Research-Creation, Relational Affect, and Reimagining Ethics

“We cannot assume nor perpetuate the notion that quality knowledge is emotionally detached.”

So argued Owen Chapman, keynote speaker at the Joint PhD in Communications Conference (CODO) on February 2, 2017, hosted at UQAM. Chapman, co-director of the Community and Differential Mobilities cluster at Milieux and associate professor of Communication Studies, was one of the first to complete a research-creation project to fulfill his doctoral dissertation. In 2007, his project integrated sound-sampling with ethnography to explore how digital technology and creative productions informed academic research. Throughout his work, Chapman questions how the affective dimensions of research-creation led to it being considered “less academic.” He critiques the idea that feelings compromise the veracity of objective truths or that creative work constitutes only partial knowledge. In many ways, research-creation stands for a different way of engaging with materials based in texts, objects, or phenomena. At times embodied and at times affectively engaged, research-creation brings to the fore other ways of knowing that do not privilege objective distance. Research-creation gets closer to that which is studied. As a result, it may be one of the only ways to push beyond the confines of prescriptive ways of knowing.

Research-creation as a relational method

 Research-creation, like all processes of inquiry, originates from interest and intrigue. Sometimes these interests align with the personal — such as inspiration from a family member or an unsolved childhood mystery — that require unconventional modalities like family-as-method, friends-as-method, or (in my case) cooking-as-method.

 

The work of research-creation combines thinking + doing + making (and, just as well: rethinking, redoing, and re-making).

 

The (re) prefix and iterative nature of research-creation makes it a dialog, an ongoing methodological conversation between research subject, creative intermediates, and oneself. Research-creation requires more of me than traditional, text-based work because I must continually engage with what is happening in real-time to capture all of the ‘data’ that emerges forth. Attuned, the quality of my “data” can only be as good as my ability to participate relationally so that I can feel my way through the work.

 

In this relational engagement, it matters who I am and what I bring to the ontological table of knowledge production. I embody my work. My work in research-creation becomes specific to me, my body, and my affect so that my work becomes quite un-replicable. 

Research-creation as embodied ethics 

Given the degree of my involvement, I must also hold myself accountable to reflexive questioning so that I’m always aware of my positionality.

 

In the Haraway-ian style of situated knowledges, research-creation puts knowledge production within the researcher-self as an embodied ethics in practice. These ethics inform what/how to do work from a particular vantage point, the particularity of which places research-creation in direct opposition with objective knowledge production and institutional “regimes of truth.”

 

That said, I wonder if any discipline would not benefit from such reflexivity? As a philosophical musing, what if all “academic” inquiry were situated?

Or, in a Latourian sense, what if all research were grounded in matters of concern—situated, social, and diffuse—versus matters of fact that are reified in hierarchy and architectures of truths. Matters of concern cannot afford to be affectively detached.

 

Creation or not, how can we reimagine ethics so that all academic research simultaneously looks in, looks up, and looks out? Perhaps, it is in this “looking out” where relational affect and embodied ethics come to matter. Indeed, in his closing remarks from the keynote speech, Chapman reiterated that research-creation is about traveling together, supporting others, other voices, and other ways of knowing not traditionally vetted or legitimized in the Academy.

Against Grading

When we grade our students, we teach them that their worth is based on how well they obey orders and please people in positions of authority.

I have been teaching at Concordia for three years now, and every year the one part of my job that I dread the most is grading. I don’t hate it because of the work involved, but because I know it contributes to everything I despise about late capitalism. Grading reinforces classism, racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of oppression by obscuring the very real differences in privilege and access that affect how students perform, how much time they’re able to dedicate to their schoolwork, and how connected they feel to the material covered in class. Are they a single parent trying to work a full-time job while also studying full-time? Are they suffering from mental health issues as a result of past trauma or abuse? Are they a recent immigrant in the process of learning the language as well as new cultural norms?

Instead of acknowledging these differences and the forces that divide and oppress us, we tell our students that they are being ranked according to their “merit” or intelligence. In doing so, we mystify the structures that play such a fundamental role in determining our opportunities in life.

 

In a capitalist society, the less money you have in the bank, the less your life matters. By assigning students a grade, we prepare them for, and also normalize, a system that ranks some human lives above others. We may think we are teaching our students about math, or science, or history, but we also must acknowledge the way we are teaching them to think of themselves.

 

When we grade our students, we teach them that their worth is based on how well they obey orders and please people in positions of authority. We teach them that competition with their peers is normal and natural, and that it is never okay to fail. Grading is billed as a way to “motivate” students to succeed, and yet we ignore that this usually only works for people who were already predisposed to succeed in an unfair system.

 

Academics have some of the best tools available to access and develop critiques of meritocracy and capitalist ideology, and yet our institutions continue to reproduce the same old hierarchies and structures. We ought to know better. If we actually want to encourage learning and experimentation, we have to directly challenge and resist the systems that render us complicit. That means fighting for diversity in our schools and universities, demanding the necessary resources to provide our students with the qualitative feedback they deserve, and pushing for the abolition of grades and GPAs in favour of a more just and holistic system.  

 

Some schools have already experimented with alternative models to grading. A high school in New Hampshire,[i] as well as a variety of both private and public colleges and universities like Evergreen State College in Washington[ii] and Hampshire College in Massachusetts,[iii] replace grades with written evaluations detailing each student’s progress. Rhode Island’s Brown University offers a pass-fail option for all of their classes. [iv] Montessori schools also do away with grades while providing an education based on self-directed, hands-on, project-based learning.[v] Unfortunately, these options are typically only available to the select few who can afford private schooling. These models also do not necessarily challenge the underlying role of the education system, which is to create docile workers who are ranked according to their expected productivity.

 

For more radical alternatives, we can look to the autonomous Zapatista schools in Chiapas, where teachers are democratically elected and education is based around the pillars of democracy, freedom, and social justice, and tailored to the specific needs of each community.[vi] We can also learn from the revolutionary schools in Rojava, where top-down learning is replaced by collective problem-solving, and disciplinary silos are rejected in favour of a well-rounded education.[vii] Importantly, both systems teach indigenous histories and languages, rather than simply reproducing a colonial ideology.

 

The fact that these alternatives are typically only able to exist in areas where people have fought for independence from governments and private interests should not be ignored and is indicative of just how deeply intertwined the education system is with capitalist economic and political structures. In order to change one, we must change them all. As Paulo Freire puts it, “the critical and dynamic view of the world, strives to unveil reality, unmask its mythicization, and achieve a full realization of the human task: the permanent transformation of reality in favor of the liberation of people.” [viii]

Your Place or Minecraft?

Gina Hara has been working in film for a long time, but her latest movie, Your Place or Minecraft?, is her first time filming in-game. Hara is a filmmaker, Milieux member, and creative director of Concordia’s Technoculture Arts and Games (TAG) Research Centre. Your Place or Minecraft? is the first Minecraft documentary web series ever made and details one of the world’s most modded Minecraft servers. Each of the eight episodes follows a different player from the server as they discuss their experiences as both players and game scholars. The documentary explores the politics and relationships of the game’s infinite, randomly generated space, as they take place both in and out of game.

However, beyond the flying and the dying, Hara uses a pretty typical documentary style. “It is the same as any documentary,” Hara tells me, “I wanted to get people to relax by asking them to show me what they built.” Many of the shots show the camera pointed at an in-game avatar as the player’s voice is heard overtop. Their avatar becomes the manifestation of their identity.

 

Like the people she interviews, Hara is both a player and a scholar. Her presence in the community and on the server is apparent throughout the film. Her player’s arm is visible in many of the shots, continuously reminding the viewer of her role as both participant and voyeur.

 

Despite her current expertise of the game, Hara had no idea how to play when she started. “Somehow I got some seeds and found some chickens. I kept trying to feed them, but I just kept punching them in the face [by right-clicking, instead of left-clicking.] I just kept punching them and crying.” When her teammates found her, she was hiding in the corner of the room with a crowbar.

 

As she tells me the story, I cannot help but laugh. One thing about Hara is that she is an amazing storyteller. In her 2011 film, Waning, Hara tells a narrative of violence by breaking a single shot into multiple timelines. In Your Place or Minecraft?, she breaks a world of blocks into a world of stories. The film introduces us to the server through the varying perspectives of the players who have inhabited and created that space.

 

The server world is complex and vast, and its socio-cultural aspects even more so. Throughout the film, each player tells a slightly different story of the space and its community. On one side of the map, there is the capitalistic chicken factory BFC (Big Friendly Chicken) and, on the other, Witch Mountain, where players are cursed for their in and out of game wrongdoings. The avatar becomes the manifestation of their identity.

 

Your Place or Minecraft? brings up critical conversations about gender, politics, ethics, and space, but it never provides just one truth. It is up to the viewer to break apart the different perspectives and construct their own narrative—to become an active player in the story.

 

Similarly, filming Your Place or Minecraft? provided Hara with a freedom she had never before experienced in filmmaking. “Shooting was a dream,” she tells me, “the budget was super low and I had creative freedom.” Now that the film is being released, she is prepared for some criticism due to her gender. But that isn’t stopping her. Her next film, Geek Girls, is scheduled to be release in Spring 2017, and will be the first documentary from the perspective of a woman about geek culture.

 

What Your Place or Minecraft? leaves us with is something to structure our understanding of games around. It shows us the ways we can interact with games both critically and playfully. Whether building or burning down a chicken coop, or covering the entire map with jack-o-lanterns, there is value to our play.

 

All episodes of Your Place or Minecraft? are available on YouTube for your binge-watching pleasure.

Archives Against Instagram: Becoming Our Own Internet Historians

“I think what we need are just some really good historians and I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, how internet historian[s are] gonna be a thing, and it should be a thing now because we need that. […] there needs to be a way of documenting this, and I don’t know, maybe we’re the people to do it”

GothShakira says we need internet historians. But historians need archives, and Instagram’s history is locked down. Is it up to us to create our own archives? On January 27, 2017, Instagram feminist meme artist GothShakira spoke at Concordia’s Art History (AHGSA) conference “no neutral art, no neutral art historians.” As a Latinx and a Colombian citizen, GothShakira’s autobiographical memes put into conversation the lived experiences of women of colour in Internet culture. During her presentation, GothShakira called for more subversive, accessible, and diverse internet art, arguing that the creation of these works offers an alternative archive of lived experience to the largely male-dominated meme culture.

If we are the people to do it, then we’re going to need better archives. It happened with Snapchat memories and with Instagram’s bookmarks. These apps index our posts and compile our bookmarks into a history that’s mostly inaccessible to us. And we invest in that history every time we post. This is how apps get us to invest in their promise of immediacy, while they soak up the value of our histories. The messaging app Slack, for example, offers its services for free, but demands payment for access to old posts. This is how our history and affective labour is turned into a commodity. Our history is hidden from us behind their paywall. It’s their archive after all. This raises the question: shouldn’t we be able to access our own images? After all, our collective presence on these apps is what gives them their value.

 

Shortly after Facebook bought Instagram in 2012, Instagram dismantled most of its API (application program interface). The API is what an app uses to share its content and a closed API like Instagram’s makes it much more difficult to create archives. Instagram claimed that it closed the API because of privacy concerns, but in its current state, it simply makes it hard to ask Instagram for the dates and images of our posts. As GothShakira said, she can no longer see her “cringey Instagram from 2012.”

 

We should demand more from Instagram. Without Instagram’s support, there are few ways to create archives independently: we can find our usernames on the internet archive, export our photos with a paid tool like Instaport, or even take screenshots of our posts when it suits us. But the internet archive’s record is spotty at best (even GothShakira’s posts aren’t archived) and using a tool like Instaport is a huge privacy concern. Overall, these approaches are incomplete, labour-intensive, and isolated–we need a concerted effort to wrest our histories from Instagram’s walled garden.

 

If we’re going to try and make our own archives, archives that are usable by a community of scholars, artists and researchers, then we will need to make an effort to adapt their API to suit our needs. By sharing our archives with each other and demanding change from Instagram on its data policy, we create alternative systems of meaning and feeling. The writing of history is communal and the affective labour we circulate is what gives Instagram value. But that affective labour also creates alternative Internet movements, such as GothShakira’s intersectional feminist memes, that make long-erased histories visible and accessible through powerful archives of feeling.

 

We deserve the right to our own history. And we deserve the right to make that history visible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weaving Binaries Into Conversations: An Interview with Genevieve Moisan

“What I like about making is the power it gives you,” Milieux member Geneviève Moisan tells me during our interview. For Moisan, “making” involves many things: quilting, weaving, embroidering, and even photography or performance.

Although she has been involved with textiles since she was young, Moisan’s love of weaving truly developed when she moved to the city of Saint-Étienne in France, where she lived just blocks away from the Musée d’Art et d’Industrie. Within the museum, she discovered a room of antique looms, one of which she tells me “just feels like it belongs to [her].” he first Jacquard loom was invented in 1804 by Joseph Marie Jacquard. Although looms were already in use at the time, they required a second person sitting on top of the loom called “le tireur” to pull up the threads. Jacquard invented a “head” for the loom, so that this extra person was not needed. The Jacquard loom was controlled by a chain of punched cards, laced together in a continuous sequence—a technique that inspired the hardware used by early computer programming.

 

But in a television program about the top 100 innovations of humankind she watched recently, Moisan said that the loom was not acknowledged. “If it’s not one of the most important innovations,” Moisan tells me with a laugh, “what is it?”

 

The Jacquard loom, located in the Textiles and Materiality Cluster, weaves based on black and white pixelated images that are fed through the software used by the cluster called Pointcarré. Much like binary code, these images work to raise or lower the heddles. But the loom is also a complex machine. Images can change based on their different materials and new threads or different warps and densities on the loom can completely alter a technique. It took Moisan over 100 hours to learn the software and over 5 years of using the loom to develop her current skill level, but this development of her craft is also an important part of her work.

 

Moisan’s art weaves together this history of the loom with modern concerns, both conceptually and in practice. For example, her MFA thesis project explores moments of waiting. These brocade pieces draw on the tradition of 19th-century French textiles that depicted small, woven romantic scenes. But her own work is concerned with a modern world and fast-paced world where “we still wait everywhere.” The project asks the question, “where and who are we when we’re waiting?”

 

Similarly, Moisan’s We Have too Many Friends depict woven scènes de genre (portraits of everyday life) based on intimate images downloaded from free sharing websites. In one picture, a man is passed out drunk on a floor covered in bottles. In another, a person is curled up on top of a toilet. The project explores the boundaries between public and private, spaces and non-spaces, as well as the many layers of screens we wade through in order to navigate reality. In We Have too Many Friends Moisan chooses to represent images of people as opposed to their physical bodies. Similarly, her photography work in the past has focused on representing the world through a series of blurry fiberglass and resin screens.

 

Despite addressing modern concerns, Moisan’s work is also embedded in a long history of weaving and making. Her interactive woven representation of Angry Birds differs from her other works in that it brings a digital game outside of its screen and into the space in front of us. Viewers can interact with the piece by throwing velcro balls at the image, forcing the game out of its independent screen and into a communal space.

 

But Moisan seems to always be drawn to moments of community and communication. Although she does not always work with others, she tells me that she misses the community of women she used to quilt with, who would use their time together as a way to socialize.

There is a long history of storytelling and communication in weaving and embroidery, within communities as well as stitched into fabric. Chilean Arpilleras, for example, were used to record a history of violence. Although Moisan’s work comes from a different place than the artists behind these works, she is interested in and inspired by these forms of communication through textiles.

 

“There are so many words to explain things,” she tells me near the end of our interview, “but I like when people just react to, just look at [my art].” She values their emotional responses and letting her works speak for themselves. Much like the loom, she feeds her ideas into the machine and works through them to create complex and interwoven conversations, to visualize in a poetic and also very material way moments such as waiting on a bench.

 

Across the table from me, she weaves her fingers together as if to show just how easy it is to intertwine the things we perceive as binary opposites—and how strong they become when they are brought together.