Provocative Matters, Monsters and Random Decompositions: an ESRI ‘Theories and Methodologies’ day


Berndnaut Smilde, 2012

Just before the end of last term, Friday 12th December saw (and heard!) a characteristically ‘different’ ESRI event take place at Birley. Initiated by Liz Jones, Rachel Holmes, Geoff Bright and Stephanie Daza, the event aimed to pick up on what had been an established ESRI tradition at Disdbury – the ‘Friday @ 4.00’ sessions – and push the envelope just a wee bit further. Friday @ 4.00 had provided a space where contributors were free to offer preliminary or incomplete research ruminations to a broadly sympathetic audience in a relaxed atmosphere. Typically, the material could be ‘challenging’ and eventual adjournment to the pub was usually required. For this event, we jumped in a bit deeper and designed a full day event (nicely wrapped around lunch) made up of three paper presentations, small group discussion, and a Q and A panel. Completely new this time, however, the proceedings were topped off by a sonic improvisation performance running into the early evening…and then, of course, a return to format: the pub (well, Kim by the Sea, actually).










Prof Christina Huf (University of Bremen), makes a point in the panel discussion…and Chair Geoff Bright ponders it (photos: Liz Jones)

During the day, an invited group of about 15 grad students, teaching and research staff largely from around the Centre for the Cultural Studies of Children and Childhood (including a visitor, Christina Huf, Professor of Early Primary Education at the University of Bremen) gathered to hear and respond to papers given by Prof Liz Jones, Prof Rachel Holmes and Dr Stephanie Daza. Dr Geoff Bright offered some opening and closing remarks and chaired the sessions. Titles of papers give a flavor of the day. Liz’s paper Figure 1 and 2 as ‘event’: reconfiguring quality asked, us among other things, to (literally) turn two pieces of ethnographic date upside down; Rachel’s paper My Tongue on Your Theory: Bittersweet ‘quality’ (in) research seduced the listener into ‘embracing the monster’ snarling in a fragment of film data of the children’s game Catch a Girl Kiss a Girl. Stephanie, in (Why) Matter Matters: Learning to Learn STEM Culture in Qualitative Inquiry, dug at the heart of the matter(s) and queried ‘how, when, and why the materiality of the body, and the interdependent relationship between humans and the physical world has been un/noticed, un/heard, and un/seen over and over again’. Geoff’s opening remarks offered an invitation into an intentionally experimental, strange, unsettling, provocative, even outlandish domain “outside habitual and familiar parameters” (in Liz’s words) where ‘open minds and open ears’ would essential. During the day, not only would the commonplace vocabulary of educational practice such as quality, effectiveness, transparency, performance (a regime of ‘order words’ and ‘death sentences’ in Deleuze’s words) be vigorously challenged, but ‘data’ would be completely reconfigured – not least in the sonic performance.


A group including Stephanie’s son Santana (in the interesting hat!) listen to the sonic improvisation (photo Liz Jones)

In truth, the day – and the audience’s fruitful, thoughtful questionings and generous listening – linked quite firmly into long standing preoccupations and approaches of a number of ESRI staff, working themes that will be familiar to those, for example, who have attended the Summer Institute of Qualitative Research led by Prof Maggie Maclure. Liz examined ‘quality’ when aligned within Deleuze’s notion of the ‘event’ and, following Deleuze, boldly gave up on the ‘pretence of signifying and making meaning’, arguing instead for thinking of ‘quality’ as implicated within an assemblage where it is ‘always becoming’. Rachel’s paper similarly leaned on posthumanisms and new materialisms to ‘resist a fixed, knowable form of ‘quality’ (in) research, moving between the idea of ‘monster’ and the formlessness of ‘monstrosity’ to oppose the epistemological, ontological and ethical paradigms of reason. Stephanie noted that the recent re/turn to physical matter, and re/emphasis on the rejection of the mind-body split as something ‘new’ (e.g. new materialisms) raises many questions about the ir/relevance of (new) things, in a world of relationships of variations on repetitions. In a paper that drew on six years of empirical fieldwork into STEM Culture, she explored recent trends towards ontology, arts (and aesthetics) in STEM (making STEAM?), and how doing research in things rather than on things generates different senses of onto-epistemological processes.

The day ended with a performance of two improvised sound pieces by Geoff (sax), Stephanie (voice) and Richard Knight, a Manchester based improviser and composer (computer and no-input mixer). In seeking lines of flight from order and the ‘death Improv3-2sentence’ of conventional and commodified sonic vocabularies both of these pieces explored sonic routes similar to the papers. The first, Random Decomposition by Geoff, worked structure, freedom, chance and invention to spontaneously de-compose a composition as it was being performed. The second – an ongoing and ambitious project led by Richard and Stephanie – responded to amix live, unfolding visual score based on ‘data’ gathered during the day and processed in the moment. A fragment from some of Richard’s publicity captures the spirit of this collaboration: “Knight often utilises specifically controlled feedback as an instrument. The unique method uses mixing desks as sound sources: a typically passive audio device subverted to become an expressive instrument. Of most intrigue is the tenuous area between feedback and feedforward – the hazy and perplexing cusp between order and chaos”. That last phrase gets it beautifully and summarises perfectly the problematic that generated the day’s events.

Geoff Bright

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