Anna Lovatt opened the symposium on The Materiality of Nothing at Lancaster University by discussing the work of Richard Tuttle. In the programme for the day she wrote:

This paper will trace Tuttle’s career from his early engagement with the artists of the Betty Parsons Gallery (including Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelly), to his scandalous retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975. I will argue that Tuttle’s pursuit of the zero degree can be understood as part of a career-long interrogation of the practice of drawing.

In a reading of her chapter in a forthcoming book Anna Lovatt interprets the materiality of nothing with reference to Richard Tuttle’s critical investigation of drawing, drawing degree zero. All the ideas in this chapter are new to me, and the chapter has not yet been published, so it has not been easy to follow this through. What follows is a personal limited understanding with a focus on the ideas which resonated with my own thinking and work.

Drawing degree zero relates to Roland Barthes ‘Writing Degree Zero’, in which Barthes was interested in creating colourless writing in the indicative mood middle zone (degree zero) distinguished from and between language and style. In a similar way Tuttle conceived line (the drawn line) as being in an in between zone of absence and emptiness that has little to do with signature or autobiography.

In the ‘60s when Tuttle was exploring these ideas drawing was being dismissed by artists such as Pollock and Rothko and an exhibition of his minimalist work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975 drew heavy criticism from the art critic Hilton Kramer, who wrote that if less is often considered to be more then ‘in Mr Tuttle’s work, less is unmistakably less… One is tempted to say, where art is concerned, less has never been as less than this’. Anna Lovatt pointed out, with some irony, that in the case of Tuttle’s exceedingly minimal work, less had clearly become excessive!

Like Barthes, Tuttle explored how to stay in the neutral middle zone between the visible and invisible. He did this through working with white paper octagonals which he pasted to a wall of the same colour. Depending on your view you might or might not see these octagonals.

8th Paper octagonal

Eighth Paper Octagonal 1970

In this interview Tuttle talks about this work as follows:

I was doing white paper octagons on a wall at a museum in Dallas. And the critic came along and made mock introductions, “Oh, this is Richard Tuttle. He’s interested in impermanence in the arts.” And she said that to Betty Parsons, and Betty just immediately snapped back, “What’s more permanent than the invisible?” It fits in with the whole line—that in any art form, there has to be an accounting of its opposite condition. If you’re going to be a visual artist, then there has to be something in the work that accounts for the possibility of the invisible, the opposite of the visual experience. That’s why it’s not like a table or a car or something. I think that that might even be hard for people because most of our visual experiences are of tables: it has no business being anything else but a table. But a painting or a sculpture really exists somewhere between itself, what it is, and what it is not—you know, the very thing. And how the artist engineers or manages that is the question.

In 1971 Tuttle began work on wire octagonals. Anna Lovatt showed us his 10th Wire Octagonal, explaining that this work traces the outline of an absent object through three lines, the wire, the line and the shadow and introduced the notion of ‘shimmer’, which I understood to be the idea that the line is constantly shifting and moving because it is predicated on the position of the viewer.

10th wire piece

Source of image: Nicci Haynes at Flickr

Richard Dorment describes how Tuttle creates the wire octagonals as follows:

Each is made in the same way from the same materials – graphite (pencil), nails, and florist’s wire. First Tuttle draws a looping line in pencil directly onto the wall. Next he places a length of thin flexible wire over the contour of the drawing, pinning it down so that it lies flat on the wall. While keeping each end of the wire attached by a nail, he then releases the wire so that it springs up and off the wall to create a new “line” above the original drawing. The released wire now casts a shadow, creating another line on the wall, which looks so much like the one in pencil that it is hard to determine which is which.

By allowing the wire to take it’s own shape Tuttle relinquishes control and out of this steps the shadow over which he has no control. So this art is about a space between no personal expression and expression. My tentative understanding is that it is in this middle, empty, intangible space, a space of absence, between something and nothing that creativity, new ideas, alternative perspectives can emerge. Maybe teachers and learners need to do more to pursue and negotiate this space.

This was the title of a talk given at The Materiality of Nothing symposium at Lancaster University by Gary Sangster, Director Arts Catalyst.  This is how his session was described in the programme for the day (I have added the hyperlinks).

Apropos of Nothing will consider the escalation of transdisciplinary research and collaboration amongst artists and scientists, its impact within those fields and on the broader economies and publics, as well as the barriers and deleterious effects of these new strategic engagements amongst different fields of knowledge.

Two Arts Catalyst projects focused on loss, disappearance, and invisibility, Graveyard of Lost Species, a project that both explores and documents loss in the Thames Estuary, and the Nuclear Culture research project exhibition, Perpetual Uncertainty, that considers the residual effects of nuclear radiation and the notion of deep time, provide insight into complex issues of material presence and absence. Apropos of Nothing is about the pursuit of meaning and its elusiveness, its imprecision, within the data-driven, information-based knowledge framework of our current socio-political economy.

graveyard of lost species

Source of image

Gary Sangster talked about both these projects, also saying that art is a speculative enterprise and a contingent thing. He said that in the future it could well be that Monet (as an example) won’t be valued but will be relegated to the basement as has happened to many artists in the past. There was some discussion about whether value is lost by being relegated to the basement, but his point raises all sorts of questions about the permanence of art, or any of the work we do, and whether or not we should expect it to have permanence.

This is an interesting question in the light of the artist Dennis Cooper’s recent experience. Google has deleted his blog, which effectively was his studio and gallery of many years work. Presumably this was a form of censorship, although my understanding is that Google has yet to give a reason.

I have seen a number of posts asking why the work wasn’t backed up. My question is how prepared are we to create work in any form that is only transitory, and moves from being ‘some’ thing to ‘no’ thing? Could this make us more creative? It seems that a number of artists engage in this kind of work, i.e. the here today gone tomorrow type of work, often created in the environment, but even this work is often fixed by a video or a photograph. It seems much more difficult to completely let it go and be prepared to accept the absence. On the other hand how can absence have an audience?

This was an interdisciplinary symposium, held at Lancaster University, UK, about the immaterial/intangible, which aimed to bring together people with different perspectives to negotiate the imperceptible.

The seminar was introduced by Dr Sarah Casey – Lecturer in the Lancaster (University) Institute for the Contemporary Arts but also an artist who explores the limits of visibility and material existence.


Sarah Casey Murmur #3 – http://www.axisweb.org/p/sarahcasey/ 

Sarah asked us why we should consider the materiality of nothing, answering her own question by saying that ‘no’ thing implies the lack of ‘some’ thing and suggested that we tend to step around the intangible rather than try and deal with it directly, as exemplified by the Romans who didn’t have a zero in their numerals.

But as Sarah told us invisibility and immateriality are different. On reflection I would have liked a bit more discussion about this. On her website she asks  “at what point does visibility disappear and drawing become immaterial?”

In her introduction Sarah asked us to consider how we create something out of nothing and used erased drawings as an example of work that focuses on space and absence. With just a little research I can see that this topic has exercised a number of artists. For example Robert Rauschenberg explored the extent to which art could be created by removing marks rather than making them (see Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953) and a number of other artists have explored invisibility and aesthetic absence. Interestingly, during the day, as we listened to presentations I sat next to artist Gerry Davies who was almost continuously drawing in a small notebook. I was intrigued by how he used the rubber on the end of his pencil as much as the graphite, creating and removing marks in equal measure.

Sarah suggested that we need absence and space for imagination, interpretation and reflection. I found just this 10 minute introduction to the day fascinating and am grateful that Sarah and Lancaster University opened this seminar to the public.

There were many stimulating ideas to come out of the day, which I hope to find time to record in at least one future blog post. Although my understanding of much of what was talked about is very limited, I am intrigued by all the ways in which we can align ideas such as invisibility, absence, silence, immaterial, emptiness, speculative, contingency, indeterminacy, invisibility and nothing, to teaching and learning, particularly teaching and learning in the online environment where it is so easy to be invisible to each other. This has often been seen as a negative aspect of online learning, but maybe this is a short-sighted view.

For those who are interested in the programme for the day – here it is.

The Materiality of Nothing Programme 14th July

I will start by saying that I do not draw to think, even though I do occasionally draw. I write to think, which is why I am writing this post. Let me explain.

Next week I will attend a one day symposium at Lancaster University on ‘The Materiality of Nothing’

The purpose of the symposium is ‘to extend conversations initiated by the AHRC funded ‘Dark Matters’ project which considered the provocations around Thresholds of Imperceptibility’ I attended the Dark Matters workshop at the end of last year and wrote a couple of posts about it.

For the symposium next week, the invitation from Sarah Casey included the following text:

The Materiality of Nothing is a one day symposium at Lancaster University bringing together practice and perspectives on negotiating the absent, unseen and unknown across art, science and social science. Across the arts and sciences that we call ‘zero’, ‘absence’ or ‘nothing’ remains a potent and powerful entity shaping the way we make sense of the world. It is staggering to reflect that 95% of our universe is invisible to human sensing; the provocation of the unknown and unseen is arguably at the core of creative thinking in the arts and sciences.

This event brings together a range perspectives on materialising the absent, unseen and unknown to reflect on the following questions:

  • How can ‘nothing’ be embodied?
  • How does it feel to encounter the immaterial and how might we negotiate it?
  • How might mathematics – as a speculative ‘messenger’ to and from the unsensed – be understood as a medium for generating touch and relationship (or not)?
  • How might absence, uncertainty be used as provocations and tool for creative thinking?
  • What can this offer in terms of understanding relationship and non-relationship, affect and non affect?

For me this resonates with my interest in Absent Presence and also in what Peter Shukie has called the ‘voice of the voiceless’. In other words, how can we give voice to the voiceless and how we can become more aware of the influences of what is not in plain sight?

A final paragraph in Sarah’s invitation asks us to ….

…. bring along a drawing , notebook or object that could be described as something you think with. The principal editor of Drawing Research Theory Practice Journal  published by Intellect has been in touch and is keen to link up this aspect of the symposium with the journal.

Hence the title of this post.

This invitation has highlighted for me that I do not draw to think, although I am interested enough in drawing to know that many people use drawing to think. Here are a few people that come to mind.

Marc Chagall’s sketchbook

Marc ChagallSource of image

Peter Checkland’s soft systems methodology rich pictures

soft-systems-methodology-for-solving-wicked-problems-5-638Source of image

Nick Sousanis – sketching entropy


Source of image

From the Research Theory Practice Journal website it is clear that the journal is interested in physical drawing as opposed to electronic drawing.

This journal seeks to reestablish the materiality of drawing as a medium at a time when virtual, on-line, and electronic media dominates visuality and communication.

This is interesting when artists such as David Hockney are using iPads for drawing. Hockney is on my mind at the moment as I will be going to see his portraits exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in September.

So knowing that I write to think, rather than draw to think, and knowing that the activity for the symposium next week really wants physical drawings rather than ’electronic’ drawings, I am a bit stumped. But I can only do what I can do, so I am taking along the following two examples of drawing/mapping that I do electronically.

ModPo footprints for paper 041013

This example above is how I think about and reflect on any given learning experience. I use the Footprints of Emergence framework which Roy Williams, Simone Gumtau and I developed for trying to understand learning in open learning environments. This has been published as a research paper.  The ‘footprints’ above reflect my experience in the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC and were included in a book chapter that we published in 2015.

Williams, R., Mackness, J., & Pauschenwein, J. (2015). Using Visualization to Understand Transformations in Learning and Design in MOOCs. In A. Mesquita & P. Peres (Eds.), Furthering Higher Education Possibilities through Massive Open Online Courses (pp. 193 – 209). IGI Global book series Advances in Higher Education and Professional Development. doi:10.4018/978-1-4666-8279-5

The second example is a mapping exercise

enhanced Keywords screenshot 090716 for Lancaster course

For this I used a mapping tool developed by Matthias Melcher to trace the development of my thinking through my research papers. I blogged about it at the time.

I suspect that neither of these is considered examples of drawing to think, but they’re as close as I can get.

I am very much looking forward to the symposium next Thursday.

Slide 3

Source of image: Making sense of the Rhizome Metaphor for Teaching and Learning

Today our third paper about learning in the Rhizomatic Learning: The Community is the Curriculum MOOC (commonly known as Rhizo14) has been published. Here are links to the three papers.

Third paper: Bell, F., Mackness, J. & Funes, M. (2016). Participant association and emergent curriculum in a MOOC: Can the community be the curriculum? Research in Learning Technology.

Second paper: Mackness, J., Bell, F. & Funes, M. (2016). The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC. 32(1), p.78-91 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

First paper: Mackness, J. & Bell, F. (2015). Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade. Open Praxis. 7(1), p. 25-38

At the end of our first paper, in which we explored alternative perspectives of learners’ experiences in this MOOC, we wrote:

In future writing, we will explore:

  • Interrelated processes of community and curriculum formation in Rhizo14
  • The positive and negative effects of emotion and alienation
  • Moderation and leadership roles in the design and conduct of de-centred courses
  • Distributed spaces, technologies and services in a multi-platform MOOC
  • The rhizome as a metaphor for teaching and learning

I think we have written about all these points, although not as separate points and some have been covered more implicitly than explicitly.

All these papers have been published in open journals and have been openly discussed by a group of Rhizo14 participants. I think most researchers would be gratified that their papers are noticed and discussed. At the beginning of the year Veletsianos and Shepherdson (2016) published a systematic analysis and synthesis of the empirical MOOC literature published in 2013-2015 in which they commented ‘that a select few papers are widely cited while nearly half of the papers are cited zero times’. In other words a lot of research goes unnoticed.

It is too early for this research on Rhizomatic Learning to have received a lot of citations. I know from an early paper that colleagues and I wrote about CCK08 (the first MOOC) that it took two years for the paper to be noticed, but since then it has been cited a number of times.

In the meantime these three papers on rhizomatic learning have not gone unnoticed. Currently they are being discussed in the Rhizo15 Facebook group. This is rather ironic, since this third paper raises the problems, based on evidence, associated with using Facebook for discussion. For this reason we have asked for comment and discussion of the papers, which we welcome, to take place on our blogs. Here is the link to Frances’ blog post – http://francesbell.com/research-in-learning-technology/participant-association-and-emergent-curriculum-in-a-mooc-can-the-community-be-the-curriculum/

I have learned a lot, on so many levels, from these two years of research, which has all been voluntary, unfunded and collaborative and which will inform my future work.


Veletsianos, G., & Shepherdson, P. (2016). A Systematic Analysis And Synthesis of the Empirical MOOC Literature Published in 2013-2015. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning. 17(2), Retrieved from: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/2448/3629  

Once you start thinking in terms of metaphors for learning, you find them everywhere.

At the beginning of this year Mariana Funes, Frances Bell and I had a paper published about the use of the rhizome as a metaphor for learning. Our research findings were that this can be a problematic metaphor for learning, depending on how it is understood and interpreted.

Mackness, J., Bell, F. & Funes, M. (2016). The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC. 32(1), p.78-91 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

Then at the Networked Learning Conference in Lancaster last month, Caroline Haythornthwaite suggested that we need new metaphors for networked learning. She went through the many metaphors that are already used. I blogged about this at the time, but here is her presentation again from which these two images/slides below are taken.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 17.47.57

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 17.49.19

This week, or maybe it was last week, I noted on Twitter that Thomas Ryberg, one of the organisers of the Networked Learning Conference, used patchworking as a metaphor for learning in his PhD dissertation and Frances Bell has often written of knitting as a metaphor for learning and tweeted a link to her blog post. Donna Lanclos added to this discussion by tweeting a link to an article by Katie Collins who writes about needlecraft metaphors for academic writing. The Materiality of Research: Woven into the Fabric of the Text: Subversive material metaphors in academic writing.

Also at the Networked Learning Conference, Sian Bayne asked us to think about learning in terms of space. Although she didn’t use the word metaphor, there were plenty of them in her keynote, smooth and striated space, fluid and fire space, code/space. I blogged about this at the time too. 

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 20.27.23

I have recognised space as a metaphor for learning before, when I visited the Sensing Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2014. At the time I felt we could learn a lot from how architects think about space.

This week Stephen Downes has used the metaphors of time and space to talk about how we might perceive changes in learning brought about by the internet, digital and connected learning.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 19.45.16


This was an interesting talk. Stephen pointed out that our education system is geared to linear, time-oriented, objectives and outcomes driven ways of thinking and learning. He suggested that space metaphors might be more appropriate for learning in a digital age, referring us to Carrie Paechter’s metaphors of space in educational theory and practice.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 18.01.05

The space metaphor aligns well with my own interest in emergent learning and viewing learning environments as being on a spectrum between prescribed and emergent learning.

I can also see connections to Nick Sousanis’ and Ian McGilchrist’s work.

In his book Unflattening Nick Sousanis warns against becoming stuck in the ‘flatlands’ and not being able to see the whole picture. In a recent post about this book I wrote:

The book is about the narrowness and flatness of our vision and thereby of our understanding of the world around us. It is a plea for seeing beyond the boundaries of our current frames of reference, beyond the limitations of text, beyond the borders of the ‘flatlands’. It is a plea to imagine otherwise, to find different perspectives and new ways of seeing.

Ironically this week Nick Sousanis reported that a library in France couldn’t categorise his book.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 18.12.51

This is another example of the dominance of linear thinking which want to fix ideas into ordered categories. Matthias Melcher has developed a think tool for overcoming this categorisation problem where an idea/object must be allocated to just one category. In his tool it is possible to assign an idea to multiple categories. He explains how it works in this video and I have described how I have used it in another blog post.

Ian McGilchrist is also concerned with the narrowness or in Sousanis’ terms ‘flatness’ of our thinking. He puts this down to attentional asymmetry of the hemispheres of the brain and the dominance of the left hemisphere, which focuses attention, unlike the right hemisphere which sees the whole picture.

McGilchrist has also highlighted the importance of metaphor. In this article he is reported as arguing that

“…. metaphor is a primal facet of human thought, that it “is the only way of understanding anything.”

In August I will be attending a 4-day course  in which I am hoping to learn more about Ian McGilchrist’s views about the relationship between these different ways of thinking and the future of education. I know his next book will be about education and will have the Title – The Porcupine is a Monkey.  Like Stephen Downes, Caroline Haythornthwaite, Sian Bayne and Nick Sousanis, Ian McGilchrist writes about the need for new ways of thinking.

“My suggestion is that we need a whole new way of thinking about the nature of reality, one that understanding the way our brain works can help us achieve.” (McGilchrist, 2014, The Porcupine is a Monkey)

Thinking in terms of metaphors seems an interesting way forward.

Screen Shot 2016-05-22 at 20.26.43

Source of image

This post is for Maxine Griffiths (@now_teach_this) but I hope others will chime in, in the comments or on Twitter, to support Maxine in her MA in Education. She writes in a comment on the Jenny Mackness page of this blog:

Twitter is the focus of my critical reflection, how it has affected my practice, my students and the community and my colleagues. Could I ask you how it effected you as an educationalists? What influence if any has it had on your Practice?

This is an interesting question to reflect on. I joined Twitter in July 2008, but you can see from my stats that I am not an avid Twitter user.

Screen Shot 2016-05-22 at 18.04.56

I remember a friend who I worked with (but who has since emigrated to New Zealand) – Nigel Robertson (@easegill) – joined in 2007 and was enthusiastic. I asked him about it and he told me I needed a minimum of 50 followers to get going. But I kept looking at it and seeing 140 character messages on people’s meals, cats, children etc. etc. I just couldn’t see the point.

It took me quite a while to get going on Twitter (to the extent that I want to get going). Two things influenced me to use it a bit more. The first was learning about Tweetdeck. Once I had installed that (I can’t remember exactly when), using Twitter became easier. I realised that it was much easier to follow the hashtag of courses and conferences with Tweetdeck. Suddenly Twitter became a bit more useful and less random. It hasn’t encouraged me to tweet at conferences though. I would find that a distraction. I don’t know how people manage to concentrate on the speaker and tweet, but Twitter is very useful for following a conference from a distance.

The second was a personal connection – Frances Bell (@francesbell). I started doing research with Frances in 2014 and it was a revelation to me that she uses Twitter and the Direct Messaging on Twitter for most of her communication (or at least that is my perception). I realised that if I didn’t log into Twitter everyday, and see messages from Frances, I was not going to keep on top of this research. So from 2014 my Twitter use has increased.

I am never likely to be a big user of Twitter. It is too public for me. I prefer to hold most of my communication in private. For this the private direct messaging is useful – not least because it doesn’t confine you to 140 characters. But apart from following hashtags for conferences, twitter chat and courses, the only thing I find it useful for is links to useful resources and ideas. I don’t interact a lot on the public stream of Twitter, and I don’t share anything personal, but I will post or retweet, and sometimes comment on, a post or article that I think worthwhile sharing – and I will copy in colleagues and friends who I think might be interested or find the link useful. I also tweet my own blog posts, as I have realised that this is where many blog posts are found, rather than via Feedly or equivalent. And I tweet my research papers when they are published (via WordPress having first blogged about them). I know that social media has an impact on research paper visibility.

Interestingly none of my family uses Twitter. I have just asked my son why not (he’s in his late 30s). He thinks it’s an environment which incites negativity, anger, bullying and abuse. He thinks the same of Facebook, which he tried but came out of. He reeled off the names of celebrities who get nothing but a stream of abuse on Twitter. I know this can be true. I definitely use the ‘block’ and ‘mute’ facility that Twitter offers. The ‘block’ for offensive spam or people, and the ‘mute’ for people whose voices are too loud. In this way I can just about cope with Twitter, but it is not my favourite tool.

But Maxine’s questions were :

How has it effected you as an educationalists? What influence if any has it had on your Practice?

I think I have explained above what influence it has had on my practice, but I don’t think it has had any significant impact on me as an educationalist beyond what I have mentioned above. But then, I am past retirement age and don’t work with any students. I think Twitter might have had more of an effect if I had still been teaching a lot, although some of my closest educationalist friends and colleagues rarely use Twitter and not with students.

Of course Twitter is now in trouble  and it’s difficult to know what they can do about it. They introduced the ‘Like’ heart – which I have yet to use, and there has been talk of increasing the 140 characters currently allowed. Who knows what effects this would have, but surely the attraction of Twitter is the 140 characters, the fast pace and the ease of communicating quickly.

But these are just my perspectives. Some of my colleagues, like Frances Bell (@francesbell), Mariana Funes (@mdvfunes) and others are very active on Twitter and it would be good to hear from them. And others have published research on the use of Twitter. See for example Bonnie Stewart’s work (@bonstewart). This is one paper (2015).

Open to influence: what counts as academic influence in scholarly networked Twitter participation http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17439884.2015.1015547

I hope this has answered your questions at least in part Maxine. Feel free to ask more questions, or DM me on Twitter:-)  And I hope you get plenty of alternative perspectives. Good luck with your MA in Education.


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