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Experimenting in the Plural. A Report on the Workshop “The New Experimentalisms”

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By Kim Kullmann

The Workshop The New Experimentalisms, held on September 21st 2016 at CISP was organised in response to an expanding cross-disciplinary interest in experimentation as a mode of enquiry. While contemporary experimentalisms draw on a range of resources, from laboratory ethnographies in Science and Technology Studies to the early urban research of the Chicago School, such work is united in the assumption that knowing the world necessarily participates in its coming into being (see Guggenheim 2012; Kullman 2013). Instead of settling with empirical description, then, experimenters compose various types of devices and set-ups to induce new variations in phenomena, so as to bring out their transformative potential. As the workshop conveners Alex Wilkie, Dan Neyland and Michael Guggenheim maintained in their opening statement, a key aim for the meeting would be to trace out, compare and critique these emerging styles of experimental enquiry in order to develop a clearer understanding of their possibilities.

The four speakers and commentators came from various disciplinary backgrounds, including anthropology, computer science, design and sociology, as well as discussed a broad assortment of topics, from the politics of design and collaborative ethnography to environmental protection and sensor technology. Although it is not possible to do justice to the intricate arguments of each presenter in this brief account, several themes stood out as relevant to the purposes of the workshop and current scholarship in the area.

Starting the proceedings, Pelle Ehn combined insights from the Scandinavian tradition of participatory design with science and technology studies and the philosophy of John Dewey to argue that design is well-placed to change the conditions for communal life by staging arrangements that invite collectives to actively problematise their material environments. As Ehn argued, creating and sustaining such arrangements requires abandoning overly normative approaches and recognising the plural character of experimentation, whose ingredients and workings tend to vary from one site to another. This claim resonates with recent warnings against the reduction of experimentation to the omnipresent figure of the laboratory, as this might make it difficult to understand the proliferation of real-world experiments, which are often based on notions of chance and control that differ from laboratory settings (see Guggenheim 2012).

Other, closely related issues were explored by Tomas Sanchez Criado, whose work rethinks contemporary forms of collaborative ethnography through various types of “fieldwork devices” that forge novel links between research and practice, in this case anthropology and accessible design. For Sanchez Criado, experimentation builds on a set of evolving, productive constraints as well as on a careful documentation of the process of enquiry, so that it becomes possible to make explicit its various and often surprising outcomes. Although experimentation is a situated practice shaped by unexpected occurrences, as Ehn claimed, attentive documentation guarantees that new knowledges are produced and shared during and after the process, which will enable those involved to trace out and examine the successes and failures of their changing set-ups.

Claire Waterton argued for a wider recognition of nonhuman entities—for example, blue-green algae and their lake environment—as active participants in experiments with political collectives. According to Waterton, contemporary issues require a lengthy process of experimentation with set-ups of human and nonhuman materials that are allowed to change one another in unforeseen ways to articulate new, politically transformative commonalities and differences. Here, experimentation takes place “with” rather than “on” nonhumans and appears as an uncertain and fragile practice, which not only invites us to think beyond divisions between experts and laypersons but also to look for ways to multiply the entities considered as relevant for the political process.

The final presenter, Tobias Bornakke Jorgensen, highlighted the ethical complications of experimental research by describing a cross-disciplinary project, which used sensor data from the smartphones of 1,000 Danish students to map their everyday interactions in time and space. Jorgensen indicated that experimentation can be a demanding approach, especially in large-scale studies, when set-ups are managed across multiple sites and together with colleagues from disparate disciplines, whose methodological assumptions about experimentation might vary. A particular challenge is therefore how to conduct research in a manner that allows for diverse experimentalisms to co-exist and that attends to potential ethical issues stemming from their differences and similarities.

Although the four presenters addressed experimenting in the plural, they appeared to share the basic premise of the practice as a collaborative creation of devices and set-ups, whereby researchers can begin to investigate the conditions for the production of novelty. For this reason, a central question taking shape during the workshop was whether it would be possible to evaluate the novelty of such interventions. Given the questionable uses of experimentation in earlier social science and its ethically suspect aspiration for control and neutrality, an alternative approach seemed to suggest itself—one that was less invested in developing a standard method than in cultivating new methodological sensibilities and recording their evolution throughout the research process (see Latour 2004). Such a minimal approach might allow an experiment to remain sufficiently open to creative adaptation, while also ensuring that its novelty is critically assessed through ongoing documentation and comparison with other experiments.

REFERENCES

Guggenheim, M. (2012) Laboratizing and de-laboratizing the world: changing sociological concepts for places of knowledge production. History of the Human Sciences, 25: 99–118.

Kullman, K. (2013) Geographies of experiment / Experimental geographies: a rough guide. Geography Compass, 7: 879-894.

Latour, B. (2004) Politics of nature. How to bring the sciences into democracy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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