Drafting an experiment

Table of Contents

This document describes an experiment I was planning for an event at Designschool Kolding, the DesignCamp 2021 – “Island Matters – Speculative Fabulations of Possible Futures”. Now the event is online, so I’m working on a different version, but for inspiration, I’ll share the initial draft here.

“What if…”

First, the “what if” statement for the camp:

“What if… – making use of speculative design as a tool for imagining worlds that can be radically different, students will produce tangible stories & objects based on potential new systems of the near future.”

Design Camp 2021 – Island Matters

And my “what if” for the experiment:

What if…we establish a junk yard playground for DesignCamp 2021, where students can engage playfully in material-driven speculation to spark their imagination and explore “radically different worlds”?

Goal

The aim of the experiment is to cultivate an atmosphere of openness, creativity and trust where students can play, let loose, get out of their heads and into their bodies, exploring materials and harnessing the vitality of playfulness and silliness. The experiment elaborates on the theme and “what if” of camp, as it invites the students to engage with each other in playfully speculative, embodied, material-based dialogues and imagine worlds that can be radically different.

Context

Playful interaction sometimes leads to a deep, embodied engagement that can be understood as a special kind of democratic participation: players explore ways of being and living together, often challenges what is known, going beyond norms and expectations in search of new narratives, atmospheres, moods and worlds.

Here I focus mainly on notions of participation and the imaginary as it is sparked by a playful, embodied engagement with materials and artifacts. The experiment is framed as an invitation to play because the atmosphere and mood of play has been shown to cultivate presence, sincerity and openness as well as agency and imagination. When people really play, they are typically less inhibited and more prone to explore radically different ideas, worlds and ways of living.

More specifically, the experiment draws on the tradition of “skrammellegepladser” (junk playgrounds) because such a space lends itself particularly well to open-ended, embodied and material-oriented engagement with artifacts, each other and the world.

Experiment setup

The experiment is shaped as a miniature (but not-too-small) junk playground situated in the middle of camp (or somewhere central, where students pass by regularly or can easily go). It can be in the canteen, in the mirror hallway or elsewhere on the ground floor. It can be an a classroom, but that might risk isolating it too much from where the action is. It could also be outside, but considering it’s winter, that may deter people from visiting.

The area is styled to convey the narrative and invites students to explore a parallel universe. It is not just a random collection of junk, but instead it is framed as a meticulously curated collection of important artifacts – everything is there for a reason (a reason we may not yet know of).

There is a fairly large selection of junk material scattered around the place to invoke the curiosity and wonder. In addition to the junk, there will also be a selection of hand tools (knives, scissors, hammers) and supplementary materials (tape, glue, string, nails etc)

While all the materials might come with certain embedded associations and affordances, they are all to be considered “loose parts”, that is, artifacts without a predesignated purpose. The students can use the materials to speculate and imagine “radically different worlds”, to explore aspects of their ideas and to build mock-ups and prototypes.

Rules of engagement

When you step into the space, you have to adhere to “The Law of the playground”:

  1. The materials have their own voice, agency and desires
  2. Follow your hands and body as they engage physically with the materials
  3. Say “yes, and…”
  4. Conflict is good – when you respect and take care of each other (agonism, not antagonism)
  5. There is no being or looking stupid
  6. Trust your imagination and intuition, defer judgment

Narrative

The junk playground is built around a narrative you can step into, explore and influence. It creates a universe for telling stories of what might be, drawing on embodied deliberation and the playful imaginary.

Ideas for themes:
• Sci-fi / future: these materials are sent from the future to guide us on our path.
• Archeology: these materials have been excavated from archeological dig sites and hold important information about our past.
• Crime scene:
• …

The junk is not framed as junk but as something else – it could represent:

• Opportunities
• Loose parts
• Not-yet-fully-formed ideas
• Space debris
• Excavations
• Someone’s memories of the past
• Someone’s hopes for the future

Concrete examples/scenarios

  1. A group walks into the playground, frustrated with their current progress, and they are tasked with finding an artifact each and improvise a story about their project from the perspective of the artifact.
  2. A group is working in their own space, and a few seemingly random artifacts – a broken lamp and an old typewriter – arrive at their table. They can pick it apart and put it together in new ways in order to figure out how it challenges or informs their current idea.
  3. Several students from different groups walk into the playground, looking for a break from intense work, and start creating a shared work of art that express their current state of mind.

Loose ideas for activities

Getting to know each other
The better the students can get to know each other and their collaboration partner / organisation, the more everyone usually benefits from the process. The playground is a great place to learn more about each other, so maybe it’s an idea to design an introductory play activity for alle the groups and their partners?

Traveling junk
As a part of the experiment, bits and pieces from the junk playground will travel to the group spaces, insisting on joining the conversation. Every piece of junk has something to say – maybe it’s important, maybe it’s just random nonsense. You’ll have to listen closely to understand.

The big junk lottery
Every group gets a lottery ticket and wins random pieces of what might appear to be useless junk. It does however contain an important insight about their project.

A collective art work
During camp, all the students have the opportunity (or obligation?) to contribute to a collective art work which explores the theme of camp. Maybe you only add a single piece of junk or a word, or maybe you revisit it several times, maybe even explicitly drawing it into your design process.

Documentation

The experiment is also the first step towards developing a strategy for capturing and documenting empirical data throughout the project.

The main challenge is to also capture non-verbal interaction. Embodied engagement with each other and materials is often at least partly non-verbal, where much is expressed without words.

For this experiment, I aim to use a triangulation of documentation methods such as:
• Video of the playground
• Video booth capturing reflections from “visitors”
• Drawings
• Short written messages on a “living” message board
• An exhibition of small art works with titles and short descriptions

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