Knowledge and collective practice
When talking about research and presentation, we are inevitably obliged to consider the relational and social aspect of research – the moment in which my personal quest does not only concern me, but also others. We are also bound to think about possible ways of organizing this moment of meeting and to weigh up the understanding of knowledge, research and research community we actualize.
In this text, I will proceed to observe and analyse some cases I consider interesting in this respect, four initiatives of collective research which have devised particular ways of articulating the relationship between presentation and research and which offer alternatives modes of thinking about knowledge, information, knowledge distribution, time and space for research. They propose an expanded notion of research, horizontal modes of collaboration with certain affinities to open source strategies and display strategies that cause a deterritorialization of the places of research and reciprocity in the distribution of knowledge. Let us observe them more in detail.
ARCHI-MOBILE – SHARED KNOWLEDGE
In the first place, I would like to reflect on Myriam Van Imschoot’s and Kristien Van den Brande’s project Crash landing revisited (and more) that started in 2007 and still takes place. In the course of its development it ended being, as Myriam Van Imschoot puts it, a “collaborative platform for artistic research” (Imschoot 2009). The title of this project refers to its object of study: Crash Landing, a performance series of interdisciplinary improvisation curated by Meg Stuart, Christine De Smedt and David Hernandez between 1996 and 1999, which involved the participation of 80 artists from different fields.
The archi-mobile, the physical space in which this research project takes place, represented a peculiar kind of historical archive of Crash Landing: a nomadic archive, traveling from theatre venues (Kaaitheatre) to institutions (Jan Van Eick Academy) and festivals, an archive understood as a shared space, open to anyone interested in it, a space mixing the functions of archive, exhibition space, meeting point, space for screenings and research location. The documents (temporary donations of any people involved in Crash Landing, such as video recordings, notebooks, scores or t-shirts plus documentation that was generated during the time that the archimobile was functioning, such as interviews with people in-volved in Crash Landing) were displayed on a table – and not stored, classified and put behind a glass cabinet. The main function of these documents in this context, as Myriam Van Imschoot explains (Imschoot 2010), was to trigger conversations among the people in the archi-mobile. In this sense, the work of the historian was shared with all visitors entering the space (professionals who had participated in Crash Landing, researchers interested in the event, passers-by) in an informal attitude, probably very suitable to evoke remembrances of the studied events and to leave space for imagination to create hypothesis about them.
Crash Landing, the improvisational encounter and original object of study of this project, took place five times, the sixth one was planned, but for different reasons, never happened. As Myriam Van Imschoot noticed (ibid.), Crash landing revisited (and more) could be understood as the sixth encounter, the sixth meeting that never occurred, insofar as the original improvisational dance was continued in an improvisational conversation on and by means of these archival materials. In this sense, what was conceived of as a historical research project was deeply contaminated by artistic practice, transforming its methods and working procedures. Instead of following traditional academic procedures of historical research (such as gathering, analysing, classifying and storing documents, interpreting them, extracting information out of them and creating a consistent logic, if possible without fissures in which to insert them), they accepted to transform these procedures: the activities of interpreting materials, weighing up and deciding their value and meaning within a certain narrative were shared with the interested visitors people of the archi-mobile. The goal of these conversations was neither that much to acquire knowledge, nor about the interviewee just giving, passing or transmitting information, but rather about his or her being put in the position of the researcher. Going through the documents themselves, interpreting them together with the interviewer, the visitors of the archi-mobile were treated as collaborators. In this sense the archi-mobile created a situation in which to foster thinking together: “It was not about extracting situated knowledge, embodied knowledge in the interviewee’s bodies, but about mobilizing it” (ibid.). A new type of archive was created – according to a particular epistemology, too – absolutely performative, deeply relational (in a strong sense of relationality). An archive that agrees to emotional dimensions of research inherent to every collaborative approach and that accepts and even fosters a contamination from artistic praxis to academic research.
I think that this performative and relational aspects signal a profound change in our society in respect to culture and knowledge which is fundamental in order to understand the current relationship between research and presentation. In our social historical context, there has been a shift from an understanding of culture as accumulation of information, related to the idea of knowledge transmission (what we could call the paradigm of the museum) to an understanding of culture as a space for actively learning, incorporating culture – the paradigm of performance1. There is a powerful image envisaged by Benjamin in his essay Eduard Fuchs: collector and historian (1937: 36), in which he describes culture being a heavy load that humanity supports in its back. The solution to it, he suggests, would be to shake it off and take it in the own hands, that is, to manipulate it, to make it your own. Not to treat historical documents as monuments in the Foucaultian sense, but as materials to work with. In the archi-mobile, Myriam Van Imschoot and Kristien Van den Brande took the documents off the cabinet (or rather from the boxes in which they received them) and instead of putting them behind a showcase (1) in order to preserve their identity, they chose to put them on a table where everybody could take them in their hands, manipulate them and engage with others in a collective creation of meaning. They displayed the documents on the table so that visitors could see them, but more importantly, touch them.
Proposing work with historical materials in the sphere of tactility (manipulation, embodiment) rather than visuality (distance and identity) helps also to create ephemeral collectivities around a concrete problem, in this particular case, about the memories of Crash Landing in which it is possible to set imagination, speculation and dialogue in motion as sources of historical knowledge.
EVERYBODY’S TOOLBOX – PRACTICED KNOWLEDGE
Everybody’s toolbox is presented best using the description they offer at their website:
Everybodys is a data base and a library, a toolbox and a game creator, a site for distribution and investigatory discussions. It is a platform for the development of tools and content.
Everybodys is a collective effort to develop the discourses that exist within the performing arts and to create a platform where this information can be accessed by a wider audience than the practitioners it involves.
Everybodys welcome“ (Everybody’s toolbox 2007)
This website constitutes a very stimulating proposal for opening research and fostering it. It offers a very interesting alternative to the traditional (and in some cases already commodified) showing of work in process. In order to briefly tackle the relevance of the process in the research-presentation divide, I would like to retake a question posed by an architect, Philippe Boudon, referring to the foundations of a theory of architecture: he proposed the reader to imagine what would happen if in a mathematic task, we would receive the solution only but not the key to it. This situation, which would be absolutely unfeasible in a scientific community, is common praxis in the performing arts. What the main part of the audience and the artistic community in general knows about a particular piece of research, very often only is the result, a particular articulation of the material in which methods, tools, procedures and strategies have disappeared or are only partially visible.
I am of the opinion that the recent commodification of the work in process should not lead to a complete refusal of this knowledge, but rather to a critical review of current procedures of facilitating an access to it. The process is the place par excellence in which it can be talked about the knowledge generated by dance praxis. It is the space for debate, critique and redefinition of problems in art. Whereas the piece is the place for aesthetic pleasure and other goals, the process is place where to expose, share, break down tools, methods and working procedures, premises of research.
The dispositives that Everybody’s toolbox presents to share and open processes of research again refers to this central question of the shift in contemporary culture from knowledge transmission to active knowledge production: They are displayed in the form of working tools with detailed instructions for usage arranged as playing rules and a short text explaining its objectives and history. Let’s briefly observe how they are formulated:
10 statements: History and Objectives: The statements can be used to define a specific area of interest within performance, and to elaborate and develop thoughts on a certain topic. It relies on the form of manifesto where being precise to the point of excluding other possibilities is desirable. The statements do not need to have eternal value, but they should trigger you to think differently. The tool is about producing opinions and positions that can be productive within your work. The purpose of writing 10 statements is to clarify your own ideology and make it visible to others. It’s also about daring to take a stand, exposing yourself to critique and put some fire in the debate.
1. Choose a topic that you would like to work on, for instance “statements on how to work,” “statements on site-specific performance,” “statements on spectatorship” or “statements on what practice is.”.
2. Think of the format of writing and decide whether or not you want to use a formula. For instance super short and precise, long and descriptive or starting each sentence the same way, x is…/x must…/x is considered…
3. Write the 10 statements on the topic. Try to be as specific as possible and write them in a manner that is coherent with its ideological content and don’t be afraid of being categorical.” (Ibid.)
There are many other tools for further purposes: The self-interview for example is being used by many artists and students in order to reflect about their work, their artistic concerns and interests, to develop ideas and to question their strategies. This exercise helps to clarify their position, their goals in their research processes or to elucidate their impressions about the results of the work. The ‘Impersonation game,’ in its turn, can be a very efficient dispositive for collectively expanding the notions of an artist’s work, for gaining accurate information about the reception it provokes, as well as for fueling a debate between audience members, to foster a public discussion about the work when replacing a colloquy after the performance. All these three devices, as well as the others in Everybody’s toolbox, are also very useful from the point of view of communication: self-interviews that are stored on the web site as a result of using the tool, impersonation games or its transcriptions, the manifestos generated by the ten statements procedure are also illuminating for researchers who are seeking to gain an access to research processes that may offer a different perspective about an artist’s work or for artists searching for strategies to advance their research.
The terms ‘tool’ or ‘workshop kit’ are essential in this understanding of knowledge in terms of practice and to the aforementioned shift from knowledge transmission to knowledge production. In the workshop kit of Everybody’s, there is no transmission in the traditional sense: information is not directly sent, but first reformulated in the shape of a tool ready for immediate usage and appropriation, for adaptation and transformation (as it actually happens with utensils: one uses them not only in the prescribed way, but according to the individual purposes). On the other hand, the users are also invited to share their practices (in the form of playing rules), the transformations that may have exercised using in the suggested tools by using them or the new ones that they may have devised. This fact points at a particular conception of knowledge distribution: following the functioning principles of open source, there is no unidirectionality in the transmission of knowledge in this website, but a multidirectionality. There is no outer system of evaluation to decide who is entitled to share, create or legitimate knowledge: the users will decide it.
EL PASO – PASSED KNOWLEDGE
El Club is a collective of ten people (2) (mainly artists from the performing arts, but also an architect and a curator) situated in Madrid. The collective was established three years ago for different reasons, among them: to break the isolation of artists in their creation processes and to create a community of reflection and communication. After exploring many different formats, they created a tool, El Paso (which in Spanish both means ‘step’ and the action of passing) as a way of thinking together about El Club as a collective, of getting to know better the work of the other members, as a means of mobilizing their individual practices or as a possible way of collaborating.
In a very brief text they explain how El Paso works:
Get 10 people together. -Set a starting date. -Each person creates and launches a project in any kind of format and names it. -You transform the project that you have with you during a week. -Pass the project on to someone else in the group. -You receive another project. -You transform it during a week. -You pass it on. -This ends when you have passed through all the projects, when you have touched them all.” (El Paso 2010)
Within El Paso, the spaces in which research takes place and is exposed are necessarily multiple: there are ten people who are working internationally and only rarely are able to meet in Madrid. This limitation actually led to an interesting multiplication of media for research and presentation. In one of the chains, El abandono, following media were used: a video piece; the creation of a group in facebook, in which some part of the performing arts community in Spain actively participated; an application for an artistic residency in Potsdam (supposedly written by the first artist in the chain, Tania Arias); a research blog about the process of this project (presumably by the same artist), live performance with her; an interview shown on a TV, cardboards, a live experience and a skype meeting of all members of El Club.
In this kind of proposals the spaces, activities and times which were traditionally dedicated to investigate are mixed, creating a continuum of research crossing different levels. This project makes clearly visible that nowadays the working and presentations spaces for the artists’ works are simultaneously a group of spaces, not necessarily physical and not necessarily centralized or consistent in relation to each other. There, the artist investigates, works, experiences, celebrates, exchanges information as a part of a more complex system of knowledge production. All these contexts and levels (intimate, personal, virtual, public and so forth) are at the same time places for work presentation as well as for research and discussion about it. This kind of initiatives takes research into account not as something happening exclusively in the studio or in the library, but as a complex range of activities developed in many different contexts (media, everyday life, mass culture, etc.), all of them completely intertwined. These practices definitely deterritorialize traditional places for production and distribution of knowledge, considering every activity of the artist a possible platform for research and for presentation of research – the negative aspect of this continuum of course being represented by the precarization of life in postfordist capitalism. In this kind of projects, usual places for investigation and exposition of results, among others, are decentralized. This also implies, from an epistemological point of view, that there are no privileged areas of experience, that knowledge acquired under the lab lens or in the studio is not necessarily more reliable than knowledge gained through everyday experience. This research-continuum is implicitly based on the acceptance of a democracy of experiences as it is defined by Hannula et al. (2005: 25 et seq.), as an epistemological and ontological point of departure for a mature scientific practice. It is a context in which there is no predefined hierarchy between different kinds of knowledge sources.
There is a second aspect I would like to underline referring to the mode of collaboration in El Paso. Research in this kind of proposals research is done collectively, in a process of continuous exchange and interaction, dialogue and confrontation with others, which in this particular case, is based on the action of receiving, transforming and passing materials. The procedure of interaction in El Paso defines a way of collaboration, which could be approached with the help of the theory of the ‘quasi-object’ by Michel Serres (1982: 224-234). In order to explain his devised concept, the French thinker resorts, among other metaphors, to ball games in this frame: let us think about children playing with a ball in a park. A ball alone on the floor is just something insignificant, dumb, which only gains relevance as long as it is activated and mobilized by someone.
As an object, the ball depends on the actions of others to be of use.
However, a player that would retain the ball would be a bad one. Once the ball is it in her hands, she has to decide, to throw it in one or the other direction, to one or the other player. As far as the ball generates decision and action and brings the player into a situation of emergency, the ball is not only an object, but also also an agent, a subject or, as Michel Serres puts it, a quasi-object. More importantly, this quasi-object generates not only action, but also a particular way of relating to others that is not based on the previous creation of an individual or collective identity. Although there are certain basic – sometimes implicit – norms that are accepted in the situation of children playing in the park, the particular rules that emerge during the play are not commonly agreed upon before. Only in the moment of emergency when the player has the ball in her hands, she has to decide how to act. The individuals participating do not propose from scratch what they would like to do within this group; they do not decide who they are and what represents them before entering the play. Instead their identity and actions are decided in the very process of relating to the others through the ball.
In a similar way, the artists involved in each chain of El Paso do not participate with an idea they would like to put forward: they receive materials and have to find a position in respect to them: to deviate them, to transform and adapt them to their poetics, to reject them or turn them upside down. In this way, the quasi-object of El paso proposes is a very effective way of generating intersubjectivity. Every step, every transformation is of course determined by individuality, but the relevant point is that it is not considered as preexistent, but as conformed and shaped by the game: this quasi-object is nothing but a way of circulation of knowledge and experience. It represents a modality of participation which has nothing to do with sharing – “when it is thought of as a divis ion of parts” (Serres 1982: 228) as Serres puts it. Moreover, it is related to an act of meeting and relation by which entities which were previously undefined are now defined and take shape, function and substance in the relation they build. The artistic individuality, in the case of El Paso is not suppressed, is not divided, but circulates with, in and through the quasiobject. El Paso takes research into account not just as an activity developed in an individual way, but collectively. Research is not based on a genuine and original invention, but on being part of a net of knowledge production and communication, of research and dissemination, a node in a bigger net of relations in which work is presented, transformed, passed, reelaborated, passed again and so forth.
TO BE CONTINUED – TRANSLATED KNOWLEDGE
Another case I would like to tackle is the experimental edition process initiated by Cuqui Jerez and myself in To be continued. 10 textos en cadena y unas páginas en blanco (To be continued. 10 texts in a row and some blank pages), number 14 of Cairon. Journal of Dance Studies in 2012. I think that this project, though following a very similar procedure to that of El Paso, can offer an alternative perspective from which to rethink the question of research and presentation.
This book was not based on a particular subject, but rather on a system, the working procedure of a chain – this time fixed beforehand – that has been explained with El Paso: a project traveling from one participant to the next one and in so far being transformed. Artists as well as theoreticians were invited to participate with the aim of fostering a different relationship between presentation and research: one not being based on the theoretical study of an object (dance), but also in which theoretical writing can also act as potential material for further practical research by the following artists in the chain, so that dance theory has not the final say about dance practice. The other main aim related to this decision of organizing the book based on a structure (dramaturgy of the book) rather than on a particular subject, was to make visible processes of intertextuality, of appropriation and incorporation of previous materials and, above all, the very process of collectively making a book. The book and the editing process are themselves at the same time object of study and medium of a collective process of practical research. In this respect, presentation is not something separated from research, but its very object.
In this sense, Barthes’ concept of lecture vivant (1973) was fundamental: it refers to another way of thinking about creative reception, or in other words: that knowledge is not received but produced. In his Theory of the text (Barthes 1973: 31-47), he explains that the action of reading always implies the correlative act of writing a virtual text – or that reading always means writing. He articulates this idea in terms of productivity and product:
The text is a productivity. This does not mean that it is the product of a labour (such as could be required by a technique of narration and the mastery of style), but the very theatre of a production where the producer and reader of the text meet: the text ‘works’ at each moment from whatever side one takes it. Even when written (fixed), it does not stop working, maintaining a process of production.” (Ibid.: 36, 37)
In the case of To be continued, we were interested in materializing this process of writing inherent in reading. We created a dispositive to think together about the book, not as a product of a previous research, but as a living conversation between previous texts and their transformations that would ‘freeze’ in the form of a book. In the course of the project, we found that the concept of translation as it was defined and practiced by the Spanish poet Leopoldo María Panero would still be more suitable than lecture vivant to grasp its functioning. Apart from his poetic and narrative production, Panero also worked in the field of translation, though in a very peculiar way: in a first take, he understood this activity as an extension of the translated text: “Translation has to develop – or improve the original, and not just move it, as any piece of furniture, from one room to another” (Panero quoted in Blesa 2011: 7). In this development, he aimed at revealing latent senses of the first text that would manifest in its translation. Panero, in a later period of his work, radicalized his understanding of translation, going beyond extension and arriving to ‘perversion’ (a play on words with ‘version’ and ‘perversion’). Thanks to infidelity, to a perversion of the original text, the translator is actually able to be loyal to it: “Perversion is the only literal, faithful translation, and this thanks to adultery, to infidelity” (ibid.: 30). Panero conceives translating not a servile task, but as a true literary and creative operation that works through the affirmation of the difference that the translator disdains the question of preserving a supposed identity of the work: if translation is always based on reading, which is by necessity personal, subjective and different to the original, (on a lecture vivant) the focus is now set on explicitly fostering this difference and working creatively with it.
These two practices – To be continued and El Paso – are closely related to other concepts such as détournement by the International Situationists, insofar as all these operations are based on using what already exists instead of creating new cultural products. However, there is a fundamental difference between them: whereas in détournement one of the main goals of the misinterpretation of previous cultural goods was to denounce subjacent ideologies, artists nowadays use this practice not as a cultural subversion, but as a method of research, as a productive tool allowing them to redefine working procedures in collaboration that are not based on a common agreement, but on differences that are able to generate productive confrontation and dialogue. El Paso and To be continued offer a very clear image of research which, again, refers to an encounter in which practices are mobilized, experiences activated, in which the moment of communication represents a fundamental stage of development of the research processes.
The four above described research projects display very different conceptions of communicability of art as research: Myriam Van Imschoot and Kristien Van den Brande offering the visitors and interviewees of the archi-mobile to share their research activities by exchanging roles; Everybody’s Toolbox displaying their practices directly in the form of tools that everybody can use; the artists participating in El Paso through a multiplication of spaces for research and its communication by way of a very particular way of interacting and sharing subjectivities; and To be continued by exposing the very process of communal creation of a book and transforming it in its implicit object of study.
Art processes are evidently not unique experiences preventing debate, but the very space in which discussion, collaboration and controversy are fundamental working tools. This four initiatives display some possible ways of opening and communicating research processes, of avoiding introversion and hermeticism, great dangers of artistic practice. This openness to critique could constitute a basis to validate research processes, to get rid of traditional parameters of assessment and understand them in different ways: as a possibility of exchanging positions, of making visible the decisions, choices and doubts along the process, just to mention two of the models that have been commented in this text. However, the mere fact of opening processes does not guarantee a critical openness: this action is always subject to the risk of being commodified, unquestionably accepted, transformed into a void format and therefore escaping a real critical exposure. This is a constant challenge of artistic practice which in the aforementioned projects led to a creative approach in the activity of finding adequate media as formats to open, expose and display the different states of development of working processes within an artistic research community.
These projects reinvented their own working conditions in order to create the spaces they needed, without following institutional or academic dictates and insofar creating new ways of researching and of conceiving research in the performing arts. The initiatives also show that, though the debate on research in the arts has a clear academic dimension, which is to a great extent determined by the Bologna reform and the debate of the doctorate in the arts, there is no doubt that artists in the field of performing arts felt a necessity of creating and devising their own contexts for research, creation and self-education. In this text, only four of them were mentioned, but nowadays there is a real proliferation of initiatives of self-education, collective learning and research which show a collective effort to reach a dynamic situation between research projects, individual production and their respective contexts. This activity of reinventing protocols of communication is not irrelevant in this discussion: whereas in other areas procedures of dissemination are more established and therefore more or less given for granted, one of the main concerns of research in the arts is precisely to explore suitable ways of relating with its peers and audience in general. Each research process in the arts not only deals with a concrete object of study, but also with the relation between process, visible result, recipient of the work and relations of production; with the task of to setting out the conditions for reception.
The common idea uniting all the commented projects is that knowledge is not transmitted following this outdated diagram of sender-message-recipient. Knowledge is produced in the relation between the two polar positions: there is no hierarchy defining who knows and who not, because all might contribute to the knowledge experience. Knowledge in this sense is neither a service nor a product, but happens through a collective practice in which the participants actively engage. Collective research is conceived as a mobilization of thought and praxis. And it is carried out by the very activity of making it public. The commented initiatives propose horizontal ways of co-working in which all participants are responsible for the collective creation of meaning. Furthermore, this organisation precisely defines to a great extent meaning, form and substance of the project. Often there is not a goal to reach, set out before the project starts, there is not a meaning defined in advanced to recover in the course of the process, but the identity and sense of the project arise from the very ways of organizing the working procedures and the forms of collaboration.
Barthes, Roland (1982): “Theory of the text.” In: Robert Young (ed.) Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader, London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 31-48.
Benjamin, Walter (1937): “Eduard Fuchs, der Sammler und der Historiker.” In: Max Horkheimer (ed.), Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, Jg. 6, München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, pp. 346- 381. (In English: “Edward Fuchs: historian and collector,” New German Critique, No. 5, Spring 1975, pp. 27-58.)
Blesa, Túa (ed.) (2011): Traducciones/Perversiones, Madrid: Visor.
El Club (2010): El Paso, July 7, 2012 (http://inpresentableblog.com/content/el-paso.html)
Hannula, Mika/Suoranta, Juha/Vadén, Tere (2005): Artistic Research – Theories, Methods and Practices, Gothenburg: Academy of Fine Arts and University of Gothenburg.
Imschoot, Myriam Van (2010): in http://archived.janvaneyck.nl/4_4_cv/cv_t_ims1.html.
Imschoot, Myriam Van (2010). Talk on October 1, at Azalacentro de creación (Vitoria, Spain) (not published).
Pérez Royo, Victoria (2010). “The researcher-creator profile in postgraduate performing arts studies.” In: Victoria Pérez Royo/José A. Sánchez (eds.), Practice and Research, Madrid: Ediciones de la Universidad de Alcalá, pp. 125-151.
Pérez Royo, Victoria/Jerez, Cuqui (eds.) (2011): To be continued. 10 textos en cadena y unas páginas en blanco, Madrid: Ediciones de la Universidad de Alcalá, pp. 125-151.
Serres, Michel (1982): The parasite, London and Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
“Inpresentable,” June 22, 2012 (www.inpresentableblog.com).
“Everybodys Toolbox,” June 22; 2012 (www.everybodystoolbox.net).
- This shift is specially visible in art education in the context of a great amount of MA programs: once the students have immediate access to any data through media such as internet, the idea of transmission of information is not interesting any more. Educational programs in art academies therefore scarcely operate on the basis of knowledge transmission; they rather focus on enabling the student to generate new productive discourses and to actively integrate in it their own research (cf. Pérez Royo 2010).
- The members of El Club are: Amalia Fernández, Fernando Quesada, Laura Bañuelos, Tania Arias, Maral Kekejian, Cristina Blanco, Ismeni Espejel, Emilio Tomé, Bárbara Bañuelos and María Jerez.