Digital literacy: design research at Blythe House

Blyhe House research tools studentsWalking amongst Dame Edna Everage’s boxed wigs, Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe costumes, black and white photographs of the V&A estate through the decades, iconic printed posters and one of Hussein Chalyan’s garments – as part of his final collection at Central Saint Martins – is all in a day’s work for the curatorial and Higher Education teams at Blythe House. However, for CSM’s staff and students it was an extraordinary and fascinating adventure.

As explained in an earlier post, the reason for the MA Design first year cohort to be amongst so many boxes and costumes and objects, is the experimental project being undertaken at the V&A museum’s archive. This article will provide a brief summary of how the group have been invited to foreground their research tools and processes as part of the study.

As personal smartphones become more and more entwined in the ways in which we experience the world, and ways in which students design in the world, these digital devices are becoming less apparent. Treated as mundance artefacts, their role or significance in the creative research process is neither understood nor appreciated. The lofty heights, status, and pedagogic framing afforded the physical sketchbook by the art and design community has yet to touch the smartphone – and indeed, may never do so. This study seeks to draw our attention to the ways in which our mobile digital devices are being used as creative research tools, and in doing so invites artifice and anthropomorphism in the framings of these intimate devices.

Portrait behind bubble wrap and masking tape, 2014

Portrait , 2014

The students are reflecting upon their research processes as they work. Their ‘relationships with technologies’ are being explored by privileging their smartphone, not ignoring it. This means that for the duration of this project the device is anything but banal, everyday or humdrum; the mobile phones are active and present creative collaborators. Some examples of the personalities or characters that MA Design students have bestowed upon their phones are as follows:

  • genie in a bottle
  • senior secretary
  • Machiavelli
  • monster
  • revolutionary
  • gladiator
Student documenting image as part of research, 2014

Material and digital documentation of sculpture, 2014

The students have been invited to create a response to their experience of Blythe House. This can be interpreted in multiple ways, and indeed may involve them revisiting the space and viewing a selected object from the vast archives, or perhaps the textures of the building resonated, or maybe the multiple forms of artefactual wrappings stirred the imagination. The output will be a set of original artefacts which will be displayed at Blythe House at the end of the project.

Student research tools

Student research tools, 2014

Student research tools, 2014

Student research tools, 2014

…the unique combination of creative practice and research can sometimes result in distinctive methodological approaches, as well as exhilarating findings…

Smith, H. & Dean RT. 2012:5

This study embraces the sentiment of Smith and Dean’s insight above. The students are operating within a framework that affords them the opportunity to adopt methodologies that are uncertain, involve risk and presume tangential lines of inquiry. After all, they are being asked to undertake an experimental and interpretive creative discovery, and as such the research methodologies will not become stable until the research is completed (Griffiths, 2010).

Violet thread, 2014

Violet thread, 2014

Mannequins in Blythe House, 2014

Mannequins in Blythe House, 2014

How this group of ceramic, jewellery and furniture designers choose to pursue the project is very much up to them. I envisage all sorts of approaches and combinations of methods. What the CSM and V&A team is doing is providing extraordinarily creative and imaginative people the opportunity to learn through creative engagement and critical inquiry; providing a framework but not prescribing a process. It’s up to the students to push this project as far as they desire, and to enjoy the uncertainty that underpins their endeavour.

Through undertaking this study Central Saint Martins and the V&A are exploring what digital literacy means in an art and design educational setting.

Interesting Links

Morwenna Griffiths in, The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts, 2010

A curator’s blog from the Archive  http://www.vam.ac.uk/b/blog/curators-journal-archive-only

Search the V&A Collection at Blythe House  http://collections.vam.ac.uk/

CSM MA Design: Ceramics, Furniture, Jewellery   http://www.arts.ac.uk/csm/courses/postgraduate/ma-design-ceramics-furniture-or-jewellery/