Posted by Joe | June 29th, 2010

Dr Alison J Williams & Nelly Ben Hayoun

Aerial Geographies

This project is based on Alison’s research into the geographies of UK military airspaces. These spaces are hidden zones of military control and power projection. They are used by the UK’s military air forces to train for combat situations. Their use is controlled by the Civil Aviation Authority, which oversees the management of these spaces and creates the UK air charts, which depict the uses that airspaces can be put to. One of the fascinating things about these airspaces is that they exist in four dimensions; they are three-dimensional volumes of space that can be activated at different times. However, aviators only have two-dimensional air charts to look at to ‘see’ these spaces, so they have to be able to translate these mappings into three-dimensions in their minds to be able to fly safely.

The idea behind this project was to creatively use interviews conducted by Alison with a number of UK military aviators as a starting point from which we could question the nature of UK airspaces. One of the aims of these interviews was to uncover the hidden geographies of these spaces. This centred upon discussions on how these users perceive and imagine the complex geometries of the spaces through which they fly. Most significantly, these interviews illustrated the extent to which airspaces are enacted through the movement of aircraft through them. In this project we are interested in exploring how this renders airspace as performed, with the mechanical and human elements of aviation enacting individual airspaces. These ideas developed into the foci of this project, which are about making these invisible airspaces visible to a broad audience, enabling this expert knowledge to be more widely accessible to non-experts, and illustrating the performances that enact airspaces.

Photos by Nick Ballon

Enacting the Invisible

This project seeks to make the spaces through which aircraft fly visible. It achieves this through the construction of a vertical object that empowers us to enact control of these spaces.
During the early years of aviation aircraft flew at relatively low altitudes. However, laws existed that gave landowners ownership of the entirety of the vertical space above the footprint of their house, including the air. This led to a myriad of problems for aviators and landowners who became locked in legal battles over payment for access to these spaces.

More recently, wind farms have become a contentious issue. Environmentalists seemingly either protest their building in areas of natural beauty, or cry out for their erection to reduce our dependence of fossil fuels and nuclear power. The aviation community, however, dislikes wind farms because their production of radar white noise creates ‘no fly-zones’ in the air.

This project synthesises these ideas, to propose an activism approach that focuses upon the idea of being able to generate and activate your own airspace though the deployment of a personalised wind farm. The project involves the creation of both the wind farm and an audio locator. The locator amplifies the sound of an aircraft engine, which enables the wind farm owner to hear an aircraft at a distance and erect the wind farm in time to prevent the aircraft flying overhead. This creates a form of mechanical imperialism by enabling the control of an individual airspace.

Can airspaces be owned and activated by the public? What is the size of the airspace you can own? How can we employ wind farms in a way that disrupts conventional understandings of their use?

Posted by Joe | June 29th, 2010

Rob Phillips and Ximena Cordova

A Guiding Light: Faith, the Festive and the Mine

The weekend before Lent, the city of Oruro (Bolivia) is the setting for its most awaited celebration: a danced Carnival parade.

Carnival was imported from Spain with the conquest of the Andes and was juxtaposed over existing indigenous rituals marking the start of the potato harvest. One can still discern different cultural backgrounds present, as seen in the ritual burning of offerings, or the oath to the Virgin of Candlemas that Carnival dancers make for the parade.
Spanish authorities founded the town of Oruro in 1606 after the ‘discovery’ of silver deposits near a mountain range sacralised by local people. The city’s growth was fuelled by the mining trade. During Carnival, enslaved indigenous miners danced as a way to thank Andean deities and the Virgin Mary for the mineral.

Today, Carnival is no longer fuelled by mining practices after the traders that used to supply the mine with goods – meat, candles and coca leaves – renewed the tradition and gave it a new life. The social composition of its actors has changed radically, including the upper and middle classes, who, since the 1940s, have practically appropriated the celebration, displacing miners and others of lower means.

From this complex cultural landscape, Ximena and Rob decided to focus on making an object to serve a practical purpose. We wanted to acknowledge Carnival’s history and make something for the precarious conditions of the mine.

The concept of ‘light’ was our instigator: dancers refer to faith in the Virgin as a ‘light’ that guides them.

“Dancers look at the Virgin to get strength. On the one hand she has a candle, on the other she has God.” (Priest of Oruro)
Also, a miner’s light is paramount to their safety.
“We have spent unscheduled nights inside the mine’s total darkness.”
(Hector, professional miner)
A guiding light became a miner’s light.

Photo by Nick Ballon

Complex Cultural Issue on a Utilitarian Level

Most silver seams require underground mining. The mine inside San José mountain (Oruro) comprises old pillars and structures, creating passages. The only source of light, the primary source of work and safety, is an attachment on miners’ helmets. The technology available at the Cooperativa Multiactiva Corazón de Jesús was neither long-lasting nor reliable.

Miners descend on a lift which has a tendency to break down and frequently have to spend up to 24 hours underground in a dangerous environment, where dynamite is often used.
As a response to this context, Ximena and Rob developed two proposals for the polar opposites. The first proposal is for Bolivian silver miners, who rely on illumination for work, life and health. The mine provides financial support for the community so efficiency, safety, independence of tools and refurbishment are paramount. Conversations with Cooperativa Multiactiva Corazón de Jesús directed the detailing and function of the object. There are three important design constraints: it must operate in total darkness, be inexpensive to make and repair and give long-lasting illumination.

An illuminating object is conventionally developed to be turned on in an isolated dark environment. User considerations dictate this to be reversed; during any failure or miscomprehension, the object should remain on, illuminating this environment. The mechanical functions are enlarged for gloved workers; an internal switch also allows illuminated battery replacement. The product has been considered to allow self-repair and the notion of remote on-site manufacture has informed the detail, aesthetic and components.

The second proposal is aimed at mass production, the idea of a torch that, when disturbed, will automatically turn on, illuminating the immediate area. Taking the miners’ concept and re-appropriating it for the everyday. The language of the objects has addressed basic need with sensibilities toward orientation, functionality, product language and tactile detail. The representation of the objects reflects details that users tend to take for granted … objects that function, even in failure.

Posted by Joe | June 29th, 2010

Dr Cathrine Degnen and Michiko Nitta

Photo by Nick Ballon

Relating To and Relating With Nature

Cathrine and Michiko have a shared interest in the relationships people forge with and through nature. We are also both provoked by questions about whose knowledge and expertise comes to ‘count’ socially. As a speculative designer, Michiko seeks to challenge and disorient her audience’s assumptions in order to open opportunities for future change. As an ethnographer, Cathrine seeks to recalibrate her own assumptions via the worldviews of the people she works with in order to better understand cultural processes and everyday experiences.

While we have both previously conducted research that feeds into this current project, we have focused here on ethnographic data collected by Cathrine when she worked with British gardeners. This research sought to contextualise British debates over genetically modified food by asking about grounded knowledge: how do people with everyday knowledge about plants and about growing food make sense of genetic modification?

Initial stages of this research led to a host of related questions: How do gardeners conceptualise and understand the plants they work with? How is this expertise built, developed, and shared? How can we explain the ways in which gardening practice insists on reciprocal parallels between human bodies and intentionality and those of plants? While gardeners do not equate humans with plants, plants are incorporated into a worldview that is not straightforwardly dividable into ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. Indeed, this research revealed a number of mutually implicating parallels between plants and people in both the English language and in gardening practice and knowledge. The research demonstrated the highly social and autobiographical aspects of gardening and plants, encompassing a writing of social relations, memory, experience, and personal history onto individual plants and gardens. Consequently, the relationships evoked between humans and plants in gardening practice, knowledge and technique surpass a simple ‘human-other’ divide of Western ontology.

Seeding Knowledge

Plant Life is comprised of two related design objects: Let’s Grow a Plant Together and Optostirps. Both projects were created to involve people in the natural world via gardening but in ways new to them. Both projects also draw on vernacular ideas about plants and gardening in British culture that emerged from the research described above, and employ them as foundational principles.

Let’s Grow a Plant Together is a collaborative plant growing and learning experience for beginner gardeners. Gardening is deeply social: gardeners learn through trial and error, but also through sharing success stories and problems with each other. Beginner gardeners however often have difficulty accessing this knowledge. To solve this problem, this project created three teams of beginner gardeners in London and Newcastle and invited them to grow a plant from seed together. Each team has a blog where members post pictures and comment daily on the plant. Team members were provided with each other’s contact details, a pot, soil, seeds, and no other information. The project has brought individual team members and the three teams into a network as they can observe each other’s progress, dilemmas, and solutions.

Optostirps is a project working with established gardeners. It offers the chance to open up discussions on the potential futures of gardening and plants by asking gardeners to imagine what sorts of wishes could be expressed via plants. Optostirps plays on the classification conventions of plants in the Western world whereby all known plants have two Latin names. The radish is, for example, Raphanus sativus. Raphanus is the plant’s genus name and sativus is its species name. Optostirps, or “I wish plant”, is the genus name for this collection of future plants. Each plant also has a corresponding species name that reflects the issues raised by the gardener consulted.

Posted by Joe | June 29th, 2010

Grit Hartung and Dr Raksha Pande

Wedded to Traditions? Arranged Marriages and South Asians in Britain.

The design stems from my PhD research which examined the motivations, performances and discourses of arranged marriage among the South Asian population of Britain. This research destabilises the image of arranged marriage as a practice in need of change and updating to a western form of kinship. The discourse of arranged marriage is employed by British Asians to not only further their ties of kinship but also to reflect and construct their identity narratives of being Asian and British. The subversion, translation and reworking of the ways in which arranged marriage is performed points not to a new, better, western or modern form of the practice but to a discourse that is uniquely British Asian.

My research concludes that the enunciation of discourses of arranged marriage occupy a space that is neither inside nor outside the minority and majority cultures but is at a tangential and ambivalent relation to them. An acknowledgment of the fluid, hybrid and dynamic nature of identities sets up the possibility of imagining a cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy. Finally, I propose that instead of using the yardstick of hegemonic norms to reify and judge minority cultural practices one needs to regard them as part of Britain, as another thread, among many, that is woven in the tapestry of British culture. The associations of identity with nationality, ethnicity, religion or culture are all imagined and as such can be reimagined in the context of a globalising world.

Crossing Boundaries: Barriers Danced
In order to visualise the interstitial passage between fixed identifications and their dynamic negotiation we have employed the metaphor of dance. The dance supports the active nature of migrant identities. The footprints create a dance pattern which invites the audience to experience and reflect on the tensions and negotiations (risk, effort, struggle, courage and guilt) that are involved in the evolution of migrant identities. The individual patterns on the footprints borrow British and Indian symbols. They are interwoven to form a new design which highlights the processes of hybridity – a Fish ‘n’ Chips rangoli and a Lion spiral. These are colour coded with reference to the national flag colours of the UK and India. The patterns are presented in a zoom in and zoom out configuration in order to stress the importance of distance, both cultural and geographical, in our perception of the meaning and value attached to cultural artefacts.

The dance steps follow the style of a traditional North East Indian dance called Cheraw from the state of Mizoram. It employs bamboo poles to create patterns which dancers jump and hop over. The dancers follow the rhythm produced by the tapping of bamboo poles. We have replaced the bamboo with barrier and hazard tape in order to invite the audience to reflect on the psychological barriers that hinder cultural interaction. Their incorporation in a dance which invites participation is in aid of highlighting the fact that all forms of cultural negotiation involve crossing and jumping barrier but they do not necessarily presuppose the eradication of a cultural practice or artefact altogether. The possibility of improvisation that mediums such as dance and music offer also emphasizes the invented nature of traditions.

Posted by Joe | June 29th, 2010

Prof. Alastair Bonnett. Professor of Social Geography, Dr Catherine Alexander and Dane Whitehurst

Memories of Place

The research project focuses on urban memory, nostalgia and use of the city amongst ex-residents of Tyneside. The research is premised on the idea that, in an era marked by the large-scale movement of people away from the city, it is necessary to connect memory, place and migration. How do memories of the place we once called ‘home’ shape the way we use that place today? Do we feel connected to the places we have left and how do those connections matter? The project investigates how memory and nostalgia shape both the representation of the city and the way it is accessed and used by ex-residents.

Recent years have witnessed a re-orientation in debates about migration and memory. A new openness to the complexities and chronic nature of emotions of loss, especially as applied to loss of place, has emerged to challenge the orthodoxy that nostalgia is necessarily uncreative, conservative and/or ephemeral. At the same time, issues of migration and ethnicity have begun to be discussed in ways that allow the plurality and intimate histories of the topic to be explored. These two research trajectories are relatively new and the proposed research is designed to facilitate this interaction.
In-depth interviews and mind mapping techniques will be used to gather empirically deep and historically rich data. Mental mapping has traditionally been used to develop a better understanding of the differences between official cartographic space and how people actually perceive and use the city. The proposed research takes this approach further by asking respondents to mentally map the city of the present and of the past. Alastair and Catherine are particularly interested to uncover whether ex-residents see themselves as having a continued stake in the city, and whether they approach it with mixed emotions. The research will generate material that will be publicly archived at the Regional Resource Centre at Beamish Museum.

Seeing the Past in the Present

Alastair, Catherine and Dane’s design brief for the found object was very much based upon the premise of active nostalgia – that nostalgia is something that actively impacts on how we perceive and interpret the city. In this way, we wanted to materialise the idea that nostalgia is something that is very much ‘carried’ with people in their everyday lives.

As such, we wanted to design something based upon explaining, encouraging and enabling participants in the research project – and other ex-residents of Tyneside – to explore the geography of their own nostalgia. Our design brief, then, was to produce a ‘tool kit’ which will allow people to explore the city in a new way: one that takes full account of their history and past memories of living in the city.

The explorers’ kit comprises of several objects commonly associated with the activity of exploring. These objects have each been mutated in some way so as to narrate their additional functionality as means to discuss people’s perceptions of nostalgia, memory and place. The binoculars have been reworked to incorporate a slide-viewer into the left eye-piece. This allows people to insert historical images of specific sites within the city and overlay them against the view of the modern day. We like the idea that people will revisit these sites and project their own histories, memories and stories and make comparisons between the past and present. The compass is designed not to point north as would usually be expected: but as an emotional aid to enable people to explore the geography of their own nostalgia, by indicating the direction of the places they feel the most emotionally attached to. Thus it is weighted towards the specific ‘hotspots’ of the city as revealed by the empirical research.
We are also exploring the potential of compiling the ‘mind maps’ of individuals into an ‘emotional intensity’ map of the region. This, again, is emotionally ‘weighted’ to represent ‘hotspots’ of the area. In this way sites of particular nostalgia will be disproportionally enlarged, rather than geographically representative.

Photos by Nick Ballon

Posted by Joe | June 29th, 2010

Ben Singleton, Stuart Munro and Dr Yvette Taylor

Photo by Nick Ballon

Educational Inequality

Yvette’s research in journals such as ‘Education Review’, ‘British Journal of the Sociology of Education’, ‘Gender and Education’ has empirically explored the themes of educational inclusion, investigating initial access routes into university and the ways inequalities often endure beyond the university door. Extracts from interviews across her C-SAP and British Academy funded projects are exhibited rather differently here, enabling these to extend beyond the academic page. This research enables a critical perspective on issues of ‘diversity’ and ‘internationalisation’ resonating with Yvette’s administrative responsibilities (Admissions Officer), where university criteria and policies are negotiated and regulated.

Accessions began with Yvette, Ben and Stuart thinking through how we arrived at university. In those journeys we mapped our dis-locations: geographical, emotional and material barriers had to be stepped over but, having ‘arrived’, were theses were now smoothed over and solved? Our (non)academic selves and subject matters were complicated in re-telling the inside, in and through a sense of the outside: the rhetorical appeal of ‘widening participation’ and the reality of elitism; the drive of public engagement and the economies of impact; the complexities and complicities between power, privilege and (dis)engagement.

Taking a tour around campus rendered many places suddenly strange: the pictorial cordon around a development site already branded the university, depicting its future and its audiences. We felt rather unfamiliar and unknowing in the centralised student services building: its glassy transparent façade was countered by not knowing where to go (no signage) and if we were allowed to be there? Hesitancies continued in walking through campus, realising too the lack of children and older people. Perhaps they had not seen themselves depicted on the cordon? Perhaps they had not yet been targeted or selected… What would it mean to tell stories of various arrivals, successes and failures? What would it mean to open up space beyond the numerical appraisal of ‘diversity’?

Educational (E)quality

Initial ideas revolved around redesigning the UCAS (University Central Admissions Service) form, which enables students to represent themselves – their grades, achievements, and ambitions – to the university. We asked if this form, which contains a series of demarcated boxes to tick, write-in and fill-up, overlaid with bureaucratic codes (circles for school area, squares for mature status and so on) could be stretched or even distorted, in order to allow different stories. But we were cautious about trying to create a casual satire or a new-and-improved form that would have its own problems. So we asked broader questions about doing university differently: What if access was automatic, rather than monitored? What would the city look like if it was run by academics? What would ‘community engagement’ be like if the local citizenry was versed in Foucault, Bourdieu, Butler?

This pushed us towards other ideas, even as the pressure to respond to them with a final, exhibited product intensified. We considered what ‘waste’ is generated in the space of one academic day; what would be given up forever in shredding outcomes and paper trails? We came to see ‘university space’ as what Stuart calls a ‘sensing and sensual environment’, a kind of fog, sea or twilight where data, postures and attitudes continually condense and evaporate – a zone with definite, but not always easily articulated, boundaries and limits. We felt that in what we made, issues of participation, diversity, impermanence, apprehension, and transgression should be integral. The central figure of the work became that reusable staple of educational environments, the blackboard, as a space to combine Yvette’s research with the architectural and procedural interests of Ben and Stuart. This is now offered to an audience that can erase our own images and words: participation as an always ongoing, provisional, contested exercise rather than a completed output.

Posted by Joe | June 25th, 2010

Please join us for the Interventions exhibition ExLibris Gallery at Newcastle University, from 29th June – 7th July.

Posted by Joe | June 25th, 2010

Catherine and Alastair are both working on a research project on urban nostalgia, which is indicating that there are specific ‘hotspots’ in the city that are common to many people’s memories and nostalgia for Tyneside. The interventions collaboration very much wanted to use these ‘hotspots’ as a key focus for work produced.

Dane’s design expertise centres upon found objects, and he had gained a thorough understanding of the intention of the academic research before we met. Dane had already come up with some clear design ideas which offered specific ways that the research could be materialised into objects. Given the preliminary stage of the research project, this also worked to extended and imaginatively remap the academics’ perception of the research into alternative forms of popular creative participation.
In a sense, this combination of focus, flexibility and expertise quickly overcame any initial anxieties or preconceptions that we had of each other before our initial meeting; and made it much easier for us to get focussed on a specific design brief almost immediately.

During our first three-day collaborative meeting, we were also at the advantage of being able to take Dane on a walking tour of the area that the research was focussed upon, and to engage in intensive debates about the culture of the research. Catherine described and explained a number of ‘mind maps’ drawn by participants from their memories of Tyneside from the present and past. Dane also had the opportunity to accompany Catherine – and to take part – in interviewing 2 participants and observing their mind-mapping sessions.

This intensive introductory period allowed us ample opportunity for relaxed reflection and engagement with the importance of memory in the city, and of the landscapes that are hooked in people’s minds and that that draw them or repel them. These ideas formed the centre of our subsequent conversations – how to design a found object from the concept of memory that is so abstract, so immaterial and yet has such a continuous and powerful presence in the way we use and navigate the city. There was something fun and challenging about that translation, or synthesis, from the abstract to the concrete. We have talked about this in a personal way as well, what our memories are and how this shapes what we do. So the project isn’t just about us looking at others, but is shot through with our own stories.