Tag Archive | Participation

Wild and Playful Artistry

Raqib Shaw‘s latest exhibition has brought new life and colour to the Manchester Art Gallery – both inside and out. Having draped their railings with flowers, foliage, and the twisted branches of Willows, the museum invites you inside to find Kashmiri-born/London-based Raqib’s work scattered and displayed in various locations. Vivid, fantastical scenes combine real and fictional creatures within sparkling fairytale landscapes both Indian and European in influence; together these conjure up a mythology that feels familiar – like a childhood memory – and highly original – bold and shocking. Surveying his beautiful (and at times slightly macabre) menagerie you can almost hear the sound of wild animals. Of course it’s always nice to look at the more traditional pieces in the Gallery’s collection, but finding one of Shaw’s pieces next to say, George Stubbs, or Charles-August Mengin, makes for an enjoyably startling contrast.

Although given a vast amount of space in the Patron’s Gallery, I’d say that it’s more stimulating finding Shaw’s works amongst pieces from the Victorian era. Seeing them all at once threatens to generate a certain loss of impact that comes from being over-awed by his use of jewels, gold, and enamel. Similarly, Susie MacMurray‘s Widow – a stunning and meditative dress made using black leather and 100,000 adamantine silver pins – is equally helped by being positioned among pieces dealing with life and death in the 17th century. New observations and ideas arise at these intersections. MacMurray’s dress says something about mortality as flawlessly as any of the masters behind her.

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Something I also really like about the Gallery is the space that is devoted to activities for kids/big kids in the Clore Interactive Gallery. Technical problems aside (sadly many machines were out-of-order when I visited) it’s great to find a play space where you can let your imagination wander and your creative side express itself after soaking up all the “proper” artworks. Of course, participation is a big thing in museums and cultural institutions these days and it’s not always done well. Sometimes the best you can hope for is a pile of hastily gathered crayons and a few “give us your comments” cards; not exactly inspiring! For me, the Manchester Gallery has got it spot on. Somehow they manage to offer a range of activities that are as stimulating for adults as they are for children. In fact, I’m fairly sure it was exclusively adults who were “interacting” with the objects in the Clore room on Sunday! By letting visitors climb into a giant rotating “kaleidoscope”, invent their own “free form” still life compositions, or activate a 3-D spinning model of a painting (Marion Adnams’ Lost Infant), artworks are brought to life in a way that encourages collaboration.

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Raqib Shaw’s exotic monkeys – and the lovely staff who let people wander around taking as many photographs as they like! – demonstrate in quite different ways that going to a gallery is definitely not all about tradition, reverence, and intimidating curation. Creativity is, after all, all about a certain freedom.

Structures of Participation

As we finished our morning interview, Wanderer showed me the exit with a smile. “The time just flew in, didn’t it?” she remarked. Despite the unusually early start, I felt a renewed sense of enthusiasm. My bag now had a folder and an mp3 recorder full of original information; I left the building in agreement. The session hadn’t dragged at all. Wonderful. Back at my desk, an email from Ian arrived. “Not as scary as I expected!” she confided. I had to laugh at the thought of our discussion having instilled any foreboding. Isn’t research meant to be enjoyable? Speaking with Ian, Wanderer and others about their fields of research, their organisational cultures, and their views on new media, I’m fairly sure that’s something we all agree on. Regardless of discipline!

I’m now halfway through my pilot data gathering activities and have met with 4 out of 8 participants via 2 “paired interview” sessions – 1 along the road at Manchester University and 1 here at MMU. Preparing materials for what seems an eternity, I am very happy to report that both sessions were extremely informative and genuinely thought-provoking. So far, my interviewees have seemed to find them worthwhile too.1

The position of technology relates to multiple structural factors.

Getting your “subjects” to take part enthusiastically rather than having them keep one eye on the clock (hey, that’s my job!) is vital to obtaining quality data. That’s why I’ve chosen and devised a combination of discussions, semi-structured interviews, writing activities, and Semantic Differential exercises. Conversations and dialogues are far better than simplistic closed question formats. And of course, timing, flow, and sequencing are everything. It’s too early to conclude but my instinct tells me my data gathering instruments are pretty successful.2 Transcribing the audio and comparing terminologies, anecdotes and insights is already proving fascinating. Hopefully the next 2 are just as illuminating!

1 Participant anonymity is optional.
2 Thanks to everyone who helped me test and refine these.

The Courage of Truth

It’s important to take part in aspects of University life that aren’t directly related to your subject area. This is something I’m becoming ever more convinced of as I read and write about academic subject and discourse communities, inter-disciplinary work, shifting contexts of idea formation and reception, and the dialogues (or conversations) between tradition, innovation, and diverse schools of thought. All this to say that I’ve been going along to the Philosophy Department’s Friday morning Michel Foucault reading group! Actually, I have been using some of Foucault’s ideas in my work – the historical a priori, the political structures of truth, technologies of self and so on…but mainly, attending this group is a chance for me to hear what’s going on outside the wonderful world of Info Comms. It’s excellent to be challenged by a way of thinking and studying that’s not second-nature – and to realise that actually, it has plenty to reveal that’s relevant to my discipline. Hearing a new vocabulary and learning about a whole new bag of concepts is really rewarding. In my view, inter-disciplinary mash-ups are possibly one of MMU’s real strengths. 🙂

Public truth-telling can be complicated

The text we’ve been reading from is The Courage of Truth: The Government of Self and Others II; a lovely volume comprising transcripts of his last ever set of lectures (1984) at the Collège de France. It’s fascinating to try and follow Foucault’s logic as he leaps from idea, to example, to observation, to sweeping and bold statement, usually referring to a variety of well known and obscure (for me anyway) sources and willing the reader/listener to keep pace. Apparently he used to get a little lonely and frustrated that after so much effort, the audience would often not engage with his ideas; not offer a challenge or analysis. What a shame. I can’t help but wonder what he would have had to say about blogs or websites and the ways in which they encourage participation. If Michel blogged, the servers would doubtless crash!

There is one place in the book which really amused me. It’s a wonderful example of the truly “disruptive” effects of new technology. I have reproduced the footnote that appears on Page 14 of the Palgrave Macmillan edition. This is Foucault’s 1 February 1984 lecture: First hour. Warming up to his argument about different modes of truth-telling, he informs his audience about the professional techniques of the Ancient rhetoricians. So popular were his lectures that the theatre would be packed to the rafters; people could hardly breathe, so keen were they to hear him speak. Students would record bootlegs on their little portable cassette machines, eager to be able to replay and share with friends after the fact. And so the following…

Michel Foucault is interrupted at this point by pop music from one of the cassette recorders. We hear a member of the audience rush to their machine. M.F.: “I think you are mistaken. It is at least Michael Jackson? Too bad”.

Look Both Ways

It’s sad in a way, that the more you get used to a place, the less inclined you are to look around yourself. The walk home from MMU has now become so familiar that I’m sure someone’s been switching me on to autopilot. I barely realise I’m moving until – suddenly – half-way there! Navigating my way through most local supermarket aisles without missing a beat is similarly easy. Chocolate: Aisle 2 on the left. Red Wine: right at the back, pushing itself forward. The solution to this stultifying effect of habituation is to vary my route from time to time. After all, now that I’m a student again, what’s the big rush? 😉

Don't step out without looking...


The key is not being afraid to take the odd wrong turn. Getting ever-so-slightly lost now and then is as vital to staying connected with the world as becoming an expert at something is. Perhaps even more so.

New Media and Academia: Altered Attributes

Getting back to work on my thesis, I thought it might be time to be brave and
share some of my more academic musings with you. I am currently combining preparations for initial data gathering with exploration of the literature and an elucidation of my framework. I’ll not post anything on the data gathering for now. Clearly this brief extract is part of a work in progress; which makes comments especially welcome!1 🙂

To state that there is no such thing as New Media is not the avoidance of an answer: rather, it is a rejoinder which meets the question of definition head-on. It is to suggest (with the hint of a challenge) that if we are to address the subject of “New Media” in significant depth we may first have to place aside our assumptions about what is actual and what is perceived; as well as the place of metaphor. These are the very assumptions around which much of “New Media” revolves, and with which it and its practitioners play. Contrarily, the very fluidity and liminality of these types of digital media, which may be referred to as “new”, “social”, “interactive”, “mobile” or “virtual”, suggests that there are particular thresholds or boundaries within which they exist, hence typical characteristics which might be identified. Nevertheless, it is important to make clear that seizing upon or fixing some particular conception or definition of New Media would in many ways run contrary to the purpose of my thesis. What it is necessary and rather simple to accept is the relative, historically situated, and (in terms of reception and acceptance) contingent character of anything labelled “new” – which partly explains why New Media defies easy classification. Another reason why an in-transition sketch is often the best that can be offered is that “New Media” can be seen differently depending on where, how, why, and by whom, it is being considered. It refers to something constantly being updated and refreshed; continually shifting; and which frequently but unpredictably accommodates ideas, features, and perspectives not previously included. Yet it also builds on tradition and what was prior. For the academic subject or “discourse communities“, whose attitudes towards New Media are the focus of this research, this is also the case – as well as, increasingly, for the disciplines and institutions to which they belong. There, as Nowotny et al observe, “near absolute demarcation criteria have failed”.

“The notion of ‘boundary work’ implies not only that boundaries are not fixed and permanent but that they need to be actively maintained. Moreover, their definition, mapping, and maintenance, often serve a social function. Social contingency and professional expediency influence the choice of ‘stories’ about Science [including Social Sciences]. Defining the sciences, mapping their territory in public space, making and reshaping them in the image tailored for the specific time and the occasion are all part of ‘boundary work’. And scientists, as ‘boundary workers’, are actively engaged in such activities as an integral part of their scientific endeavours” [page 57]. We must first understand the “socio-epistemological meaning of context” before we are able to address and understand the political and institutional characteristics of Science. Both types of context affect knowledge structures within academic disciplines. The current shifts occurring in the “conceptualisation and enactment of Science” are part of a move toward a “Mode II” society where contextualised knowledge moves “into the context of implication” [page 201] – i.e. wider society beyond the University proper, a “social space of transformation” or, what the authors, in a re-imagining of ancient Greece’s public sphere, call “the agora”. This space is typified by, among other things, “socially distributed expertise”, and “changing rules of engagement” whereby social relationships become vertical rather than horizontal and where institutional structures and traditional modes of interaction are “aided” and altered by “the pervasive role of information and communication technologies” [page 105]. Just as time and space have been reconceptualised into the “more capacious category of space-time, so science and society “co-evolve” as an aspect of coalescence [page 49]; the distinction between academics and those who would previously have been deemed “incompetent outsiders” is no longer as meaningful an analytical tool.

Some critics point out that this was always the case; not just for Science, but also for the Arts & Humanities, and that such a perspective or vision of scholarship might be seen to date as far back as Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. A utopian novel published in 1697, New Atlantis greatly influenced Enlightenment concepts of Scientific rationalism, even depicting participation in the academy by certain select members of the public (although in Bacon’s narrative, this is tightly-controlled, hierarchical, and revolves around the acceptance of particular customs). Others propose that it was Universities and institutions which parted Science from its original multi-varied and accommodating form. In either case, we may assume that the modern University can be broadly characterised in these terms, in particular the dominance of ICTs. Altered power structures and novel “visibility” regimes are also created by and reflected in new forms of media and communications technology. Divisions between producer/consumer, author/reader, expert/layperson are challenged and blurred; politicised discourses often position it in terms of access to knowledge, power, and a re-structured public sphere. Traditions and novelty converge and collide. Clearly then, there are strong thematic links and properties which typify both “New Media” and Academia in the 21st century. These require much further exploration.

Endnotes:
1 I have removed some inline references in support of various arguments to make this entry more blog friendly. For the most part, hyperlinks are provided instead.

Fun and Games

Larkin’ About“, a special event running at Contact Manchester last night, really made me want to find out more about “Pervasive and Social Games”, a fascinating area all about participation and interactivity that isn’t natural territory for me. I don’t think the friends who I was there with will mind too much if I tell you we were all slightly shy for the first wee while, given that running around (or Larkin’ About) inside a building full of strangers isn’t necessarily the easiest thing for a rainy Saturday night. Once you get into the spirit of feeling pretty much like a big kid on an adventure playground, it’s a really great way for you – and your inner puzzle solver – to break from taking things too seriously. There’s also the advantage that not actually being a kid, you can get a few drinks up at the bar to help you on your way. 😉

For “Mixtape”, we had to hunt around the building for 9 hidden cassette tapes, each one of which contained a different tune with an original monologue – on various aspects of being in and out of love – spoken over the top. We then had to decide what our own Track 10 would be and why. This was great; not just because the monologues (by Vee Uye, one of the “Larkin Agents”) were impressive, but also because pressing chunky big buttons and (im)patiently waiting for your tape to rewind while hoping you’ve not confused it about SidesA&B takes you back nostalgically to far less convenient technological days. Aah. As the game’s designer more eloquently writes:

Mixtape is a retro-audio treasure hunt with a soundtrack that takes you around the Contact building and into the puzzle of our hearts. Players navigate the space with analogue personal stereos and augment the narrative with their own memories. For 3 players at a time.

I don’t want to imply that “Larkin’ About” was entirely about silliness and feeling retro though! There were plenty of physically active games with intriguing names and educational as well as dramatic aspects, like “Histronauts” (designed by UniverCity Culture at Manchester University), and “Spy School”. These made use of ultra-modern technology – smart phones, geo-tags, and QR codes for instance – but maybe those are the ones I’ll gear myself up for next time!

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If you’re wondering what’s going on in some of my pictures, Mortal Kombat was repurposed and projected onto a huge screen to become “Moral Kombat”. In this game, people who had committed such cardinal sins as “getting on the bus without paying” and “forgetting my mum’s birthday” could seek forgiveness by pitching a stand-in ninja warrior against the judgemental audience – who were also represented by another would-be assassin. Cue a fight to the entirely simulated and amusingly coded death.

All of Larkin’ About’s work is based on the talents of Manchester theatre practitioners, digital artists,  live artists and, naturally, the game players who all this is for. It’ll be interesting to discover what they have on offer in future.

Arts and Humanities Incorporated?

Organised by “artsmethods@manchester” – a newly formed group for academics and practitioners in the Arts and Humanities – tonight’s event for this emerging network took place in the modest but historic “Engine House” of Chorlton Mill which is now the home of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.

Café Arts

(Why) do the Arts matter to society?

This was the provocative question posed by the “Arts Ambassadors” who set up artsmethods. Their intention is to bring together an informal cross-institution and (potentially) cross-sector community of academics and others interested in the future and value of A&H research and practise. Value means the kind made tangible both inside and – perhaps more importantly – outside the walls of Manchester’s Universities. Staff and researchers at the event came from Manchester Metropolitan University, the Royal Northern College of Music, the University of Manchester, and Salford University. At least one part-time documentary maker was in attendance, as well as the manager of a local radio station optimistic that she would find more exciting programming ideas here than the ubiquitous “antiques and cookery shows”.

Arts & Humanities have always had “impact”.

After everyone introduced themselves, the discussion centred mostly on modes of public “engagement”, communication, and what might be called “community outreach”. One woman pointed out that this really shouldn’t be construed as a one-way process. At the same time as thinking about how academia and scholarship “impact upon” the public, we should listen to what the public have to say to us: establishing a dialogue or a conversation with them and allowing for a flow of ideas which isn’t in thrall to outmoded boundaries and hierarchies. In other words: equality of access and participation.

It’s strange – perplexing even – that we should have to worry about what exactly Arts, Histories, Languages, Linguistics, Humanities, and Cultural Studies bring to society that is valuable enough to justify their continued funding. Would even the most “rational” minded and stereotypical “hard” Scientist ask if the Arts have relevance? My best guess is a resounding no! In many ways these disciplinary lines are increasingly showing themselves to be somewhat artificial. An idea which Professor Sharon Ruston, who I met at the event, could tell us something about in relation to literature and medicine. The trouble is, of course, that many people in a position to influence government policy don’t want to acknowledge this right now. Arts are considered an easy target – they can be sidelined then revived in happier times. A cactus, in the desert, that will always flower, proudly. Maybe this tells us about a (rightly) perceived resistance and durability – and one of the true strengths of the Arts and Humanities within society and culture? A positive property becomes, sadly, the justification for deprivation.

Visual anthropologist and filmmaker Dr Amanda Ravetz pointed out that it can be hard to articulate exactly how A&H makes a contribution to the greater good when so much of these subjects’ understandings are based on legacy, intuition, and a tacit (but no less real) knowledge, rather than on simple demonstrable facts. Regardless of whatever new goals, targets, and systems of assessment are put in place, A&H has always and will always make an “impact” on and enrich society. But how do we measure that? Can we? Is the right response to these pressures to demonstrate the value of the academic an identification of and reliance on memorable “personalities” popular with mainstream broadcast and print media? Is there a risk that complex arguments and theories not suitable for a general audience will become “invisible” – or will be repackaged, simplified, and categorised under some basic label like “grand ideas”? A&H may need to reach a “wider audience” but it shouldn’t have to compromise its values or its methods. Isn’t knowledge any longer an end in itself?

Helen and Clare at the Arts Café

Across the board there is a tension between the uninspired presentation of “dry” facts in opposition to the glamour, subliminality, and inter-textuality of other (perhaps digital) forms of communication. There were some very interesting (though not uncontroversial) presentations about how to address that. As well as continuing to explore how learning, technology, entertainment, and play can combine, is there a way to take A&H research out onto the streets? To locate it in engaging ways within public spaces? Maintaining visibility is easier (in theory) for those whose subjects have a place on the floors, walls and screens of the cultural heritage sector. What about philosophers, or linguists? Is there some way they can position their work within the wider environment to say “Look! This is why we’re relevant! Come and take part” ? Somebody pointed out that a certain amount of opportunism might be involved in doing that – as well as clever and timely strategising – but it could also encourage A&H scholars to explore innovative and engaging approaches.

Art, creativity, metaphor, imagination and expression – these will survive regardless of conditions of government. The reason for Café Arts posing its questions right now may in part be a backdrop of worry, frustration and fear; still, people with a passion for ideas and the exploration of truth are generally galvanised by a challenge. Something I was reminded of on my way to the IABF “Water Closet” – before which sits a modest little display case housing a collection of Anthony Burgess’s old typewriters.