|Thinking about clothes as performance (March 2009, photo DD)|
I am reading a dissertation.
Dissertations are dangerous. Oftentimes they are dangerous to those who write them. From my own experience I know that if you want to communicate something, the dissertation form in itself can be an obstacle to that communication ever taking place.
I am in the process of reading a dissertation by a scholar who studies art as ”engagement in public space” (Concrete Fashion 11) and who professedly does ”not want to objectify what happened and lose the quality of the lived experience” (21).
In the dissertation genre, to say this is a contradiction in kind. In adopting the aims and methods of scientific research as generally accepted, the scholar by definition makes the lived experience his or her object of study. This is a procedure in which the quality of ”lived experience” has to be abandoned. Moreover, in accepting the rules and regulations of academic dissertation writing, the engagement in public space is drastically minimized. More often than not, dissertations are read only by the opponents.
However, I am in the process of reading a dissertation. Kajsa G. Eriksson studies fashion. She studies clothes as modes of intervention in public space and as modes of negotiating identity. She enacts these interventions by means of performance art. In studying her own enactments, she says ”I attempt to understand in what way my actions and interventions can contribute to new knowledge about what we have to accept as given, and what we are able to change ...” (28).
In her performances, Eriksson unwaveringly intervenes in everyday public space. In doing so she ”provokes reactions and social responses between people who have never met before”, and this, she says, is important to her understanding of the potentials of art, since it ”shows how public space is open to new formations of people sharing something they would not otherwise have shared ...” (94).
|Thinking about clothes as social intervention (March 2006, photo DD)|
I have not seen or taken part in any of Eriksson’s performance interventions in real life. A recent event from life, however - from my own life - exemplifies how close to lived experience Eriksson is in her dissertation, at the same time as it demonstrates how precarious is her definition of her interventions as art (this is something that she readily acknowledges, and I will return to that).
After the seminar and in leaving the location, my colleagues and I were filled to the brim with ideas new and old, and on our way to the T-station, we talked happily and inspiredly about the impressions of the day. We had a twenty-minute journey to Bromma ahead of us to pick up our car there and then the long drive from Stockholm to Bengtsfors some 400 kilometers away.
This was a Thursday afternoon and the train was quite filled with travellers. We found three free seats, however, cramming ourselves in among the Thursday afternoon commuters. Not thinking particularly of where we were, we continued our discussions. We were not altogether agreed about what it means for us as teachers that young people with brains tending towards divergent thinking need a generous and tolerant social environment in order to develop their creativity in benign directions. So somewhat intensely and with slightly raised voices we carried on. What does generous and tolerant signify, and didn’t one of the lecturers at the seminar also mention the need of disciplined work ethics in combination with tolerance vis-à-vis divergence.
Without our actively thinking about it, we couldn’t help sensing that some change was taking place in the carriage. A woman opposite me across the aisle caught my gaze, nodding in sympathy with something I said. Two men, possibly but not obviously acquainted with one another, started discussing, broken utterances about school and education reaching my ear. A man sitting close enough to join us took up a thread with my female colleague while my male colleague and I continued where we were. Soon enough we reached our destination. On our way out we were joined by the man who had been talking with my female colleague, and what was now a conversation about other everyday occurrences continued until he had to go his way and we ours.
This social event was not a performance, but it raises questions about performance art. It was not intended as a performance intervention. In all other respects, however, it complied with what Eriksson thinks of as performance art. It functioned as an engagement in public space, It ”provoke[d] reactions and social responses between people who have never met before” and it ”show[ed] how public space is open to new formations of people sharing something they would not otherwise have shared ...”. And as I, much like Eriksson, ”attempt to understand in what way [this intervention] can contribute to new knowledge about what we have to accept as given, and what we are able to change”, I can come to think of a number of prejudices and given preunderstandings about the strúcture of life in Stockholm, about the way Swedish people act in trains and buses, and about the general social reticence that is expected of Swedes. So a pertinent question is: what makes a social event a work of art?
In the process of reading Kajsa G Eriksson’s dissertation, I begin to suspect that the academic form of the dissertation is in conflict with the depth of her research. Eriksson wants to study the whole of the process of performance artmaking and she wants to use a method where she is herself involved in the process she studies. A study of this kind requires a double perspective including introspection as well as ordinary social observation - and this is a point where the form of her dissertation fails her.
All through her dissertation Eriksson repeatedly pronounces her conviction that what she tries to do requires this other kind of scientific approach, but all the time this is held back by the fact that dissertations require a standardized approach of ordinary science. This requirement is quite probably a result of the current efforts of the departments of art to gain scientific status within the universities.
Whatever the reason, Eriksson never fully answers the question ‘what makes a social event a work of art’. She acknowledges the omission in an interesting way as a ”dilemma” that is ”not fully elaborated” in her dissertation:
”As an artist, one works for fun ... it is one of the privileges of being an artist. Something will be produced in the process of art making, even if only a change of the inner state of the artist. The dilemma arises in the sharing of the art ...” (69)
Here, things begin to happen. Questions arise - questions which, if answered, may very well lead on to crucial knowledge about the processes of art making. So, firstly, what does the word ”fun” signify? And, secondly, if part of the product of the process of art making is a change in the inner state of the artist - what is the relation between this change and that part of the product that could be called the artifact? And finally the sharing of the art - what do artists want to share, and with what aims do artists want to share their work?
I am reading this dissertation.
Dissertations are dangerous. Oftentimes they are dangerous to those who write them. If you want to communicate something, the dissertation form in itself can be an obstacle to that communication ever taking place. In the process of reading I can try to overcome that obstacle, and the best I can do for now is tell a story and ask some questions.
|Engaging in public space (March 2006, photo DD)|
The pictures in this blog installment have no connection to Kajsa G. Eriksson's dissertation or to any of her projects. They illustrate my own thoughts about performance art. (DD)
Source for this article:
Eriksson, Kajsa G. Concrete Fashion: Dress, Art and Engagement in Public Space. Diss. HDK, School of Design and Crafts, Faculty of Fine, Applied and Performing Arts, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Göteborg: Art Monitor 2009.
See Kajsa G Eriksson's own documentation of her work here
Read more here about the current efforts of the departments of art to gain scientific status within the Swedish universities - ”Science for Profession” is a motto under which the University College of Borås is linking scientific theory with practical knowledge in the fields of art and crafts.
Also read the ’Science for Profession’ reports 1 - 7 about the realization of the project in which the University College of Borås is linking scientific theory with practical knowledge in the fields of art and crafts (the reports are in Swedish).