A presentation I gave on Friday as part of the How to Play Knowledge conference run by PhD candidates at the Faculty of Arts, Design and Media at Birmingham City University.
…a purpose-made forum for reflections on how to communicate research. To communicate is an art and every communication is a performance, so how to play knowledge?
Play as reproduction, play as performance, play as production, play as… You tell us!
Kene Kelly Ochonogor shared this photo of me in action:
Rather than talking about one particular project, I wanted to use my practice as a jumping off point for different thoughts, observations and provocations, hopefully offering a few things for the attendees to chew on within their own practices.
Here’s the approximate text of what I said, along with my slides – you can click on these for larger versions – and some relevant links.
Many thanks to Alberto and the pgr-studo for the invitation!
Hello, my name’s Nikki
I was an art student at BCU before it was BCU, and I’ve been working as an artist for the last 11 years.
In that time I’ve done various things; here’s a selection to give you a flavour of my practice
I did a series of not-quite random walks around Tokyo by following this edited map from each of the 29 stations of the Yamanote railway line. I tried to find the location the map showed and then I identified and documented the thing of interest at the end of each of the 29 walks.
I’ve led walking and cycling guided tours. I like how travelling by foot or by bike slows things down. I like how you become very definitely placed into an environment and into your senses.
I made some large, wooden, tapping tubes that beat faster or slower depending on the space you carry them through. I invited people to carry them around the city centre to find out what difference that would make to how they experienced that space.
Working with Hannah Nicklin, we brought people up on to the top deck of a car park in the Jewellery Quarter at night, where they listened to a lump of clay telling them stories about the lives playing out in the city around them.
I togged up some ramblers with some landscape-reactive sashes and we walked, and walked, and walked…
I cycled between Birmingham and York. Back in Birmingham, a sculpture I had made moved in response to how much effort I was having to put in at the other end of the connection.
I worked in a team that allowed visitors to project graffiti onto paintings in BM&AG. We did this so we could ask questions about behaviour, power and authorship in weighty cultural institutions.
And one of my favourites was this monkey that would only come out and swing on its trapeze if everyone in the room stood still for 20 seconds. Except I didn’t tell people that’s what they had to do. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing to see people experimenting and passing on guesses and knowledge across the weekend.
Also, it turned out that asking a group of people to stand still for 20 seconds – and at the same time – is really, really hard!
I also work to develop the ecosystem that these sorts of projects sit within. As part of a collective called Many & Varied, a few weeks ago we ran a conference called Bees in a Tin.
Here the call was for interesting people making unique interfaces for the world around them. We’re also running a series of monthly Salons to support practitioners – you can’t go to the first one, because it’s this afternoon, but if you feel like a bit of an outsider or an inbetweener, check them out and get involved.
As you may be able to tell, I don’t really have a convenient label I can use for myself when people ask me what I do. I have to illustrate it.
So I’ve developed this…
This is what I usually use to communicate the territory that I’m exploring:
the intersection of people, place, playfulness and technology.
I’m interested in how we interact with the things around us – mostly physical spaces, but I also include social landscapes within that.
A quick definition:
Physical computing is the use of software and hardware that senses – and responds to – the physical world. Sometimes it makes stuff happen back out in the physical world too.
In recent years I’ve been using objects that include elements of physical computing.
I speak about these in terms of being ‘place interfaces’. Because, with these, I’m thinking about the interaction between the object and the person using it, as well as the interaction between the object and person combined and the space around them together.
The Venn diagram’s a really effective way of quickly and intuitively getting people understanding the sort of area I’m exploring.
At least, that’s what I think it does!
Which is probably as good a time as any to invoke this xkcd cartoon…
The first two rows in the sequence are people failing to warn other people about big holes in the ground.
They fall in.
However, in the third row the guy in the beret recognises that the other one doesn’t understand, so he takes him by the hand and he shows him.
The accompanying text says “Anyone who says that they’re great at communicating but ‘people are bad at listening’ is confused about how communication works.”
Communication is a dance for two, right?
Before I studied art, I studied Materials Engineering.
I don’t view them as being wildly different – in fact I describe them both as “asking questions about the world around me, doing experiments to find out and then communicating the results”.
It’s easy to forget the two-ness of effective communication though, isn’t it?
Hello, my name’s Nikki.
I was an art student at BCU before it was BCU, and have been working as an artist for the last 11 years.
Who are you guys?
It’s a bit weird when you think about it, isn’t it? I’ve prepped this whole thing about communicating, but I don’t even know who it is that I’m talking to, or why you’re here!
How often do we do that, and, is there a better way?
I’m going to talk for a bit longer and then there’s time for some conversation towards the end. I’m also around for a bit at lunch time before I go to the Salon I mentioned before – come and communicate with me!
Hello, my name’s Nikki.
I was an art student at BCU before it was BCU, I’ve been working as an artist for the last 11 years …and I recently went back to uni again.
For the last 3 years I’ve been doing a part time MA because I wanted to investigate where my practice sits in relation to various bodies of research.
Doing the MA part time and whilst having an ongoing art practice means I’m coming at the concept of research from slightly conflicted insider and outsider positions at the same time.
This will almost certainly become apparent…
You know: capital P, capital R.
As well as using that “doing experiments to find out about the world” thing I mentioned earlier, I’ve described my work as being “enquiry-led” for a long time now.
But somehow, coming to see my work’s potential for being Proper Research has been quite a recent realisation.
This is partly because up until recently I hadn’t really been exposed to the idea that art could be a valid way of doing research. To illustrate this, just do a google image search for ‘research’.
It’s all science!
And all science is blue
Sometimes it’s even the same glassy science, just rearranged slightly with a molecule photoshopped into the background!
There’s evidently a lot more demand for stock photography of scientific research (or what we imagine scientific research might be) than there is for images of research through art.
Here’s a picture of a cat to make you feel better.
So yes, art practice as research. I’m still figuring out what this might mean for me.
I’m reasonably comfortable with the doing-the-experimenting stage, and the observing-interesting-results stage, but I don’t think I yet do enough to claim the outcomes or the insights. So I don’t think I declare Proper Research to be achieved just yet.
But who decides what Proper Research is?
For those of us in Academia, we’re no doubt being conditioned to think of giving papers at conferences and of writing journal articles.
I’ve definitely found these things useful for absorbing the research of others and for getting a sense of how my work sits in relation to that.
…but this is a note to self to remind me to not accept that as the only option. It’s a construct of an established system, with established boundaries.
…but I’m always drawn to the edges of things and sometimes, if you push, they move…
I have to confess I’ve not read a lot of theory in the past – largely because of either finding it completely impenetrable or it not interesting me.
Over the last couple of years though I’ve been hanging out with Sociologists and the Mobilities Studies gangs more and more, and that’s starting to change.
Mobilities Studies is another one of those Venn diagrams – Sociologists, Geographers and Artists, often working together, exploring the movement of people, things, ideas and data.
It’s a relatively new area of study, so the edges have not yet become fossilised, and through it I’ve struck a vein of writing from people challenging the status quo about how to conduct research, what constitutes research and what does or doesn’t get swept under the carpet when we present our research.
I like it!
You possibly won’t be surprised to hear I’m drawn to it because of the interdisciplinarity too. But these are really all just icing on the cake.
I like it because it speaks to things that I’m interested in.
As a result of this, I have been a lot more motivated to read books and articles; I have so many pdfs of articles I’ve downloaded that I want to read!
Because enthusiasm is important, isn’t it?
Let’s look at it this way though: if I can say I don’t want to engage with someone else’s work because I don’t want to, or because it doesn’t interest me, then I have to accept that other people can say the same about the things I’ve slaved over and put my heart and soul into.
How do we enthuse people so that they become a receptive audience?
(I don’t have an answer for that, by the way.)
However, I was lucky enough to spend 2 weeks working on Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers project. Kat describes herself as a cycling sewing sociologist and that pretty much sums up the main elements of the project.
She’s researching the transformable garments some Victorian women designed so that they could strike a balance between strict social and dress codes, and safely riding a bicycle so they could benefit from the new freedoms that that offered.
She’s doing and communicating a lot of the research through examining some of the patents filed at the time and then making and wearing a collection of the garments.
Here are the garments transformed into riding mode.
She talks about ‘entanglements’ between art-based methods and other practices that are not accountable to art – for example Sociology and Ethnography.
She talks about the struggle to have these ways of working recognised by the systems of academia.
But she also talks about their value for understanding the world in different ways and for communicating those insights to audiences.
I’ll post a load of links for you when I put this online, but for now, please take that as a call to action to consider the relationship between how you communicate your research and the methods you used to do the research itself in the first place.
How related are they? How related should they be?
This photo is taken from the sharing event. Note that it’s held at a bikey cafe rather than in an ivory tower at the university or in a gallery.
Here Kat and her team wore the garments they’d made and, in the character of the people who designed them, talked through the affordances of the various skirts, capes and bloomers and the contexts that they came out of.
I was only involved in the project for a short time, but I have spoken about that project to lots of different types of people and I’m always impressed by how easy it is to have meaty conversations with people about it.
There’s a way in for everyone, it seems.
Like bikes? Sorted.
Maker? Got that covered.
History buff? Look at these old photos we tracked down from the relatives.
Also, everyone likes a really good Victorian inventor story, right?!
Could or should your research provide multiple entry points? Multiple ways for people to access it? Multiple ways for it to access people?
I’m not very good at making art that gets hung up in galleries. For me galleries are more often than not hubs for activity that then leaks out into the surrounding outdoor spaces.
I use playtesting a lot – I gather groups of people together to try out prototypes at different stages of a project’s evolution. We try things out, I pay attention to the unexpected things that happen and these can then go on to steer the next steps in development.
More often than not galleries are, for me, where research takes place rather than being a place where a finished product is displayed.
Colony is a project I’ve been working on for 4 or 5 years now, and opening it up to playtester audiences is a nice way of invigorating the work. It also gives me lots of opportunities to try out different ways of explaining things and to home in on what the key message might be.
It’s a chance for me to practice the two-ness of my communication.
Also, If I’m getting faces like this when people first encounter the things I make, then I judge I’m on the right track with the enthusiasm thing!
Can I have a volunteer, please?
Jerome Turner tweeted what happened next…
So this is one of the ‘critters’ from the Colony project. The plan is to make half a dozen or so of them and then they get carried through the city.
They make tangible the behaviour of different radio waves interacting with the built environment, and I’m interested in how this works as a sort of extended sense and how, in turn, carrying one of these and being part of the group affects how you navigate through the urban environment.
But urban environments also contain people, as well as architecture.
One of the things that was really apparent from this playtest we did in Bristol is that lots of people felt compelled to come up and start a conversation or ask if they too could hold a critter too, or to have their photo taken with it.
This is going to be an interesting thing to have to work through. Do I design the experience to allow for these actions? Do I mediate the interest from these secondary audiences? Do I not allow for them at all and instruct the critter carriers to ignore them as they make their journey?
I think that’s a really interesting tension within the context of this conference. What happens when you have engaged, curious, benign audiences, but the timing’s just inconvenient?
Does anyone have any questions or requests for our volunteer? If so, now is the time!
I presented Colony last year at the Networked Urban Mobilities conference.
This involved having to flatpack one so it fit into my rucksack for the flight to Copenhagen, and also having to reassemble it at the other end.
I ‘performed’ the reassembly in the canteen to provide an opportunity for people to have a chance to start a conversation with me.
Yes a straight powerpoint would have been easier, but I work with bodies and experiences and spectacle and I’m prepared to put some effort in to convey those in ways beyond photographs.
That said, I’m increasingly being drawn into the world of academic papers and conferences. I get some value from doing this – and early signs are that it’s a two-way value – but it does highlight how outside of these systems I am at the same time.
Without an institution supporting me, delegate fees, travel and accommodation can be prohibitive.
How can I push at established conventions of convening in order to share the stories I want to share, with the people I’d like to share them with?
I would like to do a PhD at some point …I think… but not straight after finishing my Masters. So here I’m talking from the viewpoint of someone all too aware they’re about to have their library card taken away!
The term ‘para-academic’ captures the multivalent sense of something that fulfills and/or frustrates the academic from a position of intimate exteriority. Para-academia is that which is beside academia, a place whose logic encompasses many reasons and no reason at all (para-, “alongside, beyond, altered, contrary,” from Greek para-, “beside, near, from, against, contrary to,” cognate with Sanskrit para “beyond”). The para is the domain of: shadow, paradigm, daemon, parasite, supplement, amateur, elite. The para-academic embodies an unofficial excess or extension of the academic that helps, threatens, supports, mocks (par-ody), perfects and/or calls it into question simply by existing next to it.
So, it may already be that as a non-institutionalised artist I’m already para-academic.
Back when I was doing a lot of projects in schools, I often felt under pressure to know about curricula and learning outcomes and the like.
This was a trap.
I was there precisely because I was not a teacher. My value was in being something different.
Should I be as protective of my not being an academic? Should I be protective of my identity as an independent artist? Are the two mutually exclusive? Are these silly questions to be asking?
Maybe there’s a place just close enough to academia that I can get the stimulation I crave, but outside it enough that I can retain my identity as artist?
Maybe that place is a collaboration?
I recently read a journal article I really liked, it’s called ‘Cycling through Dark Space: Apprehending Landscape Otherwise’.
I started reading it because it called to my enthusiasm. I’ve done a few night rides, enjoyed them, and I’d like to do more.
As I continued reading it, I found it really relevant to my work in the way that it talked about experiencing landscapes via senses other than sight.
Having finished reading it, it now also signifies a small breakthrough that I had.
You see, the article takes the form of field notes from one of the authors combined with an academic style commentary wrapped around it. What if teamwork is an option?! What if I’m not wholly responsible for all aspects of the research or all of the communication?
Actually, the realisation that I could use field notes at all is a bit of a new one too.
I think I’ve encountered a lot of techniques from various places – especially ethnography – that I’m quite keen to poach and adapt to my work.
However, in the same way that the written word isn’t always the best way to communicate an idea, with things like this I reckon thinking about it in your head isn’t always the best way to decide if a particular way of working is right for you or not. So I plan to get empirical and to design projects that will let me try these on for size – experience them – enable me to feel if they fit me.
…but for now I’m still doing my MA…
My final project has been based around a series of workshops, so I have to follow particular procedures around informed consent. Which means giving people a load of written information.
I tried to consider my participant information sheets as objects. To give the same thought to form and materials as I would to a sculpture.
As with the research you have done, think about what you want to communicate to people about the research you are about to do. Think about the tactile, sensuous ways you can do that.
Can I have 3 volunteers, please?
[Spoken only to the first volunteer]
In a short while I will invite you to walk with someone who endures.
She is finding it incredibly difficult to walk at the moment because she is in so much pain. In two week’s time she will have a hip replacement operation. A few months after that she will also have the other hip replaced. She hopes that the other side of surgery will come a time when she can climb a particular hill in the Lake District again.
This is a walk of hope and of ambition.
[Spoken only to the second volunteer]
In a short while I’ll invite you to walk with a man and a boy. They are the same person, but when you walk the man sees this place as he remembers it when he was a boy.
He has moved away three times, but each time he is called back to this same cluster of houses.
This is a walk of memory and of belonging.
[Spoken only to the third volunteer]
In a short while I’ll invite you to walk with a distant friend.
The friend is in Australia. Her husband is dying. Not only can you not go to be with them, neither can you find the words to write and offer support from afar.
This walk is your way of signifying to an unfair world that your thoughts are still with them.
This is a walk of separation and of connection.
Please walk with your companions.
Ezinne MT shared these two photos of the volunteers walking with the pods and the people’s stories they represented:
Does anyone have any questions or requests for our volunteers? If so, now is the time!
Here we have an example of a recurring challenge for me.
I work with experiences. If not site specific, then at least very much about being located in a body. I make things that have to be interacted with, that have to be carried, that have to be felt.
I make tools that are intended to be used.
Quite often I make tools because the tools I need to ask the questions I want to ask, don’t yet exist in the world. I have to make them before I can ask questions of and with them.
Exhibiting things like those pods or the critters from the Colony project is possible, but they are not necessarily where the art is and often I see them as being lifeless and incomplete when they are not in motion with their symbiotic human.
Heaven forbid these things get preserved behind glass in a sterile vitrine! I want people to be able to do more than just passively regard these things from a distance.
For example: The Colony critters are instruments for detecting radio waves in a way that people can sense them and feel emotionally invested in what is revealed.
Until the time comes that we’ve made fully working versions and put them into use, people only see the tools. And yeah, okay, they’re kind of compelling by themselves, but this is not the project. I need to communicate something different. I need to be clear where the research is.
[I need to finish the project!]
Example: The pods are the result of a process. And it’s the process that I’m interested in.
I ran workshops with different groups of people and we used the time it took the participants to make one of these to talk about the distant places that we have strong emotional connections to.
The crafting and the pace of the materials made a particular space for conversation. Slow space.
It was the potential within this, and also the way the people related to their pods once they had been brought to life, that I was interested in.
Not the pods themselves – they are the bare minimum to allow the other stuff to happen.
As a way of communicating that project, scenes like this don’t do a lot for me.
Put the pods into people’s hands though, and watch for the moment when they get it, and that’s infinitely more satisfying!
Those faces. That’s when I know I’ve communicated something.
I’m going to stop talking at you now.