Friday, 6 September 2013

Praxis and Poetics – Day 1

The Praxis and Poetics: Research Through Design conference held in Newcastle upon Tyne and Gateshead, UK, September 3-5 2013. The conference format was unconventional it placed emphasis on  practitioner research, by inviting participants to submit a short paper (4 pages) accompanied by a design object that forms part of their research practice. The inclusion of the design objects, rather than a standard 'long paper' format, convinced me to make the epic journey from Sydney in the middle of a teaching semester. Previous design conferences I've attended and in conference proceedings I've read, the limitation on images/video of the design research process and final design objects always strikes me as an insufficient way to articulate a research practice that involves making – these more traditional conference and publishing models are geared toward theoretical research where a few images may suffice, but explaining practitioner research requires more showing as part of the telling. The research objects were installed as an exhibition at the conference venue, available for viewing (and touching/listening/interacting with) throughout the conference. Jayne Wallace and Joyce Yee's introduction states: 
As designers, practitioners and researchers the things that we make and the practice by which we do so is central to what we do and who we are. […] Through placing an exhibition at the heart of the conference we aim to bring the materiality of the physical artefacts and media that we produce to the fore in the conference forum.
Exhibited were an eclectic collection of artefacts – 3D printing was ever present, as were garment with sections resembling architectural skins. I found many of the objects indecipherable beyond an aesthetic level without context – hearing about the research or processes they were a product of. For me, the design objects were most valuable as a retrospective reflective tool. Being able to touch and interact with the things allowed me to better understand the design process and outcome.

Below are more general reflections, followed by responses to specific presentations. 

General reflections
Anxiety around practitioner-research seems universal, which is a relief and a problem. In several sessions, staff who were employed in universities before research was mandatory for all academics questioned where people find the time to do research, in a tone suggesting research is considered an unfair burden added to an already heavy workload. Hopefully through listening to practitioner researchers talk through research projects, this anxiety begins to ease. That said, during the conference Abbott's Liberal party announced plans to cut nine-hundred thousand dollars of ‘wasteful’ and ‘ridiculous’ research grants from the Australian Research Council and redirect that money to the health sector. In case the adjectives weren’t brutal enough, they named actual projects as proof to the public that their tax dollars were being wasted by intellectual hedonists. Considering I presented work that’s part of a collaboration with my colleague Kate Sweetapple called Unlikely Avian Taxonomies, there is no question where our research sits on Abbot's scale of worthy-to-wasteful. Intrinsic to my work (and life) philosophy is the belief that ridiculousness is an underrated rhetorical device. I suspect I will need to consider alternate funding options in the near future, and anxiety about the value of practitioner research is about to get Orwellian in Australian universities.

Rachel Wingfield |

From the Loop.pH website:
Loop.pH is a London based art and design studio intervening at an urban scale to re-imagine life in the city. The studio was founded in 2003 by Mathias Gmachl and Rachel Wingfield to create a new design practice reaching beyond specialist boundaries, mediating between digital & biological media and facilitating participatory design and urban crafts.
The studio is driven by a similar philosophy to Margaret Weirtheim’s Institute for Figuring, initiating projects with community groups to educate by engaging the community in design/craft collaborations. Wingfield calls them Participatory Platforms – seeking opportunities to intervene in an urban context, in order to change the way people feel about/respond to their living space.

Rachel talked through an impressive range of projects, including a series of organic interventions in public spaces, such as: planting edible flower boxes in Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant, saving thousands of pounds on cut flowers and contributing to the ‘holistic’ experience of eating in a space where the food is grown (they are realistic about the amount they can produce – the micro-greens are used as primarily as garnish); building a ‘lace curtain’ in the street-facing window of French business NFP Synergy in central London – a wire frame is constructed to support climbing French beans (obviously), providing privacy for the desks closest to the window and edible food, and; ‘Metabolicity’ small scale labs for amateur urban food production, giving ownership back to people who live in confined urban spaces. These Participatory Platforms are a bottom up approach to designing food production into the city.

Wingfield also presented more complex projects, such as EnergyFutures, part of the Fantastique 2012 festival in Lille, France. This three-month speculative project imagined where future energy could come from and how to raise awareness around energy use issues. The project was made up of several distinct components. The first is an ‘energy orchid’, in which a plot of trees host a series of interventions including Tree Lungs – wood and LED strip structures built around the tree branches that react to CO2 levels in the air – and Tree Skins – ‘biolume bark’ that generate light, as an alternative to street lights. These interventions hack or alter the environment to encourage reflection from passers-by on how things are, and speculation on how things could be. In addition, the team built a pop-up lab on site for 3 months called The Living Laboratory. Workshops and talks held in the Lab were designed to include the community, disseminate research through participation, collaboration and storytelling.


Wingfield describes it as 'scifi for design'. Design fictions, speculative futures, alternate voices for disseminating design research were a strong theme throughout the conference.

Ian Gwilt | Data Objects

Ian Gwilt presented data objects – in which a data set is represented as a tangible object, a kind of haptic metaphor. Driven by the question: how do people outside science interpret data, the research takes a simple(ish) data set – age versus dexterity, tested by the ability to open jar lids – which is has been presented as a conventional (un-engaging) x-y axis graph. The issue is that although the data points to an obvious problem – as Ian dryly points out, as you get older you can’t open jars – nothing in industrial design practice has shifted. Jars are being made in the same way, and the elderly can't open them. Having disproportionately small hands and a predilection for the Polish pickles that come in large jars, I empathise. The research question is formed: how could visual metaphors be used to communicate this data to product designers (jar makers) to draw attention to the problem? The research team came up with a series of metaphors, modeled them and conducted user-testing to see which most appealed to/affected the product designers. The first is a series of small jar-lid shaped discs, skewered on a spike with space in between so they can be ‘read’ as a 3D graph. The second is a disc with tabs coming off it on arms like a sunburst, each tab is on a different density arm so when you push the tab, the pressure varies, showing how dexterity becomes more difficult with age. The third is a hefty chunk of bronze, which looks like a topographic model. Although the emphasis was on the physical forms of these objects – how the size, shape and form help visualise and communicate the data set in a more meaningful way – through the user-testing process, materiality rose to the surface as a key concern. The haptic qualities of the material help communicate the data in more poetic/embodied ways. The same object formed in light plastic (3D printing) versus the more textured, detailed (and very heavy) bronze affected not only the emotive responses, but also the perceived permanence of the data set. Something printed quickly in plastic, versus an weighty object slowly and expensively rendered in bronze are interpreted differently – plastic could be altered easily, revised if the data shifted (as the current generation of i-thing users with more thumb dexterity grow older?) where the bronze looks final, authoritative and unalterable. The materiality is a tangible equivalent to tone of voice. The importance of voice in the narrative is equally important here as in Wingfield’s ‘SciFi for Design’ speculative projects. Ian positions these data objects as provocations, vehicles for conversations, rather than end points in themselves. Again the materiality factors into this – the aesthetic, economic and unalterable qualities of the bronze data object looked, when viewed in the exhibition without the contextual story that came through the presentation (and undoubtably the paper) like a final work, a conclusion to a piece of research to me. This prompts me to reflect on the nature of exhibitions as stand alone 'outcomes' in the context of design research. The importance of the catalogue or accompanying text is imperative. That will not be a popular comment in some quarters.

Patrick Macklin | Heima

Patrick Macklin’s Heima (home – it sounds most convincing pronounced in a Scottish accent) project foregrounds the importance of sound in establishing a sense of place/space, within the field of architecture – dominated by the hegemony of sight. Patrick’s project takes juxtaposes two domestic spaces – a now demolished mid-19thC tenement apartment in Glasgow, and the late 1960s high-rise apartment that replaced it – by recreating scale models of these two apartments from the original working drawings, and explores ‘the potential of sound to evoke, describe and delineate the parameters of domestic environments’. Still in developmental stages, the end result is likely to be an online interaction that allows users to engage with elements from a ‘sound library’. My current research into archives, in relation to the Visible Library project, is starting to branch into audio-video content, which is new territory for me, and I'll be interested to see how Patrick’s project taps into existing audio from the archives he’s using.

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