Crafting Research

This seminar that I attended last week on crafting research was very interesting. It was organised by the Department of Organisation, Work and Technology at Lancaster University, UK,  and delivered by Professor Hugh Willmott  from City University London. Hugh Willmott has been working with Professor Emma Bell from the Open University. His talk was based on a paper they are working on, in which they are exploring the significance of crafting research in business and management, although having heard this talk the ideas presented seem relevant to social sciences research in general.

The essence of the work lies in an interest in how to produce well-crafted research and avoid Baer and Shaw’s (see reference list) criticism:

As editors, we are often surprised by the lack of “pride and perfection” in submitted work, even when there is a kernel of a good idea somewhere in the manuscript. Submitted manuscripts that report results from research designs in which many shortcuts have been taken are rather commonplace. In addition, many papers seem to have been hastily prepared and submitted, with obvious rough edges in terms of grammar and writing style.

In their article Baer and Shaw quote C.W. Mills as follows:

Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career; whether he knows it or not, the intellectual workman forms his own self as he works toward perfection of his craft; to realize his potentialities, and any opportunities that come his way, he constructs a character which has at its core the qualities of the good workman. —C. W. Mills, 1959

The seminar started with a look at the online etymology dictionary where we can see that the meaning of the word craft has, over time, shifted in meaning from ‘power, physical strength, might’ to ‘skill, dexterity’.

The thrust of the argument made was that researchers should shift towards being craftsmen who are dedicated to the community, have a social conscience and are aware of and acknowledge the ethical and political dimensions of their research. Such an approach would also openly acknowledge uncertainty and bias in research and the role of embodiment and imagination.

The image that ran through this presentation was Simon Starling’s art work ‘Shedboatshed’.

Starling was the winner of the Turner Prize in 2005.  For this work he dismantled a shed and turned it into a boat; loaded with the remains of the shed, the boat was paddled down the Rhine to a museum in Basel, dismantled and re-made into a shed. See:  http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/turner-prize-2005/turner-prize-2005-artists-simon-starling for further information.

I’m not sure that I fully understand the significance of using Starling’s work in relation to crafting research unless it’s that his work has been described as research-based and clearly involves research and craft. Maybe it’s simply that Starling deconstructs familiar things to recreate them in different forms?

Interestingly, in the questions that followed the seminar, the thorny issue of having to write in a prescriptive way to be accepted in high ranking journals was discussed. Some members of the audience seemed to accept this as a given constraint which cannot be surmounted, i.e. we need to write and present research in a way which will not only be accepted by the given journal, but also will meet the requirements of the University’s REF. For some of the seminar participants there seemed to be no room for embodied, imaginative research which embraces uncertainty. My suggestion that we should perhaps look for alternative publishing outlets, blogs being one example, was met with an outcry of protest from one or two in the audience. ‘No one reads blogs’ they said, and besides ‘Blogging is cowardly’. I neither understood this nor agreed. The conversation seemed to endorse these sentences from Baer and Shaw’s paper:

Our goal was to reaffirm the notion that scholarly pursuit in the management sciences is a form of craftsmanship—we are craftsmen! Some may dismiss our arguments as idealistic or romantic. The realities of life as an academic, the pressures we are under—to publish in order not to perish—offer an all-to-convenient excuse to dismiss our ideas.

What a sorry state of affairs, but I do know from experience that many journals are not prepared to take a chance on non-conventional styles of presentation; Introduction, Literature Review, Method, Results, Conclusion remains the format most likely to get accepted and to suggest that the research endeavour might have failed or that there is a degree of uncertainty around the results is unlikely to lead to a favourable response. It seems there’s a long way to go before the idea of crafting research in the terms presented by Hugh Willmott is widely accepted.

A wide range of Literature was referred to in this seminar, which will be interesting to follow up on. See the references below.

References

Adamson, G. (2013). The Invention of Craft. Bloomsbury Academic.

Alley, M. (2018 4th edition). The Craft of Scientific Writing. Springer

Baer, M. & Shaw, J.D. (2017). Falling in love again with what we do: Academic Craftsmanship in the Management Sciences. Academy of Management Journal. 80(4), 1213-1217.

Bell, E., Kothiyal, N. & Willmott, H. (2017). Methodology-as-Technique and the Meaning of Rigour in Globalized Management Research. British Journal of Management, 28(3), 534–550.

Burrell, G. & Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological paradigms and organisational analysis: elements of the sociology of corporate life. Heinemann

Cunliffe, A. (2010). Crafting Qualitative Research: Morgan and S Smircich 30 Years On. Organizational Research Methods OnlineFirst.

Delamont, S. & Atkinson, P.A. (2001). Doctoring uncertainty: mastering craft knowledge. Social Studies of Science, 31(1), 87-107.

Frayling, C. (2017, reprint edition). On Craftsmanship: Towards a New Bauhaus. Oberon Books

Kvale, S. & Brinkmann, S. (2008 2nd edition). Interviews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research. SAGE Publication.

Wright Mills, C. (2000). Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press.

Promoting discussion in FutureLearn MOOCs

                

MOOCs: Back to the Future. This was the title of a lunchtime seminar I attended last week in the Educational Research Department of Lancaster University, UK.

In this seminar Phil Tubman  (PhD student with Educational Research and School of Computing and Communications, and also Senior Learning Technologist in the ISS eLearning team at Lancaster), shared the progress he has been making on his PhD into whether MOOCs are living up to their promises. The title of his talk was chosen to suggest that with respect to MOOCs we currently have our backs to the future. As such we need to turn round and look for ways forward.

Given that he works for Lancaster University Phil is well placed to explore social learning in FutureLearn MOOCs. Lancaster University is a FutureLearn Partner.  Phil is interested in the problems of sustaining discussion in online forums and the role of the FutureLearn platform in this; FutureLearn claims to be a social learning platform.

Phil and his colleagues have looked at discussion threads in forums and found that they don’t include many members and that conversations often do not extend beyond a first reply. These findings are supported by other researchers. Phil and his colleagues have therefore designed an intervention which they hope will increase and improve interaction and social learning in these  forums. This is an interactive word cloud which they have called a Comment Discovery Tool (CDT). This tool displays the top 200 words from a forum thread as a word cloud. MOOC participants can then click on a given word to display all the comments which include that word. The example shown in the seminar was from FutureLearn’s MOOC on Wordsworth. Phil clicked on the word ‘daffodils’ in the word cloud which took us to all the relevant forum posts. Having done this, it would then be possible for the MOOC participant to follow the discussion from there without having to wade through potentially hundreds of forum comments and threads. Phil is continuing to develop this tool for his PhD and is interested in whether and how the comment discovery tool will affect interaction in the FutureLearn forums.

I look forward to seeing how this develops.  Phil and his colleagues, Phil Benachour and Murat Oztok have submitted a paper on this to the Learning Sciences Conference 2018, and a recording of Phil’s seminar will ultimately be posted here – http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/educational-research/news-and-events/seminar-series/

Teaching and Learning in 2017 and beyond

This is the time of year when many authors/commentators are getting into reflective mode and writing reviews of 2017, not only looking back but also looking forward. One of these is Stephen Downes, who has been prolific in the last few weeks, sharing a number of presentations and his current thinking.

Jim Groom in his blog post ‘Containing the Future of OER‘ draws our attention to Stephen’s presentation – Applications, Algorithms and Data: Open Educational Resources and the Next Generation of Virtual Learning. In this presentation Stephen discusses how The next generation of OERs will take a step beyond traditional media and classroom support and begin to take advantage of the unique properties of virtual learning’.

In writing about this presentation Jim Groom notes:

‘It’s funny how you begin to rely on certain figures in your network for so much that at some point you begin to take it for granted. Downes remains so prolific on so many topics—not to mention the single most important aggregator of the work in edtech—that you begin to just assume. This talk was a good reminder of how fresh and relevant his work remains.’

I fully endorse this statement about Stephen Downes and think this is particularly obvious in his recent publication about the future of teaching and learning. See

Downes, S. (2017). Quantum Leaps we can expect in teaching and learning in the Digital Age. A roadmap. Published by Contact North.  

https://teachonline.ca/sites/default/files/pdfs/quantum_leaps_we_can_expect_in_teaching_and_learning_in_the_digital_age_-_a_roadmap.pdf

This very fluent essay is about ‘the larger changes sweeping through society’. It is full of thought-provoking insights about where we have been, where we are and where we are going with teaching and learning, particularly in relation to the influence of technology. The essay ‘ is addressed to policy makers and pundits, to technology designers and developers, and to those who by virtue of office or inclination have the voice to speak to the future, to inform the weld of what we can do and what we want to do’, but must also be of significance to educators, teachers and learners as we can see from the following quotes:

page 9.  When we teach these students, it’s hard to fight the temptation to teach them for a world that no longer exists. It’s even harder not to teach them for conditions that apply today. The world we are preparing them for, however, is literally a next-generation world. We need to use the technologies of today to teach for the world of tomorrow.

page 14.  In an education system focused on the future, therefore, the core of learning is found not in what is defined in the curriculum, but in how teachers help students discover new possibilities from familiar things, and then from new things. It is, to my mind, transformation from an idea of education defined as acquisition of skills or progression along a learning path to one characterized by exploration, discovery and finally creativity.

page 17.  … despite the conservative nature of the educational system, we have conclusively and irreversibly entered the digital society, and students have permanently changed, as has society. The static structures that used to define education have shifted; we are in an era of changing boundaries between formal, non-formal, informal and post-formal education.

page 21. We can seek in vain to return to that former understanding, or, moving forward, we can seek to identify those core values that underlie the why of pedagogy. What did it matter what a teacher did? What were the outcomes we hoped for? How does our current understanding of instructional design meet those, or fall short? What can we develop in the future to address these issues?

These four quotes resonated with me, as I continue to struggle with what it means to be a teacher and learner in this digital age. Needless to say, I recommend reading the whole document.

 

Diversity is hard

complexity

Source of image

dana boyd has written a post in which she discusses why America is self-segregating and she comes up with a few suggestions such as the role of social media in segregating people into filter bubbles and echo chambers. But a key point she makes is that diversity, which is ‘often touted as highly desirable’ is hard – ‘uncomfortable, emotionally exhausting and downright frustrating’. So instead of using the many online tools we now have at our disposal to become diversely connected, we use them instead to find like-minded people who, as Kirschner wrote in 2015, ‘discuss, confirm, validate and strengthen the group’s position’ (p.622). In doing this we reduce diversity.

(This tendency to try to reduce diversity is not only evident in online networks. It can also be seen in ‘The Big Sort’ and geographical clustering that I mentioned in my last post, i.e. people physically move geographical location to live near those more like themselves.)

More than ten years ago in 2005 in his ‘Introduction to Connective Knowledge’ (revised in 2007) Stephen Downes wrote of diversity as a key principle of ‘knowing’ networks. Downes sees the fostering of diversity as the means to

 ‘counterbalance the tendency toward a cascade phenomenon in the realm of public knowledge’.  

(Information cascades occur when external information obtained from previous participants in an event overrides one’s own private signal, irrespective of the correctness of the former over the latter’ (Wikipedia ). Cascade phenomena can sweep through densely connected networks very rapidly).

Downes writes

the excesses made possible by an unrestrained scale-free network need to be counterbalanced through either one of two mechanisms: either a reduction in the number of connections afforded by the very few, or an increase in the density of the local network for individual entities’.

According to Downes, the only way to avoid information cascades is to ensure multiple viewpoints and alternative perspectives from observers with different sets of prior experiences, world views and interpretations.

Related to this, a couple of years later Downes wrote of the different affordances of groups and networks – Groups vs. Networks: The Class Struggle Begins – saying that a group is about what members have in common, whereas ‘a network is like an ecosystem where there is no requirement that all the entities be the same.’ If we accept this it follows that a group tends towards homogeneity, but a network to heterogeneity (see also my post on the hazards of group work). Diversity is therefore essential to a healthy network.

But what is diversity?  Dictionaries, e.g. Cambridge dictionary, define diversity as being many different types of things or people, ideas or opinions, being included in something. I would add that in addition many different resources are needed to inform these ideas or opinions. In a paper that Carmen Tschofen and I published in 2012, Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience, we also suggested that there is a need to recognise the importance of psychological diversity of online learners, the complexity of their human needs and connections, i.e. that diversity is not just an external manifestation of difference, but also internal to individuals. Each individual is unique. We argued that connectivity needs to be viewed not only in terms of the network but also in terms of individual characteristics and biases, further complicating an understanding of diversity.

But why is diversity ‘desirable’? dana boyd points to more diverse teams outperforming homogeneous teams and claims that diversity increases cognitive development. In my own field of research into learning in open online environments, this point of view is endorsed by the call for more interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and cross global, international working (see for example Haywood, 2016 and Eynon et al., 2016).

However, Cilliers (2010) suggests that there are deeper reasons. These are related to viewing the world in which we live as a complex adaptive system. Complex systems are heterogeneous, asymmetrical and full of non-linear, unpredictable interactions, which means we cannot fully know or control them. Complex environments exhibit the following characteristics (and more!):

  • Distributed knowledge
  • Disequilibrium
  • Adaptive
  • Self-organisation
  • Unpredictable
  • Emergence
  • Connectedness
  • Diversity
  • Openness
  • Co-evolution
  • Interaction
  • Retrospective coherence

Cilliers tells us that diversity is a key characteristic of complex systems and is essential to the richness of the system, because it is difference not sameness that generates meaning.

An abundance of difference is not a convenience, it is a necessity. Complex systems cannot be what they are without it, and we cannot understand them without the making of profuse distinctions. Since the interactions in such systems are non-linear, their complexity cannot be reduced. The removal of relationships, i.e. the reduction of difference in the system, will distort our understanding of such systems. (Cilliers, 2010, p.58)

But this does not mean that ‘anything goes’. To get the most out of diversity and difference, complex systems require boundaries and constraints, negative, enabling constraints, ‘which determine what is not allowed to happen, rather than specifying what does have to happen’ (Williams, Karousou & Mackness, 2011, p.46). There needs to be an effective balance between openness and constraint, structure and agency.

And difference does not mean opposition. Meaningful relationships develop through difference (Cilliers, 2010), but achieving the right amount of difference to support this development, depends on ethical judgement and choice.

To make a responsible judgement—whether it be in law, science or art—would therefore involve at least the following components:

  • Respecting otherness and difference as values in themselves.
  • Gathering as much information on the issue as possible, notwithstanding the fact that it is impossible to gather all the information.
  • Considering as many of the possible consequences of the judgement, notwithstanding the fact that it is impossible to consider all the consequences.
  • Making sure that it is possible to revise the judgement as soon as it becomes clear that it has flaws, whether it be under specific circumstances, or in general. (Cilliers, 1998, p.139)

These points seem as relevant today, if not more so, than when they were written in 1998. Respect for differences and an understanding of diversity is a key ethical rule for complex systems and no amount of retreating into homogeneous groups will help us cope with living in an increasingly complex world.

As Stephen Downes wrote in 2005 when proposing connectivism as a new learning theory appropriate for living and learning in a digitally connected world:

‘Connective knowledge is no magic pill, no simple route to reliability and perhaps even more liable to error because it is so much more clearly dependent on interpretation.’

but

‘Freedom begins with living free, in sharing freely, in celebrating each other, and in letting others, too, to live free. Freedom begins when we understand of our own biases and our own prejudices; by embracing autonomy and diversity, interaction and openness….’

I agree with dana boyd – diversity is hard, but if as Cilliers (2010, p.56) says, ‘Difference is a necessary condition for meaning’ in a complex world, in order to learn we will need to embrace diversity and maintain, sustain and increase our global networks and connections.

References

Cilliers, P. (1998). Complexity and postmodernism. Understanding complex systems. London and New York, Routledge

Cilliers, P. (2010). Difference, Identity, and Complexity. Philosophy Today, 54(1), 55–65.

Downes, S. (2007). An Introduction to Connective Knowledge in Hug, Theo (Ed.) (2007): Media, Knowledge & Education – Exploring New Spaces, Relations and Dynamics in Digital Media Ecologies. Proceedings of the International Conference held on June 25-26, 2007. – http://www.downes.ca/post/33034

Eynon, R., Hjoth, I., Yasseri, T., & Gillani, N. (2016). Understanding Communication Patterns in MOOCs: Combining Data Mining and qualitative methods. In S. ElAtia, D. Ipperciel, and O. Zaïane (Eds.), Data Mining and Learning Analytics: Applications in Educational Research, Wiley.

Haywood, J. (2016). Learning from MOOCs: lessons for the future. In E. de Corte, L. Engwall, & U. Teichler (Eds.), From Books to MOOCs? Emerging Models of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, p. 69-80. Oregon: Portland Press Limited.

Kirschner, P. A. (2015) ‘Facebook as learning platform: Argumentation superhighway or dead-end street?’ Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 53, December, pp. 621–625. Elsevier Ltd. [Online] Available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.03.011

Tschofen, C., & Mackness, J. (2012). Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13(1). http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1143

Williams, R., Karousou, R., & Mackness, J. (2011). Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3). http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/883

‘The New World’. Fact and Truth in 2017

 

1480661317609

 Source of image

Every day this week, BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a 45-minute programme at 9.00 am bearing the title ‘The New World’. This is a series of programmes examining the major forces that are changing the world around us. The first programme focused on ‘post-truth’ and bore the title ‘Nothing but the Truth’.

For me this is just the right programme, after all that happened in 2016, including ‘fake news’ allegations surrounding Brexit here in the UK and Trump’s election in the USA, to broadcast at the start of 2017. It pulled together and tried to explain society’s changing relationship with truth. It tried to unpick what we mean by ‘post-truth’ and what it means to live in a ‘post-fact’ world. The programme drew on several research studies and spoke to a number of different scientists, researchers and others. The podcast gives further details of these speakers and can be accessed on the BBC website at Nothing but the Truth although I realise that this won’t necessarily be available to those living outside the UK.

The programme started by telling us that ‘Post-truth’ was the ‘word of the year’ in 2016, when it was added to the Oxford Dictionary.

After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.  (Source of quote)

It suggested that 2016 was the year in which people questioned whether facts matter any more and whether there is any longer a need or role for experts in our society. Post-truth describes the world according liberals and their liberal angst. (See The Fallacy of Post-Truth by Rune Møller Stahl & Bue Rübner Hansen for more on this).

When did we enter this post-fact world? According to Rune Møller Stahl & Bue Rübner Hansen any one of a number of events could have been the cause, but the Radio 4 programme presenter suggested that the first clear instance of there being a lot of information ‘out there’ with no basis in fact was the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Events went on to show that when facts are coloured by ideology it is difficult to change people’s minds. In this case people not only resisted the evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction but also became more convinced that there were – a phenomenon known as the ‘backfire effect’. By developing counter arguments people become more entrenched; they persuade themselves and they rationalize instincts and feelings that they already have after the fact in an act of retrospective justification. They put their feelings first and make the facts fit. They think they are reasoning but are actually rationalizing.

The programme posited that we all have this pre-disposition, i.e. the pre-disposition to selectively accept information which is consistent with our world view and the more proficient we are at analysing data the more we do this; we interrogate the evidence and ‘waterboard’ it until it tells us what we want to hear.

Fact and truth. The programme went on to discuss that there are different kinds of facts. When is a fact not a fact? Take for example the question, ‘Is the UK in the EU?’ This is a straightforward question to answer. It is a fact and a truth that we are currently in the EU. But the question ‘how much does the EU cost the UK?’ may have many answers (many truths and facts) and the question ‘is it good for us to be in the EU?’ is not a question about facts but about values. Fact and truth are not the same thing. Has our relationship with truth changed over time? Truth is more personal and is about how you feel about the world. We are all more or less biased. Areas of life that are not about facts but about values shouldn’t be the monopoly of politicians, intellectuals and self-appointed authorities. No-one knows what it’s like to live your life. We don’t have to trust others to interpret the truth or its relevance for our lives.

Echo chambers. If our relationship with truth has changed over time, why is this so? The Internet has affected us all and changed society. Two-thirds of Americans now get their news from social media and this is an increasing trend in the UK. But we tend to inhabit echo chambers on the Internet. We live in filter bubbles seeing echoes of our own opinions, amplified by social software’s algorithms (e.g. Facebook) which give us more of the same and ensure that we don’t encounter dissenting information.

And this doesn’t only happen on the Internet. Some research from America and in the UK has shown that like-minded people move to live near each other. This is known in America as ‘the big sort’ and studies of psychological geography have linked geographical clustering to personality differences, making the chances of meeting people different from us increasingly slim.

How can we burst the bubbles we live in? How do we get contrary information and alternative perspectives into echo chambers? It seems that we can’t win arguments by throwing in more facts. It’s not an information deficit that we suffer from, but an affinity deficit and a lack of trust. We determine the truth by the people and sources we trust. It’s not that facts don’t matter any more. What is really worrying is the lack of trust underneath this which comes from being exposed to fewer opposing views and which makes it harder to believe the other side has anything to offer.

What was suggested in the programme is that it’s difficult to build trust, but perhaps we could start by trusting ourselves a little less, asking ‘Can I trust how I feel?’ We should be anxious about echo chambers and fitting what we see to maintaining our standing in the group. We should resist forwarding to our echo chamber that article that proves how right we are. Just because we like it doesn’t mean it’s true. We should listen more to people we disagree with and make a habit of doubting what we hear, see and read if only for a short time each day.

Like others (see for example Audrey Watter’s post – Education Technology and the Year of Wishful Thinking) during 2016 I became increasingly aware of the issues raise by this Radio 4 programme, of the echo chambers in which I work and live and the pressure to conform to group ideologies. Alternative perspectives are often not welcomed and as I have personally experienced can be met with at best silence and at worst abuse and ridicule. As an academic and researcher this seems a particularly sorry state of affairs.

Letting go of control to create something out of nothing

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.

Apropos of Nothing

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?