Messing it up

I’d like to think I’m a habitually tidy person. Clothes are put away, dishes are washed and before moving on to the next thing, the last thing is returned to a state of ‘clean slate’. Sometimes I’ve been known to go too far with this – in a fit of ‘must have a clutter free house’ the remote control for the TV has been known to surface in the fridge.

Anyhow, my point is, despite occasionally finding unusual hiding places for Things That Have Been Left Out, I’m generally neat and ordered. However, all this changes under certain circumstances. These are the circumstances that see me making things, or thinking creatively. I’m lucky enough to be able to do both a lot. Creativity and making are states of being/doing that require differently configured space. Enter Messy Spaces stage right….

I should clarify from the outset, ‘messy’ doesn’t mean disorganised, haphazard doesn’t mean untidy and chaotic doesn’t, in this instance, imply a lack of order. ‘Messy’ here simply means space which becomes governed by an intrinsic set of guidelines, all of which can be adjusted to suit, and which recognise the value in colouring outside the lines, leaving the ‘mess’ on the floor, tacking this to that as a reminder of the other and letting creative intuition and what feels right be a guiding organisational principle. You can read a lightly affirming article on this here.

Thankfully, I’m not alone – there are other examples…

As part of my PhD I shadowed Vincent Dance Theatre through the 10 week devising and rehearsal process for a touring piece called If We Go On. The making space for this work was inhabited by the company for the entirety of the devising process. Although the space was tidied to a certain extent at the end of each day, there was a clear sense of accumulation of material with the state of the space at the end of the day carrying forward into the next day. What I’m highlighting is that the gathering and reworking of performance material was not entirely ordered, and that this was deliberate. There were numerous occasions where the latest version of a given piece of text was misplaced and then found floating in amongst stacks of other pieces of paper, or maybe it was tucked into other lists and thoughts elsewhere in the space. Prominent value was given to the unpredictability of intuitive making processes.

As I was documenting VDT’s work, I too was making a productive mess. for the duration of the PhD – certainly its latter stages, my study at home remained a physical testament to the tangential thought processes of writing. Books, post-it notes, scribbles and mind maps spread were all over the floor as they jostled for space alongside scraps of digital footage and audio recordings. All of this was very messy, but not without order – whilst I’ll freely admit that to the casual passerby my room gave the appearance that we’d suffered a very localised burglary, it actually had a spatial sense of order aligned to the cognitive organisation of topics I was writing about.

Crucially messy spaces allow for making to occur – whether it be sensible or intelligible matter that is being played with and made into something, making spaces are a call to adventure, a call to dance to a different tune (or indeed write a new tune of ones own design). Making space affords us the delicious possibility of literally ‘messing up’, of productively making mistakes and importantly, offers the possibility of creative subversion. Public spaces such as this are ‘dangerous’: they promote autonomy, new thinking and innovative practices. Out there in the world of the public domain there are fewer opportunities for such space to exist.

But in the educational domain….?

Primary schools seem to have clung on to these making spaces – take a look below…

Similarly the private sector has some good examples of making spaces; the value of making and messy space as a catalyst for disruptive creativity has been recognised – for instance, the similarities between the primary school environments seen above and some of Google’s spaces are striking…

At the University of Salford, whilst we already have practical spaces around campus ranging from theatre spaces, to a podiatry clinic to a full-scale energy house, we’re developing more messy space – we’re thinking about messy spaces and making spaces as part of the development of our Industrial Collaboration Zones. These are the sandpits, the meeting places for making things, for kinesthetic learning and for the real world.

Welcomingly, by making something, our students can move away from the popular notion of ‘student as consumer’ – they become producers. More than this, with the notion of co-creation embedded into our strategy at Salford, students become co-producers; of their graduating skillset, of their portfolio and more fundamentally and profoundly, of themselves and their potential. Making and producing the ‘messy’ is a key part of this becoming – it’s essential for ongoing success as pointed out in this great Guardian article.

So, in the interests of helping produce graduates who can invent, and test and disrupt and create, bring on the making, bring on the clutter, bring on disruptive process, bring on messy.

(Please tidy away when finished.)


See you next week.


Author: samgrogan

I am many sided; Pro Vice-Chancellor Student Experience at Salford University, Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, driven Tough Mudder runner, and a lover of the outdoors. I live in the heart of the beautiful Peak District with my wife and our pets. On weekends, you'll find me out in the countryside with the dog, running or walking up a hill, or typically cooking for friends (I'm getting better, so they say) My role at Salford is one I cherish. I'm one of the fortunate few who wake up excited about the day ahead. It's really not work when it's this much fun. As part of the Vice-Chancellor's Executive Team I work alongside a gifted and dedicated team of creative educationalists passionate about being better tomorrow than we are today. As PVC SE at Salford I hold executive responsibility for both the assurance of quality and standards of our institutional academic portfolio, and its strategic direction and character. Intertwined with this facet of my role, I am responsible for strategic leadership and enhancement of the wider student experience and the development of a distinctive Salford learning environment. My overall purpose, driven by these two key parts of my role, is to develop a bold, playful learning landscape at Salford which delivers holistic sustainable success, preparing our students for life. I'm fascinated by how people learn, and how we might collectively make that experience result in a profound expansion of personal and professional horizons and an extension of possibilities for all parties involved. My greatest reward comes from seeing thresholds crossed, barriers broken, new habits formed and changes made. To this end, I'm also endlessly absorbed in considering how we might develop better, more useful ways of integrating the digital landscape and other technologies, emerging and present, into the act of learning. I think we're just beginning - a brave new world awaits... My background is in performance - Before undertaking my PhD and before spending the first half of my university career as a lecturer, programme leader and head of department, in my early career I acted, danced and made theatre across the world. This ten year experience continues to be fundamental in shaping the way I think about teaching and learning. At its best I see it as a facilitated journey of discovery, play, risk and adventure anchored in 'reflective doing'. Not 'knowing' in this context is often a signal that a useful path is being trodden - Thinking on its own is just rehearsal...

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