Category Archives: art

From marble to MOOCs… snapshots from my path to Learning Technology

I’ve been continuing my project of uploading a LOT of images to Google Photos and some of these are scans or photos of drawings and artworks I made (Google isn’t great at recognising what the drawings depict but I am not entirely sure whether this is due to my inexpert drawing or insufficiently sophisticated algorithms). Before I started working in Learning Technology and before I did my PhD in Anthropology I trained and practiced as a sculptor – and drawing is a big part of making things. Learning how to draw and sketch shaped how I think and solve problems. Whether in Art or Anthropology or Learning Technology my professional practice has many threads that run through the last two decades. I’ve always been interested in time, change and how we as human beings shape the world around us.

There’s a slideshow of a selection of images in the archive of this blog.

Open CPD, Visual Thinkery, art school: my week made me think

This post is inspired by two things I did this week: first, taking part in Wednesday’s @LTHEchat on the topic of Open CPD with Chris Rowell and second, reading my weekly delivery of Visual Thinkery in Saturday’s newsletter. Both are highly enjoyable, interesting and rewarding so if you haven’t already I strongly recommend you take a look.

CC-BY-ND @bryanMMathers http://bryanmmathers.com/
CC-BY-ND @bryanMMathers http://bryanmmathers.com/

Both of these activities made me think about being online and what I do when I am online. Is it part of a process, a place or a platform? How do I do what I do and why? It’s useful to step back at times and take a look at what I do and the reasons behind it.
In my case a lot of how I work and think was shaped during my years at art school. For six years fine art and specifically making sculptures was what I spent most of my time doing. It was where I first developed a creative process, learnt to do research, gained critical thinking skills and so forth. In practical terms being in a sculptor’s workshop is not at all like being online: it’s all about physical materials, sensual perception, working with your hands and a lot of messiness. Making something has its own pace, too. Some days go by fast and productive, on others nothing happens and sometimes you spent all your time doing something that turns out to be a disaster. In my last year at art school I learnt how to carve marble. Or rather I attempted to.

Marble
Marble…. largely unchanged

I learnt the technique – but then discovered how LONG it would take to actually carve something. I ended up making a single mosaic over two terms and had a small block of marble still sitting on my table largely unchanged. While I don’t make a lot of things anymore the skills and processes I learnt serve me well in my work now, especially online.
One thing I learnt was to be comfortable sharing a process, rather than a result. Like many people, I think of most of what I do as a process and some of the formal output is just a by product. It’s necessary, but it’s not the main aim. Similarly, place is important. Whether it’s physical or virtual doesn’t really matter, it’s equally important to me. Both in the chat, when we talked about making time for CPD and creating safe spaces in which to share/experiment/fail, and in the drawing Bryan included in the newsletter (which I have included also in this post), I thought about having control over your own places and spaces. It might be a desk or a domain, an office or an open course, a train compartment or a tweet chat. Different places for different times and activities depending on what you want to do. What’s important is to make use of it effectively. A sculptor’s studio is usually a growing collection of inspiration, sketchbooks, materials, models and more. It’s a place which you can use to think, talk, create – but it doesn’t dictate what you do.
In a university setting I shared the space with others, had my tutorials in it or gave presentations. My place became the platform from which I launched my handiwork into the realm of critical evaluation by others. My work became my platform later on, when it sat on the floor of a gallery or in a portfolio. In many ways what I do now is the same. This blog for example acts both as a workshop and a platform, it’s about process and being part of a community of peers.
The Visual Thinkery newsletter and the tweet chat alike made me reflect on how I use technology, how I engage in online activities and spaces. Am I doing it on my own terms? Or am I letting technology dictate the pace and mode of interaction?  Is being connected overriding other aspects? Jaron Lanier’s you are not a gadget comes to to mind here and on that note I think I have found some inspiration for the week ahead.

Drawing my way through my #cmalt portfolio

IMG_1010Compiling my portfolio for submission for CMALT,  ALT’s peer-based accreditation scheme, has been a long term project. Originally I started in 2011, but I didn’t complete it. Now I am close to finishing and planning to submit my portfolio (finally). As part of the process, I have made drawings for each section of the portfolio, usually one per section. The first few drawings I made close to a year ago, but I am still adding new ones. Some are illustrations based on CMALT criteria or headings, others are from my work and blog posts. Most of the drawings start life with pen and paper, but many end up being re-drawn on the paper app on an iPad and later edited again with more apps to add text, adjust colours and so forth. This kind of professional development definitely doesn’t require you to get your colour pencils out and start drawing things, so why? Here are my thoughts:

IMG_1014First, drawing is something that’s been a key part of my practice, of the way I think, long before I started working in Learning Technology and I still find it an invaluable part of my work today. Whether it’s designing open badges or trying to figure out a complex network of use-cases, I often find drawing things down helps with problem solving and communication.

Second, drawings are a good way for me to express different parts of my vision, my personality. I like using them as part of my approach because they can be more eloquent than words and allow me to contribute something more. When I contributed #rhizo15 earlier this year, I found that drawings were a great tool for participating either together with text posts or as stand alone posts. There is something about using colour and images that really connects wit the way I think about things. In the case of my #cmalt portfolio, adding drawings helped to make it feel more like me, help me focus on what I wanted to communicate about my work.

FullSizeRenderFinally, and importantly in this context, drawing takes time and focus. For me it is an excellent way to reflect and reflecting on your practice is a key part of the #cmalt framework. I often started a section with a drawing and by the time it was finished, I would be ready to start writing, having laid out the ideas in my head. The reflection is probably the most rewarding part of the process for me.

It’s not really about the drawing in itself, more about the process as a way of giving myself time and space to really think about things, figure out how I feel about something and sometimes, it ends up surprising me with unexpected ideas. That’s the best part for me.

#rhizo15 week 2: Situationist learning maps?

Contributing something #rhizo15 is part of my ongoing effort to become an open practitioner. This week’s topic, learning is a non-counting noun, made me reflect on how my own ideas of how we can count, measure or track aspects of learning developed.

Unlike most people who spent a lot of time in Higher Education my experience of studying and later infrequently teaching at university didn’t involve many written exams or a set curriculum. First Fine Art and then Anthropology were disciplines that afforded me enormous freedom. In the first case progress was charted by the sketchbooks filled, pictures taken, materials Drawings_Sketchpurchased and objects made. These units of measurement translated the ongoing process of thinking and making into external, visible signs of activity. There was no set path or goal instead we had open, critical discussions and at times the results of months of work was deemed to ‘work’, to be successful, to have meaning.

Anthropology meanwhile, while requiring more specific reading and skills, is such a conceptually broad discipline that it was impossible to find something interesting that wouldn’t be relevant. Here milestones came in the form of distances travelled, time spent ‘in the field’, interviews transcribed, maps made and diaries kept. Yet the ultimate aim of all the work was a particular quality of understanding, of knowing what it’s like to see the world through someone else’s eyes, of interiority.

‘True success’ as an Artist or Anthropologist depended on ongoing practice using tools that could be supplied, techniques that could be taught, but ultimately defied clear definition or indeed measurement. Instead of content, there was practice. Instead of grades awarded or exams passed, there was an ever growing debris of objects and information that together served as a physical record of the process of learning. The reason for why one artwork ‘worked’ while another one did not or how one of us achieved a real sense of their particular subjects in the field could never be more than guessed at, let alone measured.

Naked CItyNot unlike the way in which members of the Situationist International movement used what they termed ‘drifting’ as a new way to explore and chart a city (Simon Sadler’s The Situationist City is always an interesting read), making maps of spaces according to a different set of priorities and experiences than geographic maps for example, learning (journeys) can be charted in different ways. One of the challenges we face is being flexible, creative and curious enough to be able to value aspects or ways of learning that don’t fit into an existing pattern we already know about. To map or count learning not only in ways we can already understand, but leave space for the things we don’t.

I originally wrote this post and then lost it – then I found it again. So here is the original version:

Situationists, Sherlock and secrets. Thoughts for #rhizo15, on learning as a non-counting noun.

For me, contributing #rhizo15 is part of an ongoing effort to become an open practitioner. This week’s topic has made me think about a lot of different things, including how my ideas about learning have developed and how some of the technologies I now work with could be applied to things which at first glance might not be easy to track or measure.

At university I became curious about Situationism. The Situationists I was interested in were a small group of people gathered around Andre Gide who in the 1920s tried to experience the world, in particular the city of Paris, in a new way – by what they termed drifting. Simply put instead of following a map or grid to navigate the city, they would walk on foot following no pre-determined pattern, instead allowing the currents of their own minds and experiences to determine their path and speed – drifting on the currents of their city. Some of the results of this kind of practice were maps, depicting a city from a different perspective. In short they produced data that allowed us a glimpse of their city, their experience of it. I imagine that Situationists today could use things like Google Glass to help record their experiences (even if it would presumably result in a lot of circular maps and very blurry video footage, alcohol being a key part of drifting).

With the tools we have today to collect data we could probably come up with ways to track, measure or count a lot about different kinds of learning, including making, seeing and experiencing things. But the concepts that we’d use to analyise the data we collect would need to be appropriately flexible and complex. Giving a machine criteria to evaluate data of a (learning) journey without an end or aim is an interesting challenge. What I enjoy most about learning is when I don’t know where it’ll lead me.

How this came about
My concept of learning is shaped by my time at university, first on a Fine Art, then Anthropology degree. In stark contrast to those studying sciences or languages, my art degree involved no exams, a very limited curriculum of required reading and two hours of being in a particular room at a particular time each week. Studying Anthropology did involve more lectures, seminars and reading, but by its very nature trying to study our own species has enormous scope with practically nothing I could find being off-topic.

In place of content, there was practice. Instead of written exams, there was discussion. What I learnt to value most is being self-motivated, curious and reflective. Skills that still shape what I do and how I learn.

Units of measurement
During the first few years at university my progress could be measured in units of sketchbooks filled, pictures taken, new methods of making stuff tried out and by the level of mess that my studio space contained. Thinking and making as reflective, critical practice involved leaving a path of debri, discarded leftovers and treasured glimpses of inspiration. What ended up in a clean, white space three times a year for critical evaluation by peers and tutors was only a small part of the whole.

Anthropology had its own ways of charting progress or success, most notably distances travelled, days, weeks or months spent ‘in the field’, interviews taped, maps made and diaries kept. As my focus was on material culture, it also included a lot of objects examined, made and catalogued.

Secrets of mysterious enlightenment
Both of the subjects I studied at university placed an emphasis on creating a mind-set, a practice, of becoming an Artist or an Anthropologist as a specific way of being in the world. Both were supported by classes, reading, tutors and other mechanisms designed to give you the best possible chance of achieving that aim. And yet, in my experience, both relied on something that couldn’t be counted or measured, but a quality that was priced more highly than anything else. Doing all the right things, reading all the right books, did not compare to achieving it. In Fine Art this was a sense of something working – or failing to work. In Anthropology it was an understanding of what it meant to be in someone else’s shoes, seeing the world through their eyes, of interiority.

These mysterious qualities, these moments of everything falling into place, was what all the process, the thinking, reading, reflecting, discussing or doing, led to. Most of the time, you couldn’t explain why it had or hadn’t happened or replicate it. What you took away, if you were lucky, was a method, the tools to help you achieve the same kind of process or understanding again in a different way.

Deduction and data
When I think about learning and curiosity, two people I keep coming back to are Sherlock Holmes, the detective of the original stories, and Commander Data, the android officer from Star Trek. As childhood heros of mine their stories have coloured my understanding of learning and asking questions. Both rely on observation and deduction and have superior sources of information. Holmes has his own reference works and London’s institutions while Data has the computer on the Enterprise as well as his own database. Both encounter much they cannot initially explain or understand. Both are students of human nature. Each is the ‘hero’ of their own story, their character defined by exceptional abilities and knowledge in contrast with a need for a friend, their struggle with being different.

To me, they serve as a useful mental metaphor. Their stories prompt me to ask questions, to be curious. They also remind me to value what I can’t explain and don’t understand or indeed what I cannot count.

The new LEGO house

[vimeo 67740255 w=500 h=281]
This is a short video about the new LEGO house (work in progress) in Billund, Denmark. Designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group, the approach to the design is part of the LEGO philosphy – “Inventing the future of play through systematic creativity” (you can read the full info here).

It’s a really exciting idea. Can’t wait to see it become brick-reality.

April 2012

With the Easter break behind us and the weather improving again it looks like spring is now properly underway and there are a lot of different things going on. 
Virtual museum visits
I have been enjoying walking around art galleries I’ve never visited in person trying out the Google Art Project. It made me think about the way in which art is experienced and how the impact of having a fixed view point might change the way in which 3D artworks are understood. It would be fascinating to see this kind of work extended to include public and landscape art, possibly with walks around large sculptures or installations curated by different parties including the artists and the local community. These kinds of artworks would also require their context to be included in the record be that architectural, historical and so forth and I am curious whether one day we will take a virtual walk through the Forum in Rome or stand next to the Angel of the North. Similarly, the question of scale and how it can be represented, becomes much more important in this context, as the quality of the digital images is so high that tiny and huge works can look very similar at first glance. 
Tortoises and the internet
Besides looking at art, I’ve also been reading with interest about the flâneur in a technological context (interesting article in the NYTimes), which draws on the ideas of Walter Benjamin to examine how changes to the way in which the internet and our usage of it works influence the way in which we experience it and by extension parts of our world. One of the key characteristics of a flâneur in the more traditional context was the slow pace at which he (and I believe it was predominantly a male gaze or step that was being portrayed) experienced the city, the arcades – the hurrying people. This slow pace could be set by a pet tortoise on a leash. No doubt a somewhat eccentric accessory for a Parisian boulevard, but effective. That made me think: where is the tortoise on the web? What is the virtual metaphor that sets the pace of discovery? 
So, here is a tortoise inspired book recommendation: Momo by Michael Ende (1973) a wonderful book which is all about hurrying, loosing time and how a tortoise might help to get it back.