Blythe House project: chaos and radical containment?

blythe house research session archiveThe Blythe House project being undertaken by Central Saint Martins MA Design students and CSM staff and the Victoria and Albert Museum, is motivating for a number of reasons – one of which is its experimental and collaborative nature. The project itself has been described in earlier posts, and will be documented periodically as part of the research process.

Whilst the MA Design students’ rigorous critical engagement in the Blythe House project is underpinned by ‘the deviant traditions of studio and conservatory’ (Schon,1987:17), this article will consider the larger institutional setting – the educational system within which the project is undertaken. By taking time out to acknowledge the landscape, we, the staff team, are putting into practice Donald Schon’s ‘reflection-in-action’.

For the purposes of this swift article we shall acknowledge Bell’s assertion that higher education is privileging scrutiny and measurement, in what for now we shall term ‘radical containment’. In doing so, we recognise the inherent tensions when creativity, artistic imagination and curiosity are bounded by the multiple and breeding ‘grids’ of institutional policies, guidelines, learning outcome criteria and so forth.

higher education is being shaped by the largely uncritical adoption of the culture of audit…we increasingly frame our knowledge production in the language of audit: inputs and outputs, quality assurance, cost effectiveness, key performance indicators, benchmarks… We give priority to that which is measurable and inevitably the quantitative colonises the qualitative.

Sharon Bell, 2010:260

Indeed, in a recent Times Higher Education article, University of Kent senior lecturer Joanna Williams and PhD student Jennie Bristow, extended this state to the student experience when writing ‘the student voice has been tamed, domesticated and institutionalised. It speaks in a language of agendas, committees and minutes. How has it come to this?’ (8 May 2014, p39). In the same magazine, Kingston University’s Dean of Arts and Social Sciences, Martin McQuillan, described higher education as being ‘in a moment of crisis’, and discussed ‘the tsunami of reform that has been sweeping across universities in England’ (8 May 2014, p37). This all speaks to the theme of the recent, and excellent ‘Anxious Places’ symposium at CSM, convened by Caterina Albano, and chaired by Head of College Jeremy Till. The event explored anxiety through various lenses, and at one point discussed the seeming state of perpetual low level anxiety that society is experiencing, managed and maintained by the media and political system. It wouldn’t be wide of the mark to suggest that this constant low level anxiety extends to our universities, just read the title of Pearson’s 2013 report into HE – ‘An Avalanche is Coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead’.  Thus we can run for the hills, bury our heads, panic, develop more procedures (or worse still, adhere to them), or we can do what we do best – creatively and critically engage with the problems of real world practice in order to advance.

MA Design student research instruments

Student research equipment, 2014

This project, in part, aims to advance our understanding of what digital literacy means within an arts and design setting. For those such as Doug Belshaw who wrote his 2011 doctoral thesis on ‘digital literacy’, it is important that educational institutions support students to find ways to view and experience the world through multiple lenses. This means giving students opportunities to discover new ways to conceptualise and interact with and through digital technologies, such that they become armed with the approaches and confidence to navigate their, and our, unsettled futures.  In doing so, this project also allows the staff team to experiment and try out doing things in new ways, a creative re-framing, thus enabling a dialogue between learning and teaching:

The creative adoption of new technology requires teachers who are willing to take risks.

Conlon and Simpson, 2003:149

Student documenting at Blythe House visit

Student documenting at Blythe House visit

The project invites each first year student of MA Design to consider and devise a research approach that is personally meaningful. As they encounter, scout out and test the experimental framework devised for this study, they will all be building new knowledge on the foundations of their existing material understanding and conceptual frameworks. Here, we might see initial confusion for some, a collision of concepts for others, and an immediate active construction of hypotheses by yet more – which they develop through the process of making. All of the students are being introduced to new ways of thinking and to the idea of using concepts as research tools. Hence, we are embracing Smith and Dean’s claim:

The  unique combination of creative practice and research  can sometimes result in distinctive methodological approaches, as well as exhilarating findings and artworks.

Hazel Smith and Roger Dean, 2010:5

So far, so good. Why then, if we are able to undertake a project such as this – conceptual, experimental, reflective – is the term ‘radical containment’ mentioned? Conlon and Simpson cited above, went on to state that ‘a professional culture that is dominated by a prescriptive curriculum, routine practices… and a tight target-setting regime, is unlikely to be helpful’ when trying to reconceptualise the ways in which we frame new technologies. Similarly, many others, such as Louis Menand, Stefan Collini and Rosi Braidotti, make the same type of assertions – though not all in regards to technology specifically. Few in the arts are escaping an increased set of administrative processes and policies, hence the term ‘containment’ – because whilst the admin is presumably devised in order to provide order, the unintended consequences can be that essential experimental practice is more hard to do. ‘Radical’ is chosen to evoke the anxiety laden language of the moment, and is a nod to the socio-tech lexicon.


Blythe House archive

Blythe House archive

At a time of societal and institutional anxiety, we are trying to take hold of uncertainty, boldly reassert it into the intent and experience of learning and teaching, and frame it as a conceptual tool to be understood through use.

A kind of chaos results and it is from within this chaos and complexity that the results of the creative research will begin to emerge and be worked through.

Brad Haseman and Daniel Mafe, 2010:219

This blog post acts as a marker for our thinking at the time, and shall be revisited across the duration of the study. CSM staff leading this fascinating experiment are: Elizabeth Wright, Ulli Oberlack, Simon Fraser and Jo Morrison, and the students are the MA Design: Ceramics, Furniture and Jewellery first year cohort.

Interesting Links

Doug Belshaw PhD thesis

Hazel Smith and Roger Dean (2010) Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts. Edinburgh Press ISBN: 9780748636297

Conlon, Tom and Simpson, M. (2003) Silicon Valley versus Silicon Glen – the impact of computers upon teaching and learning: a comparative study.
British Journal of Educational Technology (0007-1013), Vol. 34(2), pp. 137-150.