Monday, 1 June 2015

The Value of Not Knowing (presented at Museums Aotearoa Conference 2015)

My background is as a maker or arts practitioner but I have always been deeply engaged with thinking about the structures of power that determine what art is, how it is valued, where it can be seen and by whom. From my current research therefore I thought I would talk about, with reference to other contemporaries progressing this conversation; how practitioners approach making and the potential value of applying this approach to institutional frameworks such as those performed in public museums in order to confront issues of relevance, accessibility and inclusiveness.  
Why are the aspirations of institutions (such as public museums) and artists often disparate?

The process of making art is fraught with doubt and uncertainty which is at the very heart of what drives practice-based research. Intentionally steering oneself from “knowing” to “Not knowing”, Anne Hamilton states “is a permissive and rigorous willingness to trust, leaving knowing in suspension, trusting in possibility without result, regarding as possible all manner of response”[1] The practice of not knowing, waiting and finding can be perceived Hamilton purports with suspicion as an “in-between” experience that is not easily measured or categorised as useful or productive. The truth however, conveyed she says, in Plato’s Dialogues is possessed neither on one side or another but is present “in-between”. It is “in-between”, in dialogue or reciprocal exchange that Hamilton sees part of the answer to the question what is art for. Change according to Hamilton is achieved through the culmination of an infinite number of small acts, it is the role of artists, therefore, she says to be at the threshold, to unsettle, to experiment, to give material form presence in a social context. Honouring a life of making she says “isn’t a series of shows, or projects, or productions, or things; it is an everyday practice”[2] The decision to suspend knowing is freedom to explore, to test, to analyse and to discover. Actively performing questioning through practice embraces failure as a vehicle to progress the potential for innovation through working in uncharted territory. Putting things together that you never imagined could go together –  testing ideas that compel a particular way of working with materials, processes, communities, spaces and places is the basis of works of art that can truly challenge, interrogate, expose or delight.


“Doing things differently” said writer, art critic, museum director and curator, Marcia Tucker, “involves a high degree of discomfort, which is why most of us prefer not to.”[3] Tucker agrees that change is a surety but argues that it is a natural reaction to behave defensively and to even actively resist change which can, she says, consume considerable energy.  Becoming an expert she explains could be regarded as a way to resist change as one is prone to develop as a result of ones successes rather than from ones failures. An expert, she asserts “is someone involved with what they already know”[4] whereas art practitioners, she says have taught her that concentrating on process without a defined outcome and “confusion, disorder, mistakes and failures – all the things that we encounter when we try something new – are essential to the creative process”[5] Embracing the notion of the amateur, having multiple personalities Tucker seems to suggest recognises that we are constantly adapting to our circumstances, that despite the shock that can be the impetus for change, overcoming fear of the unknown is preferable to the repetitive assertion of what we already know.


Barbara Bolt references Heidegger and the notion of “handlability” to describe and reinforce an orientation towards a “way of being” and working in the world that generates the potential for seizing possibilities. It is only through the process of contemplation that follows according to Heideggar that we can begin to theoretically “know” the world. Don Ihde further supports Bolt’s contention that an artwork is not “the representation of an already formed idea”[6] but evidence of an emerging process involving “…materials, methods, tools and ideas of practice”.[7] Letting go is positioned as central to Heidegger’s notion of “handlability”  for example Francis Bacon’s desire to intentionally break-away from premeditation by random acts such as “throwing paint” illustrates Bolt’s assertion of the centrality of the “emerging”, accidental or unplanned in art practice. In opposition to a premeditated hypothesis, ‘letting go’, is employed to avoid the kind of planning that leads to an expected outcome. Such acts are employed to push one out of the comfort of routine into unfamiliar territory and it is in this ‘new territory’ that the potential of ‘new knowledge’ emerges. Bolt takes this a step further in referring to Deleuze’s claim that it is in a “state of catastrophe” that we have the potential to discover another world in which it is possible to abandon sight or the intellectual responses that fail to “attend to the rhythms that constitute the creative process”. It is in the resultant “shocks” or “catastrophes” according to Bolt that a rhythm emerges that constitutes ‘the new’.


Carter asserts that the value of invention in creative research “…is located neither after nor before the process of making but in the performance itself”.[8] This may be due he says to the catalytic nature of the social relations or “back-and-forth discourse” that stimulates the testing of ideas and materials both of which remain in a “state of becoming”. A key concern for Carter is to reverse what he describes as the “drift” separating knowledge generation from the “processes that produce it”. This reintegration he suggests requires a reconsideration of what matters. In the discourses often associated with institutional activity, inventiveness he says is intentionally removed from language as if “…truth were the elimination of interest”. A commitment to not knowing but embracing the discovery inherent in the act or performance of making should not be viewed as an activity which is disorganised or devoid of discipline. Artists are questioners of the status quo, every stage of a practitioners research often frustratingly involves critical reflection & reflexivity or continually asking why – developing strategies to question assumptions or habitual actions and working to try and understand the factors which shape them. Imagine what could be possible for example if the potentiality of the public museum model could be explored from a perspective of not knowing. We are all amateurs in imagining where and what our museums might be and do in the next fifty years particularly considering many museums did not exist or were in the early stages of development fifty years ago. What if all the options were on the table? Are decisions on your local museum’s future made via a process that involves inclusive conversation - exploring all the possible forms and practices that your museum could take and establish to best serve you and your community now and in the future? If not, why not? Are all museum staff valued equally and provided with the tools they need to progress professionally and personally – is professional development and research time available to staff members , can all team members contribute ideas and participate in conversations? Is there any space and time made for risk taking and innovation e.g. how is change managed in your organisation, who participates in decision making about the future of your museum? How are hierarchies performed in your organisation and what purpose do they serve – are they useful?

Most importantly what makes your museum a public institution – how well does your museum serve its unique community, how do you know?

[1] Hamilton, Anne. “Making Not Knowing” In In Learning Mind: Experience into Art. Edited by Mary Jane Jacob & Jacqueline Baas. School of the Art Institute of Chicago, University of California Press, Berkeley, LA & London,2009: P68.
[2] Ibid:69
[3] Tucker, Marcia. “Multiple Personalities” In Learning Mind: Experience into Art. Edited by Mary Jane Jacob & Jacqueline Baas. School of the Art Institute of Chicago, University of California Press, Berkeley, LA & London,2009: P35.
[4] Ibid:36
[5] Ibid:41
[6] Ihde, Don. As cited by Bolt, Barabara. “The Exegesis and the Shock of the New” TEXT Special Issue, No 3 April,2004. Julie Fletcher & Allan Mann (Eds).
[7] Ibid.
[8] Carter, Paul. “Interest: The Ethics of Invention” In Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry. Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt (Eds). I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, London & New York, 2007.

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