IN THROUGH A DARK LENS – THE PROBOSCIS EFFECT
A Critical Text about Proboscis By Bronac Ferran
Creativity and innovation proceed in cycles rather than in some remorselessly forward trajectory. It is only over time that we can see the significance and importance of some projects and initiatives and particularly within the arts and cultural world, there are many different lenses and perspectives which we might take on work which we may wish to call contemporary.
In this text I respond to an invitation by the Proboscis Co-Directors, Alice Angus and Giles Lane to consider their work through the lens of collaboration and partnership. I approached this task aware that often the most critical developments happen below surface, in cyclical and indirect fashion. I was intrigued to explore how far one might consider this conceptually as a counterpoint to the increasingly predominant use of short-term quantitative analysis to assess value within the arts and concerned that such an approach is highly inappropriate for research-led practice (and indeed sometimes also for practice-led research) both of which activities may primarily be focussed on exploring new spaces, opening up dialogues and experimentation in form and media whose value can only become visible over time.
I have long been concerned to argue for value (and in particular symbolic value) of not for profit research-led or research-active creative organisations. John Howkins, a guru of ‘Creative Economy’ thinking, who had indirect influence on the new Labour Government‘s policies in this area from 1997, has recently shifted his focus to the term ‘Creative Ecology’ in which he outlines a more holistic approach to this area. In his book Creative Ecologies – Where Thinking is a Proper Job he argues that “attempts to use ecology to illuminate creativity has hardly begun, beyond using it as a fancy word for context”. In this essay I hope to build some layers onto this observation drawing on the work of Proboscis whose engagement with place, space and locality working with variable types of media provides the context for this text.
Proboscis describes itself as a non-profit artist-led studio “focused on creative innovation and research, socially engaged art practices and transdisciplinary, cross-sector collaboration”. Since its formation in 1994 it has made many ‘journeys through layers’ as is more fully described below. One consistent aspect has been that the work has engaged with numerous different agencies and communities, spanning and bridging private and public domain; always integral to their practice has been the development of publishing and storytelling initiatives using print and networked media processes with a primary concern for combination of image, word and text.
Proboscis was first formed by Giles Lane and Damian Jacques as a partnership to develop COIL journal of the moving image which ran through to issues 9 and 10 launched as a joint issue in December 2000. Alice Angus joined the partnership in 1999 and began leading some significant projects including the seminal Topologies initiative which was formative in terms of what was then known as collaborative arts practice and funded through the Collaborative Arts Unit at Arts Council England where I then worked, interfacing successfully and in a ground-breaking way between contemporary art practice and the Museums, Libraries and Archives services in the UK. The breadth of this project which ran between 1999 and 2000 added many layers to Proboscis and as is noted below, was shaped by an ideology and set of aspirations which were fully admirable and still unfolding now, in a considerably harsher climate in terms of arts and other public funding.
Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh rightly wrote that “naming the thing is the love-act and the pledge”. With the choice of their name the organisation certainly pledged itself to a high degree of engagement with environment and context.
As Wikipedia tells us the word Proboscis was:
First attested in English in 1609 from Latin proboscis, the latinisation of the Greek προβοσκίς (proboskis),  which comes from πρό (pro) “forth, forward, before”  + βόσκω (bosko), “to feed, to nourish”.   The correct Greek plural is proboscides, but in English it is more common to simply add -es, forming proboscises.
& ‘In general it is an elongated appendage from the head of an animal’ and ‘the most common usage is to refer to the tubular feeding and sucking organ of certain invertebrates such as insects (e.g., moths and butterflies) worms (including proboscis worms) and gastropod molluscs.
Seeing Proboscis and its life cycle as a kind of organism is curiously appealing. I am not sure if it is predominantly elephant or butterfly – or even mosquito… perhaps all these things. Or maybe it’s the Proboscis monkey, swinging from tree to tree in the wind.
On initial encounter with their work I had felt immediately the extensive and expansive qualities of the imaginative terrain over which Proboscis sought to roam not least because of the multi-partner/multi-agency nature of the Topologies proposal. Giles himself was making a fascinating bridge between research in academia with strong commercial connections (working as he was part-time developing a publishing imprint in Computer Related Design at the Royal College of Art at time when there was an ongoing research partnership with Paul Allen’s Interval Research) as well as growing Proboscis as an independent arts agency. In terms of how and where and why they proceed in certain directions extending their range of enquiry, engagement and investigation, their presence in various contexts seeming partly intentional, partly collaborative and always based on an underlying agenda that has critical intervention at its core.
It is at perhaps at edges of collision and collusion between public and private spheres, policies and desire, that what I wish to name the Proboscis effect has been most active.
In probing Proboscis over the past twelve months looking closely at their core ethos and expression in various permeations I have sought to do more than simply referencing the collaborations and partnerships with which they have been involved as this narrative is already substantially documented on their very useful website.
What I have sought to do is to try to decipher the underlying systems and motivations that drive the process of development behind the course of Proboscis’s work. In setting out to do this I thought I should also confront and re-evaluate my own set of perceptions and assumptions about their work in order to gain some new understanding from the process of dialogue and interaction that this project has deserved. I have therefore been developing a set of informal ‘dialogues or infusions’ with Giles and with Alice to absorb their current preoccupations and conscious that they work (as I tend to do where possible) in collaborative and reflexive ways. So it has become a critical aspect of doing the text to destabilise my own existing conception of what Proboscis is and, in so doing, I have hopefully begun to understand what they might do next.
It has of course been interesting writing this against a backdrop of Arts Council England’s major review of their regularly funded portfolio. In 2004-05 along with then colleague Tony White we had made a strong and in the end successful pitch for regular funding for the Proboscis team as part of a larger series of arguments relating to the shifting nature of cultural practice, the growth and emergence of interdiscipinarity as an innovation layer and the fact that there were arts development and production agencies (in this case, the Arts Catalyst, onedotzero, Forma Ltd) and some artist-research organisations (like Mongrel… and Proboscis) which were as significant to the emerging arts infrastructure as orchestras and ballet companies were to the established performing arts canon or galleries to local authorities and the defined visual arts. I had felt that it was the right time to make this case to help these often small-scale organisations to get funding for their core costs so that they could avoid having to make countless small project applications which drew on time and energy and also we argued successfully for the benefits of providing a core allocation that would enable these essentially innovation focussed organisations to prepare the ground for their next phase of development through periods of research and development, travel and experimentation that would inevitably result in valuable new work over the course of the following few years. Making this argument in terms of policy criteria of excellence and innovation and in the context of building multiple partnerships with arts investment (as often these agencies were being highly entrepreneurial leveraging many new kinds of partnerships with other sectors nationally and internationally, batting well above their weight) was effective and allowed for growth and adaptation over time.
It was then important we felt to consolidate an emerging sector that was in many ways ahead of the curve in terms of arts policy. One can argue for strategic (and perhaps then) symbolic value by citing the significance of arts organisation x as the key agency for xxx (e.g. disability arts or public art) but at the same time when it comes to interdisciplinary research-based practice it can limit an organisation greatly when it becomes too specifically defined by a primary funder as there to deliver something in particular – ie to be the instrumental infrastructural agency to do something that mirrors a policy… this particularly applies for organisations like Proboscis which exist on opening up challenging and redefining the spaces between categories, fields and form and indeed establishing and activating critical and significant tensions or gaps between arts funded agency and the arts funding agency itself. These significant gaps are often where the best interdisciplinary practice lies – not representing anything but heralding stuff to come, shifts that will eventually mainstream over time.
On the Act of Interpretation and Analysis
My overall sense since being invited in early 2010 to write an essay about their work particularly from the viewpoint of the range and complexity of partnerships they have made and held during the past decade and a half of their existence as an arts organisation, has felt like I have been staring at tracks in the snow, looking at something which is already formed and fully crystallised and not that much needing of further explanation. And in addition to this, in seeking to assemble some kind of overview or extract a narrative that condenses and crystallises anything definitive from their ongoing processes of enquiry I have held a burden of doubt about the ‘realness’ of what I have set out to do – a belief perhaps that ultimately the work that has lain within the Proboscis shadow speaks for itself, that the documentation of their processes has been carried out in an exemplary way that can benefit little from tacked on interpretation, exegesis or explanation.
At the same time, and with a sense of an organisation engaged in an ongoing process of ‘adaptive becoming’, I felt it could be useful to move towards a perspective on Proboscis which allows us to see their work as a whole, holistically I suppose – as opposed to a series of distinct projects, which is how often their work is discussed or perceived. I was hoping to define a pathway or journey through their layers – perhaps move further along the path in the snow. In a text they produced for the Paralelo, Unfolding Narratives in Art, Technology and Environment publication in 2009, they cite Katarina Soukip, writing in the Canadian Journal of Communication:
‘the new Inuktitut term for internet, Ikiaqqivij or ‘travelling through layers’ refers to the concept of the shamen travelling across time and space to find answers’.
For the past decade and a half they have had a central place along with other organisations that may be broadly described as working within the media art or trans-disciplinary circuit in the UK and Europe with a primary role in respect of ‘the ecology of learning’ to use Graham Harwood’s term. In another essay which I wrote in 2010 for LCACE I spoke of their unique and pivotal position in terms of art/technology/academic/commercial networks – one of the reasons they were invited by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council to become an Independent Research Organisation in 2004 which has been written about in detail – see Sarah Thelwall’s Cultivating Research – where she accounts for how “Proboscis has built its artistic practice around a research approach and in so doing has collaborated with a number of HEIs over the years including the Royal College of Art, London School of Economics, Birkbeck College, Queen Mary University of London and the Institute of Child Health“. Thelwall’s text summarises the range and nature of the Proboscis partnerships inside and outside Higher Education and the economic and other factors influencing their success in gaining Independent Research Organisation status from the EPSRC. She also reflects on the processes of layering I have mentioned above:
‘Proboscis have always developed and maintained a very wide and diverse collection of organisations and individuals they collaborate with. They purposefully bring together organisations as diverse as the Ministry of Justice, Science Museum & Ordnance Survey. This network is built around the delivery of projects but is by no means limited to the parameters and timescales of the projects themselves. It is common to see connections made in one project resurface some years later as what might appear to be a tangential connection to a new piece of work’.
This positioning within an ecosystem of connected and interdependent elements which may combine and recombine over time seems an integral aspect of ‘the Proboscis effect’. This is very much a distinguishing element of their work – a specific way of working, in porous and co-operative ways, engaging with locality and often with habitat.
The advent of Arts Council England funding changes now announced, which have swept through the ecosystem of digital media organisations in this country with desperate disregard for preserving and sustaining knowledge within a still developing sector – reminds us to suggest the importance of finding ways to recycle and re-embed these elements into a broader cultural ecology. In this sense Vilem Flusser’s words about waste come very appropriately to mind:
‘Until quite recently, one was of the opinion that the history of humankind is the process whereby the hand gradually transforms nature into culture. This opinion, this ‘belief in progress’ now has to be abandoned. …the human being is not surrounded by two worlds then, but by three: of nature, of culture and of waste. This waste is becoming ever more interesting…’
Somehow this seems appropriate in many ways to Proboscis preoccupations. They have separated themselves from dependency on ACE life rafts for floating media practices and now have set themselves new agendas, new partnerships and new horizons engaging even more closely with critical social challenges from global technological waste to employment of young people from disadvantaged contexts in London.
The Partnership Domain
As noted above many of the projects which Proboscis have generated and fostered have been formative in terms of exploring and building transformative connections between variable and separate fields, particularly between artistic research, academic research, commercial R&D and the public domain. The projects which they have worked on and generated over the seventeen years of the organisation’s existence have had an exciting range reflecting broader shifts within cultural practice. In addition to conceiving and shaping various projects Proboscis as an arts organisation has defined itself during this time as a vital critical space for understanding the emergent nature of collaborative practices, from research through to the public domain and as an agency through which documentation and discourses around these processes has been facilitated and enabled. What it has also most critically done is to provide a space for documentation and critical reflection on these processes – their significance has partly been to find a way to make the temporal or temporary processes of collaboration stable in terms of existing in accessible documentation over time. As their website now rumbles with tag-clouds and twitter-feeds it continues to grow in an organic fashion, as a responsive and collaborative space enabling expression of differences within an open and common domain.
Why does this matter?
In considering patterns of collaborative arts practices in the past fifteen years, often emergent work has been primarily time-based with documentation of the practices secondary to the event of the work itself. Simultaneously when we speak of interdisciplinarity what is commonly implied is the construction of spaces for dialogue and exchange, for things to be ‘in formation’, contingent, open and process-based.
In viewing the work of Proboscis through the lens of interdisciplinarity and collaboration across different arts and other disciplines over many years and recognising the high level of intention with respect to formation of high profile partnerships which have in a sense redefined ‘the public domain’, one recognises a consistent line of enquiry: the probing of interstices, the construction of new interfaces, the drawing of connecting lines, tracing points of relation through dialogue and through process. The process is never mechanical but somehow organic and collaborative – as traces are made, they may also be erased. Or they may be retained held in the act of publishing, drawing or commissioning critical texts. These traces gain longevity and new emphasis also by means of citation (for example the high degree to which Proboscis’s work has formed part of PhD theses and other types of reports) a fact which may carry little weight in relation to arts funding assessments but may in other important ways (particularly if viewed longitudinally) reveal value, especially intellectual or symbolic value as noted above.
In referencing a latency I am also signalling how in the nature of research based arts practice only by looking at developments over time might one truly realise the value. At times something may be in germination stages lying low in order to succeed but hard if not impossible to measure. These stages are in my mind at least the most important stages and ones most deserving of subsidy.
As noted above and looking now in hindsight at how the life cycle of the organisation we know as Proboscis has evolved we see many layers embedded over time. The projects have moved through moving image, film, locative and other mobile media, software, performance, carnival, workshops in making, storytelling and narrative, diy and open access publishing, photography and psychogeography, art and science, art and health, artists books and libraries, archives and community memory, folk-tales and archaeologies of place, open public data, art-industry, art-ecology and design/co-design and many other things. Within all the projects has been a set of disparate connections – sometimes with other artists, sometimes with scientists,sometimes with companies, sometimes with academia – and often with groups working in similar fields, as part of a set of network connections – producing an identity which is both fixed and process-led.
Somehow in these spaces between specificity and hybridity and tracing and erasing the Proboscis effect adheres.
It is vital to also consider the development of the Proboscis effect or practice within the context of recent intensive shifts with respect to how artists and arts organisations work within the spectrum of a broader creativity often, though not exclusively, technologically related. The most compelling work in this terrain has brought about a fusion of different disciplinary approaches and a combination of themes, fields and metiers into common and uncommon forms. This period of development has brought about also a shift within the nature of culture itself not just towards hybridity but towards open and collaborative works that engage directly with audiences or users transforming their position from user to co-producer, collaborator and joint agent within a process or design.
Proboscis’s work in the early 21st Century radically anticipated this layer which is now fully mainstream – of encouraging social innovation based on participatory processes.
In terms of how they approach collaborations and partnerships it is perhaps interesting to also consider the internal relationships which inevitably drive and define this kind of organisation. When one considers the identity of Proboscis, we recognise a pattern similar to the other organisations of similar scale and size. Often these organisations are indelibly connected to the personalities of their original founders. At the same time, when it comes to small-scale organisations the intensity of the human relations (the personality and behaviours within the group) often transfers to become the image of the organisation as a whole. Organisations form around and mirror the values and ideas of the people who form them. When people change the organisations inevitably change. But organisations evolve even when they have the same people involved who helped to develop the initial projects. In the case of Proboscis, its work has shifted and developed radically showing the various inputs and influences of the various people who have become involved over the years at project, administrative and consultancy level – yet it has also retained and maintained a consistency that is highly recognisable though perhaps difficult to define. Over many years they have brought in various skilled people to work on diverse projects which has provided an abundant network within which the organisation is situated and which they have in turn helped to generate and facilitate at various points and in various places. The workplace trainees who have been present in the office over the past year have been carrying and bringing a different, more youthful energy into the studio and as their voices grow louder as they are encouraged to express their views online and this has in turn shifted the pattern of perception of how and what Proboscis does. At the very heart though is the deeply creative core relationship of the two Co-Directors whose differing and complementary sensibilities suffuse all aspects of their work.
Garnering the Spaces Between
When it comes to unique organisations that are built on activating and ‘the space between differences’, in exploring commonalities and uncommonalities, in the energies that combine and force apart processes and practices – in other words, interdisciplinarity – it may well be said that change is the only constant and that inherent within the suggested Proboscis effect is the opening up of new relations from investigation of these tensions. I am suggesting this as it seems to me that implicit within any discussion about collaborations and partnerships is a belief system or set of values that informs and entwines with the nature of these connections and that what has partly distinguishes how Proboscis has been working in these interdisciplinary fields has been a set of principles or operating framework which has insisted on autonomy and independence of status within a broader assemblage or set of networks.
‘… But also, the value of dissent needs to be high enough so that dissent is not dismissed. How do you facilitate dissent so that it’s a strong value? Part of the concern in science collaborations is that there is a huge push towards consensus. So the dissent issue becomes very important’.
– Roger Malina
Achieving Effective Process within Asymmetrical Relations
The strength of the process was demonstrated most visibly in the pioneering Urban Tapestries project which Proboscis initiated and ran between 2002 and 2004 and which probably for the first time ever demonstrated the capacity of a small not for profit organisation to draw together a set of large institutional and commercial partners leveraging plural funding routes and most spectacularly to define the terms of engagement. This project not only prefigured the convergence of ubiquitous mobile computing and social media but also resulted in a series of community based activities between 2004 and 2007 – called Social Tapestries – which took R&D aspects from corporate and academic labs fully into the public domain and in turn revealed the significance of public participation in terms of any effective R&D with respect to social media – a kind of liberation strategy which displays eloquently the value sense underlying the Proboscis operation. Here is an extract about the project:
‘Urban Tapestries investigated how, by combining mobile and internet technologies with geographic information systems, people could ‘author’ the environment around them; a kind of Mass Observation for the 21st Century. Like the founders of Mass Observation in the 1930s, we were interested creating opportunities for an “anthropology of ourselves” – adopting and adapting new and emerging technologies for creating and sharing everyday knowledge and experience; building up organic, collective memories that trace and embellish different kinds of relationships across places, time and communities.The Urban Tapestries software platform enabled people to build relationships between places and to associate stories, information, pictures, sounds and videos with them. It provided the basis for a series of engagements with actual communities (in social housing, schools and with users of public spaces) to play with the emerging possibilities of public authoring in real world settings’.
On the Daniel Langlois Foundation website (who provided funding towards the project) the language outlining what happened is different again:
‘What would freedom of expression be without the means to express it ? As fundamental as this concept is, it appears empty and abstract if you don’t complement it with the freedom to choose the means of expression. Today’s wireless communication networks offer novel ways to express ourselves. For the time being, these networks escape government or corporate control, which is why they are being used by many artists and activists to give this concept more concrete meaning’.
No doubt there were different spins to the narrative again on the websites of the different project partners – as clear an illustration as one might wish for of the pluralistic capacity of Proboscis during this 2002-2007 period acting as a broker, connector, and transdisciplinary catalyst. It is interesting that on the current Proboscis website, the ‘history’ section ends at September 2007 and before this that year Alice and Giles had visited Australia, Canada and Japan as well as taking part in numerous UK based events, conferences and discussions – being greatly in demand to un-layer and share tales of the Urban Tapestries and Social Tapestries adventures and outcomes. This work was intensive and significant with respect also to the broader history of collaborative media practices in the early years of this century.
The history of the period between September 2007 and now is also now still waiting to be written – and the turn which is now happening in relation to the direction of their work more explicitly revealed
Between Tactical Extremes
Taking further forward some of the ideological strands initially outlined in the goals for Topologies as well as running through the Urban Tapestries above, Giles writes currently on the Proboscis website about their forward programme for 2011 which will focus around the over-arching theme of Public Goods,
‘In the teeth of a radical onslaught against the tangible public assets we are familiar with (libraries, forests, education etc), Public Goods seeks to celebrate and champion a re-valuation of those public assets which don’t readily fit within the budget lines of an accountant’s spreadsheet’.
Showing this long-term commitment to core ideals, when I first met him in 1998, when commencing their Topologies project, Giles had written:
‘Public libraries are seen by Proboscis to be one of the UK’s most important cultural jewels, long-underfunded and lacking in support from central government. As sites for learning and culture they are unparalleled, offering a unique user-centred experience that is different from the viewer experience of a museum or a gallery’.
It is also ironic now writing this just after one of the biggest public demonstrations that London has known in the context of planned government cuts to the public sector and recalling that whilst the aim Proboscis had thirteen years ago was to add to the experience of visiting libraries by adding artists books into their holdings, the demise of the library system itself is now the battle along with devaluation and depreciation of many aspects of the public domain. Here one has a sense again of the uncannily fore-shadowing nature of many of Proboscis’s themes. Their antennae as sensitive collaborative creatures twitching often too soon?
In exploring the way in which Proboscis set out to work in collaborative ways over many years one notes a serious attuning to context, making events and initiatives which often involve deep localised engagement with those with whom they have chosen to partner whether in public or private sector contexts. Often these partnerships are sustained over many years as for example with DodoLab in Canada with whom they have a long-term relationship that manifests in different ways in different places addressing social, urban and environmental challenges through artworks, performances, interventions, events, educational projects and publishing using social media, the Proboscis bookleteer and StoryCube initiatives and others ways of involving and communicating with people.
Other relationships have been related to specific projects; almost all take place over at least two or three years following a series of research questions or over-arching line of enquiry which requires focussed time and many different manifestations. The techniques which Proboscis bring to the table in terms of collaborations have been well-honed in various scenarios – as are well outlined and documented on their capacious website. Connecting these techniques for group interaction and group authorship with technological and industrial change and a corresponding shift in the cultural and social imaginary has been a prevalent element and thread which has emerged throughout a series of interrelated activities.
Re-drawing the Map
I developed a deeper understanding at first hand of the Proboscis effect when 2009 Alice Angus, Giles Lane and Orlagh Woods from the company were among a group of UK based arts technology and design researchers and practitioners who came to an event held in Sao Paulo called Paralelo with which I was closely involved. The event brought together individuals and groups working in three countries – the Netherlands as well as UK and Brazil – on topics and themes relating to Art, Technology and the Environment. Proboscis brought a beautifully honed process of group Social Mapping to the opening session of the event. This created a way of introducing individuals and everyone to everyone else with the plus factor that it gave form to the latent network connections that lay underneath, beside and across the topology composed on paper laid out on the ground. It was in many ways a characteristic Proboscis intervention inflecting the overall event with a collaborative and open-ended fluidity of approach with participants then returning to the map at the close of the event and in a ritual of consolidated iterative expression redrawing earlier lines, shifting to new points of intensity. This effect relies on an appreciation of ritual, of the act of drawing with the hand on paper, of making marks and leaving something that over time becomes a document of something that has now passed…
‘The development of new forms of expression is not something that is bound to happen, but is a matter of the choice and preference of artists. What is possible is the programmed creation of works. The artist is then creating a process, not individual works. In the pure arts this may seem anathema, but art thrives on contradictions, and it can be yet another way of asking what is art?…’
From first page of EVENT ONE, first edition of PAGE journal of Computer Art Society, 1969.
In their contribution to the book Paralelo: Unfolding Narratives in Art, Technology and Environment which emerged after the workshop in 2009, the Proboscis team also brought a singular simplicity (that held much deeper meaning than what was visible on the surface) to the project. Their text, Travelling through Layers, available also as a Diffusion eBook – holds in a small space a series of interleaving observations, images, quotes and commentary – all of which combine to build a narrative that stands alone or as part of the larger whole in this case the wider texts that make up the publication, a small microcosm of the broader Proboscis effect.
In Conclusion – The Latency of Glass?
As we enter into 2011 and shifts in political and arts funding scenarios, it seems to me that Proboscis are once again on the turn. Adapting to constraints that have emerged from socio-environmental contexts, they are taking a slower course. expressed in the lavishly vulnerable depiction of the disappearing markets in Lancaster which Alice has recently produced and the oft expressed commitment to providing tools and resources at low cost for others to access whilst wishing to do this by way of exchange and experiment – allowing social concerns to dominate technologies and allowing the reinstatement of hand and handi-craft into the Proboscis process.
It seems to me that with the usual fore-shadowing the organisation is now pointing towards a need for deep contemplation and reflection on what is currently in danger of being lost and following the ecological theme, seeking to ensure that we devise ways to recycle material back into the system. In some extent they are going out further to those margins and extremes, wanting to fuse together some new points of tension or heightened concerns. No doubt this will slowly and surely emerge.
And most importantly how does one articulate and measure value within these processes? What kinds of measurement can apply when one is talking about ‘effect’? What distinguishes their work from others who have moved into these spaces between the arts and other sectors? What has made them so effective in these spaces? And having moved in, developed systems of exchange and parallel processes with many other agencies, what has Proboscis gained and lost – what (apart from documentation on their website) might remain? Why do they move on? What do we learn from the textures and edges that their processes effect?
Their capacity to retain an integrity and critical edge whilst being involved in processes of exchange with many different types of partner organisation has been admirable; if as outlined in the 2010 Prix Ars Electronica Hybrid Arts text we might see hybrid arts practices as being fundamentally about an ontological instability or insecurity then in many ways the work of Proboscis throughout sixteen-seventeen years may be situated in this terrain.
Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s so far the best projects (and those which become most memorable) at least in relation to the broad field of collaborative and interdisciplinary arts practice seem to me to be those which tend to fuse together layers of different processes, systems and materials to form a new, highly charged synthesis that carries within it the tensions implicit in making something disparate whole. If broken or contracted, new edges will then emerge that redefine the boundaries of the whole.
Over time what is engendered and revealed are certain qualities manifest at both surface and depth – I describe these forms as having something like the latency of glass.
The Proboscis narrative has many of the properties of glass (fused to a point of stillness, yet with inner motion and capable of breaking to form new edges). If I have managed to identify at least one angle on their work using the perspective of the dark lens it is related to something Giles said in conversation in February 2011 about his interest in “exploring extremes and the points of tension between”. The photographic negative awaiting advent of light in the darkroom is another way of seeing this. Perhaps the phantasm of ‘true collaboration’ lurks in the latency of glass.
Bronac Ferran, April 2011
A Critical Text by Frederik Lesage
A recurring theme underpinning Proboscis’ work is storytelling. Their preoccupation with it is not only reflected in the stories they have told – through works such as Topographies and Tales and Snout – but also in their efforts to explore the practices and forms that enable people to tell stories. For a group of artists to embark on this latter kind of exploration may at first seem counterintuitive; the artist as a teller of stories is a familiar role, the artist as one who helps us tell our own is less so. It is beyond the scope of this paper to convince the reader of the value of such a role. Rather, I will set out to investigate how a specific tool developed by members Proboscis helped to shape one particular collaborative exchange with Warren Craghead in a work titled A Sort of Autobiography. By doing this, I hope to demonstrate how collaborative processes for storytelling like the ones that Proboscis are developing require new frameworks for understanding the kinds of work taking place.
What in the world is a StoryCube?
I often hear this perplexed question when talking to people about my research into Proboscis’ work. Most often, my answer is similar to the one that Proboscis themselves give on their diffusion.org.uk website:
StoryCubes are a tactile thinking and storytelling tool for exploring relationships and narratives. Each face of the cube can illustrate or describe an idea, a thing or an action, placed together it is possible to build up multiple narratives or explore the relationships between them in a novel three-dimensional way. StoryCubes can be folded in two different ways, giving each cube twelve possible faces – and thus two different ways of telling a story, two musings around an idea. Like books turned inside out and upside down they are read by turning and twisting in your hand and combining in vertical and horizontal constructions.”
This answer, for the most part, tells my interlocutor what one can do with a StoryCube – it encompasses a number of actions as part of a process wherein one makes and uses this particular type of object. The StoryCube represents a way to print images and text onto a different kind of paper surface in order to share these images and texts with others in a particular way. But I often find that this answer does not suffice. In this paper I will argue that this problem arises because, although a process description of what one can do with a StoryCube does provide part of the answer for what in the world it is, a more complete answer would require more worlds in which it has been used.
To clarify this obtuse little wordplay, I turn to two different authors who provide two very different models for understanding how culture is made and how it is interpreted: Howard Becker’s art worlds and Henry Jenkin’s story worlds.
Disciplines such as the sociology of art have gone out of their way to show how artists are not alone in creating cultural objects. It has arguably become a cliché to state this fact. But one must not forget its implication. Howard Becker’s Art Worlds (1982), for example, demonstrates to what degree artistic practices from painting to rock music constitute complex sets of relationships among a number of individuals who accomplish different tasks – the people who make, buy, talk about, pack and un-pack works of art are connected through what he refers to as art worlds. These worlds are populated by different roles including artists, editors, and support personnel. By artists, he means the people who are credited with producing the work. By editors, he means the people who modify the artwork in some way before it reaches its audience. By support personnel, he means the people who help ensure that the artwork is completed and circulated between people but who aren’t credited with producing the artwork itself. This might include a variety of different people including framers, movers and audience members. If one were to apply Becker’s art world model to the world of book publishing and printing, for example, we might say that the artists are the authors, that publishers are editors and that the book printers are part of the support personnel: they reproduce and maintain a set of conventions for the production and distribution of an author’s work.
Part of Becker’s point is that even if we credit authors as the source of a book’s story, significant parts of the book’s final shape will be defined by choices that are the purview of support personnel like printers rather than by the authors: what kind of ink will be used to print the text, the weight and dimensions of the book pages, etc. These decisions, be they based on aesthetic, economic, or other considerations, can often be made without consulting authors and have a significant impact on what readers will hold and read when they get their hands on the finished product. Nevertheless, there are arguably varying degrees of importance attributed these different choices. After all, few of us read books because of the kind of ink it was printed with.
But one should also remember that the distribution of these roles within an art world is not necessarily fixed. In Books in the Digital Age, John B. Thompson writes that it was only in the past two centuries that there has been a distinction in the Western world between what a book publisher does and what a book printer does. Prior to this differentiation, the person who published a book and the person who printed it were one and the same. Just as the distribution of printing and publishing roles can change over time, the significance attributed to these roles might also change.
Becker’s art world model is useful for the answer to my initial question stated at the beginning of this paper because it is a social world model. Placing the StoryCubes into an art world allows me to populate the process answer provided above with a number of different roles:
Proboscis are the designers of the StoryCube who created it as “a tactile thinking and storytelling tool for exploring relationships and narratives”. They invite all sorts of different people from different disciplines to play an artist’s role by using the StoryCube to “illustrate or describe an idea, a thing or an action” and to “build up multiple narratives or explore the relationships between them in a novel three-dimensional way”. The results of all of these different peoples’ work are then made available in various ways to anyone interested in these relationships and narratives. These audience members are invited to “read [the StoryCube] by turning and twisting [it] in your hand and combining in vertical and horizontal constructions.” In some cases, these same audience members take-on additional support personnel roles such as “printers” when they download the StoryCube online and print and assemble it themselves.”
This newly revised version of my answer now has artists and audiences who are working with Proboscis and StoryCubes. But it still seems quite vague. What are these “relationships and narratives” that seem to be the point of making StoryCubes in the first place?
The second world I turn to for putting my answer together is what I refer to as Henry Jenkins’ “story world” model. In his book Convergence Culture, Jenkins argues that a convergence is taking place between different media that is not simply due to technological changes brought about by digitisation. He believes that in order to understand the changes taking place in media, one needs to include other factors including economic pressures and audience tastes. One of the ways in which he demonstrates this is by analysing how storytellers like the Wachowski brothers developed The Matrix franchise. Jenkins argues that the brothers were not only engaged in the process of making films but that they were in fact engaged in an “art of world building” (116) in which the “artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work or even a single medium” (ibid). The Matrix was not only available as a movie trilogy but was also explored and developed in short films, comics and novels by a number of different contributing artists. In other words, today’s creative people – be they individual artists or media conglomerate business executives – need to start to think about a ‘story world’ that is manifested in multiple, interdependent media.
I would argue that one should not interpret Jenkins’ model as suggesting that story worlds exist independently of any specific medium. Rather, the model suggests that other people, not just the author credited with originating the story world, can contribute to the development of a story world. Audience members and other authors can actively reinterpret aspects of story worlds not only through an active interpretation of the text but also by authoring their own parallel contributions. This is significant because it suggests there are contingent relations of power involved in the negotiation of the overall representation and interpretation of those same story worlds. The simplest example is how laws for copyright are employed to ensure that authors and their publishers maintain certain kinds of control over the development of story worlds.
For me to explain how Jenkins’ story world model is useful for answering my initial question will take a bit more effort. In order to fully clarify why I have gone through the trouble of bringing these two very different worlds from two very different research traditions, I will need to demonstrate how they can be combined and applied to a specific example which follows bellow. For now, however, suffice it to say that the story world model deals with meaning and how the narratives and relationships that stem from the process of making and reading StoryCubes do not appear in isolation from other related meaningful artefacts. How one interprets the meaning of a particular StoryCube is embedded within a particular set of intertextual relationships that I refer to as a story world.
We now have two different ‘world’ models for explaining what are StoryCubes:
- the art world model as a way to understand how a particular artwork is produced, distributed and appreciated through a set of interdependent roles enacted by people and
- the story world model as a way to understand how meaning can be conceived as part of a number of different texts produced by a number of different people.
A sort of printing experiment – The case of Warren Craghead
I will now examine Warren Craghead’s A Sort of Autobiography and how some critics interpreted his work as a way of illustrating how both models presented above enable me to better answer what in the world is a StoryCube. A Sort of Autobiography is a series of ten StoryCubes whose outer faces are covered by drawings of Craghead’s own making. Taken together, the ten cubes are intended to be interpreted as his “possible” autobiography – hence the title of the work. Here is a description of the work posted by Matthew J. Brady on his “Warren Peace” blog as part of a longer review of the project:
With the onset of digital comics, an infinite number of possible ways to use the medium has erupted, and even the weirdest experiments are now visible for any number of people to experience. This is great for comics fans, who can now experience the sort of odd idea that creators might not have shared with the world otherwise. Warren Craghead’s A Sort of Autobiography is a fascinating example, using the tools provided by the site Diffusion.org.uk to create a series of three-dimensional comic strips, with each in a series of ten cubes representing a moment in his life, separated by decades. Some of them seem to simply place an image on each side of the cube (with one side of each working as a “title page”), while others wrap images around the surface, and several working to make faces representing Craghead at that cube’s age. It’s a neat way to use the medium, if you can call it that.”
If we attempted to place A Sort of Autobiography in the art world model presented earlier, it would be fairly easy to follow Brady’s lead and look to comic strips as a guiding template. One could say that Craghead is the artist-author who created the work. Determining who plays this role is fairly easy because Craghead has authored a number of comic strips using a similar visual style. Things get a bit more complicated when we try to determine who is the editor-publisher. Based on the information I’ve been able to gather, there doesn’t seem to be anyone other than Craghead who makes editorial choices about the content of the final artwork – the style of drawing, the way in which the story unfolds, etc. There may be some “invisible”, un-credited co-editors who help Craghead with his drawing and choice of subject matter but they are not formally acknowledged and I have not tried to enquire whether or not this is the case. What is clear, however, is that Proboscis also do take-on aspects of the editor-publisher role: Proboscis commissioned the project as part of their Transformations series, the works are made available through Proboscis’ Diffusion website and, of course, Proboscis designed what Brady refers to as the “tools” used to publish the project.
It is this last aspect that seems particularly problematic for Brady. If we focus (rather narrowly) on some of the comments Brady makes in passing about the StoryCubes as a support for the work in his review, it is clear that they make it more difficult for him to pin down the project. Much of Brady’s review seems to implicitly be asking “Is this a comic?”. In describing the work, he uses the language of comic books to help him describe it. For example:
“Some of [the cubes] seem to simply place an image on each side of the cube (with one side of each working as a “title page”) […]”
Here Brady suggests that Craghead employs a particular convention of comics – the title page – as part of how he constructs some of his cubes. But though one of the panels located at the same place on each of the ten cubes does have writing that indicates the year and how old Craghead is at the time (ex. 1970, I am zero years old; 1980, I am ten years old; etc.), there is little to suggest that this choice is necessarily drawn from comics. This might explain why Brady puts “title page” in quotation marks. Brady seems pleased with the overall results of the project but also refrains from categorizing the result outright as a comic. Recall how he ends the paragraph I cite above with:
“It’s a neat way to use the medium, if you can call it that.”
Further along in his review of the project, Brady still seems hesitant:
“Does the whole thing work as a comic? Sure, if you want to put the work into interpreting it, not to mention the assembly time, which can make for a fun little craft project.”
One could argue that Brady may be pushing the comics category a bit: Craghead’s own website doesn’t seem to put so much emphasis on whether or not this, or any of his other projects for that matter, should be interpreted as comics. But Brady is not the only one who approaches A Sort of Autobiography in this way. Inspired by Brady’s reading, Scott McCloud – an authority on the comics medium if there ever was one – characterizes Craghead’s work as an “experimental comic”. Brady and McCloud’s categorisations of A Sort of Autobiography as a comic matter in part because it strengthens a number of associations with the comics art world. For example, if one reads A Sort of Autobiography as a reader of comics, then it does involve some additional assembly time. But what if one categorised it as part of an origami art world? Then this assembly time would be taken for granted (but Craghead’s drawings on the cubes might be interpreted as an oddity).
But Brady and McCloud are able to make this kind of association in part because they are familiar with the author’s previous work. Craghead is an established comics artist for both Brady and McCloud. It is therefore possible to compare A Sort of Autobiography to his other works. This is where I need to bring in the second world model presented above – the story world. As stated previously, the definition of story worlds based on Jenkins’ work depends on a set of possible meanings within “environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work or even a single medium”. One could argue, that Craghead creates a similar kind of story world based on a particular style of illustration and subject matter that is consistent with other works he has created. So rather than working with comparisons to other comics, Brady’s reading can simply refer to Craghead’s established story world.
But instead of placing Craghead’s biography as the foundation of our story world, why couldn’t we instead use the StoryCube’s story as our starting point? That is, rather than assuming that authors are the only ones who create meaning by telling stories, what if we assumed that Proboscis had designed a compelling story environment “that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work” and that Craghead’s A Sort of Autobiography was only one of the many parallel contributions to the meaning of this medium?
This kind of inversion is problematic because our contemporary culture, for the most part, depends on consistent formal conventions to be able to make comparisons and value judgments. That isn’t simply at the level of individual artists, but as a whole. Jenkins’ story world model does allow for all sorts of different media, but most of the media he discusses are based in familiar art worlds – comics, books, television programmes, videogames, and movies – art worlds whose implicit formal conventions allow authors to tell their stories in relatively unproblematic ways. But if we don’t know what a StoryCube is, how are we supposed to know what these conventions are? How can we know if this is a “good” or “bad” StoryCube since most of us don’t know how a StoryCube is supposed to work
I would therefore argue that Craghead, Brady and McCloud are telling us their stories of the StoryCube that involves mixing together art world and story world. They are using the more or less familiar narrative of how one makes and reads comics to tell us how to make and read a StoryCube. Craghead is relating to us the tale of how an illustrator can assume the artist’s role in the process of making a StoryCube by making different kind of drawings on it. Brady and McCloud are producing accounts of how to be readers of StoryCubes. Just as with any other kind of story world, these contributions provide only partial insights into the whole story environment and how one might participate in its creation and extension.
The example of A Sort of Autobiography suggests why Proboscis’ initial definition, the one presented at the beginning of this text, was left under-developed: their objective is to develop a meaningful world in which people can tell stories – one that invites people to populate it with their own art worlds and story worlds. In order for there to be enough room for others to create and sustain this kind of world, Proboscis may have to allow the StoryCubes to remain an insufficient process and an incomplete story. But they must also continue the delicate work of articulating how this incompleteness can itself be a meaningful and fertile ground for others to complete. The bookleteer platform is arguably one step in this direction in that it is an attempt to generate an online community of people who use StoryCubes and other “Diffusion Shareables”.
In the end, the true challenge may not be whether any of the answers about “What in the world is a StoryCube?” are sufficiently clear or exhaustive, but whether or not one of them can entice you into telling your own story of the StoryCube.
Frederik Lesage, March 2011
A Critical Text about Proboscis by Fred Garnett
This is a critical text written to comment on the work of Proboscis in Public Sector Innovation with new technology from a cultural perspective. I was invited by Giles Lane to do this in late 2010 as I have followed the work of Proboscis since 2002 when I first went to a public event of theirs and have since appreciated the qualities of what they have done.
What I have decided to do in my Critical Text, Enabling Consequences, is to look at why Proboscis’s innovations, which from my perspective are capable of widespread adoption, have been insufficiently recognised and acted upon. I think this comes from both how they are conceptualised, through a process related to obliquity and how they might be adopted as a process of generative innovation; that is as a platform innovation that begets further innovations.
Brief History of Proboscis
Proboscis are probably best known for their work, Urban Tapestries, a breakthrough project (undertaken with collaborating partners such as Hewlett-Packard Research Laboratories, Orange, France Telecom R&D UK Ltd, Ordnance Survey and the London School of Economics), designed to enable the interactive city to emerge based on the pull of the participative strategies of active citizenship rather than push strategies of advertising.
They appear to set themselves the question “how can you double your intellectual quality every 18 months”. In part this is a response to Moore’s Law that states that the power of computer processing doubles every 18 months, but turned into a cultural question. In practical terms Proboscis ask themselves “how can you innovate at all times in terms of process, documentation and ideas”. They see what they do as pre-competitive research, what Steven Johnson has recently entitled the ‘adjacent platform’ of innovation. That is a process that occurs before any practical innovation actually happens.
Public Sector Innovation
I am particularly interested in Proboscis because I was also previously involved in an innovation project in the Public Sector, Cybrarian, which also failed to be recognised at the time. Cybrarian was a prototype ‘Facebook for Civil Society’, for which we created the high-concept description of it being an ‘Amazon for e-gov’ as the term social network didn’t exist then (2002). Some of us subsequently formed the ‘public technology’ group lastfridaymob, which spent some time trying to analyse why. We concluded that government didn’t have the relevant interpretive criteria to understand that new technology, created to meet public needs, namely creative, interactive and participative, and that these were three factors that government found hard to recognize. I always saw these three qualities in Proboscis’ work.
There is a deeper problem that new technologies are increasingly interactive and smart, demonstrating participative affordances, and the political context into which they are pitched are representative and hierarchical. So to unpick this problem of public sector innovation a little more lets look at how innovation occurs in greater depth.
A typical way of modelling the Innovation process is in what might be called the 4i model; Ideas, Invention, Innovation, Impact. This typically argues that someone, possibly a researcher, has a bright idea which they tinker away at until an invention can be developed. An invention is the first instantiation of a new innovation, it can be a mock-up, a model, a design, a drawing, but it has been produced as a one-off, or prototype, often to demonstrate the potential, or some expected quality. The difference between an invention and an innovation is money. Someone decides that the invention, either because they see the prototype or drawing or a description, is so compelling that it will be worth spending a lot of money setting up a production and distribution system so a version of the invention can be sold as a product on a large scale. This innovation process is also often divided into product push, where the new technology itself is compelling, or market-pull, where demand has been detected. In organisational terms this often reflects a distinction between the research and marketing functions in companies who are concerned with innovation, or a culture, like the USA, which sees social and cultural value in the process of innovation. Successful innovations need to bridge the gap between the qualities of supply-side technology-push, and the interest of demand side market-pull.
When Apple decided to launch the iPod – in technical terms a fairly simple device made on automated production lines in China – they also needed new software to control the iPod – iTunes – and new distribution arrangements with the entire music industry, for the music, songs and albums needed to populate their invention with resources. The music industry were the very people who felt that Napster, an early peer-to-peer forerunner of iTunes, threatened their entire industry, but Apple found powerful arguments for getting them on board, part of which was that Apple weren’t the first to market, so could respond to their needs. So the issue of turning a simple working invention like the iPod itself, into an innovation, is massively complex however compelling the product on display. All products have hinterlands, which can seriously affect the way an invention becomes an innovation and also how it becomes a universally recognised and used product or process, as digital music now is today. However we have been discussing product innovations being brought to market, whereas Public Sector Innovation is more concerned with processes that enable infrastructural development, and this requires a more pervasive model of innovation.
Steven Johnson’s Reef innovation v Market Innovation
Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From (2010) looks at ways in which innovation becomes adopted and contrasts the more typical 4i model discussed above, or market innovation, with what he calls reef innovation, what we might call infrastructural development. Steven Johnson is an American and writes about the US context, which is much more focused on invention overall than the UK and with a history of infrastructural developments coming through private sector activities; for example American utilities are generally private sector; gas, electricity, telephones etc. Whereas in the UK there has been a more mixed tradition of regulated private sector innovation, in the 19th Century, and state-controlled utilities, in the 20th Century. Following the privatisation policies of the 1980s and 1990s there has developed more of a regulated private-sector approach in the UK, returning somewhat to our 19th Century traditions.
Reef innovation is Johnson’s way of describing how a private sector model of development produces new infrastructure for society as a whole. This is a metaphor derived from how coral reefs accrete growth and so stay above sea level, as the volcanic rocks on which they are situated shift, in order to allow coral reef island life to flourish. He is discussing how the enabling utilities, such as communications technologies that lay beneath the functioning of everyday social life, evolve and grow. Johnson argues that society as a whole grows more through reef innovation; the slow accumulation of numerous utilities that form the infrastructure through which society functions, than through market innovation. So we need a more sophisticated view of infrastructural innovation, such as the reef model, to discuss public sector innovation.
However Johnson is writing of the American context where the accidental reef-like growth of market-tested processes of infrastructure accumulation is a useful metaphor, but it is not perhaps fully applicable in all socio-economic contexts. However with the concept of reef innovation Johnson is helpfully looking at systemic Innovation, rather than product innovation as the 4is model tends to do, and systemic innovation is particularly significant in times of systemic change, which we see now as we attempt to move to a Knowledge Economy, or the Information Society as the European Union calls it through its IST programmes for i2015 and i2020. However Systemic Innovation requires a still broader view of the transformational characteristics of systemic change.
Structural Innovation v Disruptive Innovation
Innovation that leads to transformational change is something that the economist Joseph Schumpeter (the so called “Prophet of Innovation”) writes about as he discusses the difference between Structural Innovation and Disruptive Innovation. Structural innovation is where the innovation extends existing uses of a product and should increase the numbers of users, such as lighter mobile phone handsets, whereas a disruptive innovation such as the mobile phone system itself, is one where the innovation changes how things are done, in such a way that challenges existing system processes. So transformational change, arguably a key feature of the coming Knowledge Economy in both the UK policy context and EU-IST programmes, actually requires the promotion of this disruptive innovation. At the governmental level this creates a problematic tension as governments are more interested in providing reliable infrastructure that changes little, but is increasingly used by citizens, rather than enabling systemic change through deploying new technology innovations.
Consequently government prefers to adopt disruptive technology innovations as infrastructure, such as websites, once they have attained widespread use and so can be seen as large-scale structural innovations. Thus a conundrum emerges in that technological innovation which enables often necessary social change comes in a disruptive form that is difficult for governments to deal with. However whilst governments are often interested in systemic change, say to improve social infrastructure during an age of global change and de-regulation, they are more comfortable with structural innovations which might extend their electoral support through greater use, rather than disruptive innovations which can alienate it.
Distinctive Features of the Proboscis Model of Innovation
However I think Proboscis are doing particularly interesting things in terms of innovation which don’t quite fit into any of these innovation models; reef, structural, disruptive. Firstly they are operating outside the boundaries of the 4is model, both in terms of generating ideas at the conceptual end of the process, and also in terms of offering processes of innovation at the take up end. Secondly they are developing innovations that are neither disruptive, nor structural, not least because Schumpeter’s models also emerge from an analysis of American economics. Proboscis are in the business of producing socially enabling participative innovations, which might be better described as enabling innovations, drawing their value from the degree to which they extend the affordances of the public realm.
I now want to look at three distinctive features, two intrinsic and one consequential, that can be identified in the Proboscis approach in order to examine what socially enabling participative innovations might mean in practice;
- a) Applied Heutagogy; namely thinking about projects in fresh ways before they begin, based on a guiding set of values, in terms of ‘moving criteria across contexts’ which might be described as providing an ‘ideas platform’ for thinking about innovation.
- b) Generative Innovations; creating innovative platforms that can then be used generatively to develop further uses by others in the public realm.
- c) Extending the Public Realm through Participation; the consequence of this approach to innovation, which emerges from using their models of thinking and applying their approach to public sector innovation.
I asked Giles if he thought his work fitted into the Blue-Sky model of thinking, which might be characterised as a model of brainstorming about what you do by removing under-pinning values that sustain the original work. It is thinking outside the box of existing limitations that is more likely to destroy the box than think of new uses for it. I suggested that we call Proboscis work ‘Pink-Sky Thinking’, meaning it was fresh but rooted in the original values that they started with. He declined to accept this and suggested that their thinking tended to be oblique. I think this is because they see their work as being of a piece and that Proboscis have extended their original vision by learning from their projects and the ways in which they have been implemented, Social Tapestries emerging out of Urban Tapestries for example.
Giles suggested that their approach was deeply rooted in their values of ‘moving criteria across contexts,’ which is the classic art school strategy of heutagogy. But Proboscis aren’t simply artistic provocateurs, they think deeper than that as their thinking is informed by a profound understanding of the public realm in which their innovations will be situated, so they are also thinking of consequences as well as creative solutions. Steven Johnson also talks of a process of moving criteria across contexts that he calls exaptation, but this is more limited than the applied heutagogy Proboscis use as it is generally the application of one new set of criteria to one new field of practice in search of innovation. Proboscis are more flexible than this, but I think they are engaged in a broader process of multiple exaptations in their thinking. This process of thinking through a multiplicity of strategies derived from a range of contexts I would characterise as an ‘ideas platform.’ This offers a richer conceptual mulch than the ‘adjacent platform’ model described by Johnson, as it is also takes account of the consequential use states and the state changes (Giles’s term) that might be enabled. It could also be described as thinking about where good ideas go to…
Kondratieff talks of long wave economic change coming from what he terms ‘meta technologies’, technologies that are embedded in other technologies like the steam engine and the microprocessor. However long-term social change comes from behavioural adaptations to the affordances of these new technologies, such as the car or the mobile phone. But social change also needs infrastructure that supports the use of the new technologies; for example, time was standardised across Britain in 1840 to meet the needs of the railways. In many ways since 1770 this infrastructure has been in the form of networks of new technologies; canals, railways, telegraph, telephone, roads, electricity, television, the Internet. However these networks have tended to be dedicated to a single mode of use until the Internet came along. Like electricity this enables it to be a multi-use network, but the Internet is also capable of supporting and distributing multiple formats. Thus across this network an almost unpredictable range of uses can be developed; the Internet enables a range of consequential uses, limited only by the design flexibility of the digital formats themselves. The World Wide Web itself is one such multi-modal consequence of the flexibility of the Internet, but it is possible to design with it’s almost endlessly consequential nature in mind and Proboscis seem cognisant of this.
A Generative Innovation might be described as an innovation that enables further innovations, as described above, not as an embedded meta technology but as a platform of possibilities. An interesting development in Proboscis work was the shift from Urban Tapestries to Social Tapestries, from a platform to a user environment and what characterises their user environments is their participative quality.
Arguably the Knowledge Economy and the Information Society are characterised by the participative qualities of the technologies used to build them, this has been particularly clear since the ‘architecture of participation’ that is Web 2.0 became widely available as a possible infrastructure platform. Proboscis’s work has anticipated this participatory quality due to the heutagogic nature of their thinking about creating generative processes. This thinking can be described as an ideas platform, which precedes the adjacent platform model of innovation as described by Johnson. Proboscis were used to playing with form, moving criteria across contexts as they describe it, at a time when new technologies capable of creating social transformation were emerging so, for them, the flexibility of digital technologies, their arguably ‘disruptive’ qualities, were already accounted for at the thinking stage.
Extending the Public Realm through Participation
So the combination of applied heutagogy and generative innovations has the Enabling Consequence of creating the possibility of extending the public realm through participation in this age of digital networks and use affordances. This is because Proboscis are engaged in flexible thinking about future possibilities whilst being aware of how implementation might extend and change the character of the public realm. They design for the participative qualities of digital networks and so capture what makes them so attractive to people in society.
[CAVEAT: I don’t want this to read like a testimonial, after all it is a critical text and not all of Proboscis’s projects have been unqualified successes, but this has been an attempt to capture both what uniquely characterises their approach and to also try and understand how public sector innovation might be made to work effectively in the UK in an age of digital flexibility.]
Conclusions; Enabling Consequences
Proboscis’ research model
Proboscis have a concern with public sector innovation in a time of digital flexibility, but are capable of absorbing the transformative potential of the evolving digital realm into both their thinking, as social artists comfortable with the heutagogic playing with form, and as visionaries, capable of thinking of how new platforms might enable greater engagement in and with the public realm. They bring this together in an unusually broad and deep way of solving problems, what I call applied heutagogy, addressing multiple perspectives not just the artistic one of playing with form.
The participative affordances of the technology and the heutagogic quality of their thinking, what they call ‘moving criteria across contexts’, combine to offer the possibility of creating generative infrastructure; infrastructure that begets further infrastructure. They work with the grain of digital transformation both conceptually and in terms of its consequences.
Public sector Innovation
Most public sector innovation emerges from a hierarchical policy process that has originated in one part of government and has a clearly defined and departmentally owned problem it wants solving. Public sector innovation typically, for a range of historical, political and cultural reasons, wants structural innovation that extends the relevance and influence of the owner of the policy and so sees innovation concerning ‘state changes’ as disruptive and out of scope.
Ben Hammersley recently highlighted this conceptual problem at the governmental level, what he characterises as the clash between hierarchical and network thinking, in his British Council lecture in Derry on March 25 2010. The problem Hammersley highlights is hierarchical thinking about networked contexts. The public sector wants innovation to be structural in order to count as improving their policy delivery in alignment with the current construction of existing policy responsibilities; it thus ignores the ‘state change’ potential offered by new network possibilities. In terms of innovation the public sector is, at best, involved in post-hoc legitimation but not in the creation of participation platforms designed to work in the emerging network contexts.
Innovation in a Transformative context
So we have an impasse; the opportunity for the development of a digitally flexible public realm capable of supporting a range of interdisciplinary models of innovation working across open networks, and a public policy context which is incapable of recognising networked and other new technology affordances. We can describe this as a clash between possible participative and traditional representative views, both of working processes and of society (and so of policy development); or more simply a clash of values. Proboscis want to ‘establish a discourse around values’ so that we might uncover where value is created, and also what those values might be, as we try to find ways of working with the digitally flexible and transformative characteristics of the emerging of participatory culture.
Hammersley somewhat ghoulishly, suggests that we first need the older generation in power to die off if fresh thinking capable of coping with a networked society is to gain traction in government in 2011. What Proboscis show us, less dramatically, is that with some applied heutagogy, thinking practically about how we might learn from ‘moving criteria across contexts’ at the start of a problem-solving process concerning public-sector innovation, along with some consideration of how we might create a ‘platform’ that could generate further innovative ‘state changes’, constrained by considerations of the nature of the public realm, then we can indeed enable public sector thinking that is in tune with the evolving networked society we live in at the start of the 21st Century.
Fred Garnett, April 2011