Making Making Matter:
Paper as Paradox in Practice-as-Research
The title of this exposition directly references Francis Alÿs’s 1997 work, Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing) in which he pushed a block of ice around Mexico city until it completely melted. (http://www.francisalys.com/public/hielo.html) The work essentially took place only at the moment it was made and all that remained was a five minute documentary, in the tradition of the Situationists, the Gutai Group and the Fluxus movement. In our practice, we are equally interested in foregrounding the primacy of the act (Schimmel 1998: 17) and in doing so, resisting the commodification of the artwork, or artistic output. We have experimented with the idea of making and breaking, influenced by other individual artists too, such as Lygia Clark, Ana Mendieta, Rebecca Horn and Allan Kaprow, whose similar orientation towards the processes of making (and sometimes breaking) has sought to defy the ‘bonds of objecthood’ (Schimmel 1998: 18) and provoke events which leave no traces. It is the performance actions of such artists, working particularly in the 1960s and 70s, which have also inspired Peggy Phelan’s liveness/disappearance discourse, defining performance as ephemeral, fleeting and intangible. For Phelan the impossibility of reproducing the live event of performance into a commodity is its strength, and the core value of performance is in its present-ness. Because Phelan’s performance disappears into memory and the unconscious ‘where it eludes regulation and control’ (Phelan 1993: 148), its resistance to market forces is stubborn.
And yet, while we celebrate the intangible nature of performance (and the process that disappears) as artists, as practitioner-researchers we also need to find ways to frame, remember and critically reflect upon the event-that-is-no-more. For scholarly research purposes, the tacit knowledge gained from praxis needs to be made explicit, further evidence needs to be adduced (Nelson 2006: 112). We need, as Baz Kershaw and Helen Nicholson write, to find ways around the ‘unhelpful dichotomies and fixed binaries which separate embodiment and intuition from intellectual practices, emotional experiences and ways of knowing’ (2011: 2). It is here that Rebecca Schneider’s writing becomes very useful. She challenges Schimmel’s reading of the artists’ ‘orientation towards destruction’ (Schneider 2011: 98) and questions why the disappearance discourse equates performance ‘as a matter of loss’ (98). She re-thinks performance not as ephemeral but that which ‘remains differently’ (2001: 101), transformed into knowledge that resides in the body, in memory, ready to be communicated to other bodies. We propose that to acknowledge and indeed foreground this transformation is a key component of the practitioner-researcher’s work. Indeed, it is helpful to view the entire artistic research process as a series of, we would like to argue, creative and experimental transformations.
And so our exposition has one main aim: to raise awareness of the current obsession with the scholarly output, which in fact allows more space for the process and for experimentation than is often assumed. There is a sense of helplessness and cynicism that exists within university humanities communities at the moment and we hope to challenge this with a call for experimentation and transformation. Of course, in experimentation there is always a real possibility for failure: outcomes are indeterminable which can be both upsetting and unbalancing. They are, as Kershaw and Nicholson write, ‘reflexively unpredictable’ (2011: 9) but should and do still count. We suggest that the outcomes of artistic research be transformed into scholarly outputs that are inventive experiments themselves, that might not fit into existing moulds, that might include more than words and images on paper (or screens). We tried here and failed in some ways (resorting, once again to images and words on this virtual paper, framed by yet more words written down), but we will try again in the hope that the creative process does not stop once the output is delivered, but keeps augmenting. Because sometimes making something can lead to something different and something different and something different again.
What we present here on the right are documents from a performance originally presented in Helsinki in 2013 (http://nivel.teak.fi/carpa/), and then later in London that same year and again in 2015. The original performance involved a dialogue about our practice and research in which we threw the notes we were reading from into water. To re-perform the dialogue a few months later, we re-wrote new notes and this time ripped them up while talking. And then we did it again. In order to reflect upon this act here, we decided to type the dialogue again (now in its fourth version) and present it alongside this series of photographs of one of us ripping up all the notes we had taken during the process it took to create the work. Just as Francis Alÿs’s block of ice did not disappear, but was eventually transformed into a five minute documentary, so our dialogue-performance has been transformed for and into this exposition. In the context of academic research, rather than saying ‘Sometimes making something leads to nothing’, in fact we are saying that ‘Sometimes making something leads to something different’. And that ‘something different’, although required to take the form of a scholarly output, is in fact just another part of the artistic process and should be treated as such. Indeed, in order to honour the tacit knowledge gained in the first place (and at first hand) the scholarly output can and should be approached in an inventive and experimental manner. It can ‘remain differently’ and still be counted.
The Academy expects descriptions and analyses in document format that can be rated, compared, and neatly archived. Written and photographic evidence of artistic processes and original works then come to be more highly valued than the original processes and works themselves. This attitude is enforced by the UK’s current government where Universities are pressured to produce as many tangible and apparently ‘excellent’ outputs as possible. Product continues to be prioritised over process as the current research assessment criteria testifies. Indeed, the regulation and standardisation of required outcomes continues to rehearse what Dwight Conquergood calls ‘textual hegemony’ (2002: 147), and so it feels important to us to continue to stress the importance of process and experimentation at every stage of artistic research. Not just at the original making stage, but also at the documenting, framing and reflecting-upon stage, which we might also call the ‘boxing-it-into-a-product’ stage. In other words, because the academic output carries such weight, we suggest that it is crafted (and we use the word advisedly) in the spirit of the original performance event or artistic action. To reflect upon, to theorise is, of course, a creative act, but is too often regarded as separate to the artwork, the dry writing that comes afterwards, the boring talk, the often complicated analysis. What if, instead, it was celebrated and valued as a creative and experimental process in itself?
Professor Jane Rendell sets out one way to do this with her concept of Site-Writing (2010), which she calls a critical spatial practice. As a method, it explores ‘what it is possible for a critic to say about an artist, a work, the site of a work and the critic herself and for the writing to still “count” as criticism’ (2). The relation between the critic and the work under scrutiny becomes a ‘site’ of interest: a site worth investigating, a site to be creative in and with. By thoroughly investigating the transition between theory, criticism and practice, and viewing it as a ‘site’ in its own right, Rendell opens up new possibilities for the critic. She argues that critical thinking can be used to generate its own imaginative contexts, and urges the critic to develop alternative, more creative ways of writing. Indeed, this model of criticism becomes a practice in its own right. She says ‘The use of analogy – the desire to invent a writing that is somehow “like” the artwork – allows a certain creativity to intervene in the critical act as the critic comes to understand and interpret the work by remaking it on his/her own terms’ (7). The critic becomes an artist, responding to the initial artwork (without, of course, seeking to replace it). Here, we attempt to do something inspired by Rendell but also slightly different because, of course, as practitioner-researchers, we are at once the artists and the critics. Already we have chosen not to experiment with the form of this written contextualising section, typed and laid-out conventionally as it is, and in doing this perhaps have ‘transformed’ this stage of our response so much that it loses touch with, and has stopped engaging with our original performance. We made images (spoken, through dialogue, and visual, through performance) and unmade them (ripped the paper our notes were written on, refused to take pictures) but then realised that in order for them to be counted we needed to somehow make them again. So we put back into writing (typed this time) what we had destroyed (the script on the right) so that it could be read again. And we performed another ripping experiment and took photographs so that it could be seen again. The unmaking became a transforming, and at least the documents here, we argue, are performances themselves.
The Chicago-based and now disbanded performance group Goat Island equally acknowledged the performative nature of documentation and created a series of works to be read and viewed alongside and after their performances, exploring the question ‘How is a performance performed after it has actually been performed?’ (Goat Island 2004, n.p.). In a similar vein to Rendell’s concept of Site-Writing, they sought to produce texts and films about their work ‘that are artworks in their own right’ (2004: n.p.). For example, two issues of the Croatian journal Frakcija reflect upon the process and performance stages of their 2004 piece When Will The September Roses Bloom/ Last Night Was Only A Comedy, including a combination of academic articles, photographs, handwritten notes and diagrams of varying sizes, some of which need to be folded out. Another example are the four films made by Lucy Baldwyn which are ‘independent of and a companion to’ the group’s last three live performances It’s An Earthquake In My Heart; When Will The September Roses Bloom / Last Night Was Only A Comedy and The Lastmaker (http://www.goatislandperformance.org/film.htm). She writes that the (first) film ‘is not a documentation of a live piece instead it is a translation and hopefully transformation, of the process of its making - a storyboard map, a schedule that was frequently diverted from and a roomful of strangers...’ (Goat Island, 2004: n.p. [our emphasis]). And so here, we too have sought to present a translation that honours the original process of making (our first performance) but also expands on and transforms it.
Importantly, we hope that the transformation does not stop here but that it keeps changing in the reader’s (your) ‘flesh memory’ (Schneider 2001: 105), that it has immaterial repercussions we cannot measure or account for. The reverberations of making (and recording and thinking about that making) that we present here might lead, we hope, to a transmission of a desire to be creative. Here we are drawing on, in particular, Brian Massumi’s notion of ‘creative contagion’ (2002: 19) and Jane Bennett’s ‘mood of enchantment’ (2001: 4) which both place value in the intangible processes and encounters that bring something new to the world, however small. In Parables for the Virtual (2002), Massumi writes about the self-augmenting world, in which even the smallest efforts at production bring something new to the world. He argues that activities dedicated to writing and thought, are (or at least can be) inventive, even though they might augment only on a microscopic scale. Set against the academic thesis requirements of originality, significance, rigour and contribution, ‘techniques which embrace their own inventiveness’ (13) can be difficult to prioritise, and yet, Massumi argues, must be prioritised, at least some of the time. He calls for ‘affirmative methods’ to balance the negative critique that academics are trained to produce, methods that add ‘that ounce of positive experience to the world’ (13). In The Enchantment of Modern Life (2001), Bennett, in a similar vein, argues for the rediscovery of a sense of wonder in everyday life, seeking to reverse the cynical and disenchanted effects that modern and postmodern critical theory have produced. She suggests that the ‘affective force’ of moments of enchantment might be used to ‘propel ethical generosity’ (3).She writes that ‘one must be enamoured with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others’ (4). As she notes, ‘the more aware of wonder one is – and the more one learns to cultivate it – the more one might be able to respond gracefully and generously to the painful challenges posed by our condition as finite beings in a turbulent and unjust world’ (160).
And so, with Massumi and Bennett urging us on, we put together this exposition in the hope that it might inspire a little wonder, that it might be, as an experiment in transformation, at least a little creatively contagious. Because sometimes making something leads to nothing, but sometimes making something leads to something else being made.
Bennett, Jane The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings and Ethics, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001
Conquergood, Dwight ‘Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research’ in The Drama Review, 46: 2, Summer 2002
Goat Island, Frakcija: When Will the September Roses Bloom? Last Night Was Only a Comedy, Part One: ‘Reflections on the process’ 2004, Part Two: ‘Reflections on the performance’ Zagreb, 2005
Kershaw, Baz and Nicholson, Helen (eds.) Research Methods in Theatre and Performance, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011
Massumi, Brian ‘Concrete is as concrete doesn’t’ in Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002
Nelson, Robin ‘Practice-as-research and the Problem of Knowledge’ in Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, 11:4, 2006
Phelan, Peggy ‘The ontology of performance: representation without reproduction’ in Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, New York: Routledge, 1993
Rendell, Jane Site-Writing: The Architecture of Art Criticism, London: I.B. Tauris, 2010
Schimmel, Paul ‘Leap into the void: performance and the object’ in Out of Actions: Between the Performance and the Object 1949-1979, Paul Schimmel (ed.), New York and London: Thames and Hudson, 1998
Schneider, Rebecca ‘Archives: performance remains’ in Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts 6:2, 2001
Schneider, Rebecca Performance Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment, London and New York: Routledge, 2011