Sunday, 11 March 2012

space hacking the school

I have started working with the art department of Portobello High School in Edinburgh. I am trying to collect data in the hope of coming up with design strategies and interventions in school design to promote the Scottish government's 'curriculum for excellence'. I met with some of the Art teachers to discuss the curriculum for excellence, their imminent move to a new school and how I might work with the students moving forward. What follows is a kind of distillation of my thoughts on this first meeting and how I might move forward.

First things first, the Who were right. the kids are all right. I was instantly struck by the relaxed and creative atmosphere in the Art department. After meeting with the teachers I was allowed to "sit-in" on an art class with Sharon Gallagher(art teacher). She introduced me as Mr. McNamara which I imagine established some form of authority dynamic within the class. I was pretty nervous as I can remember how unruly I was at that age (3rd Year) but as the class progressed i relaxed. I later chirped to Sharon that I felt it went well and commented on how nice the kids were to which she responded "because I was there". The students were really nice but I imagine it takes years of honing your teaching technique to command the kind of control Sharon so effortlessly enforced. The students appeared relaxed and trusting around her.

We began with the suggestion of a photo competition as I want to get a sense of how the students view their school. They seemed moderately interested and the promise of a prize seemed to perk their interest more. I watched their class progress nicely with minimal messing from a couple of students. Art classes seem more open to a progression towards more modern pedagogies due to the more relaxed approach to teaching art. Some of my discussion with the teachers touched on teaching outside of the classroom but it was pointed out how difficult it is to organise what with forms needing to be signed by parents. It pretty much rules out the spontaneity that can often produce a good setting for making art. The new school plans have a small terrace designed into the art wing. I wonder could more be done to provide a number of places where art might happen outside with a view to encouraging peer to peer learning.

I want to approach this project from a hacking point of view. I won't attempt to re-design the school from the ground up but rather make small differences to make the school better. Quite a loose aim but it can cover elements of the curriculum for excellence and student health while adding subtle changes along the way. This is more like hacking than making grand gestures based on some pre defined set of rules or knowledge. Instead, we tinker and test until things start to work better, gradually improving to the point where a space becomes new.

With that in mind I then conducted my first piece of data collection. Near the end of class I was allowed hand out sheets of paper with a series of questions on them and asked the students to answer whatever they liked. Some messing aside I think it worked quite well and at least established the beginnings of a working relationship.

I am interested in taking an ethnomethodological approach to further research. Ethnomethodological experiments are aimed at bringing to surface the social agreements that support everyday practice.Ethnomethodology literary means the study of people’s methods. It sets out to study everyday practices and the knowledge produced within them, in their authentic setting. Data collection methods are meant to capture the "social meanings and ordinary activities" of people (informants) in "naturally occurring settings" that are commonly referred to as "the field." The goal is to collect data in such a way that the researcher does not impose any of their own bias on the data. (1) Ethnomethodological experiments usually consist of some sort of disruption to these everyday actions/ and relations that for a given network. A common example is to get into a lift with a group of strangers and face the wrong way. People will become increasingly uncomfortable as we have a set of rules that are unspoken but understood as the social norm by most people. Another would be to attempt to pay for something using an item of clothing. The sudden break from the norm and bewildered reaction from the cashier can highlight our fertilisation of money. I wonder what rule could be disrupted in our idea of how art is taught/ thought of. Reflexivity is an important concept in ethnomethodology. It assumes that the researcher can never be invisible in an experiment.

Accordingly ethnomethodologists
have excelled in what they call incongruity
experiments. The techniques for doing this
consists of an estrangening in common situations.
By engaging in a course of action and deliberately
behave different than expected - contextualising
oneself - the experiment aim to make visible a
locally produced, but hidden rule structure
(Garfinkel 2007).

I have previously described a space as an agreed upon set of rules. A space is defined by the users interpretation. It has materiality as well but most spaces can be converted one it has been agreed to do so. Maybe there are answers in flexible spaces design. We are in the classroom because everyone in there treats it as such. The individual ideas of what a classroom is may differ but the end result is the classroom. This is, in essence, a network. In social theory, actor-network theory tries to explain how such networks come together and act as a whole. Such networks are considered transient. They exist in a constantly changing state and rely on a constant re enforcing of it to survive. In other words, the relations that make up the network need to be constantly performed or the network will fail. If such network conditions are indeed this transient they are ideal for hacking but to what end?

I have been reading  lot about uban exploration lately. It seems relevant to what I am trying to get at with this school project.  It is an increasingly popular activity with videos of peoples exploration popping up on youtube and vimeo regularly. The main aim is to explore abandoned or forbidden parts of the city. Sewers systems, underground train lines, old factories or catacombs are all considered valid places to explore. It can be risky but the rewards are a kind of urban hack. These places are not meant to be seen any more. The city has decided what is and isnt accessable but urban explorers or building hackers break the rules to achieve something new. I wonder what kind of hack we might try with Portobello. I came across this video a few weeks ago. It was made in polan by students in a dorm. Portobello High School's tower design would be perfect for this. Especially with the help of the art department.

1. [Brewer, John D. (2000). Ethnography. Philadelphia: Open University Press. p.10.]

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