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a companion chapter to Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body as Performance
Stern › In Production (A Narrative Inquiry on Interactive Art)

Introduction to an Experiment

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 On the balls of my feet, I involuntarily hover in the doorway to my supervisor’s office.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 ‘Was there something else you needed?’ Linda asks me, not even turning to face me from her computer. I want there to be. I rack my brain for a second, trying to think through how to voice my anxieties, before I finally summarize them with two simple words.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 ‘I’m… scared?’ My tone is surprised; the words come out along with a laugh. And it isn’t a nervous laugh; I find my fear funny. And it isn’t even real fear; it’s academic fear. In both my personal and professional lives, I’ve done and endured far worse than simply exiting my comfort zone whilst researching and writing a paper. Still, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Linda turns around to face me. It’s hard to read her expression. I had only left the office 15 minutes ago, after convincing her that what I had been calling an autoethnographic experiment is the best way forward for the chapter on my own art, to bring in another aspect of my work and research that is itself material process. I want to find a way to show the moving–thinking–feeling of experience and practice, what I say interactive art is, via studio production. I want to narrativize the performed connections of making art that led to my PhD research in the first place. I arrived with a stack of books and articles and notes, and outlined an argument for her, tying together institutionally recognized artistic work, action research, self-reflective design, feminist epistemology, with dashes of performance studies and embodied praxis here and there for good measure. I then looped it all together into how I might make the most dialogical text around my arts and research methodology – through something which has its own creative writing methodology. ‘I need,’ I’d concluded, ‘to be completely present if I’m going to show how this kind of critical thinking can be applied to critique, affection, reflection, and production. And I don’t mean that I will simply be writing as a subjective I,’ I had asserted – that wasn’t enough. ‘The art-making process needs to be detailed, on a personal and evocative level, so that readers can extrapolate and imagine their own potential implementation, and implications.’ The finale to my monologue was my handing over a copy of The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel about Autoethnography (Ellis, 2004).

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 ‘Oh my god,’ was Linda’s initial utterance after skimming the first two pages. The book begins in a completely casual and autobiographical literary style, with Carolyn Ellis emphatically, and empathetically, telling a potential graduate student and cancer survivor that of course she must let her experiences not only ‘get in the way’ of her research on the disease, but inform and guide it at its core. It will anyway, Ellis says in so many words, so why not be honest and transparent about it? The text will be far stronger for it. This is diametrically opposed to what most students in Linda’s department are told.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Professor Linda Doyle is a telecommunications engineer, who occasionally takes on artists for PhDs. She likes to shake things up a bit, and sees inherent value to bringing artistic and design practices – not to mention creativity – into usually rigid scientific fields. And she also likes artists that are fearless when it comes to taking on new technologies, and I (mostly) fit into this category. Sometimes her engineering background means she is wholly pragmatic about getting from point A to point B, and that’s been extremely helpful in my learning how to write more like a traditional academic (when I decide to do so). An added and unexpected bonus, I learned only after enrolling at Trinity College, is that Linda has little to prove when it comes to the validity of what she does within the academy – as many in the arts, in all fields really, do – and so is herself fearless when it comes to going out on a limb and pushing, sometimes obliterating, boundaries.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 From the first time I met Linda, we agreed that my role as an artist is, will, must be, present in my research; by the time I arrived at Trinity, I clearly saw artistic practice as research and my writing as inseparable from said research.1 But I never imagined I would write about my own work in the final text. That idea, not without its own heartaches, was all Linda’s; her engineering students are required to write about what they make, why wouldn’t I be? Colleagues and supervisors in arts departments at our and other local institutions in Dublin called this idea a ‘huge mistake,’ ‘unacceptable,’ and ‘implicitly lacking rigor.’ I imagine they’d cringe further at the format we finally agreed on.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 I honestly never expected Linda to go along with it, never thought it would be agreed upon. Write about my work, sure, but write about it creatively, autobiographically, with unfolding tensions as opposed to academic assertions? Sounds great to me, I admit, but I didn’t actually think my supervisor, the engineer, would think so, too. And now that Linda has agreed, rather than feeling elated, I feel uneasy, exposed, up the creek.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Am I even capable of this? What’s the narrative arc? Why should people care? How far do I go back – to when I first started making art? Do I begin with my personal motivations or my academic curiosities? These are inseparable, really, but I hadn’t always understood them as such. And, perhaps most importantly, aren’t the criteria that are meant to help us judge if an autoethnographic text is ‘working’ pretty vague? Ironically, all the arguments against autoethnography, all the points refuted so eloquently – and practically, using the autoethnographic style itself – by Ellis and Bochner and Denzin and countless others I have been reading over the preceding weeks, come flooding into my mind. And Linda sees it in my eyes, in my precarious doorway hovering.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Her response is twofold. She points at a chair for me to sit down, and while I oblige, she starts with the academic and pragmatic side of things.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 ‘You’re really far along here, Nat.’ Her voice is just above a whisper, as if she doesn’t want the neighbors – office neighbors that is – to hear. And she also purposefully calls me ‘Nat’; only my family and other people who have known me for ages – as a teenager – call me Nat, rather than Nathaniel. Linda doesn’t fall into this small crowd, but has met my family, seen ‘Nat’ in action, and is probably trying to make me feel more at ease. ‘You could always edit, re-write, or cut this if we agree you have to. You have more than enough traditionally rigorous academic text in the rest of your dissertation, and certainly enough time for changes. Yes, you are walking through a minefield of controversy in several different disciplines. No, it may not be worth it, given how small a percentage of the writing is about your own work. But it may very well wind up being one of the major contributions your research and text have to offer.’

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 This takes a few moments to sink in. When it does, I’m not sure I want it. This is way bigger than me and my practice. If I didn’t believe that I had something to offer in a comprehensive text, if I thought that my ‘biggest contributions’ were available only through my art – even if that included practice as well as the fruits of my labor – I wouldn’t be doing all this writing. Linda pauses briefly, then goes on as if reading my mind, with the more personal and second – but not secondary – response.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 ‘This is so you, Nathaniel,’ she starts. ‘You are an artist and a writer. That is your practice and your research, and the two are one and the same. You’re a storyteller and interrogator who works in and with many forms. Although the engineer in me wants to find a way, you simply can’t have the results of your multimodal explorations only represented in and as argumentative writing.2 All your hand-waving and excitement are themselves embodied through narrative voice and activity. This is exactly the place where your ideas come from. This is why your critical methodology includes looking at movement itself: “body-language,”‘ she laughs with the last four syllables – a chapter title – but then goes on after a half-second pause, and with a more serious tone.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 ‘I’m not that comfortable with this style of writing either. I think you have amazing courage for trying. I don’t know how it’ll fit, how it’ll work, if the University high-ups will be OK with –’ Linda shakes her head and waves her hand as if swatting that idea away. My mind wanders to a paper I read recently, where the author notes the accepted practice of ‘experimental discourse’ and writing for ‘respectable, established’ academics, but never for ‘graduate students writing dissertations’ (Spigelman, 2001: 68).3 I already know Linda and I both agree this is worth trying.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 We both keep quiet for what seems a long minute, and then I get an unexpected rush of energy, picking up where I left off. ‘It’s really just a chapter on one of the many avenues of my research practice, and how it feeds back into itself. That’s it. I have to make two concrete arguments.’ I loosely hold my right thumb up in front of me,

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 ‘One, why it’s there: to show the ongoing development and understanding of interactive art through embodiment, and vice versa, but in arts production and that experience, in addition to historical criticism and the museum space. My approach to, and practice of, viewing and criticizing art continues to be per-formed, as in birthed and changed, along with my experience and practice of making art. I am trying to engage with incipient materials and ideas, and their emergent relations, and then attempting to carry that framework of engagement over from my studio to the gallery, and back again.’ I pause, reflecting on what I just said, and nodding to myself (I hope I don’t look smug), before I go on. ‘And,’ I flip out my second, pointer finger along with the first,

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 ‘Two, why a narrative inquiry is most befitting: because everything here,’ I wave my hand around as if my computer and notes and ideas are in the air, ‘is about material process along with critical inquiry: moving and thinking and feeling provoked through affective evocation. It’s about how they are all mutually emergent and, you know, with,’ I criss-cross my two extended fingers to illustrate that last word. I stop again for a moment, this time keeping still and nodding only in my mind. ‘Those two points are a good foundation, whether my readers – or whomever – like and agree with the style I’ve chosen or not’.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 We both breathe in, purse our lips, then breathe out at the same time. We look at each other and laugh-snort awkwardly. I close my eyes for a moment to think: this is going to be really difficult. I open my eyes and continue, more slowly.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 ‘I just have to get across that while my writing and making, and my moving–thinking–feeling between them, are entwined practically, the best way to re-present them and what they each accomplish in text is by very different – and thus also obviously separate – means. We can be blunt about it: narrative is affective.’

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 I’m silent for a few seconds, then add, ‘I should also make clear that this chapter can be read as staging an implicit body as performance. It situates bodies and matter as always per-formed (emergent and relational, etc), and it implicates other conceptual and material forms and agencies in that ongoing formation.’ I look at the ceiling as if it will tell me what comes next, then go on. ‘It performs art and philosophy as potential practices of one another. It simply,’ I shake my hands at the air a bit ‘starts earlier, whilst the work is in production in the studio. It keeps going as it carries on through situations in the gallery, then back to the studio again – feeding into the next work, and so on. I’m… amplifying that experience, creating a kind of semblance of it. Potentializing it.’

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 I take a long breath and look at Linda again. ‘I’ll make a story about how each question leads to the following piece, in that quirky way you keep telling me I do, but stress that this is examining production, affection, and reflection with the same method, or at least the same theoretical and creative approach, as the rest of my text and work.’

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Another pause. I sigh, and my supervisor half smiles / half grins.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 ‘I think you can write this,’ Linda answers firmly. ‘I think you can make this interesting, and make all your points within the narrative.’ She nods, almost to herself. ‘But I also think you have to convince Nicole that it’s the right way to proceed.’ I raise my eyebrows. ‘If you can convince her, you’ll have convinced yourself,’ she wisely finishes. ‘And also me,’ she attaches to the end a moment later.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 I get up to leave. ‘I don’t think Nicole will go for it,’ I say as I walk out, but I’m happy we’ve agreed on a threshold test for our unfolding plan. My wife will give me a run for my money on this. She’ll save me from myself – and not for the first time, I laugh internally. Like I always say: Nicole is the smart one; I’m the loud one.

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NOTES

  1. 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0
  2. Here I’m reminded of Elaine Bass Jenks. When studying a group of visu- ally impaired children, including her own, Jenks continuously reminds herself and the reader that ‘My mom role was always present…. My self image as a mom affected my study as well…. And as a researcher who is a mom, I believe I expend more energy researching a topic that affects my child than I would if I studied a more distant”other”‘ (Jenks, 2002: 180–1). Similarly – though certainly not as intensely – my own role as an artist relates to my roles as writer and researcher of the arts, and as husband and father and teacher and collaborator (and friend and, and, and…). I am always playing all of these roles at once, but I expend more energy on given texts and their analyses if they affect my other practices.
  3. As Ellis asserts in a collaborative paper with her partner, ‘I don’t want to write in an argumentative style – you know, the “here’s what’s wrong with what you say, you don’t understand my position, mine is better than yours” kind of writing … Point-to-point refutation has never changed my mind; it certainly has never changed what I feel in my heart’ (Ellis and Bochner, 2006: 434). Also see ‘Being real: moving inward toward social change’ (Ellis, 2002).
  4. There are, despite this, a number of autoethnographic PhDs – or sections of PhDs – that have indeed been written. These are mostly by students of the aforementioned scholars – and other advocates of the form – but also include professional and managerial practices, as well as researchers in the field of art education. See, for example, ‘Up Close and Personal: Reflections on our Experience of Supervising Research Candidates who are Using Personal Reflective Techniques’ (Boucher and Smyth, 2004).

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Source: http://stern.networkedbook.org/introduction-to-an-experiment/