XXVI.6 November - December 2019
Page: 80
Digital Citation

The art of fieldworking together

Laura Cortés-Rico, Tania Pérez-Bustos

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Research projects involving multiple disciplines, ways of knowing, and crafts are well valued by the academic community, especially in the domains of design as inquiry and design research. These projects are also complex entanglements, especially in the day-to-day crafting of the collaborative work and relationships that constitute them; and they are key to the enrichment of creative practices as ways of inquiry. A particular issue that we find central to this manifold of creative relations is the getting together in the doing of fieldwork. We understand fieldworking here as a practice that nourishes design processes in the sense that it sustains and is sustained by careful material dialogues that contribute to the encounter and the mutual acknowledgement of people with different backgrounds. In this article, we present our encounter story in different sociotechnical projects and how those encounters were shaped by this process of fieldworking together. We are an anthropologist (Tania Pérez-Bustos) and an electronics engineer (Laura Cortés-Rico) who have collaborated since 2014. We have researched together in four different projects up to this point. The focus of this piece is the two projects in which we have done fieldwork directly.

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The first project, Embroidering Self-Knowledge (ESK) [1], was oriented to systematize experiences around the participatory design of a technological platform inspired by a special kind of embroidery, calado, made in Cartago, Colombia. With this project, we aimed to mediate dialogue between fashion designers and embroiderers. During the development of ESK, it became necessary to propose a way to computationally represent calado stitches, taking care not to automate the artisanal practice; for this, it was necessary for Laura to do fieldwork (Figure 1). This was the first time that she did fieldwork with a social focus. For Laura, as an engineer, up until then fieldwork had meant "only" collecting data to analyze in the laboratory, so she initially wondered why she had to be there—couldn't the anthropologists shoot video of the stitches, which the engineers could then use to come up with a computational representation? Also controversial for Laura: Tania proposed that not only would workshops be held in Cartago, but also that the academic team should live in the embroiderers' spaces, sharing their routines, during the fieldwork.

ins02.gif Figure 1. Initial prototypes of the computational representation of calado stitches. The phone is on top of a fabric that is being used to learn the embroidery; the hands of one of the caladoras can be seen in the lower left corner.

On the one hand, it was through our engagement in the daily routines of the embroiderers that we were able to realize that automation was a problem. Living with the women made it clear to us that handmade embroidery was their livelihood, and that automation could put those ways of living at risk. On the other hand, this immersion in their daily lives was also an opportunity to involve ourselves in the routines of the craft making, which led us to a material dialogue, each of us, academics and embroiderers, becoming involved in the knowledge domain of the other. It was through this involvement in the making of the embroidery that we were able to learn that stitches cannot be verbalized, and that watching a video is not enough to understand them. Only through doing it with her own hands, guided by the hands of the expert embroiderers, was it possible for the engineer (Laura) to partially understand the way that stitches are made. Also, she realized that it is not possible to propose a computational representation of a stitch as an isolated entity, but rather that a stitch is actually a gesture, a process that involves emotions, acts of caring, and knowledge built throughout generations.

This way of fieldworking interfered with Laura's way of engineering in at least two ways. First, in ESK it became clear that the developed technology, as a resulting artifact, was not going to be used in the daily work of the embroiderers or fashion designers in the long term. At the time, Laura saw this insight as a failure of traditional engineering. However, after a while, working together with Tania, she realized that it was, in fact, a success: The contribution was in the mutual coexistence that enabled engineers to be more reflective about the complexity of the knowledge in the hands of the embroiderers. This coexistence also revealed to the caladoras that digital technologies could be connected with their know-how in ways different from automation and industrialized embroidery—for example, through social networks to enhance their embroidery patterns or conductive threads used to craft circuits. Second, it allowed Laura to understand fieldwork as much more than collecting data. Instead, she understood it as personal relationships; as continuous interactions between people and between people and materialities; as affectivities; as a space-time where the bodies, as means of presence, are fundamental to explore, learn, dialogue, and recognize herself and/in others.

A stitch is actually a gesture, a process that involves emotions, acts of caring, and knowledge.

The second project was called Travelling Sewing Box (TSB) [2]. It consisted of designing a pedagogic and museographic artifact that invited people to reflect upon the question of why one might embroider memories of war, and to do so while embroidering. This artifact contained textile materials as well as a tablet for communities of victims who document war events in textile formats. We aimed to document in a digital format who the community members were, what type of textile narratives they created, and where their collective was located geographically. This was important because communities who are engaged in this crafting of memories of war and peace are usually not connected to each other, which diminished the political power of their anti-war/peace claims. Many of these elderly women were not active users of smartphones or tablets, so the exercise of designing the software also implied an opportunity to generate awareness about these technologies and to initiate a process of digital literacy for them (Figure 2). For this fieldwork, the team thought it was important that Laura meet the women of the Sewing Circle of Sonsón [3], where she learned the type of documentation that they used. That contributed to our thinking about how this documentation could be organized and registered in digital formats using categories familiar to the women, as well as audio and visual recordings of their daily lives.

ins03.gif Figure 2. Laura exploring with Alicia and Blanca, two women of the collective in Sonsón, how a tablet could be used to document their craft.

In this project, the functional requirements of the software were clear. So after the fieldwork in Sonsón, Laura needed to continue the process of designing the virtual component of the TSB at her desktop. There Laura started to program the mobile application and to imagine how it could be presented to the public with the help of a graphic designer. This was the first time that Tania had the chance to follow Laura in the design of a functional software product; in ESK the process was oriented more toward prototyping and exploring with different materialities than coming up with a functional device. This opportunity allowed Tania to realize how multidirectional and unpredictable the design of software could be. She found herself amazed by the complexity of the speculation that was also part of the programming process. Laura had specified the requirements in the fieldwork with the women, but, in using them in the shaping of a representative software, she had to play around with types of logic that did not always work programmatically. This dysfunction made the software never seem ready; something always needed to be fixed or rearranged.

For Tania, doing fieldwork here became a way of being together—not just with Laura, but also with the women of the collective of Sonsón at Laura's desk. This was a way of thinking with them and their ways of documenting their textile craft in digital terms. We rearranged the concept behind the databases and the software programming many times so the women could understand it—but we could also understand, through this process, how they perceived the documentation itself. In accompanying Laura's design craft, Tania could see that programming was never far away from the fieldwork in Sonsón, that these two locations and ways of understanding and being with the textile materials and the stories they tell were profoundly interdependent.

These two multidisciplinary encounters raised questions around our way of doing fieldwork. For Laura, from the first collective project with Tania, fieldwork was an opportunity to initiate relationships with the people who participate in the design process and to understand that the artifacts resulting from engineering represent those involved and their relationships beyond their data. Also, the way we worked revealed that what happens during fieldwork is a result in itself. For Tania, it was controversial that even when participation implies a deep involvement from all the participants, fieldwork also requires personal work in the laboratory or at one's desk, work that is always interdependent and that is connected to what happens with the communities. Maintaining this connection is a labor of care. Therefore, the translations and interpretations that shape technological design can contribute to creating powerful software and hardware. In this sense, engineering-anthropology translations have the potential to strengthen the careful knowledge that shapes what textile craft communities are and do. This possibility, however, is always a work in progress. It requires a continuous dialogue with communities, as well as an acknowledgment that the technological devices (soft or hard) are always speculative, multidirectional, and imprecise. For us, as for designers, fieldworking together is then a commitment to the recognition of these complexities and a way to open traditional containers in design fields, such as requirements gathering. From our experience, being in the field and involving ourselves with communities is a relevant way to design interactions, and more broadly, to design interactions as a way of understanding the world in which we live.

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1. For more information see

2. For more information see

3. This was the collective with which the co-design process took place.

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Laura Cortés-Rico is an assistant professor in multimedia engineering at Universidad Militar Nueva Granada. Her research area is human-computer interaction, in particular, the design of plural technologies that include material and digital components. Recently, she has been working with the interweaving of textile and digital technologies. [email protected]

Tania Pérez-Bustos is an associate professor in the School of Gender Studies at Universidad Nacional de Colombia. She works on knowledge dialogues and knowledge-making practices that interrelate technoscientific knowledge with popular knowledge. Her current research examines handmade-textile processes as technologies of knowing and caring. [email protected]

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