Monthly Archives: September 2016

The realpolitik of the art/geography nexus as ‘generative encounter’.

This post largely consists of a longer (originally written for a twenty minute presentation, of the text read at a “Beyond Interdisciplinarity: situating practice in the art/geography nexus” session at the Royal Geographical Society conference in London on September 1st, 2016.

It was prompted by my growing sense of the gap between the openness of the creative projects undertaken by the arts practice-led doctoral students I have been involved with as a supervisor over the last 15 or so years, and the various academically-led “interdisciplinary” research projects I have been attached to over approximately the same period of time.

While the former have by and large become more adventurous and reflexive and less inclined to locate themselves using conventional terms such as ‘interdisciplinarity’, the later have become increasingly mired by constraints imposed by a thinking that, while adopting the rhetoric of ‘interdisciplinary’, remains tacitly in thrall to the presuppositions of the disciplinary mentality. This is sometimes the result of senior academic staff passively adopting assumptions that fail to address questions of the nexus of power, intellectual authority, and terminology within the academy. For example, by tacitly accepting that philosophy, as ‘queen of the sciences’ sits at the top of a hierarchy of value and so provides the trump card in terms of authority vis a vis epistemological differences. However, the constraints are sometimes nothing to do with the projects themselves as intellectual constructs. Rather that are caused by the deadening consequence of academics being required to internalise a risk-averse governance culture that uses audit (including the REF) to reinforce an exclusive disciplinary regime predicated on a logocratic realpolitik. 


Mike Pearson teaching


This presentation is intended as a provocation and, as such, involves an element of caricature

My topic is the realpolitik that determines institutionally funded encounters between art and geography. However, keeping in mind Isabelle Stengers’ stress on the need for epistemological bridge-building, I’ll try to keep my distance from what Gemma Corradi Fiumara calls the logocratic culture of ‘competing monologues’. Rather than assume a monolithic professional persona, I’m going to speak as a constellated self with multiple and tensioned concerns – in education, place oriented research, social activism, and the imaginal arts.

Barbara Bender’s observation that: “Landscapes refuse to be disciplined. They make a mockery of the oppositions that we create between time [History] and space [Geography], or between nature [Science] and culture [Social Anthropology]” – indicates why I have a problem with conceptualizing “contemporary art as a mode of spatial enquiry”. This conceptualization would also appear to have missed the richly and densely interwoven existing conversations between geography, the arts, landscape architecture, visual anthropology, and uncategorizable compound practices. These conversations are important because, while academic geographers are subject to a disciplinary realpolitik as a condition of their employment – and so look to interdisciplinarity for change – that polyvocal conversation takes place in an extra-academic elsewhere. So any proposal to dissolve boundaries that’s articulated in academic terms signals a certain degree of belatedness. I suspect this is the consequence of a dilemma within “non-“, “anti-“ or “more than” representational geography, but I’ll come to that later.

Because of this misunderstanding I’m going to employ a quite different differentiation, one that cuts across the categories “art” and “geography”. This is the psychosocial spectrum used by sociologists Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead to distinguish between different citizens of Kendall, one that arcs between “life-as” and “being-as-becoming”. I’ve modified their approach using terms suggested by Pauline O’Connell – between individuals focused on achieving “best of breed” status and those who accept, given our worsening socio-environmental situation, the uncertain status of “compound cur”. The first position internalizes possessive individualism’s insistence on the primacy of the autonomous self to the point where the desire to be “best of breed” in a given professional field – say “art” or “geography” – takes precedence over all other concerns and connectivities. The resulting life-world is framed hierarchically by, ultimately, the same historical presuppositions that link the terms “university” and “universe”. By contrast, the inclusive and compound imaginal/material activity of “compound curs” is constituted through negotiating the epistemological differences and cognitive dissonances that flow from living in a polyverse. There constellated selves are constituted through internalising commonality as a multiplicity of attachments, connections, and relationships. In reality of course each one of us lives in a state of uneasy oscillation somewhere between these two poles.

The imaginal/material practices of a “compound cur” interweave multiple forms of creative work and share techniques and intensions across a host of different skill sets and fields of concern. The academic term “interdisciplinary” is a pale discursive shadow of performative, constellated, practices that are so intertwined in participation, sociality, conversation, and ‘the civic’’ as to elude categorization. Of course like everyone else “compound curs” still have to live with the consequences of the given professional categories that govern employment and the realpolitik that underwrites professional authority.

The current relationship between geography and constellated imaginal/material practices is indebted to the AHRC’s Landscape and Environment Programme between 2006 and 2012, which catalysed certain on-going transformations. I know from personal experience that it transformed three informal networks that continue to facilitate constellated imaginal/material practices across and between the arts, activism, the humanities and the social sciences – and despite an increasingly hostile institutional environment. The effects of that Programme also inform current research projects like the AHRC-funded Towards Hydro-citizenship, in which I’m involved and that informs this presentation.

I was a co-ordinator for a network funded by the Landscape and Environment programme – Living in a Material World: A cross-disciplinary location-based enquiry into the performativity of emptiness. This developed a vibrant conversational exchange between individuals engaged in a wide range of practices. Significantly, four of the five coordinators had constellated practices – working in and between performing or visual arts, a commitment to the radical pedagogy that’s implicit in good arts education, and various forms of place-oriented research. Other participants included archaeologists, historians, artists, and the geographers Stephan Daniels, Hayden Lorimer, J.D. Dewsbury, Owain Jones and John Wylie. This conversational project informed the 2009 Living Landscapes conference in Aberystwyth, a watershed event organized by Mike Pearson and Stephen Daniels.

The Material World network was animated by conversation as an imaginal/material field-based method for working-across a wide range of disparate skills, practices, engagements, and lines of thought. A concurrent project involving Patrick Keiller and Doreen Massey adopted the same approach to produce the film Robinson in Ruins and the installation The Robinson Institute at Tate Britain in 2012. That creative exposition included film, curated artefacts, and carefully researched polyvocal texts, interweaving diverse historical and contemporary material in telling juxtapositions. The project as a whole is an exemplary indication of what collaboration that privileges an extra-academic context can achieve.

SPUD is an on-going imaginal/material conversation initiated by Deirdre O’Mahony. It works with cultural and agricultural concerns and involves both a South American research institute and the Loy Association in Ireland. Initially a way of presenting a more nuanced understand of the potato’s role in Irish culture – particularly in relation to food security and globalized food production – it has developed into an understandable and accessible entry point for a public discourse on sustainability, food security, and tacit cultivation knowledge. Its lazy-beds were recently displayed as “useful art” outside the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

A project like SPUD requires its coordinator to identify and acknowledge the limitations of different epistemological assumptions. This enables a collective mind-set comparable to that of a “compound cur” to develop. Without this grounding in “epistemological agnosticism”, collaborative academic projects continue by default to be framed by the realpolitik of the logocratic order because that is what frames their funders’ criteria. Criteria in turn based on a consensus that categorizes the arts as “other” and subaltern. This framing is independent of the views of individual academics. Academic research governance systematically enforces its consensus on the basis of the “epistemological error” identified by Gregory Bateson. In a paper called Stepping from the wreckage, Owain Jones summarizes this error as: “the enlightenment/modern aspirations of progress towards truth through the elimination of doubt and the application of reason, language and power” – the tripartite basis of the logocratic order – so as to divide, sort, represent and fix the world. Academic realpolitik enforces this logocratic order. Even if all the individuals in a collaborative team would claim to reject the error Bateson identifies, that realpolitik subordinates the outcomes of consensus-based research to that order, or else marginalizes or negates them. In short, consensually based Research Council funded projects always ultimately conform to the requirements of a logos that divides, sorts, represents, analyses and fixes the world.

At this point it may be useful if I indicate what I see as the dilemma of “non-“, “anti-“ or “more than” representational geography. Intellectually it repudiates the epistemological error Jones’ identifies. But while a geographer like John Wylie may wish he and his peers could “engage freely with the techniques and presentational forms of the creative arts”, their academic authority still largely rests on a typical logocratic strategy. This is the use of philosophy to re-conceptualize – that is re-divide, re-sort, and re-represent – previous discursive conceptualizations of the world. It does so in philosophically saturated texts that, somewhat ironically, privilege the concept of ’embodied’ experience’ – texts on which its academic authority depends. However, some geographers are also aware that, to paraphrase Gemma Corradi Fiumara, the logocratic order is based on knowing how to speak rather than how to listen – hence perhaps J. D. Dewsbury’s emphasis on “witnessing” – a form of listening in Fiumara’s sense. All of which indicates why this geographical tendency talks of wanting to distance itself from the logocratic order through hybridization with arts practices. However, to do so in practice would be to put its status within the academic hierarchy at risk. In the terms of academic realpolitik a non-rep geographer gains status by citing Gilles Deleuze, not by emulating Joseph Beuys or Susan Stenger.

This dilemma is best addressed using attentive listening as the basis for adversarial collaboration basedon disciplinary agnosticism. This obliges us to acknowledge and openly converse across openly acknowledged epistemological differences – a process that replicates that of the imaginal/material practices of “compound curs”. It requires cultivating the agnosticism mentioned earlier to enable us to explicitly acknowledge, and then work with and across, both our own epistemological presuppositions and those of others. This process is sharply distinguished from collaboration based on the assumption of a consensus that ignores, represses or marginalizes difference. Put very simply, adversarial collaboration works with epistemological difference to create vibrant, generative contrasts.

I’ve been assuming a particular understanding of conversation that I need to make explicit. Conversation is an art grounded in active listening. As Monica Shev-chick argues, to choose to have a conversation with a person is to admit them into the field where worlds are constructed. However, this choice ultimately runs the risk of redefining not only the ‘other’ but myself as well. The art of conversation has the capacity to stay open to and wait for what is unforeseen. As such it enables ideas to converse with time, unrestricted by given or predetermined ends. In this way it challenges the instrumentality of Funding Councils and the REF emphasis on outcomes and impact.

The risk of redefinition through conversation is, however, equally present in adversarial collaboration. There is immense pressure on geographers and artists to live a “life-as best of breed”. This means that to engage in adversarial collaboration – which necessitates acquiring some real understanding of, and respect for, lived epistemologies other than one’s own – is to risk transformations that may be professionally damaging.

The dilemma of “non-“, “anti” or “more than” representational geography as I see it appears in the nexus of method and authority. The Czech poet and immunologist Miroslav Holub argues that poetry – and by implication the arts – is predicated on the inadequacy of its means, enabling it to evoke our lived experience as always exceeding and falling short of conceptual definition. This inadequacy is deeply problematic from the perspective of a logocratic order underpinned by reason, language and power. That order’s authority lies in it claims as to the adequacy, or at least temporary adequacy, of its methodologies and categories – particularly those of philosophy as the peak of the logocratic hierarchy. Yet it appears that some geographers want to step away from the wreckage of the logocratic order that, paradoxically, still underwrites their existing authority. This is a paradox familiar to any “compound cur” working in tertiary education.

Constellated selves working with compound imaginal/material practices in Arts or Landscape Architecture Departments follow the example of dissidents in the Soviet Union prior to Glasnost. They pay lip service to exclusive disciplinary categories and the academic governance system. They struggle to work within institutional frameworks while enacting quite other values. And, like supporters of perestroika, they work below the parapet in pursuit of larger priorities. I hope this also happens in Geography Departments. In terms of any genuine nexus then, perhaps our first priority should be conversations about the type of “productive deception” I’ve identified in relation to doctoral supervision. This is a variant of what Paulo Freire refers to as a ‘limit act’ – one that, through shared witnessing, reflecting, acting and reimagining, can detach us from logocratic framings.

Maria Kerin writes of the collaborative artists’ collective Outriders that it operates on the principle of hospitality, generosity and reciprocal support, using its own resources and a minimum of public funding. This enables it to remain largely independent of systems it views as no longer fit for purpose – the same systems that underwrite academically-led arts/geography projects. The example of Outriders makes me wary of Sarah Whatmore’s call for “hybrid geographies” that are (I quote):

“not defined as/by academic disputes like the so-called ‘science wars’, important though these are, but in which the stakes are thoroughly and promiscuously distributed through the messy attachments, skills and intensities of differently embodied lives whose everyday conduct exceeds and perverts the designs of parliament, corporations and labour” (p.162).

I’m wary, not because I lack sympathy with her sentiments, but because of my own experience of the unholy alliance between academic realpolitik and the possessive individualism of best-of-breed actants. Wary too because I suspect that hybridity, like resilience, all-too easily becomes the means by which a system maintains the status quo while mimicking transformation. Finally, wary because of the context that frames the invention of Landström and Whatmore’s ‘competency group’. As with Rancière’s silence on the active tradition of critical pedagogy in The Ignorant Schoolmaster, I have to assume that they are unaware of parallels between their “invention” and strategies long used by both socially engaged artists and liberation psychologists.

Given the economic situation, there are no shortage of artists willing to sign up to interdisciplinary projects with geographers – despite the unresolved issues of power, epistemology, and financial reward involved. However I want to close on another note.

Les Roberts has identified the core of this problem of authority when he claims that my call for an ‘open deep mapping’ only makes sense insofar as its openness is sufficiently diffuse to invalidate deep mapping as a category. But this claim precisely presupposes a disciplinary perspective, one predicated on the authority of fixed categories. Like any “compound cur” however, I understand my practice to be predicated on inadequacy and, in consequence, subject to a perpetual erosion of any categorical identity it may temporarily acquire.

One alternative to the proposed academic nexus would be for interested individuals to adopt the position of the Irish collaborative collective Outriders. This operates on the principle of hospitality, generosity and reciprocal support, drawing on its members’ own extra-institutional resources and a minimum of public funding. Adopting such a strategy would minimize interaction with the realpolitik that will otherwise frame any proposed nexus as ‘interdisciplinary’. But taking such a step requires academics to lead double lives with regard to

I want to end on a different note. Writing about deep mapping in north Cornwall, Jane Bailey and I describe our working process as: ‘observing, listening, walking, conversing, writing and exchanging … of selecting, reflecting, naming and generating … and of digitalizing, interweaving, offering and inviting’. Taking up Lee Roberts’ observations on our claim, I suggest we were no more involved in “a mode of spatial enquiry” than we were in any literal form of mapping. As Roberts notes, we immersed ourselves: ‘in the warp and weft of a lived and fundamentally intersubjective…creative coalescence of structures, forms, affects, energies, narratives, connections, memories, imaginaries, mythologies, voices, identities, temporalities, images and textualities’. So whatever name we give to what we were doing, it’s not helpful to frame it as “spatial enquiry” or some form of interdisciplinary nexus.

Economic necessity and intellectual curiosity will ensure that artists look to work with geographers, at least while geographers continue to engage with the techniques and presentational forms of the arts.  I hope both camps will start to adopt reflexive forms of collaboration, or else strategies like those of the Outriders collective. However, that will require them to enter conversations predicated on disciplinary agnosticism. That in turn will put both parties at risk of emerging with wholly other forms of praxis, those of compound curs.

I look forward to that happening.