why blog your field work?

Over the last week I’ve posted every day about the ethnographic research I was doing at the Tate Summer School, research carried out with the Tate Schools and Teachers team. Why? Why did I interrupt my normal flow of writing about academic writing and research with a set of posts about my own research? Why was I blogging my research at all?

A lot of people tell me that they are worried about posting about research that is so clearly work in progress. But I want to convince you that there are some good reasons to do so, particularly if you’re doing qualitative work with real live people. And here’s a few of them:

(1) it’s a good record. Writing a blog post forces me to focus on providing a straightforward account of what went on each day. I have to choose the key points and write them succinctly. The posts form part of the data that I have – this is just a fairly simple diary-like account of the sequence of events.

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(2) a summary gets done. It’s very easy, after a busy day taking notes and pictures and talking with people, to come back to where you’re staying and put the notebook away, saying to yourself that you’ll work on writing your notes out some time later that night. But you usually don’t. Blogging provides good research (self)-discipline.

(3) the post is often a better account than the field notes. Notes taken while participating and observing are always a bit sketchy. Writing something immediately after you leave your site means that you can use your short-term memory to fill in any gaps. If you wait you may in fact forget some key details. And in the post you do, of course, have to start to sort out what is important and what’s not. You edit out some of the extraneous details you have in your notes – and images. (Why did I take a shot of the the dirty dishes, I must have been thinking about something at the time!).

(4) it’s an easy way to keep a record of things to follow up. A blog post offers you the opportunity to link though to other organisations, people, reading, “stuff”, which were part of the day. You can then pursue these in more detail later. You don’t forget what they were or struggle to recreate them from your notes.

And I’ve found that:
(5) participants and research partners like to read the posts each day too. It not only works for you but also works for them as a record of what’s gone on and what resources, people, organisations and “stuff” they used – so they can follow these up too.

(6) participants know more about what you’re doing. We all read our institutional ethics forms about checking with participants and keeping them informed, but this is often not taken very seriously IMHO. A daily post goes a little way to telling people what youre doing, and…

(7) a post can lead to good conversations with participants. if something is online, people can read it and then – tell you’ve got something wrong, or disagree with you, or discuss something further or tell you what they think. If your notes are locked away in your notebook, then this kind of responsive conversation is less easy to begin.

(8) the telling of the events as they’ve just happened has “live-ness” which is often missing from accounts which are heavily processed long after the event has happened (see “Live methods” by Les Back and Nirmal Puwar)

(9) blog readers may get some ideas of their own from reading about your work (I’ve just been contacted by one of my colleagues who is going to play with GIFs and zines on the back of yesterday’s post.)

BUT of course there are some parameters you have to establish around your live research blogging.

Ethics

You need ethical permissions – participants need to know you’re blogging. And if you use pictures then you must get specific consent.

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You’ll have to work out who you name and who you don’t. In my posts I follow a convention of naming key people (artists and co-researchers) and leaving everyone else as “participants”. But I show participants’ pictures, with permission, so they are not entirely anonymous – but I don’t actually attribute particular ideas and opinions  to any one in particular.

And I don’t put anything that might be controversial or harmful to anyone or the organisations involved.

Focus

You have to sort out the purpose of the posts, and this dictates the content and style. My posts are a form of audit trail, as I’ve explained, and they are straightforward accounts/recounts of events. But of course I’m writing blog posts for a wider audience, not just myself or the immediate research participants. So I do raise a few questions that I know might be of more general interest. I don’t write too much either. The posts can’t be too long. I also try to put in a few images that themselves are a little informative. I don’t see my live research blogging as the place to start conducting an analysis or having a theoretical discussion – but that might be appropriate for you. The trick is to work out, before you start posting, what you want to do, why and what might interest potential readers.

Organisation

If you’re going to post regularly while you’re researching you do need to allow the time to do this. I got up at 6 30 each day and wrote a post about the events that happened the day before.

66_u0saDRaNJohSsYC5hZsoNoWABpNnE7SB2pQg_240I published at roughly the same time each day, before I went off for that day’s “field work”.

You also need to make sure you have the right gear to do what you want – good internet, a decent keyboard, the capacity to get images into posts without too much time-consuming faffing about. I used a mini ipad this time round, and it was a great deal less heavy than lugging a note book and camera around, but it was a lot more irritating writing and publishing the actual posts.

And did I say already you have to be well organised and committed? Starting a blog about your daily research and then not doing it sends a negative message to your participants, telling them you have good intentions but cant follow through. Not what you want them to think when you’re still in the middle of your research!

So do think carefully about whether blogging your research is for you. But I’d certainly urge you to consider it.

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summer school day five

Saturday 25th

Wrapping up and consolidating? Well yes and no. There was still new stuff happening at Summer School. There were intensive periods of making in the morning and afternoon. Participants made GIFs and zines.

Barby and Teresa enlisted the help of two young artists – Eva Cookney and Anni Movsisyan. Both of them are part of the “Sorry you feel uncomfortable” collective. They presented their work at the beginning of the day and explained how they used zines and GIFs in their work. cPj8VCuHW8YIk0fEbQ1iRtLWZAsUBkcKSUf8r6Zai-4

The GIF is a means of producing a very simple message through a single animated image. GIFs very often become viral and if they are very, very popular, can reach the status of memes.

A zine on the other hand is a cheap and small scale publication, typically under 1000 copies. It allows people to communicate their ideas, positions, opinions, and experiences to a wider group than their immediate peers and family. Zines often have a handmade an/or ‘punk’ aesthetic.

Both GIFs and zines have clear applications in schools and colleges inside and outside of art rooms.

4fiwwIk0yBWJ4aH3-pWLGMXzkSys2g7xC0ydP4SOiTE Participants engaged in a flurry of collage construction and GIF making. Each participant made a collage which had some movable parts. The group used three images, but there could many more than this. We were limited by time. The collage was photographed three times, with the moving parts in different positions, and then these three images were transferred to gif maker software.

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The afternoon saw another intense period of cutting, pasting and sticking, with participants constructing a small zine as a reflection on their Summer School experience. Two copies were made of each of the zines – one for the participants to take home, and one to contribute to the Summer School archive.

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A closing reflection allowed the artists, participants and Schools and Teachers team to consider what they had learnt over the five days. One participant noted, to widespread nodding, that the Summer School had reminded them of what they used to do as an art student; they were more in touch with their ‘artist self’. Another noted, again to nods of agreement, that it would be odd coming back to Tate as a visitor, after having had it as a ‘home’ for the week. And one said that she had already begun writing new lesson plans!

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summer school day four

Friday 24th.

Today we focused on the question “How can the archive be reflected on, remixed and redefined?”

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We were assisted in thinking about this question by Gary Stewart, an artist who works with experimental sound installations and performances. Gary introduced us to his work, focusing specifically on live re-mixing of archival and contemporary material.

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Gary told us that he “created an environment of possibilities”, that he liked “happy accidents”, he liked the “frisson of being on the precipice” in live work, and it was the “possibility of failing which could lead to something extraordinary”.

Gary had a very nifty keyboard which he had programmed to a set of sounds and images, including some pieces from the vintage BBC series Ways of Seeing by John Berger. Two of the group were able to play with live mixing using his keyboard – without demonstration, learning by doing, having a go.

We were then told that we were all to be VJs today.

Within a half hour we were introduced to AV Mixer Pro. Working in groups of three, we compiled two files of ten images – many of which we had taken during the previous three days – and a third file of nine sound clips. All of the groups downloaded new material to supplement the sounds and image from Summer School. Even though the group members were variously comfortable with this kind of technology, everyone was able to participate.

The software allowed the three sets of files to be live mixed and each group had time to rehearse for an actual performance. This preparatory activity took the entire morning.

The performance was scheduled for mid-afternoon in the big hall at the centre of Tate Britain. While Gary set up the space and the technology, the group discussed two questions:
1. What is a strategy you can, or already do, use to create a space for creative freedom within the context of the classroom?
2. What is a strategy you can use to make the act of teaching an art practice? (this might be something you already do)
The group wrote their answers on pieces of very bright fluorescent papers which were pinned onto the already crowded walls of the studio space.

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At 3 30 all participants went into the gallery and, group by group, performed their live mix. Various passers by stopped to listen, some stayed and some moved on – and then came back…

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The day finished with a reflection on the live remixing experience and its connections to the everyday educational work of the participants.

Tomorrow is the last day and we are expecting another day of learning new things as well as consolidating the ideas we have worked on to date.

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summer school day three

Thursday 23rd

Today intensified the Summer School focus on ‘the archive’ and its means of production, in particular, questions of selection and layers of access. There was also a concurrent line of inquiry and activity around collaboration and documentation.

We were introduced at the start of the day to Felipe Castelblanco, a Bolivian media artist now in London on a Royal Academy of the Arts fellowship. He showed us some of his work; his interest in public space and the public leads to participatory performance pieces that are necessarily temporary. HIs work raised the question of how such work might be ‘archived’. Felipe suggested that artists had to start such ephemeral projects by keeping central to their thinking how an audience far removed from the event might encounter and understand it.

Felipe then showed us a flock of birds – a murmuration – in which the birds move together, leaderless, but as one. We were invited to tape video cameras to long sticks and then to go into the large hall at Tate Britain to practice moving about as a flock, while also videoing our actions from above.

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The group then split into three to do three activities during the day –
1. a visit to (some of) the Tate archives on site to see the collections of artists books, books about British art, artists’ materials (the model ships that Turner used, Whistler’s palette and so on), artists’ sketchbooks, letters and diaries… Much of this material is available to the public on request and can be looked at in supervised reading rooms.

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2. the print and design collection. This collection is open to the public, although many items can only be handled by a librarian. The collection of photographs is a relatively recent activity and is indicative of the ways in which gallery acquisition policies change and are open/not open to change. As in the archive, questions were raised about selection of artists – who is deemed worthy of inclusion and who makes that decision?

3. a making activity. The first sequence of activity, undertaken by the first group, was to build an object out of scrap, working together. The second sequence of activity undertaken by the second group was to edit and add to the object.

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The final group documented the object, it was transitory, and would be cleared away.

We have come in our research to understand objects like this as “a learning work”, where the point of the activity is not the final product but the process – the experience and the discussion.

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An additional activity occurred after lunch where the whole group came together to build a collective personal archive. Each person took one object which meant something to them, and which had a narrative attached to it.

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They labeled the object with a luggage tag and wrote some text which was indicative of their story. In pairs they then shared objects and stories. The collective archive of objects was then assembled and the group asked to think and discuss their responses to it as an entity. What characteristics of this archive were important? Discussion focused on the stories and emotions attached to the objects – an emotions archive – and the ways in which editing had already occurred in the selection of the objects in the first place – something that had meaning and a story.

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There was also group discussion, some of which focused on the processes of collaboration and the ways in which this kind of activity might or might not be taken back into formal learning institutions like schools and colleges.

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There were varied views on how much freedom teachers could give their students as well as the kinds of restrictions imposed by school leaders and curriculum demands. A good point to end on, and perhaps one which will be taken up on day four?

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summer school day two

Wednesday 22nd

Our overnight selfies arrived at Tate today before we did. By the time we walked into the Clore studio they had already been put into a slide show.

When the workshop began we were introduced to the photographer Christa Holka. As each of our selfies were shown she asked us to say what our intention had been. She then showed us a slideshow of her own work which not only revealed how her focus had changed over time, but also the breadth of work that she now does as a professional photographer. Images of the London gay club and party scene morphed into portraits, set pieces and more commercial assignments – all of them however had a person or group at their centre.

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Christa talked about the importance of relationships between the person behind the camera and those having their image recorded. Much of her own portraiture work is taken on ordinary cameras – these days her phone – and she does not do a great deal of editing. Her advice to us was not to worry so much about the equipment, but just “use what you have”.

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We then went into the gallery in groups of five. Each group member separately chose an image they liked, and decided how to physically re-present it. We reassembled as a group of five and put our embodied ‘poses’ together into a single composition – a group self portrait. This group selfie was then photographed either by one of the Tate schools and teachers team or by a member of the public dragooned in for the purpose.

The resulting group compositions were then put together and shown to the whole group. Each group member was asked to say what was their inspiration was, and the group also had to comment on the process of putting the picture together. I noted four reasons for choosing images – the picture reminded me of, I like the artist’s work, the image meant something to me/ the image made me feel…

This first sequence of self-portrait activities clearly had a connection with one of the workshop questions, putting ourselves at the centre of making/sharing. And there was a discussion about collaboration to complete the sequence where participants talked about the ways in which collaborative work was and wasn’t possible in their work settings – the English national curriculum came in for a bit of criticism.

The focus on making ourselves the centre of the action was extended in the afternoon by the next activity sequence.

We began to work on an archive related to the summer school. First of all, in the same group of five as the morning, we had a brief discussion about the possibilities of and for archiving. We came up with some parameters for a collective Summer School archive. There is, we were told, a possibility that the school could actually be archived at Tate in some way, so this is not simply a make-believe exercise. Barby and Teresa are documenting the archiving process so we assume that this will also contribute to the overall archive we are making – and indeed being.

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O5w_853Ut-o1sP5JNwJhTEfNHMLvc5J0c66tTTj-4UYMost of the afternoon was then spent with small groups or individuals making something to deposit into the archive. Each item had to be logged.

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The day ended with each person or group showing what they had produced for the archive.

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The items that were shown were:
(1) videos with cold-called members of the public, objects they had donated or a quote they offered.
(2) An 18 minute ‘live art’ piece performed by one participant walking through the gallery dressed in her swimming costume.
(3) Photographs of all of the chairs in the studio, people, absent but with some of their presence remaining in the form of bags papers etc
(4) Photographs of people’s bags, in and out of the studio
(5) A transcription of a group discussion held by participants
(6) Recordings of sound up and down the escalators
(7) Photographs of people being bored at Tate – asleep, playing with their phones
(8) Small traces of activity captured on sticky-tape and assembled as a list
(9) Collected and labeled rubbish
(10) Collected feelings, wrapped and labelled
(11) Pictures and lists of activities in the shop
(12) Tracings of hands and representations of hands of random Tate visitors and workshop participants.
(13) A map of the conversations between people in the workshop

During the showing of these items there were brief conversations about: performance, how to ‘cold call’ a member of the public (don’t say you work for Tate, I’m an art teacher works much better), the notion of capturing a ‘slice of time’, the question of interpretation and the archivist’s subjectivity, an object as a representation of self, the possibility of ephemera and the un-material being recorded, and the usefulness of boredom and being a ‘nosey-parker.’

At the end of the day the studio at Tate Modern was cleared out as tomorrow we move to Tate Britain.

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summer school day one

Tuesday 21st July.

The first day of the Summer School is a little bit like the pilot of a television programme. You are introduced to the genre. You have to get to know the characters. Major themes are established. There is enough action for you to understand what the rest of the series will be like and be interested in it. Something is left hanging at the end so you want to come back to the next episode.

So here’s how it went.

We started with Barby and Teresa reading to us about art/not art and the kinds of decisions that are made in keeping records of any kinds.

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Teresa on left, Barby on right.

The participants introduced themselves to each other using two objects – a personal and a professional object that they had brought with them. There are twenty six participants, twelve from overseas, three of whom are British teachers working abroad. They hail from Singapore, Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Portugal, Nederlands, Australia. Twenty of the participants work in schools. The others are primarily associated with galleries. Nearly everyone talked about having an art practice as well as teaching/educating/researching. Some found the division between the personal and professional difficult and spoke of significant blurring between the two.

Some major themes have been introduced throughout the day – the archive is social and is a living resource – it can be reenacted and re-read/relived; the personal is political; place is important in grounding memories and stories; art is a means of constructing archives of experience, particularly of those who would otherwise be invisible; there are interconnections of place, identity and culture. Barby and Teresa also talked about their own work with young people around these themes.

We did several activities after the introductions, through which these themes were discussed further.

(1) We listened to a text while making a clay object while also wearing a blindfold.

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(2) We were given an archive box into which we put our clay object. We were told that we would fill it throughout the week and that it was our archival tool box.

(3) We have the option of writing responses to the five questions that we were sent in the introductory letter. There is also a video diary option that we can use to register comments or concerns.

(4) We watched a slide presentations about the practice of the two school leaders, Barby and Teresa

(5) We went into the gallery to a room with two series of photographic portraits. We split into two groups and then into pairs. We were instructed not to read any of the curatorial material. One group looked at a series of images; many of the pairs generated questions to ask of the people in the portraits. The second group found an individual image that they were drawn to and looked to see what information they could deduce from the image.

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(6) We were introduced, via slide show, to thirty artists whose work was photographic portraiture.

(7) We had forty-five minutes to work with a partner to make a photographic self-portrait. These were then put into a slide show.

We were also given advance notice that we will be making gifs later in the week. There is a lot of basic kit about in the room and it is clear that we will be using it everyday.

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Looking at the exhibition and taking the self portrait brought some basic ethical questions (also those that are key to archiving) into the conversation – do you need permissions, what do you want to show, how do you want to be represented.

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Teresa making the slide show.

A short reflection at the end of the day included comments about how useful it is for teachers to be put into the position of learners – they/we re-experience the difficulty of being asked to do something that is hard or something that you don’t want to do because it makes you feel uncomfortable.

We were given homework – to take a selfie which we have to email to the workshop leaders before 9 am on Wednesday.

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tate summer school – expectations

This year’s Tate Summer School begins today. It is to be curated by Barby Ansante and Teresa Cisneros. Barby is an artist and Teresa a curator.

All participants have been sent a welcome letter about the programme. This year’s Summer School has a title Digging up the past: The politics of the archive. So there is something here about things being buried and needing to be unearthed – in order perhaps to intervene in the/an archive.

We have been told that Barby and Teresa have a

shared interest in interrogating the known order of art and artistic practice, and ideas of subjectivity and the archive as a site for artistic intervention,

and that the Summer School

will explore questions of how stories are told through contemporary art. The focus will be on the interventions artists make to tell stories that are not part of the cultural understanding of what is considered art.

We have been sent quite specific information about the purpose of the programme:

Five questions will underpin the activities of the workshop:

How can you rewrite a dominant narrative through art making?
How can we place ourselves and others at the centre of collective thinking / making / sharing / learning?
How does the personal and political inform the making of art?
How can the places we’re from or the places we live stimulate and inspire our making?
Can we reflect on, redefine and remix the archive?

During the week long course, the invitation will be to explore some of the galleries and collections in Tate Modern and Tate Britain through making and questioning. You will investigate the possibility of archive and collective action by exploring a variety of art practices, curatorial engagements and creating a personal archival tool box.

Now, this is not the first Summer School to explore the question of the archive. It was very much in focus during Summer School 2012, where activities were around live art – not only what it is and its history, but also the vexed question of how live art is recorded and preserved. But the archive also appeared in 2013 a couple of times:

Research Photos Summer School 2013. Larry Achiampong, making personal music archives.

I am expecting that we might consider a range of questions such as:

• What is archived? What is included and excluded? Who is included and excluded?
• Who decides? Why are decisions made in this way?
• In whose interests does this archiving work?
• How might it be otherwise?

• How is material recorded? How is it inscribed/transcribed/translated/re-written/interpreted?
• What is included and excluded through these practices?

• How is material in the archive preserved? In what media? What does this do to the material?

• What kinds of representations and narratives are produced through archiving practices?

• What steers are given to those who will use the archive? What support do they need in order to ‘read’ it?

• How is the archive stored? Where? Why?

• How can counter archives be made? Who will do this? When? Why? How? Where?

Well, these are my expectations. I haven’t got out my Derrida (Archive Fever) and re-read it, but maybe I won’t have to. Let’s see how many of these things are covered/challenged/bent out of shape and what surprises are in store.

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