In the last blog post I considered what might be involved in 'noticing' the methodological process of collaging workshops, held in July 2016. I suggested that the emphasis is not so much on what is produced (the finished collages, for instance) but on what was happening in the room.
In thinking through this idea more, playfulness and the uncertainty of the future have emerged as productive points. In both 2003 and 2016 (see Blog post Collaging workshops I: 10/12/2016), the workshops were absorbing and enjoyable activities – for both the girls and me. It was also noticeable how the task of collaging futures and experiences of bodies soon became collective activities – partly because materials needed to be shared and there was a swapping of glue, scissors and so on, and also because certain materials became popular. So, for example, in the 2003 sessions, one girl began using pipe cleaners and soon others started to as well.
Collages by Chloe and Tina, 2003.
Drawing attention to a collective or individual sense of enjoyment may seem insignificant, but I think it’s interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing, there’s something to say about social science methodologies being fun and playful. This is perhaps especially important in the context of what Roger Burrows and Mike Savage (2007) call the ‘coming crisis of empirical sociology’, where they note that methods initially developed by sociology and wider social sciences (such as interviews, and surveys) are increasingly employed in commercial sectors – meaning both that the methodological expertise by which sociology has traditionally defined itself no longer belong to it alone, and that new audiences and markets are being enrolled in what are sometimes more agile and fun versions of these methods. So the question of how social sciences might re-develop their own methods that are themselves fun is crucial. There is then a politics and ethics to how this question might be addressed.
In the next blog post, I’m going to explore the specific materials that were engaged with as fun and playful in the collaging workshops with girls, focusing especially on glitter. However, the question of the politics and ethics of play and uncertainty has been something I’ve been talking about with Tara Page (Educational Studies, Goldsmiths) and Helen Palmer (English, Kingston). We’ve recently run two workshops as part of new materialist events – the COST New Materialism Training School, Research Genealogies and Material Practices, Tate Modern, 27-29th May 2016 and the 7th Annual Conference on the New Materialisms, University of Warsaw, Poland, 21-23 September 2016.
‘Material Methods' workshop, Tate Modern, May 2016. With Tara Page and Helen Palmer.
In both of these workshops, we’ve asked participants to engage in embodied and sensory ways with local spaces (their journey to Tate Modern and the spaces surrounding the Warsaw conference), and to bring experiences and materials from them into the workshops. These materials might be sketches or photographs, written accounts, or phenomena collected from the journeying, such as train tickets, leaves, and fliers. Tara has led this part of the workshops. Led by Helen, we’ve then asked them to translate these sensory experiences into words, and have made collective and individual word-poems out of them. In the next part of the workshops, which I’ve led, these experiences and words become part of collages, in assemblage with other materials including paper, pens, post-it notes, sticky foam letters and magazines.
One of the aims of the workshops has been to explore the translations of materials into different media (words, collages) and to reflect on the methodological and practical processes of doing so. We've encouraged discussion throughout the workshops, and have also left time to talk about these issues at the end of the sessions.
'Methodologies, Materials, Materialisations' workshop, Warsaw, September 2016.
With Tara Page and Helen Palmer.
Many people have expressed their enjoyment of participating in the workshops. Some have said that they have liked working in a playful way with these materials. Some have said that they have welcomed the unfinished or temporary status of the workshops; we’ve not asked for finished or aesthetically pleasing materialisations (poems or collages), but instead for participants to play with the materials, and to think about what’s happening when they’re doing this. Most of the collages have been thrown away at the end of the workshops. Some have also appreciated doing this within contexts where academic ideas and philosophies are explored primarily through talking and listening. The workshops might be ‘time out’ of or respite from the schedule of paper presentations, allowing for a different way to explore new materialist ideas through doing.
However, some participants have also expressed discomfort and anxiety with the format and aims of the workshops. If there are no outputs from them (at least in terms of how 'outputs' are usually understood), what have we been doing in the workshops? What has been learnt? Would it have been more productive to have gone to a presentation of papers instead?
These questions themselves raise further questions about the nature and status of play. What does it mean to play with materials in a temporary, processual or non-output-focused manner? What is involved in doing this in an academic context, where professional, critical and analytical modes of being are often cultivated? What are the politics and ethics of doing this, taking into consideration the power relations and hierarchies of academic work, where it may be difficult for some people more than others to build and maintain an academic mode of embodiment? And/or where there may be differently positioned people within the room – from early career researchers to established professors? And/or where people come from different backgrounds, which facilitate different relationships with materials, play and uncertainty, and outputs?
We don’t have answers to these questions - although we plan to keep returning to them. They are, though, posed through a focus on putting to work and reflecting back on new materialist ideas, and through a focus on the methodological process.
Roger Burrows and Mike Savage (2007) ‘The Coming Crisis of Empirical Sociology’, Sociology, 41(5): 885-899.