Prof Rachel Thomson
You notice things at festivals, at the meeting point of genres and cultural forms: music, comedy, literature, performance. One of the things I noticed this summer was how participation seems to be infusing them all. In the theatre they talk about the 4th wall, the ‘make believe’ suspension of reality that enables us to unleash our imaginations without fear of ridicule or danger. The 4th wall exists in music too. Salt-N-Pepa’s 1991 single “Let’s Talk About Sex” says “I don’t think this song’s going to be played on the radio”. John Cage’s 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence demands we face the collaborative artifice of performance. A popular practice is to experiment along the boundaries of constructed-ness: fact, fiction, real time and the imaginative time travel. In the fabulous 12-year in-gestation ‘Boyhood’, Richard Linklater mixes up the meanings of family, friends and actors revealing the compelling and forward facing time frame within which we all exist and age, and within which culture gains audience and meaning. A space within which we build culture and community through call and response.
I am writing this on the train to London as I go to interview Lucien, whose life I have been documenting since before he was born. One of my aims today is to talk to him about what being involved in this study means, ensuring that his ‘consent’ is meaningful. His mum and I share cultural references. When I explained the nature of a longitudinal study I used the ‘7 up’ metaphor, the now-classic ongoing documentary series that seems to have become the key text of reflexive modernity: providing a vocabulary for understanding reality tv (the politics of editing), the emotional economies of public exposure (the more powerful withdrew) and the peculiar moral register of the real time voyeurism (we are implicated for good or bad). So when I asked Monica, 8-months pregnant, if she wanted to be in a longitudinal study she had this as a reference point. For Lucien things are different, especially in the early stages, but as a culture-savvy-in-no-hurry kid, he can place this experience alongside others – the homework projects that require a life story, YouTube stars who document their lives online, or just the long running tv shows like Dr Who and Top Gear where we see characters age and where real life scandal get folded into the cultural product.
But this is research…. I was tempted to write ‘research rather than entertainment’. I could also say ‘rather than documentary’ or more pertinently for Lucien ‘rather than play’, but I am not sure that research should be set up in this way. Research is defined by the presence of research questions and an interest in methodology – a plan for HOW to generate answers to these questions. But research is still part of life. It has its own fourth wall. What we are doing is ‘for research’ so, for example, we will call our interaction an ‘interview’, and this means that we do not have to follow the usual unwritten rules of conversation. Or we will call this an ‘observation’ and this means that I have license to spend the day with you, acting as a shadow, giving myself over to noticing the sounds, smells and sensations of your life.
Research ethics – as conceived through the adult subject – presume a tacit agreement to the terms of this game and the validity of the 4th wall. It is this that we ask our ‘subjects’ (the old language) or ‘participants’ (the new language) to consent to. I sign on this line to agree to take part in a conversation that is of a different order of things than usual life. This means that the researcher may have more power than is usual and I need to trust them not to hurt me or to use the knowledge that we together create as a result of our experiment in a way that might be disrespectful or damaging to me or, for that matter, others. With children who are used to slipping in and out of play mode, this ‘contract’ becomes rather ridiculous. In a healthy way it pushes us towards a different kind of gambit along the lines of ‘I am an adult who would really like to play with you. The reason for this is that I recognise that playing is a really good way of creating knowledge and understanding. Mostly you play with other kids, but also with adults, maybe parents and teachers. What is different with this is that I am going to make documents of our play together and these will be public. Which means that other people can see them. But also you can go back to them over time and they, unlike you, will not change. This might be odd. We’d like you to say yes to doing this. But given that neither of us really know what will happen in the future we are willing to negotiate over the documents. This means you can change your mind and that the records belong to both of us.’
Working with children, as actors know, has a special quality. Perhaps because the 4th wall is something that we have to be socialised into and which symbolically marks the end of an enchanted period of childhood in which the imagination is allowed full rein. The 4th wall is also a historically located phenomena – a product of a particular form of technology and associated literacies. Digital technologies change the game and new generations are taking new things for granted. Of course this poses challenges for research which relies on an analogue-ethics concerned with risk avoidance rather than participation. Working with ideas such as call and response and the power dynamics of the porous 4th wall may help us play.
Liam Berriman December 4th, 2014
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