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

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