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…