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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)

It’s Not Really Autoethnographic, but OK

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Nicole Ridgway, my sometimes collaborator and often-cited scholar, is also my life partner. It’s mid-2008 and I’ve just walked into our tiny flat in Dublin; I’m doing that doorway-hovering thing again, so she knows I want to speak with her. Nicole puts her finger on her lips and nods towards our two-year-old daughter, Sidonie Ridgway Stern, napping in the bed, then gets up and follows me to the next room.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 ‘I’m exhausted,’ Nicole starts, as she sits down on the couch. There are boxes everywhere; she’s been packing all day. I’m trying to get a draft of my dissertation done before we move from Dublin to Wisconsin: I have a new job teaching digital art in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She sighs. ‘Let’s not do this again any time soon,’ she looks at me with a half- joking smile.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 ‘What? Write a PhD? Have a baby? Move continents?’ It’s the second time we’ve done that last one in less than 2 years. I sit across from her.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 ‘Take your pick,’ she says drily, looking out the window and not quite smiling. She then turns back to face me, and asks, ‘What’s up?’

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 With degrees in drama, performance studies, and anthropology, Nicole knows a lot about the theories and practices I write about – including those in this chapter. ‘I’m thinking about writing an autoethnography for the section on my art,’ I try to say stoically.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 We read each other’s body language for a few seconds. I’m avoiding anxiety cues: I do a closed-mouth smile and tilt my head. And I can tell, through the way she looks up and bites the inside of her lip, that Nicole is going to give me a chance to explain, but her initial reaction is that this might not be the right way forward. I wonder if her connotations for autoethnography are the same as mine. It’s probably been a long time since she’s looked at the field.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 ‘Alright,’ she says, looking at me squarely, making a plan in her head. ‘We’ll get to the question of autoethnography in a minute….’ My jaw tightens at the implied criticism, but I know that together we can work out what’s best. ‘There are a lot of other overarching issues you need to address before you can even begin talking about your own work, in whatever style you wind up using. You don’t want to rehearse the same old debates around validity for arts practice, research methodologies, subjectivity, etc, but you still need to get them out of the way, bracket them off as recognized.’

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 I knew this was coming; this debate is, I think, the easy part. Nicole had pointed me to a third of the readings I’d started with when embarking on this journey, and we both agreed – after Linda’s initial encouragement – how important it is to include my art as part of the text. In fact, she and Linda had both said that my role as an artist is one of the unique contributions I have to offer, what makes me stand out from amongst most of the theorists I use to support my arguments. But she’s right; I still need to address why I’m going there.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 ‘It’s not about validity,’ I start, sounding more defensive than I want to. Nicole raises an eyebrow, and I go on more calmly. ‘We know it’s valid; this goes beyond that. The entire text will be much stronger as an argument, as a study, as a model, if it includes writing about my own practice.’ This, I say with confidence. ‘My art led me to my writing just as much as my writing continues to guide my art. And this section would also serve to amplify the implicit body framework’s value in self-reflective practice – critique in addition to criticism. Feedback loops for praxis. Implicit and explicit making and meaning-making. My practice – just as my art – is itself a framework for understanding embodiment through interactive art and interactive art through embodiment.’

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Nicole smiles a naughty grin. ‘Very poetic.’ Although born and raised in South Africa, Nicole’s dry humor is 100% English; it appears often and in full force. ‘But you need to at least summarize the discourses out there, the longevity and clamor of some of the debates that, despite controversy, speak to the presence of artistic inquiry on the whole within the academic landscape. Practice is recognized in journals, PhD programs, for promotion and tenure. None of this has yet settled, which is why you still have to point it out, but it’s available enough that you can show its acceptance by referencing just a few key texts. Where are you pulling that from?’

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 I realize now that Nicole just wants to make sure I can write the justification into the section itself. On some level, she’s giving it to me – although by the time my scribbles from this dialogue are edited and written into the text, it will be my own thinking and words (well, mostly). For now, she just wants to know I’ve done my homework; or rather, she wants my eventual readers to know I’ve done my homework, and more importantly, who my predecessors are. Fair enough – I just had this conversation with Linda, so it’s still fresh in my mind. That fact doesn’t stop me from pulling out both my laptop and a stack of printed and hand-written notes. I start by paraphrasing from Jennifer Mason’s first-year textbook:

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 ‘I’d say the easiest place to start is with qualitative research more generally, and parallel it with arts production. Qualitative research is “specific in some way to [a] particular research project,” and these projects tend to have problems that “cannot be anticipated in advance.” Researchers “need to develop active skills which include identifying the key issues, working out how they might be resolved, and understanding the intellectual, practical, ethical and political implications of different ways of resolving them”’ (Mason, 2002: 1).4 I look up from my notes, ‘Sounds like what artists do, no?’

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 ‘So you’re saying art-making is qualitative research?’

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 ‘I’m saying it’s a form of research – and that it could be argued that it’s qualitative.’

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 ‘Well it’s not quantitative,’ she smiles a very small smile. It’s a nice smile.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 ‘This, I know,’ I give a half-laugh. ‘But some artists would prefer not to lump what they do with qualitative research; they want to think of it as a completely different approach.’

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 ‘What do you think about that?’

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 ‘I don’t really care what you call it, as long as it’s recognized as rigorous work. According to this book, qualitative researching promotes “critical yet productive ways of thinking and doing” and asks its practitioners to “think and act strategically in ways which combine intellectual, philosophical, technical, and practical concerns rather than compartmentalizing these into separate boxes”. Sounds like art- making to me. We just wind up with different outcomes’ (Mason, 2002: 2). I take a breath and smile with excitement. ‘You should see this huge book I found by Sage publications, an edited collection in its third edition, um,’ I fumble through my notes, ‘the Handbook of Qualitative Research; they have sections on narrative inquiry, artistic inquiry – though that’s mostly for activism and community-based art in their interpretation – and autoethnography, so it feels like I’d be in pretty good company as a qualitative researcher’ (Denzin, 2005; Chase, 2005; Finely, 2005; Jones, 2005).

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 ‘I see your point and I think it’s a good one,’ Nicole starts, and I feel pleased with myself, ‘but arts practice is a different kind of engagement, a material one with very different goals and, as you say, outcomes – sometimes with no goals or outcomes, depending on who you ask what kind of work they are making. I think you need to look at arts production specifically, argue how its methods are attendant on the same emergent categories dealt with in and beyond your text.’ She pauses. ‘In other words, it’s not just your artworks that encourage movement, but your arts practices as well.’

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 ‘Yeeeees,’ I say, taking notes with perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm. ‘And the writing is trying to reflect that. What I’m doing –’

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 ‘Actually,’ Nicole cuts me off, ‘I think the writing can do more than reflection and illustration, and we’ll get there, but I’m not done questioning you about research yet, dammit,’ ending the last word with a grin. ‘What’ve you found about arts practice as research specifically? Did you get that Graeme Sullivan book you found online?’

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 I didn’t use the word illustration, but I let it slide for now. ‘Oh, yes.’ I pull out the Trinity library copy of Art Practice as Research: Inquiry in the Visual Arts and hand it to Nicole, then find my notes on it. ‘He’s straightforward in saying that “the imaginative and intellectual work undertaken by artists is a form of research.” He follows Elliot Eisner, among others, in saying that arts practice is a “scholarly inquiry,” that, in common with more traditional forms of research, gives “attention… to rigor”’ (Sullivan, 2005: xi-xiii). ‘Tangentially but related,’ I go on, ‘Erin Manning and Brian Massumi, who run The Sense Lab – what they call a “research creation” group in Montreal – consider “research to be creation in germ, and creation to produce its own concepts for thought”’ (Manning and Massumi, 2009).

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 ‘Good. Very good. And what about thinking and talking and crit? I’d argue that reflection into practice, on practice, and about practice is a mode of theorization.’

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 ‘Sullivan goes there a bit, following people like Donald Schön, and touching very, very briefly on something called A/R/Tography, which combines Art-making with Research and Teaching (the A-R-T in ART-ography). But since his book is itself a reflection on practice, he’s more interested in practice towards an artifactual end, towards art objects, and legitimizing that on the whole. I love this, of course, but I’d say that action research and its later incarnation of reflective practice are probably closer to what you mean here, because they are often “reported on,” in text form.’

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 ‘Go on then,’ Nicole invites. I turn to my laptop again and find a few pages that I’ve typed up on the subject.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 ‘What I appreciate about the model Ernest Stringer puts forward for action research is that he likens practice to a spiral of look-think- act-look-think-act – ad infinitum’ (Stringer, 2007). I twirl my finger around while I say this, and Nicole moves her eyes but not her head to look at it; she’s trying not to laugh. I put my hand down, and go on. ‘It’s more related to sociology, maybe ethnography, too, but has a kind of activist approach. It “grew out of attempts to acquire knowledge that would help change social systems.” Given that, there also tends to be more of an emphasis on local contexts, rather than generalizable truths’ (Candy, 2006; Guba and Stringer, 2001: xii).

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Nicole nods slowly. ‘So,’ she says thoughtfully, ‘action research requires intervention; it impacts and changes the situation on a small scale, with large-scale implications. It could certainly be argued that your art does that, and perhaps some of your practice, when the two can’t be separated,’ she says, referring to some of my more recent interventionist and event-based art. ‘But does your practice do that when you’re alone, simply working on a new installation or print in the studio?’ She raises her eyebrows.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 ‘No, I’d say it doesn’t. But Donald Schön’s The Reflective Practitioner,’ I find the page with my notes on the topic and start reading aloud, ‘”provides a link between action research and practice-based research. Schön is concerned with an individual’s reflection on his or her own professional practice as distinct from the early forms of action research which were concerned with situations more broadly”’ (Candy, 2006: 19). I go on more conversationally ‘Schön himself calls self-reflective thinking an “inquiry into the epistemology of practice;” he’s interested in artists’ and designers’ “capacity for reflection,” in studying our “knowing-in-practice,” the “actual performance” of what we do’ (Shön, 1983: viii-ix).

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 ‘Mostly, Schön wants to place value on how professionals work – the same value granted to academic researchers who write. And he, at one point, goes so far as to say that an awareness of this kind of – what he calls “intuitive,” but I’d call embodied, material, or implicit – thinking “usually grows out of practice in articulating it to others,” in critical and “reflective conversation”’ (Shön, 1983: 243, 296).

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Nicole is nodding when she asks, ‘So why not stop there? Why not just follow his lead on that?’

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 I don’t miss a beat: ‘Because, like Sullivan, while Schön wants to give credit to practice as research, in the cases he looks at, that practice leads to the production of a material project only, not an additional text. Ironically, it’s those practitioners in between Sullivan and Schön, the action researchers, who tend to do write-ups, who want to add to discourse through both art-based and writer-ly – is that a word? – contributions.’ Nicole does something between a nod and a shake that reads as ‘just-go-on’ in response to the tangential question, so I continue. ‘Schön wants the process to be seen as rigorous on its own, because of its continuous outcomes in art or design – and I agree with his assessment entirely. But what I’m doing is writing out, or rather artistically playing out in text, that creative reflection and critical process in a kind of doubled gesture. This is also what’s different from action researchers: I’m moving-thinking-feeling in the making and then moving-thinking-feeling again in the re-writing; each is its own feedback loop, also feeding into the other. I’m continuously re-citing and re-situating, if you will.’ I smile with my improvisational reference to Walter Benjamin. ‘On the extremely rare occasions where we get such a document or text with regards to self-reflective arts practices, it tends not to be the artists themselves who are speaking; it’s usually a very traditional, academic study by an outsider. The Schön book itself is a perfect example of what I mean.’

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 ‘Nathaniel,’ Nicole’s tone changes from inquisitive to disagreeable. She was with me until that very last point about artist texts, and I realize I’ve gone a little overboard. ‘You know there are plenty of artists who write about their own work. You’ve read them: Joan Jonas, Robert Morris, Allan Kaprow, Marcel Duchamp, Mark Rothko, John Cage, Yvonne Rainier, and Richard Schechner. Brecht and Peter Brook. Critical Art Ensemble, Eduardo Kac, Adrian Piper, Anna Deavere Smith, Eugene Barba. Rebecca Schneider, although not an artist in the way you’re talking about here, writes about her dream sequences and how they led to some of her ideas when exploring the explicit body – a text which later became a book you reference heavily with regards to your implicit body. Sure, some of these practitioners separate their making and their writing, some of them mostly write to support their own work – in artist statements and documentation – but several do explore practice itself, and even describe what they do in narrative form, how they reach certain conclusions or projects. Augusto Boal, for example, writes exquisite stories on where he finds art and meaning.’ Nicole stops here, kind of awkwardly – given her momentum of intense and perhaps not entirely necessary name- dropping – and waits for a response.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 ‘You’re right,’ I say firmly, with a nod. ‘It’s out there. What I’m doing is not completely unique; it’s just rare – especially within the academy, even more so in a PhD, and that tiny list gets even smaller when you consider my combination of personal narrative with academic text in this particular way. But no, I’m not alone, and I should be using my predecessors to support what I’m doing, rather than ignoring them.’

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 ‘Exactly.’

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 ‘But why I was going there,’ I stretch out the ‘o’ in going, and add a sing-song bent to my voice, so as to lighten the mood, ‘was to differentiate between practice-based and practice-led research.’

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 ‘Why is that necessary?’

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 ‘Given how few arts practice-related PhDs there are out there,5 I began doing a little research on how they are organized. One of the more interesting ones was in Australia –’

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 ‘I told you that,’ Nicole interrupts with a brag, ‘they are doing some really funky stuff out there.’

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 ‘Ahem,’ I say sarcastically before I carry on. ‘This is an important distinction to them. I bring it up because I want to show where I’d sit between practice-based and practice-led, and because both forms are recognized for a PhD, specifically.’ Nicole looks at me intently.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 ‘According to Linda Candy at Creativity and Cognition Studios, or CCS,’ I restart with a slightly professorial tone and show her the printed out notes now in my hand, ‘”If the research includes a creative artifact as the basis of the contribution to knowledge, the research is practice-based … If the research leads primarily to new understandings about the nature of practice, it is practice-led”’ (Candy, 2008b).

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 ‘And you argue your research leads to both?’

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 ‘Yes. But it seems to be different from their work in other, perhaps more important, ways as well. Candy explains that in practice-based PhDs, “Whilst the significance and context of the claims are described in words, a full understanding can only be obtained with direct reference to the outcomes”’ (Candy, 2006). Nicole nods her head up and down, and I carry on, ‘This is true enough for the artwork itself, but my writing is not there only to “describe the context and significance” of said work, it’s for the context and significance of the work specifically in relation to critique and criticism, for understanding experience and practice as a performance model for different forms of philosophy and aesthetics. It’s an/other form of work.’

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 ‘So then wouldn’t it simply be practice-led? I see your point that your practice also leads to art, but the art is not included as part of your PhD, so this would just be considered practice-led by their standards.’ After a beat, Nicole adds, ‘Right?’

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 ‘I suppose. But I’d argue there’s another difference, an important one that the CCS doesn’t seem to address. You bring up that my practice also leads to art, to quote Candy, “the invention of ideas, images, performances and artifacts including design”’ (Candy, 2008a). I continue, ‘In this chapter, though, I’m writing about my own process of making. And rather than attempt to take an objective stance on that like in practice-led research, or simply write artist statements and show the objects like in practice-based research, I’ve decided to try and re-present the two creatively, as a narrativized and localized – perhaps contextualized and potentialized – invitation into practice.’ I call up the CCS page in my browser. ‘The practice-led PhDs tend to be critics or curators writing about artists in methodical, dense theoretical – or catalogue essay-like – texts similar to the rest of my work, unlike what I want to do in this chapter. I want to stage a kind of experiment into advancing knowledge through the experience of practice, and practical experience: an art philosophy for the studio. It’s a creative text where I am both researcher and researched, and where I write in such a way that both aspects are present, with greater flux and openness in the telling and its interpretation.’

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 ‘And this is what led you to autoethnography.’ It’s a statement, not a question, and although this tells me that Nicole sees my trajectory of thinking at this point, I can tell she’s still not convinced that it’s the right conclusion. There’s silence for about 20 seconds. We blink at each other.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 ‘What?!’ I finally ask in what is not quite a shout. She hears my frustration, but looks at me with her you knew this was coming and so should not be upset, and besides we’ll work this out and you know it face. ‘Sorry,’ I say, and ask again, more softly. ‘What?’

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 ‘Well, I’m just not sure it’s ethnography,’ she answers, sounding like she feels sorry for saying it – but I can tell she’s been bottling this up for a while. ‘I mean, from what you’re saying, there is a field site, maybe, but there is no “other,” no outside group you are speaking about or for or with.’

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 The penny drops, and my face falls a bit; but then I realize this is not really a big problem. ‘Maybe you’re right. I mean, I’d argue, first, that I am indeed writing about a group – artists – so we can learn something about them, and about ourselves, and their and our creative relations to other matter, people, concepts. And second, I’d say that although it’s local to, well, me, I’m looking beyond my role as an artist. The purpose of this document is to again advance how artists and critics engage experience and practice more generally. That could be considered ethnographic.’

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 ‘Point taken,’ Nicole adds gently. But I can tell, in her higher-than-usual voice, that there’s more to her discomfort with autoethnography than this. Still, I’m admittedly thrilled that it seems to be just the classification that bothers her, not the style. It’s a bit scary, as per my conversation with Linda, but also exciting. I think in convincing Nicole I really am convincing myself. Linda is smart, I say to myself with a smile.

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 I suddenly remember something else I read about ‘narrative visibility of the researcher’s self’ within groups they were already a part of and writing about (Anderson, 2006: 7). I start talking again.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 ‘He’s avowedly more analytic than evocative, but Leon Anderson says something that I think might help here.’ I’m looking for the hard copy, which I know I have in the pile. I remember that I had written in the margins of the text, rather than taking actual notes; he wasn’t my favorite on the topic: precisely too analytic, and Bochner and Ellis agree with me on this point (Ellis and Bochner, 2006).

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 ‘Here we go: Anderson actually calls attention to Patricia and Peter Adler’s distinction between “opportunistic” and “convert” CMRs, or “complete member researchers”. The former are “thrown into [their] group by chance circumstance (e.g. illness), or have acquired intimate familiarity through occupational, recreational, or lifestyle participation.” The latter join the group as they research them, become members over time. Although I dislike the exploitative connotation of the word “opportunistic” – and perhaps this relates to your distaste with ethnography more broadly,’ she smiles a pursed-lip smile and raises her eyebrows with a nod, ‘I’d obviously be in this category’ (Anderson, 2006: 8; Adler and Adler, 1987: 67–84).

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 Nicole starts with a new tack. ‘I guess my question would be this: given your and my discomfort with some of the issues ethnography raises more generally – and I don’t want to have that discussion, just acknowledge that it exists – why even go there? I understand what you’re trying to do and think it’s a great idea, but wouldn’t the rest of what you’ve offered, along with feminist epistemology, be enough to make your argument and frame? Autoethnography is coming out of that trajectory anyhow, out of the work of the likes of Nancy Hartsock and Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, Linda Martin-Alcoff, and Jane Flax. Several performance studies scholars followed them, and are a part of your other research – like Rebecca Schneider and Peggy Phelan. This is about the locus of knowledge production, about hermeneutics and representation. There are many ways to write this that are not necessarily autoethnographic, and any of those possibilities could be justified from various trajectories,’ she says helpfully.

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 ‘You’re right,’ I begin. ‘When Bochner and Ellis talk about going against the “disembodied authorial academic voice that argues and tries to persuade,” for example, they pay direct homage to feminism, as well as the more specific “influx of women, people of color, and Third World sociologists” in their field’ (Ellis and Bochner, 2006: 441–2). ‘Stacy Jones goes there, too,’ I add, grabbing and again glancing over my notes from her chapter ( Jones, 2005).

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 I look up and out the window, and think for a minute, then look down again, as if searching for an answer in Jones’ text. What is it that drew me to autoethnography?

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 ‘I guess there are two things I like best about autoethnography,’ I say, thinking aloud. ‘The first is that they treat the writing itself as a modality of practice. I understand that there are many fields that insert themselves into the work, but autoethnography is something that, according to Jones, “shows – performs – a writing practice that tries to respond to the crisis of praxis.” You can see where that fits into my implicit manifesto a bit. The act of writing is akin to the making of an artwork, is an incorporating practice, even though the text itself will exist as an inscription’ (Jones, 2005: 783). Implicit manifesto? That’s funny.

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 I keep going. ‘Jones says that a “perspectival, and limited vantage point can tell, teach, and put people in motion…. personal text can move writers and readers, subjects and objects, tellers and listeners into this space of dialogue, debate, and change”’ ( Jones, 2005: 763– 4). I grab my laptop and search for an old post on my weblog, one with a citation from when I was first reading Brian Massumi.

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 ‘Sorry,’ I start, ‘just wanted to find – here it is. That quote reminded me of a passage from Parables for the Virtual. Massumi explains that his “writing tries not only to accept the risk of sprouting deviant, but to invite it.” This quote; it’s really good.’

‘Take joy in your digressions. Because that is where the unexpected arises. That is the experimental aspect. If you know where you will end up when you begin, nothing has happened in the meantime. You have to be willing to surprise yourself writing things you didn’t think you thought. Letting examples burgeon requires using inattention as a writing tool. You have to let yourself get so caught up in the flow of your writing that it ceases at moments to be recognizable to you as your own.’ (Massumi, 2002: 18)

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 ‘He talks about affirmative methods of writing, “productivism” and “inventiveness”. I like the idea that this becomes a kind of meta-text in its thinking and re-thinking and thinking again, about itself and its influences. Autoethnographers discover things, and ask their readers to discover things, in their personal writings’ (Massumi, 2002: 12–13; Ellis and Bochner, 2006; Jones, 2005). ‘This chapter would be like my arts production, like the implicit body approach. It’s about understanding the material and conceptual through how they help form one another.’

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 Nicole looks thoughtful. ‘I’m not sure you need to be an autoethnographer to discover things through writing in this way. You’re following the likes of Dilthey and Whitehead; Victor Turner linked writing and the performative to philosophy and sociology and anthropology, too. Performance studies followed his lead on that; there are the feminists we talked about. I mean, what you’re saying here is what I alluded to earlier – that this can be more than just reflection or illustration, that it can be a performance itself; it doesn’t need a classification that might have potentially negative connotations to do that.’

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 I nod, and the words come from my mouth slowly. I’m unable to tell if they come after I think them, or I speak them in order to think. ‘I guess, with autoethnography, it’s the avowed autobiographical aspects that make the most sense to me. I am researcher and researched, remember.’ I squint my eyes, lick my lips, then, on my laptop, call up something about this. I again paraphrase aloud.

63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 ‘Anthropologist Deborah Reed-Danahay says that autoethnography

synthesizes both a postmodern ethnography, in which the realist conventions and objective observer position of standard ethnography have been called into question, and a postmodern autobiography, in which the notion of the coherent, individual self has been similarly called into question. The term has a double sense – referring either to the ethnography of one’s own group or to autobiographical writing that has ethnographic interest. Thus, either a self (auto) ethnography or an autobiographical (auto) ethnography can be signaled by ‘auto- ethnography.’ (Reed-Danahay, 1997: 2)

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 ‘I get it,’ Nicole says quickly, ‘but you don’t have to call ethnography into question. Valid form or not, there’s no need for you to have to take that on. It is tangential to what you are doing.’ She pauses to let this sink in. ‘What’s the second thing you like about autoethnography?’

66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 I shrug. ‘Style.’ I start rattling off quotes from my notes, mixing them with my own interpretations on and off the page: ‘Jones and Denzin and Bochner and Ellis call it an intricate weaving of life and art; writing towards a moment to enact and / or change the world and our ways of seeing and being in, and as, and with it; they say it challenges, contests, or endorses the official, hegemonic ways of seeing and representing; they want their writings to linger in the world of experience, to feel it, taste it, sense it, live in it; their goals are evocation and empathy, they dwell in the flux of lived experience’ (Jones, 2005: 765; Denzin, 2006: 422; Ellis and Bochner, 2006: 431–5).

67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 ‘Actually,’ I’m on a roll now, ‘the way they differentiate between ethnography and autoethnography – and perhaps I just want my own little auto- for reflective practice here, which might be your point – is not dissimilar to the Zeno paradox. Remember: his arrow never goes anywhere if we understand it as merely a series of halfway points, rather than as in motion. When criticizing Anderson’s appropriation of autoethnography for more analytic texts, Bochner and Ellis say that they “want to put culture or society into motion,” while Anderson “wants to stop it, freeze the frame, change the context.” An autoethnography understands that passage precedes position, that continuity and movement are more primary than stasis’ (Ellis and Bochner, 2006: 433).

68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0 I can see that Nicole is starting to buy it. I imagine part of this is because it kind of sounds like something she would say, and smile to myself. ‘Did Linda have any reservations?’ she asks.

69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0 Now we’re getting somewhere! I have to calm myself.

70 Leave a comment on paragraph 70 0 ‘Well, aside from being jarred by the style,’ Nicole interrupts me with a snorting laugh that says ‘I’ll bet,’ but I go on without stopping, ‘she wondered how to judge such a thing.’

71 Leave a comment on paragraph 71 0 ‘And?’

72 Leave a comment on paragraph 72 0 ‘Well, Bochner and Ellis really just talk about an emphasis on evocation rather than theory development, that this makes it “good” – which the artist in me loves. But I also found this paper that talks about the dialogs between Aristotle and Plato, about enthymeme and example’ (Ellis and Bochner, 2006: 442; Spigelman, 2001: 72). I scrounge around my notes again. ‘Ah, here she is, uh, he is, uh,’ I fumble a bit because the author is female but references another paper by a male academic, and the writing is so interwoven that I can’t tell who is speaking sometimes. I tangentially think that I probably make that entanglement mistake myself sometimes, but force myself to get back to the topic at hand. ‘This paper basically says that we can judge autoethnographic text based on 1. what assumptions we have to make to believe the story, and 2. what we can gain from the story and apply in the future. Basically, it’s no different from any analytic text and how we might evaluate it. It’s just argued in a contrasting format, in a narrative paradigm so as to encourage,’ I’m paraphrasing a text as I read it live again, ‘experiential contradiction, disruptive layering, and personal interpretation over asserting absolute truths’ (Spigelman, 2001: 72–5; Raymond, 1984).

73 Leave a comment on paragraph 73 0 ‘And it has to be a good story,’ Nicole adds.

74 Leave a comment on paragraph 74 0 I didn’t expect to shift topics so quickly, but pick up on it as best I can, luckily finding my notes on this quite quickly. ‘Yes – Bochner and Ellis are clear about that. “There has to be a plot, a moral, a point to the story. The difference between stories and traditional analysis is the mode of explanation and its effects on the reader. Traditional analysis is about transferring information, whereas narrative inquiry emphasizes communication. It’s the difference between monologue and dialogue” – I’m thinking of throwing in a lot of conversation – “between closing down interpretation and staying open to other meanings, between having the last word and sharing the platform. Stories have always been used as a mode of explanation and inquiry…”’ (Ellis and Bochner, 2006: 438)

75 Leave a comment on paragraph 75 0 ‘OK,’ Nicole finally says, and I get a simultaneous feeling of excitement and dread. ‘I’m convinced of the style – why and how and what it hopes to accomplish and also how readers might judge it. But I’m still not convinced it’s ethnography. Isn’t there anything similar in the art world?’

76 Leave a comment on paragraph 76 0 ‘There’s that A/R/Tography thing I mentioned.’ I pull out my notes on that. ‘They talk about dealing with the limitations of more traditional modes of research, reference practice-based inquiry, want arts research not to be thought of as qualitative but as its own mode, “a loss, a shift, or a rupture where in absence, new courses of action un/fold”’ (Springgay, Irwin and Kind, 2005: 897). My voice is a little wishy-washy here, and Nicole can hear it, but I keep going. ‘They say their forms include “research as performative, research as provocative, and research as poetic”’ (Springgay, Irwin and Kind, 2005: 898).

77 Leave a comment on paragraph 77 0 Nicole stops me by putting her hand up; it’s a soft gesture, but accomplishes its goal. In her driest voice, with elongated vowels, she asks, ‘And you don’t want to be categorized with them because…?’

78 Leave a comment on paragraph 78 0 I laugh. ‘They’re obviously really smart, and I like a lot of the art the curator / academic, Stephanie Springgay, is showcasing; but their texts on A/R/Tography read like traditional academic essays, and the available writing samples I’ve found seem to be either standard artist statements or bulleted PowerPoint presentations. They’re saying something very close to what I am, but the actual narratives in the texts I’ve found don’t speak to me in the way autoethnography does. And isn’t that the point? Empathy and evocation? Also,’ I hate to admit this, ‘I don’t really like how they spell it.’

79 Leave a comment on paragraph 79 0 Nicole and I laugh, and then there’s silence for a short while. Nicole is looking thoughtfully out the window again, and I give her a minute to collect her thoughts. Finally, she licks her lips and I know she’s about to be brilliant. I get some butterflies in my stomach. I wonder, not for the first time today, if there is an empirical way to prove to the world that my wife is the best wife ever.

80 Leave a comment on paragraph 80 0 ‘Nathaniel,’ she begins, and then pauses for effect, ‘there’s a long history of this kind of thinking, and it has quite profound epistemological antecedents. Anthropology itself, for example, with its particular concerns with power relations and writing and so-called inside / outside and self / other relationships, has had an acute critical concern about representation, knowledge, and power. And, I have to reiterate again that this sort of “autobiographical” route’ – she tallies her fingers as quotation marks while she says this – ‘is just one approach in many possible philosophical ways of thinking through the conundrum of a subject who produces knowledge, and the object of that knowledge.’

81 Leave a comment on paragraph 81 0 Nicole looks at me warmly. ‘Even if I’m enamored of the idea of a kind of fictionalizing element of your text, and in academia more generally, I’m not always buying that it solves the problems of cross-cultural communication, etc. in ethnographic encounters. You might want to look up some of the concerns Marilyn Strathern has in this regard.’ Nicole pauses for me to write this down.6

82 Leave a comment on paragraph 82 0 ‘But,’ she adds with a smile, ‘in your instance, you are first the subject finding knowledge: jumping through academic hoops and meeting PhD requirements, marshalling all the rhetoric, evidence, argumentation, and substantiations, all of those things that will mark you off as a “doctoral” persona, an “expert,” or whatever.’ She lists these in a casual but loving counting-off of the requirements I’ve been slaving over for the last two years and more. ‘And secondly, you are also the object of study: the mute artist who generally only gets to speak through the artist statement, web site, interview, or maybe blog, and whose words, however theoretical, conceptual, or intellectually rigorous, will be taken only to support the artifact or the scholarly interpretation of that artifact.’

83 Leave a comment on paragraph 83 0 I’m feverishly writing all this down, hoping to get it right in my own text. ‘And here,’ Nicole continues, ‘you’re trying to own both spaces, have both spaces speaking to each other and contaminating one another, disrupting one another through their varied voices and perspectives and practices. In fact it’s not about subjects and objects at all, but the emergence of matter and what matters.’ She again pauses. ‘At its close, the academic discourse is left a little unsettled, and the art-making practice is left a little unsettled, both explicitly and implicitly.’ She smiles and I nod, pen still scribbling. ‘Perhaps you shouldn’t think of this as an autoethnography,’ she concludes theatrically, ‘but an intervention.’

84 Leave a comment on paragraph 84 0 *

85 Leave a comment on paragraph 85 0 In the end, I decide that it isn’t important what I call it, really. Nicole is right: this is not a debate about what is or is not autoethnography, or about the limits, benefits, and shortcomings in ethnography at large, for that matter. It’s an experiment in narrative inquiry, whose aims are to further praxis in contemporary arts production and discourse. It’s a kind of meta-forming-text, in the midst. It’s an en- and un-folding of the embodied ideas my texts, and the artworks they study, attempt to put forth.

86 Leave a comment on paragraph 86 0 We’re all in the kitchen now, a few days later; Sidonie is having her supper and Nicole is working on one for the adults. It smells good – one of Nicole’s fancy variations on a veggie bake, with Irish potatoes, fresh sage and gruyere cheese – and I feel a bit guilty about the fact that I’ve not done much of the housework at all since deciding I wanted get a draft in before we head to South Africa, to pack up the things we left there and ship them over to the States. I walk over to the sink and start doing the dishes. We’re talking about the various possibilities for a narrative arc in the new section; it’s a much more casual discussion than the last one.

87 Leave a comment on paragraph 87 0 ‘I really don’t think there’s a need to go too far back into your personal history. It’ll feel contrived, unnecessary for your larger point,’ Nicole is saying, ‘Perhaps a tension between your academic and art-making selves?’

88 Leave a comment on paragraph 88 0 I shake my head. ‘But there isn’t a tension really there. That’s the whole point.’

89 Leave a comment on paragraph 89 0 ‘Well then make that point within the text itself,’ Nicole says, shaking the spoon in her hand. The food’s aroma is calling to me. ‘A story about the mostly constructed tension between writing and making, one that is only there because people say it is. Talk about the fact that it’s unfortunate they have to be separated, despite that they’re inherently entwined.’

90 Leave a comment on paragraph 90 0 ‘That’s good,’ I’m nodding. ‘I like that for the intro, for when I’m speaking with you or Linda or whomever the dialogue-slash-debate is with in order to explain why I’ve chosen to write it in this way. But,’ I start thinking aloud, ‘when there’s no literal dialogue, when I’m diving into speaking out the making of the work in my own history, when it’s not me and someone else exploring those tensions as a kind of back and forth parley between two whole and real people,’ I stop to make sure she understands what I mean, then realize I lost myself in the long sentence and start over. ‘I really don’t want to separate those aspects of my practice, the thinker and the producer, when I get into the art-making part of the narrative. Writing and making, the academic and the arty dude: these are not two distinct voices in my head.’

91 Leave a comment on paragraph 91 0 ‘Yeh,’ Nicole says, offering Sidonie – actually, we’ve been calling her Nonie (pronounced NOH-nee), since she gave herself that nick-name a few weeks back – some broccoli. Our amazing two-year-old actually likes broccoli. I put the last of the dishes into the rack and dry my hands.

92 Leave a comment on paragraph 92 0 ‘What about,’ I say in my elongated I’ve got an idea but go ahead and kill it if I’m wrong voice, ‘what about if it’s the “me” of now and the “me” of then? The writer and maker who was thinking and questioning and not recognizing what was unfolding as I tried to produce art, and the writer and maker who is discovering and connecting in the re-writing of the chapter; a dialogue between then and now. A story about the story and how it led to where I am at present, but one that reveals that this was never an inevitable end? I’m only now even finding out where I am, and where it might go next. Know what I mean?’

93 Leave a comment on paragraph 93 0 Nicole is nodding. I run to my computer in the next room, and call up a Denzin paper I was reading earlier. I quote, almost screaming across the flat.

‘In bringing the past into the autobiographical present, I insert myself into the past and create the conditions for rewriting and hence re-experiencing it. History becomes a montage, moments quoted out of context, “juxtaposed fragments from widely dispersed places and times”. I move across and between several writing styles, genres, and representational performative forms… I seek a dramatic, performative poetic, a form of performance writing that includes excerpts from personal histories… scholarly articles, and popular culture texts.’ (Denzin, 2006: 423; Ulmer, 1989: 112)

95 Leave a comment on paragraph 95 0 Nicole comes from the next room, holding hands with Nonie. ‘What?’ she asks, shaking her head and laughing. ‘I’m sorry; it’s very hard to hear from the next room, you know, with Nonie and cooking and the telly on.’ I hadn’t even noticed that Sidonie left the television on, Monsters, Inc running across the screen.

96 Leave a comment on paragraph 96 0 ‘I’ve got it,’ I say. ‘It’s a story about the stories that arts practice and experience enables. About how they form and re-form in their performative telling and re-telling. Making-moving-thinking-feeling.’

97 Leave a comment on paragraph 97 0 Nicole looks at me and nods. ‘Uh-huh.’ It’s a look and tone that moreover says, ‘Well, duh.’

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102 Leave a comment on paragraph 102 0 NOTES

  1.  This quote, like many in the chapter, is a combination of my own words, paraphrasing, and direct citation, for stylistic flow. In instances such as these, I will always include the reference and page(s), so readers have access to the author’s original quote and full context.
  2. The number has grown exponentially since I originally wrote this chapter, and continues to grow at an accelerating rate.
  3. See ‘The Limits of Auto-Anthropology’ (Strathern, 1987).

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