Saturday, September 15, 2007

Research goals, part 2

More on swinging the research lens from the software, representations, or outcomes to the person behind the tools.

My research arises from and ends in practice. After working with dozens of groups using Compendium (and occasionally other media) throughout the 1990s, as well as conducting many training sessions for new practitioners, I wanted to try to bring into focus what goes on in actual situations of practice, in the application of intention, methods, tools, and skills in service of a collective effort. What do practitioners do when trying to solve the problem of communication among a group of people, especially when they are grappling with the intersection of complex technologies, problems, and processes, trying to make sense of the situation (and each other) while putting together some sort of representation or solution -- a diagram, a model, a set of decisions, a document, a continuing record of issues and deliberations -- or all of the above.

People engaged in that kind of practice, especially if they are the ones riding herd on the tools and representations, labor to keep them coherent, expressive, and useful. They make all sorts of moves and choices, the nature of which have to do with the situation, what they're trying to achieve, their facility with the tool, their representational preferences and abilities, their constraints. But especially in the case of using representational software like Compendium, these choices, moves, and skills are largely taken for granted or assumed as a given. As this thinking goes, either you have them (you're an "expert" or a "wizard") or you don't. If you don't, the tool becomes an "obstacle", the focus goes on its "user-friendliness" or the feature set it may or may not have, its comparison to other tools that can do the job easier or better. But I want to move the focus to the left, to the person behind the camera, to the ways they use the tool and what it can/can't do rather than to the tool itself.

In the arts and humanities, the focus is rarely on the tool(s) per se (paints, films, cameras, etc.) and what they can or can't do in some deterministic way. There is no guarantee that if you use a Panaflex camera you'll be able to make The Sugarland Express (or Scary Movie 4, for that matter). Rather the emphasis is on the way the artist/practitioner makes use of the medium in service of their intentions as well as the encounter of the audience with the finished work.

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