Praxis and Poetics

Last week I submitted the final version of my paper for the Research Through Design conference ‘Praxis and Poetics’. Writing the paper was an unexpected opportunity to explore the disparity between design practices of creating meaning in products, and the everyday circumstances that create meaning for the people who eventually own them.

The call for submissions was a really interesting one: the conference organisers are subverting the conventional conference format of 20 minute Powerpoint presentations, for round table discussions in ‘rooms of interest’.  And the artefacts that are the vehicles for the research are elevated to a visible position – there will be an exhibition in the BALTIC centre, and I’m really pleased that a new installation of Objects in Purgatory badges will be a part of it.

Badge page images copy

The badges given to participants in the Campaign for Objects in Purgatory

My abstract is below:

Campaign Badges: Creating Meaning Through Making

This paper is a reflection on a practice led research project called the Campaign for Objects in Purgatory, which sets out to discover how meaning develops in a possession during its life in the home. It explores the implications for designers seeking to create lasting meaning in their products, particularly in the context of emotionally sustainable design. This paper attempts to unravel the role of a series of badges which I produced and distributed as part of the research.

The Campaign has developed over the last two years and has taken the form of workshops, an exhibition, a series of conference papers and a journal article.  The badges discussed here were made as part of an exploratory research exhibition that took place in 2011 at Sheffield Institute of Arts gallery. Visitors to the exhibition were invited to contribute an uncherished gift, in the form of a drawing or photograph and accompanying narrative, and in return they received a campaign badge. Each badge featured a photograph of an uncherished gift submitted by someone else. By wearing it the participant gave the object a new ‘voice’ and took the Campaign beyond the boundaries of the exhibition space.

In this paper, the badges are the catalyst for a discussion about the disparity between the everyday circumstances that create meaning in possessions, and design practices of creating meaning in products.

Creative Research Methods - workshops

Recently I attended two really enjoyable  workshops on creative research methods  at the Birmingham Institute of Art & Design (BIAD) and the University of Westminster. The workshops explored research methods that involve participants in a creative activity, such as self-expression through making an object or collage. They were set up in response to growing interest in creative methods, in the social sciences and arts. They were especially engaging because there was an effective balance between active participation, and shared reflection on our professional experiences as researchers. It made for an easy atmosphere and open discussion. 

I’m very interested in the notion of creative methods, and in the diverse ways in which creativity might be present.  The workshops were initiated to explore non-traditional methods that engage participants in a creative activity, but the workshops themselves suggested a broader definition, as they drew in artists and designers developing research based in their own creative practices as well as researchers working with communities. We experienced knitting, drawing, Lego play, and a kind of narrative-walking.  Experiencing the subtle differences in how these activities enabled us to stop, explore, reflect and share was very useful.

knitted network

In  the more meditative and introspective of these activities we were invited to walk the local streets around BIAD and narrate our thoughts as they arose. It felt uncomfortable at first, but the opportunity to wander at will, coupled with the immediacy of verbalising our responses to our surroundings as they appeared, made for a rich reflective experience. Thoughts and memories normally supressed by the pressures of everyday life were allowed to bubble to the surface to be given due attention. Some participants became more aware of smells and sounds as they walked along, which had interesting implications for the creation of memories and relationship to place.

The other creative activities provided different sorts of reflective opportunities. Knitting provided a very convivial experience;  Amy Twigger-Holroyd connected us all through a network of knitting (see photo and Creative Methods site). This was a more intimate social experience that swiftly toppled social inhibitions. When you get the hang of it, knitting is a lovely absorbing activity, and it seemed we all had knitting related memories to exchange.  I can see how this works well as a means of exploring emotional connections to clothing and making.  It was great fun supporting David Gauntlett in his (almost) first experience of knitting. (I wasn’t the most supportive teacher, I think I laughed too much.)    

I am trying to work out what defines creative methods, and how they might be valued.  During both workshops we had rich discussions about the value of creative or artistic approaches to research. Several people I met felt that quantitative methods that seek the certainty of figures can miss out on an understanding of the more subjective aspects of human experience and emotion. Creative activities value experience over quantifiable certainties; they make space for the unexpected to happen, and allow stories to emerge in a less conscious way

Methods that blur the boundaries between the creativity of the researcher and participants are especially interesting to me. The creativity of the researcher can be a trigger for the creativity of a group of participants, and vice versa.  These methods throw up interesting questions about the position of the researcher and the ownership of materials and data generated, and we had some good discussions about this. In one example that arose, participants had made artworks which expressed aspects of their identity and personality. These sculptures were made out of natural materials that had been sought out, collected and carefully selected by the researcher. Do these outputs and the ideas they embody belong to the participants, or the researcher?

Creative thinking is present in some traditional methods too. An interesting example was raised in the first workshop: in-depth home interviews that engage the participant and researcher in joint reflection on the participant’s life or activities. Arguably this is a creative activity, as there is a kind of co-creation of meaning, which can subtly change the way the participant thinks about something.

Attending these workshops has been a genuinely useful experience and they are great motivation for developing a methodology paper for my PhD, which considers some of the questions raised in more detail.  I had very positive responses to my own research and met lots of generous people happy to discuss different scenarios surrounding uncherished gifts. Thanks everyone for a rich and interesting couple of days.

 See further reflections on the workshops in blog posts by Katherine Stewart and Jerome Turner.

First Post

My part-time, article based PhD started in January. I've been meaning to start this blog for a while!  I plan to post information about the projects I'm working on and the research as it develops.  Hopefully it will be a good tool for relection and help me keep track of progress. I'd better be disciplined about posting regularly!

I've attended some very thought-provoking seminars and events recently that I'll report on over the next couple of weeks.  They include two events run in connection with the Universal Addressibility of Dumb Things exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary, called Good Things and Bad Things, and OOO.  I've also been involved in two workshops exploring creative research methods at Birmingham Institute of Art and Design and the University of Westminster.  And more...

© Julia Keyte 2013