Learning from Public Exhibitions

Every time I’m involved in producing a public event or exhibition, I end up learning an immense amount. Sometimes I learn seemingly small things from the people who attend – details about their lives and experiences that build upon and refocus my research interests. Sometimes I learn important things during the process – for instance how translating between academic writing, press releases, news articles, and posters aimed at a public audience can be immensely challenging and immensely rewarding due to their distinct communities, positioning, and perspectives. Sometimes I come to reflect upon the idea of ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ more generally, and how this rhetoric can both distract from and support the fragments of conversation and new thoughts that might somewhere, someday, contribute to transformations in society.

The interactive public exhibition I produced last week, alongside Elizabeth Shove and the DEMAND Centre, was no exception. It was entitled ‘Heating, cooling, lighting: what is energy for?’ and was presented as part of Lancaster University’s ‘Campus in the City’ in St. Nicholas’ Arcades, Lancaster. While it is always hard to capture traces of these kinds of events, I have collated some of the digital ones on the DEMAND website and on Storify. If you’d like to know more, feel free to get in touch.

‘Bootlegging thought’ through sounds

Following my last post, and in preparation for what will be a significant amount of engagement work with the DEMAND Centre (more on that later), today I have been catching up on some recent academic experiments with audio. As Les Back argues in a podcast on the Goldsmiths University site, podcasting provides a very different mode of engagement than the tradition of university lectures, where students are expected to learn passively and silently from someone with a clear authority over them. While podcasts still engage aurally, they aren’t as easily controlled – and here he quotes Dizzy Gillespie:

You can’t steal a gift… and if you can hear it you can have it.

Part of the value of podcasting then is that it can’t be controlled, and as such it can become mobile more easily. This gives the medium a political potential for “bootlegging though and insight” as Back suggests, as students take others’ voices for a walk and can perhaps as a result engage differently. Given the fact that prominent researchers like Doreen Massey have discussed how their own ideas often germinate while walking, I think there is considerable potential in this portability of academic voices.

One project that has been exploring this potential is Phillip Vannini and Jonathan Taggart’s recent project on off-grid lifestyles in Canada. While touring the country and speaking with people about their off-grid lives, the pair have been producing short soundbites on their very interesting soundcloud stream. Some are curated around topics like how and why people live off grid, but others just present snippets of participant’s voices: talking about how they deal with an excess of hot water or about a stove that they love. I think these soundbites are exciting because they not only provide a glimpse into people’s lives that is much more vibrant and immediate than what is often available through writing, but they also quite valuably eliminate the filter that can appear and cut public audiences off from academic research. The voices are a gift – perhaps the beginning of a conversation, or even a way to bootleg skills of self-sustainability. Regardless, I think Vannini and Taggart show that there are a lot of possibilities for exploring these audio engagements.

I can’t wait to discover more examples of how people are already giving and receiving through sound-based research and research-based sound.