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

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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Writing as Making

For a final seminar of the autumn semester 2015, Writing as Making, we gathered for two days to work as a community of writers. Picking up from the Practices of Research exhibition that was held in 2014, which presented work of 16 PhD students and two members of staff, the idea for this seminar was again to acknowledge the diversity of research practices but also the fact that a written component must be submitted for all examined research, whether practice-based or not. As the rationale for Practices of Research put it:

Studio-based researchers in art and design work alongside those engaged in humanities and social science research, covering areas of art history, critical theory and curatorial practice, as well as the management and marketing of advertising, design, media, fashion, textiles and luxury branding. All researchers at the School are engaged in the critical making of new knowledge: each moving in and out of complex and disciplined modes of activity. Whether it is reading, writing, looking, making, coding, speaking, recording, and much else besides, each are forms of imaginative and critical engagement, developed and extended within the context of a collaborative and inter-disciplinary research community.

As a form of writing retreat, the primary aim of Writing as Making was to provide dedicated time to write, but also to share in the act of writing, and as such to reflect critically on various strategies. There were three main interventions. Firstly, all participants were asked to consider how at sentence level they pursue a form of critical writing. A simple technique used in schools known as PEA or PEE (Point, Evidence, Analysis, or Explanation) was put before everyone, in effect as a provocation, to question how both arguments and analysis are drawn out from the materials we are citing and synthesising. Like the writing through a stick of rock, are the points we wish to make working their way through each and every sentence. Is there an underlying coherence to our work?

A second intervention was a typewriter. This was placed in the room on its own desk, with all participants encourage to take ‘time-out’ from their own work to experiment with this now defunct tool for writing and printing. As Friedrich Kittler suggests, ‘[r]eading functions as hallucinating a meaning between letters and lines’, and as corollary to which the medium through which we write effects how we think (or ‘hallucinate’). According to Kittler, when philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche turned to using the typewriter his prose ‘changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style’. Part of the change in style reflects the practicalities of using the device. As Emden suggests, Nietzsche found using the typewriter ‘more difficult than the piano, and long sentences were not much of an option’. With Nietzsche’s eyesight failing, the ability to ‘feel’ his way through writing was appealing, but arguably the technology then has a profound impact on the status and nature of his philosophising. As Kittler writes:

Neitzsche’s reasons for purchasing a typewriter were very different from those of his colleagues who wrote for entertainment purposes, such as Twain, Lindau, Amytor, Hart, Nansen, and so on. They all counted on increased speed and textual mass production; the half-blind, by contrast, turned from philosophy to literature, from rereasing to a pure, blind, and intransitive act of writing.

Quite aside from any romance we might now associate with the typewriter – as a signifier of a golden age of modernist writing and criticism – the clatter of the machine proved too much for some of the seminar participants. While individuals became quite engrossed in typing, the thud thud of the device meant others buried themselves in their headphones to listen privately to music as they worked.

The ambivalence of the typewriter in the room (and the wild sheets of paper that came out of it) relates well to the writer, Walter Benjamin, who became the third intervention for the seminar. In his One Way Street, published in 1928, Benjamin argues, in a section titled ‘Teaching Aid’, that the typewriter ‘will alienate the hand of the man of letters from the pen only when the precision of typographic forms has directly entered the conception of his books. One might suppose that new systems with more variable typefaces would then be needed. They will replace the pliancy of the hand with the innervation of commanding fingers.’ However, it is in the section shortly after this, ‘Post No Bills’, that gave impetus for a collaborative outcome of the seminar. In this section, Benjamin offers ‘The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses’. All participants were invited to contribute an entry for a new version, or re-making of this text. What emerged was a highly eclectic set of thoughts and missives. Of course, unlike the authoritative (even pompous) voice of single author, as in the case of Benjamin, the new text presents a much more heterogenous and fragmentary set of voices. It is also a much more immediate text, like a diary digest of the two day seminar marked out as concrete poetry, and which in fact we did choose (against Benjamin’s wishes?) to display as a bill poster for the Re: Making exhibition. Click on the image image to download a PDF version of the wall poster. As a document it quickly reveals writing as practice, as a working and re-working of texts in pursuit of new thoughts, images and confluences

 

 

 

References

Benjamin, W (1997) One-Way Street, trans. by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter. Verso.

Emden, C. (2005) Nietzsche On Language, Consciousness, And The Body. University of Illinois Press.

Kittler, F. A. (1999) Gramophone, Film, Typewriter trans. by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Standford University Press

 

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Art, Work, and Archives: Performativity and the Techniques of Production

Jane Birkin is a former doctoral candidate at Winchester School of Art, completing her practice-based PhD in June 2015.  Her essay ‘Art, Work, and Archives: Performativity and the Techniques of Production’ was recently published in Archive Journal.

 

This essay attempts to address the significance of my longstanding working connection with image collections and archives. It explains how aspects of archival thinking permeate the practices of various artists (including my own), notably through the application of performative working methods that position their work within an established genre of indexing and categorisation.

Performativity is defined here as a two-step procedure: firstly the making of an instruction, and secondly the following of that instruction. This is at odds with the early designation by J.L. Austin, in How to Do Things with Words, where the ‘saying’ and the ‘doing’ are one and the same thing. It also avoids the theatrical aspects that are often associated with performance art.

The call for papers was on the theme of ‘Radical Archives’, and asked what this well-used term really means. The ‘radical’ that is so often perceived in relation to the archive in terms of radical content (punk archives and so on) is here differently defined through archival cataloguing techniques of ordering, description and listing. In the way of the ‘readymade’, these institutional techniques become radicalised through their passage into art practice. The use of archival description in relation to the photographic image (the subject of my PhD thesis) constitutes a radical form of writing and reading the image, at odds with traditional hermeneutical analysis. It is an indexical rather than a representational approach, consistent with the recent material turn in photographic studies that is becoming a critical methodology in theory, practice and education, and frequently with reference to the ‘archived’ image.

Read the essay here:

Art, Work, and Archives: Performativity and the Techniques of Production

 

 

Re-Making an Exhibition

The exhibition, Reading Room: Leaves, Threads and Traces (November 2015), exhibited book art originally shown in Delhi and at the Colombo Art Biennale, Sri Lanka (2014) and Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India (2014). Working in collaboration with Blueprint 12, these shows were curated by Amit Jain, joined staff and students at Winchester School of Art for the seminar and the installation of works. The original shows of ‘Reading Room’ featured works by fifteen artists from across the world. Many of these works were shipped over for a new iteration of the show, and which were brought into dialogue with a selection from the Artists’ Books Collection held at the Winchester School of Art Library, which comprises book art from the 1960s to the present day. The seminar will be co-convened by Sunil Manghani, Amit Jain, August Davis, and Linda Newington.

As the final wall text produced for the show explains:

In placing items from the School’s own collection alongside the visiting collection of book art from South Asia, the themes of leaves, threads and traces are explored. It brings to the fore both the physicality of books – their material properties and relationship to material culture – and an imagination of books. This edition of Reading Room opens up how we interleave, draw together and re-trace thoughts, beliefs and emotions within the boundaries of a book and the cultures in which they circulate.

Preliminary curatorial decisions, such as the objects to be made available for display, had already been made in lead up to the installation of the show. However, the all-important positioning of the objects, the handling of the space, and the ‘journey(s)’ laid out for the viewer – the exhibition making as a practice – was to be carried out by the postgraduate research group in just three days. Amit Jain, who had curated the two previous exhibitions and brought the books over from India, purposely played little part in the decision-making processes. He was interested to see how his exhibitions would be re-made, and how he would himself learn from the process. Amit made it clear from the start that the final exhibition, whatever shape it was to take, could never be perceived as a failure in either curatorial or pedagogic terms, but that the processes of making and juxtaposition, and the subsequent viewing by the public, would serve as a practical site of learning. Like all the events in the re:making series, this was designed as a collaborative and experimental task for PhD students; it was to be an intensive project that would thoroughly test the proposition of thinking through making that is key to this seminar series.

Day2_12-26

The book is a mini exhibition space in itself: it has content and it has a physicality and a three dimensional space through which to navigate this content. Reading Room could be perceived then as an exhibition of interrelating exhibitions—a difficult and interesting curatorial notion to begin with. As we all know, the navigation of both books and exhibitions is not always linear, it is a complex back and forth interaction, often with multiple visits to certain parts. In this limited time, a coherent exhibition had to be installed that would expose commonality and create a dialogue between the two different collections, yet would still allow an openness of conditions so that the visitor/reader would be able to traverse the display in their own way and to make their own connections.

As with all exhibitions, logistics around the objects and the space in which they are to be displayed play a large part in the decision-making around display. The extremely delicate nature of a number of the objects meant that they could not be truly navigated at all, but were displayed as static objects that denied the visitor the haptic interface usually associated with the book. Happily, some objects could be touched and used as books; indeed they actively required handling in order to explore their methodology and message. Other objects were not books as we commonly experience them at all, but book-related artworks in different forms. These were conceptual pieces, some of a highly political nature, with temporal qualities (usually experienced through page turning) here embodied and understood through the varying and openly exhibited processes of their making.

RR19-2Before the books were even unpacked, systems of good practice had to be formulated that would ensure the safe handling of the objects, and some background information on the objects had to be relayed and considered. It was late on Day One before the fascinatingly inaccessible packing cases were opened and the books from India were uncovered and laid out. For the group this was at the same time a contemplative act of revealing and an abrupt realisation of the task ahead.

The three days of installation were peppered with periods of notional inactivity, weariness and even boredom. But these lulls were actually active times of information processing (such times play an important part in all making projects) and they undoubtedly played a significant part in the successful, intelligent and articulate final installation of the show. The act of unpacking that was so physically experienced by the group could be viewed metaphorically as a critical part of the thinking through making process.

Day1_14-26

 

 

London Look: Views on Political Aesthetics

On 4 June a PGR trip was arranged into London to visit two very different exhibitions, ‘Defining Beauty’ (British Museum) and ‘The Production Line of Happiness’ (Whitechapel Gallery) followed by a professorial lecture held at Goldsmiths University. The following gives a brief account of the exhibitions, along with thoughts and comments from those attending the trip. 

The day began with a visit to the British Museum to see the ‘Defining Beauty‘ exhibition. The focus was on the representation of the human body in ancient Greek art (and Roman remodelling). While Egyptian art had sought to cover the body, the Greek aesthetic was to represent the naked human body as both as an object of beauty and a bearer of meaning. At the opening of the show was a marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching as she bathes (a Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD). The statute is placed such that you arrive to see her from behind, with her finger-tips just hovering over one shoulder as if beckoning, making for a somewhat an erotic image. The wall text at the opening also reminds of the relationship made in the ancient Greek period between the human body and demos or democracy. This opening scene immediately set a theme for the day of the political aesthetic.

 

After the British Museum, we moved onto the Whitechapel Gallery for Christopher Williams’ ‘The Production Line of Happiness‘. The contrast couldn’t have felt much greater. In the mould of the anti-aesthetic, this exhibition while ostensibly a show of photography, is very deliberately staged to reveal its own sense of display. Elements of the previous exhibition held in the same space are visible, walls are brought in from other exhibitions, and elements of the work shown are placed in the foyer as as well as the designated gallery spaces. All in all the exhibition offers a defamiliarisation of curatorial display. However, while deconstructing the gallery setting, it is arguably an environment that is still inward looking – a critique of and for the few, not the many – unlike the human forms that we encountered in the British Museum (though it ought to be noted, the The Whitechapel exhibition was free entry, while the British Museum charged a high premium for an exhibition that was largely put together based on the Nation’s own collection!).

After visiting these two exhibitions, we ended the day at Goldsmiths to hear a public, professorial lecture given by Prof. Sean Cubitt, in the Media and Communications department. His lecture, with the title of ‘Political Aesthetics: Becoming Human’, began by suggesting a need to shift from the typical ‘political’ image (such as we might associated with the Obama ‘Hope’ poster of his 2008 election campaign). Instead, Cubitt placed attention upon a satellite image, looking out to the planet Saturn. This, Cubitt argued, was a deeply political image. We were told, for example, how the fuel powering this device orbiting the earth to bring us the image came from the uranium mines on aboriginal lands in Australia. As a form of cognitive mapping, whereby we need to reestablish an understanding of how we make meaning (and how all meaning is mediated) Cubitt considered not want that internet does as such, but rather what is made of. How it is powered, how it is transmitted, how it is discarded. In all cases, the contents is borne of political-economic condition that precedes it. In effect, the traditional questions of aesthetics about truth, beauty and the good (as we encountered in the British Museum exhibition, and then challenged at the Whitechapel) were recast in Cubitt’s talk to consider a new materialist and ecological take on both politics and aesthetics. We were asked to consider a new ‘human’, or at least a new set of rights for society that incorporations not just the human body, but the interacting ‘body’ of computers and land.

 

Thoughts & Commentaries

Jane Birkin: Through a survey of his own work, Christopher Williams references the multiplicity of photographies that can be found across a variety of milieus; this exhibition is not about the status of the single image, but the production and deployment of many. Some pictures have the look of those used in advertising, mainstream publications or commercial catalogues; there are indexically captioned plant typologies; and visually perplexing images that reject categorisation. There are layers and back-stories to these images that we are consistently and purposefully not told. A small document displayed on the upper floor playfully suggests that these images have been found and purchased as a ‘job lot’, bringing us forward to the shifting, authorless, decontextualized state of the photographic image today.

Williams presents us with the techniques of photographic production. An immaculate picture of the technical apparatus itself confronts us at the start: finger on shutter, it is a fitting introduction to a display of perfectly rendered images. But there are imperfections within the pictures, including the noticeable inclusion of photographic equipment, that would normally be lost in cropping or other post-production methods: thus we are not looking at the image itself but rather at its making. In a further technological referencing, the green colour that runs through the exhibition is that of the Fuji film carton. This same green dominates the exhibition catalogue, a beautifully constructed publication that contains none of the images from the exhibition. Why would it when there are important discussions that can be had around this work without its re-production?

In any case the catalogue could never replicate the affect of the installation, and it is this installation that is most immediately striking: the photographs are hung somewhat low on the wall, with the detritus of the previous exhibition becoming an integral part of the exhibition concept. The marks and imperfections on the walls, together with the swathes of Fuji green, interrupt the flow of the already disjointed collection of works and parallel the flaws in the images themselves. The installation presents as much of a deconstructed and voyeuristic view of exhibition making as it does of photographic production.

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Elham Soleimani: Visiting the exhibition ‘Defining Beauty’ provided me with a space to reflect on my own research and creative practice and, as my work mainly concerns the human body (in particular, the female figure), sexuality and veiling/covering, I believe that all these topics have been greatly explored through ancient Greek art. The human body, specifically its representation and beauty, has indeed received a great deal of attention from all civilizations throughout different eras, however, ancient Greek art explored the representation of the human body not only as an object, but also as a source of meanings. For instance, in one Assyrian scene titled ‘A Chronicle of Cruelty’, nakedness symbolizes failure and dishonor and the sculptures of women’s bodies are covered to represent their modesty and their desire to maintain their reputation.

Despite the wonderful masterpieces in this exhibition, one of the most fascinating features was a booklet with tactile images along with braille text, designed for visually impaired “viewers”. I sat there and simply touched the images. I tried to understand the lines and where they were trying to direct me. In fact, these lines introduced me to a new way of understanding and creating images that I am eager to experiment with, as my own creative practice concentrates on graphic illustration, the effect of lines and the emotions and understanding that one might achieve through them.

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Cheng-Chu Weng:  The first stop: to view the classical sculptures at the British Museum. Practicing, the Chinese idiom ‘讀萬卷書,行萬里路’ , means ‘in order to attain wisdom, it is not enough merely to read books, you must be well travelled as well’. I have been researching the classical body in art through reading, yet inevitably the visit really helped increased my knowledge. It was magnificent that my own body was able to be around the sculptures, they seem so much more alive than photographs and video. From this point of view did there is a link with Professor Sean Cubitt’s lecture: Becoming human-Political aesthetics, given at Goldsmiths University. Two keywords in my research are pixel and body. At the beginning of the lecture Cubitt offered a critical view of the structure of image in hyper-reality, noting how pixels presented in grids of four via the ubiquitous CCD chip. He believes moderns are dominated by pixel and CCD chip. The images produced by high technology are political, such as an image of a faraway planet in the solar system. The reason that images from science or geology can be political, particularly today, is that we economically we rely on data. What we see or believe is through photography and computer screens, which construct data. This may seem to lack the aesthetic of more obvious political images, yet they are able to ‘enclose’ knowledge; again ‘in order to attain wisdom, it is not enough merely to read books; you must be well travelled as well’. Following Cubitt’s explanation of the human body, which could be analysis three types of the body, flesh (physical body), consuming/ labor body and body as the embodiment with technology, they are in the form of the political. Compare this with the classical body, engaged with myth and human desire; although through their display at the British Museum they become a political body as well. In the end, Cubitt left a fundamental, but challenging question: How should we be human?

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Oliver Peterson Gilbert: Sean Cubitt’s inaugural lecture, drawing on material archaeologies and the inherent politics of objects, was as alarming as it was insightful. His deconstruction of the eco-political implications of technological matter, from space telescopes to the icons on your computer, demonstrated our total complicity in the destruction of the planet. In particular, Cubitt’s use of Marx’s Grundrisse to reflect upon contemporary post-industrial cognitive-cultural economies and the plight of the digital factory worker was thought provoking and showed the continued relevance of this text in the 21st century.  Despite the ominous nature of his lecture, Cubitt used this public platform as a call-to-arms: presenting the case for a reclassification of the political to include both non-human and human actors, a radical vision which goes someway towards reforming the mankind’s political relationship with the planet.

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Walter van Rijn: If we consider the art object as that thing created by an artist and presented to us in a particular context, it is clear that the art object is subject to different forces leaving their mark on the object. The sculptures in the ‘Defining Beauty’ exhibition are prime examples of what I would call institutional objects. Objects determined by the institution. The institution determines not only how they look, but also who can see them, where and in which context they are shown, and what their meaning is supposed to be (Defining beauty of the human, or Greek society?). We might say that these sculptures were created by and to function in Greek society, copied and used as status symbol by Roman society, and commercialised and dislocated within British Society.The exhibition ‘The Production Line of Happiness’ by Christopher Williams looks like a completely different exhibition, but there are important similarities. The art objects are again institutional objects, but this time created by our society. Photographs of objects, despite the subject being human, animal, plant or thing. Photographs of objects created initially to function as an ideal representation of a thing in a publication.  Again they are copied or remade and dislocated into this exhibition. This time we are made aware of the dislocation, the procedures of display. The photograph of Buren’s work with green stripes, initially a non-representative, institutional critique work of art in situ, has been used by Williams to determine the green colour and structure of the exhibition space and artist’s book. A green stripe that has become distributed from original to photograph, to context, to artist’s book and art object again. It has become an institutional green, instituted by the artist, validated and consolidated by the art world.
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Xiao-yang Li: In a metaphoric sense, The British Museum’s exhibition is an event of human bodies confronting the ideals of a different set of human bodies from an era 2000 years apart. We, dwellers of our technology-obsessed time that worships the robotic and prizes the latest touch screen sensations, have come to witness a period with a special people who dared to understand their own body at its fullest, its most natural, most awkward and most beautiful moments! The Classical world did not just arrive out of nothingness, it followed Mycenaean civilization and the dark geometric era, borrowed iconographies and divinities from a mixture of Mesopotamian and ancient Egyptian beliefs, arose from the thousand-fold imperfect and crude Archaic votive figures and with its own gods and rites and Homeric ideologies, come into full blossoming. Here gods and goddesses were sculpted into their monumental splendidness, statues of larger-than-life size bodies were erected against other bodies or attached to an architectural fragment, vivid scenes of brutal killing or mythical rites were depicted on reliefs, and there lies countless broken bodies without an arm or a head or the ‘deep breasted bosom’…

Perhaps the Greeks were the first official ‘realist’ artists, their understanding of the human bodies does not only concern with a higher degree of likeness through a more advanced sculpting technique, it also comes with a sense of human drama and errors. Therefore the divine and the mortals were represented side by side, possessing the same errors and beauties, and we watch this drama unfold before our eyes like the opening pages of an Homeric epic. The full confrontation with nature itself gave rise to meanings in a multi-fold dimension. It grants beauty and grace to all godly abductions, to the scene of the killing, to war, and to the translucently flowing draperies of Artemis’ dress that reveals part of her inner thigh in the most erotic manner. For the Greeks life comes with death and rape, virginity is paired with child-bearing and animal-sacrificing, blessings are peppered with curse and agony, concealment never fully shy away from the sensual exposure of playfulness, the absolute beauty arose from the ugliest castration of the universe, femininity only thrives when in tuned with masculinity. Here it seems the aesthetic reigns above all morality, and the beautiful Olympian gods are still busy entertaining themselves with their outrageous deeds that no mortal could understand. From the body, a sense of the divine is associated with a sense of reality, which reminds us of what we are as human beings, but this divinity is never fully real, for it is too idealized, and partially they are too close to nature they are at once very far away from human conducts. What di the Greeks dream? Was it filled with fantasy and sweet utterings? Or was it darkness of a storming night where all living creatures were erased and destroyed? It is difficult to tell, but we might think the Greeks’ dreams were of a strange set of comic tragedy. Their gods, who maintained in a human body, were so hard to please, it makes one wonder if the reality of human beings that the Greeks discovered was one of catastrophe and inevitably fateful existence. The naturalistically depicted gods and goddesses are the very epitome of this reality, in which humans, with their desperate awe towards nature, confront themselves and find that least human part from within. So what do we make of our current era – an era that slips away from this direct confrontation, are we wise to avoid that sense of the reality, that which could be so real that no human beings can bear anymore?

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Hazel Atashroo: On being asked, after the event, to respond to Sean Cubitt’s inaugural speech at Goldsmiths last week, I wished that I had had the foresight to take some notes. I foresee that I will have to risk relying on memory, living with my fear that my omissions might outlive me, on a data server, somewhere. A gulf frequently appears between what we initially intend, what actually we do, and the broader consequences.

Sean Cubitt discussed his new research, which returns to the ‘design and materials’ of media technologies and their role in delimiting ‘the political’, how people conceive of and experience ‘politics’ in the digital age.  This points towards the issues that have long occupied the area of the social studies of technology in general: the relationship between the ‘socially constructed’ nature of human productive activities, seen in aspects of material choice and design context, and their intended and unintended broader consequences.

The other fundamental part of this relationship is one of feedback in which the products and processes of human invention in turn re-create the human: changes which may occur ‘below the radar’ of our awareness. Ideologies embodied in everyday technologies- can have enabling, as well as powerfully delimiting effects on human life. Cubitt’s discussion appeared to follow in this critical interest, once indicated in Langdon Winner’s call for a ‘theory of technological politics’.Many years prior to this, Günther Anders wrote of humankind’s ‘Promethean Discrepancy’ – the gulf between human ability to create new technologies and the ability to visualize the consequences. Anders identified the need for a ‘moral imagination’ to avoid the kinds of technological developments that made atrocities like Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Nagasaki possible, and ecological disaster imminent.

In his speech, Cubitt mentioned the centrality of the data spreadsheet, an unassuming technology upon which life or death decisions are made. This impersonal utilitarian vista dominates the daily experience of workers across the globe.  Does the spreadsheet have a ‘moral imagination’?

See also:  Anders, G. Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen [The Obsolesence of Human Beings](1956; 1980). Bijker et. al. (1994) The Social Construction of Technological Systems. New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology;  Schraube, E. ‘Torturing Things Until They Confess’: Günther Anders’ Critique of Technology (2005);  Van Dijk, P.  Anthropology in the Age of Technology: The Philosophical Contribution of Günther Anders (2000); Winner, L. The Whale and the Reactor. A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (1989).

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Sarvenaz Sohrabi: Although I have read in the past about the art of ancient Greece, the opportunity to look at the works shown at the British Museum while currently engaged in my own practice-based research brought to me new understanding of the works. Artworks, regardless of their aesthetic effects, are carrying messages in different fields and at different time of human thought. Hence they are a type of intermediate cognition of the past and present. Significantly, however, although about half of the human population are women, art history is frequently masculine, with women in second place. The lesser role of women in Greek art is visible. Most of sculptures show  powerful men with strong bodies. Even romantic stories on urns were designed to illustrate the love story of heroes. Visiting the exhibition made me think again about the gender-bias of gods and religions in different art periods.

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Simiao Wang: The sculptures embody religious functions based on Greek mythology, while its copy represents new politico-religious in Roman context, which emphasis on the duties of human instead of God (contributing to the collapsing of Greek culture). Human beings becomes the city culture identity in Roman empire time rather than God and Goddess, who are no longer enjoy the sacrifice dedicated on the shrine, but transfer from the sexual dimension and lustrous motifs to masculinity of warriors, heroes, and beauty of real human beings, from solemn tradition to a luxury art fashion and assumption of bureaucratic and the wealth.

No matter how eagerly the human beings are striving to replace the position of God in religions, the copy is fake but far more a simple intimation of physicality embodiment of figure but a creative methodology to enfranchise the power of body to a mundane, such as A Roman Lady as Venus (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek), which has a personalized face with Venus body in order to make it look like a real Venus from Greek, this sophisticated way of engaging Goddess with mundane features to propagate the victor of human beings, in my perspective of view, loses the beauty of original function in aesthetics and religious, even worse, it is a braggadocio of the omnipotent of human beings.

Professor Sean Cubitt points out three virtues of human beings: consideration, wonder and hope. ‘ The hope is hope for a future that is not this one’, he also proposed that we should ‘ refuse the present and open the gate to the future’; if we make the hypotheses that Greek is the past, Roman is the present, and then what is the future? By putting a head on the tradition of beauty’s body could not be the future, for future is a partial denial of the past by respecting the past as what it was, and behind the head and its copied body, the political, economic and easthetic expenditures of celebrating the omnipotent human sculpture can not be ignored, the ceremonies of tradition still carries on with new fashion of wealth consuming. The beauty, decreased in the sense of pure ideological concept for the connections between human and God are vague and unimportant, while the tradition, or the media works as the bridge. In Roman’s case, the media is the sculpture and could also be the expenditures, the warriors, the craftsman and even the public who are getting involved in the ceremony. As Sean said, ‘ the human activities of massive expenditures in ceremonies of wild joy is the anti-aesthetic design to function instead of beauty pleasure.’

In a larger picture, the sculpture and everything behind the scene of sculpture becomes a geology of meditation, a phenomenon of ecological principle, or the fact of human beings become the minimal components of machinery world of celebrating in a shopping experience on ceremony. Quoted from Sean ‘media is not human, it is a thing.’ A thing without judgment on virtues and sins, but ‘can be more trustworthy than human beings’ for things have non-human being character and things knows things, but we, human beings, do not know each other. And in this media world, we lost the human character (it reminds me of robotic in science fiction) for we are volunteering to be part of the media.

Should we accept the fact that we are media instead of human beings? I think it is challenging to answer the question but the pleasure of appreciating the copy of sculpture of Venus is real, even though the original of Venus lost in 300 BC but we can still imagine there is a beauty once exist rather than not.

 

 

PhD by Design Conference

PhD by Design is a conference that explores the messiness that!is practice- based research. Walter van Rijn, who is soon due to complete his PhD in Fine Art at WSA, provides a review of the conference held in November 2014. 

On 6 and 7 November 2014 I attended and presented at the PhD by Design Conference organised by students of the Department of Design, Goldsmiths, London. The main reason I wanted to take part was to see if my research, which has an artistic research methodology, could also apply to the design world. As I will show below my work has an overlap with design but I approach it from a dierent direction, and I hoped that by discussing my points of view I could work out in what way my research might be relevant for the design discipline, that is, outside the fine art discipline.

The conference was introduced by Jules Sprake who introduced Andrea Fraser’s famous ‘welcome’ as a way to perform her critique of institutions. Sparke was basically saying we, as phd researchers in this conference and through our work, are here to do exactly that. The critical intention was already part of the set-up of the conference, as the organisers explained in the pre-conference info, the conference itself was structured around questions and discussions by the participants. Over the two days we were going to “discuss and work through many of the topical issues of conducting a practice-based PhD in Design” (http://phdbydesign.com). On the basis of the questions, we the participants provided with our registration, the organisers placed everyone in discussion groups. The group sessions were focussed on a particular question, and they started with a couple of short presentations which were then intensively discussed and commented upon. I go into some detail here about the conference itself because the way it was organised was exactly fitting for the subject we are dealing with: ‘the messiness’ of our practice and research, also called practice-based or practice-led research. As became clear at the end of the conference, everyone really appreciated the conference structure facilitating an intense two days, somewhere between a workshop and conference. And of course thanks to hard work of the brilliant organisers Alison Thomson, Maria Portugal and Bianca Elzenbaumer! By the way the conference sessions were very alike the discussions and seminars of our own Postgraduate Research at the Winchester school of Art, organised by Sunil Manghani.

The questions for the different sessions tell their own story:

Session 1: doing/ making/ planning
What about interdisciplinarty? How to connect with actors beyond academia?
How to work with the politics of participation?
How to wrestle with the gap between practice and theory?
Exploring methods of making and recording?

Session 2: output/ dissemination/ use
How can we reach non-academic audiences?
How to represent research practice in inventive ways?
How can we evaluate the impact of design research?
How to deal with co-produced research outputs?
How can we disseminate practice-based research beyond the academic article?

Session 3: open discussion
What does design research look like?
How to decide on my approach and format of submission?
How to value the knowledge and eects produced through design research?
How to integrate design research with other fields?
How to consider the impact success and sustainability of design research?
I hope the organisers will manage somehow to create a record of what happened in all the discussions I could not take part in, because there were many I would have liked to be in. A pdf version of the participants’ abstracts will be available on the conference website.

I presented my research in session 2, How can we reach non-academic audiences? See the presentation A Dispersal Alongside … on my website: http://www.symbiotext.net/tag/public-address-2/

It argues for a dierent critical approach. One that moves away from a focus on products and target audiences, and instead uses a strategy of embedding and giving access. The discussion afterwards turned towards the questions: What is the role then of the designer/artist? Are we to provide a service, a product or critically engage with a particular context as a whole? Besides a general sense of what a designer/artist is or does, we seem to seek to answer that question individually. Our research is a great opportunity to do that. Some of us work through a sense of gender, mapping human/site interaction, user interaction, dispersal practice etc.

Besides our discussion sessions there where also keynote speakers. Bill Gaver, Jennifer Gabrys, Jane Harris, Jon Rogers and Teal Triggs. Bill Gaver talked us through one of his design studio’s projects, the Energy Babble project, and interspersed it with answering more general questions that came up at the conference. The Energy Babble project was a great example because it showed success and failure, and how he arrived at this evaluation. Hearing his methodology I realised that in design research too, the practice-led methodology works out as a methodology that follows where the practice goes, that is, it evolves and entails that what is needed to be able to “reflect on the results to precisely articulate the insights gained”. Besides the researcher has to “realise that many possible perspectives can be taken on the work” so that the research is not a closed off thing that is assuming a “stable ground truth”. The fact that the research takes place does change the situation.

Jennifer Gabrys, Jane Harris, Jon Rogers and Teal Triggs had their presentation at the end of the conference and focused each in their own way on the application of our research in the real world. Jennifer Gabrys presented Citizen Sensing and Environmental Practice, which resonated with my own work for its do it yourself strategies and critical view on all the actors (human and non-human) implicated in a particular situation. Jane Harris put it very strongly that we have to look beyond our usual field of applications, and to follow our instincts and that what drives us, diversify as much a possible. Or to quote Jon Rogers “How do you bring you into the PhD? Through your practice.” Teal Triggs also came up with lots of questions we have to keep asking ourselves during the research: When is it over? What is opened/closed through the research? What is for the future? What has it uncovered? What fields does it contribute to? Questions to articulate the messiness of what we do, and, she stressed, we need to keep asking these questions after the phd to pursue research in our fields. The importance of extending research in our fields….

The conference ended with a collective debriefing, and launching ideas about what’s next. What ever happens next everyone agreed that the format of the conference was hugely successful and hopefully will be continued in some form. Then it was off to the pub, head buzzing, you might have guessed, we had a great time.

 

The Value of Museums

Najla Binhalail’s doctoral research examines the practicalities and politics of the museum display of Saudi clothing, with particular consideration of the Unification of the Kingdom Hall in the National Museum in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Her work prompted the readings for a seminar on the function and ‘value’ of the museum . Her account of the seminar she led connects also with her attendance at the recent conference ‘Taste After Bourdieu’.  


On Wednesday 14 of May, Dr. Sunil Manghani and eight PhD students from different nationalities studying at the Winchester School of Art took part in a seminar to discuss the cultural identity and value of museums. As this topic is relevant to one area of my PhD thesis, I would like to summarise and comment upon our seminar discussion. 
I began the seminar by giving out two papers, each summarising a previous piece of research concerning the core function of museums, and one paper  and pen for the answers to the question I would ask during the discussion.

Fig1. Three sheets of paper and pen provided for the discussion
Fig1. Three sheets of paper and pen provided for the discussion

A definition of the word “museum” was then offered as “a building where many valuable and important objects are kept so that people can go and see them”(Dictionary: Rundell and Fox, 2007, p.985). I asked the question, “What is the function of a museum?”, and the group were asked to write their answers on the paper provided and read them out prior to our discussion.

Fig2. Answers to the question before our discussion
Fig2. Answers to the question before our discussion

We then watched four YouTube videos (see links below) presenting a varied selection of views and perspectives from both visitors and museum staff in answer to the question I had posed.

museum-blog-3
Fig3. The four YouTube videos concerning the function of a museum

We based our discussion on the videos and the summary I had made of two research papers, “The Museum Values Framework: a Framework for Understanding Organisational Culture in Museums, and Museums, exhibits” and “Visitor Satisfaction: a Study of the Cham Museum, Danang, Vietnam.” After our discussion I asked the same question, “What is the function of a museum?”. Again the group gave their answers on the same sheet paper. The purpose of repeating the question was to observe and compare how opinions had changed as a result of our discussion.

museum-blog-4
Fig4. Answers to the question after our discussion

 In the light of our discussion, I have come to recognize that the word “value” rather than “function” may be more appropriate when describing the aims and purposes of a museum. “Function” tends to imply one overall concept which may or may not be true in any given context, while “value” allows for differences in the economic, political, religious and national needs of each museum, its management, staff, and culture of which it is a part, as well as the wide mix of age, gender, nationality, social and educational background of its audience.

After the seminar I attended the “Taste After Bourdieu” conference at the University of the Arts in London, and as a result I became aware of the relationship between our seminar discussion and a research paper presented by Dr Silke Ackermann, “Have you got a quid?- Museums as development tools in urban culture.”

Fig2. Dr. Silke Ackermann’s abstract
Fig2. Dr. Silke Ackermann’s abstract

I understand Dr. Ackermann’s concern, because I am from Saudi Arabia and my culture is similar to that of the United Arab Emirates. Her questions were about the value of museums in an urban culture, and in particular she mentioned three new museums in Abu Dhabi as examples of her concern. My opinion is that there appears to be a different value for the museum in some countries of the West compared with some countries of the Gulf.

Some of the Gulf countries have come more recently to recognize the value of museums. They understand that progress and civilization originate from the roots of the past and are attempting to increase an awareness of the importance of museums. These countries tend to link the existence of museums to the interests of their tourists and non-citizens rather than to the needs of their actual residents. As a result, they plan their museums based on the valued experience of some western countries, with many of their new museums designed by foreign experts from a western culture. I am convinced that such experts will not easily understand the real needs of the citizens of the Gulf region.

Museums keep the valuable objects and display the heritage of the nation. Their presentations need to be distinct, effective, and offer the visitor a pleasing and interactive experience. Museums are not merely storerooms or repositories of the past, they are places of the present and the future, places that tell us the human story throughout the ages in an accurate and true fashion, and thus open up and interpret human civilization for succeeding generations to come. My hope is that the majority of citizens in the Gulf countries will come to appreciate the value of museums for the increase of knowledge and communication, and the strengthening of their political and economic standing in the world.

Resources:

Davies, S. M., Paton, R. and O’sullivan, T. J. 2013. The museum values framework: a framework for understanding organisational culture in museums. Museum Management and Curatorship, 28 (4), pp. 345–361.

Rundell, M. (2007). In: English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, 2nd ed. Oxford: Macmillan, pp. 985.

Trinh, T. T. and Ryan, C. 2013. Museums, exhibits and visitor satisfaction: a study of the Cham Museum, Danang, Vietnam. Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, 11 (4), pp. 239–263.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FL97lJ2rSdI

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjx1F-N3YbQ

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggXFIXglhjs

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_y7n7OGslg

Designerly Ways of Knowing

Bedour Aldakhil’s PhD research, Saudi females, the abaya and everyday life: Towards a Designerly Approach to Consumers Research, prompted the readings for a seminar on ‘Designerly Ways of Knowing’. She offers an account here of some of the elements of the seminar discussion.

At the start of the seminar, Dr Manghani introduced Noriko Suzuki-Bosco, practicing artist and member of WSA’s alumni, who had joined us for the seminar discussion.  Noriko, whose work is explicitly concerned with material form and processes of making, was able to contribute pertinent insights to our reading of two articles by Nigel Cross, ‘Designerly Ways of Knowing: Design As A Discipline’ (1982) and ‘Designerly Ways of Knowing: Design Discipline versus Design Science’ (2001). As part of preparation for the seminar we also listened to an interview on BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific with Professor Mark Andrew Miodownik, the British materials scientist at King’s College London and co-founder of the Materials Library.

In the main, the seminar discussions and arguments centred around the earlier article by Nigel Cross.  The article lays out an argument for and challenges our thinking about a neglected third area of education: Design.  In general, the two dominant cultures of education are the sciences and the arts, broadly defined. Cross’ article published in early 80’s was stimulated by a project on ‘Design in general education’ by Royal College of Arts in the late 70’s, however, it highlights several issues that remain highly relevant to us today.

Cross contrasts between the three cultures science, humanities and design to clarify what he means by design and what is particular about it. As he put it:

The phenomena of study in each culture is

  • In the science: the natural world
  • In the humanities: human experience
  • In design the man made world


The appropriate methods in each culture are

  • In the sciences: controlled experiment, classification, analysis.
  • In the humanities: analogy, metaphor, criticism, evaluation.
  • In design: modelling, pattern-formation, synthesis. 

The values of each culture are:

  • In the science: objectivity, rationality, neutrality and a concern for truth
  • In the humanities subjectivity, imagination, commitment, and a concern for justice
  • In design: practicality, ingenuity, empathy, and a concern for ‘appropriateness’.

We recognise that the boundaries between these three cultures are not concrete but fluid. However, one member of the seminar was sceptical about the idea of design vs. science. He felt the design process that Cross argues for puts science in a tight corner. I think what Cross was trying to do is to explain his own perspective and make the case for design by comparing it to science. The underlying argument is that there are ‘ways of knowing’ embedded in the process of design that are different from  science; which is specifically illustrated with an example between architecture and science. Drawing on observations from Lawson’s study, How designers think (Architectural Press, 1980), Cross explains how postgraduate students of architecture and science show ‘dissimilar problem-solving strategies … The scientists generally adopted a strategy of systematically exploring the possible combinations of blocks, in order to discover the fundamental rule which would allow a permissible combination. The architects were more inclined to propose a series of solutions, and to have these solutions eliminated, until they found an acceptable one’. Lawson elaborates further:

The essential difference between these two strategies is that while the scientists focused their attention on discovering the rule, the architects were obsessed with achieving the desired result. The scientists adopted a generally problem-focused strategy and the  architects a solution-focused strategy. Although it would be quite possible using the architect’s approach to achieve the best solution without actually discovering the complete range of acceptable solutions, in fact most architects discovered something about the  rule governing the allowed combination of blocks.In other words they learn about the nature of the problem largely as a result of trying out solutions, whereas the scientists set out specifically to study the problem. (Lawson, How designers think, 1980)

Thus, for Cross, science relates to a process of a linear analysis to find a solution, while a designerly way of knowing is a process of synthesis and iteration. It unfolds in the future with innovative realisation. The designerly way of knowing is not only embodied in the process of designing but equally the products of design also carry knowledge. The material culture of our world provides knowledge to everyone ”…one does not have to understand mechanics, nor metallurgy, nor the molecular of timber, to know that an axe offers (or ‘explains’) a very effective way of splitting wood”. In a similar vein Professor Mark Miodownik from University College London, in the interview on BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific, argued for the importance of our material culture and its sensual aspects. He offers the radical idea of converting public libraries into workshops with laser cutters and 3D printers in place of books.  His point is that we now can access books with little difficulty (and on different formats) but materials and technologies in the context of a workshop are not widely available.  Through making, doing, and experimenting people understand and have more appreciation for materiality and could find new solutions for problem that exist in our world. Materials have there own sensibility different from writing and reading.

Today we can see how people use technology creatively to solve their own problems and help learning from each other. The creative use of hash tags in twitter, or the rise of virtual communities are just a couple of digital examples. Maybe it is appropriate to end with a quote from Victor Papanek, a philosopher of design, from his book Design for the Real World:

“All men [and women] are designers. All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is a basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act towards a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process and attempting to separate design to make it a thing by itself works counter to the fact that design is the primary underlying matrix of life” (1972: 3).

 

Read/Write

text-globalisation

For the third session of The Seminar, we turned our attention to the role and practice of the ‘literature review’; and more broadly we discussed the practice of reading in academic research and writing. We looked at a couple of examples of literature reviews, published in book and journal article form. Our main focus – in the first half of the session – was the opening chapter of Ranjani Mazumdar’s Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City (2007). This is a book that is written primarily for a film studies audience, but draws upon literatures of Indian political history and also critical theory, particularly the writings of Walter Benjamin. We didn’t really want to get too involved with the ‘content’ of the book, but rather consider its form as a literature review. The chapter doesn’t list a great many books, but it does demonstrate the way key literatures can be handled to draw out the specific intentions and framings of the author’s own research.

A couple of paragraphs in, Muzumdar offers a dense, comprehensive paragraph that can be said to encapsulate the entire ‘project’ of the book:

Bombay Cinema attempts to enter the complex world of popular cinema by bringing together a range of cinematic practices and the urban experience. My purpose is to engage with the dynamism of popular cinema in the country’s sprawling metropolitan life. The city as a concept remained a crucial absence in much of  Indian nationalism’s history. The nationalists instead invested in the imagination of the village as one of the secure sites of citizenship, reflecting the social base of anti-colonial mobilisation. The interesting feature of Bombay cinema is that it has never been at one with the nationalist prioritization of the village. While cinema also looked at rural life, it is the urban experience that has dominated its landscape. The coming together of cinematic practices and the urban experience offers a useful way of transcending the imaginative limits imposed by nationalist narratives on culture. (Muzumdar)

There are a number of concepts and lines of enquiry that are raised by this single paragraph. We might want to challenge what is meant by the suggestion of an ‘urban experience’ and the ‘city as a concept’, but nonetheless, we can recognise a determined project to examine the screen life of Bombay cinema with a political, historical and sociological reading of India. There is a clear sense of an interdisciplinary approach. The author is concerned not only with ‘cinematic practices’, but also key concepts such as nationalism, citizenship, and colonial history. All of these areas of interest will need to be reflected in the literature review. Partly, as a means to define the key terms of reference. It is notable, later in the chapter, the term ‘globalization’ is used, yet it is not explained. We can infer a general understanding of the term, but it is a complex and loaded term, which ideally in a research project needs to be properly contextualised and argued for. Muzumdar does draw reference to a number of key texts, particularly in relation to the cinema and the city, and Indian nationalism. A number of her references to modernist writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin are really crucial to a definition of the urban experience, and its collision with the screen. These references are  well worn, not least in film studies. Muzumdar, however, argues the geographic and cultural context of Bombay cinema lends originality to the research. She uses a very neat phrase to get around the problem that her work is both squarely situated in an established (and much researched) area of film studies, yet equally offers its own individual import:

Bombay Cinema is in many ways both a departure from and an addition to the previous work on cinema and the city, while at the same time bringing a perspective from India (Muzumdar)

I would suggest in writing a thesis, this sort of formulation is worth holding onto. It is a line that is clear, confident and carefully contextualised, helping to navigate the need to situate your work in existing scholarship, yet offer something genuinely original. It is perhaps also worth noting how the use of the book title, Bombay Cinema, gives the author further authority; they are presenting you with a project that is articulated in the writing, but also is bound as a book in your hands. A PhD thesis won’t necessarily be able to play off a title like this, but there are ways of characterising your research beyond the stock phrases of ‘in this research’, ‘in my study’, ‘ this dissertation’ etc. Your research is a ‘project’, it has a life beyond being a technical document.

Of course, by making a close reading of Muzumdar’s chapter – particularly in terms of its form – we did highlight a number of potential problems. Indeed, examining anyone’s writing at ‘sentence level’ will reveal all sorts of complexities and issues. Nonetheless, the chapter helped illustrate a point: while academic writing can appear at times to be dense and intense, there is a clear process of drawing together established concepts and ideas, along with new inflections and directions. Muzumdar’s chapter, for example, develops a complex, layered account of India, Indian cinema, urban experience, nationalism, modernism, and globalisation. It goes without saying one has to concentrate when reading this kind of work. To use a phrase from Philip Davis, who recently published Reading and the Reader (2013), we have to engage in a form of reading that is of ‘immersed attention’. It is a very active process.  (You can hear Philip Davis talk about his book on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week)

The idea of reading as a deliberate and rich process was beautifully developed by Professor Ryan Bishop, who joined us for the second-half of the seminar.  Ryan suggested we think of reading during the PhD (and other research activity) as a means to ‘dwell’; and not least because, as we develop our careers beyond the research degree, we get increasingly get less time to read. We might say, not only should we occupy ourselves with reading, we also need to occupy reading! Yet, Ryan’s point was more nuanced than this, suggesting ‘it is as important to have a text dwell in and with us as it is to dwell in and with a text’; adding that we might at times ‘believe we read the text (and therefore control it), when the converse is also true (texts shape us and we become otherwise)’. Keeping this to mind – and with a brief allusion to slow cooking – Ryan played out a certain ethics of reading, and gave some great tips in maintaining a measured and engaged practice of reading. Here is a brief summary:

  • We are ‘reading’ all the time, whether it is a book, a space, a person, a situation, and that all these instances will provide different readings depending on your point of view, the context, the time etc.
  • Read first kindly, then re-read with a critical eye. In other words, first seek to understand a ‘text’ according to its own terms, before then challenging those terms. This allows you to make sense of a text and its context, which can, for example, aid writing up a literature review where it is useful to show the progression of ideas, even where those ideas are at odds with your own (or those of the texts you are more aligned with).
  • What you don’t read is as important as what you do read! We have to make choices about the books and texts we read and don’t read. It is useful to develop different modes of reading, fast and slow. You can skim a range of texts to understand a broader context, or indeed to satisfy yourself that certain references are not necessary for your work. Conversely you have to commit yourself to reading key materials at a slower pace.
  • Keep track. Reading needs to be an active process, and that includes keeping some records of what you’ve looked at. As your research develops you build an impressive bibliography, which will function both as a simple, technical list of materials, but also as an ‘archive’ of your research.
  • Write your way to thinking… A key line from Ryan’s is that we can all be readers should we wish, but ‘it is impossible to write (at all, not to even write well) without reading. It is through reading at all that we can even start to write’.

The seminar began by examining the literature review as a distinct element of one’s research, but perhaps more importantly what it reminds us of is the intricacy of both reading and writing. Read/Write: Together they form a virtual ‘space’ that opens up thinking. We can know what we want to write and put pen to paper, but our thoughts will be informed by a practice of reading. We can also surprise ourselves in our own thoughts as we write. Again, however, this writing is a product of distilling reading and engaging in an ongoing practice of writing. If you find you can’t get started with  writing, try reading first. And if the reading starts to then feel like it is slowing you down, it might be time to try writing again. And so it goes on…


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