Some thoughts about the Bua Modiri workshop encounter

Workshops constitute profound lived experiences and moments of making-thinking in the world. Workshops, which are both planned and improvised encounters, entail a high degree of non-linearity in the way that the actual encounters are produced in the world. It is precisely because of the unpredictability of the encounter, and the situated nature of the work, that surprising combinations emerge. Bua Modiri, this group of people in Makhado working together for a period of time, the content of the project website, the networks built in relation to the workshop encounters, these are combinations in the world that have meaning within their very emergent design. It is in these combinations that the workshop exists, and if there is anything to know through the workshop, then, it is through these combinations too.

Knowledge does not only emerge from the university, from theory, from researchers, it also emerges through a relationship of people with materials and place. Advances in quantitative approaches make it is easy to get beguiled by notions of certainty and predictability. Through the reductions of complex systems which data collection entails, data functions as abstracted representations of aspects of the world. The stringent and highly structured channels that support the production and dissemination of theory and data-driven research, when it abstracts lived realities, can make it easy to forget or neglect the situationally dependent knowledge that emerges within the working relationship people have with materials and places. Although workshops like Bua Modiri feed into theory production, and into broader research practice and research economies, some of the most valuable activities and output in these workshops may not look like research activity, knowledge production, or place-making.

In Bua Modiri we were involved in planning and improvising, cutting and pasting, drawing and writing, reading and listening, reflecting and talking, eating and resting, moving and making. This was happening in a workshop space that existed as a collection of layered, mixed and tangential processes. Even though these activities unfolded with a well-planned narrative and learning experience, there were constant adaptations and revisions to the facilitation plans based on the situational requirements. It is advisable to plan a workshop day, but planning should remain dynamic throughout the workshop period. The complexity of a workshop is the result of the particularities of the workshop encounter’s situational variables. These encounters are the activity of people influencing and being influenced by the entities around them, and creating a position in relation to those entities.

Workshops do not emerge out of nothing. They are bound to the places they take form in. A workshop is a place, and it connects to places. Workshops require the active buy-in from the entities involved for if they are to amount to anything. Being part of a workshop requires focus, and work, and a great deal of social thinking that is not always easy or straightforward. It also requires sociability that is not entirely work. Bua Modiri is not the first workshop we have held in the area, and through trial and error, we have learnt and continue to learn how to work in the area. Looking at participation metrics, one can say that we have experienced a low attrition rate within workshops and that we have a high percentile of participants that were involved in multiple different projects. This trend likely continues, as previous participants indicated wanting to be involved in future workshops. We have also seen the development of friendships within the workshops, as people have kept in touch over periods when there were no workshops. Anecdotes suggest that the experience of being in the workshops stay with and influence both participants and facilitators for years. We know this because participants are often in contact with Elsa over WhatsApp. And Elsa and I are also often in contact.

Elsa Oliveira (see for instance Oliveira, 2016; Oliveira & Vearey, 2015; Oliveira & Veary, 2017) and I have skillset and theoretical differences and similarities. We are, however, both focused on working with questions of methodology, research design, and exploring expanded forms of knowledge production. Our interaction, no doubt, has an immense influence on the workshop itself. At the core of our work, a long-term collaboration that has entailed and enabled many different projects, is our continued conversations and dialogue around ideas and approaches in social research and the complexities of the workshop encounter.

There is something in the encounters that emerge through workshop places. These encounters, like any other, resist being pinned down. Encounters form the core of workshops, and although their influence on the body and mind linger on for a while after workshops conclude, they do they dissipate when workshops conclude. Encounters are intricately connected to the outside world, but also somewhat independent or removed from the outside world. The encounter is both tangible and intangible, ephemeral and long-lasting. Workshops like Bua Modiri are encounters that create place through the emergent interaction of the entities involved.

The effervescence of workshop moments is something Elsa and I have often talked about, especially in the days directly after workshop periods. So much is lost when the workshop ends. That is why Elsa and I created the daily project blog posts, to take note of some of the moments of thinking and feeling and activity before they dissipated. The narrative style and content of writing, alongside the images of moments in the workshop, give an insight into the dynamics of Bua Modiri. I struggled to write in those blogs, it was too close still. It is Elsa who captured much of the dynamics of the daily interaction on those blog posts. They are important because they give insight into the workshop encounter, and the time-bound and situational dynamism of the workshop encounter.

It takes a long time of reflection, and quite a bit of distance, to be able to write about the notion of the encounter. I understand the notion of an encounter as an approach to working in combinations, and creating combinations through work. Thinking-making through combining is a methodology influenced by my reading of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1994; 1987). Working with combinations is working with the world in a way that responds to the human and the non-human in a becoming (Williams, 2014). This becoming is a creative contribution in the world in the sense that it influences assemblages (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). Working in combination requires multimodal approaches to engaging, and experiencing, and moving through the world. It requires working within an expanded definition of research and knowledge production that incorporates the creation of blocs of sensation (Deleuze & Guattari, 1994). Here different methodologies, methods and media become tools to understand aspects of the world differently, and always partially. Here the output is the sensing that emerges through process, as much as it is product. The workshop encounter, as a temporary combination in the world, then, is both lotus and driver of research activity.

There is much theory to support the conceptualisation of the workshop encounter as an important aspect of research process and output. Thinkers like Donal Schön (2006), with his theorisation of the situationally embedded reflective practitioner, and Paul Carter (2005), with his theorisation of material forms of thinking and place-making, alongside many others, have opened ways to understand the knowledge contribution that occurs through practice in the situational handling of ideas, processes, materials, and tools. Then there is the thinking of David R. Cole (2011), for instance, who has developed the notion of an educational life-form to describe teaching and learning environments as engaged in life-forming processes, the conjunctive synthesis in which thought and action forms through what can be described as an encounter. The people involved in these life-forms recruit different modalities within their specific contextual conditions to create meaning: the verbal, the visual, the numeric, the linguistic, the gestural combine with matter as a situationally embedded thinking and making process. There is also much theorisation about arts-based research, with its links to social research. Patricia Levy (2015), for instance, has showed how cross-disciplinary methodologies emerging in the social sciences in conjunction with the arts can be employed in social research in ways that extend the classical approaches of social sciences, and that provide new opportunities for understanding the world around us. These situated practice-led approaches to knowledge-making within the social sciences have certainly claimed territory in the world of social research. There is also a great deal of spatial thinking that is useful for reflecting upon workshop encounters. Spatial thinking is inherently cross-disciplinary, in that it conjoins a wide range of disciplinary views into the ordering of the world. A voice emanating from the arts that is useful for thinking about the encounter, for instance, is that of Miwon Kwon (1997) who analysed artists’ engagement with place in multiple dimensions, from the phenomenological/experiential, to the social/institutional, to the discursive. Kwon outlines notions of community-based art and collectivist artistic praxis, and warns against practices that are require conceptually stabilising the elusive and politically tumultuous discursive formations underlying community formation. The philosopher Manuel DeLanda (2006), also give a spatial insight into the workshop encounter. DeLanda shows us how heterogeneous encounters in the world form part of different levels of assemblages, how these assemblages are somewhat independent, and how entities can move between and incorporate assemblages. Workshops, read through such an approach, are ephemeral assemblages. They have a shorter lifespan than larger assemblages. They have an independence from other assemblages, but inherently, contribute to forming the world through the movement and interaction of the entities that are part of it.

Debates in the academy around research methodology can be fierce, with the research approaches that are most valued, and most useful, receiving the most funding. Often these conversations are around the accuracy, credibility, and use-value of research. Arts-based and community-based participatory arts approaches may just be too in soft in data for many purposes. However, it is equally important not to slip into false certainties in any research approach, including the most stringent quantitative research output. This is what we can infer from the thinking of theorists like Paul Cillers (1998) and Edgar Morin (2008), for instance, when they show us that emergence within complex systems means that our work with complex systems always entails a high level of implicit uncertainty. Acknowledging the inherent uncertainty of our relationships within complex systems, the inherent limitation of certainty in all social research output, is a condition of working with the social. In a world where quantitative approaches keep on gaining strength and credibility within many types of decision making, what we need is a level of strategic thinking that can incorporate different types of insights in making decisions about the world. I would say that a clear contribution of the workshop encounter is as a form of embedded knowledge bound with sensation that gives people access to humans issues: our lives, experiences, and feelings.

Workshops like Bua Modiri are interesting to me because they engage and build the world beyond classically narrow academic knowledge production. Arts-based and participatory community-based workshops give context and open insights that much of the more classical sociological quantitative and qualitative forms of research design cannot easily include. These workshops, furthermore, give a lens to the world that big data and data analytic approaches to research cannot access. Workshops like Bua Modiri thrive in the unpredictability of encounters, and in the places that emerge out of those encounters. These encounters constitute expanded knowledge practices that are based in specific contexts. They are facilitated through conversation, reflective activity, and making. They create temporary combinations in the world in a form of collective placemaking. They rely on human experience, unpredictability, and situationally embedded sense-making. The encounters of Bua Modiri created place through an expanded knowledge practice, and that is a most valuable contribution to the world of knowing.

[This blog post was originally published on the Bua Modiri: An arts-based project with sex workers in South Africa blog post titled Some thoughts about the Bua Modiri workshop encounter.]

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About Quinten Williams

Quinten Edward Williams is a Johannesburg based artist. Arts-based research projects provide him with the opportunity to work with nuanced relationships that are embedded in specific places. Projects such as the Sex Worker Zine Project allow Quinten to expand his art practice beyond the painter’s studio, linking up with social justice movements.