Tag Archives: Cultural

Using comics to communicate research to a research audience

eric-laurier-2This landscape surgery session, under the general theme of ‘Visual methods and visual communication’, featured Dr Eric Laurier Reader in Geography and Interaction at Edinburgh University, who introduced us to his broader development of visual methods and more specifically ‘Using comics to communicate research to a research audience’.

Eric has been a pioneer in research on everyday practices and in ethnomethodological developments in the social sciences, particularly known for his use of video technologies and methods. This session was based on a project, organised by Shari Sabeti at Edinburgh bringing researchers from different disciplines including education, English literature, anthropology and sociology to work with a comic artist, Simon Grennan. We started by sharing the experience of Eric and his colleagues as they engaged for the first time with the comic form, using Sharpies and paper to try and communicate aspects of our research. In what could become a new hashtag trend, #heardatlandscapesurgery, the experience evidently triggered some uncomfortable memories for some: “this is stressful,” “painful,” “surprisingly stressful,” “oh no!”

Demonstrating great perseverance in the face of this stress, everyone produced something and Eric considered that the results showed pretty advanced skills and techniques, such as the use of perspective and representation of time, interspersed with a good peppering of familiar stick people. You can see for yourself in the gallery of examples below.

Eric and his colleagues followed up these beginnings with more in-depth work such as exploring the work of four comic artists, focusing on details such as the use of colour, and transitions from one frame to the next for example.

In the next part of his talk, Eric introduced us to some aspects of the relationship between comics and human geography. Much work has been done about comics rather than using comics. Examples include examining geopolitics (for example, Klaus Dodds on Steve Bell’s cartoons of the Falklands war); the representation of place; the production, circulation and consumption of comics, and practices of reading comics. The only article written as a comic, as far as we know, is by Wilson and Jacot in Geographical Review. One PhD thesis has been submitted in comic form, Unflattening by Nick Sousanis, at Columbia University, published by Harvard University Press.

Much of the relationship between comics and human geography has been as a communicative enterprise. Here Eric was keen to point out the baggage of comics in the British cultural context. This carries an assumption that comics are a way of simplifying research complexity and therefore mainly a means of communicating with a public beyond the academy. Eric’s approach, on the other hand, is very much focused on exploring the role of the comic form in communicating research to a research audience. In this respect, publishers such as Taylor and Francis have created comics of abstracts, although the excessively colourful style makes them harder to read than the abstracts themselves. This style perhaps also reflects the British cultural baggage of comics, both with the authors and the readers, which contrasts particularly with the French cultural context, where, for example, it is easy to find Proust in comic form.

A further aspect of the relationship between comics and human geography is to be found in examples of documentary or factual research. Joe Sacco’s ‘Palestine uses comics to communicate his research through extended interviews. He produces drawings based on his field photographs, but notably brings himself into the frame; the style is busy and contains dense blocks of text. Joe’s style contrasts with Chester Brown’s work on Quebecois Louis Riel which has much simpler images, which he extends and links to his sources in extensive endnotes. Among other examples, Eric cited Steffan Kverneland’s ‘Munch, which conveys a polyphony of voices through the use of different visual styles alongside each other. How do people work with the comic form in practice? As a way of answering this, Eric took us through Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and illustrated the methods in applying the comic form that are revealed in his notebooks. The book is based on Art’s interviews with his father, and his notebooks show through juxtaposition how he substantially reduced the transcripts to speech bubbles laid out in panels; the drawings were added once this had been done.

We then moved on to look at how time is dealt with in the comic form, following Scott McCloud’s work on comics as sequential art. We looked at the example of conveying the duration of pauses. This can be shown through one or more panels with no speech, through a single but wider panel, or through the content of the panel, where rain can convey an endless quality or experience. There are critics of the idea of comics as sequential art; Marcus Doel and Chris Ware to name two. Ware describes comics as ‘a jigsaw where the puzzle does not quite fit together’ (2003a). Simon Grennan, the comic artist that Eric and his colleagues worked with, has criticised Ware’s work in turn, describing it as more like diagrams than comics. A particularly fascinating example of duration can be found in Richard McGuire’s ‘Here. McGuire presents the same space from the same perspective but has multiple points in time, including geological time, within the frame.

Eric rounded off this part of his talk with a look at narrative and perspective in the comic form, citing Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and Simon Grennan’s ‘Dispossession. Bechdel’s work uses a complex stance including the subjective, with her narrative voice running over the top of the story. Grennan’s work creates Trollope’s narrator’s perspective in an adaptation that pairs comic and other text. Eric drew our attention to Grennan’s illustrations from the perspectives of different characters, supported by the strong use of colour.

In the next section, Eric took us on his particular journey through the comic form, starting from the challenges he faces in communicating transcripts. With illustrations of the Jefferson transcription system in examples from Schegloff’s data of phone calls and Mondada’s multimodal work on mobility and talk, showing how they work as a complementary literary pairing, the complexity for the reader of following what’s going on was made very clear. This was the basis of Eric’s clear attraction for using graphic transcripts in comic form. So what are the main elements of comic form? Bubbles convey speech, captions convey non-verbal action, frames convey sequential events and their form, visual content conveys dynamics, social and spatial relationships and duration, and different points of view convey different spatial and personal perspectives. All of these can be used to create a much more accessible and straightforward way of communicating transcripts. The advantages of the comic form were explored in the project’s workshops, with experimental hybrids being tried through various iterations.

An interesting point that Eric raised was how this application still left the argument, an essential if not the essential element of communicating academic research, outside the comic elements. The comic form was used to convey transcript information, but not to advance the argument itself. Comic content remains a form of illustration to complement text. The challenge then is to bring the argument within the comic form, so that it embraces the research as a whole. Eric concluded with three illustrations of experiments started with Tim Smith’s work on street performances, (see photo), in which an event is ‘read’ from two perspectives, starting from the top left and bottom right, and moving into the middle of the page. A further example was in Eric’s digital poster comic, with short sequences of moving images (rather like gifs) and fixed speech bubbles. A final example was in the form of a flip-book hybrid, offering temporality in a fixed text format.

A lively discussion followed, which covered questions about the baggage of the comic form in a British cultural context; whether this work has changed Eric’s writing and editing practices; and applications in other disciplines such as architecture. One key advantage of the comic form that came out of a question on Eric’s experimental video and speech bubble experiment was the particular reading practice that the comic form offers over video. Here the reader can backtrack through the piece in a way that is easier than video rewind/replay.

There was a brief discussion about the focus in the talk on temporality compared with spatiality. The form also seems to offer up significant opportunities to explore ways of considering space. For example showing different spaces simultaneously, using different visual forms like maps and diagrams, and working beyond the frame to the page as a whole. Eric referred us particularly to the changing perspective in Simon Grennan’s ‘Dispossession as a significant way that the comic form can engage with its spatial opportunities, but also reiterated Grennan’s criticism of Chris ware’s work as not being comic. He mentioned Matt Madden’s experimental graphic work ’99 ways to tell a story’. While we didn’t explore this issue further, it strikes me that there is much to unpack here. Does the circumscription of the comic form limit the opportunities for communicating research? Is it more important to embrace the conventions of the form that give it coherence and structure?

We considered the pressure that researchers might feel in using a particular medium, comparing their use of it to its professional practitioners. Whether this is the comic form, film and video production or drawing, the value in using the medium does not depend on how it compares with the best in the business: we are researchers, not comic artists or film directors. This part of the discussion was reminiscent of the point made on research exhibitions last month – bringing up again the tensions between the medium as process and as product in a research context. We can perhaps forgive standards of academic writing that do not always match those of the ideas they communicate, although this is not everyone’s view. How do we, or will we, respond to amateur quality in other media despite its contribution as research method and/or form of communication? This discussion moved on to consideration of drawing, which has particular capacities for understanding in drawer and viewer. The advantage of the comic form in communicating research to a research audience is that it is more compatible with the sequential construction and communication of an argument, which, as we have noted, seems to be the main point.

You can find out more about Eric and his work at http://www.ericlaurier.co.uk and the comics and research communication project he has been part of with Edinburgh School of Art, at https://sites.eca.ed.ac.uk/comicpraxis/.

Katy and Huw

Photo gallery of surgeons’ comics (photography by Huw):

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Curating a Research Exhibition

dscf8465Landscape Surgery’s current theme of ‘communicating research’ took a look at research exhibitions, and revealed ways in which exhibitions can be far more than valuable forms of communication. The session was stimulated by three panelists: current surgeon and 3rd year PhD student n the department Katherine Stansfeld, ex-surgeon and PhD student and now British Library curator Phil Hatfield, and Carey Newson, who recently completed a collaborative PhD with Queen Mary, University of London and the Geffrye Museum of the Home.

Katherine introduced her research on mapping superdiversity and outlined several reasons why an exhibition might form part of PhD research: as a means of communication, particularly in reaching audiences beyond the academy; as research or analytical process, alongside other methods; and as a way of starting or continuing a dialogue with people who may be interested in or have participated in the research.

Three aspects of Katherine’s experience stood out. The first relates to planning and spatial materiality. An exhibition budget enabled a diverse team to be involved, including an artistic director and production staff. This increased planning and coordination time that Katherine has been spending on the exhibition. It also revealed how significantly the materiality of an exhibition space and design affects the way people can interact with an exhibition. The second and linked aspect is the process of deciding what to show and how to show it. This is clearly not a neutral process, and can be driven as much by material priorities as research or aesthetic ones. Collaboration was the third aspect, and Katherine shared her experience of working with young artists on alternative mapping. In conclusion, she commented on how the more time-consuming communication that results from these three aspects offers both challenges and opportunities.

In contrast to Katherine’s exhibition being very much within her research, Carey’s followed the completion of her thesis. Her research project, in collaboration with Queen Mary and the Geffrye Museum speaks to the material culture of domestic space, geographies of young people and the study of the home, and explored the meaning and significance of the teenager’s bedroom and its material culture. Visual anthropologist Kyna Gourley took photographs of the bedrooms, and Carey returned with a selection of these later to stimulate interviews with both teenagers and their parents. Some of the findings included the way the rooms reflected and expressed teenagers’ personalities and lives, and so changed over time; that the bedrooms were retreats more than social spaces; and that the 24 rooms studied were very different, yet with recurring themes. Teenagers were pre-occupied by dilemmas around what to keep and what to get rid of, recalling Nicky Gregson’s work on the relationship between ridding and dwelling.

Moving on to the creation of the exhibition itself, Carey, like Katherine, mentioned the materiality of the space, especially the glass cases which, initially thought to be problematic, led to the development of a series of installations. There were also particular challenges and creative design solutions in relating the objects to their bedroom contexts. The creation of a full-scale installation of a bed and contextual material was assisted by the original room’s occupier, and made a fascinating difference to the way the teenage audience engaged with the exhibition at the opening. Playful forms of engagement, such as sitting on and in the bed and taking photographs of each other, stood out. It seems curious the way these rooms are exhibitions in themselves, and this was in some ways an exhibition of exhibitions.

Phil’s presentation gave us an opportunity to take a broader perspective on exhibitions in the context of major cultural institutions, based on his involvement in six exhibitions at the British Library. One of the first points Phil raised was the effect of space and time and other resource pressure in such places. Large institutions have relatively complex planning and approval processes which impose longer lead-in times. They also have more proposals for exhibitions than space to accommodate them. Add to this the range of costs, that can be in the £100,000s, together with the numbers and seniority of staff involved, and you have a set of factors with very significant impacts on exhibitions. These collectively mean that the opportunities to integrate an exhibition into the timescale of a PhD are very limited, effectively nonexistent.

However, successful exhibitions still happen regularly at the British Library, and Phil identified a number of other more positive factors. By keeping in touch with curators over the long-term, there is more chance of being able to take advantage of unexpected opportunities that do come up. A case in point is Phil’s own forthcoming exhibition to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the federation of Canada through the Library’s photographic archives, based on his PhD completed six years ago. In dealing with large cultural institutions, flexibility can be very helpful too. By contributing in small ways to exhibitions and book projects, blogs and public programming, you build a relationship based on relevant collaboration that can enhance other, greater opportunities.

A very interactive discussion followed, aided by the contrasts between the three speakers around the common theme. The contrasts highlighted the range of relationships that an exhibition can have with research as research method, output, opportunity for participatory involvement, and engagement with more diverse audiences. Even in the British Library, an exhibition can feed into the institution as a whole, beyond the specific research that it is focused on.

An interesting theme developed around the risks and other dynamics involved in showing a work in progress, as in Katherine’s case. This raised the importance of managing expectations. It also illustrates how the material processes of exhibition production can be significantly different. Take photographs for example. The specification of photographs being produced in the role of final record is different from that where they are being displayed as research tools. Applied to Katherine’s video work, this also highlighted the way editing affects the research process in important ways.

This is magnified in larger projects, where the numbers and specialisms of people involved make exhibitions effectively massive collaborations, where the identification of the work with the names of only one or two curators seems at the very least inadequate. Further discussion looked at the use of the term curation and the development of curatorial skills in more detail.

An intriguing thread led us through issues of presenting items to speak for themselves contrasted with the use of explanatory text. There was some link to the timing of the exhibition in relation to the stage of the research project. Katherine felt that, as a work in progress, she had greater freedom to allow the work to be displayed with limited explanation. Carey noted the importance and value of experience in advising and editing display text. Phil took this further to remind us of the intensely collaborative nature of producing display text.

These examples contextualised a point raised about the roles of artistic practices as research processes, where the output is less of a primary objective than gaining perspective through externalising ideas and thereby generating different modes of understanding. This linked intriguingly with contributions about what constitutes an exhibition, covering pop-ups and the example of using a Premier Inn room below the radar, and inviting people in four at a time. A retrospective thought on this is the way artistic practices and exhibition works in progress may be seen as failures in many traditional exhibition contexts. I wonder how an institution’s conditioning of exhibitions would engage with such unresolved dynamics and ephemeral events.

– Katherine Stansfeld: current third year PhD student in the Department of Geography at RHUL, and surgeon, who is in the final stages of preparing for her research exhibition ‘Superdiversity: picturing Finsbury Park’, which will open in Furtherfield Gallery in Finsbury Park itself in mid February.

– Carey Newson: a completed PhD student from the Department of Geography at QMUL, whose project was a collaboration with the Geffrye Museum of the Home, London E2. Her PhD was about about teenagers’ bedrooms, and an exhibition based on that research is currently running at the Geffrye (until April 23rd 2017). You can see more about the exhibition here.

– Phil Hatfield: Honorary Research Associate of the Department of Geography at RHUL, Digital Mapping Curator at the British Library, and once upon a time a surgeon and a CDA PhD student with the British Library, whose topic was Canadian photography. Phil has also led and participated in a number of Library exhibitions. The most recent of these – Lines in the Ice – resulted in a book that is currently available.

Huw Rowlands

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Regional Identity in Europe (or England!) at the RGS-IBG International Conference

A week ago, I chaired my first ever session at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual International Conference, which this year was held at the University of Exeter.

As a part-time Masters student, the initial response within the Faculty of me applying to run a session was a mixture of “You’re Brave/I would never have done that as a MA student!”, and whilst, yes it has had a few fraught moments over the past seven months or so, I can only firmly recommend it to Royal Holloway’s new intake of Masters students.

My own particular research area of Cornish Culture & Identity can often seem a bit like ploughing a lone furrow, as I am diverging greatly from a lot of the excellent research going on in our own immediate community – however, by looking at my immediate context and connecting it to present events around Europe – in particular Scotland, Catalonia and Veneto – I was able to attract a wide and diverse range of speakers for my session entitled ‘The Contemporary Growth of Regional Identity in Europe’.

Unfortunately, as these things often turn out, as the day of the session drew closer, several of my overseas speakers contacted me to withdraw, which left the session without papers on the important situations regarding devolutionary or independence movements in the North of England and Veneto. Consequently, I drew on my links with the burgeoning Cornish academic community, and my session was transformed into an affirming range of papers which dealt with the contemporary sense of what Hechter (1999) termed as ‘Internal Colonialism’, which has gained greater impetus since April 2014 when Cornwall was designated with National Minority Status under the Council of Europe Framework Convention.

The other major consideration with the RGS-IBG International Conference is its sheer scale – it is a conference attended by over 1,400 delegates from all around the world, and around 25 sessions run at the same time, hence you are competing strongly for an audience – unlike on previous occasions when I had made presentations on my research elsewhere where there was only ever one auditorium! I was absolutely delighted that the session drew a large audience of students and academics from all four corners of the globe, and it was exciting to see that Cornish Culture & Identity, plus the inherent sense of ‘difference’ between Cornwall and England was receiving such high profile attention.

Aspiration for One and All? Andrew Climo from the University of Oxford spoke about Cornwall’s historic devolution demands; summarising the fact that up to the late 1990s, calls for Cornish devolution were inchoate, but in 2002, the Cornish Constitutional Convention published its prospectus called Devolution for One and All, which acted as a nexus for the various competing views on future governance. His paper discussed what such a document might look like and how public engagement might be developed.

Julie Tamblin of ‘Learn Cornish in Cornwall’ then presented a historical overview on the three linguistic forms which characterize Cornish culture – Kernowek, Cornu-English and English and made connections between voices from Cornwall and Cornish voices writing back from the diaspora, showing the global influence of Cornish culture.

Mike Tripp, who recently retired from the Institute of Cornish Studies at the University of Exeter presented a paper entitled ‘Where there were two Cornishmen, there was a “rastle”: Cornish Wrestling & Identity’. Dr. Tripp’s paper covered the development of the sport into a widespread ‘traditional’ activity, deeply rooted in the local culture and, prior to the birth of Rugby Union, was Cornwall’s most popular sport. When, in the second half of the nineteenth century the Cornish economy suffered a catastrophic collapse that precipitated large numbers of people to leave Cornwall to find work abroad, the Cornish stuck together in distinct ethnic communities sustaining a strong sense of identity which manifested in the Cornish dialect and wrestling in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand

Finally, and very timely given the recent publication of his outstanding new book, Will Coleman, a bard of the Gorsedh Kernow presented an exceptionally lively paper entitled ‘Plen an Gwari: places of Play, Inclusivity and Resistance’. In this work, Coleman examined how in many places and cultures throughout history, performance has been used to articulate and strengthen the aspirations of minorities and to represent narratives resistant to dominant cultures. Driven by the ‘powerhouse’ of Glasney College in Penryn, the Gwari Meur culture of medieval Cornwall flourished for several hundred years and reached profound levels of artistry in its drama and literature. Related forms also developed elsewhere across Europe but “Cornwall was to do it better, and more intensively, than anywhere else” (Kent, 2010). The Gwari Meur culture was “a vital part of that strategy of resistance [… to Anglicization]” (Spriggs, 2004). It was international in its outlook yet intensely parochial in celebrating its sense of place. It was rebellious, unorthodox, irreverent, profound and a lot of fun. As a cultural totem the plen an gwari is the perfect foundation for the territory of Cornwall as we rebuild our inclusive, forward-looking and celebratory sense of Cornish nationhood.

To some Cornwall may be a county which is quite nice to go to on holiday. Delegates from around the globe left this session with a new sense of the immense pride that the Cornish have in their land. Gaging from questions that were directed to myself and my presenters, renowned focus on this particular ‘peripheral’ appendage of South-West England is about to take place…

Ben Gilby, MA Cultural Geography (Research) Part-Time (2nd Year)

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Introducing Self Portraits Of A Surgeon

ImageThe Self Portrait series is a project designed to highlight the missing ‘I’ within geography. In the coming weeks a series of written pieces will be presented by landscape surgeons in order to make public, thoughts about academic life that all too often remain private. The intention of the series is not to be navel gazing nor self indulgent, but rather aims to provide a window into the various ways in which early career researchers think geography.

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