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Two days of methodical undisciplining

From Undisciplined Methods event 31st May and 1st June at the University of Brighton
by Elona Hoover

Day 1 – Wednesday 31st May.

Helen Johnson kicked off our two-day ‘undisciplined methods’ workshop with a poem. We are sat in an oblong semi-circle and the co-organisers have just finished covering the walls with brown paper. Helen’s poem is powerful and personal. She wrote it during the collaborative poetics work carried out last year in Montreal she tells us, by way of introduction. She also puts a piece paper in gentle movement, an exquisite corpse in the making – which I later refer to as our cat’s cradle. A game of weaving words. The prompt is ‘I will be undisciplined’.

Through a ‘choose your own adventure’ format, Helen leads us through her reflections on what it might mean to be undisciplined: “to me, being undisciplined is about playing, experimenting, being creative and interdisciplinary, but it’s not about doing things badly”. Helen then articulates this through three ‘C’s: Communication, Creativity and Craft. Communication as being able and willing to share our own knowledge in different contexts, as well as listen attentively to other ways of knowing. Creativity was defined as useful (in its widest possible sense) and novel, and Craft was about understanding the skill, knowledge, time and thought that any practice requires.
Creativity Craft and CommunicationIn sum, being undisciplined might mean continuously learning about practices that are outside of our ‘area’ ….and…being brave. I muse whether such a task might also involve unlearning some of our own practices and ways of knowing. Not to dismiss or diminish them, but because our current rules and knowledge practices might prevent us from new kinds of experimentation and exchange. This process of unlearning might not always be comfortable, but we’ll come back to this.

Our exquisite corpse is forming…

I want to feel right when bending the rules
To test them to breaking point then use the pieces to make a kaleidoscope
Light fragments, colours fracture.

Soon to be reformed.

Clap. Stand up. Coffee, tea, biscuits. The last day of May is bright, but the sun is struggling to make its way in to us. Brown craft paper covers the windows on both sides of the room, hiding the courtyard and university gallery and ready for our first workshop.
The chairs are now in a circle with two boxes of water soluble graphite pens in the centre. We welcome Sarah Grange who introduces the next workshop. She mentions Lynda Barry as the inspiration for her work, and now that everyone has arrived, we start with a round of names. I mentally thank Sarah for hosting the group and introducing a talking stick.

Next, we stand up, each take a pen, and find our own space on the paper-covered walls. Enough to move around comfortably. We breathe and ground ourselves before connecting body to pen to paper. We start a guided exploration by drawing a spiral “as tight as you can make it, without taking the pen off the paper”, following the latest line as we go around, once more, following wobbles, bumps, and the traces of sometimes unsteady hands. The room is silent from human voices. We are encouraged to notice, discover, move, notice, then travel across space, encounter, notice, pen always connected to paper. My wrist gets tired, I change hands. Eventually, the pen comes off, then back on, exploring new kinds of encounters.

We reincorporate the circle to reflect on the role of rules in creating chaos or imposing form. How some of us were more comfortable with the medium than others, and how we moved in and out of individual and collective space without spoken words, but perhaps still in conversation. Different kinds of conversation. We reflect on how this kind of guided process can encourage listening rather than judging as a practice. We thank Sarah and are ready to join the sunshine outside for lunch!

After lunch, Shai, Nic and Angela generously shared some experiences and skills with us, a tantalizing assortment of Ifcha Mistabera  – איפכא מסתברא –  a traditional Jewish learning techniques, scientific research and divination, and drawing conversations.

Then on to our next workshop. We cleared all furniture from the centre of the room, getting ready for a dynamic next couple of hours. Miriam starts by asking us to write five words from our area of investigation onto a small piece of paper, and all go into a bag. Then we stand in a circle and start some mind-body coordination games, voices grow more confident, we get to know each other’s names. We walk in the space, it reminds me of theatre classes and participatory workshops from a while back. We practice noticing, practice being in our bodies with intention. It’s challenging to start walking in a stride with someone on the sound of a gong, still keeping the same pace.

Gong. Walk alone again.
Gong. Two people.
Gong. Three.
Gong. Walk alone again. Be in the space, you know where you are and where you are going.
Gong. Five
Gong. Eight. Are there eight of us? It’s hard to keep count!
Gong. Walk in the space.

We move onto the next activities, Miriam invites people to take a rest as and when they need, we are not all used to working so intensively with our bodies and I’m surprised at how tiring walking with attention can be. The next bit I later learn is a small part of the Jacques Lecoq physical theatre school training. We spend some time being and moving like water, like different kinds of water. Being and moving like trees. Moving with clay. Moving with my whole body covered in clay is slow, but draws my attention to details in my movement, multiple muscles groups. The weight of the clay is also soothing. The next step is for water to seduce a tree to join their party, I feel uncomfortable about the game, am getting tired but want to keep trying. I notice some people taking a break. Next we work as two groups, pick words from the bag and visualise them in our collective bodies, then use a variety of instruments to represent them through sound. Final step, back as a whole group, we try to find our collective rhythm, walking, we count with collective intuition up 2, up to 4, the up to 12, “well done, yes, go!” That’s our maximum, we couldn’t make it to 31, too undisciplined?!

Tired and sweaty, we share some brief reflections. Working with our bodies led to different discomforts, for some looking intently in the eyes, for others hugging ‘like there’s no tomorrow’, or ‘walking into sadness’, or even ‘seducing a tree’. Where is my bubble of bodily comfort? How does it change depending on context, and what can we learn from being uncomfortable (in a safe space)?

Though we have already had a full day, we are keen to move onto our last short workshop, led by another physical theatre practitioner. Matt Rudkin runs the last hour with a series of unruly games to awaken our capacity for improvisation and nonsense. We soon learn that he has worked extensively on nonsense therapy, and all these games are ways of learning and unlearning patterns of association. Word disassociation, joining random conversations, more improvisation, this time on the sound of a plastic horn. In all seriousness, “if you smile you die, and you only have three lives”. I’m struck by his playfulness and his apparent glee at ‘bossing us around’. Our activities have been bound by rules – or discipline of a different sort.

We close the first day – I feel exhausted and thankful for all the contributions, wholehearted participation from everyone in the room, and openness to trying things out together.


We head to the pub for an evening of spoken word and music.

Day 2 – Thursday 1st June

We kick off the second day with Harriet Hawkins who shares some perspectives on undisciplining as a Professor of GeoHumanities. There are some new faces, we go round: postgraduate students doing ‘traditional’ or practice-based projects, early career researchers, participatory action researcher-practitioners, and artists. The courtyard side is now free of paper and the sunny morning air enters through the open windows.

Harriet contextualises the history and ‘making’ of the discipline of geography, from Alexander Von Humbolt (1769-1859) to recent creative turns, or returns, reasserting the role of different ways of knowing and representing knowledge within an academic discipline. Then, she invites us to consider examples, benefits and challenges to undisciplining through two provocations.

Provocation 1 – Geography. Although the use of ‘different’ forms of research and representation in geography is not new, these practices often happened alongside ‘traditional’ research practice and publications. Harriet shares the story of how she has challenged the way in which doctoral research, in particular, is assessed in geography by rewriting requirements for doctoral research at Royal Holloway. But there are many different models of ‘creative’ geography, and practice-based doctoral research needs co-supervisions in geography and relevant practice-based disciplines (e.g. fine art, illustration, photography, performance, etc.) to ensure appropriate accompaniment and assessment of quality. This is happening alongside academic journals in geography offering new platforms for publishing ‘creative’ kinds of outputs. Key questions remain: What is a PhD in Geography? How do we assess it? How do we supervise it?

Provocation 2 – Skills and Expertise. “I am bad at drawing” Harriet starts, “but what does it mean to discover my lack of skill in drawing?”. Trying out drawing later on in her research practice led her to pay attention to the process of drawing, and ask us questions about the role of skill and expertise. This is a key thematic that we wanted to debate during these today days. Indeed, there can sometimes be a danger of ‘research tourism’ which might obviate the fact that all practices have a history, making them – to quote Lauren Berlant – ‘all too available for the doing’. This also connected to the potential for participatory practices to help us go beyond the fetishisation of practice as either professional or amateur, focusing rather on what happens in the process of doing things together. Trying things that are outside of our area of ‘expertise’ requires us to sit with our own discomforts…and learn with them. There is much we can learn as researchers, collaborators, practitioners. But “what might disciplines learn from undisciplining?” Harriet asks. All of what we are talking about requires time, cultivating respect, patience, and slowness in the doing. I see Ellan get up from their chair towards the centre of the semi-circle and pick something up by its shell, Harriet continues: we need to remake the temporalities of the academy itself. The next slide shows the cover The Slow Professor, with the outline of a snail. “Harriet, I just have to interrupt you” says Hannah “a snail has just been making its way across the floor while you were talking!”. The room is suddenly bubbling with surprise and delight from this perfect interruption. We attend to the snail’s presence, slow down, take a moment to laugh. But we know we cannot be slow all the time: we need to work together to create infrastructures and gatekeepers that will allow us to do this challenging work. And Harriet reminds us, it will involve tough conversations and ongoing discussions which we must not underestimate, but neither should we shy away from them. Surely our resident snail agrees!

Clap, clap! Coffee, tea, biscuits. Then the tables finally make their way into the room for the visual methods session.

Phillippa Lyon and Tom Ainsworth start the session by getting a feel for people’s interest and experience in using visual methods. They have a two-part session ready for us: first, they share experience of using visual methods in their research, and then invite us to do some activities. I know some of us welcome the measured nature of the session and respite from yesterday’s intensity. Philippa starts by talking about her approach to dialogic visualising – integration of drawing with interview methods – from a range of projects around drawing and medical professions. In a context of dialogue, visuals can slow down reflection and be used as an elicitation method. Tom also talks about his experience using photo elicitation, which others in the group recognise as akin to photo-voice, more commonly used in participatory action research. We briefly reflect on the different disciplinary traditions of using visual methods, where in some cases it will be ‘alternative’ and in others the primacy of the visual is the very thing being contested.

Now in small groups, we first work in pairs to draw while being interviewed, then compare the diagrams with other groups and use this as a basis for thinking through how visual data can be analysed – content, layers, weight, process, emotions, meaning… We also discuss our differing experiences of drawing and talking at the same time, and the embodied nature of drawing itself.

It’s another sunny day, and some of us I know manage to take their lunch to the beach.

We all make it back in time for the skill sharing, where Clare shares her artistic practice: collaborative experimentations of collecting smiles and mapping moments of unproductivity. We also have insights from the worlds of action research and activism, and play a game of (in)active listening (from Recrear Research Lab).

The chairs get stacked up, once again. Sat in pairs, facing each other.

Close your eyes. Breathe. And ask yourself:

“What do you love about writing?”
Soft voices discuss.
“How would you describe your relationship to writing at this moment?”
Soft . voices . discuss .

With these two questions, Sarah Kelly leads us through the final workshop of our two day ‘undisciplined methods’ event. A guided meditation with paper and writing implements. Lying on the floor, we explore the surface, eyes closes I discover valleys and mountains in my pieces of flipchart paper, I am projected to the forests of Scandinavia, where I imagine the trees might have been farmed. Sarah’s voice moves softly … instruction, context, explanation, instruction, encouragement, instruction, information, reassurance, instruction, context …. Some resonate with me, others interrupt my process, and others yet make me think. I appreciate the careful attention to creating a safe space and guiding us through the process, and opportunity to explore the very material relationship I have with implement and paper.

The talking stick – or rather masking tape – roll us from discussion through to closing remarks. Harriet reminds us that doing is as important as outputs, that being undisciplined can be scary, but also draining, and maybe the emotional labour involved in working with generosity and respect is not talked about enough. How can we celebrate exuberantly our undisciplining, and when might we need to be strategic about it? Shai concludes that being undisciplined is a privilege. The privilege of sometimes being a snail.

Resident snail at undisciplined methods event

Suggestions for ongoing provocations

  • What are disciplines, and who does policing disciplines serve?
  • What discipline might I/we need in order to be undisciplined?
  • What rhythms might we need to go back to, again and again?
  • What does it mean to break the rules ‘well’? Or ‘get it right’? This involves notions of ‘good’ or ‘less good’ academic practice, and more or less ‘good’ non-academic practice (whether in the arts, grassroots action, participatory civil society work). Who sets these norms, and is a normative approach necessary in all cases?
  • Quality judgements will also depend on the purpose of such practices, whether intended for the public or only part of a process.
  • If we mean challenging the boundedness of disciplines and the kinds of knowledge given authority within the worlds of research, this also brings challenges.
  • Frame our undisciplining as a practice that is joyful and empowering
  • When to we need to engage in strategic undisciplining?

Our exquisite corpse, reformed

download pdf of ‘I Will be Undisciplined’

I Will be Undisciplined
By Helen Johnson and the Undisciplined Methods Delegates, May 2017

I heard a sound,
a fascinating, everyday sound
the kind I normally overlook,
like let-out steam,
enjoying the dripping of rain,
hope embracing possibility.

How can we push our boundaries skyward,
making it for the people?
Fully embrace despair?
Or look at things differently,
in first breath?
How do we define context?

Trying to be undisciplined brings its own pressures.
I want to feel right
when bending the rules,
test them to breaking point,
as though there is no hope,
then use the pieces to make kaleidoscopes.

Bowed by the gravity of orbit,
but free from it,
light fragments fracture.
Who cares about disciplines?
Where is the breaking point?
Where are the boundaries?

I have decided to be honest.
I will talk,
and wonder how the context influences us,
our other selves,
our lost selves,
our hidden selves,
our censored selves.
What can we be except ourselves?
I will be undisciplined in all of them,
a wrong that wraps itself tight into right.

Special thanks to fellow doctoral candidates and event co-organisers Lorenza Ippolito, Kate Monson, Xavi Balaguer, Shai Kassirer, Ellan Parry and Adam Phillips.

Thanks also to the Arts and Humanities Research Council TECHNE Doctoral Training Partnership and the Centre for Research in Spatial Environmental and Cultural Politics at the University of Brighton for funding and providing support for the event.