“Visuality, culture, methods: Exploring the aesthetics of possibilities” course with Sarah Pink, Annette Markham and Anne Marit Waade

My stay in Denmark has been full of pleasant surpises: a couple weeks ago I ran into one of the kindest humans I’ve met at Aarhus thusfar – Anne Marit Waade – who asked me about my research. In hearing about my mish-mash of Visual Cultures- meets HCI – meets Media Studies – research, she suggested that I join this research course – titled “Visual Cultures, Visual Methods” facilitated by Sarah Pink, Anette Markham and Anne Marit herself.

In Anette’s words:

“Visual culture encompasses more than the study of images or the use of visual methods. It takes as its premise the idea that the way people experience their reality goes well beyond the material or the textual. The perspective of visual culture turns our attention toward the centrality of visual experience in everyday life. This course considers the conceptual premises for visual sensemaking and focuses on methods of analysis and interpretation that challenge text-centric approaches. Particularly in contemporary mediatized contexts, seemingly endless streams of images, sounds, and fragments of information characterize and constitute social life. How do we make sense of visual expressions or visual aspects of culture? How do we use visual methods or more broadly, how do we challenge methods that rely on (or were designed for) the analysis of texts? What does a ‘visual culture’ approach look like in practice? The goal of this course is to explore these questions theoretically, discuss case studies, and also practice methods through experimental exercises and assignments.”

The idea was to host a very hands-on visual culture methods course where we would go out into the field and learn how to use/perceive/play with visual methods with three experts in the field. Our chosen sites? A beautiful seaside exhibition called “Sculptures by the sea” and a music festival called “Northside” hosted in Aarhus itself.

On the first day we attended a series of lectures by our academic “parents” and had the opportunity to speak about ourselves and our work. It was really illuminating to be able to discuss approaches with all three scholars. But, as I soon realized they were very fond of doing, we were thrown into the deep end: Annette divided us into groups, and we were given the task of coming up with a research question and conducting field work at “Sculptures by the Sea” that very afternoon. My teammates – Janus and Helena – and I started a bit late (due to complications with a bus and my sense of direction). When I had arrived, they had decided to research the way other people create themselves in response to the artworks and the perceived gaze of the public – through image construction. In other words, how were they taking photos/videos with themselves in relation to art.

Taking that as departure point, we really thought about image-making as a cultural engagement. In this display, human bodies activate the artworks, turning the promenade into an extended “canvass” or gallery space. How do the people see each other interacting with the artworks, and how do they recreate these works by imposing themselves into the composition? Initially we were trigger happy and ran around shooting people while they were shooting other people. Contemplating on the meaning-making processes that happen in real-time, in relation to the art display.

Yet, this didn’t sit too well with me, and I “problematized” this mode of data collection.

Being from South Africa and all, I objected strongly to the idea of just running into field and taking photographs of absolute strangers without their consent. My worry was met with a “huh?” – and I realized that the power of the gaze, and the systemic power of the researcher/researcher is just not as visible or considered in Denmark. Here, you can photograph and disseminate images of anyone if they appear in a public space. A place like Sculptures by the sea really becomes a kind-of panopticon, where everyone is watching everyone, watching themselves.

As researchers, what are the ethics of documenting these interactions? How do we justify documenting people without their knowledge, for purposes yet unknown to us? If this is a formal academic course, what are the implications of bringing involuntary participants into our analysis? Into the discussion space?

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For a while we stopped taking photographs.For the first half of the day we discussed these thorny issues – how do we not paralyze ourselves as researchers? collect rich data, while remaining aware of privacy issues? How do we preserve the activity, without compromising our ethics – especially when our participants are unaware of their participation. I suggested anonymization, this in itself created a very interesting visual aesthetic:

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While we were grappling with the ethics, it was fascinating to see so many cameras out. Most people were perceiving these giant sculptures through the mediated interface of phone or camera. They were giving a frame to the artworks, and turning these moments into consumable snapshots for publics who are not co-located. Looking at themselves, as others looking at them. Consuming and producing visual culture.

This sousveillance offset our surveillance. Having our cameras out and taking photos in these spaces wasn’t invasive. More people had phones in their hands than not.

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When we changed our mode of data collection in the later half of the day. From camera’s to more traditional modes of data collection: Observational drawing, fieldnote-taking, and mapping out spaces. This activity actually drew more attention. We were still, while all the people were moving around us. We watched the consumption of the images, reflected on the situation, and interpreted these moments on paper. A few people stopped to look over our shoulders at what we were doing. Us taking ourselves out of the “scene”, became more disruptive than our utilization of the invisible camera eye, which is quite at home in this ecology.

IMG_0718This process did allow us to reflect on many other aspects of this exhibition experience. Janus took notes trying to understand what people were feeling and thinking while documenting the space. Soon we were following the hashtags on instagram. How did his projected stories map us to people’s own stories? What were the ethics of this? Allowing social networks such as instagram to dictate the terms of engagement? Could we use these?

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At the end of the day we had many different modes of data collection. Anonymized photographs, photos of ourselves, illustrations, graphs, notes, and social network posts. Spoke to how the public activated and reproduced these sculptures as their own.

We were left with the question: How do we get participation from the public on their own terms? Started thinking around interesting ways of doing this as an experiment at Northside.

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Thursday we presented this work back to the class, and had a few presentations from our academic rents. Annette spoke around ethics in visual research – and suggested a number of strategies for dealing with these issues. I was appeased.

Soon, we set off for Northside. The idea was that we had to discuss our themes/research questions with the lecturers, and have meetings at the festival each day so that we could talk around any issues that arose.

our team decided that we would look at how the people at the festival produced visuality. In other words, how are the people contributing, making, remixing, reproducing the visual aesthetics of the festival, and how that visual identity is particular/unique.

The first day was absolutely beautiful – the sun was out, everyone was dressed in summery clothes. Janus and I grabbed a sunny spot, drank some beers, and took notes. Helena was off looking at people too. But from the get go we decided that we would not be able to always be together. Especially as we were music fans, that also just really wanted to see the bands.

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Eventually, the festival swept me away, and at 2am I walked home, in the exact opposite direction of where my lodgings were located, and spent about 2 and a half hours wandering the street of Aarhus – covering nearly 12 km, and falling into my bed at 4:30.

The second day we continued our work, this time with slightly less enthusiasm – the weather played an integral part. Instead of all the hippie attire we saw on the first day – the Coachella of Europe. People were all dressed in black, and when the sky broke open over noon, everyone threw black plastic rain covers over their clothes. Suddenly this immensely sunny festival looked like it was a meeting place for Dementors.

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I lasted until about 8pm. After a band (who were great) called Wolf Alice, played to a very wet crowd, I decided to rest my head at home.

Sunday was more of the same, this time the weather was up and down. And the mood was slightly demure – not the same enthusiasm as the Friday. The grounds had turned muddy from the previous day’s showers, and the concert goers could clearly feel it was the end. The next day, life would continue as normal.

And so, after watching Ben Howard, and a bit of Black Keys. I fell in the road again.

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Monday morning we collated our data. But to try and stuff all of the data that we had collected (100 GB’s of movies and photos) into one concrete shape in less than two hours proved beyond difficult. I felt mad at myself for not taking more field notes, for not being more present in thinking around what I was documenting. The comfort that a camera offers you is that you feel as if you can always return, you can always go over it again – but then the moment is gone, and you won’t ever really know what you experienced exactly at the moment that it was taken. This reminded me of Sarah’s talk on sensory data collection. The smells and sounds, and light, and mood are equally strong ways to remember and to recollect.

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On the last day of our workshop, we reported our findings back to the organizers of the Northside Festival and to the organizers of the Aarhus Culture Capital 2017 award. It was fantastic to see how we could, through a giant library of visuals give them a sense of our experiences of the festival, and turn these back into concrete suggestions, or provocations for future events such as this. It was also interesting to see their responses – often as researchers we forget that many cultural events have a very strong economic aspect to it – and at the end of the day, making a music festival is very much a capitalist venture.

After we took questions, the guests disappeared and we reminisced about what we had learned during the course. Annette had a methods where each of us had a “brain dump” in other word – we wrote everything that we had felt and saw in a 20 minute session. With white text on a white screen – so you can’t go back and change things. You’re literally forced to think forward.

My “dump” (heehee) looked like this:

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and I have to say – I’m a pretty big fan of this method. Thinking back this is pretty much one of the things that I constantly did during my research – late night thoughts, just speed-typed into random like text documents. As you can see, we highlighted some of the most prominent points.

To me, the workshop really helped me think around the design aspects of my research. As media scholars – we tend to think around what is there. We look at the world through artefacts, we analyse and position them. We speak of the past, and we speak to the future. But with my research I have done both this, and I have thought around how to affect the future. So not just looking at what’s there, but thinking around what’s not there. What is missing?

I also really liked the idea of knowledge production as a remix. It allows me to position the work that I’ve done as many parts that have become a new whole. It also offsets some of the discomfort I’ve felt as a traditional academic – following this very colonial notion of what it means to be educated, what it means to be “the watcher”.

All in all, this was one of the coolest experiences of my stay in Aarhus so far.

Thanks to Anne Marit, Annette and Sarah. And also thank you for the amazing food – a welcome break from 2 minute noodleville.

Til next year!

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