Over the last six weeks I have been undertaking participant observation in the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (ESALA) as I have sought to understand how students construct and convey meaning through their design work. This exercise is the subject of an assignment I am completing for an Ethnographic Fieldwork course, whilst at the same time being of direct interest to my Doctoral research where I am investigating multimodal assessment in higher education.
During each visit I spend time observing students as they work on the design of a library building. For the most part my notes have been in ‘text’ form (typed onto my laptop), supported by photographs of models, sketches and other examples of student work. These fieldnotes have worked up to a point, however they haven’t managed to recreate the atmosphere in the design studio: they are muted both figuratively and literally.
On my most recent visit to the design studio last Friday, I decided to complement the gathering of words and images, with sounds. To do this, I walked the length of the studio (and then back again) recording sound through the voice memo function on my phone. I wasn’t interested in recording full conversations, but was instead keen to capture the traces of laughter, music, dialogue and other sounds which contribute to the ambient personality of the studio. The subsequent task of ‘writing up’ my notes later the same day also called for a different approach from normal, as I pulled together a short video combining a representative range of audio and images, juxtaposed with extracts from my typed notes. This is what I came up with:
I think the orchestration of images, sounds and words has enabled me to represent the colour and vibrancy of the architecture studio in a way that I wasn’t previously able to achieve. I think this multimodal approach to data gathering and representation offers something different to the conventional monograph with its heavy privileging of words on page. That said, gathering and interpreting visual and aural data presents its own challenges - both practically and critically - and we should remember that photographs and sound recordings are neither neutral nor an accurate recreation of reality. Nevertheless, in light of Architecture’s interest in a wide range of semiotic materials, I wonder whether an ethnographic approach which pays due attention to the aural and visual, is a more apt way of investigating how knowledge is constructed and conveyed in the design studio.
A creative approach to demonstrating success
Urban flânerie as multimodal autoethnography
Last November the brilliant Cities and Memory sound archive set out to capture the distinctive sounds that accompany a major football match. The audio exercise is described in 'The living nightmare of the Arsenal fan' where Stuart Fowkes tells how he captured and then remixed the sounds of the Champions League contest between Arsenal and Anderlecht at the Emirates Stadium.
What Stuart's exercise didn’t set out to do was gather the wider sounds of matchday, including the chaotic mixture of conversation and chanting that can be heard before and after the game, and which contribute massively to the experience of watching live football. At the same time Cities and Memory is essentially concerned with sound and therefore didn’t gather images to accompany the changing pitch as the game unfolded.
What follows then is my own attempt to bring together the combined aural and visual colour of matchday. The fixture was FC St Pauli versus VFL Bochum in the second tier of Germany's Bundesliga. I've been making visits to St Pauli's Millerntor Stadion for the last decade, always spending the weekend in Hamburg in order to get the full experience around the game. This meant that I had a good idea of where and when I might find interesting and representative soundclips and photographs. That said, the pattern of matchday was dictated by the game itself, not by my data gathering. After all, if St Pauli were to lose this final home game of the season, they would be relegated to the third tier of German football. The high stakes nature of the match meant that I didn’t take as many photos during the game as I would have liked: it’s one thing to bring a camera to the game, but I wasn't willing to intrude on the occasionally fraught experience being enjoyed/suffered by the fans around me on the Sudtribune. My commitment to ethnography lasted only until St Pauli conceded in the opening minutes of the game, at which point there were more serious matters at hand.
There was also room for serendipity, for instance in the way that my pre-match wander to the St Pauli Fischmarkt coincided with an assembly of several hundred Bochum fans who lit flares, unfurled banners and chanted songs before making their way en masse to the game. At the same time there's always the possibility that a visit to the Millerntor Stadion will lead to new friendships, pub visits and parties that couldn't be scripted at the start of the day.
I’m not going to describe the assembled images and audio, other than to say they are gathered below within a series of montages that depict pre-match, the game itself, and then the post-match celebration (look out for scoreboard and listen to the sense of disbelief within the middle montage). The slide shows play automatically and you can click on the audio player to hear the accompanying cries, songs and laughter of matchday St Pauli.
Looking back at the gathered sights and sounds here, I think they go a good job of documenting what we experienced before, during and after the game. The images and audio clips go some way to capturing what is special about watching live football (in Hamburg, at least). The colour, humour and camaraderie are a reward for those who embrace matchday, rather than choosing to spectate from the comfort of the pub or armchair.
Something that isn't captured above however is the next-morning-remorse that comes from one Currywurst too many, or the echo of fansong that repeats in our heads for the whole of the flight back to Scotland and the days that follow. Forza-Sankt-Pauli! Forza-Sankt-Pauli!, Oh! Forza-Sankt-Pauli!
It’s still ringing.
With thanks to our friends at Fanladen St Pauli for help with tickets and the cool folk in Café Absurd for letting us capture the sounds of a lock-in.
Over the last two years I’ve been recording traces of football fan culture in my neighbourhood, to the south of Edinburgh’s city centre. This exercise initially came about through a desire to try out a new camera, combined with the fact that pushing my 2 year-old son around in his buggy was a sure-fire way of getting him off to sleep. Hundreds of miles and hours later I've decided to share some of the photos and stories they tell. I've collected the most interesting images in a slideshow below and then, further down, have mapped them onto the streets of Edinburgh's Southside.
From a few different places in Marchmont - within Edinburgh's EH9 postcode district - you can look north to Edinburgh Castle, before turning east towards the volcanic rock of Arthur's Seat. The Castle and Arthur's Seat: the royalty of postcard Edinburgh. Maybe more interesting though (to me anyway) is the ephemera and milieu that says something about the city right now. At the danger of over-simplifying things, The Castle tells us about history whereas the streets are part of an unfolding story.
Through repeated excursions I became aware of colourful stickers attached to lampposts, recycling bins and other bits of everyday street furniture. If this sounds like an unglamorous pursuit, on the contrary I encountered Danny Kaye and Johnny Cash as I walked the lines of tenements that characterise my neighbourhood. Some of the most interesting stickers were those bearing the identity of football Ultra groups. Ultras, in case their existence is new to you, are groups of highly organised and often politically-motivated football fanatics. They have an investment in their chosen club that goes beyond the 90-minutes-plus-time-added-on and manifests through colourful choreography, carefully crafted banners and controversy. There will frequently be fireworks when Ultras assemble in their chosen area of the stadium.
Looking beyond the imagination and humour of some of the stickers, I was interested in the way that their presence felt out-of-step with the calm order of the residential streets, schools and shops where I found them. Marchmont isn’t Merseyside and The Meadows is a long way from the Maracana, both figuratively and literally. To illustrate the point in a very blunt way, I’ve never queued behind the Green Brigade at the cash point on Thirlestane Road or nervously exchanged glances with Ultras Nurnberg on Bruntsfield Place on my way to get the croissants. And yet their presence was to be found attached to the physical material of the street - in fact they became a part of it's materiality, its personality. As I became aware of this curious jarring I changed my approach and set out to record each sticker against the backdrop of its surroundings. This resulted in some amusing juxtaposition that wasn’t always apparent at the time: aggression in front of a place of worship; a zombie gathering set against a leisurely family outing.
Hover over the map and then a hotspot to view a low res picture of a sticker in it's location.
Over time these vinyl calling cards became more commonplace and I altered and extended my excursions to take in different paths, parks and other public spaces. The derelict land and industrial units around the Union Canal evoked a battleground as different Ultra groups competed for eminence. The message was clear: our football might be mediocre on the pitch but our fan artistry rises above all others (and is placed high enough up this lamppost to make it difficult for rival fans to deface or remove it). South Clerk Street presented a similar story of conflict as the different sides of the road became the opposing ends of a football ground: Hibs versus Hearts at Easter Road, at Tynecastle and then spilling out onto the lampposts and postboxes of the Southside.
There was also serendipity in this documenting of fan culture. Without it ever being my intention a number of photos taken during the Summer and Autumn of 2014 inadvertently revealed the political climate in Scotland at the time. When the story of Scotland’s independence referendum is told it’s likely that it will be accompanied by images of politicians, press calls and orchestrated mass rallies. What will mostly be overlooked, I imagine, is the everyday appropriation of the street, as citizens of different hues pinned their sticky-backed colours to the lampposts and signs of their neighbourhoods. Better Together with the Union Bears. Another Scotland is possible with the Brigade Loire. And they say football and politics don’t mix.
If there’s any value in this exercise (beyond learning how to use my camera and helping my son off to sleep) it’s that this approach can tell a story about what was unfolding within a specific part of the city over a particular period of time. Perhaps the gathered images can be seen as a capturing of the moment that will be overlooked in conventional histories of Edinburgh, and in the websites and brochures that are used to entice visitors and investors. If Edinburgh Castle and Arthur’s Seat are immovable rocks in the city’s landscape, there's also value to be found in turning an eye to the ephemeral: the minutiae of our everyday surroundings that capture what’s happening, rather than what has happened. Divert your gaze from the city’s landmarks and study the detail of your neighbourhood. The terraces have a story to tell.
The Sights and Sounds of matchday: FC St Pauli
Multimodal wandering/wondering in EC1
The Sights and Sounds of Portsmouth & Southsea
Last week I attended the MODE Multimodal Methodologies Conference at University College London. I won’t summarise the Conference here as that’s better done by visiting the designated #modeME Twitter hashtag. What I will say is that the value of proceedings can be measured in the attendance during the closing session, which was at least as busy as the opening address.
Alongside my colleagues Michael Sean Gallagher and Jeremy Knox I contributed a session proposing Urban Flânerie as Multimodal Autoethnography. The rationale behind the paper is explained in an entry I wrote directly before the Conference. Our presentation slides can be viewed here. In the absence of text or accompanying voice however, I’ve included below some Twitter feedback which captures some of the main points we put across.
Within the 30-minute presentation slot it was only possible to share a fraction of the images and sounds that we had collected the previous day. Gathered at the top of this entry, then, is a juxtaposition of some of the sights (captured in a slideshow) and sounds (within the audio montage) of EC1.
For me, the most significant themes to emerge from our exercise in Multimodal Flânerie are as follows:
Inevitably, we could improve the exercise next time around (and we intend to). I would use a better quality Microphone to capture the aural data [actioned]. I would also make a written note of the locations where we gathered data. And I wouldn’t have a pint at lunchtime knowing that I needed to work on the data later that night (a Gin & Tonic would be acceptable, though).
Finally, a spin off from our exercise. I drew our presentation to a close by proposing that those with an interest in our methodology could join us for an exercise in flânerie that evening, as we made our way from the Conference venue to a nearby pub. And so amidst the neon, sirens, and crowds of Euston and its surrounds, we captured some interesting sights and sounds. I’ve put this data into a short, sketchy video that captures our journey from A to B (although invoking the spirit of the flaneur, not by the most direct route, obviously).
Tomorrow morning (Thursday 15 January 2015) I will jointly deliver a conference paper on Urban Flanerie as Multimodal Ethnography, with my colleagues Jeremy Knox and Michael Sean Gallagher. The occasion is the Multimodality: Methodological Explorations conference at the Institute of Education/University College London.
The main thrust of our paper will be that we can better understand urban space by stepping into the shoes of the Flâneur, and then setting out to capture and then convey the sights and sounds we experience as we wander through the city. To make this argument, we will spend today, the day before the Conference, enacting our proposed methodology within the EC1 postcode of London.
What we’re interested in doing is exploring how the collection and then the multimodal communication of data might enable us to ask questions about the character within a particular snapshot of time, as well as our own relationship with urban space.
Beginning at 10am, we will wander the streets of East Central London, taking photographs and recording audio of anything that talks to us about personality of this part of the city. Following in the path of the Flâneur, we don’t have a set route in mind, or the intention to visit particular buildings, parks or pubs. Instead our wanderings and therefore our data collection will be shaped by a left turn here, an interesting alley there, a blocked-off pavement, an enticing cafe, the weather, and so on.
Once we have tired of walking the streets, we will sit down, download and then trying to make sense from our gathered visual and aural data. We will then decide how we might combine all the gathered sights and sounds into a meaningful, multimodal artefact. After that we will reflect on the methodological significance of our exercise. And then tomorrow morning we will present the same conclusions – and the artefact – at the Conference.
The tight deadline presents this as a risky approach and it could end up being a late night (but then, we'd need to fill our evening in central London somehow). We feel though that it's a useful way of testing our methodology in a practical way. Assuming we pull this off, we feel there is the potential for this approach to be used within different learning situations, which is something we hope to discuss tomorrow morning. For now though, it's time to gather our cameras and coats and to step out into the cold of EC1.
I am a Lecturer in Digital Education (Education Futures), within the Centre for Research in Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh.