Making Spaces in Maker Spaces: A History of the Ethnography Lab

There is a new research group filling the spaces of Milieux. The Ethnography Lab was conceived in the department of Sociology & Anthropology, and was inaugurated on February this year as a space for exploring and experimenting with various ethnographic methods.

 Although originally constituted by two short-term project groups, the Ethnography Lab rapidly became a heterogeneous space that holds not only field-focused research groups but also a podcast, a writing circle, a conversation group, and a creative re-use project. The divergent scope of practices in this specific composition[1] find their roots in the process of making the space. So how does the story of the Ethnography Lab unfold?

The sheer fact that this initiative of social scientists has found a place in maker spaces is in-itself telling of the entanglement of material and social relations that constitute this story.

There are two key ingredients that define this research group: one is having active projects, and the other is the material construction of the space. While the projects provide fuel to the research space and give it vibrancy; it is the making of this space that has laid the foundation for an assemblage of various practices to be gathered.

In the making of the things that reside in and define the space, the Ethnography Lab has become a ‘thing’ itself.

The centerpiece of the research space is a large table that embodies the story of how the space came to be. The making of the table was a process that put the members together and provided a sense of solidarity by enforcing itself as solid matter waiting to be assembled. People who worked on crafting the table and various furniture have shared both enjoyment and frustration; we experienced pleasure that came with lunch breaks, and pain that came with carrying heavy materials in and out of places. We learned how to use various tools, and how to give material time for it to take its final form. Overall, the mundane and repetitive task that materiality requires enabled production of a collective effervescence[2], which was reorganized into sociality that informed the everyday reality[3] of this research space.

The table reflects this coming together of human and nonhumans actors into a collective[4] that now we call Ethnography Lab. The ‘things’ that define Ethnography Lab are embodiments of the intertwined materiality and sociality: the table that was gathered by ethnographers now gathers researchers from various disciplines; the ‘campfire’ brings together different schools of thought; these ‘things’ both create the conditions of the possibility for, and become witnesses to unfolding of ideas, emergence of projects, and formation of solidarities.

The space now hosts a podcast series that profiles the activities happening around Ethnography Lab; a writing circle where people engage with their scholarly work in solidarity with another; and a conversation group that aims at creating a space dedicated to crystallizing the collective aspect of knowledge production. Not to mention initiations that emerge from the gathering of the lab; for instance, a visit from students from STS program in Technical University of Munich turned into a long-term collaboration with various members of Milieux that will result in conferences and research on maker spaces. If the Ethnography Lab only worked through short-term projects, I do not think that it would turn into the lively space that it is becoming. The initial step of materially putting together the space in collective action had set forth processes that unfold into bundles of assemblages.

 Making a space in a makerspace such as Milieux is a concrete example of how making some-things makes us something.

The collectivity that constructs this space is what makes the Ethnography Lab special. The surplus of the socio-materiality spills over from the making of things and composes the research space as a place of belonging, thus enabling the coming-into-being of new collaborations and initiatives.

The Ethnography Lab became a part of the vibrancy of Speculative Life Research Cluster of Milieux, with its table gathering discussions, experiences, methods, and researchers together, setting a space for interdisciplinary exchanges to take place and innovative research approaches to emerge.

 

 

Interacting With Place

My research maps together practices of knowledge transformation – sensory observation, spatial critique, and art-making – to ask how places come to be known. In doing so, I consider how metaphors shape understanding of spatial environments, and how they can be played with.

 

My work incorporates multi-media field practices focused on sound and listening in order to direct sensory attention in new ways which challenge ingrained assumptions. I’ve been sharing some of these techniques in the Sound Environments Workshop series (hosted by Milieux), as we experiment together with approaching sound as a “texture of reality.” These practices include prosthetic encounters (forcing shifts in perspective by filtering the senses through technology, such as microphones or lenses), juxtaposing images and sounds (i.e., creating spaces of meaning through contrast and poetic resonance), and open-ended art practices.

These practices of “listening deeply” force us to question our spatial impressions. For example, last year I worked on a sound-based collaborative project exploring ‘situated nostalgia’ in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, organized by Dr. Owen Chapman in connection with Concordia and Lancaster University. Designed by then-Mayor Jean Drapeau and architect Roger Taillibert in the 1970s, the “Big-O” was signalled as a potent, modern cosmopolitan space for both commercial tourism and Montreal nationalist and humanist identity work.

 

But what did it mean to have this identity work mustered by a 175-metre tower that jutted outward at a 45° angle to form the capstone of a rolling cement landscape – besides suggesting the future under formation by a benevolent scientific patriarchy?

 

Although I was critical of the Big O to begin with, and planned to enter tension with its history and expression of public space values, roaming the grounds physically led me to embodied experiences that I could not so easily dismiss. Through repeated encounters, I observed not only complex spatial properties of the site, but my own experiences of space. I was able to hear energy flow in the enormous concrete diorama, ponder the act of its mass obliterating a residential area, and grapple with my own feelings of awe at the stimulating geometry of the walkway design.

 

At the Olympic Stadium, I approached the site as a visitor and tourist. With my thesis work, my role was different. My project engaged nature sites well-known to me in my rural hometown. There, I was an expat returning to a familiar site with new knowledge of local history and development. The local natural spaces appeared pristine, while at the same time they were being managed and presented for the public by local government and resource industry operations (hydro-electric, logging, quarrying, etc). Their organization primed visitors for a settler experience of land and public space and excluded histories and perspectives outside the settlement paradigm.

The question driving me became how my understanding of home had ever been so in line with local narratives that I was now deeply questioning.  

 

A focus on metaphor led me to question whether, when driving the backroads, I might interpret my car as a sort of house-proxy (intimate space furnished with comforts of home), or as a mech suit, or both. I wondered how perceiving it each way affected/effected my experience of the backcountry I was driving through and shaped my relations with where I was going.

 

These interpretations bear on ways sensory awareness is integrated into social paradigms and place narratives. They can suggest which parts of public space are connected ecologically or seemingly kept apart, how shared space should be used, what values are prioritized, and how development can be realized. In the case of the road, the benefit of high-speed transportation became associated with the current infrastructure providing it – which also delimited what other forms of conveyance and connectivity might be imagined.

To spread our metaphors across the floor and consider their evocation allows us to reconsider memory-work, social values, and durational themes not always identified at first reflection. Creative methodologies and sensory focus push back against grooved thoughts and archetypal structures and illuminate processes of world-creation.

Adapting Academia: On Pedagogy and Fandom

Amid the stress of grades, coursework, and piles of assigned readings, what can we do to remind students—and ourselves—why we came to the academy in the first place? How can we liven up the classroom. Last fall, I was offered the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant for ENGL 261: British Literature to 1660. The survey class, compulsory for the majority of undergraduate English degrees, features the daunting likes of Beowulf, Paradise Lost, and the other usual suspects of the early English literary canon. In the first class, it became clear that many students’ academic interests lay elsewhere, and that the centuries-wide chasm between today and Volume A of the Norton Anthology of Western Literature positioned the syllabus as largely un-relatable. 

To render these texts more appealing and accessible, the students didn’t need me at my most academic—the needed me at my most fannish: as someone capable of modeling interest and of connecting the works and concepts under discussion to cultural objects they already knew and cared about. Clips from ABC’s comedy musical Galavant opened the door to discussions of courtly love and the chivalric code; She’s the Man clarified the stakes and subversions of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The weeks where we took contemporary adaptations as our conversational starting points resulted in some of the more enriching critical conversations we had.

 

Around that same time, I sat down with my fellow members of the organizing committee for the annual Concordia English Graduate Colloquium to decide the theme of our fifteenth iteration. Our concerns cohered around a collective desire to do exactly what I was struggling to do in class: to make scholarship more engaging for academics and the broader public.

 

Like canon-driven syllabi, conferences have long been criticized for their elitism and affective distance. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Friere describes an academy that is “detached from reality,” disconnected,” and governed by an “alienating verbosity.” Such a disconnect means that, as academics, we occasionally forget what drew us to scholarship in the first place, how we initially learned how to close read not in classes but through our favorite books, movies, video games, and an assortment of cultural objects that only tangentially make their way into class discussions.

 

A number of my co-organizers and I were fans long before we became serious about academia. We are, to borrow Matt Hills’ widely popularized term, aca-fans, liminal individuals who identity as both fans and academics, and who have access to the cultural communities and means of knowledge production of both. When our committee settled on “The Sincerest Form of Flattery” as the title for our call, we didn’t want to create a fan expo by overthrowing the structures of academia altogether. Instead, we wanted to open a dialogue between criticism and cultural objects not often discussed in universities. Our panels examined fan-fiction, memes, video games, Disney, movies, translated letters, and social media platforms through the lenses of feminist, queer, and postcolonial theory.

 

The conference concluded with a keynote address from Dr. Hannah McGregor, an Assistant Professor in Publishing at Simon Fraser University and one half of the duo behind the fortnightly podcast Witch, Please. McGregor’s talk, “Like Dumbledore’s Army Except Hermione is In Charge: Podcasting, Feminist Fandom, and the Public Academic,” addressed the intersections between fandom and scholarship.

 

McGregor suggests that the aca-fan “can bring fannish enthusiasm into the classroom and critical thinking into fandom.” In addressing what a critical practice that is at once analytical and based in love rather than disdain would look like, she says, “My theory is that it would look an awful lot like fandom: engaged, enthused, uninhibited, critical yes, but lovingly so.”

 

Fandom synthesises affection and criticism. As Anne Jamison argues in Fic, fanfiction takes a story and “makes it new, or makes it over, or just simply makes more of it.” A form of making, fanfiction is bound up in an excited desire to take part in a conversation, to say something—and this something is often a critique. The difference is that this form of productive criticism develops out of attachment, engagement, and excitement, not cool superiority.

 

A pedagogy that looks like fandom would therefore be generative rather than silencing, community-oriented rather than isolating. Unfortunately, the specialized language of fandom and the critical interventions that fans undertake out of a desire to explore, transform, and improve the objects of their fandom are often elided or disparaged as being too uncool precisely because they’re too affected. As McGregor notes, “[t]he primary difference between cultural criticism and fan production is the institutionalization of the former,” but imagine what can happen if we were to grant fandom institutional acknowledgement as scholars like Hannah McGregor, Marcelle Kosman, and Anne Jamison do? Imagine what it would be like to sit in a classroom and be encouraged to feel.

 

When we teach the same texts over and over in a way that, as Freire describes, “is alien to the existential experience of the students,” we teach without affect and we teach students that affect and affection does not belong in the classroom. There is merit in studying the cannon, but it’s about time, I think, that we adapt the syllabus.

How To Brand A Nation

As a governmental project, nationalism adopts nation-centric rhetoric and policies that instil a feeling of patriotism and devotion among its citizens. The practice emerged in the 1800s as Europe’s dynastic empires tumbled in favour of nation-states. Over a century later, a new form of nationalism has appeared: nation branding. With nation branding, national consciousness is taken up and repackaged to enhance a country’s trade strategy and soft power. This new tactical form of nationalism is a response to the emergence of the 21st century globalized nation, one whose commercial markets and policies are intertwined with other countries and coalitions. Traditionally, a country’s economic health was based on its national corporations and levels of production. That changed with the increase in free trade agreements, foreign acquisitions and the cross-border production chains of the late 20th century. A country’s economic value could no longer be defined by its corporate landscape. It could, however, be defined by its citizens.

 

So how does one brand a nation? Nation branding operates as a series of campaigns meant to promote a nation’s value to international audiences.[1] Melissa Aronczyk break the process down into four stages: research/evaluation, training/education, identification and implementation. 

The first stage involves evaluating a nation’s level of attractiveness based on national and international perceptions. Citizens are then trained on nation branding and its importance. Thirdly, a nation’s essence or “core idea” is developed, which is then shared through multiple channels as a distinguishing feature of national identity.

 

Canada is no stranger to the practice. Right now, as the country celebrates its 150th anniversary of Confederation, the Liberal Government has taken advantage of the opportunity to “sell” Canada both at home and abroad. Canada’s Sesquicentennial celebrations fit in as part of Aronczyk’s fourth stage of nation branding, to “distill the political, economic and cultural interests of the country into a single but mutable proposition.”[2]  The celebrations’ four themes, diversity and inclusion, reconciliation with indigenous peoples, the environment and youth, reflect the rhetoric that has come to define the Liberal government since Trudeau took leadership. Crafting the themes in the image of the Liberals’ platform is a branding tactic that ensures citizens are embodying the party’s values throughout the celebratory events. The themes are meant to create a cohesive and attractive story of Canada that we, as citizens, are compelled to embody and share.

 

When announcing diversity as a Sesquicentennial theme, Canadian Heritage Minister Melanie Joly reiterated what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has exclaimed many times: “we want to celebrate our diversity” because “Canadians understand that diversity is our strength.” Trudeau’s dependence on the concept of diversity as a selling point was evident during his address at the World Economic Forum Signature Session in Davos in January 2016. The Forum was Trudeau’s first post-election opportunity to tout the “new Canada” on a global stage. In his Davos speech, entitled “The Canadian Opportunity,” Trudeau used the occasion to rebrand the Canadian economy from one that is heavily reliant on natural resources to one that is dependent on its country’s confidence and diversity. The address was one way to establish the innovative technology industry as a natural fit for Canadians because “diversity fosters new ideas.”

 

With his speech, Trudeau shifted Canadians’ understanding of diversity from a key descriptor of their identity into an economic asset. For decades, Canada’s pride as a functioning multicultural society has been at the center of our identity. Now, it is part of our global brand. Yet just 10 years earlier, diversity was deemed an impediment to our “brand.” [3] Now, in the age of “innovation,” mixing different ideas, background, and methods has become valuable. It is true in Toronto, Waterloo, Montreal, and here at Milieux. We embrace diversity; operating at the intersection of art, culture and technology, we encourage each cluster to work together in challenging assumptions about what is possible. The government knows the industrial and technology sectors will only continue to grow. They understand the future of our economy will depend more and more on being innovative and pushing technological boundaries. That is why they are so eager to shift how Canadians and international investors see our economy. The Liberals want us to be known as a country that produces ideas, not oil.

 

When the Liberals took over planning for the Sesquicentennial in 2015 and abandoned the historical aspect of the anniversary in favour of themes, the celebrations moved away from a birthday celebration to a political project, one steeped in nation branding strategy and with a specific mission: to establish long-lasting Canadian myths in their own image for both their citizens and potential investors. As spokesman for Minister Joly, Pierre-Olivier Herbert explained in a January 2017 Globe and Mail article, the celebrations are “our chance to reaffirm our social contract – rooted in our two official languages, our attachment to pluralism as well as our continued efforts towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”[4] Indeed, to live in the nation of Canada is to sign a social contract. With the Sesquicentennial, the Liberals have rewritten the contract, redacting and expanding certain sections while adding others.

 

Nationalism does have its benefits, creating a reassuring and communal bond among citizens. However, as we are seeing today in the United States and Europe, it is also dangerous. The danger of nation branding, like the nationalism it serves, is the mistaken assumption that these myths are intrinsic. When traits are mistaken for intrinsic, one doesn’t want to contaminate them. Nationalism is inherently biased; a group, even one as big as a nation, can only be formed through exclusion. That exclusion can remain benign, or grow into a hostile sense of protectionism to preserve the traditions or way of life (the myths) of a nation.

Participatory Making

You are handed an envelope and instructed to text “READY” to an unknown number. You send the message and look through the envelope. In it is a single loonie, which you pocket. You receive a text and image from the number: “Follow this handrail to the auditorium. Walk slowly. Text me the room number at the end.” You follow the instructions, guided by a series of texts and images from the unknown number. You are told you are looking for someone named Lucie, someone who has been missing for a long time. You are told to “keep your face hidden from the cameras.” You look up to try and see the cameras. You are not sure whether you are more engaged by the mission prescribed to you, or the fact that you enjoy playing the role.

In early April, during the height of end-of-term madness, over twenty students, faculty, and artists gathered at Concordia to kick off a week of workshopping, making, and conceptualizing. The week was part of an ongoing collaboration between independent theatre and digital art company ZU-UK and Milieux’s Technoculture, Art, and Games (TAG) lab.

The starting goals for the week were vague, but exploratory: the group would break into teams and then make projects based on a similar set of concerns. The projects all needed to consider and make something based on the terms “participatory, public, locative, performative, and game.” The ongoing tension of the week was between making things and conceptualizing them. How do we determine how much time to spend on each part of the process? At what point is it necessary to physically experiment with what has been conceptualized, and how often is it important to go back to the conceptual drawing board?

 

You receive another text: “There is a coffee cup in one of the plant pots. I left instructions inside. Do EXACTLY as it says.” You find the coffee cup and ignore the weird looks from the strangers watching you as you pick the instructions out of the cup: “Buy the cheapest thing in the cafe.” You follow through, purchase a banana, make small chat with the barista, try to appear natural. But your phone buzzes again, another text. It is a picture of you, followed by another message: “You have been compromised.”

There is no singular kind of process in group collaboration, rather an ongoing entanglement of making and reflecting on that making. But what seems to work best is an ongoing process of making and reflecting–with neither part of the process dominating the other. Maintaining singular and specific goals is also necessary. Because the week was an experiment, everyone came with different expectations for what was inevitably not-quite-game-jam, not-quite-conference, not-quite-makeathon. By defining the process through nots, we are able to narrow the focus. It is often the simplest, most constrictive goals that allow for the most bizarre, interpretive possibilities. Interactive experiences are similar. Participants need to be drawn in with the least amount of explanation possible. They need to understand their role immediately. They do not necessarily need to feel safe, but if there is a leap, they need the incentive to jump. How we frame playable experiences is similar to how we frame these collaborative processes.

Someone comes up to you. You don’t know them. “You just missed her,” they say, and hand you a pair of headphones. You put the headphones on and hear a voice. It is the voice of Lucie, the woman you have been looking for. “I don’t want to be found,” she tells you. She instructs you to look up, towards the top of the staircase. You see another person, in your old footsteps, picking up an envelope as you once did. You follow them from a distance, listening to the voice. You sabotage their progress, take a picture of them standing outside the cafe. You realize you are the cameras.

In making, thinking, and experimenting, we must remain aware of how our actions function. How do we invite all participants to feel welcoming in our critiques? What conversations are we participating in by conceptualizing? When are we just following prescribed instructions? How do we make our making matter? “Sometimes it is important to stay with the trouble,” TAG co-founder Lynn Hughes tells me, referencing the title of Donna Haraway’s most recent book. And maybe the reference is not so far off from what we try to do when we get together to critically collaborate. This act of participatory, critical collaboration is like a game of cat’s cradle, “passing on in twists and skeins that require passion and action, holding still and moving, anchoring and launching.”

You see them buying a banana, as you once did. You walk towards them, tap them on the shoulder, and repeat: “You just missed her.” You have finished the game. (The not-quite-a-game.) And you feel like not-quite-yourself. You have participated in something much more cyclical and knotted than just an individual experience. You have entangled yourself with other participants in an ongoing process of “becoming-with-each-other” and now you are left looking–not for Lucie–but for your own relation and engagement with that complex, participatory web.