My observation assignment

I think I had better include my observation assignment in here also. Not sure what mark I am going to get for my submission, but anyhoo. I’m not too unhappy with the work I did on it, but my references are a little short, and the overall assignment was VERY hurried, written in about 4 hours, and not heavily edited. Reading over it again, I am not unhappy with the assignment, although I am concerned about whether I followed the criteria for the assignment as I ought – I used first person in the assignment and I am not sure whether this was okay or not. Nevertheless, I am happy with the strongly reflexive nature of the second half. I wonder if my supervisor is aware that I deliberately select certain descriptive words?

She noted in my previous assignment to be careful about depictions of others as it revealed much about me – however, I’m not sure my “meaning” was clearly apparent in the phrase she questioned – the words I used – “wog” and “hick” were used to denote my feelings of belonging in the first instance, even though I have no real right to the use of the word “wog”, being a wasp, and my anger and alienation in the second instance. Words are powerful and I deliberately chose these words to highlight my feelings of displacement and loss. I miss Melbourne. I lived in the heart of Wogsville for 10 years – next to Italians, Lebanese, Turks, Maltese and Greeks. My place was Brunswick. I miss my Italian and Greek neighbours, their taciturnity and their friendliness in equal measure. Their “otherness” and their community. And coming to Brisbane with its relentless and oppressive Anglo culture – despite the real presence of Asian and Islander cultures – has been a real challenge to me. Brisbane I perceive is an Asian city with Anglo undertones. Melbourne I believe is a European city with Asian overtones.


Observation Report from Field Work, 6/01/10.

Approximately 2.30pm.

Building the space.

A BIG space. Floor: Cool. Ground, slightly polished concrete. Grey with white pebbles showing through. Metal grid lines intersect the floor. Room is perhaps 35-40m deep, 25 m wide with two walls creating a wide corridor into another section I cannot see. The walls of the corridor do not reach the ceiling – about two thirds up; the corridor is perhaps 8 – 10 m wide. There are elegant metal grills at regular intervals on the floor. Walls: painted a “warm” white, not bright white. 2 walls go to the ceiling, which is a multi-layered ceiling. The walls are very high – perhaps 10 m or more. One the walls near the entry way are some white electronic gear and an exit sign. Some text too – I cannot read it. The walls go directly to the floor with no architraves or baseboards. The ceiling: an immensely complex bulkhead arrangement that intersperses grey beams and light fittings on tracks. Between these repeated sequences the ceiling is painted black. Small cables and pulley systems hold the two side bulkheads of lights (10 cm deep approx) fixed to the walls and suspended from the ceiling. Entry way: about 4 m high, 3 m deep, 6 m wide. Is lined with metal and has recessed white lighting. The lights in the ceiling are spotlights on tracks or overheads. They are bright, but in the space they appear slightly muted, depending on the direction of their angle.

The space is a combination of white and grey and feels very large, but quite friendly. Not altogether serene, it appears almost prosaic. But I think the space itself: its width, height and hugeness is very beautiful. I am reminded of the program “Grand Designs” which shows similar style houses on its program (minus the sheer size) and I always like these spaces.

The Art.

There are six in my first position in my direct view. To my left: in profile, an enormous “beard” of stainless steel butter knife blades or metal ruler sized strips affixed to the wall, a metre deep, attached to the wall one metre off the floor. I am fascinated by the play of the metal strips with each other. Many point directly to the floor; others lie glinting at angles that catch the light, while the ones at the top bristle upwards. The effect is spiky but hairy. Not dangerous, but dangerous. Like sword grass. I enjoy the interplay of the uneven lengths of the strips – the work looks like it needs a trim. Its busyness satisfies me and I want to touch it. It is grey and glinting silver in colour.

On the floor diagonally opposite me in the far corner is a metal motorbike made entirely of brass or some sort of yellow metal – even the tires. It holds side panniers that resemble milk kegs, in an aluminium type material. It rests on its stand on a large circular plaster floor plinth. The bike is glinty and shiny and very beautiful. The style of the bike looks old, like bikes seen in the Indiana Jones films. I wonder if there is significance in the panniers and bike style – I have not read the artists blurb.

Directly in front of me is an enormous mushroom made of brass and metal objects. It is very tall. It appears immensely solid. The shape appears weighty, thick and dense. The “canopy” has enormous bulges in it while the base is built up and very “planted”. I can identify a number of objects in it: canisters, jugs, pizza plates, pots, pans, vases, candlesticks, ladles, tea pots. Some things are shiny, some are tarnished, green, or dirty. Some objects stick out from the great mass: a ship’s bell. A pothandle, a brass object like a fire iron or something. I wonder how the artist has constructed it – is everything attached? Or are they randomly placed? It looks immovable.

Diagonally opposite me are three works on the far corridor wall measuring approximately 1.5mx 1.3m. I cannot see them very clearly.

3.30pm

I have moved, and am now sitting directly opposite my first position.

On the wall next to me, on my left, I can see bobbles of what looks like icing sugar on the three paintings mentioned earlier. I cannot directly make out the images, but the colours are bright, pastel and hot pinks and oranges, greens, whites, blues – pop art colours. There is a low plinth of plasterboard under the images.

To my right is the metal bike, the “mushroom” is directly in front of me; the “beard” I can now see clearly on the wall. The photographs are taken from this angle. Now I can see much more. On the “corridor” wall in front of me are a series of pictures, shaped and spaced like aeroplane portholes. Each image contains a person, both male and female, mainly in profile. Framed in white plastic, each person appears to be Middle Eastern in appearance. Each is sitting in what appears to be a row in a plane. Men with beards, men without, men with various head apparel like bandannas and sunglasses. Women with their black hair tied back. There are two “areoplane” doors into a room. I can see a glimpse of colourful blue wallpaper, there is some sort of steel, wood or plaster plank intersecting the view.  On the wall at the rear is a painting of what look to be apartments, heavily stylized with clouds, flowers and leafy plants in out of proportion sizes. The picture looks “different” – a Middle Eastern style picture? How do I know it is like this?

People and other things.

I can hear many things. There is some music – some chanting, low tone drones rising. Some drums. A radio voice sound. I can hear the footsteps of the people in the space, children talking, some giggling and laughing. I can hear people speaking about the works although I cannot make out individual words. The music ensures an active sound space – there is no need to feel like one must be quiet.

I can see many people moving about and through the space. A well-dressed family group – two girls, Mum and Dad I presume, are just leaving. The girls are holding hands with their parents. I assume they are parents of these children as their body shapes – long, slender, are similar. I notice a couple – an older man and younger woman – a father daughter combination? Talking about the bike. I cannot hear the conversation, but there is much pointing and gesturing. They stop to look at the works next to me; they peer and point. They comment on the work but I can only catch snippets of words. She is wearing black sandals, long blue pants, loose cream shirt and cardigan draped on her back. She carries a black handbag. The man is dressed in blue jeans with a low-slung tan belt and tan shoes. He wears a check shirt stretched neatly over his large gut. He is balding with salt and pepper hair. She wears her black hair in a long bob. I presume they are tourists – he is very neatly dressed, and Brisbane residents rarely wear cardigans draped over their shoulders in summer. I presume they are related as they have very similar noses. They notice me covertly looking at them, but do not approach me.

People are now entering singly or in pairs. Many have cameras. There are many young people in the space – teenagers and young adults. They shuffle in their thongs. Security staff walk quietly about. Sometimes there is one staff, sometimes four. They each have earpieces with curly wires extending down their neck. They are dressed in black shoes, black pants, jumpers or black jackets and light blue shirts. Their security tags hang from their necks. One slender security guard with spiky blond hair yawns frequently. Each of them look at me, but they do not approach me.

The people stop. They might look at a work. Peer. They might move closer to inspect the works. Some want to touch the brass mushroom – they are very close and put a finger out but stop themselves before they touch the work. Many take photos. One girl drops her booklet as she takes a photo. There are people of all ages in this space.

Finish.

“We can never know the true nature of things. We are each blinded by our own perspective. Truth is always partial.” (Denzin, 2009, p. 153). The observations I made about the GOMA (Gallery of Modern Art) space are indeed my unique perspective. I was taken by the enormity of the space, and I was very taken by the art. Most of my observation is concerned with these two aspects of the space. I was not at all interested in the people within and connecting to the space. In fact, I mentioned them only at the end of my report. I consciously made choices about how I interpreted the space and each of the art works. For example, I connected the space’s colour and design with those I had seen on BBC’s “Grand Designs” program. I saw the space as enormous – it dwarfs the people moving through although I did not mention this in the report. I am struck by how small the man looking at the “beard” is in relation both to the artwork and to the great expanse of space I was able to photograph. I mention the “beauty” of the space, its warmth and “friendliness” of the space. I clearly respond positively to the colours and textures and size of the space.

To each of the art works I assigned a representational form: the “beard”, which was not a beard; the “mushroom”, which was not a mushroom, and the “motorbike”, which was shaped like a motorbike but which I doubt could be used for the purpose of transport. In particular, with each of the other works I assigned images to the works in line with my common understanding that this was indeed what they were supposed to represent: the aeroplane style works on the opposite wall; the “icing sugar” pucks of colour dotting the three canvases to my left. I tried to make sense of the incomplete images I saw. I used popular film and media to help describe some of the art works and space: the bike from “Indiana Jones” films; the BBC series.

I was aware of other things within the space that went unmentioned in the report: the doorways to rooms I did not enter; the huge skull paintings outside the space that were framed by the entryway. I chose to completely ignore the huge mirrored artwork on the far wall at the end of the corridor, and the long display case in the middle of the room. They can be seen in the photo with the smiley faces. I am not sure why I chose to ignore these works – perhaps because I was very tired and my brain hurt and I needed to not be sitting on the floor any more.

There is one artwork I began to analyse that troubled me: the “aeroplane” one. In the report I noted that the people in the photos appear to be of Middle Eastern appearance. At the time I began to make judgements about the interpretation of the work, but I did not note them down. My interpretation was this: I wondered if this “aeroplane” was a depiction of Middle Eastern terrorists. I wondered if the artist was making a statement about terrorism and notions of racial stereotyping – I could not see enough of the work inside the room to make sense of the imagery, but I wondered too if the picture I could see on the far wall was a representation of an idealized middle eastern life – one that perhaps might depict ideas of family and home. I refrained from making comment during the report because I did not want to jump to conclusions, although I hinted that the work affected me.

My seating choices were quite deliberate, and I chose to ignore much of the artwork prior to sitting. I wanted to sit in an area where I would not bother people, where I would not get underfoot. This initial seating choice also greatly limited my field of vision. Once I rose and moved about, the space opened up a whole new vista – I became momentarily overwhelmed by the spectacle, and at the same time refreshed. The new vantage point made me see all the works in a completely different way.

My report was shaped as a frame: first the space, then the art, then the people. I checked over the criteria a number of times to see if I was following the rules. This adherence to the rules meant that I spent too long on descriptions of the space, and perhaps not enough on the people and the interactions taking place between art and spectator. However, I note now that I became irritated by the people in the space – they interrupted my field of vision; they shuffled their feet and they were noisy. However, I did not make any comments about this in my report. My notes were congruent with running records, and were loosely “mapped” by the choice of observation: space, art, sounds, people.

Once I was done with my field work, I took the opportunity to closely examine each of the works, especially the “aeroplane” work. My initial analysis of this work was completely wrong – the imagery was of Indians and the artists used the plane image to show the notion of immigration as a way to a “better” life. I was struck by the incongruity of my analysis and the more benign and positive meaning the artists had assigned to their work. I was relieved that I had not mentioned my analysis in the observation, and I was pleased to be able to read the brief textual analysis that helped me learn more about the work.

Wolfinger writes: “At first glance, writing fieldnotes seems deceptively straightforward. Go to a research site, see what happens, then write it down. But this simple description raises a fundamental question: when typing up notes, exactly what does the researcher choose to annotate?” (Wolfinger, 2002, p. 85) When I was writing up my field notes, I chose to add most of them, and I originally included two images I created to show some of the dimensions of the space – one of which was a floor plan of the room, showing my positions using smiley faces. These were removed after problems with document formatting. I reworded a number of my notes, but in some cases it is clear that my shorthand descriptions have been altered only slightly. I changed and added a number of other sentences to help with comprehension of the artworks or descriptions. The word count of my final report was 1400 words, not including pictures, although it might have been easier to merely insert the pictures without including the written representation. I am challenged by my preoccupation with the space and artworks. My analysis of this might assert that I spend a lot of my spare time designing houses, or that I love visual art, or that I followed the instructions until I got tired, and gave up on the last instruction. All of these are my truths. The realization that I spent more time looking at the space and art speaks to me about my notions of objectivity – I just chose to ignore the people until I had exhausted the object description. My commentary about the people, at the end of the observation period, is pretty brief and mostly generalized description. Angrosino and Mays de Perez (2000) note that minutae description of everything is what Werner and Schoepfle called “descriptive observation” (Angrosino and Mays de Perez, 2000, p. 677). They state that “the ethnographer assumes a childlike attitude, assuming he or she knows nothing about what is going on and taking nothing for granted” (ibid). This can lead to “a morass of irrelevant minutae” (ibid), which was certainly the case in my observation.

Perhaps I ought to have heeded the words of Wolfinger who argues: “I contend that tacit knowledge is perhaps the most important consideration in determining how particular observations are deemed worthy of annotation.” (Wolfinger, 2002, p. 87) My detailed explanation of the space, assuming my reader would not necessarily understand the notion of “large gallery with works of art” led me to an uneven observation and a paucity of human interaction, which would have potentially been the more interesting data.

References

Angrosino, M., and Mays de Perez, K. 2000. Rethinking Observation – from method to context. In: Handbook of Qualitative Research, Eds. Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln, 2nd Edition. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, pp. 673 – 702.

Denzin, N. 2009. The elephant in the living room: or extending the conversation about the politics of evidence. Qualitative Research, 9(2): pp. 139 – 160, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks.

Wolfinger, N. 2002. On writing fieldnotes: collection strategies and background expectancies. Qualitative Research, 2(1): pp. 85 – 95, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks.

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