Tag Archives: cultural probes

Guest lessons in Naryan Mar

During the last week of October I gave several guest lessons at the Naryan-Mar Socio-Humanitarian College in the Northwest of Russia (www.nmsgc.org). I lectured not only about the NIVA TO NENETS project and the FOOD RELATED project, but also about Belgium and the Netherlands, and about the social function of art. After one of my presentations, the students wanted to make a group picture with my picnic blanket.

I made small creative questionnaires about the Lada Niva for these students, because I was curious to learn about their feelings for this car. So after my presentations the students filled in the booklets, which were handed out together with small Niva’s made from Belgium chocolate.

Cultural probes and the power of creativity

David Gauntlett wrote about the social meaning of creativity in ‘Making is Connecting’. He explained how the Victorian Ruskin and Morris defined creativity “as a part of everyday life, and as a binding force in ‘fellowship’, which today we would call community” (Gauntlett, 2011). This binding force of the creative act itself seems to be just as adhesive as the dynamic agglutination Bourriaud described towards relational art. Gauntlett also connects his enthusiasm for DIY to political philosophies for a future world where all crafts and crafting is shared (Gauntlett, 2011). Although it is absolutely not my intention to ridicule his good intentions I am too skeptical or perhaps too cynical to believe that creativity alone can actually save the world. I believe though, that the glue for stronger connections lies indeed in the act of making things together. Creativity can be just as expressive as language but acts less intellectual. In by-passing intellectuality lies a clue to fellowship, as is also proofed in sports and gaming.

Creativity can encourage subjective and imaginative engagement. In order to evoke emphatic instead of intellectual responses from participants, Bill Gaver, Tony Dunne and Elena Pacenti developed cultural probes, packages of creative tasks to collect fragmentary data just like astronomic or surgical probes do (Gaver, Dunne & Pacenti, 1999). These designers struggled with similar kinds of distance between them and the community they work with as described above, which they hoped to overcome with uncertainty, play, exploration and subjective interpretation. The probes were made to give them a feel for the people they designed for and to prevent them from believing that they could look into these people’s heads (Gaver, Boucher, Pennington & Walker, 2004). The creative tasks, deliberately requesting open-ended or even absurd responses, produced dialectics between the participants and the designers:

“On the one hand, the returns are inescapably the products of people different from us, constantly confronting us with other physical, conceptual, and emotional realities. On the other hand, the returns are layered with influence, ambiguity and indirection, demanding that we see the volunteers through ourselves to make any sense.” (Gaver, Boucher, Pennington & Walker, 2004)

The probes create a bond between the ‘us’ of the designers and the ‘them’ of the people they designed for. Making the probes gave “a deep sense of familiarity and engagement with the people,” explain the designers; “They create relationships with our volunteers that are a little like designing for friends” (Gaver, Boucher, Pennington & Walker, 2004).

During an artist in residence program in Kilpisjärvi in the north of Finland, I made several cultural probes packages for the FOOD RELATED project. Ten explorative tasks asked creatively about emotions, expressions and experiences of Arctic food and food culture. People in the Tromsø area in Norway have worked with them at home and during a workshop. Such creative packages are usually designed for individual use only, and need to be designed differently for collaborate use to stimulate the temporary feeling of togetherness. Yet, using and discussing the probes during a workshop gave me an important insight: attractive and conscientiously prepared elements can drastically enlarge the involvement and enthusiasm of the participants. The time and effort spent on the probes ensured them that I really cared about their experiences and their responses, while the artistry stimulated their own creativity. Whether it are probes, creative questionnaires, expressive tasks, performable actions, ludic happening or any other kind of shared activity to make or do creatively, the quality and care put into the design of these participative practices is directly linked to its appreciation.

FOOD RELATED workshop in Tromsø

During my working period in Kilpisjärvi (Finland) I gave a workshop at the Small Projects gallery in Tromsø about Arctic food in general and about the FOOD RELATED project in particular. After a short presentation and introduction to the online platform (www.foodrelated.org), a very useful mapping was made with the MAP-it toolkit developed by my colleagues of the Social Spaces research group. The cultural probes that I developed for the FOOD RELATED platform were used for the first time!

Artistic fieldwork in Kilpisjärvi

In September and October 2011 I am doing artistic fieldwork in Kilpisjärvi for the FOOD RELATED project, while I am at the Biological Research Station owned by the University of Helsinki. Although it is mostly biologists who do their fieldwork in this isolated place within the Arctic Circle, the Finnish Bioart Society runs an artist-in-residence program here as well.

During these months I am developing cultural probes packages that will be used for participatory practices. These probes are made to be used in workshops and at home.

In the meantime I am studying local food and food culture, and do a lot of hiking around on the tundra. I am very happy and thankful for being here!

Some new collected food entries from this region can be found at www.foodrelated.org

Website Bioart Society: http://bioartsociety.fi/

Website Kilpisjärvi Research Station: http://www.helsinki.fi/kilpis/english/index.htm

Residency blog: http://www.kilpiscope.net/residency/