As artists also working in university-based art schools, the question of how our practice can be formalised as research hovers constantly, not least when narrating our projects for the Journal for Artistic Research. The scientification of the humanities in the contemporary academy has installed a dominant research imaginary that delineates propositional questions known in advance to answer through systematic enquiry. Yet, such systematicity is less useful when the goal is to find new questions that can uncoercively traverse diverse epistemologies and practices. Through the projects described here, Local Time have recognised that knowledge-generating questions only appear in specific contexts, and are only diagnosable in retrospect, after developing our capacity to read the differences between seemingly similar situations. Thus they continue to pressure us to move further from formalising inquiry in advance when entering new territories. As Mieke Bal describes it, ‘fixed protocols, recognizable enough to be appreciated, preclude innovation beyond disclosure of new material; they preclude, that is, innovation of approach’.[33] Haraway diagnosed an alternate criterion for rigour, which is for researchers to foreground the methods at work in their own knowledge production: ‘Knowledge-making technologies, including crafting subject positions and ways of inhabiting such positions, must be made relentlessly visible and open to critical intervention’.[34] Deconstruction has shown us that this is less a decision to ‘choose’ a knowledge-making technology or method than to continually rediscover the itinerary and history of the methods, tropes, and frames that are already at work in our own practices.[35] Spivak describes it as a radical sense of vulnerability to the itineraries of our own knowledge.[36]

Yet, despite our attempts to adopt a kind of ethnographic attitude that places us ‘at risk in the face of the practices and discourses into which one inquires’,[37] our practices have involved actions that entail inevitable if undesired formalisation of the terms of our inquiry in advance. This formalisation can be understood via Haraway’s concept of diffraction: our interventions introduce edges or gaps that interfere with the social world, resulting in interference patterns among waves of force.[38] Attention to the effects of differences mapped by diffraction patterns is not a political programme, as the effects of viewing are not a cause of force on the same scale that produces the original waves. However, the edge or gap is a usefully sharp metaphor for reading how waves of political power shift when they collide with something unlike themselves. And perhaps such readings can ground new formalisations toward a better world to have happened. But such readings only take place in the curiosity of seeking differences, not in the confident dissemination of a question as gesture.

In a footnote to her epic essay on J. M. Coetzee and teaching, Spivak urges us to open toward an ethical attention to difference as the motor that makes coalition possible – ‘the need to imagine a world that is not necessarily looking for help’.[39] The missionary impulse that recodes the world as awaiting solutions holds its frame against the autonomy of others: this impulse cannot open out to different modes of languaging as hospitality, where reversals of power are courted as we become fluent in another idiom. Art is one mechanism that allows us to imagine these other worlds through material traces in the present. Spivak’s writing on the trace with respect to the artist Anish Kapoor notes how the rationality of language never stabilises itself: ‘Language is a system that promises verifiable conceptual meaning. Everybody knows that the performance of a language is full of mystery, but that clear promise is always there. A trace, by contrast, seems to suggest an anteriority of some sort, altogether unverifiable’.[40] The trace or the cultural residual is always being managed, always unmanageable.

For those of us interpellated into Western institutions of knowledge, the indigenous encounter surfaces traces that are commonly suppressed in colonial epistemologies that seek to universalise their own protocols toward a speculative futurity. The encounter transforms the scale of cultural action in a not-immediately-productive way, as work becomes situated in a large, long, intergenerational process of struggle – one that holds no salvation and no reward for joining other than itself. There is no ‘solving’ neo-colonialism and its constant attempts to domesticate the traces of its history of destruction. We simply respond to what seems to be the call to undo it, even if the call is not directed to us, exactly. In her critique of Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, Spivak tracks this methodological paradox where history rereads a past for a future to come – ‘a future anterior … not a formula for a future present’:

In my understanding, the ghost dance is an attempt to establish the ethical relation with history as such, ancestors real or imagined. The ethical is not a problem of knowledge but a problem of relation. It is singular yet generalizable, or already generalized in its singularity. You crave to let history haunt you as a ghost or ghosts, with the ungraspable incorporation of a ghostly body, and the uncontrollable, sporadic, and unanticipatable periodicity of haunting, in the impossible frame of the absolute chance of the gift of time, if there is any. It is not, then, a past that was necessarily once present that is sought. The main effort is to compute with the software of other pasts rather than reference one’s own hallucinatory heritage for the sake of the politics of identitarian competition. [41]

Responding to the call to be haunted asks for a loss of sovereignty, an undoing of our own hallucinatory heritage that allows our cognition to appear natural, and opens to the installation of an alternate operating system. In attending to the ethical call of the ghost, one is not thinking about rules that could be pre-programmed or results that could be distributed. ‘The ghost dance cannot succeed as a blueprint. Its uses, if there are any, are elsewhere’.[42] As colonisation recodes the world in its own image, perhaps the radical ungeneralisability of artistic practice helps us learn to be attentive to other images. Yet this will not allow us to offer hospitality as such, for under colonial conditions the rules of hospitality are always already broken. Approaching hospitality as responsibility is a means of learning to live this reality.

[33] Mieke Bal, ‘Research Practice: New Words on Cold Cases’, in What Is Research in the Visual Arts?: Obsession, Archive, Encounter, ed. by Michael Ann Holly and Marquard Smith (Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2008), pp. 196–212 (p. 209).

[34] Donna J. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan_Meets_Oncomouse: Feminism and Technoscience (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 36.

[35] Donna J. Haraway and Nicholas Gane, ‘When We Have Never Been Human, What Is to Be Done?’, Theory, Culture and Society, 23.7–8 (2006), 135–58 (p. 155).
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Post-colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, ed. by Sarah Harasym (New York: Routledge, 1990). p. 18.

[37] Haraway, Modest Witness, p. 190.

[38] Donna J. Haraway, ‘The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others’, in Cultural Studies, ed. by Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 295–337 (p. 300).

[39] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), p. 570n26.

[40] Ibid., p. 493.

[41] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Ghostwriting’, Diacritics, 25.2 (1995), 64–84 (p. 70).

[42] Ibid., p. 78.

The author would like to thank the participants in ‘Forms for Encounter and Exchange: A Laughing Waters Artist Field School Residency’ in 2015, where this paper was first presented, and Dr Marnie Badham for organising the event. We also thank the editors of JAR and the three anonymous referees for their constructive and detailed engagement with the paper, and the curators of the three exhibitions discussed herein.