‘The time it takes to peel an orange.’

 

Over the last few weeks I’ve noticed a lot of media interest in, and some quite strong critique, of the National Gallery’s decision to allow people to use their mobile phones to take photos of artworks in its galleries. Several writers lamented this decision, suggesting that photography hinders rather than encourages engagement with artworks.

Commenting on this debate, journalist Archie Bland, writing in The Independent, quoted some interesting and conflicting opinions about the time needed to look at and understand or ‘appreciate’ an artwork. Here are some of the amusingly alternative timescales suggested in his article:

  • As long as you like.
  • Longer than you think.
  • 100 hours.
  • The time it takes to peel an orange.
  • A lifetime.

Bland compares these with the average audience time spent with an artwork reported by some gallery visitor studies:

  • 15 seconds (for the ‘Mona Lisa’ at The Louvre).
  • 32.5 seconds (Metropolitan Museum of Art , New York).
  • 17 seconds (research at Rutgers University).

While we might traditionally consider the gallery as the place for more concentrated and contemplative looking and public space/public art as a place of the ‘glance’, this research makes me think that actually these art experiences may not be so dissimilar. Do the accumulated moments of glancing and passing by or even the half an hour spent with a public sculpture over a summer sandwich count towards an incrementally deeper or extended encounter?

What the shortest or longest time you’ve spent with a work of public art? What might this add up to over the course of a lifetime?

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Art Everywhere: better than another car advert?

Art Everywhere logo

Today marks the first day of Art Everywhere 2014, a ‘national outdoor art exhibition that aims to flood the streets with great British art’ (Source: Art Everywhere website). A not-for-profit collaboration between the UK ‘out of home’ advertising industry, the Art Fund, Tate, Facebook and others, Art Everywhere describes itself as ‘A Very Very Big Art Show’.

The project is ‘Big’ on many fronts. Over the next six weeks it will present giant (and smaller scale) reproductions of 25 paintings by British artists on 30,000 public billboard and poster advertising sites across the UK. In doing so the project claims to be able to reach an audience amounting to 90% of the UK population. The project is crowd curated: the final selection of the 25 images was decided through a Facebook poll that received 38,000 votes. It is also partially crowd funded, with supporters gaining various levels of reward for their cash donations. And it’s social too – making full use of Twitter and Instagram to promote to and engage with audiences.

In its ‘bringing art out of the gallery, onto the streets, and to the people’ ethos Art Everywhere would seem to offer a glossy and sophisticated media version of public art. But like much public art it’s not without some controversy. While some contemporary artists have been keen supporters (Antony Gormley and Grayson Perry jointly launched the 2014 project last week and the artist Bob and Roberta Smith offered similar endorsement to the 2013 edition) others have been more critical. In an A-N debate on the project last year some artists questioned whether Art Everywhere could in any way constitute ‘good public art’. While some A-N contributors argued that any new opportunity for the public to engage with visual artworks must be regarded as positive (and certainly better than gazing at just another car advert) others criticised the project for being ‘safe’, ‘gimmicky’, and ‘patronising’. In focusing on the reproduction of existing and often well-known artworks it was regarded by many of these artists as a missed opportunity to commission new and context specific work. And of course, as A-N’s Susan Jones reminded readers, using billboards and public media as a site for artists’ works is hardly a new phenomenon. Similarly as another contributor to the A-N discussion suggested, conventional permanently sited public art collections, such as the ‘220 Public Artworks’ to be encountered in Milton Keynes might also be happily tagged as #arteverywhere

I wonder whether there be much debate on the Art Everywhere project this year, and if so where will this go?

NOTE: this year Art Everywhere is even bigger – it now has a US version too.

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Working with and through the visual

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last week my PhD time was focused primarily on the opportunities, issues and complexities of what might be broadly termed ‘visual research’.

In the first part of the week I took part in the NEDTC’s ‘Developing Theory and Practice in Visual Methodology’ training, then followed this up by attending the Newcastle University Visualities Research Group’s ‘Visual In-Sights’ Conference at Newcastle’s Culture Lab. Together these two events offered a overview of different approaches to ‘the visual’ and useful prompts for thinking about my own research – both in terms of its visual subject (public art objects), its methodology and its dissemination.

The NEDTC training offered practical opportunities to explore a spectrum of methods, tools and analytical approaches. These included hands-on group work with creative 3D modelling, visual context mapping, and found image analysis (probably the most applicable to my own research) The second day (which I wasn’t able to attend) went on to a more detailed exploration of different photo analysis protocols and tools for participant-generated data. Throughout the emphasis was on the potential of visual methods as alternatives to more standard quantitative or qualitative tools such as interviews, questionnaires, or observation. The message being that visual methods offer: a) an attractive route for participant engagement; b) a means of generating rich data; and c) an opportunity to open up more creative thinking, for both academic researchers and research participants.

These issues were explored and discussed in more detail, and in relation to a range of disciplines and research project examples, in the conference presentations and panels in the second half of the week. Here, visual research ethics, the changing status of the photograph and the social/communicative nature of visual images were recurring themes. Methods and approaches went beyond the found, elicited and participatory to showcase more emerging visual research practices including: digital/multimedia storytelling; research process storyboarding; actor-network visualisation; use of visual/graphic probes; and social media analysis. Of most immediate interest to me (in my own current investigation of public art representation on photo-sharing sites) were the three presentations in the ‘Visualities and Social Media’ panel by current PhD candidates Caelli Jo Brooker, Rhys Crilley, and Elisa Serafinelli. These investigated institutional and individual image based social media activity, variously on Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram. Together this group of presentations led to an interesting discussion on visual social media analysis techniques, ethical concerns, and potentials for qualitative investigation as oppose to current enthusiasm for ‘big-data’ oriented social media research.

Altogether it was a thoroughly stimulating week at the methodological interstices of the ‘visual turn’.

 

 

 

 

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Note to a disappointed reader

At our recent ICCHS PGR conference earlier this month a fellow PhD student spoke these guilt inducing but motivating words: “So when are you going to update your blog?” Oh no – someone’s noticed my blogging failure! But, hurrah too – I had a disappointed reader!

My last blog post had been months back, in January, and I had a series of half written drafts and notes for new posts sitting silent and unpublished on my laptop. My PhD research had been moving on, with c.9000 words completed on my first draft literature review, a series of interviews successfully underway, and my first external conference paper prepared and delivered. All very positive in PhD terms, but somehow not great for my academic blog. A blogging block had set in.

So definitely time for a revamp then: hence these new pages and this new design. More tweaks and new content coming soon (promise)!

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Timelines – onto ‘the conveyor belt of history’?

Sara Fanelli's timeline at Tate Modern. Source: www.sarafanelli.com

Sara Fanelli’s timeline at Tate Modern. Source: http://www.sarafanelli.com

In his article for Curator: The Museum Journal, (2013) US academic Steven Lubar argues that although timelines seem like a ‘natural’ approach to museum display, they present an over deterministic narrative structure. He warns that the timeline should be ‘used with care’ (p.169). For Lubar a new approach is needed that retains the usefulness and accessibility of the timeline but which opens it up to more visitor interaction and personalisation. In the article he makes six suggestions for how the timeline format might be expanded upon (p.185):

  1. use it to highlight key ‘decision points’ and pivotal moments;
  2. complicate it historically by intersecting with other topic timelines;
  3. make it ‘lumpy’ by focusing on defined periods;
  4. use it to connect events across the world, rather than in one place;
  5. focus it on geography, rather than on time;
  6. invite visitors to remix it to fit their own stories and personal interests.

Prompted by Lubar’s article, I’ve started to use the content curation platform Scoop.it to compile a collection of museum based timelines. This is to help develop my own thinking about how a timeline architecture and Lubar’s ‘six suggestions’ might be applied to my research into the public art ‘collection’ in Newcastle-Gateshead. Interestingly, as Tate is one of the timeline rejectionists of the 1990s/2000s that Lubar discusses in his article, a lot of these examples actually come from Tate. Here the timeline is fully present again, as artist designed gallery souvenirs, as in-and off-galley interpretation and as exhibition design – the new ‘Walk Through British Art’ display at Tate Britain.

Following my own initial data collection work in Newcastle-Gateshead I’ve been visually grouping individual artworks into a rough chronology using the free visualisation software Easy Timeline. I’ve also been researching other web-based ‘timeline’ applications. Some of these have the capacity to link time and place through image geo-tagging. In visiting other public art ‘collections’ (online or physically), it seems that it is through this frame of place and location that public artworks are more usually interpreted rather than through the lens of ‘art history’. It is the map, rather than the timeline, that is the ubiquitous form of presentation for a public art ‘collection’.

References and links:

http://www.scoop.it/t/timelines-for-art

Lubar, S. (2013). Timelines in ExhibitionsCurator: The Museum Journal56(2), 169–188. doi:10.1111/cura.12018 [Online. Accessed: 25 October 2013].

Note: the title for this post is taken from Nicholas Serota’s (1996 statement) quoted by Lubar in his (2013) article.

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Photographing public artworks: signs of ‘affiliation and affection’?

Photographing 'Couple on Street', Lynn Chadwick, (1984), Canary Wharf Public Art Collection, London.

Photographing ‘Couple on Street’, Lynn Chadwick, (1984), Canary Wharf Public Art Collection, London.

This week I’ve come across two blog posts about the pros and cons of taking photographs of objects in museums. This has nudged me to put down a few notes here about my own reflections around people’s attraction to photographing public artworks beyond the confines of the museum.

From my own street observations over the years and recent scannings of the internet and social media for images of public artworks from the Newcastle-Gateshead ‘collection’ (the subject of my current PhD study) it would seem that taking a photograph of, or posing for a photograph with, public artworks is almost instinctive. With a camera, or smartphone, in your hand when you encounter a new or striking piece of public art it seems the obvious thing to do (if, that is, you are photographically inclined).

Could this stopping to take a photograph be seen as a primary signal of audience engagement with a public artwork, an object which may more typically be seen only peripherally while passing-by on the way to somewhere/something else? Could the short moment taken to do this be the longest time anyone deliberately spends ‘with’ the work? In public space it seems that photography could be a more acceptable public behaviour than other more physical forms of interaction with these objects. Although sited without barriers (and watchful gallery staff) we may not feel free to touch, or even to walk round, step back, go close to these objects, as we might be tempted or indeed expected to do when encountering artworks in a museum or gallery. In the urban public realm I’ve rarely witnessed these kinds of ‘looking at art’ behaviours outside of a formal public art tour.

‘Powerless Structures Fig. 101’, Elmgren and Dragset, The 4th Plinth, London, 2012-13

Photographing ‘Powerless Structures Fig. 101’, Elmgren and Dragset, (2012-13), The 4th Plinth, London.

So why do people take photographs of public artworks? What does it indicate about a person’s relationship to these objects? What do people do with or get from these images they have taken?

In the latest of his blog series ‘Tilting at Windmills’, Ed Rodley suggests that rather than taking photographs to document the objects they have seen, museum visitor’ photography, and the subsequent sharing of that imagery e.g. via social media, is a representation of their ‘affiliation’ with the chosen object and with the institution of the museum. For Rodley these photographic acts are ‘underutilized and under-appreciated’ by museum professionals, who are often more concerned to control visitor photography than to encourage it.

Visitor photography and its relationship to the museum experience is also the subject of Jamie Glavic’s recent post ‘Reflection vs. Collection’ on the Museum Minute blog. This is written in part response to a recent research study (by Linda Henkel) that suggests that taking photographs in the museum actually prevents rather than assists visitors in remembering the objects they have seen. As Glavic writes, Henkel has labelled this phenomenon the ‘photo-taking-impairment effect’. Interestingly though, Henkel’s study did find that when people began to explore objects with the camera further, to photograph specific details, they did retain a clearer memory of the object. Glavic notes that Henkel’s study only investigated the effects of the act of taking a photograph, not what people subsequently did with or thought about the images they had made.

Do Rodley and Glavic’s posts and Henkel’s findings reflect what happens beyond the gallery? Outside the museum, in the ’public realm’ we are generally freer to photograph the artworks we encounter than we are in the museum/art gallery, although there are sometimes similar concerns, and occasional controversies, around copyright infringement and security issues. (In my own work I have been stopped several times from taking photographs of public artworks on the Tyne and Wear Metro by its security staff, for example.) Can we take these ‘posings for photographs with public artworks’, ‘selfies’, Flickr portfolios and crowdsourced online public/‘street art’ directories as signals of ‘affiliation and affection’ with the artworks represented? Or are these images perhaps more like trophies of time and place (a more simple visual statement of ‘I was here’)?

NOTES AND REFERENCES

Ed Rodley is Associate Director of Integrated Media at Peabody Essex Museum, Boston (USA). He blogs at Thinking about museums. Jamie Glavic is Strategic Projects Coordinator at Ohio Historical Society (USA).

Rodley, E. (2013) ‘Tilting at Windmills, Part Three’, Thinking about museums, 8 December. Available at: http://exhibitdev.wordpress.com/2013/12/08/tilting-at-windmills-part-three/ (Accessed: 08.01.14).

Glavic, J. (2013) ‘Reflection vs. Collection’, Museum Minute, 11 December. Available at: http://museumminute.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/reflection-vs-collection-a-new-report-looks-at-the-effect-of-picture-taking-on-remembering-the-museum-experience/ (Accessed: 08.01.14).

Henkel, L. (2013) ‘Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour’, Psychological Science, XX (X), pp. 1-7, Sage [Online]. Available at: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/12/04/0956797613504438 (Accessed: 08.01.14).

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‘Productive-procrastination’ or ‘What’s the point of writing a PhD blog?’

As my start to the New Year, and as a reviver post for this blog, I thought I’d take a look at what some other PhD people have been doing with their blogging. I’m hoping this will help me to rethink how I can integrate my own blog with my wider PhD workload. As I’m now scarily nearly half way through my own (funded) PhD time, 2014 is going to be the year for me to really get down to the business of organised data collection and some serious putting words on paper (or screen) work. If I’m going to continue building this blog it really needs to be part and parcel of my PhD strategy rather than something that continuously (as over the last few months) ends up sitting sadly at the bottom of my ‘to-do’ list.

So what are other PhD-ers using their blogs for?

I’ve spent a couple of hours this week browsing around the world of academic blogging to see how other PhD students are using blogs. I’m focusing here on independent blogs rather than those more formal collective ones sometimes put together by research faculties. Strangely the five that I’ve actually been drawn to read here have all been written by women. (Is PhD blogging a particularly female activity perhaps?) Anyway, here are the five that I looked at:

‘Blogging the PhD’

Although I was trying to find specifically arts and humanities related blogs, this one is actually written by a science PhD-er (Vicky Young), a researcher in reproductive biology at Edinburgh University. This is a million miles from my own research area, but actually I found this blog really quite engaging. Although including some more formal and technical sections (as separate pages), Vicky mainly uses her blog to add updates on her general PhD progress. Often she writes about this a very frank way – she’s not afraid to talk about her ‘fears’ and ‘moods’ and things going wrong with her lab work. Like many other academic bloggers she also uses the blog to promote her publication successes and to share her latest conference presentations.  She also uses it to talk about her creative public engagement work around science, including her comedy debut with the Bright Club (how brave is that!).

‘The Everyday Trials and Tribulations of a PhD Student…The ramblings of a madwoman who managed somehow to stumble onto a rather good PhD course…’

This one is by a researcher called Jayney who celebrated the completion of her PhD last year. I haven’t read enough of her blog to find out exactly what this research was about yet, but it was ESRC funded. Jayney used her blog to talk about her own PhD experience and the issues and problems of balancing this with family and social life (including having two children) since staring her PhD in 2008. She’s a really prolific blogger – 381 posts in 2012! Her posts are rather in a stream of consciousness model but full of generous experience sharing and constructive advice for other PhD students. She writes in detail about all the stages and aspects of her research, including the practicalities and experience of fieldwork abroad, her personal writing, reading and note taking methods, and the emotional journey of the PhD. This blog is one I may go back to, particularly for the advice Jayney offers on ways to work through writing problems and general motivation.

‘The bumpy joyride of being a PhD student’

This one’s written by Eljee Javier, a student on a Graduate Teaching / Research Assistant Scholarship at The University of Manchester. Her research explores the relationships between ‘language, race and identity’ in English language teaching. For me one of the most interesting features of Eljee’s blog is her series on her self-imposed ‘30 day challenges’. These include: ‘reading a different chapter or article every day for 30 days, where she gives a brief summary of what she’s read each day plus a reflection on what she’s thought / felt / achieved over each week; and ‘spend 15 minutes a day transcribing’ where in order to force herself to do this job she tracks her daily word and minute count, and days missed out, over the period of a month. Eljee seems really into the ‘challenge’ model, being an enthusiastic advocate for the Pomodoro technique and #ACRIMO, both of which I have also experimented with as motivational/productivity challenges.

‘Leisurely Seeking Doctorate

This blog is by an American mature student called Elizabeth who is currently doing a PhD in design research (?) at Northumbria University, here in Newcastle. Like me she is also a mature student – 60 when she started her PhD in 2012 – coming to academia from a former career as an information technology professional. She describes the focus of her current PhD research as: ‘the design of technology to support spiritual and numinous experiences, experiences of awe and wonder.’ (!) but the blog itself is more about her experiences of doing a PhD in the UK and of living/studying in Newcastle. Like Jayney she is a prolific blogger, writing multiple posts each month from starting her investigations into PhD study in 2011. There is a wide range of material here, from observations on academic language, to updates on supervisory meetings, comments about the North East weather, and practical advice for other Americans coming to live/study in the UK.

‘Digital nerdosaurus – adventures in and about museums, technology and awesome user experiences’

I came to this one last but actually this blog is the one that has most interest for me in terms of my own research interests. It’s written by Clairey Ross who is a Research assistant and PhD student at UCL’s Centre for Digital Humanities, investigating ‘visitor experience in digital cultural contexts.’ Her work has a special focus on public engagement with museum collections, including as her PhD case studies, UCL’s ‘QRater’ platform and the Imperial War Museum’s ‘Social Interpretation Project’. Clairey describes her blog as: ‘ponderings about my digital nerdosaurus adventures in and about museums, social media, digital humanities, tea and cake.’ It includes a regular and interesting stream of reports from museum visits, and conferences and workshops that Clairey’s attended / presented at. There is a great sense here of a being part of a creative community around this area of practice. For me, these posts (which go back to 2010) provide a really useful overview of recent museum digital engagement projects and research, that I may well return to as a reference.

Okay, so based on the blogs I’ve looked at, what have I learned from this brief review?

1) PhD bloggers are generally very ‘self-reflective’ and open about their PhD experiences, with a particular focus on the vagaries of the ‘PhD journey’.

2) Everyone writes in a very different style, sometimes changing this between post formats – some blogs/posts are obviously pretty carefully crafted while others are looser, much more casually written, some posts are self-consciously academic and others are more confessional, practical or deliberately humorous.

3) Some bloggers are full of enthusiasm for their PhD research topic, while others dwell more on the problems of work/study/life balance.

4) Some PhD-ers use their blogs as motivational tools or to log progress and successes, while others use them more as a repository for documenting research or engagement activity.

5) Some PhD-ers write to their blogs continuously and regularly, others much more sporadically.

Not earth shattering conclusions at all, you might say, but having done this bit of research/writing (and a new blog post achieved!) I now feel at least a bit more a member of some kind of wider blogging world.

Note: The title for this post comes from one of the ‘Blogging the PhD’ posts, entitled ‘Procrastination!’, where Vicky Young describes blogging as a form of ‘productive-procrastination or pseudo-progress': a warning for all PhD bloggers and something I need to be mindful about myself over the coming year.

Questions: Does writing a blog about your PhD experience help or hinder the thesis writing process? Does it help academic development in other ways perhaps? What do you think? Is there anyone out there who has done some real work researching the ‘PhD blog’ as a genre of academic blogging and who may offer some answers?

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