Raksha and Grit: Crossing Boundaries – Barriers danced (Project process)
June 21st, 2010

Raksha: My initial attraction towards Interventions Project was a result of a hobbyist interest in design and modern art. With the project’s focus on initiating and encouraging a dialogue between social science and design practitioners, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to further this interest. I am also concerned with looking at the different ways of visualising and presenting my PhD research. This is not just to make it accessible to a larger variety of audiences but also to learn about the knowledge making exercise at large. My interactions with Grit, a communications designer, have helped me to turn a self-critical eye towards my claims as an interpreter and author in scholarship that is partial to the written word.

Grit: My interest in the Interventions project is rooted in the dialogue with social science. I am very excited about the process of the Interventions. Overall I feel that too much valuable knowledge and understanding is buried in academic drawers.

As a communication designer I am interested in engaging with people in various stages and levels, involving my skills to visualise complexity, making abstract thought tangible, emotionally engage, inform and uplift. I am looking to put greater emphasis on the process and exchange of thought, skills and knowledge.

Meeting and working with Raksha, a social scientist and human geographer, has been eye-opening in many ways. Her insights have been enriching and every meeting inspiring.

For me the value and beauty of combining expertise knowledge and skills – in our case those of social science and design – is to create knowledge and understanding and new experiences.

The dance-sketch (kaleidoscope)

The process

Raksha: We began our project by initiating a dialogue through emails where we exchanged examples of our work. This involved sections of my PhD thesis and Grit’s design portfolio with samples of her work and exhibits. The actual dialogue only began in the three day work shop at Newcastle University where we finally got to meet.

This was marked by some intense discussion ranging in themes from our common interests to our lives as migrants in Britain. It soon became clear that we did have some shared interests however what was more difficult to grapple with was what is it that we wanted to present as part of the project. Defining and sharpening the focus was the most challenging part.

I discovered that I am conditioned and regimented by my disciplinary background to a much larger extent than I had realised.

We drafted some four ideas as potential research projects. They are all united in themes dealing with the dynamism inherent in identity positions. Our focus was more inclined towards exploring this in the case of migrant identities which was also part of my PhD research.

Grit: The initial exchange of work, sections of Raksha’s Phd thesis and samples of my design work, via email formed an interesting starting point before we first met in person for a three day workshop. I was very intrigued. My initial worry about a conflict deriving from my clichéd western-eyed view on the problematic involved in arranged marriages turned into a fascinating dialogue on the active nature and dynamics of traditions and identities, focusing on South-Asians in Britain.

The overlaps of interests we’ve discovered along both of our previous work were very exciting and I enjoyed our conversations. I was fascinated by the beauty of the words Raksha was using to build her arguments. Amongst very complicated terminology Raksha uses beautiful visual words with great poesy, ‘lens’ being one of them.

Even though our approaches are quite different the parallels we found asking the question: How do we create knowledge together? are fascinating. We looked at our methodologies – Raksha, as social scientist and myself as communication designer, bringing up the following basic steps of our general process:

1. All starts with something capturing our interest or imagination, followed by a question: what is the impact?

2. How do we translate this interest into a research – design project? What are the questions rising up around this interest subject? We are looking to find out more and to define the aim and objectives for this project.

3. How do we find answers?

We define: the framework – the medium and style. In Raksha’s words we are defining the lens to focus or magnify. The lens is picked by the assumptions we have, by our knowledge and how we gained our knowledge & our believe systems. We are borrowing existing theories – designs to understand and than explain. From there we can go further to explore and tap into new territory and to create new theories – designs.

4. We collect data:

In the form of interviews, observations, diaries, drawing, by being in their everyday life (= ethnographic research), by visiting according places, observing habits, patterns, colours, movements, materials, (visual references) – the methods are united by the idea that we learn more about the subject.

5. What translates the raw data: into a thesis – into a design?

What is the organizing device that helps us to create a story that speaks back? We are coding the raw data – putting TAGS, Memos, highlighting words; grouping elements to their features, filtering layers of materiality, structure, pattern, symbolics, colour, defining the visual key that opens the doors, leading us to the hook that pulls all details and holds the red thread

6. What is the output? Here we realize the biggest difference:

For Raksha, a social scientist, the output will ‘always’ be something to read. Her visualization will be in the form of words with the expectation for people to make an effort to read. Her construction of knowledge is geared towards something written.

For me, as a designer, the output can manifest itself in a number of forms and medias, Always choosing the media that best supports the purpose, brings the best experience and be most engaging. It will always be something visual and to experience.

The aim and objective might change in the process.

Great excitement turned into great struggle defining our focus in what we wanted to present as part of this project. This was by far the most challenging part. We were looking to create something that stands and lives in the exhibition context, and also forms a potential base for further explorations. It’s been exciting to explore and find ‘common ground’ together.

We drafted four ideas as potential research projects. All evolving around the active nature and the dynamics of hyphenated identities and evolving tradition with the focus on South Asians in Britain,  informing and shaping our exhibition piece.

Patterns and directions (Bricklane, London)

Idea 1

Inviting the concept of arranged marriage into the western culture, highlighting that arrangements and practicalities are part of any partnership and so part of love marriages as well as love and romance can be found in arranged marriages – at the same time visualising the complexity, the multi-layered and also problematic nature of this practice.

Idea 2

What are our tools? (to live and to make sense) — the tool of our origin & the tools of the culture we chose to live in? This looked at visualising the significance of context in making meaning when it comes to cultural symbols and ‘tools’. It also ties in with our interest in material cultures and their significance in inventing traditions.

Sketch: Shiva, a major Hindu deity, and the transformer of the Trimurti, the Hindu Trinity of the primary aspects of the divine, holding western style cutlery, knife and fork (instead of trident and drum)

Idea 3

This was focused on how boundaries and barriers within the discourse on multiculturalism in Britain can be re-visualised through the framework of invented traditions and fluid identities. We assembled our conception of barriers into:

a) barriers that we cannot cross

b) barriers that we can cross

c) barriers that we can change.

The idea here was to highlight the point that identity positions are subjective and reflexive. A willingness and open mindedness on our part will define what ‘type’ (a,b or c) a barrier is and to what degree it can be crossed or negotiated.

Tape sketch collage pattern using British and Indian national flag colours

Stencil photograph by akav, Copenhagen

Red-white barrier tape.

Idea 4

Which role does language play?

Looking at the role of language, as coding system, to transmit information and define the way we think of ourselves and the world, the future, the past, the present. Ideas, structures, barriers are inherent in language. We think of developing symbols that brought together features from the Roman and Devanagari script, conveying the idea of cultural hybridity and Homi Bhabha’s conception of ‘the third space’.

Bi-lingual signage

Image 11: shop font signage

The Indian Type Foundry (ITF) attempts to give as much attention to Non-Latin as to Latin fonts. Their first typeface project is Devanagari. Fedra Hindi, a Devanagari companion to Fedra Sans – by Peter Bilak & SN Rajpurohit of The Indian Type Foundry.


Sketch: ambersand, hyphen, Devanāgarī’s distingtive horizontal bar as icon of cultural hybridity.

Exhibition Piece

Finally, all these ideas were feeding into our exhibition piece called Crossing boundaries: Barriers danced. It employs the metaphor of dance in order to highlight the interstitial passage between fixed identity positions.

The exhibition piece focuses on active engagement of the audience in the theme, and the dynamics of migrant hybrid identity. The subject can be experienced with the efforts, tensions, joys and struggles involved in the negotiation and evolution of migrant identities. The dance is an experience and tool rather than a passive observation.

Our dialogue and ping pong in developing the exhibition piece, even though we missed a few balls in between, was very inspiring and interesting. Our final chosen dance-style references the traditional bamboo dance “Cheraw”, from Mizoram, India.

(you tube)

Bamboo dancers, Philipines

Discussed cultural symbols from Britain und India forming the patterns in the footprint, examples: fish’n’chips.

Rangoli* photograph in Hampi India by Paul Prudence

*A rangoli is a traditional Indian chalk drawn geometric pattern. These complex symmetrical patterns are constructed by connecting a matrix of dots in a systematic way. They are usually drawn on the front veranda of Indian households.

After watching several clips of the traditional “Cheraw”, we were ready to sketch out and test the dance steps.

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