Mutable Matter

Creative Methods Workshop

This week I attended a workshop on creative methods run by David Gauntlett (for the ESRC as I found out on site who coincidentally happens to be sponsoring Mutable Matter!).
Day 1 consisted of trying out the Lego Serious Play method and discussing the pros and cons. Below is an example of a group exercise.

On Day 2 we discussed our own project and experiences with ‘creative methods’ and tried out an exercise with Plasticine.

First of all, it was interesting to hear about other people’s experiences with different kinds of hands-on methods (collage, video-booths, drawing, cardboard models and contact theatre were some of the examples) and the different ways of thinking about them. Some participants had devised a particular method for a particular problem, others saw hands-on methods as a more generally applicable device. Another observation was that hands-on methods give participants the opportunity to participate in the documentation and recording of the ‘data’. David Gauntlett noted that it is a less direct way of interviewing someone when you question a model, so materials might create a more comfortable situation for both participant and researcher. Another participant, however, suggested that some unexpected revelations might happen through the questioning at the model that re-introduces the discomfort.

As for the ‘Lego vs. Plasticine’ I think the workshop was full of surprises in that direction. Because I am so familiar with plasticine and other modelling clays, I can work with it very quickly and usually know what I want to do with it and how I want to express something. But because I have used it so much recently and am thus very immersed in it, it was helpful to observe how other people use and reflect on the material other than my participants, especially because there was the opportunity for a comparison with Lego.

During the Lego activities, I noticed how much more restricting it was for me than plasticine. While I can make up pretty much anything I want in plasticine, I have to negotiate premanufactured pieces in Lego. Often, I felt myself not wanting to attach metaphors to cliched shapes such as elephants, and often, I felt that the material was giving direction to what I could or could not express. This was sometimes frustrating, sometimes an interesting challenge: ‘let’s see what I can make under these restrictions, let’s see how far I can push it’. Did I come out of the workshop knowing which of the two processes was better than the other? Is a struggle with the ‘angular material’ better than an ‘easy birth’ with the more fluid material? I have no idea – but a lot of thoughts at the same time. One is that there may also be a relationship between your chosen material and the topic you aim to discuss (and how you aim to discuss it) with your participants.

What the participants at my table immediately noticed on Day 2 is that you have to concentrate less during the plasticine activity and were automatically talking more. Lego kept you more focused on the construction. At another table, the values and connotations attached to Lego and plasticine were discussed. Is Lego more gendered? Is plasticine more arty? What roles do these associations play in the research process? Do aesthetics play a role? And how do you analyse your data in the end? And how can we theoretically support using hands-on methods?

I guess with as many questions as this there is a lot of potential for interesting revelations, but also for frustration and for doing inappropriate theoretical and methodological shortcuts, particularly by drawing on stereotypical notions of art, play or simplistic applications of neuroscientific and psychoanalytic discoveries. And why do you have to justify it at all? After all, you tend to end up with a respectable set of data that does not differ in quality from ‘ordinary’ interviews!

As somebody who thinks and writes about matter and the material and likes to mess around with Bakhtinian/Serresian conceptions of dialogue, I find it particularly interesting to think about the agency of the material in this particular method. While Serres has a stronger integration of the material in his vision of dialogue, when I engage in hands-on methods I always have to think of a quote about Bakthin (by Deborah J. Haynes which shows how much he imbues sensory experience with potentiality (unless I understand it the wrong way!): ‘theories encounter walls that practice helps us move through’. What I find normally more helpful is his image of dialoge, that bascially everything is constantly authoring one another. This potentially includes the ‘non-human’, too! Also, dialogue is not just a spoken phenomenon. If then we add Serres ideas to the mix…

Maria Assad writes that ‘for Serres, the sense of touch is the fractal boundary that opens up a creative process, where objective reality and subjective intellect invent together’. Compared to that, he describes dialogue amongst other colourful descriptions as a ‘realised hell of illusions and trivialities’. In other works, Serres is a bit kinder to dialogue, but nevertheless seeks to problematise our reliance on (and elevation of) it. I still have to find out what he would make of a combination of the two and whether he would classify the drafting of hands-on activities into academic service as an impossibility, violation or actually something hopeful… hmh…

So much for my latest late night musings on hands-on methods…

Serious Play – Some thoughts on hands-on methods

When I came back from the workshops at Walton Hall yesterday, I met another Open University person on the train who was working on hands-on methods. I gave her a description of what I was doing, and she told me to have a look at David Gauntlett’s work (thank you!). And so I did!

I then had to realise that David Gauntlett is the man behind ‘’, a website that used to bring me and my co-students countless hours of entertainment during our arts degree (check out the Theory Trading Cards and the Lego Theorists!). But somehow I had always associated him with semiotics and not with hands-on methods. Maybe this was a new thing? What I found out is that David Gauntlett is indeed interested in visual and hands-on research methods. His last project involved something called ‘Lego Serious Play’ which I had never heard of. Lego Serious Play seems to be a ‘performance enhancement tool for organisations’. According to the Lego website,

‘LEGO SERIOUS PLAY is an innovative, experiential process designed to enhance innovation and business performance. Based on research that shows that this kind of hands-on, minds-on learning produces a deeper, more meaningful understanding of the world and its possibilities, LEGO SERIOUS PLAY deepens the reflection process and supports an effective dialogue – for everyone in the organization.’

Gauntlett, however, uses this type of Lego to engage people with their identity.

Here is a little clip from his research:

There are other social scientists who have argued that hands-on methods are a valuable addition to social science research. At the 2006 ‘Lively Temporalities’ Workshop (as part of the OU’s Interdependence Day) at the Royal Geographical Society, for instance, Nigel Thrift argued that social science not only can, but maybe should incorporate ‘actual practical work’ such as art practice, because ‘if you have to build something you often do learn from it in a way you don’t if you are just writing about it’. Classic examples of the advocacy of the sensuous that especially geographers refer to are Michel Serres’ concern about relying on the textual in ‘The Five Senses’ or Henri Lefebvre’s plea for adult play.

Mutable Matter also uses materials in the workshops that are not only supposed to help participants express thoughts about the nanoscale, but also represent certain forces or characteristics of the nanoscale that may prompt participants to react to them during the conversation. The materials used are mostly plasticine, ‘slime’, polystyrene balls, magnets, silly putty and, most recently, thread and polyester filling.

Watching Gauntlett’s video on youtube, I wondered about the parallels and differences of our workshops. First of all, I was surprised that he was hoping to achieve ‘more truthful results’ with his method. I usually thought about my method as provoking different reactions rather than more truthful ones. Secondly, I wonder whether I was giving my participants enough time to develop thoughts/make models. The last workshop at Walton Hall had felt a bit rushed, and I wished I could have explored some things with the participants in more depth. On the other hand, I was torn between asking too much time of my volunteers – or too little considering some of them had come from further away. The third spontaneous thought I had was in what way the different kinds of materials (Lego/Plasticine) were affecting the research outcomes and to what degree I could direct the outcomes/to what degree the materials worked as a voice themselves that I, as a researcher, could not influence.

Looking at the website mentioned in the youtube video, I came across a workshop that seems to deal with these kinds of questions, so I am hoping to attend it in December. If you are struggling with similar issues, have a look at the website! Otherwise I shall report back in December (if it isn’t booked up that is… fingers crossed!).


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