Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Beyond decoration: committing to visual (research) practice

Although I haven't posted lots here yet, my journey into developing a thoroughly 'visual' research and teaching practice is something I've been thinking about and working on. Although I'm on a mission to go 'beyond decoration' with drawing, painting, photography and map making, I've 'decorated' my office with a recent painting test. Why? I think if you want to thoroughly integrate something into your daily activities and workflow, it should not sit in a draw somewhere. It's on my wall not because I love it, or because it's my best possible work, but as a statement of intent and a point of connection - with whatever I am doing. I am becoming committed to thinking visually first, and that's what's going on for me at the moment. 

I'm doing this because activities like drawing are intensely practical and philosophical. I love how thinking visually has necessitated being visual. It has pushed my practice on because I have needed to get off my backside and kick-start my painting, to use a sketchbook in all my academic meetings, and to work on visual research methods as 'plan A'. Doing this has also made me think about how all this is received. Tradition dictates that visual arts are consumed or admired by others, which is something I am aware of when people look at what I am doing; we are conditioned to respond to certain types of visual artefacts we are told are 'art'. I want to push past that and to locate my work in a collaborative process of work with others, not as 'final product' but as a response amongst other responses. My work is intended to prompt, to open up, to question, to shift - not because it is 'great art', but because it presents a different view, and one that calls for a response. At the moment, I am thinking through a research project that I hope will involve me in drawing aspects of professional practice. I have a job in health, education and social care research to blend this visual process with a philosophy of the social sciences and an ability to speak to pressing and concrete professional issues. In other words, my visual practice is not 'simply' about visual art as a product - I am not primarily presenting myself as an artist - but I am working on a sort of accessible, practical visual philosophy. The sort social workers, looked after children, teachers and so on can engage with and that speaks to their frame of interpretation. 

The second image here is a page from my sketchbook. Again, it's quick work, but it is an example of me thinking through an article on the 'life-world' of young people in school. For me, it was more than decoration because it forced me to commit to a visual explanation of what I was thinking through in a previously vague way. I have been able to build on this in my reading and writing, and have come back to my workbook to build on it. Visual thinking is as valid as, and complements writing but provides a different set of practices for exploration and questioning. The experience has been therapeutic (I find drawing and painting therapeutic) but also exposing, because I have to put my naivety on the page, or canvas, or Instagram, in an academic world which is all about 'performing' expertise.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Ambitions for drawing in teaching and research

I started this blog to explore my thinking and practice around drawing and using images in my research and teaching practice. If nothing else, it gives me a sort of accountability for making progress. Because I am doing that, I am looking out for things that will get me thinking. I came across one such opportunity when I read about a public lecture to be given by Professor Keith McIntyre entitled 'Lines of Desire'. I have written about it here because it has given me a great opportunity to reflect and think about what I am doing in going back to drawing in my academic work.
 A short description of Keith McIntyre's work was provided on the page promoting the public lecture:
"Keith McIntyre’s work is well renowned for crossing over a range of studio practice and performance disciplines. His interest lies in drawing, graphic fine art media and theatre. Keith has had numerous exhibitions and has been Visual Director on a range of collaborative projects including Rites (Scottish Chamber Orchestra), New Constellations for Wind, Reed and Drawing Instruments (BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and Sage Gateshead) and HEID (Sounds of Progress). Keith has previously won the Scottish Open Drawing competition and recently worked with renowned children’s writer David Almond and actor Kevin Whately to produce The Savage, an ITV documentary in partnership with Seven Stories Centre for Children’s Books.
Central to his current research is an interest in constructed narratives and the potential of the contemporary diorama. Large black ink works on white foam-board are produced in the studio and became the catalyst for a series of improvisations in workshop practices with other artists working across other arts disciplines. While drawing remains the fundamental interest in McIntyre’s work, the cross-fertilisation nature of this activity means that there can be a number of project outcomes, either as an exhibition, a live performance or both."

(see the original on the Northumbria University web site)
After a frantic car journey back into Newcastle Upon Tyne to get to the lecture, I found the studio where the lecture was being given and not only enjoyed the lecture but was kept awake afterwards thinking about my response to it. Professor McIntyre spoke about drawing and making as academic / research practice. His focus on lines, assembling, responding, 'larking' (playful innovation, change, improvisation) and collaboration with others was amazing. Because he was speaking about his practice over time, it was great to hear about the tree like structure of his productive and not so productive routes, and the value of learning from failure and embracing of that as necessity. 
self-portrait edited in iOS
It made me want to pursue what I have (re) started to do with more energy and purpose. I made a note to myself that I need to develop my artistic practice so that it can work with and respond to others in research and teaching contexts. Sitting in the lecture, I realised that I had backed off from doing this in my research and teaching until recently. I felt, perhaps because much of social science, organisational and sociological research has an uneasy relationship with the arts, drawing was seen as illustration or decoration, and certainly not serious enquiry. To counter this, I decided that I needed to do something. My response is to develop, discuss and apply my rationale for using artistic practice to teaching and learning. I must address the question of what am I doing in drawing, assembling, presenting, responding to visual things.
developing a new teaching and research landscape
I caught myself thinking in and after the lecture about Keith's thoughts on collaboration, and saw his conversations 'in the process' of making, and in the process of responding to presenting his work as the sort of research conversation I have had in a small way. I noted to myself that I just need to launch in, to give myself permission, to create, discuss, listen to responses. The idea of assembling and making together as collective enquiry was central to this. In making progress, I should not be embarrassed that my drawing is somehow imposing something on people: rather, I decided I must see it as a way to participate in conversation and to open up responses in others. I have already seen through my PhD and other research projects that others participate not so much by drawing with me (although that sort of collaboration would be interesting, but I find people don't want to do this) but by moving pieces, selecting, framing parts of images, annotating, responding with narrative. This research data that gets constructed in that site is where I can locate myself in as an artist.
These reflections have helped me think about what I can do to make this happen. To date, much of my work has been an 'add on' to teaching and research practice, and many of my images have ended up on my phone, accessible only to me. I can take from the lecture some encouragement to draw and make images in a more prominent way, but not simply 'for the sake of it', but at the same time developing a rationale for how the process and product of drawing can enrich my teaching and research. Watch this space.


Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Drawing, philosophy and professional life: can drawings be more than decoration?

Following my last post, I have sent a few tweets posing (perhaps slightly obscure) questions:
  • How would drawing your life give you insight?
  • Would looking at your team, family or service visually spark new questions?
  • How might seeing our stories differently mix them up and open up new trajectories?
  • Can mixing and editing biographical images cause us to see them *as* other things?
You can see these as they were posted if you follow me as @ianrobsons

Each of these was posted with an image I had been working on - which I've included below - so the question and image could be seen together. Viewing these tweets invited a movement between text and image, with the hope that there could be something which occurs as attention moves between them. Glimpses of insight, perhaps. 

This is abstract stuff, and potentially frustrating for the ultimate object of this work - insight for teachers, social workers, nurses and the like. I stop and ask myself: what do these images achieve? What is happening as they are fragmented, overlaid with colour and line? If these images are viewed through a 'realist' lens (where the object is direct representation), the best they can surely be is decoration. I am aiming beyond that, and I may need to re-trace my steps if in a process of playing and wondering they do become decorative. 

So what is going on in these images, as far as an 'answer' can be given? At this stage, far from any practical application to professional life, they are my efforts to develop an alternative to professional life measured, copied, categorised in what I have previously called the evidence based paradigm. In these naive efforts, I am picking up philosophical ideas that interest me and that I think may offer an alternative way of investigating what people do in professional life. I want us to 'see' professional activity differently, so we open up different questions and gain new insights. I will try to summarise some of this journey of thinking which is still playing out, hopefully towards a practical outcome. Some of it may be useful, but not all may seem well developed - it is my playing with ideas and images.

Starting with Ricoeur's 'narrative space'

My starting point in thinking about thinks that can 'stand for' lived experience was the philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, who I read for my PhD. Ricoeur provides a fascinating starting point in his discussion of narrative identity and a strange term: mimesis. Ricoeur's mimesis being an adapted theory of representation and transformation, relating lived experience to the idea of the text. Looking back on what really interested me about this were some of the abstract ideas Ricoeur's work pointed to, which I thought about as 'narrative space'. Ricoeur's concepts which I bundled together under this term addressed issues of how the 'text' of a life related to lived experience, and how social time, or lived experience, left 'marks' which could be read. His starting point is to say;

 "…the life of others can be discerned and identified in its manifestations. Knowledge of others is possible because life produces forms, externalises itself in stable configurations; feelings, evaluations and volitions tend to sediment themselves in structured acquisition [acquis] which is offered to others for deciphering." (Ricoeur, 1981, p.50)

This is the reading or interpretation of others lives through texts, but importantly, Ricoeur rejects a romantic definition of 'interpretation', or any seeking for hidden meaning in a text, and instead opens up the possibility of a more abstract vision of the text, or a life.

In fact, Ricoeur's very rich philosophical work on this topic does not attempt to over simplify the working together of biography, experience and narrative, but presents narrative - and the idea of the text - as a place of multiple marks and connections made complex when seen socially (as narratives are interwoven) and temporally (as events play out in time). 

“Social time, however, is not only something that flees; it is also the place of durable effects, of persisting patterns. An action leaves a 'trace', it makes its 'mark' when it contributes to the emergence of such patterns, which become the documents of human action.” (Ricoeur, 2008, p.149)

In my thesis, I realised many of my insights played with these ideas, as I worked to 'read' real and conceptual marks in Ricoeur's narrative space. 

Taking up ideas of visuality and space through Deleuze 

Towards the end of writing my thesis, I started reading a text which was in many way miles away from Ricoeur's books - Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Apart from being a work of continental philosophy whose authors had only recently died, there is - superficially - little in common between the narrative hermeneutics of Ricoeur and the (seemingly) anarchic thought experiment which is A Thousand Plateaus, which follows the authors' previous work in the Capitalism and Schizophrenia series, Anti-Oedipus. Brian Massumi, who translated the text, suggested it was a "...constructive experiment in schizophrenic, or 'nomad' thought" (Massumi, 1993). Putting observations about the type of philosophy it represents and what I didn't like about it, A Thousand Plateaus fascinated me superficially because of the way in which it was a text which developed visual space(s) and connected topics, and insisted on a distinctive way of seeing which rejected simple, objective, superficial categories of things. Some of it is insane and incoherent to me, but in places, I found a connection with the way I had begun to read Ricoeur's work on what I called the narrative space. It read like an artists' thinking process.

Beyond A Thousand Plateaus I looked for a way forward. In my last post, I said I'd found a text which helped me focus on the visuality and connectedness of Deleuze's work: Jakub Zdebik's (2012) Deleuze and the Diagram: Aesthetic Threads in Visual Organisation. Like the trail of reading that got me this far, I was shamelessly practical and pragmatic, looking for ideas that would help me find a way of eventually connecting ways of drawing and image making to the everyday professional life of social workers, teachers and nurses. This book seems to be doing that as I grapple to understand it. What drives me here is not primarily an intellectual motivation, but a drive to find some principles or framework to explain a relationship between life and drawing: otherwise I would simply be decorating. I mentioned some initial points of connection in my last post (on the topic of the diagram); here I set out further reflections on material I am working with in that text. Some of this thinking I will relate to images I have been making from my drawings. 

Like Ricoeur (but in different ways), Deleuze rejects traditional representational, reproductive, imitative (mimetic) drawings, moving, as suggested by Zdebik (2012) "...into modes of representation of a far more problematical and uncertain nature." (p.74). Rather than try to summarise the whole system of thinking underpinning Deleuze's efforts, I pick out a set of ideas I find interesting. I write as I begin to understand, which is a dangerous but productive place! 

Stacking, simultaneity and the allagmatic

Zdebik (2012) relates the philosophy of Gilbert Simondon to Deleuze's work in considering the "...possibility of collapsing the distance between images and concrete things" (p.43). Some ideas can be pulled out of Zdebik's (2012) text, with apologies to the author, to convey a sense of his argument. Towards this aim, Simondon's work discusses the idea of analogy (a comparison between things), where this deals with "...understanding how connections can be made between disparate elements" (Zdebik, 2012, p.43). This may be useful - drawings and professional life are two 'things', but may be related through analogy.

The idea of the analogy is developed by Zdebik (citing Simondon's work) through the idea that two things - structure and operation - can be related. Structure and operation of a thing are related, although they do not look the same. Simondon calls this the allagmatic and emphasises that the term addresses an ontological relationship between two things - the term ontology describing what things are and the nature of their being (a bit like the idea of abstract functions in the diagram in my last post). The purpose of the allagmatic is to "...visualise an unrepresentable process that is no less actual because it is virtual" (Zdebik, 2012, p.43). There follows (pp.47-49) a quirky discussion of the 18th and 19th century fascination with crystals, in order to talk about ideas of transformation (via the growth of crystals) and the process of becoming where the structure and operation of crystals are related. As it happens, Simondon created his own philisophical system which created analogies between the operation of crystal formation and very different structures, including human development. Putting crystals aside, what interested me was Zdebik's (2012) claim that this 'worked' because Simondon moved from the known to the unknown by connecting a similarity of operation. In other words, crystal formation helped Simondon talk about similar processes at work in other systems, such as human development.

Simondon's idea of the allagmatic is described by Zdebik (2012) as more than an idea. The allagmatic requires visualisation and its graphic form mediates between concepts (p.53). Zdebik (2012) says that presenting an analogy visually does something interesting:  "...spread on a spacial surface, we do not perceive something as if it were another, but instead, something and another at the same time. The function of the allagmatic collapses two things, makes them one" (p.54).

This interested me because in my own work I often find there is something productive about seeing things together, collapsed into one image, where images are fragmented, redistributed or framed by lines.

Zdebik (2012) presents this allagmatic as an assemblage of two orders of things, or a "...stacking up different levels of depth", where things are not resolved, but the schism between them becomes a "productive rift" (p.56). I have tried to work this out by thinking visually in my own visuals: lines or fragments do not 'fit' neatly onto drawings, they cut across, mix up and force us to look at something in a different way in my own sketches.

Clearly, I am at an early stage of my thinking and drawing here, but one that I think will be useful before I rush to develop any simple or 'neat' methodology for drawing professional life. I am resisting that, and prefer to draw on concepts such as the allagmatic (or the principles behind such concepts) to develop images that are not 'copies' or direct representations of professional life, but function as analogies, drawing attention to what Deleuze talks about as functions or operations.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The abstract potential of professional life: notes on Deleuze, drawing and disruption.

I have spent some time 'thinking visually' about why I find visual language so useful, and what sort of potential it offers postdoctoral work (as soon as that much delayed Viva is passed). This has involved sketching, as well as dipping into Jakub Zdebik's (2012) book on Deleuze and the Diagram.

My interest in visualities is in their potential to 'open up' biography, and human practices by attempting to disrupt forms of description which are cause us to think is restrictive ways. For example, I have a specific interest in helping social care, education and health professionals to develop alternative ways of seeing and questioning what they do. In that specific domain, our thinking is limited when we only see through the 'lens' of evidence based practice, which relates things causally, in a linear way, and where understanding can be substituted for metrics. I don't suggest that lenses such as 'evidence based practice' have specific value, only that they are designed to do certain things, represent in certain ways, and raise only specific types of questions. In developing my own research practice, my challenge is to understand and articulate what an alternative - visually orientated - approach might look like.

Part of my thinking has been to go to texts that deal with ideas about aesthetics, and the way lines (or different sorts) may connect, open up and re-imagine reality. It has been an opportunity to pick up philosophical interests developed in doctoral study, but with a very pragmatic approach. I ask: what inspires? What could I adapt? and so on. One of these texts, as I previously mentioned, is Zdebik's (2012) "Deleuze and the Diagram: Aesthetic Threads in Visual Organisation". At this stage, I am digging up and laying out ideas, rather than synthesising and discussing them, so I hope you might find the following items - interesting as 'things to consider and wonder about', and you can find your own questions and inspirations as you read my notes with me.

I am digging around the idea of the diagram at the moment. The idea of the diagram is complex, attractive and intriguing to me. Having previously read a little Deleuze, I found myself equally confused and inspired by his work generally, not being familiar with this type of philosohphy. I liked the connections, the disruptions and the visual landscape Deleuze provided. In his 2012 work, Zdebik focuses specifically on Deleuze's concept of the diagram, which may have particular use in my task. Fragments of this idea are summarised below.

Zdebik (2012) identifies a diagram variously as a plan, a map or a graph, or schema - a "configuration of lines" where representation is not the aim, but it "maps out possibilities prior to their appearance" (p.1), and "...is the dynamic, fluctuating process occurring between static structures." (Ibid.). The diagram displays "abstract functions". In short - it relates and informs diverse systems, connecting each on the level of abstract functions. Zdebik (2012) offers concrete examples in discussion of Foucault's Discipline and Punish, where two different systems - in this case, prison and penal law - are identified as things that influence one another, and are related, even though "...they are not linked in any way that could be understood as representational" (p.3). Zdebik illustrates a connection between the prison environment and the discursive penal system by noting that both systems experienced a shift at a particular point in time. Specifically, he highlights the shift in the penal system from the idea of revenge, to the idea of what is articulable. The prison, in parallel, shifted from a place of "hiding" to visibility, a place of seeing and disciplining prisoners under a hidden gaze. The idea of the diagram is the connecting "essential traits" or "abstract functions" which can be seen in both. It "makes abstracted functions pass from one formation or system to the next" (p.5). The diagram, in this case, is the function of surveillance. The diagram, like the drawing, is something that connects, and relates different things. May it help us visualise 'what is going on' when we look at places, activities and people?

Elsewhere, Zdebik (2012) mentions Deleuze's famous focus on architecture, and identifies the diagram as "...that stage between the idea of the building and the actual building", where it "...connects between the theoretical and the real stages of the construction of a building" (p.8). Here, abstraction is vital as a creative force, in opposition to attempts to simply represent. Close to this idea is the image of diagram as map, which connects vectors and relates things, where potentialities can be viewed; it is experimental. Zdebik argues that the map can make the (virtual) diagram visible in a snapshot of time. The idea of snapshot, considering potentialities, to understand complex relations between things is interesting.

I found Zdebik's example from the art of Frances Bacon useful in thinking about the idea of the diagram as something that relates, influences and redistributes (although I'm not sure I 'like' the painting). Bacon's work is cited as it features in Deleuze's Frances Bacon: The Logic of Sensation and famously features blurred and distorted figures. The diagram is identified in catastrophic preparatory work, as it moves towards what Zdebik identifies "a zone of indiscernibility" (p.18). Swipes and rubbed marks are real and virtual in Bacon's head. In his work, Bacon's distortions are "nonrepresentative...suggestive" (p.18), offering the germ of an idea; it is controlled and finds itself expressed in tangible parts of the work. In Painting (1946) "The diagram is responsible for the elasticity of the bird-figure, which is topologically redistributed into other forms on the canvas." (p.19)

These are strange and abstract ideas. The artist in me likes the playfulness of them, but the practitioner wants a pragmatic application. I am in the phase of thinking about these ideas, such as the diagram, and playing with how something like drawing could help (temporarily) materialise connections, potentials and layers operating within services and in professional life.

I'm going on to consider the value of the abstract, so often rejected as fiction, to disrupt and open up ways of seeing these things. These ideas make me think about drawing as opening up and speaking about the space of experience and professional life. This stands in creative relationship with the concrete, the literal, the empirical. What I am aiming at is not representation directly, but the creation of a shift, a lens which redistributes those things (as in the indiscernable zone in Bacon's Painting). Perhaps I can find a way to draw out lines which take a life of their own. These are productive lines on which new formulations of professional life can be explored.