A series of events organised by the network, with the support of the Place/Location/Contact Research Centre,
Bristol School of Art, Media and Design, University of the West of England, Bristol, England.
LAN2D – now renamed LAND2 – has run informal seminars for its members since its inception as a national studio-led landscape research network in 2002. The strong emphasis within the network on the exploration of notions of ‘place’, particularly in relation to questions of memory and identity, has meant that its members have an interest in anthropology/ethnography, archaeology, art history, cultural geography, environmental studies, gender studies, geology, history, phenomenology, critical theory, psychology, and post-colonial studies. In consequence, the network has begun to open itself to sympathetic academics who, although not engaged in studio-based research, are interested either in attending its seminars or in exchange with members so as to use the network as a medium for discussion and reflection. Building on this situation, and following a successful inaugural conference/exhibition in November 2004, the network now finds itself very well placed to establish productive conversations with academics/practitioners in a range of disciplines.
Our aim is to create a fuller and more comprehensive intra/trans/inter disciplinary understanding of landscape and place in all their complexities. To this end we will co-ordinate a series of symposia (max. 25 people) in addition to the network’s bi-annual seminar series. These symposia will seek to bring network members into ongoing conversation with sympathetic academics in relevant disciplines via the presentation of short papers, studio-led research outcomes and focused conversation. Our objective is to build, through a ‘conversational’ model, a substantial body of discursive material with a view to advancing our understanding of landscape, place and issues related to their construction and relationship to memory and identity.
The contextual understanding informing the setting up of these seminars derives from parallels between shifts of understanding in art and academic practices, as follows.
Rebecca Solnit has identified a ‘conversational’ approach¹ evident in the work of certain landscape-oriented artists, linking it to a desire to work collaboratively; an openness to new ideas, media and contexts; and an interaction with subjects and sites based on ‘conversational give-and-take’ which assumes ‘that meaning is to be found rather than imposed. Significantly, she links this with a desire to move beyond the authoritative critical voice, based on what she refers to as a ‘monologue of mastery’. We see that ‘monologue’ as helping to further institutionalise and perpetuate ‘the inadequacies of dualistic and binary descriptions of the world’ and, in consequence, are adopting a ‘conversational’ approach as a means of avoiding conceptual closure. As Geraldine Finn suggests, this is necessary so as to: ‘maintain the openness of the world and its possible truths by speaking always from the contingencies, borders, and boundaries of its master discourses’. We see this as reflecting an understanding that art’s engagement in knowledge production (research) depends on its free interaction with ‘a context of application’, with methodologies based on ‘heterogeneity’, on a reduced reliance on hierarchy; on ‘participation’, and on ‘the repeated configuration of human resources in flexible, essentially transient forms of organisation’.
Our approach seeks to address the deficiencies of the academy’s tendency to an over-reliance on an exclusive ‘culture of mastery’ and parallels a growing pedagogic shift away from an over-emphasis on ‘critique’ towards a greater emphasis on ‘inter-translation’ based on ‘critical solicitude’. As Eve Tavor Bannett has observed: the ‘innovation and intellectual creativity’ which produces non-canonical disciplines and untraditional approaches to canonical disciplines has proved to be incompatible with what Bourdieu calls ‘the prudence of academica mediocritas’. That is to say, a conformity that requires self-censorship and obligatory reverence towards masters – intellectual or artistic – and gives the recognition granted to an institutionalized thought only to those who implicitly accept the limits assigned by the institution, whether of art or ideas. Reflecting on this shift, she notes (perhaps somewhat over-optimistically) that it might mark:
the threshold of a post-colonial era, when nations begin to need each other to survive physically, economically, ecologically, and culturally and when the challenge is to create workable alliances and modes of co-operation among different ideological, cultural and national traditions.
Each symposium will be convened by a network member and a guest academic from a relevant discipline identified by our co-convenors, Iain Biggs and Dr Judith Tucker, who will take advice from a panel of experts in relevant fields (names to be confirmed). The two symposium convenors will then invite papers / presentations, which will be published on our web site, together with an overview of discussions and conclusions generated during the symposium by the convenors.
In addition to the initial publication of the symposium presentations and overviews on the web site, we are seeking funding for an innovative conference/exhibition format that will provide a summation of the process initiated by the symposia series. Using the published web material, invited representatives from a range of relevant disciplines will each be asked to write a response to the outcomes of one or more symposia. These responses will be published on the web site prior to the conference and the conference itself used for group discussion and debate focused by these responses, via sessions chaired by convenors and attended by the respondents. These sessions will be recorded and the transcripts edited and published on the web site. In this way we will seek to establish a major resource freely available to any Internet user.
First Symposium: “The Place of Improvisation / The Improvisation of Place”.
Conveners: Iain Biggs (Reader, Visual Art Practice, Bristol School of Art, Media and Design, UWE, and co-convener, LAND2) & Dr Gary Peters (PL Visual Culture, Bristol School of Art, Media and Design, UWE, Bristol, musician, currently working on improvisation). This symposium, the first in what we hope will be the LAND2 Intra- / Trans- / Inter- disciplinary symposia series took place in July 2005 and engaged with three overlapping questions, posed in the following context. Gary Peters proposes a view of improvisation based on heteronomy rather than the autonomy of Romanticism and Modernism. Rather than the marking of an unmarked space that must constantly erase the past - the given - in order to preserve the autonomous act of creation¹, he suggests that improvisation acknowledge that: ‘no space is unmarked, there is no virgin soil awaiting the pure improvisatory gesture. The given, or what Hegel called the ‘there’ is always already there, and it is marked. The artwork does not so much mark an unmarked space as re-mark a marked space. This does not rule out improvisation, it circumscribes and, thus, transforms it’.
It follows, then, that familiarity need not breed contempt and that much of the pleasure of improvisation can be related to the improviser¹s attention to moments of re-cognition and re-presentation (re-marking) that resists times passage. Rather than aspire to incessant self-transcendence, so that the moment becomes ‘an insignificant and insubstantial point on a line’, it might appear as a space of retention where familiar patterns and figures are re-hearsed, re-vised and re-configured. The value of this approach to reflections on the interconnection of place, memory and identity is suggested by his observation that, instead of trying to go beyond ourselves, we might become more concerned with a more sophisticated and more intense understanding of our given situation. Reflecting on conservation and the old, he adds that this might be seen as protecting ‘the old by retaining it as the necessary horizon for the new’ through the production of difference through repetition. The ‘old’ here is understood not in terms of dead structures but as the Other:
the congealed expressivily of real men and women, silent but present - sotto voce - in what is here and available, the all-too-familiar. To the extent that improvisation puts this otherness back into play, not as a presence that can be grasped and owned, but as a fugitive exteriority that brings a collective and objective intensity to this re-vivication of the dead, of dead forms that are never really dead.
It is in this context that we wish to consider the following:
1. If Edward S. Casey is correct in differentiating between position and place by arguing that, if a position is understood as a fixed posit of an established culture, then a place, despite its apparently static appearance, is an essay in experimental living within a changing culture, then we might reasonably argue that our sense of place is always to a degree improvised. If this is the case, can an understanding of improvisation as practiced in the arts lead to a better understanding of our experience of place?
2. James Clifford has suggested that we are neither permanently fixed by our identities, but nor are we able to divest ourselves of the specifics of race and culture, class and gender, environment and history. Should we then follow him in seeing these determinants not as fixed positions (in a sense close to that proposed by Casey), but as places of encounter and exchange that require us to develop new forms of negotiated and improvised identity?
3. Cultural geographers have begun to argue for an understanding of landscape that recognises that it is experienced in an embodied way through a weave of senses – through sound, smell, direct physical contact, as much as through social organisation and experience and visual representation. If this is the case, how might landscape be represented so as to acknowledge this understanding and what might be the role of improvisation is such representation?
The symposium consisted of a brief introduction to the new symposia series (Iain Biggs), and four very stimulating 35 minute papers by David Toop, Dr Inga Bryden, Prof Geraldine Finn, and Dr Gary Peters, with the remainder of the day being given over to chaired discussion.
The keynote papers and ‘responses’ are being published in the first instance on this website. You can access them by clicking on the text links below this introduction.
Iain Biggs University of the West of England, Bristol, Bower Ashton Campus, Clanage Road Bristol BS3 2JT
- Communality or Virtual Sculpture: Improvisation, Technology, Utopias, and Space. David Toop (4.7.05)
- It Gives: The There and the Given in Improvisational Space. Dr Gary Peters
- The Place of Improvisation / The Improvisation of Place Symposium. Dr Inga Bryden (9/7/05)
- ‘One Time Alone : Improvisation Takes Place’ Geraldine Finn