Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Imagining Business: workshop and exhibition, Oxford

As the STS ontology crowd sipped their wine or water (see previous post), the reception blurred into another event, with about 10 people attending both. The first workshop on Imagining Business: Reflecting on the Visual Power of Management, Organising and Governing Practices brought together about 80 people, some from social sciences including schools of management but some also working in techology studies and design. Organised by my colleague Paolo Quattrone together with François-Régis Puyou and Chris McLean, the two-day workshop had keynotes and sessions that threw together people drawing on diverse, and sometimes contradictory intellectual resources including STS, semiotics and more standard social science approaches. Keynote speakers were Nigel Thrift (Warwick) on glamour and aesthetics; Donald MacKenzie (Edinburgh) on the materiality of the carbon trading markets; and Paolo Fabbri, (Venice) on semiotics and "diagrammology".

Daniel Beunza (Columbia) has done a nice summary on his blog so I won't add much about the event, other than to discuss my involvement, as the organiser with Nina Wakeford (Goldsmiths) and Alex Hodby (Platform Projetcts), of an exhibition entitled "Imagining Business" conceived of as integral to the workshop. There are brief details in an earlier post which I will not repeat now.

What it makes sense to include here is a brief account of how we conceived of the exhibition as part of the workshop. If this was to be a meaningful event in which materiality and aesthetics were discussed, to my mind it could not take itself seriously without having artifacts by artists and designers present as their own arguments.

The exhibition includes work by two visual artists (Chris Evans - Radical Loyalty, above; Carey Young) who show something about organisations and how they organise; two design consultancies (livework and Wolff Olins) who are directly involved with creating visualisations and ideas for organisations; and two interdisciplinary artist-researchers (myself, above; and Nina Wakeford) who use visual forms to show how organisational knowledge practices are enacted. Having these works present during Imagining Business was intended to give participants a chance to consider in some detail how these practitioners are operating as they assemble aspects of organisations and in so doing, imagine them. Images of some of the installed works are shown here (others cannot be shown because of conflicts with company confidentiality).

Academics are accustomed to the rituals and the grammar of conferences and workshops, but they may not be so fluent in reading art and design artifacts in an exhibition. So we attempted to deal with this by programming in a guided walk-through of the exhibition, accompanied by three of the exhibiting artists, with a discussant, Noortje Marres of Goldsmiths College, making comments and raising questions at each stopping point. As the organiser and host, I asked the 40+ workshop participants who joined us to consider this walk-through as a paper at the workshop and they generously seemed to go with this.

As organisers, we thought of this exhibition as a kind of public experiment. Bringing visual artifacts into a space in which there is to be a conversation about visual artifacts seemed an obvious move. Bringing together work from different perspectives - the visual arts and design - alongside works created to engage with academic communities about the nature of knowledge production, was trickier. It's probably too early to say what the effects are but some participants at least found the presence of these works to be an important part of the workshop. Others, however, seemed to ignore it - which itself is data. One senior scholar told me he thought the tubes and badges piece (my Physical Bar Charts) was just like a questionnaire, really, a lack of paying attention that gloriously reveals the way academics steeped in social sciences are unable to read or even see things that aren't text (except when they are doing fieldwork. Surely the field is everywhere!

List of images shown here, from top
Chris Evans - Signage for the future site of Radical Loyalty, 2007
Carey Young - Installation view of 'Everything You've Heard is Wrong', video, 1999
Lucy Kinbell - Close up of badges from Physical Bar Charts, 2005-8
Nina Wakeford - Here Comes Experience!, audio installation, 2008

Click here for a 2-page PDF with a short summary about each work.

Catalogue: A catalogue is available with essays by Paolo Quattrone, François-Régis Puyou and Christine Mclean; Jon Wood; and an interview by Noortje Marres with Lucy Kimbell and Nina Wakeford. Catalogue intro by Alex Hodby, Lucy Kimbell and Nina Wakeford.

Those who are interested in knowing more can buy the catalogue by contacting Platform Projects. Thanks to the artists and designers who participated, and to the funders for their support.
Photo credit: Britt Hatzius

Photos of my Physical Bar Charts over 3 weeks by Christian Toennesen on flickr

Sunday, July 06, 2008

A turn to ontology

A couple of weeks ago, some of the more well-known, and some of the newer names in the field of Science, Technology and Society (or Science and Technology Studies; STS) gathered in Oxford to consider the current turn to ontology in STS. The speakers' names and their papers are gathered here. Organised by my colleagues in the James Martin Institute, the workshop sought to consider whether there is a turn to ontology in science studies and what, if anything, this might signify.

Attending as an occasional traveller/hanger-on/collaborator with STS scholars, I was struck how some of the discussions in the room seemed to be almost an internal conversation...STS was once radical...Has it lost its edge? ... What does it mean to be radical anyway? ... What does STS and its focus on the materiality of objects and their traces in social relations have to offer as compared to other approaches? And so on. Listening to Noortje Marres (Goldsmiths) present some of her work looking at the blogs of people undertaking green living experiments and the materialities they are entangled with raised useful questions about climate change and action.

Often when I read or listen to STS perspectives I am struck by the parallels with critical (or perhaps better termed reflexive) practices in art and design. It's already there in some of the STS literature. In Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (2005) Latour, for example, makes clear the similarities between ANT and activities in fields such as art: the making of an installation is a work of construction or assembly. Artists and designers are educated to pay serious and detailed attention to artifacts. Part of their practice is to assembling things and often their methods involve questioning the nature of things, whether they are designing a chair, or making a performance. We might say the work of some artists and designers can be seen as creating accounts of the traces of actors (in the ANT terminology). And that they are knowingly, iteratively, reflexively going about doing this. But this idea is not usually present in meetings such as this (see the next post....).