Making Futures Journal
Distributed Capabilities: Towards Hybrid Ways of Making in Collaborative arts/design Practices
This ongoing practice-based research covers the developing co-creative relationships that arise through integrating data-driven inspiration processes within collaborative distributed networks of design and making, formed in the Aural Textiles-Distributed Capabilities project. It builds on an analogue/digital transformation process for sound-inspired pattern creation. This paper takes the relationship one step further by inviting practitioner participants to co-create this text with the research team, reflecting on their own experiences of the collaborative process and responding to common themes across each other's experiences. We situate these reflections within a framework of an evolving ecology of practice, which considers three key areas of collaboration in the development of collectives:
Shared (but Distributed) Expertise
We invited all eleven participating practitioners to join this co-created paper and three took part. They were invited to reflect on the collaborative aspect of the project and to focus on elements that were important to them (without any further guidance or direction from the researchers). These reflections were collated and discussed between the three practitioners and the researchers. Here, we present these reflections (in full) and discussions, with common themes explored and considered in the context of a ‘sharing ecology’. The aim of this paper is to explore the evolving collaborative aspects of collective working and provide agency to practitioners within this developing practice-led research-participant project.
We first provide a background into participatory design-led innovation and its role as a methodological underpinning within the study. We focus on collaborative writing as a way of providing participant agency in this narrative assemblage. We then share our reflections and commentary exploring perspectives of collaboration, cooperation and communication. We link these themes through consideration of shared values, technology and experimentation before returning to ‘ecologies of practice’ and reflecting upon what collective and collaborative mean within our context of the project.
Participatory Design-Led Innovation
A design-led innovation approach was used to promote hybrid ways of making and working by supporting interdisciplinary collaboration within the group of designers/makers. Design-led innovation can be defined as the design of participatory activities and ways of working that facilitate innovative collaboration and reflective practice towards new knowledge creation. Design innovation approaches support new collaborative and interdisciplinary knowledge that ‘emerge from the creative recombination of existing assets (from social capital to historical heritage, from traditional craftsmanship to accessible advanced technology)’.
Setting up Collaborations
Forming Collaborations through partnerships
Transitioning to Collaborative Partnerships
‘With Christmas approaching we had to pause the project to focus on our respective businesses, but in the new year we were excited to get back to our plan. Jen drew up some digital sketches which riffed on our original shape, while I began creating braid samples in different yarns to test the flexibility of the structure. Then we went into lockdown.’
‘Our collaboration didn’t immediately screech to a halt. We tried setting up a regular schedule of digital meetups but struggled to use the time productively. We wondered whether we were incapable of collaborating digitally when the hands-on magic had been so important for us. However, I am not sure that this was the main issue.’
‘With hindsight it is obvious that we were both reeling from the impact of the lockdown on our livelihoods. With events and workshops cancelled, and retailers shutting their doors, we were needing to reinvent ourselves on the fly. It was hopeless to try and force ourselves into that playful, creative space that had been so fruitful before.’
‘As I write we have begun to pick up the pieces and rediscover the vision that we had for our suit of armour. The collaborative, experimental process we have engaged in so far has been just as exciting as I had hoped, and I think we can create interesting work that would not have arisen from either of us individually. But we still face extraordinary challenges to our businesses, which have to be a priority, and it looks as though our collaboration will be carried out remotely for some time to come.’
Co-creation is a word that is used in contemporary design, business and strategic development disciplines. Founded within the ideas of participatory design it describes a collaborative creation of value. Yet, it only answers a part of the evolving idea of co-creation when it is viewed mainly as a connection between a creator and a group of users/consumers. It can also be considered an interactional creation of socio-material assemblage, where value is considered not only in the artefact/service but also the experience embodied in the agency of its creators/materials. Furthermore, we also see co-creation as ‘a creative process that taps into the collective potential of groups to generate insights and innovation’ allowing a perception and inclusive understanding of the value and the multiple agencies present in its making. Co-creation offers opportunities for innovation as collaborating partners are exposed to different resources and expertise that they can integrate and apply in novel ways. In this project, co-creation embodies both serendipity and innovation. The idea of play mentioned in Cally’s reflection shows this co-creative energy from which new ideas emerged spontaneously that neither partner could have arrived at in isolation: the ‘eureka moment’.
Bending the Rules
“Distributed Capabilities (DC) provided three specific sets of parameters:
Rather than just undertaking one collaboration, I have developed three. Working with different textile practitioners each with their own ways of working has been a liberating experience and has pushed me to think more laterally about my own creative processes and re-examine how I arrive at my own creative decisions.’
‘My collaboration with Dwynwen draws on our shared interest in loss - my previous work exploring the theme of dementia through the creation of punctured sculptural objects that highlight that which is missing, and Dwynwen’s work from the first stage of AT using dropped stitches in her hand knitting to express the lost sounds in hearing impairment. We connected quickly through a shared respect for a fellow maker comfortable in dealing with difficult subject matter and quickly decided on how we would work together. Dwynwen’s focus and clarity made our collaboration very straightforward and satisfying, and by sharing our existing creative processes we quickly found our shared purpose’ (Figure 7).
Evolving ecologies of practice
A number of themes were found across the practitioners’ reflections that offer insights into the ecology of practice. The practitioners identified three key areas of transition between individual and collaborative practice: experimentation, shared values, and digital/analogue communication.
Firstly, taking part in this collective and collaborative research project offered the practitioners the opportunity for creative exploration underpinned by peer support and accountability to their partners and the collective community. Creative exploration and experimentation are often ‘unpaid’ activities and can be difficult to prioritise for makers with a solo practice, whose income is typically generated across a portfolio of work that can include making for wholesale and direct-to-consumer sales, teaching (of their craft, of art/design/making more generally or business support), and/or separate paid employment that may or may not be directly related to their practice: ‘With many activities competing for time in my practice, experimentation is always the first thing to be dropped’ (Carol). Being able to experiment and explore within the context of both collaboration(s) and collective offered practitioners’ multiple structures (or ecosystems) of both accountability and peer support that required and encouraged them to prioritise experimentation and exploration. This reinforces shared experience as one component of the ecology of practice.
Secondly, the identification of shared values was important for successful collaborations. Most (if not all) practitioners in this project define overall ‘success’ as engaging with a collaboration underpinned by a shared sound-inspired design process that allows space for creative exploration with a shared goal of co-creating work for exhibition: ‘Recording sounds from equipment we use in our practice gave us a focus and enabled us to discuss and learn about each other’s working methods’ (Laura). The method(s) applied by each collaborative pairing to achieve that success has been different, but all depend on four components:
Sharing knowledge of the underpinning process
Trusting in the discipline-specific and general designer/maker expertise of collaborative partners
Spending time with partners to understand shared interests
Committing to partnership-authored programmes of work.
Both partners wanting the same thing from the collaboration was also key, whether that was about exploring a shared concept in a new way (such as the expression of loss by Carol and Dwynwen), testing methodologies across disciplines (surface pattern design for Laura and Beth), or a shared desire to push at the technical edges of what their particular disciplines could achieve (Cally and Jen). None of these factors are unique to craft or design collaborations, but the examples here demonstrate the diverse ways in which the identification of shared values can influence the collaborative direction, and chime perfectly with the shared (distributed) expertise and shared meaning components in an ecology of practice.
Third, was the juxtaposition of physical versus digital interactions. Digital technologies have supported collective endeavour throughout this project and are a crucial component of this ecology of practice. They have been necessary for the data-inspired design process, as a platform for sharing knowledge across geographic distances and, crucially, as a means of remaining connected to each other throughout the period of physical distancing imposed during the global response to Covid-19. These digital interactions served important purposes of knowledge acquisition and sharing as well as peer support, but have always been aligned with in-person gatherings and collaborative meetups. Digital technologies have never completely replaced the physical interactions with objects and techniques that are fundamental to the experience of craft and making and for building trust and mutual respect: ‘Although the online meetings allowed us to keep some sort of momentum within our project, seeing someone face to (socially distanced) face has been much more impactful’ (Laura).
Thinking of how ecologies of practice might need to adapt in response to longer-term needs for physical distancing, it is not yet clear how the process of establishing trusted relationships and sharing tactile aspects of craft practice could be translated to a digital-only environment. Cally provides a critical perspective on digital collaboration:
‘I have mixed feelings about digital collaboration. I’m grateful that the technology exists to allow us to keep meeting and sharing work, but I don’t find it as engaging and compelling as working together in person. As far as tools are concerned, I’ve benefited enormously from many platforms which offer free services, but I’m also aware of the limitations of ‘free’ and of leaving a trail of once-tried-never-adopted accounts littered across the internet. As makers we aren’t necessarily aware of what is available, and the suggestions I’ve found most useful have come from people in completely unrelated fields but who are accustomed to working and sharing resources online, e.g. in software development. How can we tap into this knowledge across disciplinary boundaries?’
As recognised by the practitioners in this group and our extended maker networks, practitioner-led explorations of immersive digital technologies are now needed in order to support collaboration over distance (short and long), skills sharing, and user engagement with the process of making and with the objects created. In particular, there is a desire to understand the ways in which digital interactions can provide unique object- and process-embedded experiences, over and above simply seeking to recreate that which is missing from physical interactions. As we write, work to address this is about to launch with makers in Scotland, and will build on experiences from museum and heritage communities where rare and fragile objects/places and poorly understood processes cannot be handled. The results from this new work will complement the findings described here and will also feed into the final presentation of outcomes from this project.
Towards Dynamic Digital/Analogue Ecologies
More widely, we discussed the concept of this project as an ecology or ecosystem of practice. In the unusual circumstances that Covid-19 created, many participants needed to withdraw their time from this project to focus on rethinking their rhythms as normal revenue streams and activities suddenly disappeared and the way we live our lives changed dramatically: ‘With events and workshops cancelled, and retailers shutting their doors, we were needing to reinvent ourselves on the fly’ (Cally) and ‘The Covid-19 pandemic temporarily removed the DC timeline, resulting in all of my collaborative activity being put on hold while I prioritised my personal and professional needs’ (Carol).
Despite the reduction in time available to create work as part of the collaborations, the collective still supported participants to sustain creative threads throughout this period of transition. This occurred through peer support at informal weekly creative coffee breaks organised by the researchers as well as through shared purpose and accountability: ‘Not only did we join the group wide Zoom meetings with the rest of the Aural Textile participants, we also conducted our own. We shared ideas about the project, showed examples of pieces we were working on and continued our collaborative friendship, but just on a different platform’ (Laura). A sustained focus, in terms of continuing to create work for presentation, also helped to maintain a link across pre-, peri- and, we hope, post-Covid ways of being.
In these respects, this longitudinal project demonstrates resilient digital/analogue ecosystem dynamics as adaptations in response to external factors and supports consideration of the project in terms of ecological theory (Figure 9). We acknowledge that our ecology of practice does not exist in isolation, but is part of a much wider community of making practice, ‘a worldview that is participative, relational and complex’, and it is that wider community which is ‘the pond in which this particular ecology of [design/making] practices continues to evolve’. Through this paper we have expressed the overall ideas of our distributed collective, explored our reflections of its purpose and experiences, and identified what common threads there are within these practices. The ecology of practices that are developing are varied from individual pairings to growing networks. There are supporting roles and expectations to maintain and mitigate, as well as the challenges of life (such as Covid), but also the uncertain energies and anticipations that come from these evolving collaborations. This collaborative paper has shown the intricacies and evolving natures that these practices play within co-creation and exemplifies the growing need to support these experimental engagements and enable new ways of working within the creative and practice-based disciplines.
This work would not be possible without the ongoing and active participation of Beth Farmer, Dwynwen Hopcroft, Marie Melnyczuk, Isabelle Moore, Olive Pearson, Netty Sopata, Orla Stevens, and Jen Stewart, in addition to the co-authors. We thank Lina Wilckens, Sean Fegan, Finn Fullarton-Pegg and Daniele Sambo for assistance with documenting and analysing the gatherings.
This work was funded by Workshop and Network Grants from the Royal Society of Edinburgh to Dr. George S. Jaramillo and Dr. Lynne J. Hocking-Mennie.