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The Language of Making – Embodied Knowledge and Environmental Awareness

by James on May 12th, 2011

I was at an event the other day called The Language of Photography, partly inspired by the Hundred Languages exhibition, and the philosophy of Reggio Emilia.

The child
is made of one hundred.
The child has
A hundred languages
A hundred hands
A hundred thoughts
A hundred ways of thinking
Of playing, of speaking.

Excerpt from The Hundred Languages of Children by Loris Malaguzzi

The discussions around what a language is, and of the value of supporting children to discover, develop and make use of different media and languages in their learning, led me to start thinking about whether there can be a Language of Making – of the handmade especially – and whether that is what I have been using over the years in my artwork.

By language I don’t mean in terms of communicating a specific meaning to a viewer through a certain sign or symbol, but offering evidence of my embodied experience of the world, triggering reflection and dialogue on our different yet connected experiences within that same physical world.

I use a range of largely found/collected and recycled materials in my work, combining them in ways that leave obvious evidence of their making. I sometimes choose particular imagery that relates to my interests in natural history and ecology, but I also am keen to cut, scratch and stitch through that imagery to reveal the material reality underneath. As in my work with children, supporting them to learn in and through languages appropriate to them, my making aims not to transmit a ‘truth’ to a viewer, but to cut through inherited imagery and reinvigorate found materials, exposing a point of relationship, of interconnecting realities and shared experiences.

Alongside my making and work in education, I’ve also been considering the place of objects in museums. Looking at the website of The Happy Museum this morning, I saw that they had quoted Bridget McKenzie in their piece about the role of the museum in re-imagining our relationship with objects.

‘“There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more important than that we face the fact that we have made our planet unlivable by our fetish for things. And what is a museum, fundamentally, other than a monument to our fetish for things?” The greatest opportunity for museums to lead Transition is to reshape the relationship between humans and objects.’

I agree with Bridget that our obsessive consumption of resources in our drive to gather objects about us is completely unsustainable, and that as The Happy Museum says, as a society we need to reshape our relationship with objects.

As I see it, when it comes to museums as resources for learning, it is about using objects in different ways to encourage a deeper connection with them rather than, as some museums have seemed to do, decreasing the number of objects on show in favour of the wow-factor of large scale interactives, further limiting the access of visitors to the to the material and ecological reality of the exhibits.

If there is such a thing as a Language of Making, an empathising with and learning from the embodied knowledge of the maker (and user), through our own interaction with the object, then how could our understanding of such a language inform the work of Museums, especially within the fields of learning and interpretation? How can Museums make the most of those objects in their care, encouraging visitors/participants to explore their bodily, cultural and ecological relationship to each object, learning both about the specific cultural context of the object and about its place in our evolving world view? In other words, how can we support a creative dialogue between people and objects that informs their understanding of their relationship to the world around them?

In my own work with museums, I aim to use my experience as an artist/maker and someone working in child-led creative learning, using objects as a starting point for creative and divergent thinking. They can enable us to empathise with the person that made and used them, and they can also act as inspiration for further making – not in order to amass further objects, but because learning through making can provide different entry points for learning, giving visitors a greater insight into the experience of the maker, their skills and world-view, and their relationship to us.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive essay on the subject, there’s a lot more out there about making and about learning in Museums, its intended more as a gathering together and offering of ideas, and an untangling of the threads of my practice as an artist.

I have always collected materials and objects, and made my own. It is my language of choice (or at least one of them) – my way of making sense of the world and offering that experience up to others. It may only be one of the 100 Languages that Malaguzzi speaks of, but I think it’s a crucial one if we are to regain a direct awareness of our continuity with the rest of the world, and develop an environmental sensitivity that is inextricably interwoven with our sense of self and well-being.

  1. Chris permalink

    Yes, to know, and not to amass further objects. So perhaps the unpicking, composting, reusing, destroying, archiving, giving away of “it” becomes an integral part of the process of making “it”…

    • Thanks Chris, I was thinking that I’d written a bit of a riddle of a post so I’m glad that you got to the crux of what I was trying to say. It’s not easy to explain the importance of a kind of knowing that happens in the body or between the body and the material world, rather than a more removed, abstract knowledge. Anyway, you got it so that’s great!

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