Archive for April, 2014|Monthly archive page

Finding yourself (and the bathrooms) in a new environment

Everyone navigates a new space, adults and children alike. The navigation includes getting to know the physical environment, and negotiating your place within the social setting, working out who you are going to be in this group.

Workshop in Iwaki Auditorium (Gillian Howell)

I remember a group of children coming to ArtPlay for a workshop, in one of the first ever City Beats workshops. We called a five minute break in the middle of the workshop, and some of the children went off to the toilet. Then some more went. And some more. The adults among us were bemused. What’s with all the toilet-visiting? After the break it continued. The Director of ArtPlay got it though – “They’re just checking out the toilets. They are in a new place. Everyone likes to check out the toilets when they are in a new place.”

It’s true! Adults do it too – when a group of friends goes to a new restaurant or bar, it’s not unusual for people to head to the bathrooms in pairs, and part of the interest is in the experience of checking out the space (friends and I used to note which bars or restaurants we visited that had particularly nice bathrooms!). It’s part of getting familiar with the environment, and yourself within it.

We convened the 2014 MSO ArtPlay Ensemble last week, spending one day working in the Iwaki Auditorium at the ABC Studios, and a second day working at ArtPlay. As they arrived, the children settled into the Green Room. They didn’t know each other yet, and sat quietly. Some read. Some got out their instruments, but if they began to play, it was quietly, unobtrusively.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe spent the first 90 minutes engaged in warm-up activities. I wanted to get the group talking, interacting, relaxed and alert in their bodies, and with spontaneous and playful reactions, so that their natural creative faculties would come to the fore early in the process.

As we progressed through the warm-up, I watched the children jostle, and joke, take on leadership roles, show initiative, or fall into a required role within the team. With some this happened easily. For others, it was a more puzzling process, as they worked out who they were going to be in this group.

One boy, for example, started the warm-up standing next to another boy with a similar cheeky, ‘joker’ energy as his own. They exaggerated every part of the warm-up together, and when we started a movement task, they continued their exaggerations, egging each other on, and not really engaging in the activity itself. At one point, when the group was split up, working across the whole room, I walked over to them, and suggested, smiling but also firm, that they do this one on their own, not with a friend.

When we broke into small instrument groups for composing, I put them in two different groups, hoping to give them a chance to continue these negotiations of ‘self in society’ on their own. One of the two settled, but the other seemed to continue his navigations and negotiations. He is a very bright, imaginative young player – he stood out a mile in the Open Workshop selection process. He has impressive technical skills on his instrument too. But he needed to work out who he was in this group. Was he a bright bubbly leader, right-hand man to the MSO musician leading the group, happy to cooperate, and filled with ideas? Was he going to be more in the background? Was he going to be the joker, the ‘silly boy’ who fools around a lot and is a bit disruptive (this type of character doesn’t always find the necessary allies in the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble – most of the kids in the program really love to play music and be part of the ensemble)?

No-one could help him figure this out, and I was intrigued by my observations of him. He will find his place, I am sure. He seemed to enjoy himself, and that is the key thing at this point.


Research and reciprocity

When I lived in rural Timor-Leste (East Timor), I observed a researcher approaching the local people for interviews. She took care to explain to them that she was a pesquisadora, using the Portuguese word for researcher seeing as no such word exists in the national language of Tetun. She had information sheets to give them (as is required by university Human Research Ethics Committees), written succinctly and translated into the local national language.

It was difficult to tell what meaning the research participants drew from her explanation and the subsequent interviews that took place, which were ethnographic interviews related to their experiences and opinions of particular recent events. They may have wondered what was so interesting about this everyday stuff? Moreover, how would this research be of use to them in their lives, after the researcher had completed her research?

Discussion and planning

On Friday last week I attended a seminar about doing ethnographic research and heard a very interesting presentation on doing fieldwork in a remote community in PNG (Papua New Guinea). Working in Development Studies, the researcher was exploring environmental risk, and talking to people about the way their lives had been impacted by a large mine operating near their village lands.

I asked him about how he had explained his work and purpose. What did they understand he was doing there?

In response, he said that there was quite a long history of researchers coming to these small remote villages, usually connected to the mining companies or development organisations. Therefore, the villagers were “used to” research, and familiar with research processes, so they were unfazed by his presence or by the research interview process.

Later, he mentioned that when he was preparing to leave the village at the end of his 3-week fieldwork visit, people began to ask him when he was coming back. It became quite a heated conversation, he said, that took awhile to resolve. He was a self-funding Masters student, and with his fieldwork completed, there was not necessarily any need for him to come back, so he hadn’t made a plan for this.

But if the villagers had a concept of research formed by their prior experiences, where ‘researchers’ generally came to do an assessment or evaluation of some kind, that would be followed up by some kind of material change, it’s not surprising that they associated research with follow-up visits, and tangible outcomes of some kind. In other words, “research” was conceptualised as ‘questions followed by action and outcome’.  What should the researcher have done when this expectation revealed itself?

These questions are of particular interest to me at the moment, as I am preparing to return to Timor-Leste to undertake fieldwork for my PhD. TImor-Leste is a very poor country, where many people live traditional village lifestyles (or are strongly influenced by these traditions) and access to formal education for many people has been extremely limited. I can see that it’s critically important that I am able to communicate what I am researching, why I am doing it, and how I will do it (through interviews and asking about people’s experiences, opinions, and memories) in ways that make sense to the people who I am inviting to participate. It’s also important that I ensure I give back as well as ask for things, in order to acknowledge and reciprocate the time, knowledge, and energy given to me in interviews. I need to do this in some way that is of relevance and value to the research participants.

This has also been pointed out to me by contacts in Timor-Leste. “We are happy to help you, but we ask all visiting researchers to contribute to our learning environment in some way, with seminars, workshops or trainings”, said one contact in a university. Another, from an arts organisation, was even more direct:

“We have had a few ‘PhD students’ in the past who fly in, ask lots of questions, don’t give anything back (skills, shared experiences etc) and then fly out again… with us (who are very much in need of skills sharing/exposure to international music/arts/whatever) left feeling a little ripped off. Know what I mean?”

I am therefore planning and imagining reciprocal offerings that I can make to the communities where I conduct interviews, and plan to talk about and agree on these early in the negotiations. My research concerns music learning and participation, and my research interviewees are for the most part people with a strong interest in music. I am therefore hoping to share my skills as a music leader with them and their communities by leading workshops or projects, so that the research visit becomes more of a cultural and knowledge exchange, rather than something more one-sided. Reciprocity is a core cultural value in traditional Timorese society, but it also just makes sense as the right way to honour the effort that someone is giving you and giving value in real-world (their world) terms.

Nose rub with village elder