UWS Archive: Plate, Play (Sight Unseen)

Year:     1995
Level:     First Year, Autumn Semester 1
Unit:     33064 Foundation Studies 3 (Media Studies) Interdisciplinary  Workshop
Duration:     3 days
Dates:     May 17, 24, 31


Joan Grounds, head of Interdisciplinary Studies at the time invited me to offer a 3 day workshop to a group of 27 first year students. A variant of the Plate, Potato series was devised.


The objective of the first exercise was given as: 1) To enrich the sense of an object. 2) To sharpen responsiveness to things (noticing). 3) To exercise short term memory and raise awareness of the value to experience of memory. 4) Clarification as to particulars. In summary it addressed the crucial role that acts-of-memorising play in the recovery of experience, suggesting that the close scrutiny of ‘noticing’ and ‘becoming aware of’ something’ involves an encoding of sensation as a ‘scripting’ of experience that language structures as ‘de-script-ion’.

The second exercise engaged with the nexus between a sense of playfulness and the enactment of a play. Again there was a concern with investing apparently mundane and nondescript objects with values that altered their status or reception. This required capacities of empathy that individuated objects as ‘beings’. The imaginary realm of early childhood is reconnected with, where the separation between inanimate and animate is yet to occur and fluid exchanges flow between the two.

The third exercise further explored the disparity between throwaway, worthless things and the apparent worthiness of the individual, investing the worthless with worth (becoming being).

Exercise 1

Participants were required to bring in 7 items: a plate, a potato, a glass, a mug, a teaspoon, a book, and a tea towel. The group was divided in two, each group occupying a different space in the studio. A circle of tables was arranged in each space and each group was asked to set out their set of items as a discrete collection upon the tables, each set being covered by its towel. Leaving the sets in situ the two groups then swapped spaces and were assigned somebody else’s set. They were then required to engage with their inherited set sight unseen, recording a descriptive index for each item in the absence of any visual clues, such that if they were to attend a ‘lost property’ office in the hope of recovering their lost items they could give sufficiently detailed verbal description to unambiguously identify them. The onus therefore was on tactility and to a lesser extent a sense of taste and smell. The language of touch needed to be ‘amplified’ and any analogical reference to anchor the sensation to mnemonically, as a recognition pattern. The distinguishing odour/aroma also sought out a language of equivalency and the subtle differentials of taste where the ‘metallic’ of a teaspoon proved unhelpful in the absence of qualifiers (with a hint of coffee). All items remained covered under the towel in the initial phase to heighten tactile sensibilities.

Participants were then placed in the predicament of being solely reliant upon the information that each descriptive index provided for the recovery of their inherited (and as such unfamiliar set). All sets were then ‘scrambled’ and all items had to then be tracked down based exclusively on the non-visual descriptions provided.

Exercise 2

Participants returned with the same set of items. Each was directed to Page 91 of their book and asked to select a paragraph from that page. This gave each a ‘chance’ text that then they were directed to work with as a ‘script’ (for a play). They were required to cast their 7 items as 7 ‘characters’ (each with a defined role) that then could collectively rehearse with a view to ultimately enacting or staging the ‘script’. The 27 participants, following a period set aside for rehearsal, then staged their ‘tableau’ and a play was ‘played out’ sequentially comprising the 27 ‘scenes’. With such limited resources the credulity of what was possible was tested out. Crucially the capacity to resourcefully improvise, maximising the characteristics and connotations of each item in the ensemble, for example: the spectrum of cold to hot (with all their associative potential) could be one such characteristic exploited: enamel metal plate (cold to the touch) – tea towel (warm), or soft/hard, or quiet/loud, or heavy/light etc. each item relative to the other gaining ‘personality’.

Exercise 3

Commenced with the acquisition of six items, that come ready to hand from the studio environment and adjoining grounds. A mix of natural and manufactured items were required (eg: leaf, twig, stone, apple, pencil, coin, ticket, drawing pin etc.). Participants were then required to see each object as a person and begin to speculate on the personality of each in turn. Using the Ping – Pong principle as explored by Gombrich (where instinctively we are able to categorise things within binary alternatives, even when the binary is nonsensical: in this instance the sound differential ing/ong  is sufficient criteria for allocation.) Pairings such as happy/sad, noisy/quiet, young/old, smoker/non smoker, monarchist/republican etc could be applied to each object in turn to construct a ‘personal’ profile. A key either/or concerned gender (French language being gendered: all things assume masculinity or femininity in the act of naming). In ‘questioning’ each item in these terms quickly accrued personal traits.

Following a period of ‘imbuing’ in this way, stones or rocks were singled out from each person’s collection (as one of the most common items). A ‘matrimonial agency’ was then instituted where disclosures about each individual stone/rock were advertised with a view to finding good match-ups (playing on the TV show of the time ‘Perfect Match’). The ludicrous nature of this task, caused the exercise to ‘fall-apart’ into absurdity.

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