December 3rd, 2013
So Thursday 28th of November 2013 saw the curtains raised for the debut of Performing Research in Culture Lab, Newcastle University. Fuelled by teas, coffees, sandwiches and those delicious vegetable crisps (thank you Newcastle Institute for Creative Arts Practice) 23 staff and students embarked on an exciting new collaboration. Led by Gordon Poad, and aided by Cap-a-Pie Associates, the stage was set (quite literally) for an exploration of creativity and imagination, one which would ultimately reveal what performance can offer research, and more appositely, researchers. Dispensed were the usual formalities of academic interdisciplinary meetings. We were not bogged down with the ‘what’s your name and what do you do’ Q & A. Instead we were tasked with developing a sign, a symbol which represents us and our research. Indeed, it is at this moment that I should introduce myself…as I stand up, raise my hand to my forehead in the style of a salute and I survey my surroundings like I’m looking for something; because, and it goes without saying, I am a Human Geographer. I look out at the world and study its people and places.
But my symbol is neither self-explanatory nor implicit. It does not go without saying and you probably don’t ‘know what I mean’. Instead these representations were slices of performance. As a microcosm of the entirety of this project, the symbols highlighted how we carefully select, present, and perform our stories to one another; in this case as researchers in a networking context. In my work I do not stand looking out at the world as a ship’s Captain; rather, I study men of Irish descent across different generations. But how would I depict that – I don’t know? What I did know was that my carefully chosen symbol would ‘make sense’ to a non-specialist audience and elucidate notions of ‘the explorer’ or ‘the traveller’; vocations more obviously linked with Human Geography.
So in the body of the evening’s activities we were immersed with the following conundrum: to enter the open door; to peer beyond what was ajar; to dive down ‘the rabbit hole’. I personally had to negotiate my 5 responses: the unknown; the opportunity; the apprehension; whether I was to stay; or whether I was to go. Once through the door we collectively constructed our brave new world. We placed meaning to spaces both inside and outside the dStudio Blogoor. Building from these foundations of creative enquiry I saw parallels which this binary presented. As we learned about the roles of actor, director, poet and playwright I reflected upon our vulnerabilities. I felt we can be vulnerable as researchers, academics and performers. But in overcoming these I saw confidence grow within the group, or at least performances of ‘confident’ individuals. The nervous laughter of our opening, often silent, exchanges had been replaced with fun and innovation as well as genuine artistic craft. Some of the poetry created was for me, deeply moving. Indeed as one participant acknowledged, we had become energised through performance.
One closing remark from a participant struck a particular chord with me and it was around notions of ‘risk and investment’. Acknowledging that time is itself the precious commodity, I perceived that this risk could be the worry of ‘wasting one’s time’. Certainly from my part, in week 1 of performing research I have seen a return in my investment. In drawing together staff and students from beyond my school of Geography, Politics and Sociology and beyond my faculty of the Humanities and Social Sciences I have been able to draw on common ground that I did not know existed. Ideas of performance, storytelling and meaning-making run under us all and I cannot wait to meet you all again to set sail on the next stage of our adventure.