ASA12: Arts and aesthetics in a globalising world

Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India, 3rd-6th April 2012


The art of improvisation

Location SSS-I Committee Room, Ground Floor
Date and Start Time 04 April, 2012 at 08:30


Amanda Ravetz (Manchester Metropolitan University) email
Kathleen Coessens (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) email
Anne Douglas (Robert Gordon University) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This panel explores embodied, experiential knowledge through the lens of experimental arts practice using an expanded notion of improvisation. How do new understandings of embodied knowledge within and beyond artistic practice sit beside anthropological formulations of improvisation and creativity?

Long Abstract

This panel is driven by an interest in understanding embodied, experiential knowledge through the lens of experimental arts practice. Taking an expanded notion of improvisation as a state of 'being alive' (Ingold 2011), the panel will explore trajectories between improvisation in life and improvisation in art as follows:

In life, asserts Tim Ingold, there exists no script. The primacy of experience is a form of 'trying out'. We might think of this then as a movement from an indefinable and undifferentiated state to one of feeling our way through creating direction.

In art we cast a critical eye on the 'givens', the predetermined structures of social, cultural, material experience while recognising that freedom and constraint are profoundly interrelated. Improvisation in art across cultures is a specific approach to form making that centres the imagination (of the creator/ performer/spectator) precisely on managing the interplay between freedom and constraint.

In artistic research, the artist/researcher places him/herself at the sharp point of the inquiry, re-imagining, re-configuring, intensifying and scrutinising practice to create insights within and beyond the arts.

• How might a revisiting of improvisation as a condition of life open up approaches to improvisation in art, challenging its current formulation as a specific formal approach?

• In what ways might such an inquiry inform new understandings of embodied knowledge within and beyond artistic practice?

• How might such knowledge sit beside anthropological formulations of improvisation and creativity?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Improvisation in anthropology and art - habitus and movement

Author: Amanda Ravetz (Manchester Metropolitan University)  email

Short Abstract

Anthropology often allies improvisation with agency and change; musicians have challenged this. Cage found it too predictable, favouring chance instead. The paper takes an ethnographic approach to improvisation through a drawing experiment exploring the relationship between habitus and movement.

Long Abstract

Where anthropology has tended to view improvisation as a largely positive force, in music and visual arts the term has possibly involved more ambivalence, although in both cases, debate has focused on the relationship between the known and the unforeseen. In anthropology Holland et al (1998) stress prior knowledge in cultural improvisation arguing that it rests on someone's past sedimentations and the use of available cultural resources in response to current subject positions. Hallam and Ingold (2007), Cerwonka and Malkki (2008) and Ingold (2011) are more inclined to foreground change, presenting life as a continual process of movement that 'work[s] things out as it goes along" (ibid p10). In music and the visual arts John Cage considers improvisation to be mostly too predictable to be useful, favouring chance as the basis for musical experimentation (Feisst 1987). Musician and philosopher Coessens and artistic researcher and visual artist Douglas pay attention to improvisation as a means of being inside experience, trusting the unfolding moment and adapting to unforeseen circumstances (2011).

In 2011 Kathleen Coessens, Anne Douglas and Amanda Ravetz worked with improvisation in the context of an experimental drawing process. Following workshops with artists Marina Abramović and Bronwyn Platten - and influenced by Coessens' and Douglas' Calendar Variations and A Day in the Life - Ravetz wrote a score that involved sipping water slowly and drawing over an eight week period. The resulting drawings, log notes, and interviews are used here to mediate an (ethnographic) encounter with theories of improvisation in anthropology and art.

Thinking freedom: the balance between autonomy and care

Author: Gaelyn Aguilar (University of Maine Farmington)  email

Short Abstract

Our presentation will aim to share the conceptual and practical grounding of our latest work, and how improvisation has presented itself as a kind of purposeful, social practice in which there is no “spectatorial distance” and no “antagonistic imperative” other than to create what Gomez-Peña would characterize as “free zones for intercultural dialogue.”

Long Abstract

"Borders, Corridors, and Lines of Desire: Outposts of Improvisation on the Unmarked" is a large-scale, interdisciplinary, performative research project that aims to bring together our involvement with improvisation and our interest in ethnographically addressing the forces that expand and constrain culturally inflected ways of being throughout the borderlands of South Texas (USA). Borders and borderlands have long captured the attention of scholars and critically informed artists who rightfully regard these interstatial environs as frontiers of identity, where states are at "the extremity of their power" to shape the quotidian lives of the people who actually inhabit these fuzzy frontiers. In this project, we are interested in investigating, contemplating, processing, and communicating how individuals (either acting alone or collectively) are able to exercise their agency in responding to and challenging global flows, and how improvisation (as both a critical musicking practice and a fieldwork methodology) might move and illuminate this agency. Several key questions that are carrying us into our research project include: Does improvisation engender strong, flexible identities in individuals? Or do individuals with strong, flexible identities gravitate toward improvisation? To what extent does improvisation already play a part in the circulation of ethical dialogue and action throughout South Texas? How can one claim all of one's personal histories without locking oneself into fixed models that placate to the contours of iconic images? Could our research provide a critical localized and humanized perspective of what Appadurai has called "globalization from below"?

Art Tactics and Indeterminacy

Author: Mick O'Kelly (National College of Art and Design )  email

Short Abstract

Short Abstract

Nomadic Kitchen as a transversal field of operation invests in a desiring production that is flexible, fluid, nomadic and adaptable to different occasions and contexts of informal urban practices. Subjectivity and agency is produced as a spatial encounter to how we create and occupy cultural complexity and an aesthetic-spatial–politics.

Long Abstract

Art Tactics are urban negotiations and that find possibilities for art to engage in real life issues. Nomadic Kitchen is an interstitial transversal artwork that occupies a place between art and urban space. This work engages with issues of self-organization, in the process negotiating the urban environment with the residents of Vila Nova, a favela community in Sao Miguel Brazil. Nomadic Kitchen is one urban practice among many in a collaborative and participatory action in the production of public and private space. The artwork operates as bricolage within and across the transversal field of operation that works with improvisation and the contingency of the situation at hand. The emergent strategies for this artwork evolved through a series of workshops with residents of Vila Nova. The project embraces 'informality' as another kind of intelligence whose tactics bring a collective visibility to the project and other kinds of urban negotiations. The structure functions as a locus where residents develop flexible and creative ways of building a context for living. The transversal field of Nomadic Kitchen invests in a desiring production that is flexible, fluid, nomadic and adaptable to different occasions and contexts of informal urban practices. Urban decisions around producing public and social space are made while cooking eating and meeting in the Nomadic Kitchen. This interstitial sculptural structure becomes a place of dialogue while defining the circumstances that determine its situated conditions. The consequences of Nomadic Kitchen explore the potential limits of art production as an urgent action in creating an aesthetic-ethical-spatial-politics.

Altering a fixed identity: Thinking through improvisation

Author: Anne Douglas (Robert Gordon University)  email

Short Abstract

Improvisation can be a self-conscious handling of the conditions of choice. Improvisation can also be an unselfconscious process of being inside the duration of an experience. In what sense can this apparent contradiction provoke a state of creative mobility or play that counters a fixed identity?

Long Abstract

"Replacing artist with player as if adopting an alias is a way of altering a fixed identity. And a changed identity is a principle of mobility, of going from one place to another…" (Kaprow 2003 p 125-6)

This paper explores an experiment in improvisation in which the practices of music, the visual arts, philosophy and anthropology come together. Calendar Variations 2010-11 draws artists into creative experiences through the use of verbal scores. The score invites participation in a process in which the outcome is indeterminate.

Improvisation as it is encountered in this research, can be imagined in two apparently contradictory ways: as a spatial, a self-conscious handling of the conditions of choice such as placing the silences and breaks in an open-ended score. Seen this way, it is possible to view choice and decision making as simultaneously a musical/visual, moral and political dilemma: Am I cheating? Am I compromising? What constrains? What frees? Improvisation can also be experienced/imagined as duration, finding one's way into the line of the sound or drawing, of being inside creative experience, trusting the consequences.

Drawing on the experiences of artist/improvisors and theories of cognition (Arnheim's double-edged mind, Shotter's knowledge within/knowledge about , Bergson's quantitative/qualitative multiplicity), I argue that our creative imagination is challenged by the collisions and complementarities of different understandings of improvisation to sustain a perpetually mobile state of creativity, akin to 'adopting an alias as a way of altering a fixed identity' (Kaprow 2003).

improvisation through collaboration - two photographic projects: Pictures of Linda and Country Girls

Author: Anna Fox (University For The Creative Arts)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the role of the author/s through collaborative experimental photographic practice. The two portrait projects, Pictures of Linda and Country Girls examine and question authorship in documentary photography by subverting the power relation between photographer and subject, giving power to the subject through co-authorship.

Long Abstract

Pictures of Linda and Country Girls, two photographic projects, started in the mid 1980's and continuing today, explore the relationship between photographer and subject through collaboration, performance and improvisation. The two projects involve the photographer (myself) working with Linda Lunus (Pictures of Linda - 1983 - to present) and Alison Goldfrapp (Country Girls, 1996 - 2002) to create a series of photographs that comment on and/or record our joint responses to being young and then mature women growing up and then existing within rural communities in the UK. In each work there is a level of improvisation and experimentation in terms of both form and content; we work together, subject and photographer as authors, on ideas and intend to subvert existing representation of women in the rural environment. Using stories and personal knowledge, as reference, these vividly coloured, fictitious portraits undermine popular representations of the rural and challenge the notion of authorship in photography. The work is made both with and without knowledge of artistic practice and refer to both known and naïve forms of arts practices. The paper is illustrated with works from the projects that intend to provoke discussion.

Where you end and I begin: cognition and culture in experimental improvised music and dance

Authors: Christopher Williams (University of Leiden)  email
Martin Sonderkamp (University of Music and Dance Cologne)  email

Short Abstract

In improvised music, dance, and life, one's thoughts, perceptions, and actions are dynamically coupled to “external” actors and environments. Borrowing from embodied and situated cognition, we explore this phenomenon in our own work, and invite the audience to “perform” these connections themselves.

Long Abstract

When musicians and dancers improvise together, bodies, instruments, groups, audiences, and environments not only interact; they become mutually dependent. A bassist's shoulder shifts, bow slides, instrument rings... vibrations bounce off the walls, reach the dancer's inner ear, filling the lungs, lunging toward the bassist's shoulder: these sounds, movements, spaces, and perceptions form a real-time feedback loop that blurs where you end and I begin. Over time, this local coupling bleeds into the global, as our collective action on stage bumps up against the cultural and social constraints offstage that brought us together in the first place.

Recent research in embodied and situated cognition by scholars such as Clark, Gallagher, Hutchins, and Varela provides a theoretical foundation for formalizing this push and pull, "dissolv[ing] the traditional divisions between the inside/outside boundary of the individual and the culture/cognition distinction that anthropologists and cognitive psychologists have historically created" (Rogers). This work centers not on laboratory experiments, but on "cognition in the wild" (Hutchins) - or "what it means to be human in everyday, lived situations" (Varela).

"Where you end and I begin" will develop these connections in both a discussion of how these principles operate in our own work, and in a series of simple exercises with the audience exploring how touch, hearing, and vision engage with space and collective memory.

Certainty, Contingency and Improvisation

Author: Gary Peters (York St John University)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing upon Kant and Hegel’s aesthetics, as well as the latter’s Phenomenology as starting points, an attempt will be made to articulate the improvisatory not in terms of the new, unforeseen or unexpected but, rather, in relation to the contingency ‘emancipated’ (Luhmann) by art practice and the felt certitude of aesthetic judgement, both put to work by improvisation.

Long Abstract

The certainty Kant associates with this 'felt' sensation of pleasure and, thus, the certitude (albeit contested) of the aesthetic judgement that it underpins is a hallmark of his aesthetics. Conversely, Hegel begins his Phenomenology with 'sense certainty', the contingency of which he is keen to expose from the philosopher's perspective of Absolute knowledge.

Having established the above dialectic of sense-certainty and contingency, the paper will proceed by claiming that both of these accounts of the aesthetic (one positive, one negative) have much to offer the study of improvisation. The following is indicative content:

• A shift away from a concept of improvisation understood as a response to or celebration of uncertainty and the unforeseeable. Replaced by a situation where the improviser knows what is going to happen while also being hyper-aware of its contingency.

• An emphasis on the singular certainty of improvisation, which (in demanding consensus) initiates a collective reflective process of contestation: improvisation par excellence.

• A recognition that the contingency of this 'this' and this 'now', far from undermining, actually intensifies the commitment to what is 'there and available', an intensity that is responsible for the infinite unconcealment of the given.

• A challenge to the linear model of improvisation in the name of a perspective that emphasises the simultaneity of contingent com-possible worlds, where agility and ironic knowingness replace innovation and novelty as guiding principles.

Creating Freedom : The Story of Healing Through Dance in Kolkata

Author: Nayanee Basu (Jawaharlal Nehru University )  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores how healing is being carried out through the medium of dance in Kolkata.Every level of such healing endeavor is marked by creative improvisation--on the part of artist-healers,beneficiaries and by facilitating bureaucrats.

Long Abstract

The paper delves into how healing is carried out through artistic practice--dance being the specific medium and Kolkata, the city.Erst-while victims of trafficking, special needs children and prisoners are the beneficiaries of the process. Creative improvisation lies at the core of such endeavor.Improvising ways out of emotional blocks or towards cherished dreams have often set the ball rolling for artist healers who have subsequently 'entered the arena'. The techniques used in dance therapy are centered around the interplay between freedom and constraint--the beneficiaries are encouraged to improvise their 'way out' of imaginary constraints or to use the same productively.Sometimes the healed have turned healers whose felt-knowledge have guided their therapeutic interventions along with some amount of training in technique.At a different level of reality is a bureaucrat's story of improvising his way out of prison-rules and conventions dating back to colonial times in order to usher in an effective program of cultural therapy within prison walls.This paper is the result of wanting to know through participation how artistic creativity is being used to heal, what it means to be 'healed'and what one needs to be healed out of .It has been a witness to creative freedom begetting freedom from the doldrums, restoring health to create again.

Panel discussion for all presenters "Improvisation as art: (re)creating the unexpected situation"

Author: Kathleen Coessens (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)  email

Short Abstract

The last presentation session will involve all presenters for a deep discussion on the different lines which where drawn in the individual sessions.

Improvisatory acts in everyday life are the result of unexpected situations. In artistic improvisation, the unexpected situation is (re)created.

Long Abstract

This text is just a trigger to launch a thorough discussion of 'Improvisation as art" at the end of the panel session:

Life is difficult, never the same, always challenging acquired patterns of behavior and expectation, urging the human being to improvise. Improvisatory acts in everyday life are the result of unexpected situations, where the encounter between self and environment suddenly disrupts the banal rituals of life. Over time, experience and knowledge enhance ways to cope with unexpectedness, and to 'improvise' better, or even 'less'.

In art, improvisation is often a situation of choice. The unexpected situation is created, set up, purposively leading to an improvisatory encounter between body and environment. The musician knows he/she will 'improvise' the next hour. But it can also resemble life, by way of sudden unexpected moments which the musician still did not 'set up'. Experience and expertise enhance the fluidity of improvisational acts in the arts.

Tensions between urgent action and play, loose of control and situation of choice, ethics and esthetics, humans, heroes and artists, will be explored.

The artist, like the human being in life, but now from his/her own free choice, is challenged to leave security and encounter the unexpected.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.