Always remember the wet wipes!

Katja Frimberger reports back from the first European Researchers’ Science Night on Friday 26 September.

Waves of children ecstatically rolling in paint. Little hands, feet and faces wearing satisfied grins and multicoloured paints.  “They’re water-dissolvent,” (the paints not the grins) I reassure every parent with panic in my eyes.  I still break out in a sweat when I think about Friday night.  I dream about Dettol wet-wipes and neon-coloured footprints leading off into an abyss as Happy Birthday to You gently plays in the background.

The Explorathon preparations started out very civilised.  We envisioned a public engagement activity to showcase our Researching Multilingually project as part of the Scotland-wide European Researchers event last Friday – “an extravaganza of discovery, entertainment and wonder,” (from the Explorathon website).

We planned an interactive Graffiti Wall as a starting point for conversations about the project.  We invited adults to explore personal values and outlooks on life through a psychology exercise called ‘The 70th Birthday party‘.  We asked people to travel in time, imagine their 70th Birthday party and the guests they might invite to such an occasion.  By thinking about the speeches invitees might give about them, people were to reflect on the values and life choices that were important to them.

70th Birthday partyInstructional drawings illustrating the exercise were printed on laminated card and hung about the exhibit.  A video version of the exercise with sound effects played on loop on a screen.

People were encouraged to share their thoughts in any language they wished and use the paints, pens and brushes provided to paint and write what came to their minds.

The 70th birthday party was a starting point for reflections about how people’s “private sources of confidence” (Appadurai 2000, 11) – their values and ideas about their life, languages and futures might find a place in a research project like ours.  I was keen to discuss the possibilities of creative methods used to facilitate research conversations ‘on borders’ and without words, and ponder about the values of delaying linguistic clarification when people write in languages the researcher isn’t instantly able to decode.  I pictured sophisticated musings, on-the-spot philosophical debate and well-thought-out reflective sentences adorning our stand in a multicoloured wall of wisdom.

Instead, the creative display did its own work.  Ten meters of snow-white paper on the largest exhibit of the night, waiting to be baptised in liquid paint.  It was neither the laminated cards nor the video loop that drew our unexpected audience; none were of reading age and they didn’t have the attention span to watch our recorded exercise.  Two sisters of three and five years old observed one of our number as they covered the wooden heads of our display in paper and drew faces.  They were the first.  Their eyes lit up.

10926 Explorathon headsI could read their minds: this was the biggest colouring book ever seen on planet Earth.  It had to be done!  The pages had to be coloured with all available materials in all the colours under the sun.  These heads needed neon pink hair – LOGICAL!  No questions asked.

The sisters’ brushstrokes started a domino effect – waves of children happily covered every inch of the display in dripping wet handprints of red and blue, bathing in finger paint, teenagers writing list of names of those BFFS they would (naturally) invite to their party, 70th birthday or any other for that matter.  Between the happy grunts coming from the display and cleaning paint off endless pairs of little hands, I had short conversations with parents about the birthday exercise and our project.  Some were raising their children bilingually and shared the joys and pains of ‘sticking to multilingualism’; others admitted that they found it scary to think about their seventieth.  I found a sentence from a parent in small handwriting next to an enormous blob of colour and a cartoon animal face.  It said:

“Now scary thoughts! I hope people say that I made their lives happier, brighter and better“.

The two sisters at work

The two sisters at work

Admittedly, it isn’t any of these adult conversations that I remember now.  I remember decorating the display with Yana who developed some sophisticated technique of neatly covering the exhibit with 10 meters of paper without a crease.  I remember strategically hanging the pink birthday banner to cover the line between paper heads and graffiti wall.  I remember us keeping the colour craze in check armed with Dettol wipes and dipping our fingers in paint now and then, when nobody was looking, to leave our own marks on the wall.

Our public engagement activity wasn’t the quiet wall of wisdom I had expected, it was a rambunctious fest of colour and self-expression.  It didn’t need our carefully worded instructions and sophisticated verbal responses, the creative methods did their work.

The graffiti wall provoked an array of non-verbal, embodied performances and expressions: the group dynamics of competitive brush-swinging;  intense, individual, colouring-in creative focus;  spontaneous blob-creating teamwork;  giggles and arguments about who owns the creative space and a range of self-expression-data that evades any linguistic, intellectual analysis but smells of paint and Dettol and makes me try hard to remember the last time I threw finger paint around the place and squealed with joy about it.

10926 Explorathon Kids at work

Appadurai, A. (2000). Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination. In: Public Culture Volume 12, Number 1, Winter 2000, pp. 1-19.

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