Dealing with complexity: some more notes on Cities Methodologies

Yesterday was the last day of events at the Cities Methodologies exhibition. I was able to go to the afternoon events, which, to me, raised interesting questions around dealing with complexity. Matthew Gandy’s talk on Gilles Clément’s ‘Derborence Island’ raised the question whether complexity has a place in public spaces, outside of the spaces where complex ideas are normally presented such as art galleries. He also drew attention to the kinds of wider debates controversial sites and interventions such as this ‘island’ or sculptures such as Richard Serra’s ‘Tilted Arc’ might be giving rise to. One that I found particularly fascinating is the one he also asks on his blog: as Clément’s island, a garden raised above the surrounding land by about 6 metres, attempts to provoke thoughts about our relationship with biodiversity – what if it really, and perhaps accidentally, succeeds at becoming a habitat for endangered species? What if, as Gandy puts it, the symbolic and the scientific align? (A pdf article on Derborence Island can be found here.)

A different set of questions around complexity was asked by Andrew Harris, also from UCL’s Urban Lab. His presentation on methods of researching and relating issues around urbanisation in Mumbai touched on the current debate around visual/audio and other so-called ‘experimental methods’: what are the advantages and disadvantages of ‘newer’ methods and ‘traditional’ ethnographic methods such as interviews and field journal notes? His suggestion was to see the two types of methods as supporting one another: one, without the other, might give an incomplete or misleading account of a situation. Although, as he also put forward, there is only so much which any one can know or render about a given situation.

Harris’ presentation made me think about some recent comments I have come across on other academic blogs about many researchers’ desire to leave more room for alternative interpretations by their audiences – as well as audiences they would not normally reach with ‘traditional’ presentations of research. Often, researchers who feel that a more ‘artistic’ approach is needed to convey a particular experience have been accused of taking ‘artistic liberties’ instead of analysing and relating ‘what is there’. The counter-argument can usually be summed up as ‘there is no one story’ about any given situation (some reflections on this debate can be found in condensed version in the Using Social Theory book, which most Open University postgraduate students will have come across). Another concern, voiced by a number of researchers, has to do with competitiveness of research: it is feared that research content will suffer from external pressure to produce ‘innovative work’ with ‘innovative methods’, which frequently include art practice. This concern, in particular, has proved difficult to negotiate.

In terms of art-practice base methods, quite a few geographers at the AAG in Seattle commented that there are more and more artists crossing into geography and/or more geographers crossing into art, and that this phenomenon may be fuelling the current debate around methods. Others wondered whether this debate has more to do with reactions against more positivist inflections, which geography seem to grapple with on a permanent basis. Whichever the origin, I am intrigued about the future of this debate & what kind of effects some of the new methods – or their dialogue with ‘old’ methods – may have within and beyond the research community.

To come back to Matthew Gandy’s talk, looking at some recent projects coming out of geography, particularly out of PhD research, one could ask the question whether geographers, too, have begun to add – or to consider adding – potentially controversial complexity to public spaces. So far,  projects in this vein have sought to explain the subject matter they are engaging in quite closely. However, there are an increasing amount of examples that are not – which, rather than to try to ‘describe the world’, are engaging in what Gail Davies calls ‘world-making’. It would be interesting to see what would happen if this way of doing and presenting research became more prolific… and what kinds of questions this would raise in addition to the ones that are already in circulation.