Chou-fleur, Frimaire, 228

Hi, I'm doing well in carving out time to think, work and make things. I started a little vanity project yestertoday which is in embryonic stages but should give me an opportunity to learn some new stuff. I'll try and blog it up and put it on Instagram stories. It's not particularly conceptually clever but I just happen to have the bits lying around at the moment. In the picture you see a 9-axis accelerometer/gyro/manetomoeter (I forget the acronym for these things). This project needs to know exactly where it is on the Earth's surface to work. Today a Wi-Fi shield is arriving. I leave it up to you to guess.

Formafantasma again, this time about knowledge

Following on from my diatribe on Formafantasma last week, which might be best summarised as ‘why make a chair about e-waste?’ It was useful to crack the spine on The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts at the weekend. In the second chapter ‘ Pleading for Plurality’ by Norwegian academic Søren Kjørup there is a careful, though somewhat dated analysis of the different ways in which ‘artistic’ research (broadly defined so as to include other forms of creative practice) creates and disseminates knowledge. Here he discusses the work of embroider Hans Hamid Rasmussen who produces textiles that examine ‘intercultural experiences.’ Kjørup points out that the knowledge created in this process is two-fold; first a communication of those experiences and secondly the development of those methods of communication or as he puts it; ‘[Rasmussen’s] works not only claim that ‘intercultural experiences are like this’, but also that ‘intercultural experiences may be expressed like this’.’

This conforms well to Christopher Frayling’s 1993 categorisation of research through, for and about art. Rasmussen uses his art to talk about intercultural experience (through) but also developed new means of communication (for). These are categorisations that we are relatively used to. That the process of creative production uncovers new knowledge on the subject but can also push the whole field forward by demonstrating ways in which that knowledge is produced. However, though Kjørup takes about Rasmussen’s contribution to the field of embroidery in regard to talking about issues like ‘intercultural experiences’ doesn’t follow up with why this is a good way of communication. Suggesting ways in which an abstract notion like intercultural experiences may be expressed could be rather simple since they could be expressed in any number of ways across media and form but the value of this research is surely in discovering and sharing what media or forms are most appropriate and effective.

It is perhaps telling for this critique that Kjørup refers to the word ‘expression’ while I use ‘communication.’ Perhaps this is another separation of a designerly approach from an artistic one; consideration of audience. I might express an idea in any number of ways if the comprehension of the audience is secondary to finding a means of expression based on other criteria, for instance, dynamism, critical craft or tradition. However, where the audience’s comprehension is the primary aim then I need to think about appropriateness and accessibility and evaluate why ‘expressing [communicating] something this way’ is most effective for my objective.

This is where Formafantasma’s Ore Streams chair again becomes another useful example. If I, with a designerly mindset and sure in my understanding of my role as a designer, were to embark on a project aiming to engage an audience in discussion of issues of e-waste, I would not make a concept chair. I might consider making a viral video since these travel well and can be viewed by millions. I might consider using design-led policy development methods to affect local and national change through lobbying and appropriate use of data. I might even conduct an investigative project and find interesting and clear ways of visualising it for use by others in similar enterprises. Fortuitously, this approach was validated at the weekend when Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler’s were awarded Design of the Year for ‘Anatomy of an AI’ - an investigative visualisation of Amazon’s entire AI ecosystem.

However, I could reevaluate my critique of Ore Streams with the question ‘who was the audience?’ It’s quite possible that Formafantasma were not interested in a piece of mass communication so much as using their significant platform within the boutique design world to engage a specific audience of other designers, design critics and journalists. The earlier iterations of critical design [image] were for this purpose too after all. The idea of engaging practitioners and theorists in critical practice was to help them think better about their own practice as an educational and research tool. (Tangentially, this is why I’ve never had a good response to the ‘isn’t it just design for designers?’ question because, well, yes, it is. That was always the idea.)

Kjørup returns to Rasmussen’s work with the regrettable conclusion that the knowledge that Rasmussen produces and shares is ultimately read by others in the write-ups of the project he does that accompanies his work. The embroideries themselves are read by the research community as part of the process of uncovering knowledge that is ultimately validated only once written down. This tension between the formalism of the natural sciences and the plurality of creative subjects is the thrust of Kjørup’s chapter which he examines by demonstrating the value of the plurality of ways in which knowledge is generated through creative practice.

In doing so he introduces the taxonomy of Willhelm Windelband’s new terms of ‘nomothetic’ and ‘idiographic’ sciences. ‘Nomothetic sciences are the ones that search for general laws… as most of the natural sciences [but] even a humanistic discipline like history.’ While ‘…idiogrpahic disciplines are the ones that study these subjects in their specificity.’ Here there is another way of examining Ore Streams; it does not seek to establish general laws or frameworks like a policy design piece or a stunning work of infographics, but for Formafantasma to explore their own (and those of their immediate peers’) practice in the context of the general knowledge/laws/frameworks of e-waste.

Kjørup neatly summarises the value of these debates in his notion that artistic (etc.) research is ‘pre-pardigmatic.’ We do not have a Newtonian or Aristotelian framework for artistic research that is ‘sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of scientific activity’ and is ‘sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to resolve.’ (Quoting Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1970, p.10) Interestingly, while summarising how paradigms bring ‘values’ to science he reiterates Thomas Kuhn in his note that ‘science should or (need not be) social useful.’ This is an interesting formulation of the idea that science should be socially useful or not at all with the implication being that it should not be socially destructive. By the scientific values that dominate conversations o knowledge creation, Ore Streams is certainly not socially destructive, so my critique of it could also be flawed by assuming that all creative endeavours have to be socially useful to have had their knowledge made valuable.

The pre-paradigmatic nature of research in arts and design (although I would argue that Frayling’s work is pretty paradigmatic) makes considerations of how knowledge is generated, for who and by what means it is evaluated still worthwhile and contentious in a positive way as the paradigm might be formed at a time when social issues of inequality, accessibility and privilege feature prominently in discussions of knowledge.