Jon Geib. Designing Multivocality…from Outer Space
The theme ‘neighbours’ provides an opportunity to explore a different approach to dialogue and participation, one less focused on bringing people together face-to-face than on the possibilities generated by drawing them apart.
Text Jon Geib
We arrive at the seventh floor. A larger-than-life cat head is spotted and our research team flocks to investigate. On a door at the end of the hallway hangs a majestic photo cut-out. It speaks of the inhabitant behind, emitting a Mona Lisa gaze so serious it is only slightly undermined by the candle-in-the-cake effect of a tiny Swedish flag poking up behind the cat’s ears. Now, the researchers, half of a class of 30, ages seven through ten, were presumably debating what this cat really meant, but they spoke Swedish, so I only understood the escalating commotion. Then, the cat moved… as the door opened. All at once, the distance I had designed into this first workshop collapsed… and we were very directly meeting the apparent object of our study, our ‘neighbour’.
This encounter was generated within an artistic research approach of simultaneously modelling and experiencing the dynamics of dialogue and the multivocality of public space — of both affecting and being affected. The wider aim was to explore how a cosmopolitan public culture of participation might be animated, one that sees the city as a place where “strangers are likely to meet” (Sennett, 2002, p. 39), but also — predominantly — as a place of strangers (Amin, 2012).
The cat incident had been the first of many welcome outliers in a project initiated as a collaboration between my PhD research and the Frölunda Kulturhus (a cultural centre in western Gothenburg, Sweden) engaging with their programming theme ‘neighbours’. It would grow to become an intricate construction of thirteen workshops, three curriculum assignments and an art club project, culminating in a three-week art exhibition. In all, 159 children and youth from eight different classes (grades 1-5, 9 and 10) in three schools and over a dozen pedagogues participated.
Not borrowing a cup of sugar from your neighbour
The theme ‘neighbours’ provided an opportunity to explore a different approach to dialogue and participation, one less focused on bringing people together face-to-face than on the possibilities generated by drawing them apart.
Although ‘neighbours’ is a purely relational term, open to a wide range of interpretations from neighbour-as-friend to neighbour-as-stranger, we tend to gravitate, sentimentally, towards the former — the sweet image of our next-door neighbour lending us a cup of sugar. This habit persists, even as we live predominantly as ‘urban neighbours’ (Amin, 2014), inhabiting multiple and diverse, spatially-dispersed realms enabled and compelled by globalisation and technological change. Psychologist Hubert Hermans’ ‘dialogical self theory’ argues that as the world becomes more “heterogeneous and multiple” — even contradictory —, so do we. Our increasingly ‘multi-voiced self’ requires a stronger ‘dialogical capacity’ to reconcile the various roles that we — and others — play (Hermans & Hermans-Konopka, 2010, p. 29-31). Faced collectively, this cognitive challenge becomes a cultural one.
Modelling the voice dynamics of dialogue
‘Neighbours’, in describing a relation between you and another, expresses the essential threefold structure 1 of dialogism, Bakhtin’s socio-linguistic theory of dialogue (Holquist, 2002, p. 36). Bakhtin saw this dialogical relation — in language, literature and in life — as a dynamic relation, animated by two opposing tendencies analogous to physical forces: centripetal forces which pull things inwards, unifying towards a single voice, and centrifugal forces which draw things apart, producing multiple diverging voices (Bakhtin, 1981). We pursued these contrasting movements through our twin pedagogical aims of: “building curiosity for getting to know our neighbours better” and “building empathy and respect for what we cannot know: the limits of discovery, the ‘stranger’…”.
In this way, the project set out to animate the dynamic of dialogue by modelling intensified versions of it, normatively amplified towards multivocality. The design aimed for this not only in the day-to-day details of artistic-pedagogical content but, crucially, in the architectonics of the project infrastructure, or the relations between parts and the project whole, over time. ‘Parts’ included all human and non-human participants, both designed and emergent: individuals and groups, workshop activities and sub-projects, materials, research tool-artifacts, environmental experiences, thematic metaphors, the unexpected, the unknown and the unknowable.
Exploring from a distance within a spacious artistic framework
The initial plan was to explore, through several workshops with the local elementary school’s after-school free-time club (Frölundaskolan fritidshem), how neighbours indirectly communicate through architectural interfaces (doors, common spaces, and windows). Our research methods took a deliberate distance, studying and engaging indirectly with the inhabitants of a set of five local apartment buildings through observational interior and exterior tours of their environment and artistic documentation through artefacts made of durable materials. The latter included a partly co-designed wagon-like ‘artefact-probe’, which would have passed between a network of inhabitants before being returned to the final exhibition with its collected data. That this wagon instead morphed into an ‘expeditionary ship’ and finally into a ‘rymdsond’ (‘space probe’), with which I walked around the local area, testifies not only to the flexibility inherent in the multivocality of metaphors, but also to the benefits of beginning a project with a complex but open artistic framework, one spacious and adaptable enough to reconfigure and expand in response to emergent conditions.
The project’s scope was considerably enlarged and enriched through a widened collaboration with Göteborgs stad Kulturförvaltning (Gothenburg Cultural Department) and their Musei-Lektioner — Stadens Rum (Museum Lessons in Public Space) programme. This brought on board a necessary Swedish-speaking pedagogue as well as three groups of children from Önneredsskolan, a school in an adjacent sub-district, Önnereds. They would, separately, be ‘invited over by their neighbours’ in Frölunda (the Kulturhus, but also more broadly), for a pair of workshops called Vem är din granne? (Who is your neighbour?). The sites and activities of these workshops echoed those of the local ‘fritidshem’ yet took place on the latter’s ‘home territory’. The children from Önneredsskolan, then, had a further intensified sense of being a ‘stranger’, of being cautious guests trusting of their hosts, but also, at times, of being intruders.
Meanwhile, three classes of youth at The International School of the Gothenburg Region (ISGR) took part, but even more distantly through curriculum exercises. The eight groups were held apart as parallel layers, and most probably never met, although they heard of each other.
Hearing places, hearing things
Throughout, we were joined by others speaking indirect languages: ‘the environment’ and ‘things’. For many children, familiar only with a ‘villa life’ of detached houses and private gardens, our expedition tour was their first experience inside an apartment building, and the novelty stirred much curiosity. Built-in garbage chutes triggered impromptu analysis of floor-to-floor communications, while tinkerers found door letterboxes both irresistible and erratic — sometimes protesting to their owners. The artificially lit hallways were often dreary in their barren silence, drawing extra attention to expressions like welcome signs, nameplates, handcrafts, pictures, children’s drawings, faux plants, stickers, notices or otherwise (e.g. giant cat heads). Unfamiliar casseroles and “smoke and grandmothers” hung heavy in the air as well as later in our olfactory memories. And, each group eagerly answered the loud call — coming from the trampoline-landscape park that we passed on the way — to bounce. It was nothing like at home.
The environment is understood as the ‘third teacher’ in the Reggio Emilia Approach to early childhood education, complementing the learning facilitated by adults and peers (Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007). This notion becomes even more interesting for artists and designers in view of new materialist philosophies such as Bennett’s ‘vital materialism’ (2010), which emphasises the ‘thing-power’ of materials, tools, artefacts and assemblages. These, too, are in dialogue with us.
Voices from the outside
My lack of Swedish language proficiency — initially somewhat discouraging — magnified the theme of indirectness and further differentiated our voices. Besides generating a spirit of trial and error — via our attempts to speak with each other — the language barrier created a sense of more reciprocal power relations. One of the children, by volunteering to be my ‘Google-Translate’, claimed a group leadership role. And, with each rediscovery, a buzz of fingers surrounded the spelling mistake I had made in a handwritten letter in Swedish on the exhibition wall. I enjoyed the lessons these laughing students gave, surely a subtle variation on the ‘ignorant schoolmaster’ (Rancière, 1981).
The language barrier also brought constant attention to my outsider status (as an English-speaking U.S.-born transplant living on another side of the city), and later sparked another name for the project, Forskaren från världsrymden (The researcher from outer space). But, we soon realised that, from our neighbour’s perspective, we were all ‘from outer space’.
Suggestive thematic metaphors such as this acted as poetic counter-movements striving to unify the distanced parts. Breton’s model Surrealist poet likewise aimed to generate “vigorous communication” between apparently opposite realms (1990, pp. 138-139).
An unknown ship on the horizon
While Novalis observed, romantically, that “everything at a distance turns to poetry” (Eitner, 1955, p. 286), Shklovsky reversed that logic in “Art as device” (1990) his seminal essay inventing the term ‘estrangement’: the poet turns (applies) distance to everything. He joins Breton in conceiving the poet-artist as not just emotive, but as a designer who creates elaborate infrastructures for perception. Shklovsky likens this designed complexity to a forest interlaced with suggestive paths (Shklovsky, 1970, p. 302).
The span of these poetic approaches was engaged by the project’s primary title, Ett skepp kommer lastast… (A ship comes loaded…), the name of a Swedish children’s game in which players take turns guessing the contents of an imaginary distant ship. The game is (always) lost when a player fails to recount this fictional inventory. Adults can play: ‘an anchor, apples, en anka (a duck), apor (monkeys), an alligator, aspirin, almonds, arithmetic, animals, Aladdin and an analyst,…’
While we considered ourselves both scientific and artistic researchers, our latter role was enhanced by this game metaphor as it opened space for imagination and speculation, while encouraging respect for the unknown and especially the unknowable. Housing blocks were now ships at sea and they were loaded. A crew of over 2,000 inhabitants was aboard those five high-rise apartment buildings floating in echelon formation. Our brief tours covered only an absurd fraction, making our undertaking immersive rather than exhaustive.
We could only guess the contents of those apartments. Had anyone been watching us from behind their doors? In a later paired workshop, we turned the peepholes around and looked in. Each researcher received a carefully designed rymdlaboratoriet (space laboratory) — to imagine their own space (or their neighbour’s). These laser-cut poplar plywood boxes (15x15x12 cm) presented the viewer with a distorted, fish-eye perspective of a space dominated by an opening to the outside. Further perspectives were at play: the view of peers looking in and their own view while creating the space. These ‘laboratories’ were given to each participant after the exhibition to emphasise the project as a process of ongoing experimentation, and participation as a reciprocal exchange.
Conclusion: democratic urban science and spaceships that stay…
Throughout the project, participants were taken seriously as collaborators with their own voices as part of a democratic urban science and ethic of “cross-referencing all kinds of knowing in the city and treating these sources of knowledge as equivalent, as equal” (Amin, 2013). The project, composed as a ‘semi-open system’ (Dyrssen, 2010) of indirect, differential relations united by carefully considered design, well-crafted artefacts and poetic themes, came to its greatest intensity of ‘cross-referencing’ in the design of the exhibition. Here, our research tool-artefacts were meticulously displayed in their original form as individual and group artworks, yet newly gathered into larger collective configurations, themselves arranged within the overall exhibition conceived as a multivocal ‘whole’. Participants thus met their project ‘neighbours’ indirectly — through encounters with each other’s artwork and a re-encounter with their own.
While the exhibition appeared to be the closing of several chapters, three workshops were timed to add artwork incrementally, and a multivocal central sculptural installation — ‘an expedition ship-apartment-research laboratory-spaceship’ — dramatised an ambitious, turbulent and ongoing research process. Shipwrecked or just sprawling, it continued to collect data (as did the space probe), inviting visitors to join us in asking “Who is your neighbour?”.
This open-endedness demonstrated the mode of multivocality explored both in this project’s processes and in its aim to reframe participation from a more cultural perspective. This mode considers dialogue as an ongoing democratic cultural practice which takes multiple voices in the city seriously and seeks to articulate and animate them through design frameworks which also build-in space for voices unplanned, unexpected and to-remain-unknown. •