Cultural probes and the power of creativity

David Gauntlett wrote about the social meaning of creativity in ‘Making is Connecting’. He explained how the Victorian Ruskin and Morris defined creativity “as a part of everyday life, and as a binding force in ‘fellowship’, which today we would call community” (Gauntlett, 2011). This binding force of the creative act itself seems to be just as adhesive as the dynamic agglutination Bourriaud described towards relational art. Gauntlett also connects his enthusiasm for DIY to political philosophies for a future world where all crafts and crafting is shared (Gauntlett, 2011). Although it is absolutely not my intention to ridicule his good intentions I am too skeptical or perhaps too cynical to believe that creativity alone can actually save the world. I believe though, that the glue for stronger connections lies indeed in the act of making things together. Creativity can be just as expressive as language but acts less intellectual. In by-passing intellectuality lies a clue to fellowship, as is also proofed in sports and gaming.

Creativity can encourage subjective and imaginative engagement. In order to evoke emphatic instead of intellectual responses from participants, Bill Gaver, Tony Dunne and Elena Pacenti developed cultural probes, packages of creative tasks to collect fragmentary data just like astronomic or surgical probes do (Gaver, Dunne & Pacenti, 1999). These designers struggled with similar kinds of distance between them and the community they work with as described above, which they hoped to overcome with uncertainty, play, exploration and subjective interpretation. The probes were made to give them a feel for the people they designed for and to prevent them from believing that they could look into these people’s heads (Gaver, Boucher, Pennington & Walker, 2004). The creative tasks, deliberately requesting open-ended or even absurd responses, produced dialectics between the participants and the designers:

“On the one hand, the returns are inescapably the products of people different from us, constantly confronting us with other physical, conceptual, and emotional realities. On the other hand, the returns are layered with influence, ambiguity and indirection, demanding that we see the volunteers through ourselves to make any sense.” (Gaver, Boucher, Pennington & Walker, 2004)

The probes create a bond between the ‘us’ of the designers and the ‘them’ of the people they designed for. Making the probes gave “a deep sense of familiarity and engagement with the people,” explain the designers; “They create relationships with our volunteers that are a little like designing for friends” (Gaver, Boucher, Pennington & Walker, 2004).

During an artist in residence program in Kilpisjärvi in the north of Finland, I made several cultural probes packages for the FOOD RELATED project. Ten explorative tasks asked creatively about emotions, expressions and experiences of Arctic food and food culture. People in the Tromsø area in Norway have worked with them at home and during a workshop. Such creative packages are usually designed for individual use only, and need to be designed differently for collaborate use to stimulate the temporary feeling of togetherness. Yet, using and discussing the probes during a workshop gave me an important insight: attractive and conscientiously prepared elements can drastically enlarge the involvement and enthusiasm of the participants. The time and effort spent on the probes ensured them that I really cared about their experiences and their responses, while the artistry stimulated their own creativity. Whether it are probes, creative questionnaires, expressive tasks, performable actions, ludic happening or any other kind of shared activity to make or do creatively, the quality and care put into the design of these participative practices is directly linked to its appreciation.