Thinking through #Things

I witnessed the power of ‘things’ for storytelling at the ‘Thinking through Things’ workshop at Middlesex University on 29th June 2017, which aimed to engage the participants with methodological frameworks where objects/artefacts are at the centre of the research process.

Although my research interests centre on digital culture, I believe that performative methods (such as creative methods) can help understand emotions, motives, narratives involved in on-screen activities, the relationship between on- and off- screen activities, and embodiment of digital objects (such as data, algorithms).

Participants were asked to bring an object and/or a photograph that matters to them. At Rachel Hurdley‘s session, we displayed them together (see the photograph below) and talked about what they were and why we brought them. Talking about these objects helped unravel social meanings that are embedded within the objects, and the memory associated with them. Actions of collecting, ordering, cleaning, repairing / mending / manipulating objects all denote certain social meanings. For example, Rachel Hurdley talked about how significant the ‘collecting and displaying’ gesture is in her new research project about vulnerable prisoners.



We built a food tower with the usual items found in someone’s food cupboard. Profiling immediately started; we were speculating who this person might be: a woman or a man? a vegan? an environmentalist? someone who likes Japanese food?

In the collage workshop, we created ‘research self-portraits’, using materials
to reflect on our research trajectories and to ask how research objects and
approaches are auto/biographical. A wide range of materials were provided: photographs; magazines; badges; letters; lego; drawings; cloth; glitter. This session encouraged not only the use of a creative research method (self-portraits) for story telling, but also for reflecting on the meaning and value of the material in our individual research trajectories. I had to think about how to visualise and materialise my current research interests on ‘big data’ and ‘open data’. I found ‘I ♥︎ Big Data’ in some network’s magazine advertisement. I still needed words to express ‘data’ and a lot of on-screen activities.

Thinking through things: using collage as a creative research method for making a self portrait of a researcher.


In Michael McMillan‘s session, we talked about the photographs we brought with us. It was so emotional – full of memory and deep meanings about our relationship with others (family, friends, animals). The settings / backgrounds in the photographs said a lot about ideologies, values, the wider political environments, just like Michael McMillan’s installation ‘The Front Room‘.

I left the event full of ideas. I can’t wait to implement these creative methods in my research, and explore more creative ways of communicating my research within and beyond academia. I’m also keen on introducing these methods to my colleagues and students to help with creative writing or data collection. What a productive day. Thank you to the organisers!



The first cohort of the two degree courses that I lead, BA (Hons) Media and Communications, BA (Hons) Media and Creative Writing, graduated this June! Three years flied by rather quickly. I can still remember vividly the first Cultural Theory session with Prof. Judith Williamson three years ago (2014) where we got an accidental lesson about non-discriminatory jokes (virgin mobile vs. walking into a bar – Ouch!). It was so effective that students created a spreadsheet graffiti as a response afterwards. Non attendance, late submission, PMC, etc. We had them all. After trying different methods (in-class assessment, guest speakers, workshops), I found one-to-one tutorials the best way to educate these students. In this way, we can work on each individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

And they grow up, produce, and deliver. Anthea, for example, has matured so much. She not only wrote a first-class dissertation on fandom, but also produced a series of podcasts promoting black women’s achievements. Joe Stevens, in his usual stype, produced two books collecting humorous quotes from the private Facebook group ‘Farnham Rants‘ as a way of representing Farnham. Kayon’s podcasts ‘News in 3‘ for discussing ‘fake news’, and Danny’s digital magazine that aims to encourage student self-publishing and networking both contain good ideas. But, the highlight of the year has to be the short documentary ‘The Guildford Bike Project‘ made by Josh Jones, a well-considered and beautifully-shot documentary.

This film has received very good feedback from the visitors to our graduate show. For example, I received a note from James Burbidge on the 10th of June 2017:

I spent 10 minutes of my life this afternoon watching a really well produced and edited little film, raising a keen awareness of socio-economic impoverishment and a project attempting to improve the situation within the very heart of frightfully affluent Guildford.

The attention to detail and the pace and rhythm of it was spot on, and the captured comment by the staff member,  “ we seem to value money now over peoples welfare, ” is indeed a true sign of our times.

A documentary that just had to be made.

Thank you Josh.

This film has been officially selected by the Stockholme International Film Festival 2017. And I have no doubt that it will receive more attention in the near future. There are many more stories Josh could say about the key figures in his film, and we could only hope that he will have time to make sequences of this one to satisfy our curiosity.

The congratulations not only go to the students, but also to myself and my colleagues who have been supporting us all the way. Well done, all!

Open Research #OpenAcademia

The ‘Open Research for Academics‘ event I attended last weekend at Goldsmiths, organised by Caspar Addyman and Bianca Elena Ivanof, featured a series of good talks, and these two were my favourite:

Sophia Collins shared her experience of running the Wellcome Trust-funded Nappy Science Ganga citizens-powered citizen scientific project (rather than a scientists-driven one).

Kat Jungnickel talked about how she used a mix of creative methods such as sewing, making, and performance to study and publicise her research on women’s cycling costumes in Victorian time.

Kat Jungnickel gave a talk ‘Making & Wearing your Research’
Documentation of a range of impressive creative works related to Kat Jungnickel’s research on Victorian Women’s Cycling Costumes.

I have to admit: had I known the prize for the hackathon in advance (including a National Art Pass!), I’d work harder to come up with something more satisfactory and sharable. For example, join the workshop led by@jobarratt to prepare a ‘frictionless dataset‘ using the tools newly developed by OKFN. However, I still enjoyed the discussion at the workshop led by@sophiacol about the challenges of leading citizen science projects. 

The day was slightly different from other (more technical) hackathons I participated before. The emphasis was less on ‘making’, more on ‘articulating the openness’. Based on the discussion and the talks presented on the day, ‘open research’ seemed to have been reduced to ‘public engagement’ or ‘open access’. And, the kind of ‘public engagement’ defined by some researchers was also a bit utility-driven: for example, researchers were wondering how to get more volunteers to participate in their psychological experiments. While accessibility and inclusivity is important, the spirit of DIY or DIT often found at a hackathon seemed missing at this event. But, as one of the participants, I was to blame as well :p

The day was documented in various different ways, including this wiki page and these videos from the keynote speakers. And all the attendees were given a USB stick containing 44 FREE ebooks from Open Humanities Press and others, which can also be downloaded here (warning: 140Mb zip file!).

Show and tell – an object (a disobedient object) that dismisses the binary of the book and the double paged spread

Loitering Chapel Street Salford

Salford Chapel Street has undergone many dramatic changes since I left for Farnham 3 years ago, and I only found out these new developments this afternoon when I joined the tour #WeShallOvercome guided by the magnificent Morag Rose, as part of the Loitering with Intent exhibition at the People’s History Museum Manchester. We were entertained by two musicians (Matt Hill on guitar and Steve Durrant on accordion) who sang songs inspired by the suffragette movement or local musicians or poets (e.g., Ewan MacColl’s ‘Dirty Old Town’).

Lots of new buildings have mushroomed just within a short period of time (e.g., Vimto Gardens). I was surprised to find out that the old Salford Town Hall is now managed by a private letting company, and new houses at Timekeepers Square are being built by Muse Developments. And, the historic pub ‘Black Horse Hotel’ will soon be demolished and turned into luxurious apartments by billionaire bookie Fred Done, a very controversial development.

The tour refreshed my memory of the the noise of the traffic on Chapel Street (once the busiest road in England), the beautiful façades of the deserted Victorian buildings, the rich history happened on this side of the Greater Manchester (Salford was a larger city than Manchester). The walk was also political while we learned about the recent urban developments and the  stories behind the monuments, who got to make decisions and who were remembered (mostly men) and who were forgotten.

Loitering is fun. The Loiterers Resistance Movement (LRM) has been a very Mancunian social action. And it’s definitely worth visiting the exhibition ‘Loitering with Intent’ at People’s History Museum (which ends on 14th October 2016).

A corner of the ‘Loitering with Intent’ exhibition at the People’s History Museum.
Matt Hill and Steve Durrant performed a song inspired by the suffragette movement and prison life in front of the New Bailey Square.


Something new, and something old.


Timekeerps Square by Muse Developments



Assembly by Holly Rowan Hesson

Behind this doggy door on an alley in Levenshulme, there hides a gallery called Bankley, where Holly Rowan Hesson‘s new work Assembly is currently being exhibited (until Saturday the 2nd of April).


Holly Rowan Hesson uses the techniques of projection and re-projection to create an assembly where spectators are invited to sit, to see and to be seen.


These chairs are not randomly placed there. They are where they are for a reason – as part of the installation. Shadows of the chairs are part of the images displayed on the white walls. The locations of the three projectors have been meticulously contemplated. The result of a mesmerising and immersive room demonstrates the artist’s acute interpretation of a space. The mix of projection and re-projection is a new way of approaching the classic question – what is real and what is unreal / clone.



I am so pleased to discover Holly Rowan Hesson’s visual art work and the Bankley Gallery. I hope there will be more artists, local or nation-wide or global, to use and interpret the space.

AI in Education

Would you like to be taught or tutored by a robot?

I attended the at UCL Knowledge Lab for an event discussing the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in education. I have learned some evidence regarding how AI benefits education through the presentations about Zondle, iTalk2Learn, TARDIS.

Reflecting upon my own practice, how we teach media and communications at UCA, the adoption of AI is prevailing. To start with, we all use Google for teaching, learning and research these days. We also gamify the learning by starting the class with a Kahoot! game (legacy of Jake Strickland). So indeed I can see the benefit of AI in education.

Nevertheless, it shocked me when it was suggested that ‘a driverless classroom’ could become the future. This agenda of replacing teachers in the classroom is fuelled by commercial interests and endorsed by some self-made visionaries in the government. But anyone with a little bit of common sense would know that this is a dystopian route to go for. There is a serious shortage of teachers, and let alone good teachers. Additionally, there’s also a question about engagement and human interaction. The fundamental difference between humans and machines is ’emotions’. Sometimes it takes rapport and trust to enable and enhance an effective learner-teacher relationship. I have emotions (positive or negative) standing in front of the classroom, and students have emotions staying there. When I see students engaged, I’m motivated to give more. And when I see them absent-minded, I feel demoralised and frustrated. And those emotions add to classroom dynamics and make learning a social process.

Working at a fine art institution, I also can’t see the making culture being replaced by an automated robotic setting. How can students learn to articulate their creativity then? Aren’t the space for expressing, exploring and experimenting reduced in that situation?

The discussion at the end of event definitely offers food for thoughts for rethinking an education determined by technology. A human-centered perspective is needed as many have noticed.

#BVE16 (Day 2)

Day2 at #BVE16 was busier than Day1, as usual. Visitors were busy with catching up and learning about the new trends – VR, AR, 360, streaming, cloud. These technologies offer and enhance new ways of storytelling. Here are the highlights I observed.

Dan Crompton and Hannah Kemp-Welch showcased their works at Tate.
Dan Crompton and Hannah Kemp-Welch (Tate) on projection mapping
Great to see arts at #BVE16.
And industry veterans shared their life stories (successes and failures).