A lot has been written about practice-related research in the arts over the past 20 years, especially with respect to academic-based PhD work. However, there is much debate as to its meaning and desired outcome (e.g., Kagan 2017, Candy and Edmonds 2018). Providing a review here would be exhaustive and beyond the scope of this article. However, we would like to place our research within the context of this field. Candy (2006) distinguishes between practice-based research, where the created object is the basis of the contribution to knowledge, and practice-led research, where the research leads to a new understanding about practice. Scrivener (2002), however, claims that the former is capable of producing only superficial knowledge and that visual art is not a form of knowledge communication. Instead, Candy and Edmonds (2018) argue that the goal of artistic research is to produce understandings that are culturally novel and not just novel to the creator, or to the individual observer of an art object. This is what separates the practitioner from the practitioner/researcher. Kagan argues that arts-based research, mostly originating in art schools, brings new approaches into the fields of social science and involves the systematic application of artistic process, the actual production of artistic objects, in all their multiple forms as a novel way of researching and understanding experience (Kagan 2017: 158). In this study, we will adhere to the definition put forth by Kagan (2017) and Candy and Edmonds, that ‘practice/arts-based research, is an original investigation undertaken in order to gain new knowledge, partly by means of practice and the outcomes of that practice’ (Candy and Edmonds, 2018: p. 63). According to Klein (2017), there is no difference between artistic and scientific research since they both have the same goal, which is ‘the aim for knowledge within research’.
The possibility of interweaving arts and the (social) sciences is particularly productive when applying a transdisciplinary approach and thus we locate our project within this tradition/definition. Transdisciplinary hermeneutics as originally conceived by Basarab Nicolescu, a theoretical physicist, and the team of philosopher/scientists Edgar Morin and Stéphane Lupasko together with art historian Rene Berger, is an approach that seeks a ‘symbiosis of modern science with philosophy, art, reflective practice and subjective experience’ and the ‘contextualisation of science in the framework of cultural ideas and concepts, values, emotions and visions, rather than in the framework of technology, economics and politics’ (Dieleman 2017: 171). With this approach, the focus is divided equally between the subject and the object of knowing, going beyond the intellect and including attention to embodied knowledge, imagination, emotions, and evaluating these processes in the engagement of their contextual unfolding (ibid.: 172).
Dieleman asserts that a ‘transdisciplinary subject of knowing is a truly embodied cognitioner’ and that this way of knowing is acquired through processes of ‘cognitive knowing, embodied knowing and enacted knowing’ (ibid.: 180). As Nicolescu argues, this method is a way of reversing modernity’s legacy of scientific knowledge production as happening independently from subjective experience and imagination, which has historically separated the knowing subject form the knowing process (ibid.: 181). Embodied knowledge, by contrast, is realised through feeling, intuiting, imagining, and sensing the world around us, as well as the impact it has on the inner self. It is very personalised, contextualised, and subjective (ibid.: 181).
The core competencies of a transdisciplinary hermeneutics according to Dieleman, and the ones we have attempted to explore in this project are: firstly, the importance it places on finding an equilibrium between mind, body, and environment and thus giving them equal access in the production of knowledge (ibid.: 189); and secondly, a focus on the importance of dialogue, which he refers to as ‘dialogues of knowledge’. He states: ‘The dialogue model creates contextualised understanding, and is rooted in conjunction and hermeneutics, as a way of knowing the world through interpreting wholes in the context of their parts, as parts in the context of their whole’ (ibid.: 192). Dialogues of knowledge also move away from universalist conclusions, instead engaging in storytelling and circular models of combined, overlapping multiple storylines and interrelated outcomes (ibid.: 193).
This transdisciplinary approach, which transcends the boundaries of academic and artistic disciplines and repositions them as methodological lenses to re-examine and thus illuminate their traditional knowledge foundations from a different but similar perspective, is exemplified in Michael Rothberg’s methodology of ‘multidirectional memory’ (Rothberg 2009). Rothberg brings Holocaust studies and postcolonial studies into a transdisciplinary dialogue that engages intellectuals, writers, filmmakers, and visual artists. He analyses examples in art and scholarship where historical trauma is re-viewed or translated through the lens of other historical traumas in a move away from competitive narratives of historical trauma toward more convivial, empathic ways of understanding the workings of power and domination, thereby fostering solidarity rather than competition. Here, and in a similar vein to Rothberg’s multidirectional memory as an analytical tool for looking, Donna Haraway’s feminist speculative fabulations, that it ‘matters what matters we use to think other matters with’, advocates for a vision that is inclusive, dialogic, and cross-referential, encouraging a search for commonalities in structure and patterns to learn from each other’s contexts and situatedness collectively (Haraway 2016: 12). This method of research is in line with her earlier work that reminds artists and researchers to reflect on their position in the creation of knowledge (Haraway 1988). In a similar vein, Dieleman argues that: ‘artful approaches allow an expanded reflexivity that is not only logico-deductive but is “more than rational” in its integration of hermeneutics, aesthetic, ontological and professional reflexivities — i.e., of reflexivity through the deconstruction of meaning-routines, the re-articulation of perceptions and forming (Gestaltung), the revisiting of being and existence, and an experiential knowing-in-doing’ (Dieleman quoted in Kagan 2017: 162).
Building on this approach, academic and artist Grada Kilomba, quoting Irmingard Staeuble, furthermore states that this kind of transdisciplinary work is crucial in transforming ‘the configurations of knowledge and power for the sake of opening up new spaces for theorising and practice’ (Kilomba 2019: 30). The more projects that bridge the gap between theory and practice, the more spaces will be made available for previously hidden knowledge to emerge and ultimately challenge the foundations of the dominant discourse. In this project, we were interested in exploring the transdisciplinary acts of talking to one another, juxtaposing disciplines of performance and academia, practice and theory. Grada Kilomba’s project Decolonising Knowledge, Performing Knowledge, WHILE I WRITE (2015) aims to bring theoretical and political texts or knowledges onto the stage and into performing bodies as a strategy to make the process of colonial aphasia (Stoler 2016) and the knowledge lost through this mechanism, visible, affectively perceivable, and dialogically resonant. Kilomba’s methodology incorporates the embodied domains of emotion, the senses, and the spirit into the production of knowledge, not as a replacement of rational thought but as an ontological extension of it. Thus, it aims to break with colonial knowledge production that propagates its scientific truth claims as objective and universally applicable by examining its research object from a disembodied, rational, scientific distance (Aqra 2016). Knowledge, Kilomba stresses, is always intricately tied to persons and thus bodies, even when overtly stated otherwise. Grosfoguel (2011) refers to this as the ‘point zero’ that hides itself as a point of view and thus gains the almighty authority of the ‘God’s eye view’. He calls this Eurocentric perspective the ‘ego politics of knowledge’ that places itself above ‘geopolitcs’ (Mignolo 2000b) or the ‘body-politics of knowledge’ (Fanon 1967, Anzaldúa 1987).
Kilomba’s aim in Decolonising Knowledge, Performing Knowledge, WHILE I WRITE in line with a transdisciplinary, postcolonial, and cultural studies approach, is to deconstruct the Cartesian split, beginning with Plato and consolidated with Descartes, between mind and body, which divides the semantic binary oppositions of ‘universal/specific, objective/subjective, neutral/personal, rational/emotional, impartial/partial, that are always violently and unequally stacked against one another’ (Kilomba 2019: 26). This binary is historically inscribed and reproduced in the marginalised bodies of women, the colonised, the migrant, the physically and mentally disabled, LGBTQs, and other marginalised groups in their silenced and subjugated existences in their often-silenced present (Mecheril and van der Haagen-Wulff 2016).
Applying a transdisciplinary methodology, Kilomba, and those working in similar ways across disciplines and knowledges, are performing what Sarah Ahmed urgently advocates for, namely, ‘to learn how to hear what is impossible’ (Ahmed 2012: 35). This decolonising approach is further mirrored in Argentinian philosopher Enrique Dussel’s concept of transmodernity, which offers a critique of modernity’s dual logics of rationality and emancipation. These logics subsume and conceal the concomitant existence of an irrational myth that re-produces a justification for genocidal violence. The aim is thus to ‘transcend’ ‘modernity’ leading to ‘transmodernity’ (Dussel 1993: 66). This concept reinterprets modernity by re-affirming the central components of those cultures excluded by modernity and, in so doing, provides a means to move towards completing the process of decolonisation in the 21st century (Dussel 2002: 224). Dussel thus questions what counts as knowledge and as modernity, seeing the tension produced by a juxtaposition of hegemonic and marginal ontologies as productive of emergent new knowledges (Dussel 2002). Similarly, Walter Mignolo’s concept of ‘border thinking’ critiques the unquestioned heteronormativity of epistemic, Eurocentric, patriarchal, imperial racism and believes that working with different knowledge traditions is a process that necessitates thinking ‘with, against and beyond the legacy of Western epistemology’ (Mignolo 2000a, 2009: 3). And finally, Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ plea for ‘an alternative thinking of alternatives’, which he summarises in Epistemology of the South (2016), does not exclude European knowledges, but rather thinks them within the mix of multiple ontologies (de Sousa Santos 2012: 52). He theorises the constitutive hegemonic principle of the ‘abyssal line’ that conceives ‘modern humanity’ on one side and ‘modern sub-humanity’ as subservient and ready to be sacrificed on the other (de Sousa Santos 2007: 5). To move beyond abyssal thinking, he advocates a four-tiered approach that involves a ‘sociology of absences’, a ‘sociology of emergences’, an ‘ecology of knowledges’, and the need for ‘intercultural translation’ (de Sousa Santos 2012: 52). He concludes with what he calls ‘diatopical hermeneutics’, which he explains as a negative universalism and the impossibility of cultural completeness; it is, in other words, ‘a general theory on the impossibility of a general theory’ (de Sousa Santos 2012: 60).
Transdisciplinary Participatory Research Framework
In relation to the theoretical methodology outlined here, the practical goals of our partner video conferences were to a) memorise our experience of being part of hegemonic structures and the influences on our bodily experience and b) to re-embody those memories through performance, which we developed in our various dialogues and were experimented with in the studio between conversations. Through this methodological framing, we intended to: re-embody our common experiences and make it accessible for our research; to place knowledge production at the interface of memorised experience and current physicality; and to conceptualise the transfer of knowledge/information as a performative and choreographic process.
Our methodology can be seen as part of a transdisciplinary participatory research framework. Participatory research methods are not limited to a specific research framework but are to be understood as a research attitude towards collaboration between researchers, co-researchers and participants, leading to collective processes of knowledge production and meaning-making (Bergold and Thomas 2010: 333). Participatory research combines ‘action and reflection, theory and practice, in participation with others, in pursuit of practical solutions of issues of pressing concern to people, and more generally flourishing of individual persons and their communities’ (Reason and Bradbury 2001: 1). Performative and or embodied forms of research are extremely suitable within these processes of participatory research, since collaboration and exchange incorporate a level of embodiment. Our individual video conversations were aimed at collaboration with our international partners and the continuous dialogue allowed for in-between performative, embodied, and or choreographic explorations.
Finally, locating a transdisciplinary hermeneutic approach within art-based practice, Sacha Kagan argues that ‘arts-based research endeavours to elicit unusual ways of thinking about social and natural phenomena, through the stimulation of uncertainty, risk-taking, and confrontation beyond superficial and taken-for-granted understandings and meanings, “broadening and deepening conversations”’ (Savin-Baden as quoted in Kagan 2017: 158). A process of asking questions that uncover new questions is part of the research method (Kagan 2017: 158). Hagan and Barron (2019) stress that one of the most important aspects of artistic research is the exploratory nature of journeying with destinations yet to be found.
The strength of the group brought together for our project lies in the fact that four of the six Cologne participants are researchers in academic institutions, well-practised in scientific research methods, while five participants are professional practitioners in the arts. With the video research partners, who are integral to the process, the diversity of professional backgrounds, cultures and ontologies further multiplies spanning the global North and South (see the links in the Task and Cast section). Hence, we feel that our combined backgrounds and diverse subject positions place us and this study at the forefront of practice-based, transdisciplinary, artistic research. The research presented in our performance project and this artistic research article here were, and still are, experiments that involve taking risks and being prepared to let go of control. The aim was, and is here now under closer examination, to see what knowledge could be transferred between participants and combined into a comprehensive artistic ‘object/outcome’ within an extremely limited time. This is an ongoing project, experimental in its nature. It is a starting point rather than a final destination. Not all questions raised here can be answered decisively, rather, the goal is to probe these questions performatively and open the way for further experimentation and inquiry.