Education: Research on Protests

The Sensory Nature and Impact of Protest

How everything started: Strike for Education (4th of October)

 

Goldsmiths recently increased the Social Work tuition fees by 86.5%, making the course inaccessible for people from marginalised backgrounds. Few days ago, a group of students organized a protest in front of Deptford Town Hall and New Cross Road to vindicate their rights against these new reforms. This small-scale problem might be an interesting example to better understand the English educational context. At Goldsmiths, students stood together for two hours to show that they disagree with this change. On a narrow strip of sidewalk they shouted some slogans and held up their protest banners in favour of an equal education for all. Concerned citizens joined and supported students in their act, standing with them or just honking them along the street. Each honk received applause. All the sounds coming from people and machines were crucial for the proper functioning of this social movement. Making visible the invisible, it would be interesting to research a social pattern that allows the analysis of the visual and acoustic impact developed during a demonstration. Sounds, textures, colours, smells, among other innovative categories (Pink, 2015) might be studied through old and new medias to re-define the meaning of ‘social impact’. I asked myself ‘how sounds could measure the impact of a protest for education in a public space?’

 

Statistical studies, words and crowds are no longer the only existing measures to analyse a demonstration. Meanwhile, I was reading Savage and Burrows (2007), Adkins and Lury (2009), Law and Urry (2004) that made me think about the crisis of words in sociology and how new methods are needed to ‘find ways to destabilize our bureaucratic modes of measure and value’ (Back and Puwar, 2012: 14). Thus, when I read ‘What is Preventing Social Mobility’ by Becky Francis and Billy Wong (2013), I compared the strike purpose with their theoretical approach, claiming that ‘education is often seen as a driver of social mobility’ (ibid: 3). The investigation is based on the key elements of educational inequality and the role of the education system for disadvantaged children. They drew on the concept of ‘accessibility’ arguing that ‘social inequality needs to be reduced to facilitate mobility’ (ibid: 27). From my perspective, to protest on the streets for a better education seems a starting movement to publicly support mobility, social mixing, and access to higher education, as well as to combat social exclusion. At Goldsmiths I was part of the protest as an observer-participant. I analysed my actions, my feelings and those of others. For next time, I should come back to study some larger demonstrations organized in London, seeking to reduce social distances and class conflicts in the education system. I should work on a pattern or a new methodological approach, together with distinctive key points and inventive devices to enhance the subject of social mobility.

 

Figure 1: set of photographs showing the protest at Goldsmiths.

Inspiration from the NGO Refugee Youth (30th of September – 2017)

 

I am a new volunteer at the NGO Refugee Youth and in APOW, their local project in Croydon. Young refugees currently living in the UK have a regular space where to develop new skills and to enjoy weekly workshops including all sorts of creative activities, from poetry and painting, to drama, dance and photography. APOW is a common and cross-cultural family where everyone can organize games, prepare dishes, exchange experiences, make friends and feel part of a better world. Creativity offers concrete possibilities and a process of personal empowerment in such a complex reality (Lyon and Carabelli, 2015). Each activity is organized ‘with’ and ‘for’ young people, being all engaged through Participatory Action Research methods and wishing to conduct positive changes in everyone’s' lives. APOW is inspiring because it represents how should look like a free and accessible education for all through empathy, love, energy, trust and respect. In these three months, I also could bring some challenging ideas and concepts to the emerging group, organizing experimental workshops through performing objects and video sessions as creative ways to conceive stories. These experiences were an opportunity for all of us to learn new skills, facilitate reflection and to represent words, concepts, and situations through visual and sensory methods. The community changes relied on improving youths’ accessibility to resources and working toward a positive evolution of their beliefs, values and attitudes. Claudia Mitchell (2011: 14) argues that ‘doing visual research, as a whole, is about changing the picture and the various approaches to social research that are meant to be in the service of community research, social action or social change’. That’s how APOW showed me the true meaning and challenges of participatory actions and how to put an emphasis on collaboration, reciprocity and reflexivity for the smooth running of a community project.

 

I read ‘The Art of Listening’ (2007), where Les Back tells us visual and sensory projects undertaken with different social groups. Each chapter made me reflect on how sociology could work creatively developing methods’ practices that ‘not only describe but also help to produce the reality that they understand (Law, 2004: 5). Experiences written by Back (2007 and 2013), Lyon and Carabelli (2015), Cornwall and Jewkes (1995), Chevalier and Buckles (2013) allowed me to conceive ‘what is a participatory research’ and how it is related to practical projects. That’s incredible how these readings made me see clearly what I have been doing these past few years with my personal projects, with APOW now, and what I would like to improve during this year at Goldsmiths. Although I enjoy sharing my skills, to create participatory activities and to listen other people’s stories in APOW’s community project, I don’t want to blend what I do with them (personal work) and what I am developing during the course (professional research). Nevertheless, the experience inspires me and it would come back at the end of this research as a utopic image or one possible answer to my still uncertain sociological question.

Figure 2: youngster taking pictures of his friends.

Field work: Fist experiments in class and in public spaces

 

Guggenheim’s article ‘The Proof is in the Pudding’ (2011) inspired my classmates to realise the potato’s experiment, relating it to social mobility. We made several mind-maps until to agree on concepts such as Charity, Fashion Food and Cultures to then explain the process of cooking a potato and to observe its transformation through different medias. We all cooked a potato in our own kitchen and recorded each step using traditional forms through drawings and smells as well as new multimedia forms through video making, sound recording and selfie poses. The project results weren’t clearly related to social mobility, even if a potato is an accessible ingredient full of social connotations. But they allowed us to start inventively our experimentation process with a set of different devices.

 

I enjoyed the trimester visiting outdoor and indoor exhibitions. Becker’s description (2007: 102) of ‘lived experiences’ made me observe differently how people interact with art works or other representations. As I am particularly interested in public spaces, I asked myself: Is the street an open museum where people can interact and share meaning? What does change street atmospheres? Is social mobility present in public spaces? I walked a lot during the trimester because I found relevant how planned and unplanned walks might give different inputs to this diary. Are urban surprises capable to create stronger impacts in the early stages of my researches? The walk itself is already a multi-sensory field of historical research given that is practiced by pedestrians, passers-by and many citizens. It’s a modest, humble and anonymous act that also produces a mode of knowledge of the social world. De Baecque would outline that a walking ideology is democratic and egalitarian act as well as political. To walk in a protest is a peaceful, fragile and exposed way to resist to the powerful leaders and to vindicate rights. It is also psychological given that is related to writing. We can archive more than fifteen thoughts during three or four hours walking that we should note on a paper once arrived at home (De Baecque, 2016). While walking, I stopped many times unexpectedly, to participate in several festivals and protests. I filmed, took photographs, and recorded diverse sounds to report people’s engagement in public spaces. On Sunday 16th of October, I went to the crowed Diwali Festival in Trafalgar Square and to a small protest against McDonalds in Soho. These two examples made me think about how people are effectively attracted by sounds and communicative messages creating then new interactive spaces. I also took many pictures of other events, which allowed me to connect and visualise concepts or ideas.

 

Figure 3: fieldwork seeking to understand how people interact, protest, move or communicate in urban and sensory environments.

Figure 4: Some pictures collected in my diary regarding social encounters, exhibitions and

participatory projects that inspired me later on, in advanced stages of my research.

Figure 5: Peckham's peace wall.

The project ‘Marches’ (2005) by Lawrence Abu-Hamdan inspired me for the ‘Still Image exercise’. Although my objective was to observe closely the relation between people and the city of London, I enhanced some of our differences and similarities through photographs of shoes walking the streets of the city centre. I found hard to connect this experiment with a ‘research question to a problem’ because I was just interested to relate shoes (people) with street pavements (material). Are shoes an intimate belonging to shape the public and private spaces that we inhabit everyday? When I read the Friedman article (2014), I thought about how mobility may have affected our habits and our identity. Shoes might become markers of economic and occupational success, or ‘symbols and artifacts of class-inflected cultural identity’ (ibid: 364). That was also the first time I confronted ethical dimensions in my work in London. I had to use my mobile phone instead of my digital camera to don’t scare passers-by whilst taking photographs of their shoes (3).

 

Figure 5: shoes.

Figure 6: street pavements.

Sounds, time, space and the everyday life

 

How spaces work visually? What could be the narrative of a protest for Education? I assisted to workshops and talks that played particular attention in creating inventive narratives through objects, spaces, visual and sensory experiences; without using words. How to visualise sociological data collected in public spaces? ‘Rhythmanalysis’ by Lefebvre (2004) also aroused my interest in the way he studied the relations between people rhythms, time, spaces and everyday activities. Lefebvre observed connections that could be constitutive of a new imaginative project. For that, I had to expand my thoughts through current theoretical and practical approaches on methods, explained and collected in these two books: ‘Inventive Methods’ (2012) and ‘Live Methods’ (2012).

I enjoyed recording soundscapes to practice my listening before the protest for Education. I also went to sensory events as the exhibition ‘You say you want a Revolution?’ currently at the V&A Museum. The exhibition-research explores new ways of learning about the world, studying the continuous impact created by the rebellious generation of the 60s until today. Once again, sounds helps the audience to get closer to the exhibition content and make them feel part of a past period to then better reflect on how we live today and how we think about the future. Thus, different sounds can be gathered in one space and become actors of a new live experience. Sounds seem to amplify or join a visual narrative, raise questions, and they are constituents of the final composition.

 

In the past few weeks I have read articles and books, I have experimented well known devices in new ways and I have continued questioning myself whether a demonstration called ‘United for Education’ could be an engaging place where to study social mobility. I needed more advices to represent the march and my first sociological question: Should education be accessible for all? This question will certainly give me the opportunity to translate a branch from Francis and Wong’s research (2013) into a sensory video, because I thought to combine moving images with sound after watching Michael Gallagher’s project, ‘Seven primary School Spaces’ (2008). In Gallager’s video, sounds tell the missing story of the unseen school atmosphere. Cardiff and Miller also developed new associations creating ‘Alter Bahnhof Video Walk’ (2012), where they overlapped two different realities experienced at the same place. In fact, there is more to explore than just one point of view. John Law investigated the multiplicity of realities and defined an allegory using ‘what is present as a resource to mess about with absence. It makes manifest what is otherwise invisible. It extends the fields of visibility, and craft new realities out-there’ (Law 2004: 90). Since we observed, listened and commented in class a set of sound and video projects, I found relevant to juxtapose concepts such are ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’, ‘presence’ and ‘absence’, ‘sound’ and ‘silence’, ‘built’, ‘being built’ and ‘non built’ environment. I would like to imagine an ethnographical project that gives life to those concepts through an urban protest. What happen if I interview the protest? What are the sounds of an ‘Education for all’?

 

Figure 7: my first mind-map, and the sound exercise accompanied by a collage of visual information.

Sounds for Education, in London 2016

 

In the chapter ‘Impossible Inhabitation’ (2006), Puwar made me reflect on how to relate an individual, a place, and a political event in a time-based analysis. Thus, I experimented the sound exercise in Speakers’ corner, an open area in the northeast corner of Hyde Park. Since 1872, enthusiast speakers debate and expound their view on many different subjects in an environment for free discussions. Further, their stool or their chair on which they were standing up have become artefacts of power, in a place where speakers are not longer just individuals but rather, messy teachers exposing their vision of the world and having the ability to engage people who looked like children in a messy open-air classroom. I went back twice to test my sensory strategies before the demonstration for Education (vimeo.com/192385038). I was interested to know how do we move through space and sound together? How do we relate sounds to materials or allegorical images, and protesting bodies to transformative spaces? I thought further about sounds reading Bull and Back (2003), Kanngieger (2011), and Schafer (2004). In a video, sounds could be powerful, transformative and make the ‘visible’ itself redoubled and more engaging.

 

The national demonstration called ‘United for Education’ took place Saturday 19th of November from Park Lane in central London, until the final rally stage in Milbank Street, close to the UK Parliament. Protesters marched calling for a free and good quality education as a right for all. Many students, academics, lecturers and researchers took action and raised their voices together in a noisy march against fees rising, bursaries cuts, students’ debts, course closures among other ‘exploitations’ forced by the government and private companies to the educational sector. The demonstration also tended to avoid increasing social inequalities between classes, genders, ethnicities and other social groups by sending a clear and strong message of unity. Sounds should represent what a society has to say!

There were many chants, noisy slogans, applauses, musical instruments, whistles, shouting, and speeches among all kind of imaginable sounds capable to create this special and sensory atmosphere. Noises guided protesters, gave them energy, unified them and made them feel part of a new social order. ‘The presence of noise makes sense, makes meaning. It makes possible the creation of a new order on another level of organization, of a new code in another network’ (Attali et al., 1985: 33). I also gathered physical samples that I mainly found on the floor. It was incredible the huge amount of material produced, distributed and thrown away during the march. At the end of the rally, a range of speakers took the stage and voiced their opposition to the current government decisions. I was surprised that many organizers of the march were women. Their speeches were inspiring. I personally felt the energy of a black woman from a working-class background who claimed that ‘without higher education I won’t be here to inspire other people. Education is not just about us; it’s about further generations’. She shared her experience with us and she reminded me Lawler’s ‘narrative of the working-class girl set on the road to ‘equal opportunities’ through education’ (Lawler 1999: 7).

 

‘A social transformation, to be truly revolutionary in character, must manifest a creative capacity in its effects on daily life, on language and on space’ (Lefebvre, 1991: 54). I followed the protesters from 11am to 4pm on Saturday and I observed them all along the march, taking more than thirty static video shots of their movements and relations with the public space. I came back on Sunday to take video shots from the same points of view that the day before, and I edited the moving images juxtaposing two realities in one uniform composition. I was inspired by Zoltan’s project, ‘Window to the past’, by Lefebvre’s description of Rhythmanalysis (2004) and other projects commented during the past few weeks. At the end, it’s a study of social changes and a comparison of public spaces’ atmosphere by evoking the dialectical relationship between past and present. Sounds narrate moving images and amplify our memory of the protest, letting us imagine the possibilities of a more hopeful future. Watch the video: vimeo.com/193108505

 

Figure 8: What are the sounds of equality? How spaces can change in 24h?

The Educational Artefact

 

Late November, I though: what if the protest was only an excuse to discuss with people about Education. I talked with Britt Hatzius, Ali Eisa, who recommended me to read Boenher et al. (2012) and Marcus (1995), which, in turn, gave me the idea to build an artefact. How an artefact could be playfulness, interactive in multiple sites and able to ask the sociological question: Should Education be accessible for all?

 

The material gathered during the protest served as a basis to create a lightweight structure of cardboard and wood, easy to transport anywhere, and aiming to be communicative and provocative with its audience. The 'Educational Artefact' created a participatory atmosphere using the protest as a medium to stimulate discussion and debate about the roots of Education. Thus, the artefact is 'alive'. It builds trust and asks the same question in different public spaces, involving citizens as participants of the research. Their individual contribution were recorded or written on a piece of paper, facilitating the development of further ideas and hypotheses that challenge the role of Education for social classes, as a ‘driver’ of social mobility. On Sunday 4th of December I went to experiment the artefact and to observe what kind of feedback I could obtain from passers-by. I came back to Speaker’s Corner and I displayed the protest video on the artefact to create a sensory atmosphere. I also went to New Cross Road to make a comparison and I wish to have enough time to make it at different places. Anyway, I asked: How would you imagine a better Education? And how has Education changed your life? During the experiment I finally chose the first question, given that I was interested to know how people’s reflections for the future could animate the current debate. (https://vimeo.com/194280878). Most of the answers were strongly related to the political situation while others were more utopic and abstract.

 

In our last class session, we started to debate whether the very broad question asked during the ephemeral installation was totally related to social mobility or not. I came back home and I analysed all my process thinking ways to improve the participatory experience for next time, focusing on a narrow and clear sociological question that could bring me engaging insights and small-scale solutions. Nevertheless, participants’ answers and discussions in Speakers’ corner and New Cross were building up social mobility, thinking how to make areas of education more accessible to create new and better opportunities for students’ life. Can I start a new sensory and empirical project from there? Two weeks later, I watched the French documentary ‘Demain’ (2015) by Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent, where they identify existing initiatives and solutions for the environmental and social challenges of today and tomorrow. At the end, they explain how the Finnish educational system has been changing from the 70s, being now accessible for all in a tolerant and respectful environment, without any connection to the political sphere. They have their own detached system where everything is free for all children between seven and sixteen years old. I ask now: what aspects of the Finnish educational system could be applied in the UK? Should Education be accessible for all to increase social mobility? All along the project, I studied one branch, one voice of Education that should be listened as a small revolution of consciousness, or seen as an on-going research process that has not ended. The protest and the artefact became two complementary steps giving new reflections and reactions to this experimental puzzle. They could be drivers to better understand the relation between Education and social mobility in a challenging context where disadvantaged children and young refugees, amongst other communities, should have greatest opportunities and resources for a different possible future.

 

 

Posted: February 16th, 2017

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