Things We Did in the Summer Part III

Higher Ground: Reflections on the AHRC Common Ground Event 
‘People, keep on learnin’, sang Stevie Wonder on his 1973 single ‘Higher Ground’ – a song that deals with themes of reincarnation and spirituality. As the opening line of the song, the words have a special relevance: they encapsulate the idea that it is through learning that we can reach the ‘higher ground’, the metaphoric space where we can become enlightened individuals, at one with both ourselves and the universe. ‘I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then / Gonna keep on tryin’ / Till I reach my highest ground’, the first chorus concludes before, pertinently enough, going into a verse that begins with the line ‘teachers, keep on teachin’.

The inaugural AHRC Common Ground event, hosted by the University of York, was a celebration of working together, sharing knowledge and learning – an intellectual ‘higher ground’. Divided into thirteen themed ‘zones’ at the University’s Ron Cooke Hub (a beautiful building overlooking a lake), the aim of the day was to ‘add ever more value to the world in which we live’. Participants were drawn from a wide range of sectors including Universities, Independent Research Organisations and charities, including the Glasgow-based MAKlab, who were part of the ‘Innovate’ zone. MAKlab gives people ‘access to the latest disruptive technologies’ and is concerned with how making things can change lives and can make us more human, more spiritual. As the blurb on their website states:

Physical making is not only a way to develop our technical skills, but can also be a powerful tool to develop soft skills, strengthen interpersonal relationships, improve problem solving and promote play in a positive manner.

By creating real, tactile and tangible outputs that can be picked up and passed around we can also explore cultural and social issues as well as the more obvious making skills.

The physical making process can reward some of our primitive emotions that make us human. We believe that by supporting, building and promoting these skills, we can impact on wider aspects of society, improve wellbeing and generate social capital.

As humans we learn through making: it allows us to reach our higher ground, to reach a heightened state of awareness about our humanity and the world around us. By combining the digital with 3D and laser printing, MAKlab reduce the distance between the ‘real’ physical world and the ephemeral, cold and distant (as it is often wrongly characterised) of the digital. And what could be a more potent symbol of humanity’s relationship with the digital at our current historical moment than a 3D printed skull? Just as the image of Hamlet holding up ‘poor Yorick’ has come to symbolise humanity’s mortality and the individual’s own death, this skull, far more than Damian Hirst’s superficial ‘For the Love of God’, for example, is a powerful reminder of our current digital condition. We exist, as humans, in the physical and the digital.

‘Alas Poor Yorick, he was designed by a 3D printer’

My experience with MAKlab wasn’t all just big philosophies about mortality, however. They also made me a badge: ‘Mikey: Free For All’, with a lightbulb on it to represent thought and ideas. Of course, light, has often been used as symbol of knowledge and spirituality, indeed, enlightenment itself, certainly in Western Culture for centuries.‘I was blind, but now I see’, from the Gospel of John, has come to mean any kind of spiritual awakening (not just Christian). Light as a metaphor for knowledge and understanding, then, is a powerful one. ‘Higher Ground’ is taken from the album Innervisions and the album’s artwork is a painting of the blind Stevie Wonder staring out at what is, presumably, an American landscape with that landscape depicted as being directly fed into his eyes.

It’s me.

Wonder may be blind, but he can still see the tumultuous American culture of the early 1970s, the painting is saying. Seeing is not confined to the physical, but also the mental. On Innervisions, Wonder combined the electronic (synthesizers), with the analogue (guitars) and created a musical soundscape that is as unique and as a fresh sounding today as it was forty years ago.The album is the sound of a young man experimenting and excited by the possibility of a new form of musical communication brought about through the synthesis of electronic and analogue instruments, bringing about the spiritual renewal that Wonder sings about in ‘Higher Ground’.

Stevie Wonder, Innervisions, 1973

The questions for us today in the humanities, and they are questions that the Common Ground event explored, but did not answer, are: how can we successfully synthesize the digital and the analogue in our teaching and our learning? Can the humanities become spiritually renewed? Is this even a desirable thing to be wished for? The Common Ground event was a reminder that we should never lose sight of the wider cultural and often tumultuous political landscape in which we work. Through openness, sharing, collaboration and generosity we can make work that extends beyond the university and change lives.

Is such a situation possible?

Perhaps it won’t be too long till we find out.

Michael Goodman

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