Tag Archives: research

Learning lessons in public

This post first (and recently) appeared on The Afterlife of Heritage Research Project blog, as the first of a series of three posts written before, during and after a planned event. Take a look to see what other contributors are up to. 

Here’s Nana’s ‘before the event’ blog:

Of course I think my PhD is interesting. To paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davis, I would say that wouldn’t I? But I don’t foresee a queue forming outside Waterstones’ in eager anticipation of the submission of my thesis. So when I came across artsmethods@manchester’s Research to Public strand, offering guidance on making my research public-facing, I was immediately excited. After all, what’s the point of research if it’s not meaningful to reality?

Research to Public offered two structured and intensive full day workshops at the University of Manchester, supplemented by documentation and an online presence designed to prize open the rusty doors of the ivory tower and let the daylight of practicality flood in.

Eager applicants to the scheme were initially subject to a selection process before being invited to the first workshop. Then, after considerable input, we were sent forth into the big wide world and told to come back with an institutional partner- a gallery, museum or other public institution interested in our proposal and willing to play host. The second workshop honed our ability to co-operate with our partners and the resulting carefully budgeted and considered proposals were then submitted to a panel charged with distributing prize funding.

I am very fortunate to have had my proposal selected, and I write this on the eve of the first of the two events that I proposed. As you can imagine, the whole process has been challenging in lots of ways; some anticipated, some unexpected, but all very, very useful. So here are some of the lessons I’ve learned thus far. I apologize if you already know them, but some of us are slower on the uptake.

Lesson 1:  Don’t be precious

There’s wisdom in that there Kenny Rogers song about knowing ‘when to fold ‘em’ and ‘when to hold ‘em’. There may be some ideas that are worth being deeply precious about, but these are rare. Actively seek the opinions and contributions of others. Be honest with yourself about your level of commitment to the idea as it stands, and give due and respectful consideration to the tweaks others propose. Every contributor (from the gallery curator to the chatty passenger sharing your train journey) brings different expertise; learn to harness it.

Lesson 2: Network

Contributing to as many networks as you can effectively manage is good for your creative soul. It’s also kind of karmic. I had cold-called a number of institutions who were all enthusiastic but already committed to a schedule, before a network connection yielded an introduction to an institution that wasn’t even on my list. It turns out the institution was looking for something that would reach beyond its usual remit and demographic, and I could propose just the thing. Who knew?

Lesson 3: Refining is a lived process

Like most other things in life – and unlike the fairy tales I’m still addicted to – perfect proposals don’t just appear fully-formed, ready-sprinkled with magic dust. Business proposals, academic theses, paintings, life – all require adjustments and rewrites.

Lesson 4: Plan and anticipate

Like the archetypal mum checking before her child leaves for school in the morning- Homework? Packed lunch? Gym kit? Keys? Hanky? Umbrella? It was quite fun spending time just thinking about all the possibilities and unlikelihoods surrounding the events I’d proposed. It was even more fun when the gallery curator was able to identify a few more.

Lesson 5: Make it real

Isn’t there some great quote from a famous person about the number of brilliant ideas that lie gathering dust in obscurity? Despite what I hope (with some effort) is a bubbly public persona, I’m actually ‘a bit behind the door’ so the process of taking an idea and making it real has been quite exhilarating. It’s both humbling and inspiring when other people believe enough in your idea to lend themselves to it. Ok, so I may have had to gather myself a little before plastering my event all over Facebook and Twitter but the whole R2P process has given me renewed confidence in my ability to communicate to others through writing, talking, thinking and sharing, and ultimately performing. I think it’s no coincidence that my painting and sculpting, as well as my academic writing also seem to have received a bit of a boost.

I’ve spent today having final meetings with the artists involved, gathering the hardware I’ll need for the space, making a Blue Peter style audience contributions box, monitoring the Twitter publicity spread (currently standing at 45 RTs, 7 mentions and 3 favourites), and checking the Bank Holiday weekend weather forecast (chance of rain, 13˚C).

What are we planning?  Will it work? Will anyone care? These tales will be told in the next blog. For now, let’s see what new lessons tomorrow brings…

 


Nana, you SHALL go to the Ball!

February: the month of lovers.

The sun has begun to shine (intermittently). The birds are returning two by two, twittering happily as they trace lovehearts between the treetops and the clouds.lovebirds

Even the foxes are keening.

But for Nana, St. Valentine’s Day came and went with ne’er so much as a card.

And still the invitation to the second round workshop of the Afterlife of Heritage Research to Public initiative gathered dust on the mantelpiece.invitation

Would no cultural institution in shining armour escort Nana to the Ball?wailing

Unlike many of the more graceful belles, yours truly has no pedigree in the arts and cultural heritage sector; no friends in high (or even low) places to return overdue favours; no advantage reflecting from the looking glass.mirrorstanding

Nothing for it, then, but some good old-fashioned scrubbing up.mirror

Lacking white mice, Nana turned to the keyboard. She wrote a proposal. Then realised there should perhaps be two (to indicate range and to demonstrate a willingness to be flexible). Or perhaps three would be better……..

But then how to compose a love letter when you don’t know who you’re writing to?

Hmmm…..

Nana got digital and started internet dating- scouring websites for a potential match.

It took two days of procrastinating, some nail-biting, quite a lot of chocolate, and a little encouragement from Jenna Carine Ashton before Nana could press SEND. After all, what would happen if they refused?

They refused.

Nothing terrible happened.

And they refused politely and sweetly, and with some very helpful recommendations of others whose dance cards might not already be so full.

Nana reflected. Ah yes, what was it most of us had failed to include when we practised this at the workshop? Oops.

Rewrite #1 (including the crucial ‘What’s in it for you?’ section). SEND.

Rewrite #2 (including more potential strands). SEND.

Rewrite #3 (reducing the material requirements). SEND.

betterpaper

And then it happened. THE AMAZING THING. Our interests match, we’re looking for the same things, we’re talking the same talk, the timing is perfect, we’ve met face-to-face and we like each other….

Nana, book your train. For on Thursday you SHALL go to the Ball, and you shall dance….

….with the Royal West of England Academy!

to the ball


A tale told and retold

My doctoral research is investigating (British) sign language poetry, and in so doing it’s exploring Derrida’s ideas of Writing, of grammatology.

Derrida urged us to consider the power of technologies of the written – their omnipresence in our society and how they have come to govern our ways of doing and of thinking. He called this power logocentrism, and he urged us to try to think beyond it – to try to find other ways of Writing (as opposed to writing), that might afford us a different perspective. He became quite interested in the relationship of writing to thought, and therefore in psychoanalysis:

It works no doubt with a mass of elements which have been codified in the course of an individual or collective history. But in its operations, lexicon, syntax purely idiomatic residue is irreducible and is made to bear the burden of interpretation in the communication between unconsciousnesses

 So what better place to test whether art practice is capable of lending new insight to theoretical consideration, than in a classroom at the Graduate School of Education in Bristol, where Professor Jane Speedy was conducting a course on  Narrative Interviewing (5th and 6th May 2011).

Jane’s own narrative interviewing practices emerge from her work as a therapeutic counsellor. During our course she urged us to try out her method of note-taking a counselling session. Jane works by identifying the main topics that emerge in a counselling session and noting along a timeline the contexts and regularity with which the speaker returns to these topics .

What would emerge, I wondered, if instead of noting these instances, one tried to draw this process; using a pencil to map them, to turn them into top[ic]ography? This is how my third and final methodological exploration began.

In a simulated session, as the ‘client’ talked to her ‘counsellor’ I allowed my pencil to move freely across the page, the pressure of the graphite on the paper  to reflect the intensities of speech, the movements of my hand to reflect the speed, and the shapes that formed on the paper to reflect the flow of the narrative.

What emerged was a kind of map of what had occurred. Bereft of content, what was brought to the fore was the intensity, the mood of the exchange- in a way it was a picture of how the person had felt in and about the telling (regardless of what had been told). It struck me this was a useful process, revealing by means beyond the word what lay beneath the word.

As I looked at the squiggles on the paper, I kept returning to the notion of the image as a contour map- its swirls and circles giving a clue to the height and depth of the emotions outlined there.

P1030287

The idea of mapping took hold and I wondered what would happen to the work if I translated it into another form of map. I chose Beck’s iconic London Underground map as a source material because of the way his map divorced itself from the actual geography of London, preferring to immerse itself in re-presenting something altogether deeper. This seemed to echo what my own map was doing; escaping from the actual words that had been spoken, to re-present instead a deeper level of communication.

As I began to trace colour onto the work, I found myself focussing back again on the lines- how they crossed and interconnected and they began to appear like threads in some crazy warp and weft, making up the fabric of the narrative.

Pursuing the thread analogy, I switched my medium to embroidery. This allowed me to experiment not just with colour, but with texture – long, smooth running stitches where the original pencil mark had been light and easy; an altogether knottier stitch where the marks were jagged, and so on.

tale_told_detail

Something else emerged from the stitching. As I sewed, I became aware that what was visible to me was ever so slightly different in texture to what was visible on the other side of the paper. Deliciously paralleling the old adage ‘there are two sides to every story’, this was a happenstance that brought me into direct contact with the activity of narrative itself, with the activity of telling and its inherent risks.

I began to stitch onto an acetate transparency, so that the ‘space’ of the act of telling was at once present but invisible (the acetate), and the two perspectives (teller and listener) were each represented, but any third party would no longer be able to discern which was the original.

I left some pieces of thread hanging longer- even beyond the edge of the frame – as a nod to the intertextuality to which we are all subject- to all the tales we have ever ever heard whose words thread their way seamlessly into all the tales we have ever told .

And the activity of stitching itself (not easy on acetate, and increasing in difficult the more stitches, and therefore more holes were added) was a means to other voices – the voices of all the women and men who had ever stitched, to their circumstances, their conversations and to all that they had produced.

The double-sided frame I had snatched up in a closing down sale at Habitat at last found its purpose, and the piece was exhibited in the Tenants’ Exhibition at Art’s Complex in Edinburgh from December 2012 to January 2013.

tale_told

It seems to me that art practice – that an altogether different way of  Writing – unveiled something rather different than (logocentric) written note-taking would ever have done.

What do you think?


Teaching an old dog new tricks

Yesterday Nana had the opportunity to audition for the role of elderly-canine-attempting-to-master-new-skills. It wasn’t easy, and it was certainly exhausting….but it was also stimulating, exciting and, above all, fun. Did she get the part? Well…..

dog in glasses

This was the first workshop of the Afterlife of Heritage: Research to Public venture; a project organised by Arts Methods@Manchester (an AHRC-funded research hub) and delivered by the combined forces of the University of Salford and the Institute for Cultural Practices at the University of Manchester.

The whole set up is a little like The Apprentice; potential candidates submit a proposal and, if selected, are invited to attend two intensive training workshops, identify a cultural institution to partner them and submit a well-developed bid to bring an aspect of their research to the public through the auspices of said cultural institution. The six or so winners selected from the final bids will receive peppercorn funding to set the whole process in real-life motion.

It’s all very exciting and Nana was awfully chuffed make it to the second round workshops. It was the first of these that saw Nana fretting over weather forecasts and rising at the crack of dawn to take the train from Bristol to the University of Manchester.

The Apprentice analogy doesn’t quite fit, though – mercifully there’s no Lord Sugar, and Suzanne Spicer, Kostas Arvanitis and Emily McIntosh can’t be said to resemble Margaret Mountford, Nick Hewer or Karren Brady.

Margaret and Nick Karren

No, we’re definitely on a safer footing with the canine analogy…. and it was a little like Crufts.

The room was bristling with bright-eyed, alert, best-of-breeds and as the day progressed we were put through our Obedience Ring paces.

Then Best-in-Show guest speaker, Jenna Carine Ashton – a warm whirlwind of creative energy – was brought in to show us how it was really done (see just some of her impressive range on her colourchroma blog).

dog

Lunched like champions, checked and biddable, in the afternoon we were carefully given the scent and drafted out; a baying pack of keen researchers released on the trail….

hunting hounds

Tally Ho!

So, is it possible to overturn an adage? All Nana knows so far is that there’s much joyful learning to be had in the trying…


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