The Materiality of Nothing

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-3-152438_large

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

If space is a becoming what kind of spaces do we need for learning?

The second keynote at the Networked Learning Conference 2016 was presented by Sian Bayne. The title of her keynote was Campus Codespaces for Networked Learning, which she framed around the question ‘Do we need other ways to think about networked learning space?’

So like Caroline Haythornthwaite, (see post about her keynote), Sian was pushing us to think about networked learning in a different way, with a specific focus on ‘space’. Of course Caroline has also published about learning spaces:

Haythornthwaite, C. (2015). Rethinking learning spaces: networks, structures, and possibilities for learning in the twenty-first century. Communication Research and Practice, 1(4). doi:10.1080/22041451.2015.1105773

Did they talk to each other before the conference, I wonder, or was it pure serendipity that their concerns for the future of networked learning seem to be similar?

Sian’s argument is that we need to get away from the idea that the architecture of a university is the authentic space making distance education a less authentic space. She said that sedentarism is still driving universities.

Sian talked in turn about

  • smooth and striated space,
  • networked, fluid and fire space
  • code/space

She first wrote about smooth and striated space way back in 2004, basing that paper on the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari (1988) about the limiting effects of hierarchical, striated spaces (see list of references).

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 14.51.52 Slide 10

However smooth spaces are not necessarily utopias, as Frances Bell, Mariana Funes and I found in some recent research.

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.

But notions of smooth and striated space are useful for thinking about how we might need to reconsider learning spaces. Is a MOOC a smooth or a striated space? Is a conference a smooth or a striated space?

Sian then went on to talk about bounded, networked and fluid space and the permeability of boundaries. All these spaces are important. She told us that distance students can have ‘campus envy’, i.e. they believe that the on campus students get a better deal, that the face-to-face bounded experience is somehow more authentic, which is not necessarily the case. The grass is not necessarily greener on the other side and absence can make the heart grow fonder, but her students think of the campus as ‘home’. My experience is that meeting face-to-face in a physical space adds value to connection, so I think I understand where Sian’s students are coming from.

Bounded space, networked space and fluid space are all defined by the relative stability of their boundaries and the relationship between elements. Unlike Etienne Wenger’s work on landscapes of practice and the importance of boundary crossing , Sian asked us to consider space in Mol and Law’s terms (1994) – as being fluid, that is, the boundaries are not permanent.

Mol and Law

Slide 20

I particularly liked the notion of ‘fire space’ – here but not here, presence and absence. I am now thinking about this in terms of Absent Presence, which I have blogged about before.  Absent presence in online interaction.

Sian’s argument is that we should offer students topological multiplicity. All these spaces are important. This resonates with my own research using the footprints of emergence, where we argue that prescribed learning spaces are no less important than emergent learning spaces. The need for each and the balance between the two will be determined by the context.

Finally Sian talked about code/space. I suspect that this is where her current research interests lie, whereas mine remain in the effects on identity and becoming of the multiplicity of spaces available to learners. But I was intrigued by the idea of code/space.

Kitchin and Dodge

Slide 33

Code/space is not coded space. Coded space is space which is not dependent on code, but code space depends on code. For distance students if the code fails, then they are disconnected and no longer at University. Disconnection was a topic discussed by Frances Bell, Catherine Cronin and Laura Gogia in their interesting and enjoyable symposium – Synergies, differences, and bridges between Networked Learning, Connected Learning, and Open Education

Ideas of space, becoming, disconnection, connection, metaphor, code, algorithms, collective well-being and different ways of knowing were threads running throughout the conference. It will be interesting to see if they are followed through in the next conference in Zagreb, Croatia, 2018, and how much our thinking and ideas will have moved on.

I will be following Sian and her team’s research to see how these ideas about space for becoming develop.

NLC2016: Sian Bayne keynote references (posted by Sian on Twitter)

Bayne, S., Gallagher, M.S. & Lamb, J. (2013). Being ‘at’ university: the social topologies of distance students. Higher Education 67(5): 569-583.

Bayne S. (2004) Smoothness and Striation in Digital Learning Spaces. E-Learning. 1(2): 302-316.

Carvalho, L., Goodyear, P. and de Laat, M. (eds) (2017) Place-based Spaces for Networked Learning. Abingdon: Routledge.

Cormier, D. (2015) Rhizo15 http://rhizomatic.net/

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1988) A Thousand Plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Continuum.

Dodge, M. and Kitchin, R. (2005) Code and the transduction of space. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95(1), 2005, pp. 162–180.

Hannam, K., Sheller, M. & Urry, J. (2006). Editorial: mobilities, immobilities and moorings. Mobilities, 1(1), 1-22.

Kitchin, R. and Dodge, M. (2011) Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.

Knox, J. (2016) Posthumanism and the MOOC: Contaminating the Subject of Global Education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lamb, J. (2016) ‘Away from the university’. http://www.james858499.net/blog/away-from-the-university

Law, J. & Mol, A. (2001). Situating technoscience: an inquiry into spatialities. Environment and Planning D. (19), 609-621.

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

Mackenzie, A. (2002) Transductions: Bodies and machines at speed. London: Continuum Press.

Matthews P. (2015) ‘YikYak’. http://drpetermatthews.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/yikyak.html

Mol, A. & Law, J. (1994). Regions, networks and fluids: anaemia and social topology. Social Studies of Science, 24(4), 641-671.

Pearce, N. (2015) ‘The YikYak lecturer’. https://digitalscholar.wordpress.com/2015/08/24/the-yik-yak-lecturer/

Reticulatrix (2013) ‘#EDCMOOC: School’s out’ https://reticulatrix.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/edcmooc-schools-out/

Ross, J. & Sheail, P. (2015) Campus imaginaries and dissertations at a distance. Society for Research into Higher Education Conference, 9-11 December 2015. https://www.srhe.ac.uk/conference2015/abstracts/0166.pdf

Sheller, M. & Urry, J. (2006). The new mobilities paradigm. Environment and Planning A, 38, 207-226.

Thatcher, J., O’Sullivan, D. & Mahmoudi, D. (2016) Data colonialism through accumulation by dispossession: New metaphors for daily data. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. DOI: 10.1177/0263775816633195

Sensitive Learning Spaces: what architects can teach us

On Tuesday of this week (April 2nd) I went to see the Sensing Spaces Exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.

Screen Shot 2014-04-05 at 15.49.52

On the next day (April 3rd 2014) I attended a one-day conference at UCL in London and ran a workshop with my colleague, Elpida Makriyannis, in the space that you can see in this photo below.

UCL  space for learning

The two spaces could not have been more different. In his introductory talk to the UCL audience, the Provost recognized that space is a problem at UCL. There is not enough and much of what there is needs refurbishment. If UCL has the necessary finances, what a wonderful opportunity to think about the influence of space on learning. As one of the Grafton Architects said on a video on the Sensing Spaces website:

If you put students into a certain kind of space they will expect to be fed. If you put them in another kind of space they will expect to be challenged. Space prepares you to receive or to respond.

The aim of the Royal Academy Sensing Space exhibition was that it would ‘radically transform the apparently dominant character of the classically planned and detailed interiors; transformation that will simultaneously amplify and diminish, mask and frame, illuminate and shade, and reinforce and unbalance the familiar gallery experience.’  The exhibition wanted to help visitors re-imagine architecture – just as when we design learning spaces we hope that they will encourage learners to re-imagine learning.

Bruno Zevi suggested in 1948 that we are ‘illiterate in our understanding of space’. (Zevi, B. 1948. Architecture as Space, Horizon Press). Is this still the case? It certainly isn’t the case in relation to the architects exhibiting in this exhibition. These architects could teach us a lot about how to design spaces for learning. That was not their explicit intention for the exhibition, but that is what I came away with. Through their installations it became clear that a carefully designed learning space will give the learner ‘a sense of being able to claim the territory.’

The exhibiting architects understand that the experience of space is a holistic and relational one. Light, temperature, smell, colour and texture all play their part. Learning should be a sensual and embodied experience. As learners we should be in control of our learning paths, following routes of personal and individual interest, moving from lows to highs, from vertical to horizontal, from light to dark, from quiet contemplative spaces to engaged interactive community spaces, through doorways that allow us to make connections between our past and present, between outside and inside and take us consciously or unconsciously over learning thresholds. The learning space should be adaptive and allow us glimpses of as yet unreached vistas that fire our imaginations. It should be experienced from within, not externally imposed.

In his keynote presentation to the UCL conference, Etienne Wenger said that learners in the 21st century need to be able to work in a landscape of practices, with engagement, alignment and imagination. The Sensing Spaces exhibition was for me an experience of a landscape of different spaces, where I could envisage different practices emerging through engagement, alignment and imagination.

The Royal Academy published a very helpful education guide for the exhibition (Sensing Spaces education guide). I have quoted liberally from this in what follows, to show how each of the architects ‘spoke’ to me, not only about space and architecture, but also about the kinds of learning spaces I would like for my own learning.

Álvaro Siza (Portugal)

Siza’s installation is the first you see when arriving at the Royal Academy. The installation is of three columns located outside the Gallery, which connect the outside with the inside. They reflect his interest in continuity, both the theoretical continuity of architectural history and the physical continuity of place. His work is based on a deep emotional response to the site.

Alvaro Siza

Alvaro Siza 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘…… we are always building in relation to something else. What we create is not an isolated object but transforms and is transformed by what exists’.

Entering the Exhibition

There is no set route for viewing the installations. You enter an octagonal room, which is a central pivotal space to which you can return as you create your own pathway through the galleries.

On the wall of the octagonal space is written: ‘Experiencing architecture involves moving within and around it, absorbing its qualities through our bodies and senses. We react consciously or not, to the characteristics of different materials, vistas, volumes, sounds, spatial relationships and proportions. As well as engaging physically with space, our experience of it is also informed by our memories and habits.’

The exhibition sets out to awaken and recalibrate our sensibilities to the spaces that surround us. As such, it is part demonstration and part experiment, which in the spirit of enquiry requires interaction and participation from its audience. Visitors are invited to observe, move through and around, touch, adapt and occupy a series of specially commissioned architectural installations. (Sensing Spaces education guide)

From the octagonal space the route I chose was to first go through Eduardo Souto de Moura’s door. De Moura created two replica door cases – precise facsimiles of those in the Royal Academy and placed the copies at 45-degree angles to the originals.

Eduardo Souto de Moura (Portugal)

De Moura’s installations make passing through an aperture a more present experience – an experience of movement and transition.

Eduardo Souto de Moura

Of his work he says:

‘Space for an architect does not exist, so we design the limits that give the impression of space.’

‘For me architecture requires continuity. We have to continue what others have done before us, but using different materials and methods of construction.’

‘It is not possible for an architect to design a space – such a concept does not exist. Instead, we design the thresholds and the limits: the walls, doors, and so on. I’m interested in designing the elements that give the impression of space’.

This aligns with Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s comment:

‘Good architecture is often invisible, but it allows whatever is happening in that space to be the best experience possible’.

I don’t only interpret this in terms of physical space, e.g. the rooms/spaces that UCL or any learning designer might design, but also the opportunities for ‘internal’ spaces that are personal and individual to each student.

Moving through de Moura’s doorway I came to an interactive community space.

Diébédo Francis Kéré (Africa)

This was a room within a room, made of honeycomb plastic panels, and designed as an interactive and adaptive space, which relied on the engagement and contribution of the gallery visitor.  Visitors were offered brightly coloured plastic straws to thread through the holes in the honeycomb structure.

Diebedo Francis Kere3

Kéré states that his main aim is ‘ to create comfortable spaces for informal gatherings, and to help communities build their own inspiration’.

‘I believe that it is important to engage people in the process of building so they have an investment in what is developed. Through thinking and working together the built object becomes part of a bonding process.’

‘For me, architecture is primarily about people, about asking questions such as: who is the user? What is going to happen here? How can I respond to the user’s needs?’

For Kéré space, and learning in that space, is social and collaborative.

In the next space the architects took us to places and spaces that we would not normally be able to visit or reach. They took us into the roof space of the immensely lofty rooms of the Royal Academy.

Pezo von Ellrichshausen (Chile)

Pezo von Ellrichshausen

Pezo von Ellrichshausen 6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘We are not trying to express the structural properties of our buildings. The emphasis instead is on the proportions of the rooms, their sequence, the way they open – simple things, but which taken together suggest something more complex.’

Eduardo Souto de Moura3

 

Then across another threshold, through another of de Moura’s doors ……

 

 

 

 

 

…. I entered a contemplative space. Here the influence of space on the visitor/learner was so apparent. You could have heard a pin drop. If anyone talked at all, it was in whispers and hushed tones.

Kengo Kuma (Japan)

Kuma created two delicate installations made of lengths of bamboo whittled to a diameter of 4 mm, bound together to form a fragile structure, impregnated with liquid scent of Japanese Cyprus or Tatami and lit by LED light fittings in the floor.

Kengo Kuma 3

Kuma’s aim is to ‘achieve the maximum effect with the minimum use of resources’.

‘The more the volume of the material is reduced, the more the human body becomes sensitive and tries to concentrate on the limited, thin, small and slight material in order to smell out or catch ‘something’ from it.’

‘I always start with something small – breaking down materials into particles or fragments that can then be recombined into units of the right scale to provide comfort and intimacy.’

What I took away from Kengo Kuma is that ‘less is more’, which immediately I related to less curriculum could be more learning, less resources could be more inquiry, less teaching could be more discovery and so on.

Grafton Architects (Ireland)

The Grafton Architects also created a quiet space in their dark space. People also whispered in this space.

Grafton Architects

They made two dramatically different installations, both suspended from the roof lights. ‘Choosing only to work with the roof lights, both installations feature a series of suspended surfaces and forms that manipulate the light and reshape the space in two entirely different ways; one as an exploration of lightness, with what is referred to as a waterfall of light, and the other being the exact opposite, exploring weight, containment and the formation of carved-out space.’ (Sensing Spaces education guide)

Grafton Architects 3

The Grafton Architects seek to ‘make as much nothing as possible’, and to structure space through the careful orchestration of the passage of light and movement through the void’. They have said:

‘There is a sense of pleasure in moving from darkness to light or vice versa because as human beings we are cyclical. How light reflects and how light is contained is the stuff of architecture.’

‘Here we are describing spatial experience using not words but light.’

I can certainly recognize learning in terms of dark and light.

Finally I moved into Li Xiaodong’s maze, where I could create my own journey to the Zen Garden.

Li Xiaodong (China)

According to the ancient Chinese Philosopher Lao Zi, what is important is what is contained, not the container.

Li Xiaodong5Chinese architecture develops from the idea that the building is something to be experienced from within. Li Xiaodong’s installation ‘ adds a new maze of spaces to an otherwise familiar route’. The timber frame is infilled with small sections of coppiced timber and placed on an acrylic floor lit by LEDs. The route through the maze culminates in a Zen Garden.

 

Li Xiaodong states that there is a ‘fundamental difference between “being present” in a space, where you are absorbed within it, and looking at images of a space, where the mind is detached’. Li Xiaodong6

Xiaodong’s work seems to me to be all about identity, which comes full circle to Etienne Wenger’s keynote for the UCL conference in which he said that ‘The 21st century will be the century of identity’. It is interesting to think about the implications of the design of learning spaces for this.

For more photos of the exhibition see https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennymackness/sets/72157643464527454/show/