26th June 2019: Encounters on the Shop Floor: Embodiment and Knowledge of the Maker – symposium at the V&A, Day 1: Challenging the Mind/Body Divide

An entire day of discussion around the theme of the knowledge of the maker, I found my own research questions being echoed again and again.
Grounded in the ideas of Gunther Kress around multimodality – a theory of communication and social semiotics that uses several modes (media) to create a single artefact – the opening remarks posed two questions:

• What does it mean to ‘make’ and learn by making in a world of automation and AI?

• How can we harness the knowledge of the maker for the 21st century?

And referenced two texts (which I must read):
The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture (2009) by Juhani Pallasmaa

The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (2008) by Mark Johnson

The introductory remarks by Roger Kneebone (wonderful nominative determinism!) concerning making and science gave examples of cross-disciplinary conversations between scientists, craftspeople and artists. He drew attention to the common practice of thinking with your hands and how they facilitated demonstrations of making practices between disciplines in order to find similarities. He noted that these demonstrations were not just about words but, more importantly, about gesture – that practitioners from widely different fields (medicine and craft) share a common language. He referred to this as reciprocal illumination, finding parallel through conversation and demonstration. He also noted that these hand skills and familiarity with materials have a strong political implication – that ‘hand thinking’ is being stripped out of education, having a profound effect on the ability to teach new specialists (didn’t I listen to a TED talk about this the other day – “How do we learn to work with intelligent machines” – Matt Beane) and that ways of knowing come through bodily experience, not just words. He then showed an example – “Textile Body” by Artist: Fleur Oakes. Kneebone said he was struck by Oakes’ understanding of thread management, seeing a similarity in textiles and bodily tissues. Textile Body is a 3D textile piece (made in collaboration with other textile artists) in which different textile pieces are layered like the tissues of the body. It is explored and interacted with like a surgical procedure. The piece requires several hands to work together, much like surgery, and there is a resonance in the textures and the intricate choreography of many hands.

The aims and objectives of the symposium (as outlined by Marta Ajmar):

• Make the knowledge of the maker explicit;

• Champion it’s values and significance in education and society;

• Model ways in which it can be effectively integrated into education.

Posing the following research questions:

• What do we need to bring the knowledge of the maker into visibility and recognition?

• What is gained when this is fostered and lost when it isn’t?

• What is valuable about creating contexts and opportunities for different kinds of embodied knowledge to interact and intertwine?

• How might we elucidate, co-design and co-model a frame for reaffirming and radically rethinking the significance of the knowledge of the maker and its progressive role within education and society?

And presenting a number of approaches (how):

• Methodological experimentation with multiple approaches

• Collaborative interdisciplinary research: design clusters

• Educational modelling

• Advocacy

• Public engagement

Finally, Ajmar outlineed how these ideas are applied at the VARI through embodied reconstruction:

• Led by embodied, experiential approaches to making

• Exploring how historical reconstruction and ‘unmaking’ can open new avenues for research and learning

Mark Johnson (Philosophy Department, University of Oregon) Embodied Mind, Meaning, and Thought

Philosopher Mark Johnson began by reading the poem Purity by Billy Collins:

My favourite time to write is in the late afternoon,
weekdays, particularly Wednesdays.
This is how I go about it:
I take a fresh pot of tea into my study and close the door.
Then I remove my clothes and leave them in a pile
as if I had melted to death and my legacy consisted of only
a white shirt, a pair of pants and a pot of cold tea.

Then I remove my flesh and hang it over a chair.
I slide it off my bones like a silken garment.
I do this so that what I write will be pure,
completely rinsed of the carnal,
uncontaminated by the preoccupations of the body.

Finally I remove each of my organs and arrange them
on a small table near the window.
I do not want to hear their ancient rhythms
when I am trying to tap out my own drumbeat.

Now I sit down at the desk, ready to begin.
I am entirely pure: nothing but a skeleton at a typewriter.

I should mention that sometimes I leave my penis on.
I find it difficult to ignore the temptation.
Then I am a skeleton with a penis at a typewriter.
In this condition I write extraordinary love poems,
most of them exploiting the connection between sex and death.

I am concentration itself: I exist in a universe
where there is nothing but sex, death, and typewriting.

After a spell of this I remove my penis too.
Then I am all skull and bones typing into the afternoon.
Just the absolute essentials, no flounces.
Now I write only about death, most classical of themes
in language light as the air between my ribs.

Afterward, I reward myself by going for a drive at sunset.
I replace my organs and slip back into my flesh
and clothes. Then I back the car out of the garage
and speed through woods on winding country roads,
passing stone walls, farmhouses, and frozen ponds,
all perfectly arranged like words in a famous sonnet.

Billy Collins

He used this poem illustrates his key thesis: We are fundamentally embodied meaning makers and knowers.

Traditional theories of knowledge supposes that theoretical knowledge (knowing-that) is true because it explains a ‘fixed’ nature of all things (think Plato’s forms) and that practical knowledge (knowing-how) is secondary because it is based in material reality, which is subject to change. Johnson argues that is this split, hierarchical theory of knowledge is fundamentally incorrect, and we have to realise that all knowing is doing.

Everything begins from an organism environment interaction…you are not just your biological body (or your brain), but also not just a cultural construct, since there is no you without the particular body that enacts all of your experience, meaning, thought, actions and knowledge within some environment.

Drawing on JJ Gibson’s concept of affordances (the possibilities for action that an object or event presents to you), Johnson argued that things have meaning only in relation to our embodied experiences. Meaning, including linguistic and conceptual, emerges for our ongoing transactions with our world.

“Our most exalted forms of higher cognition leading to theoretical knowledge make use of the very same sensory motor and motive control mechanisms and processes that underlie our most mundane active bodily and practical know-how” (from presentation slide)

“All our forms of symbolic interaction, not just language, but also gesture, painting, sculpture, music, dance, theatre, ritual, architecture etc. are shaped by the nature of our bodies, brains and environment.” (from presentation slide)


• All knowing is embodied (experience)

•All knowing is making (action)

• Experience and action change our expectations (concepts and knowledge)

Additional points raised in the Q&A:

How our physical knowledge and experience carries over into abstract meaning making with digital technologies & environments – new material realities give us new affordances.
How failure allows us to readjust our expectations – the pivot points to learning and creating new meaning.

That was a lot to take in over half an hour, hence I have just written up my notes. I am captivated by the theory of embodied knowing; it seems to resonate perfectly with my actual experience and provide a further justification for practice-based research and outcomes. The question is how – by creating new or unusual experiences? I also wonder if the use of metaphor can be extended to complex knowledge?

Panel 2 – challenging the mind body divide II

Paul Craddock: Filming for the Encounters Project

Paul Craddock discussed the use of film in an academic context, possibly as a challenge to the primacy of the written word. We need to think about the medium we are using for academic research and how we might attempt to talk about our actions, give demonstrations and make explicit the implicit nature of touch.

Julian Stair and Pétur Jónasson: Encounters Project: Investigating Touch

His introductory talk was followed by Julian Stair and Pétur Jónasson (a potter and guitarist respectively), the subjects of the film by Paul Craddock. They discussed their various approaches to investigating touch and making in their practices.

They drew attention to the paradox of exhibiting objects that have a social life and how film could be used to show that life through narrative engagement.

The speakers outlined several of the methods they experimented with to make explicit the implicit nature of touch and investigate the mirroring of action and gesture between disciplines – deconstructing the mechanics of touch.

• Text – try to describe the action without gesture

• Video and audio – slow motion and micro, to reveal the instinctive actions and episodes of engagement, to reprocess what is intimate and unconscious and then video the response, looking at yourself

• Video only and sound only – what do you notice when you remove the primary sense? i.e., the sound of a potter’s wheel and a guitar performance with no sound

• Still photos – isolate movement of making and use – clarity of movement and action in stills

• Zoetrope – knocking off balance an everyday action allows you to see it anew

They concluded that the only way to properly communicate touch is to actually touch something.

Carey Jewitt: In-Touch: Exploring touch through touchy, felt-experiences and processes of making

“Touch is fundamental to how we communicate, experience and know ourselves, others and the world”

The In-Touch research project at UCL aims to explore digital touch as mode, sense, affect and practice, building a sense of connection with touch of objects (also, interestingly, highlighting the gendered nature of touch).

Jewitt argued that prototyping can bridge disciplinary difference (from the Greek protos (first) and typos (mould, pattern, impression)) and the In-Touch project uses prototyping and making to explore digital touch:

• Collaborating with HCI designers and artists to inform the design and build new digital touch prototypes

• Observing engineers, computer scientists, HCI designers and industry demonstrate their prototypes

• Facilitating prototyping (making) workshops with research participants

• Deploy existing prototypes as research probes i.e., Invisible Flock (Leeds) remote contact exhibition (June 2018)

Jewitt noted that through the (collective) making, conversation emerges and went on to outline what researchers gain through employing the multimodal and multi-sensory qualities of touch, making and prototyping:

• Overcome some of the difficulties research participants experience in articulating bodily experiences and tacit knowledge through talk-based methods

• Enable body and touch to play a central role in generating data

• Create new environment through which to explore digital touch

• Offer an entry point to research emerging, unstable and uncertain worlds

• Provide a window on imagined digital futures

• Part of a wider move to innovate and create social science methods

• All of which are relevant to researching through making in museums and galleries

Q&A points raised in panel 2:

Perhaps we should be looking for layers of understanding instead of integration?

All languages have verbs

How is the materiality of the digital transforming the nature of touch?

Is there a need for imaginaries?

Is there a need for material engagement?

Panel 3: The Thinking Hand: Histories and Practices

Simona Valeriani: Embodying Ideas: designs, models and architecture

Simona Valeriani’s paper presented a short history of models, as teaching tools and a way to demonstrate and experience. It was interesting to note that models can be scaled down (such as architectural models) or scaled up to visualise phenomena, something I knew but had never really thought about. She drew attention to models as mediating instruments and the tension between models as toys and useful devices.

Haidy Geismar, Pip Laurenson and Catherine Yass (Artist) Encounters Project: Obsolescence, Precarity, Persistence: The social world of embodied knowledge in contemporary art photography

The final paper of the day was about the embodied knowledge in Yass’ photographic practice. It concerned efforts to recreate obsolete photographic practices and technologies. They showed the initial attempt to map Yass’ process using a methodological tool – chaîne opératoire (operational chain) – used in archaeology and anthropology to analyse technical processes and social acts step-by-step through the production, use and eventual disposal. I was struck by the expanded notion of making to include manufacturing materials, economics etc. I was also struck by something coming out of obsolescence as part of the creative process.

They referred to this problem of material obsolescence and the availability of technologies and materials determining what you can make as an entwined experience.

They discussed how a large part of Yass’ practice involved keeping old machines and equipment functioning through improvisation and ‘making do’ and drew attention to the reliance on informal skill networks to do so.

This is a collaborative way of working (with technicians etc.) and highlights the social and relational underpinnings of his type of embodied making practice. Yass talked about her relationship with the printers and photographic technicians being an informal personal/professional one and how this developed over time to be more productive through building familiarity with each other’s tastes, knowledge and skills (she gave the example of different technicians having a preference for cooler and warmer tones and how she used this). She also spoke about the maintenance of her camera and reverse engineering as ‘an archaeology of knowledge’.

Q&A points raised in Panel 3:

The discussion at the end highlighted, summarised and expanded on a few key points. There was a discussion around how embodied knowledge is also socially constructed, how skills are developed and distributed and how this affects ideas of authorship, especially if you are working with a medium that has no physical original. This brings up questions of trust and letting go of control.

There was also a conversation about testing and prototyping – how these allow you to experience something and conceptualise an idea, to tinker with it but also when you have to decide to stop. These ‘tests’ are a vital part of the creative process, mistakes at this stage are vital for the working out of ideas and pulling them to breaking point. A point was also raised that conservation and reconstruction could be seen as an act of making a parallel.

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