Here are several samples. I refer to them as 'reflections of George Town' through the eyes of first year design students, USM. The sketches, notes and composite pictures were done during and after their field trips to several locations in the heritage enclave of George Town. But they are more that meet the eyes. Before we go further down, enjoy the works first.
The assignment, can be taken as cultural studies in action, especially in regards to language, culture and identity. Cultural identity here is held to be social and discursive construction (how people participate and communicate their cultural experiences).
Through the assignment, the focus is shifted from study of cultural text to exploration of audience. Audience in this case, refers to the students or young people, specifically their voices, or how they employ language (both written and visual) to engage in a discourse about a particular cultural text. Cultural text, in the context of this assignment, is 'the heritage city of George Town.'
Similar method was employed by an Iranian-born contemporary artist-friend of mine, Shahram Entakhbi (currently based in Germany) when he worked with Joe Sidek and I for a project about the city of George Town, called "I AM". Refer to http://issuu.com/mgtfusm/docs/you_are_who_you_are..i_am_who_i_am..
The assignment has allowed the voices of the students to be heard. As their voices are heard, meanings attached to the city of George Town, as well as its' many identities, are not totally fixed anymore.
In comparison to the assignment is a prescriptive and didactic method of forming meanings about self and cultural heritage. I didn't employ such method for this assignment. Anyway, the idea of prescribing cultural heritage and identity through certain rigid 'technical specification' of 'heritage objects' is taken as a way of regulating and stabilizing the language of cultural heritage into pragmatic narratives or discourses. In the case of George Town, one example of such pragmatism is to attain a UNESCO heritage city status (which it already had).
UNESCO's language has become the 'meta-discourse' of cultural heritage for George Town. Nothing wrong with this. But it may also lead to a very rigidly objective, prescriptive, didactic, and static (dead) notions of cultural heritage, rather than encouraging more interpretative, subjective and creative approaches towards self, subjectivity and 'cultural heritage'.
How can Georgetown become a 'creative city' within the grip of such prescriptive discourse? Ironically, such discourse may oppose the spirit of preservation itself, unless we are talking about preserving or replicating 'dead corpse', if not sentiment towards the lingering colonial legacy.
What about the discourses of the common folks (especially those living and working in the heritage enclave)? What about the discourses of the common people (including young people, professional migrants, writers, artists, designers and other creative individuals, even tourists) who come and go, who encounter George Town in a more transient manner? Can their discourses be included in forming the meanings and cultural identities of George Town? Can their discourses be be taken into consideration? Or should their voices be marginalized?
The assignment in a way, argues that the notions of cultural heritage are more than just 'static objects', fixed by rigid technical specifications. Mentally (and emotionally), the notions of cultural heritage are more fluid, relational, perhaps unstable at times. They are formed within what is referred to as 'language games'.
The shift in approaching this assignment, if taken from cultural studies perspective, signals a change from 'structuralist' (can be read as 'colonial' too, if one fancied) to 'post-structuralist' methods (can be read as 'post-colonial' too).
Hopefully, George Town is not trapped by the lingering colonial legacy. It would be inclusive (and pertinent too) to document the 'on-going' process of how the common people (like the students)) react, interpret, signify and give meanings to George Town according to their own terms (or modalities, to use a 'clever-clever' people term).
Cultural identities here are argued as products of signifying practices. To unveil George Town as a zone of multiple identities is to explore how meanings attached to it are produced symbolically through diverse signifying practices of language and representation (in this case, sketches and personal reflections of the students).
Identities are produced by active human agents (not just UNESCO and bunch of so-called 'heritage experts'). In the case of this assignment, the active human agents are the young people (students). The many notions of cultural identities are taken as a state of becoming rather than a fixed entity (by UNESCO or groups of 'experts' perhaps). Culture and identity are zones of shifting boundaries and continuing hybridization. Cultural heritage and identity are social, political and malleable construct.
Consequently, cultural studies now entail a process of 'listening to people' as active interpreters of texts (including visual texts, such as George Town). Through this assignment, the students have become a part of the creative interpretors and constructors of cultural identities.
The assignment is a 'reflective project' where many subjective notions of self and cultural heritage, both personal and collective, are narrated by the students. As indicated by the students' works (can be referred to as 'findings'), the many notions of self and cultural identities are not totally fixed and frozen. They are rather 'performed' and always in a constant state of 'becoming'.
The assignment is a micro form of 'participative social construction', perhaps with a bit of 'textual deconstruction' where the students had 'personalized' their encounters with George Town (their 'text').
The assignment is a small and brief slice that reflect a 'living experience' of 'cross-cultural' identities in George Town. Upon closer look, they are perhaps different than some other more prevailing discourses of cultural heritage (be them UNESCO, heritage NGOs, heritage pamphlets, touristic postcards, tourism magazines etc).