Dr Becky Shaw researcher blog: The Odd Project
About the author
Dr Becky Shaw is Reader in Fine Art and leads the PhD cohort in the Art and Design Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University. She makes process-based, live artworks in the social realm. She is currently Artist in Residence at Sarah Wigglesworth Architects. Here she writes about the Odd Project, a three-year interdisciplinary project.
In 2017 I began working with a group of researchers based predominantly at Manchester Metropolitan University, led by Professor Rachel Holmes, to develop a project called ‘Odd: feeling different in the world of education’.
The project uses experimental and cross-disciplinary methods to ‘touch’ how it feels to not fit in at school, and to construct new articulations of difference to challenge the flattening effect of policies of inclusion constructed around social identity. I was invited to shape the project because of my interest in education institutions.
In early 2018 we received a £294,000 grant from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project was highly graded by reviewers and was seen by the AHRC as a landmark, enabling them to fund ways for arts and humanities to collaborate with education. The project team is led by Rachel and the Co-Investigators are education researcher Professor Kate Pahl, visual anthropologist Professor Amanda Ravetz, Steve Pool as an education artist, SHU doctoral student Jo Ray as Research Assistant and co-researcher, and me as fine art researcher.
The project is based at an extraordinary primary school in Manchester that is committed to supporting diversity, including a specialist unit for deaf children.
My part of the project focuses on how experiences of oddness or not fitting in are constructed between people and their environment. We have been working with groups of children to unpick their relationship with the school and the ways experiences attach to material and space. We are working to capture an experience of the space in and around school where the ‘social rub’, or what Allan Kaprow called the ‘meniscus’, takes place. This sticky, lively, nebulous, charged, plastic, and often painful miasma of identity, belonging and difference, generates and is created by waves of intense emotions: prickles of rejection, dislocation, comfort, confusion, shame, and joy. As social, material and aesthetic matter, this is the substrate of every educational experience underpinning the child’s experience of the curriculum, and yet it is difficult to research or even acknowledge. Children’s experiences of school are also shockingly easy to lose sight of in the on-going rounds of anxious curriculum and policy change.
My first research involved working in school to try and understand how the material environment shapes, and is fused into children’s experiences of difference. This included working directly with Yr5 children (age 9-10) to explore the building using viewing and sound equipment that drew attention to the school as a kind of skin that we have direct contact with through our bodies, so shaping how we feel in school. This evolved into a number of processes. The use of a stethoscope generated ventriloquistic encounters where the children performed the living voices of tables, books and displays. An endoscopy cable and close up lens generated a huge set of glowing, strange images that turned the school into a space of deep holes and cosmic fantasy- a kind of spectrum of nearness and farness where the school’s own scale becomes strange.
The children also built a collection of materials that did not behave as expected but sluggishly, insistently moved through surfaces: stones that pushed up through playgrounds and play equipment that sunk into the earth. Throughout, the children maintained a ‘zombie’ narrative of looking for entities that were neither living or dead, a matter-of-fact acceptance of a kind of moving parallel entity around school.
Rachel Holmes and I took the encounters as a starting point, reflecting on them using new materialist texts. This developed into a paper, presented alongside four papers by our co-researchers, at the American Educational Research Association conference in Toronto, and to be developed further for the British Education Research Association conference in Manchester in September.
Moving on from this, I spent time in the school building, observing the ways the building is built into children’s experiences, and thinking especially about the odd ‘out of time’ experience in schools. School environments are often full of the ‘ghosts’ of previous educational policy and constructed notions of childhood- evidenced in the cluttered science store cupboard and odd combinations of fonts seen in labels: the 70s, 80s and onward all live in the school at the same time.
This term Jo Ray and I devised an after school club where self-selected children are working with us in a kind of ‘slipped space’/parallel reality/’upside down’ where the environment and materials are the same as school but where different processes of engaging with the material environment can be utilised. We are setting in motion activities that might lead towards artworks, but that equally allow for diversion and re-assemblage by the children: the gap between the plan and the response allowing visible and aural forms of desire and resistance to be made tangible, and also rolled into the next session. We are exploring sonic instruments and images as surfaces and layers, noting the ways that both of these approaches generate movements or experiences of the near and the far, and because of this, different forms of intimacy, resistance, distancing, retreat and escape.
This work sits in a complex structure with the other projects that explore the intimate life of nursery children (Amanda Ravetz and Jo Ray), the ethics of consent (Kate Pahl and Steve Pool) and gestural communication (Rachel Holmes). The collaborative process is complicated and charged, and in recognition of this the project was designed with an ‘Odd Lab’ at its centre. This lab is led by Jo Ray and enables us to reflect on the research methods of our different disciplines and how knowledge is constructed and articulated. There is also a wider ‘ring’ of collaborators including Christina MacRae and Maggie MacClure who are supporting the critical development of the project via collaborative writing.
One of the most exciting aspects for me so far has been the chance to write with people who have extensive and different knowledge, and who are passionate about using writing as a research process in itself. The planned outputs for the project include papers, a book, an exhibition and an intention to work with policy mechanisms directly.
UK Research and Innovation award information for Odd: feeling different in the world of education.