.ac.uk

Webpage: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/amt

PhD Studio Intensive

The PhD Studio Intensive ran for a whole week, between 14-18 November 2016. Situated in a large shared space (just off of the main sculpture studio), participants were encouraged to work intensively to explore their own areas of practice, but within the context of a collective environ.

Led by Ian Dawson and Sunil Manghani, who themselves were collaborating in making sculptural works, the intensive week brought together a number of our practice-based researchers: Cheng-Chu Weng, Lucy Woollett, Tessa Atton, Noriko Suzuki-Bosco, Eria Nsubuga, Rebeca Font, Elham Soleimani Bavani, Sarvenaz Sohrabi, Yang Mei, Jane Birkin, Abelardo Gil-Fournier and Jonty Lees. The areas of practice spanned widely, including graphics, installation, photography, painting, drawing sculpture, mixed media and social art practices. The studio was also visited by Gordon Hon, Victor Burgin, Daniel Cid, Jussi Parikka and Ryan Bishop over the course of the week, adding to the discursive and makerly dialogues that ran throughout.

The underlying approach to the workshop and the aim of bringing fellow practitioners together for a full week was to echo the Triangle Workshops set up by Anthony Caro and Robert Loder back in the early 1980s, which led to projects and partnerships in over 40 countries worldwide. It all began with an artists’ workshop in Upstate New York, in 1982, which brought together around 25 emerging and mid-career artists from the US, Canada and UK. They spent two weeks making work. In placing emphasis on the process of making work, rather than the product, the workshop provided time and space to explore new, independent work informed by the exchange of ideas and the sharing of knowledge and skills.


Comments from members of the group:

‘I enjoyed the Studio Intensive Week so much… I have returned full of enthusiasm, energy and a thousand ideas inside my head. […] I took with me, Eria’s feelings (the conversations I had with him about politics and his country), Yang’s brushwork (and her calm), Elham’s line, the shadows of Cheng-Chu, the invisible presence in Jane’s photos, Tess’s tenacity (and her immense kindness), and an unforgettable presentation and discussion of my work with everyone. I take all the comments and thoughts of that moment with me’ – Rebeca Font

‘I still keep thinking on the conversations and shared experiences that took place. It is very interesting to cohabit a space while being involved in practice-based work. Space becomes electrical somehow, with lots of interferences and thoughts sparking all around. Making practice public also exposes both bodies and ideas in a very different way, and in this sense I particularly enjoyed knowing you all in this non-seminar type of situation’ – Abelardo Gil-Fournier

‘…the Studio Week was very useful as it gave us the chance not only to create art but also to witness the creation of other art objects/projects by other artists. [It was a] week to learn/create art, explore new techniques and materials and have interesting and inspiring dialogues with other artists’ – Elham Soleimani Bavani

‘Working with different researchers from different cultures is really very interesting. We create our works with different themes. Because of our different cultures and backgrounds, we experience a fusion and collision of ideas’ – Yang Mei

‘Time, space and other artists – three luxuries that are rarely available concurrently – were offered to us freely for a week. I greedily optimised this opportunity by turning a photographic negative into an installation and by working with other artists on different aspects of my larger project, all the while building relationships with the interesting and diverse group I am fortunate enough to be part of. An excellent week’ – Tessa Atton

‘I was quite uncertain at first about how to go forward with this kind of space. I was greatly inspired by the space and how everybody went around ‘conquering it’. I think Rebeca literally did that! And the Rotunda wacky race was great. Thanks Lucy and Noriko, and for the wonderful portrait Lucy. I enjoyed the work of everyone in the workshop even if i have not mentioned names. A big thank-you to Ian for the great hand of support and for the space.  I hope to work in it again. Thanks Sunil for leading by example and being part of the whole experience. I was inspired by that’ – Eria Nsubuga

It was the first time to see people’s working process rather than seeing the result of work. While we might have been slightly nervous working with each other, through sharing the studio space any apprehension seemed to disappear. Moreover, through giving each other support and feedback, a sense of learning from each other could be seen in this context, similar to the spirit to the former accounts of Black Mountain College. – Cheng-Chu Weng

‘The studio week great opportunity to push things forward in the practice realm. Be it by creating work and projects through material, performative or dialogical processes. It was a great catalyst for discussion on socially engaged practice for Noriko using the context of the school’s very own Brutalist Rotunda. An inside, outside space which will become the focus of further enquiries. Both past and present PhDs, Bevis and Jonty joined in and contributed to the conversation. I also spent some time painting Practice Portraits of Artists in process either in the act of making, thinking or talking about work. Thanks,  It was great to work with everyone and get a dialogue going on about our practice’ – Lucy Woollett

Minimalism: Location Aspect Moment

Click for Exhibition Notes

Cheng-Chu Weng, currently pursing a practice-based PhD at Winchester School of Art, recently curated an exhibition that accompanied the conference ‘Minimalism: Location Aspect Moment‘, which was held at University of Southampton/ Winchester School of Art event (October 14th-15th 2016), and organised by Paul Hegarty, Sarah Hayden and Ryan Bishop, in conjunction with the John Hansard Gallery. 

One of the purposes of ‘Minimalism: Location Aspect Moment’ was to expand our conception of what minimalism was, where it happened, who was making it, why, and how it extends through time until now. It is clear that the minimalist impulse happened in cross-national encounters (such as the 1967 show Serielle Formationen in Frankfurt) and that Europe was fertile ground for explorations in serial works, in playing with the prospect of singular forms and systematic thinking. Admitting the significance of the naming of the idea of minimalism in the 1960s, the conference looked back to earlier versions of the reductionist, repetitive, singularising or multiplying intents of core minimalist endeavour. As a result, the event sought consider what an expanded field of minimalism looks like, sounds like.

The exhibition accompanying the conference brought together the work of nine staff, PhD researchers and alumni from Winchester School of Art. The works and wall texts can be viewed in a specially prepared PDF document.



More and Less than Conversation: Research Lab

More and less than conversation: 3 day research-lab, 1-3 Sept 2016

Noriko Suzuki-Bosco

The Phenomenology and Imagination Research Group (PIRG) meets once a month in the WSA PhD study room to examine text through conversational methods. The group recognizes conversation as a ‘cooperative venture’ (to use Allan Feldman’s words), where reading together, enquiring, sharing and listening is understood as a collective act which leads to the production of new knowledge, understanding and thoughts. PIRG has been developing the idea of conversation as a collaborative research method and the three-day research lab in the Winchester Gallery was an opportunity for the group to extend their research approach to the wider audience to further explore ideas around conversation as a verbal and non-verbal inquiry process. The event encompassed activities of making and drawing as well as an exhibition of new works by the group members. PIRG has organized similar events at the 10 days Winchester Arts Festival in 2015 and more recently at University of Birmingham, where situations of material thinking and thinking through material as a way into phenomenological inquiry were offered to invited audiences.

In the article ‘Conversation as Methodology in Collaborative Action Research’, Feldman points out that the cooperative aspect of conversation is what makes the participants feel as if they are ‘partners in the endeavour’ that allows conversations to have ‘directions but not to be directed solely by one participant’ (Feldman, 1999). Typically at the monthly PIRG meetings, the selected text presents the group with the conversational framework. During the three-day event the gallery space became the ‘container’ to prompt and hold the conversations. Certainly during the installation of the exhibition, the gallery literally became the space for the group to engage in a collective endeavour to ensure individual and group requirements were met. The process involved exchanges amongst the group members and thoughtful engagement with the artworks. As the exhibition started to take shape, the works themselves also entered into a dialogue with one another bringing to light both commonalities and differences of their themes, materials and processes that created interesting connections and flows.

A workshop area, which consisted of a long table with various objects and drawing materials and a large expanse of wall covered in paper, was also created in the gallery space. During the workshops that took place over the second and third day, the group gathered around the table to converse on various topics, such as material imagination, creativity, and notions of aesthetics – areas of common research interest for the group and to draw, write and make in response to the exchanges that took place.

The collaborative process of conversation brings people together to speak, to listen, to question, to investigate, to reflect and to learn. As Professor Simon Keyes at University of Winchester’s Centre of Religion, Reconciliation and Peace describes, dialogue and conversation is a process of collaborative thinking. The three-day research lab gave the group an extended length of time to participate in conversational methods of exchange and to ‘think together’, which was pleasurable as a group experience but also helped to consolidate some of the ideas on conversation that the group have been examining.

Professor Keyes emphasized that conversation is a ‘non-rational’ process that must remain free from goals and conclusions. This is what makes conversation fundamentally different from discussion and debate where some form of end result is expected from the outset. The cooperative venture of conversation helps to formulate new understandings and knowledge that are vital for putting together future action plans and developing new theories. It brings about growth to the way we think about things and for this, conversation holds potential to be acknowledged as a vital form of research for critical inquiry.

Conversation certainly served as the ‘glue’ for the group during the three-day research lab and helped to ‘maintain the integrity of the group’ (Feldman, 1999). However, the group also recognized that the open nature of the event failed to attract sufficient public interest. This brought to light the importance of legibility, accessibility and communicability of one’s work, be it apiece of academic writing or visual artwork. Following on from the three-day research lab, the group has started to examine these areas through series of collective drawing exercises supported by texts on embodiment of practice and knowledge creation.


Feldman, Allan. (1999) ‘Conversation as Methodology in Collaborative Action Research’, School of Education, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA. http://people.umass.edu/~afeldman/ActionResearchPapers/Feldman1999.PDF – accessed 17 September 2016)

Professor Simon Keyes’ quotes were taken from notes made by myself at the ‘Understanding Dialogue – From Theory to Practice’ seminar at University of Winchester on 24th May 2016.

Cultural Diversity & Creativity in Lebanese Family Design Businesses

Roula Al Kadamani is currently undertaking her PhD research at Winchester School of Art, examining how cultural diversity impacts on creativity and profitability in the context of family-run design businesses in Lebanon.  In this post she outlines some of the key considerations of her work.

The phrase ‘cultural diversity’ has been associated with individuals and deeply embedded in everyday life in Western and Eastern societies. For example, Lebanon, as a Middle Eastern community, does not constitute a unique culture, and religion should not be viewed as the only source of Lebanese national character since the Lebanese society is a mosaic of different religions and cultures. The role of cultural diversity in Lebanon relates to a difficult history of cohabitation. Civil wars in the 19th and the 20th centuries had a considerable impact on management and leadership style. Despite the fact that Lebanese citizens live in a diverse community, they do not practice diversity in their daily life as their beliefs, cultures, political views and religious practices have immense effect of their behaviours and lives.

Lebanon operates a sectarian system, which is based on ethnic or cultural origins, with powerful families or cluster of families that share a perceived ancestry and culture competing for political sway and resources within the Lebanese state. In Lebanon, family businesses constitute 85% of the private sector, accounting for 1.05 million of 1.24 million jobs. The family unit is usually the only intact institution capable of sustaining innovative activities in Lebanon following civil war (1975-1995). Family businesses play an important role in Lebanese economy if they foster supportive working environments and career opportunities to overcome the employment challenges. In family firms, property and control are so firmly entwined that family members are involved in both strategic and day-to-day decision making, and the firm is shaped by dynastic motive. A family business owner may behave like a dictatorial head of the family. Hence, it is important to provide evidence that diversity has a pivotal role to play in an organisation in attracting top talents who can most effectively contribute to the organisational performance and enhance its competitive advantage.

Consequently, we can assume that family business ownership promotes a paternalistic management and leadership style. Lebanon shares various forms of discrimination, which have fuelled insecurity for both Lebanese citizens and other nationals. Despite Lebanon’s attempts to reduce the number of discriminatory laws and regulations, the country has not been actively engaged in promoting effective implementation of diversity management practices. Therefore, Lebanon is supposed to foster conformity in group, section, or unit behaviour. To overcome these potential limitations, diversity management has to focus on enhancing profitability through the fostering of social justice in the family businesses. If the Lebanese family design business is leading an inclusive culture within their practices, they can lead the culturally diverse workforce to create a more inclusive society.


Global Diversity management practices?

Diversity management practices actually emerged as a concept from the United States of America and the United Kingdom and drew attention to significant changes in the demographics of the workforce and the implications for business. The interest in diversity management has spread in recent years and has become a key managerial response to changing economic and social factors perceived as having an effect on organisational competitiveness. Many global practitioners engaged in the diversity management approaches, have reviewed a shifting discourse to initiate changes from local or international to multinational and global firms. This shifting discourse is assumed to be more understandable and appealing to managers, as well as a closer fit with the discourse and practices associated with Human Resource Management.

Diversity management practices are vital in contemporary organisations as they allow employees to bring their unique backgrounds (visible and invisible differences) example, race/ethnicity or gender and perspectives or opinions to lead creativity for the growth benefits of the organisation. Gender and religion play key role in diversity management for many organisations. Other issues such as age, education, experiences and qualifications are also becoming central to the achievement of a diverse organisation. Many organisations are therefore aiming for a more diverse and inclusive culture, which is essential to develop and promote different skills and perspectives for fundamental organisational change. The adoption of diversity management practices helps to develop skills and experiences and create new ideas within an organisation. These skills and abilities of employees lead to creativity in the workplace, as new ideas are harnessed for the profitability and management of the organisation. Furthermore, diversity management plays a key role in improving human creativity and increasing business performance within the local or global context. Recent studies have gathered evidence on how managers use their positional power to create “inclusive or assimilative” cultural norms through diversity management practices. In the Lebanese context, diversity management is not yet implemented in organisations. Implementing diversity management practices gives companies a competitive advantage in areas such as problem solving, intellectual property and awards for idea generation. However, the challenge of diversity management practices is to break the harmful cycle that equates cultural difference with social/economic disadvantages.

Therefore, the emphasis on the business advantage of diversity management is probably a good motivator for companies to enact diversity programs, it does not mean that moral and ethical missions should be neglected or overlooked. To overcome these potential limitations, it is important to focus on implementing diversity management practices in Lebanese design sectors. This project study will identify some important keys for local and international companies to implement diversity management in their practices. It will emphasize the importance of the role of increasing creative performance arising from diversity and maximizing the access of talented employees. This project study also suggests new strategies to enhance the role of employees who have different experiences, skills and perspectives in the workplace.


Creativity in Lebanon?

Creativity generates lasting value (social and economic benefits) and competitive advantage. Numerous studies on creativity within organisations have been conducted in Western countries. However, only a limited amount of research has been undertaken in in Lebanon and in the Middle East. Western and Eastern perspectives provide different views on creativity and present key directions for future research in Lebanon, the Middle East and the rest of the world. This project study highlights aspects relating to the field of creativity, which requires more in-depth research in Lebanon and the Middle Eastern countries. If Lebanese family design businesses seek to promote creativity such as selecting, creating and modernizing traditional ideas, this would increase creativity and productivity that are desirable to a contemporary items and launch effectively creativity in the local, regional and global markets. Creativity might be fostered including diversity, flexible production, and consumption in Lebanon.


The traditional tools of the creative process in Lebanon. (Images taken from Author’s fieldwork).

The link between ‘cultural diversity influences’, ‘diversity management practices’ and ‘creative performance’ has not always been associated with organisational performance. As a result, this project study seeks to explore the relationship between cultural diversity, diversity management practices and creative performance in Lebanese family design businesses. Using design sector as a case study, this project study will explore further the link between diversity and creativity. If there is a positive link then Lebanese family design businesses would improve performance by increasing diversity. Clearly, we can easily assume that there is a lack of cultural diversity, diversity management and creative performance in Lebanon. This PhD intends to explore this relationship and understand creativity further in Lebanese family design businesses.

Post-Global Luxury – Handicraft in Sri Lanka

Lucy Hitchcock’s PhD research examines the concept of ‘post-global luxury’ in the context of Sri Lanka. Luxury studies is a growing field. In the following account Hitchcock outlines the main scope and themes of her work.


Post-Global Luxury?

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, we need to reassess the meaning of the term ‘luxury’. We live in a shrinking world where technology and globalisation have fundamentally changed the way in which we see and value luxury. Today, luxury serves a global audience, not an aristocratic world of title and old money. For many, the term ‘luxury’ is founded upon a plethora of assumed connotations such as rarity, costliness, quality and connoisseurship, which have developed over its long history. Indeed, the overuse of the term in contemporary ad speak seeks to draw upon these qualities. Within an advanced capitalist society, where the range of consumer goods available is often staggering, the term ‘luxury’ is used to signify a high-end good within a particular category; commonly supported by a high-end price point.

The link between a high price-point and the term ‘luxury’ stems from the intrinsic relationship between luxury and class structure. Luxury has always been associated as the domain of the elite and has been politicised throughout history as a social tool, from the use of sumptuary laws to conspicuous consumption. In fact, the use of luxury as a tool for social construction has been a constant throughout history, both in the East and the West. Within recent history, the processes of globalisation have had a profound impact on social structure around the globe. Increased connectivity, enabled by the processes of globalisation and the technology revolution, has created a global class system increasingly based upon economic wealth.

The many processes of globalisation have created a dominant market of global luxury brands that are universally recognisable. Their logos have become social signifiers. As consumers we carefully curate the commodities we use and brands we patronise in order to present a sense of self within an increasingly global society. This growing industry has drawn upon the historical connotations of luxury, such as quality and rarity, but has also cemented the relationship between the term luxury and the overt world of branding. Consequently, ‘luxury’ has been transformed as a result of its contemporary association with the eponymous world of global luxury brands.

The ubiquitous presence of these brands within our contemporary society means that, for many, they have come to embody an understanding of luxury. Certainly, the semiology of these brands and their products provides an understanding of ‘luxury’ that can cross geographical and cultural boundaries. Even within particular localities where the global industry of luxury brands does not yet have a physical presence, the qualities of these brands and their association with luxury are understood. However, as this PhD will establish, the scale and relevance of the market of global luxury brands is not in itself sufficient to characterise an understanding of luxury. At a base level, this is due to the simple fact that these goods are not yet universally available. This would suggest that within localities that do not yet have physical access to these brands and their products, there is a lack of luxury.

This study proposes a research project that looks outside of the dominant discourse of global luxury brands. Although these multinational companies form an integral component of our contemporary understanding of luxury, they are not sufficient to define it. In contrast, post-global luxury represents instances of luxury that counteract the traits and circumstances of this predominantly Western market of global luxury brands. This sense of luxury remains intrinsically linked to globalization, as an inevitable fact of daily life, but through catering to a local market does not actively seek to be ‘global’ in nature. As a result, these products offer a more nuanced and diverse understanding of luxury, dependent upon the circumstances of a particular locality rather than the overriding trends of globalization around the world. This is apparent within the national market of luxury goods within Sri Lanka.


Rolls of hand woven cloth designed by BAREFOOT. Image courtesy of image credit for Barefoot Ceylon.
Rolls of hand woven cloth designed by BAREFOOT. Image courtesy of Barefoot Ceylon.

Post-Global Luxury in Sri Lanka

Since the end of the civil war in 2009, and after 30 years of distance from the global economy, Sri Lanka has been swept up in a flurry of economic development. Huge amounts of investment, the majority from powerful Asian economies such as China and India, have transformed the experience of everyday life across the island. Consequently, much of the population of Sri Lanka are becoming progressively global, through increased access to new technologies and steadily growing wealth. Despite this, the relatively small population of Sri Lanka combined with the cost of import duties has meant that very few global luxury brands have branched into this market. Without the physical existence of globally recognised luxury brands, how do we seek to understand luxury within Sri Lanka?

Within the urban hub of Colombo, the range of consumer goods available is continually growing, alongside the expanding middle classes and a culture of consumption. Many longstanding, national brands are now under competition from a wealth of new, local brands that have emerged with the economic boom that has swept the island, catering to the growing consumer class. These brands and products dominate a market where there is very little international competition. These goods are designed and manufactured for a local consumer. Yet, this does not restrict their global appeal, to both the Sri Lankan diaspora and tourists alike.

Many of the high-end national brands within Colombo and across Sri Lanka utilise traditional handicraft techniques, such as handloom weaving or batik, within their product range. There is a long, historical connection between the concept of luxury and handicraft techniques, stemming from nostalgic ideas of the master craftsman before the industrial revolution and factory-line production expanded. For many brands, such as Barefoot and Paradise Road, their ethos is built upon the foundations of handicraft techniques. These techniques have been absorbed into the historical narrative of Sri Lanka, and for many provide an expression of nationalism. Similarly, there is a new generation of Sri Lankan designers who are catering to the emerging consumer class in Colombo. The AOD International Design Campus in Colombo is encouraging their students to invent the ‘New Sri Lankan Style’, working alongside artisan communities around the island. Many of these new designers and brands seek to revitalise and reinvent traditional handicraft techniques, such as handloom and batik, creating goods that are desirable to a contemporary consumer. Others look to modernise traditional items of clothing, such as the sari and sarongs.

The creation of this sense of ‘local luxury’ exists in stark contrast to the dominance of particular global luxury brands within other, more developed Asian economies, such as India, Japan, and China. These goods offer an entirely different experience to the exported, mass-produced goods of global luxury brands. Consequently, Sri Lanka provides an understanding of luxury, and luxury goods, which contrasts with the dominant discourse around global luxury and the marketing plans of these brands. Clearly the discourse around global luxury brands is not universal; it does not ring true for every locality. This PhD intends to explore this unique instance and understanding of luxury further.


[Feature image courtesy of Barefoot Ceylon]

Plastic Surgery

3D printing is now commonplace, and frequently referred to in popular discourse. Controversies arise with the 3D printing of illegal items, such as a working model of a gun, or utopian visions unfold with ideas of 3D printing buildings and aircraft. It is also the case that 3D printing is now increasingly affordable and accessible. However, unless you have had first hand experience of the production of 3D printing there remain many questions and quandaries. The second of the Re: Making seminars, under the title of Plastic Surgery, sought to address this knowledge gap. The two day seminar was primarily led by Ian Dawson (who has many years of experience as a sculptor) and Chris Carter (who regularly teaches many sculptural techniques, including the use of 3D printing). But it was also a collaboration with Sunil Manghani, who introduced the two days and offered a specific ‘prompt’, bringing in plastic toys of Michael Jackson and Kylie Minogue.

The choice of these two figures was on the one hand simply for their associations as icons of ‘plastic pop’. Manghani began by discussing notions of plasticity as it is used in the arts. The term ‘plastic arts’ is perhaps less used now. It refers of course to 3D art, typically as sculpture or bas-relief, that is characterised by three dimensional modelling. However, as a plural term, it was often used to refer also to visual art (as painting, sculpture, or film), and especially as a means to distinguish from ‘written’ art forms (as poetry or music). However, the relationship of plasticity and writing was asserted in the seminar through reference to Roland Barthes’ classic text Mythologies. Originally published in 1957, the book offers short essays on the newly emerging consumer culture, which, postwar, is beginning to grow rapidly, and not least due to new, modernist technologies and processes including plastic. Indeed, one of the entry by Barthes is prompted by a plastics exhibition fair.

Despite having names of Greek shepherds (Polystyrene, Polyvinyl, Polyethylene), plastic 
 is in essence the stuff of alchemy. [
] more than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation; as its everyday name indicates, it is ubiquity made visible. And it is this, in fact, which makes it a miraculous substance: a miracle is always a sudden transformation of nature. Plastic remains impregnated throughout with this wonder: it is less a thing than the trace of movement. [
] In the hierarchy of the major poetic substances, it figures as a disgraced material 
 it embodies none of the genuine produce of the mineral world: foam, fibres, strata. It is a ‘shaped’ substance: whatever its final state, plastic keeps a flocculent appearance, something opaque, creamy and curdled, something powerless ever to achieve the triumphant smoothness of Nature. But what best reveals it for what it is is the sound it gives, at one hallow and flat; its noise is its undoing, as are its colours, for it seems capable of retaining only the most chemical-looking ones. [
] Plastic is wholly swallowed up in the fact of being used: ultimately, objects will be invented for the sole pleasure of using them. The hierarchy of substances is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticised, and even life itself since, we are told, they are beginning to make plastic aortas. (Roland Barthes, ‘Plastic’ in Mythologies).

It is not just the emergence of plastic as a new material technology that is significant. Mythologies is a key text for the emergence and popularity of Semiology, or the science of the sign. Barthes’ innovation is to lift a concept related to language and linguistic and apply it not only to literature, but also popular culture. Everything is a ‘myth’ and ‘sign’ according to Barthes. As a cultural theory, semiotics, and later the notion of the Text (and intertextuality) thus opens up a whole new ‘plasticity’ of ‘reading’ culture and making meaning within it.

The choice of Michael Jackson and Kylie Minogue is undoubtedly a playful one, but of course connects immediately with the both the ‘trace of movement’ and the hallow and the flat that Barthes refers to with plastic. Jackson was certainly much discussed for this ‘plastic surgery’ (including of course the controversial debate about his skin tone). However, also, his music offers a means for his body to movement in ways that were not seen before (at least not in popular forms). His mooonwalking is the most obvious example, but more generally, his body is a highly fluid and yet sharp ‘medium’ through which he performed. As part of the seminar the video for his Smooth Criminal was screened, which includes a dramatic sequence in which he appears to lean forward beyond the realms of ordinary physics. The plastic model used for the seminar represents Michael Jackson from this video, and even comes complete with various re-attachable hands and feet and a ‘shadow’ stand that allows the figure to lean impossibly forward. The hard plastic of the figure offers a precision rendering of Jackson from his video, which in turn leant itself well to its reproduction through 3D scanning and clay moulding.

By contrast, a more rubbery doll of Kylie Minogue provided a fairly poor reproduction of her image. Which, in this case, was meant to recall her look c.2001, much associated with her worldwide hit ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head‘. The music critic Paul Morley has written a whole book around this video, Words and Music, which begins by making a bold connection between Minogue and Alvin Lucier’s 1969 work ‘I’m Sitting in a Room‘. Morley fascination with Kylie is of a virtual and near-alien creature. In  ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’, she drives effortlessly towards a Ballardian cityscape, the epitome of postmodern pop. During the seminar, a connection was also made to Allen Jones’ pop art, and particularly some of his drawings which develop his play of both bodies and clothes (and genders). Kylie Minogue perhaps represents the other side of digital pop music, with Michael Jackson representing last days of analogue music making. They become intro and outro of form of pop music that is ‘perfected’ by the late 1990s, to the point of sounding hallow and flat.  An additional reason for the reference to Kylie Minogue came through Manghani’s drawing that was originally exhibited at the Practices of Research exhibition, and which was directly related to an entry he contributed to a book reimagining Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (see more). Thus, taken together, the kitsch dolls of Michael Jackson and Kylie Minogue were adopted as ‘models’ to explore simultaneously both physical 3D rendering processes and conceptual understandings of plasticity as evoked by the fine arts and cultural critique.

As can be seen with the images included in this post, the seminar worked through a series of different techniques. It began with recording the figures through photographic and digital means for processing in 3D printing softwares. This was a lengthy process, but requiring relatively straightforward and even imprecise means to gain ‘data’ for the softwares to crunch. There is certainly an element of ‘blackbox’ as to how the softwares treat the various inputs to render a three-dimensional figure. However, the process of looking carefully at the models, experimenting with the cameras, lighting and angles prompted lots of discussion and speculation. Working with a sculptor, it was also possibly to think way beyond the narratives that can be played with the two iconic figures and rather consider material processes. It was soon agreed that we need not only to experiment with 3D digital technologies, but also more traditional clay and plastic moulding apparatus. Two very prominent ‘outcomes’ of the seminar were as follows:

an ability to ‘think’ through process and material. Ian Dawson’s insights into the various processes and possibilities soon eclipsed the initial theoretical consideration of the figures. While their was certainly a confluence of ideas, the need to keep making – to operate through iteration, as a means of critical consideration – meant that the figures (and the processes we applied to them) became the real force within our collaborative thinking. It became necessary to try out different techniques and to have the opportunity to bring the various result together as quickly as possibly, which in turn prompted further ideas. The speed with which you can mock-up objects through 3D printing is of course a boon to the sculptor’s methodology.

a material consistency of time and space, or even time-space. From an intuitive way of turning the figures around in your hand to wonder about them, it soon becomes apparent how all of the various techniques for re-making and testing these figures operate through the means of rotation. The video at the top of this post shows the Kylie figure held (on the left) in the rotational moulder, which is a metal set of frames to allow rotation on all axis. On the right, she is shown rendered through 3D software, which again immediately provides the means to rotate in all directions. When a scan is first placed in the software there is no reverse to the image. We are familiar with a sheet of paper having both a front and back. In 3D software the image scan begins with no reverse. As you spin the object it simply disappears. In order to prepare for 3D printing it is necessarily build up the reverse. In a similar way when a mould is placed in the rotating metal frames the ‘object’ has no surface, it is merely outlines by the mould. Liquid plastic is poured in and rotated to gain a even coating, which then effectively gives the object its outside and inside. While all very simple to comprehend the two days of the seminar repeatedly foregrounded this principle and its consistency through many different processes.



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