Monday, February 25, 2008


The Face2Face project is beautiful and yet utterly daring in its simplicity: to take photographic portraits of Palistinians and Israelis in similar professions and post them in large format, face to face, in prominent places around Isreal and the Palestinian areas.

The result: a touching and powerful public message - that people can find a middle ground for tolerance and respect in the human face.

Seemingly every day we are bombarded with images of the Middle East which suggest irreconcilable conflict, a stand-off between fixed positions. Perhaps art can pose the question: why can't people just get along?

So often pressed into service in shock news, propaganda and warfare itself, can photography also be an art of peace?

The Face2Face project, and the film based on it, show us how the resources for solving conflicts - or for living with them in more human ways - lie not so much in deep insights about the human condition, but in the muscles of our own faces.

I found this film liberating, not just because of its carnivalisation of conflicts in the Middle East - conflicts that so often appear as inscrutable as they are intransigent - but also the way it made me more aware of the flexibility of the human face, and the capacity of the face to inspire new thought. 

Although the photos were placed side by side, passers-by were frequently unable to tell the faces apart, unable to separate the Arab face from the Jewish face in the moment of confusion that the human face can bring us to. 

Our faces reveal individualities - regardless of race and culture - that can't be closed in by dogma, fear or suspicion. These photographs allow individuals to express themselves through their laughter, eyes and infinite facial expressions.

As one Arab participant in the project remarks, 'our smile is something that can't be stolen from our face'.

These passionate portraits - funny, grotesque, touching, playful, vulnerable, absurd - show how people on both sides can work wonders with their own faces, laugh at themselves, and do it side by side.

Miraculously left alone by the authorities for the duration of the project, these huge billboard-sized photographs transform the locations in which they are placed.

Though the project organisers try to place art outside politics, there is a subtle politics behind this project. Moreover, the French street artist JR can get away with things that no Israeli or Palestinian could ever get away with in the current political climate.

On the other hand, these images can change the way that conflicts are seen and experienced around the world.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Trajan Font

Somebody else has noticed the all-conquering Trajan Font on movie posters. Certain fonts get associated with particular effects - and then spread like wildfire.

See this great YouTube video from Kirby Ferguson:

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Writing Together

I have recently been running writing workshops for organisations in Warsaw and the Hague. One thing about these workshops keeps coming back to me - the importance of learning to write together.

Writing is traditionally seen as an isolated, individual activity. The advent of the computer and the laptop - and the rising prominence of the mobile phone as a writing tool - seems to strengthen this perception. We write alone, and then send to readers.

But is this actually how writing plays out in the workplace, where teamwork is so highly prized? Listening to people's stories about writing in the last few weeks, I get the impression that writing at work is less and less an individualised activity and more and more a team effort.

Collaborative writing - planning, drafting and revising texts with others - is becoming a major professional skill, and no more so than in international organisations where many people are writing in English as their second or even third language.

And even though people might continue to write text - emails, letters, reports - physically on their own, they are always socially networked through writing, responding to and using other texts, anticipating readers, consulting with colleagues. In some organisations this also means working with editors and revisers.

I notice it in job adverts. 'Ability to work in a team' is often closely related to 'ability to draft correspondence' or 'ability to write reports'. The notion of a skill ('writing') and a social competence ('communication') merges together.

I do, You do.....
In a recent workshop which involved the drafting of a proposal, I watched how people worked together to compose with colleagues. Much of the interaction involved the negotiation of phrases - trying out and evaluating possible approaches as well discussing the context, resolving differences about purposes and content, and pooling resources to divide up the task ('I'll do this bit, you do that bit'). I call all this the rehearsal of writing.

I also noticed a lot of shifting between languages. For example, two Spanish speakers might use Spanish to rehearse and draft a text in English.

I observed three main types of interaction in writing together.

1. Negotiation Through Talk
A and B talk constantly through the task and literally compose together - sharing ideas, testing out phrases, commenting and reviewing, reaching consensus or producing options for later decision. In some instances, both A and B write the text; in others, one person scribes as both talk.

2. Time Out, Time On
A and B discuss the brief together and work out a general strategy. They then compose the same piece of text separately for about five minutes (for example, the first paragraph) and then confer together on each other's versions. They then either choose one version, or combine the two together.

3. Division of Labour
A and B discuss the brief and work out a structure, for example the sections of a report. They talk to come to an agreement on the content and purposes of the text. They then allocate roles to each other. For example, A writes section 2 and B writes section 3 of a report. Then A and B together write an introduction and summary and edit the whole for coherence.

There must be many more variations.

Observing these interactions makes me think again about the phenomenon of 'writing' and where it's heading. I think about its increasing integration with other social activities, its many destinies blending skill and activity.

I think that writing together will be one of the key professional challenges of the future. Its one which our normal education, with its continuing emphasis on the testing and grading of individual performance, hardly prepares us for.

The picture above shows 18th Century senobi Confucian scholars writing together

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


I have always loved maps. If there is a map in a room I nearly always end up looking at it at some point, imagining places and wondering who lives there.

One of my favourite shops in London is Stanford's, the map shop in Covent Garden. My shower curtain is a map of the world. And I have a big collection of well used city maps.

Maps can sometimes be beautiful things.

But maps have started to intrigue - and bother - me more recently. With the advent of Google Earth and online maps which allow us to quickly search and find places all over the world, I feel that the whole notion of a map, and the mapping of space, is entering our lives much more intrusively than before, and changing them in new ways.

I don't know why I am bothered by something so eminently practical and useful. What's wrong with maps?

Is it the illusion of surveillance and control that maps give us, the feeling that everything can be made visible from above, something taken to extremes recently when Google started a project claiming to 'map' the atrocities in Darfur?

Or is it something more to do with the coolness of maps, the natural-seeming way they stand for the real world, say exactly what is 'there', and deny alternatives?

I am thinking here of a map I saw in a school in Amsterdam which shows the world upside down, drawn from a different perspective to the one made conventional by European navigation, Greenwich mean time and longitude and latitude.

The world suddenly looks strange upside down, challenging us to rethink our routine images of space and direction, our bearings in the world.

Of course, it's only 'upside down' from one point of view.

Maps and Language

I got another insight into this bothered feeling about maps recently when I was attending a wine reception at a French language school.
While enjoying the wine and cheese, my eye kept being drawn to the map of France on the classroom wall. All French classrooms seem to have the same map, divided into departements, sometimes with little inserts for far-flung Réunion, Guadeloupe and Martinique.

As I traced with my eyes that familiar, beautiful patchwork of colours that makes up the image of 'France', I realised what it might be: that the link between a language, such as French, and a map, such as a map of France, was not something I could easily make myself as a teacher of another language, English.

On my classroom wall I have a tiny map of Britain; but it is dwarfed by a much larger map of the world, which comes in handy all the time.

This is not because I see English as the language of the world, though it is a world language (so is French). It's because the coupling of 'English' and 'Britain' is something I can't make and has never come to mind. It makes no professional sense to associate English as a language with a map of Britain (or indeed any other English-speaking country). The language has, if you like, been cut off from territory.

The French map seems inextricably tied to the French language in a way that English can't be, at least in my view. That's why the map of France intrigues me. It shapes - maps - language in a different way.
Maps capture and hold in place a view of the world, a representation of space. It's hard to see how they could be different.
But aren't they also texts - visions of the world that could be changed?
On the politics of online maps see this article by David Reid at the BBC.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


We're surrounded by big corporate news agencies who tell us that they 'cover the world', but the events in Burma at the moment suggest otherwise.

Perhaps no country reminds us more than Burma that the 'global communications network' is a fiction of the rich and developed world.

Out of a population of almost fifty million, only 25,000 have access to an internet connection. Government control of servers means that flows of information can be regulated and download speeds monitored. Blogs are scrutinised and shut down, emails are read, web sites are checked, TV and radio are heavily censored by the state, phone lines are routinely cut and suspicious-looking cameras get confiscated.

Hardly any of the big news companies have reporters in Rangoon so they rely on people there to make the news for them and get it out through digital holes in the the nets of censorship.

'News' is made in makeshift ways, minus the journalist or reporter, who, far from the scene, becomes a distant collator of emails, text messages, blog entries and mobile phone footage sent by 'witnesses'.

In the absence of an authoritative 'story', news becomes a patchwork of citations and images.

Meanwhile, on You Tube videos from Burma sometimes appear independently, by-passing the news organisations who nevertheless cite them and re-use them.

Images like the one above - cinnamon-robed Buddhist monks protesting in a city where all gatherings of five or more people are banned - emerge by a perilous route.

Shot by someone on a mobile phone, sent from an internet cafe by email to a London-based blogger, and then uploaded to the internet - and all within a few hours - images like these give the world a glimpse of what is happening in one of the world's most closed countries. They become the story.

Even more risky and evocative, a single grainy mobile phone image of Aung San Suu Kyi praying at the gate of her compound, where she is effectively a prisoner, ringed by riot police.

It's fashionable to say that we live in the age of fast communications and that we are all networked. But the events in Burma remind us how patchy and precarious that network really is, and how some acts of communication - taking a photograph, sending a message, saying something aloud - are first and foremost acts of courage.
As of today Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained for a total of 11 years and 338 days.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Writing Inside the Box

I am not surprised that online marking of examination scripts is causing controversy.

More and more public attention is being given to qualifications at the moment, and there is a drive for them to be more transparent. Not surprising in a world where educational success is so competitive.

But as a result of this attention, the means by which testing and examination are carried out fall under scrutiny. And that means, usually, a focus on 'writing' - a slippery medium asked to do precise work.

Writing Against the Clock

When I was at school I got better at exams after a teacher showed me an extract from an examiners' report which gave some tips on how to 'read' the exam paper and allocate time in advance of writing.

In my experience, successful exam writing depends a lot on time. Preparing for an exam is largely about training writing behaviours to manage time in discrete segments and to resist the urge to enter a discussion. There is not much call for elaboration or questioning, which take time. So a certain open-ended style of writing - and thinking - has to be suppressed.

But the advent of online marking adds a new twist to this. Now managing space is also an issue.

As those who oppose online marking suggest, people who write quickly, or who entertain too many sides of an argument, or who write too much, overspill the 'box' available for the 'answer' and may lose marks, diminishing their so-called 'marking potential'. This is because the exam sheets are scanned, and only what's in the box gets assessed (some exam boards do allow extra sheets to be used, but I wonder for how long).

So the new technology ushers in a certain approved image of the writer in the exam, one who manages time and space in a certain way, and keeps to the box.

Writing and Technology (again)

Writing practices are always shaped partly by the technologies that make them possible, even though written language has an uncanny ability to step outside history and appear transparent, perhaps more so when it is most effective. Isn't it after all through writing that examinations gain part of their aura of being neutral and objective?

When the use of technology changes - as with online marking - this shaping effect becomes more apparent and visible before it becomes new routine. Genres change, or even disappear. So, for example, online marking gives little room for examiners to give annotated feedback on a script. It has to be numbers or nothing. The marginal comment or question disappears.

I recently saw a UK A-level English Literature student script written in a mock exam and marked by the teacher. It was covered in letter and number codes (A3, B4, C6 etc) that referred to the marking criteria, but there was no written feedback at all. I wonder how written comments could reappear in the world of online marking.

So the writing practices of examination are shaped not only by technology, but by the surrounding inter-texts, in this case official lists of marking criteria and codes for assessing writing.

The Jekyll and Hyde of Teaching Writing

I prepare students for quite a few high-stakes exams. They have to not only write a lot but manage time so that all questions are covered. It's about speed, but also the segmentation of time.

The writer has to anticipate the kind of writing markers are looking for, which is not writing as communication but writing as evidence, as measured display.

A lot of the skill comes down to knowing how much to write for a particular question, and when to stop. When to give detail, and when to avoid giving detail. It is about knowing tacitly what is required and using language explicitly to show it.

The writer has to acknowledge a phantom audience but not engage it, and expect only one kind of response in a ritual of display and (dis)approval.

In order to do the job of preparing students well, I have found myself accepting this ritual and trying to simplify the ground rules. My teaching at certain times of the year revolves around the training of exam writing behaviours.

In order to conjure the phantom audience of the exam, and to dispel the myth that doing well in exams is purely about knowing the right things, I find myself increasingly using the official inter-texts - mark schemes, examiners' reports, exemplar scripts - with students in the classroom. These rather boring documents give vital clues as to how successful exam candidates should write, even though they are not always aimed at students.

Consequently, for my students preparing to write in exams becomes manifestly inter-textual.

Rather than being the end product of learning, 'exam writing' becomes a discrete sub-skill of 'writing' itself. Anticipating 'the answer' - and accepting the non-communication ritual of the exam - becomes a strategy for success. It's a kind of anti-learning; but also useful and ultimately rewarded.

It is about learning to write - and think - inside the box.

I find it weird and naggingly paradoxical, though. As real writing online becomes more interactive and collaborative and social, often associated with creativity and thinking outside the box, examined writing goes the opposite way - more closed, ritualised, atomistic.

It is like two views of 'writing' that can't be reconciled, except through the sleepwalking effect of routine.

Teaching writing today means having to wear two faces and go between them. It's a Jekyll and Hyde profession.

Friday, September 14, 2007


At a conference in New York in March I attended a session on the subject of 'remix': the re-use of pre-existing textual material - writing, image, sound - in the making of new texts.

The presenters - Shaun Slattery, Jason Swarts and Chris Berg - argued that the conditions of composing in the digital world have changed so much that we need to think again about what the word 'writing' means, or can mean, today.

In a study of workplace writing the presenters found that people often have upwards of 20 'windows' open as they write at the computer. They constantly shift between locations, moving and manipulating bits of text between them.

Rarely did people in their study focus on only one 'text'. Their gaze was nearly always inter-textual.

Come to think of it, even as I write this blog entry I have a number of other windows open on my computer, and they are all contributing in some way to the writing environment I am currently in. I won't say 'context'. Instead, there are a number of contexts overlapping, merging with each other, establishing boundaries one minute and losing them the next.

So this new world of writing is not just about cross-reference or quotation or even borrowing, but remix: appropriating, combining, drawing together text chunks from different sites into one new 'text', which itself then becomes open to remixing. The writer becomes remixer.

We can see connections between language and music, art and film, where remixing is perhaps more obvious. And on the internet, companies like Yahoo are using the metaphor of remix (and variations on it such as 'mash-up') to promote the idea of user-controlled content in the web 2.0 environment.

So: 'Writing'. Don't we need a new word now?

I am interested in the practices of remix, but also why and how remix is possible, the quality of looseness and openness that makes 'text' remixable in the first place. What we might call the 'invitation' of text.

The internet, with its many languages and its pace of interaction, seems to hold out this invitation to participate as part of its structure and texture.

It's only when you stop thinking about authors and readers and give texts 'a life of their own' that you start seeing this dynamic phenomenon at work. Text can be moved around and is not just 'there', it's never static.

Perhaps it is contained in the etymological life of the word 'text', which recalls the Latin verb texere, to weave. We are so used to referring to 'the text' or 'a text' as an object or an entity, with boundaries and authors and attributions. But maybe 'text' is also a material, a fabric, a weave, and without borders.


A short vignette about remix:

The Migrations of an Octopus

A few years ago my daughter, then aged 8, started a blog for her drawings. One day she posted a picture of an octopus. At that time we presumed her blog had a handful of readers, all family members.

However, within a few hours of the octopus making its debut on the internet she received a message from someone who had found the drawing and used it on his blog. The message was a request for permission to use the octopus to illustrate a critique of the entertainment giant SONY.

You can compare the two contexts - the original on laraspace and the remix at David Wilson's blog (scroll down to entry for November 6 2005).

What I find interesting here is that a drawing in the context of a child's blog is re-used on the other side of the world in the context of a campaigning political blog. The 'text' remains the same, but the 'sign' which it performs changes.

Or is it the other way around? The 'sign' remains the same, but the 'text' changes?

The octopus drawing, as soon as it appears, becomes a remixable text/sign, in this case acknowledged graciously by the remixer.

And all this happens in a matter of hours.

Thanks to Lara for letting me use - I should say remix - her painting of an octopus on this blog.