by Petra Vackova, The Open University (UK), @petravackova
When I set out to explore the practices of social inclusion and exclusion around artmaking in early-years settings in a small disadvantaged community in the Czech Republic, I felt ready. On my first data collection trip, for a preliminary study of my PhD studies, I took with me what most students enthralled by the possibilities of ethnographic methods would choose: color-coded notebooks for fieldnotes, an audio recorder for interviews, video cameras for recordings and half a luggage-worth of cables. At this point I had reviewed plenty of literature and being a native to Czech Republic and knowing the local discourse, I began generating some initial questions. Armed with ideas from cultural-historical activity theory (Daniels et al., 2010) and concepts of epistemic practices (Knorr-Cetina, 2001) I knew that I was interested in the collective and creative practices of social inclusion and exclusion around artmaking activities. I knew that I would focus on my participants’ multimodal (Flewitt, 2005), rather than merely verbal, communication; and I knew that the idea that particular physical environments encourage and enable a particular kind of behaviour will frame my way of seeing (Barker, 1965). What I did not know is how profoundly the research context, a unique and complex learning community I had the privilege to be part of for some time, would influence and shape not only what is worth asking but also how what the researcher sees is documented.
After the initial introductions and gaining consent by talking with, listening to and understanding the needs of each of my participants individually, I set up for my first recording session. The children were thrilled to help me and so I let them to put up the tripods, attach the cameras, and position them. Only a few instructions concerning the care for sensitive recording equipment was needed. Teachers were initially concerned for the safety of my equipment but children proved the concern misplaced and behaved brilliantly working with utmost care.
After consultation with teachers and children, the heavy tripods were strategically placed in the corners of the classroom or on window sills for recording, to stay out of the way and provide an overall view. A few weeks later both teachers and children no longer noticed the cameras. I was pleased to achieve what I thought every ethnographer strives for: becoming an inside-outsider. Then it hit me. I realized that while children still helped me to put up and take down equipment our initial fruitful conversations suddenly halted and neither children nor teachers any longer played an active role in data collection. My presence was normalized. I became the solitary researcher, alone with my data, which did not feel right.
I turned to a hand-size 360°camera, which my supervisor introduced me to, and which I still hesitantly kept in my luggage, to reconnect to my participants. I had never used such a camera before but its small size and the all-around, up-close view it provided convinced me to give it a try. The children were ecstatic and even teachers smiled after I placed the camera on the table. There was something non-threatening about its presence and even though the best place for it was in the middle of an activity, right in the middle of the buzz, it was hardly ever in the way. Instead of recording artmaking by peering over and mimicking an adult perspective, I was suddenly in the thick of it, in the constantly changing, affective, socio-material assemblage of people and objects interacting. Very quickly children grew more and more curious again about the purpose of the cameras, the tape recorder and my notebook which led to even more conversations about my presence in their space and the purpose of the recordings. Both children and teachers moved the camera around their tables freely to find the best place for it, to make it work for all of us, and to record what seemed interesting at the moment. The 360° camera allowed us to collaborate, talk, share and find critical moments around artmaking together.
The initial interactions around recording equipment contributed fundamentally to the way I became sensitive to the role of my participants as well as the objects in my study. The introduction of the 360° degree camera then repositioned me into the heart of the artmaking activity. My attention was heightened to the human-nonhuman interactions taking place around me; the desk, the brushes, a liquid paint leaving traces of movement on paper, encouraged the human body to act – matter constantly engaging with other matter in unpredictable and multiple ways. Such interactions epitomised the socio-materiality of the artmaking process, and brought about a specific perspective of how social inclusion and exclusion is made and lived. The New Materialist theories (Barad 2007), and the rich work of researchers within this particular ethico-onto-epistemological framework such as MacLure (2013), Lenz-Taguchi (2011) or Johnson Thiel (2015), then helped me articulate what stood out all along: the affective moments of intra-action that bring about the condition of possibility and change to the processes of social inclusion and exclusion around artmaking in early years settings.
Methods brought to live by my participants then allowed me to see the phenomenon in a new light and under a new angle. My initial focus on the knowledge production of a particular community around art shifted. My participants and new technologies taught me to be more curious and eager to identify new problems and new directions within a phenomenon rather than focusing on existing knowledge; it expanded my horizon from a particular perspective to an all-around view.
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