Experiments in (and out of) the studio – EASST workshop

Every four years the US based Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) and the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) host a joint conference. The 2012 edition of the discipline’s largest conference took place in October at the Copenhagen Business School under the theme of ‘Design and Displacement: Social studies of science and technology’. Science and technology (STS) scholars, particularly in the Scandinavian tradition, have long been interested in design as an explicit intersection of technological and social construction. In science and technology, ‘design’ implies the re-arrangement of materials and ideas for innovative purposes. When newly designed scientific and technical objects enter the world, however, their initial purposes are often displaced. For decades, STS researchers have been following the practical and political dimensions of science and technology. By focusing on concepts and practices of scientific and technological design at their sites of construction and on their multiple displacements the 2012 conference continues this tradition. By bringing together ‘design’ and ‘displacement’ we want to highlight how scientific and technological design engages with existing socio-technical arrangements in both planned and unplanned ways, facilitating both collaborations and contestations, and generating both order and disorder. (For more see: http://easst.net)

Drawing on the conference theme and a long standing interest in the intersection of design, art and science and technology studies (STS), Nina Wakeford, of Goldsmith, and Alex Taylor from Microsoft Research Cambridge invited proposals for an experimental pre-conference workshop. Whereas STS scholar’s traditionally have taken design practices as their subject the proposed workshop aimed to explore how STS could not only study design practices but learn from the ways in which designers and artist do research. Confronting design and art practices with those of STS research is still a novel approach but the implication that research can be understood as an explicit intervention resonates with work in the feminist tradition that often emphasises that research always interferes with its subject. (Those who are interested in this field might find it worth to check out the new MA in Visual Sociology at Goldsmith University).

Intrigued by the opportunity to explore how methods that are traditionally associated with art and design practices can contribute to the study of science and technology Julien McHardy (Lancaster University), myself and Laura Forlano (Design, Illinois Institute of Tech) applied. We were shortlisted alongside Dehlia Hannah (Philosophy, Columbia University) and Hannah Star Rogers’ (STS, University of Virginia) proposal and asked to organize a joint interdisciplinary one-day event.

Putting together an event with people that you don’t know and who are spread out across two continents and a range of disciplines was certainly challenging. A flood of emails send across three time zones later, and only two weeks prior to the event the call for participants went out. We invited participation in an interdisciplinary one day hands-on workshop on emerging methods of critical practice in science and technology studies, in particular methods that engage with art and design as well as performance and exhibition. We aimed to refine our understanding and also intervene in the way that objects can stimulate and embody critique in STS. Despite the tight timing we were quickly oversubscribed with a diverse range of international applicants from art, design, architecture, sociology, anthropology, engineering and philosophy. Now is the time to thank all those folk that joint us for the workshop, the funders and the team for making it such a delightful day.

The following is an overview of the day.

Early on the 16th of October a colourful group of participants found their way through the aptly coliseum themed atrium of the Copenhagen Business School’s Solbjerg Plads campus to one of the new, bare concrete and glass lecture theatres. After a good round of traditionally bad conference coffee Nina Wakeford, Alex Taylor and the team gave a brief welcome and introduced the plan of the day.

11-12.30 – Session 1: Creative Epistemologies

12.30-13.30: Lunch

13.30-14.30: Session 2 – Urban Explorations

14.30-16.30: Session 3 – Enquiry Machines

16.30-17.00: Group presentations

17.00-17.30: Wrap up


Session One: Creative Epistemologies

The morning section of the workshop introduced critical and interpretive practices from history, philosophy, anthropology and interdisciplinary science and technology studies and considered how STS scholars are engaging with art and design. The morning session, led by Dehlia started the day with a talk and participant discussion on ‘Creative Epistemologies’. (Unfortunately Hanna was unwell, so Dehlia presented on her own).

Drawing on examples from history, philosophy, anthropology, art and science and technology studies Dehlia discussed the role of artifacts in the production of techno-scientific knowledge. She presented examples from her’s and Hannah’s research on bio-art, synthetic biology, scientific photography, and artworks that take the form of scientific experiments, and drew the audience into a discussion of how such artworks resonate with the concerns of STS and raised the questions:

What kinds of theoretical approaches shall we bring to bear on artworks that inflect our traditional object of study?

How do artifacts and performances embody new ways of understanding science?

How might science and technology studies benefit from the adoption of practice-based methods that the arts and sciences have in common?

As a preparation for the hands-on activities of the rest of the day, Dehlia then shifted the discussion from the interpretation of artworks to the creation and design of artifacts. This provided an opportunity to consider the distinctions and the dialectical relationships between art and design as well as critical interpretation and critical making.

Dehlia discussed the concept of a “performative experiment” and related her experience stepping out of the philosophical armchair and into the role of the experimental subject as part of the ongoing Xenopus frog Pregnancy Test research project, and also talked about Hannah’s use of electro-conductive paint in teaching engineering students. Workshop participants were invited to share examples of their own methods and work. Together we started to articulate some of the central aims, questions and challenges of art and design-based methodologies in STS.

Part of this session involved a round of introductions, which turned out to be an exciting demonstration of the unusual and interesting range of disciplines the workshop attracted. Most of the participants already bridged several disciplines within their own work. Many agreed later that it was delightful to be in a space where cross and interdisciplinary work of some sort was considered standard practice rather than an exception that requires justification.




Refreshments were provided by the canteen in the Business School and provided a chance to sit and talk with new people.


Session 2: Urban Ethnography

Drawing on Dehlia and Hannah’s more theoretical introduction Laura’s session explored the neighbourhood surrounding the Copenhagen Business School. Participants swarmed out in teams of three people to explore three themes in pictures, sketches and notes:

1. The digitization of the city and digital materiality

– How are digital technologies shaping the everyday lives of people in the neighborhood?
– What kinds of digital technologies are present in the neighborhood i.e. artifacts, interfaces, infrastructures?

2. The values embedded in artifacts, interfaces and infrastructures

What does the relationship between technologies (including objects and the built environment), people and spaces tell you about the values of the city? How are values of privacy/surveillance, transparency/ opacity, individual/community and local/ global activities represented? Is there evidence of other kinds of values such as spontaneity, mystery and romance?

3. The visible and invisible histories of the neighbourhood.

What are the geographic and/or social boundaries of the neighborhood? What was this neighborhood in the past and what might it become in the future (based on signals gathered in urban exploration)?



Participants were divided into subgroups including one note-taker, one photographer and one navigator as well as one Danish speaker. Laura provided Kato’s ‘Learning with Camera Phones’ for inspiration. They were briefed to take at least 100 photos, draw one sketch, create a map of their urban exploration and bring in one found object from the field. Participants contributed their data sets to the workshop documentation materials.



This session worked to put into discussion (and practice) some of the ideas generated in the morning session and alleviate the post-lunch slump. Being able to walk around helped us re-energize in preparation for the afternoon session. We were also told that it provided a good opportunity to network with others in the group. The international and interdisciplinary composition of the group offered people a wide range of approaches and lenses to explore. Having a native Danish speaker also proved to be insightful in not only reading signs but also pointing out and explaining cultural nuance and practice that is often overlooked or misunderstood when briefly visiting a city.


Session 3: Enquiry Machines

In the afternoon session we invited participants to build three dimensional models, or ‘Enquiry Machines’, to explore and present the ethnographic materials that they previously collected. While everyone was undertaking the ethnographic task, we prepared Enquiry Machine Toolkits –comprised of cardboard boxes filled with a plethora of found, borrowed and purchased materials and objects:

–       Recycled bicycle parts (chain, cogs, bell, inner tubes, spokes)

–       Stationery (glue, card, tape, pens, markers)

–       Tools (screwdriver, scissors, glue guns)

–       Objects (Styrofoam balls, twine, fabric, plastic sheets, cable ties)

Participants also returned with an impressive array of materials they had picked up in their travels; material, lamps, plastic and cardboard, old lamp fittings, springs and wire and more.


Once everyone was settled, we introduced the ‘Machines of Enquiry’ research project. Enquiry Machines are a concept they developed to think about material interventions that make abstract ideas tangible and render visible the labour of knowledge. Locating it in STS and material cultural studies, they presented instantiations of the project and provided examples of other similar works to inspire participates to think about experimenting with ways of presenting or performing three dimensional arguments and ideas of research as a tangible intervention.



The subgroups formed during the ethnographic session were invited to construct a machine of enquiry to assist their investigation and representation of a particular theoretical or methodological issue arising from their own research or discussion during the day. These ‘machines of enquiry’ offered a chance to model research insights as well as possible forms of intervention. This part of the session last two hours with participants working together to conceptualise and materialise ideas. There was a lot of productive noise and a lot of mess!



Finally each subgroup presented, performed and demonstrated their machines to the group. The build objects ranged from reflections on working together, to an investigation of moments of ‘perplexity’ and tools for ethnographic and sensory exploration to a conference-kit that aimed to interfere in the strictly verbal and visual forms of presentation that dominated the following conference. The range of objects (and photos) provide some idea of the spirit of the workshop.



The following are some of the ‘Machines of Enquiry’ produced by participants:

– Peceptofactors: Sensory enquiry devices
‘Look-out’, ‘Smell-Off’ and ‘Listen-in’

– ‘Portable Office’ and Thinking Aid

– The Conference Presenter / Audience Reciprocity Kit, including: ‘No Idea Left Behind’, ‘The Epiphany Meter’, ‘The Boredom Bottle’, ‘Discretion Scope’ and ‘The Presentation Penis’


Enquiry Machine Exhibition

Enquiry Machines were displayed and demonstrated in a public exhibition during the conference. Some even made their way into talks and panels.



We documented the event in a research zine.