Observation/Transformation/Translation (Riga, Latvia)

Practicing Communities: Transformative societal strategies of artistic research

I was invited along with other scholars and artists from all fields to join the Nordic Summer University’s artistic research study circle 7, which pursues an ‘interdisciplinary collaborative approach to combining practices and strategies from various geographic, contextual, societal, institutional and non-institutional spaces’.  http://nordic.university/study-circles/7-practicing-communities-transformative-societal-strategies-of-artistic-research/

Practicing Communities: Transformative societal strategies of artistic research How does artistic research transform society? Eduarda Smiļģa Teātra Muzejs, E. Smiļģa ielā 37/39 and at Zirgu Pasts, Latvian Academy of Culture/Latviljas Kultῡras Akadēmija, Dzirnavu iela 46, Riga.

Description of activity

Six participants were provided with a digital voice recorder and asked to verbally record their thoughts, feelings and experience of a location in Riga. The recordings between 2-6 minutes were returned to me to create a co-constructed soundscape for my presentation and their performance later in the week.

Participants privately listened to their recording and were invited to make a response to their own sound piece using their preferred medium – movement/performance/drawing/writing or a combination of these. The audience watched the group of participant’s translate their re-lived experiences into movement and drawing while listening to a cacophony of the recorded experiences.

Instructions for participants:


Looking as a decisive act and the experience of observation prior to ‘making’ is a reflective and formative process that is often not captured or documented. What is thought about and felt when looking for the first time?

Experience a location and use the voice recorder to capture your observations:

Recordings can be for any length of time but aim for between 2-10 minutes of recording. You will use your words, pauses, corrections, repetitions and stumbles as a record of your process of looking, thinking and sense making to be re-listened to again to create a performed response using the body and/or drawing materials.


What words can you use to explain what you are experiencing? Search for words to express and describe what you see and feel.

Concentrate on what you can see as you move through the space you are in. Observe and describe what you can see in detail; textures, patterns, lines shapes, colours and tones. What can you say about what you can see?

Concentrate on what you can feel on your body, under your feet, against your skin as you move through the space you are in. You might be able to identify specific sensations but try and use words or sounds to describe them; do they remind you of anything else? A previous experience or memory?

Concentrate on how you feel, your mood, emotions, what you are thinking about as you move through the space you are in. You might be able to identify specific feelings but try and use words or sounds to describe them; do they remind you of anything else? A previous experience or memory?

Concentrate on what you can hear, the noises and sounds you can hear as you move through the space you are in. You might be able to identify specific sounds but try and use words or sounds to describe them; do they remind you of anything else? A previous experience or memory?

Concentrate on what you can smell as you move through the space you are in. You might be able to identify specific smells but try and use words or sounds to describe them; do they remind you of anything else? A previous experience or memory?

Concentrate on what you can taste in your mouth, in the air as you move through the space you are in. You might be able to identify specific tastes but try and use words or sounds to describe them; do they remind you of anything else? A previous experience or memory?


By re-listening to ‘verbal sketches’ the process of looking, thinking and sense-making can be experienced again, albeit in an abstracted form and transferred and transformed into a final gesture and shared experience.

The recording you have made could be considered as a drawing in its own right but also serves as a preparatory sketch for your performed drawing using your body and/or drawing materials.

Select your drawing materials and re-listen to your verbal drawing again (repeat the audio if necessary). As you re-listen to your spoken voice respond to your descriptions. Create your response using the wall and/or floor space. You are free to translate your recorded experience in whatever way you wish.

The experiment sought to examine how individuals respond to this given process and transform meaning and experiences through different media. How through recording observation and re-listening to their observations they might know the place/space they visited and use this recording as a preparatory sketch for their final output.

Spectators observed how individuals inhabited their space and interacted with others while they created their un-choreographed and socially constructed performance.

What is transformed, how is it transformed and how is this experienced by observers? I wondered if there may be tensions between what is experienced as solitary experience and public performance in a shared and negotiated space.

From presentation:

I have become interested in how we can use digital technologies to gain insight into ourselves through documentation and sharing our findings with others as a form of auto-ethnography – researching and writing about the self as immersed in a culture.

We have become increasingly exposed to various forms of documentation of events and places as well as observing and documenting ourselves through the use of digital tools and platforms as well as social media. We can read about what people have had to eat, what they did that day, what they are going to do next and how they are feeling at any given time – expressed through a variety of ways including emoticons and emoji’s. The internet and social media platforms are saturated with images of pouting selfies capturing the self image at its best. Quantified Self(ers) are an ever increasing movement of people who use technologies to observe, capture and analyse aspects of their lives, more often than not connected to health and fitness. Many of the technology tools and Apps that enable self-observation were designed for these markets to enable improvements to be made to health and fitness levels and motivational to achieve goals. Some would consider this obsession with the self and documentation of our lives, whether for fun or to improve our health and fitness, as a form of narcissism.

The pouting selfie represents how we want the world to see us, it is not reflective of who we might be in reality, it is not reflective, at all. It is a constructed self, the self as product and a projection of the self outwards.

I became interested in self observation or ‘digital auto-ethnography’ as a way to observe the self to examine what is experienced, thought about and felt throughout the creative making process in more depth. For me digital auto-ethnography is about looking inwards and a way to make the familiar unfamiliar through seeing and hearing the self with a third eye or ear. For me it has been a deconstruction of the self in the context of understanding and developing a creative practice. It presents a version of the self that might be uncomfortable or unflattering to share and not always the self at its best.

As a way to examine my own creative practice I experimented with different ways of observing myself and looking at what I did to gain insight and understanding for my own practice but also so that I might understand or empathise more with my students: What is thought about and felt through a making process. My observations were shared (on a blog), not because I thought there was a real audience who was interested but because I was creating a sort of resource and I also found that the imagined or real audience helped with my own sense-making, I was developing my ability to converse with myself through a perceived audience.

The process of observing myself drawing using a GoPro headcam enabled me to reflect more on what drawing meant to my practice, it slowed down my process and enabled me to question why I did things the way that I did. I began to realise the significance of iteration, revisiting imagery and lines, tracing and retracing through my process to my practice. Tracing and repeating lines, shapes and forms could be considered as an act of perfecting, yet with each iteration I was creating something new and getting further away from what I started with. So I thought more deeply about:

  • Drawing
  • Thinking about what my work was about
  • Making Connections between things
  • Being playful

An artist residency in 2014 was an opportunity to do an auto-ethnography project in a controlled way. I had a real audience and experienced observing making as a co-constructed process. During this week-long auto-ethnographic project I made pre-drawing audio descriptions of some of the objects I had found in the museum. Some were of objects that I did not understand (strange scientific equipment) and some of really complicated forms (brain coral). I used the spoken drawing as a way to make sense of the unfamiliar – to make it familiar.

I took this process to the Thinking through Drawing symposium: and did a workshop with participants: ‘Verbal Drawing: Exploring experiences of looking, seeing and describing: How can we use words to create and help us understand, think about and prepare for drawing?’

The purpose of the workshop was to bring my personal experience of using verbal descriptions to a wider audience. It was an experiment to see if making spoken preparatory drawings and re-listening to them had an impact on making a physical drawing afterwards. I wondered if it mattered what the objects were, did it matter if they were recognisable, complicated, familiar, or banal? Did it make a difference if the participant listened to the recording at the same time as looking at the object again or not? Because it was an experiment I left it up to the participants whether they observed the object or not. By not looking at the object the experiment becomes about spoken word and memory and how the words might trigger memory. By looking at the object and listening perhaps the words lead the eye, helping you re-trace your ‘steps’. I am interested in all of these variables as they say something about how we look, see, experience and translate this into drawing.

And so back to Riga where participants were asked to record experiences of a space and place not an object:

Soundscape: http://www.podbean.com/media/player/6tg69-5de81c?from=yiiadmin

Riga Performance from Jo Neil on Vimeo.

How does the experience of creating a verbal drawing prepare for practice?

Does hearing ones own observations make what was experienced more familiar?

How does the practice translate the audio?

What is the experience of creating a spoken drawing?

What is the experience of listening back to your spoken drawing?

What is the experience of audio informing performative drawing?

How was the experience of the unfamiliar space re-experienced from listening to a description?

What is the experience of audience hearing all observations and transformations and observing all translations?

Participants experiences and responses:

Personal Reflection: