What some ARENA participants had to say following the MasterClass:
“I work with a group of enthusiasts who are passionate about a common cause – producing a play…Etienne Wegner’s MasterClass helped me to think about (and go back and look at) the way in which they might learn together, whilst working towards this common cause”.
“It helped me to understand and theorise some of the complexity of trying to introduce arts practices into care settings”.
From a previous MasterClass, given by Dr Etienne Wenger, see what our students had to say: Click here.
The term community of practice is accredited to Dr Etienne Wenger. Communities of practice are “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise by interacting on an ongoing basis.” (Wenger, 2002). “Every group that shares interest on a website is called a community today, but communities of practice are a specific kind of community. They are focused on a domain of knowledge and over time accumulate expertise in this domain. They develop their shared practice by interacting around problems, solutions, and insights, and building a common store of knowledge.”
“Knowledge management will never work until corporations realize it’s not about how you capture knowledge but how you create and leverage it”
Preparatory reading suggested by Dr Etienne Wenger:
Wenger-Trayner, E., Fenton-O’Creevy, M., Hutchinson, S., Kubiak, C. and Wenger-Trayner, B. (eds.) (2015) Learning in Landscapes of Practice: Boundaries, Identity, and Knowledgeability in Practice-Based Learning. London and New York: Routledge.
The first MasterClass in the ARENA programme was based on the work of Etienne Wenger (known more recently as Etienne Wenger-Trayner), and successive colleagues and collaborators, in developing and regularly refining the concept of “community of practice”, particularly in the light of the new book Learning in Landscapes of Practice: Boundaries, Identity, and Knowledgeability in Practice-Based Learning (London and New York, Routledge, 2015, edited by Etienne Wenger-Trayner, Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, Steven Hutchinson, Chris Kubiak, and Beverley Wenger-Trayner). The number of editors, as well as the inclusion of further practitioners and artists in the authorship of the majority of the book’s chapters, was testimony to the Wenger-Trayners’ recognition of the centrality of collaboration to both research and the evolution of their model of social learning theory that has been developed out of the programme of research that emerged from earlier works, such as Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity (Cambridge University Press, 1998).
All participants were provided with individual copies of Learning in Landscapes of Practice, in which stories from practitioners – ranging from the arts to childcare to land-use planning – feature large in a set of continuing conversations between practitioners. Along with other complementary Wenger sources, the MasterClass concentrated upon selected parts of the new book, including the opening chapter “Learning in a landscape of practice: A framework”, co-authored by the Wenger-Trayners, and later chapters further developing core ideas. Of particular interest were the two concepts of “knowledgeability” (manifested “in a person’s relations to a multiplicity of practices across the landscape”, p. 14) and “brokering”, forms of support for the crossing of boundaries through the facilitation of translation, co-ordination and alignment of different perspectives and meanings (Wenger, 1998, and see Learning in Landscapes of Practice, p. 81). Related to the latter, the Wenger-Trayners’ chapter “Systems convenors in complex landscapes” built upon their own experience of “supporting convenors in complex landscapes” (p. 99). Thinking about collaborative and participatory research as forms of convening offered the potential for many of the participants to consider in a new light their role as researcher in the social landscapes in which their individual projects are based.
The relevance of knowledgeability to practice-based researchers, and the potential of convenorship as a research identity in collaborative research, resonated with participants. The MasterClass confirmed the importance of the core concept of communities of practice (CoP) to the ARENA programme, and the stories, conversations and reflections generated at the day suggested the strong potential of the additional concepts to inform participants’ doctoral work and research programmes.
Dr Etienne Wenger, an international authority on ‘communities of practice’, delivered his lecture Learning in landscapes of practice as part of the Festival of Research in the Brighton Fringe in 2013.
The individual and the social: Creativity and development
“The positive development of a society in the absence of creative, independently thinking, critical individuals is as inconceivable as the development of an individual in the absence of the stimulus of the community.” Albert Einstein
A community of practice is a self-governed learning partnership among people, who:
Share challenges, passion or interest
Learn from and with each other
Improve their ability to do what they care about
Dr Étienne Wenger: Wikipedia entry
What some ARENA participants had to say following the MasterClass:
“It will help me devise and listen in querying depth to my own reflexive voice during writing up my research as writing is the subject and method of inquiry at the core of my own research”
“what I found to be useful was the realization that I was not only a researcher but an interpreter of new knowledge and observation, and the importance of being an “insider” during my research”
“As a researcher who is working with two languages throughout my fieldwork, this was also a reminder of the importance of the researcher as an insider, as there are many more unspoken gestures and reactions that I can pick up and combine with what is being shown and said. On the other hand, it was also a reminder that I should not allow this “insider” to give a one sided account of interviews and not get carried away with interpreting, based on assumption”
“I left with the confidence to let the source material guide me on the way to write it for an audience. Often, I think, writers from all disciplines fall into habits of writing and it is a positive idea to address each new topic and consider not just what to write, but how to write.”
“This MasterClass…..developed my understanding of the relationship between the act of writing and the act of interpretation”
Preparatory readings suggested by Professor Lomax:
Lomax, Y. (2005) A Single Grain of Corn and a Sound of Immanence. In Lomax, Y. Sounding the Event: Escapades in Dialogue and Matters of Art, Nature and Time. London and New York: I.B.Tauris.
Lomax, Y. (2008) Besides/In a Paradigmatic Way. Journal of Visual Arts Practice. 7(3): 205-212.
Lomax, Y. (2010) Passionate Being: Language, Singularity and Perseverance. London and New York: I.B.Tauris.
Lomax, Y. (2013) Beautiful. In Pure means: Writing, Photographs and an Insurrection of Being. London: Copy Press.
Professor Yve Lomax was educated at Saint Martins School of Art in Painting and the Royal College of Art, where in 1979 she received her Masters in Environmental Media. She has exhibited internationally and published widely. She is author of three books: Writing the Image: An Adventure with Art and Theory (2000); Sounding the Event: Escapades in Dialogue and Matters of Art, Nature and Time (2005) and Passionate Being: Language, Singularity and Perseverance (2010). Her exhibitions include: Three Perspectives on Photography (1979); Difference: On Representation and Sexuality (1984) and Sometimes (1995), a large photographic work shown in Johannesburg, Edinburgh Austria and Australia. She is a commissioning editor for the Common Intellectual series published by the independent publishing company Copy Press (www.copypress.co.uk). She is also Professor in Art Writing at Goldsmiths College.
Yves Lomax’s MasterClass was based in participants’ close reading of selected texts from her own writings. Here is an extract from the Abstract for her article “Besides/In a paradigmatic way”, Journal of Visual Arts Practice, Volume 7 Number 3, pp. 205-212:
This text starts with critique as that which does not rest content with the given, and starting here it embraces the task of critique as troubling presupposition. With indifference as a key issue, it is suggested that such troubling is what distinguishes critique from criticism; however, the distinction brings to critique what appears to be an impossible act – to take place without presupposition.
Participants discussed at length the nature of critique in the light of this idea of “troubling presupposition”, and explored with Professor Lomax her strategies for writing as both interpretation and critique. In another text, Sounding the Event: Escapades in Dialogue and Matters of Art, Nature and Time, the perturbed, puzzled, unsettled voice (p. 45) of the writer is given prominence, and the group responded enthusiastically to the bold forms of writing by which these dilemmas are negotiated if not definitively resolved. Switches of perspective, the juxtaposition of the experiential with the interpretive – these presentational techniques alerted participants to aspects of the craft of writing some of which would be explored in depth at the residential creative writing workshop the following Summer. Professor Lomax’s works raised the question too of how much the doctoral student could risk in the manipulation of voice and perspective in the writing-up of the thesis. The cautionary may triumph over the experimental when faced with the cold realities of the doctoral criteria; but it was widely felt that not all adventure should be sidelined in the presentation of interpretive work, and in particular in the presentation of practice as research.
In the afternoon of the MasterClass Professor Lomax acted a performance, a reading of a prepared text that was anchored in the use of voice, tone and rhythm. This performance was filmed and can be viewed via the link below.
MasterClass 3 with Jonathan Burrows on 19 March 2015. Venue: 11 Bedford Square, London.
What some ARENA participants had to say, following the MasterClass:
“It helped me to see research itself as a practice, and to think about creative ways to approach that in order to get over some of the hurdles that appear in the process. It was good to think about ways to bring the playfulness and poetics of practice into academic writing, both in terms of its process and the text itself.”
“Jonathan’s discussions of ‘daily practice’ and strategies for freeing ourselves up to the creative side of research were really helpful tools. The workshop was a breath of fresh air in a process that can very easily become too introverted.”
“When looking at my own research, as a practitioner and researcher together, I understand that it is okay to let go of one title in order to become the other as the experience from being one directly communicates the next step to the other”
“It was particularly beneficial to hear Jonathan share his own experiences of the relationship between practice and research, illustrating how he successfully put theory/ dramaturgy into practice throughout his career; it reinforced the relationship’s importance and how, if research is not done sufficiently, the practice might lack substance too.”
“It’s encouraged me to reflect more deeply on my own research and writing process, and given me some really good tools with which to go forward in my writing particularly. I found the recognition of the elements of ‘not-knowing’, error, waste, failure that are involved in writing to be liberating and I think keeping those things in mind will help me to write more creatively, take more risks and try things out. It has encouraged me to ride the process and to relax into the emergence of the work rather than getting anxious around a fixed idea of an end ‘product’.
Preparatory readings suggested by Jonathan Burrows:
Lepecki, A. (2011) We are not Ready for the Dramaturge: Some Notes for Dance Dramaturgy. In Bellisco, M., Cifuentes, M.J. and Écija, A. (eds.) Repensar la Dramaturgia: Errancia y Transformaçion/Rethinking Dramaturgy: Errancy and Transformation. Centro Párraga: CENDEAC.
van Kerkhoeven, M. (1994) Sehen ohne den Stift in der Hand/Looking without Pencil in the Hand. Theaterschrift 5/6 (On dramaturgy): 140-146.
Laermans, R. (2009) Artistic Autonomy as Value and Practice. In Gielen, P. and de Bruyne, P. (eds.) Arts in Society: Being an Artist in post-Fordist Times. Rotterdam: NAI Publishers.
Gielen, P. (2009) The Murmuring of the Artistic Multitude: Global art, Memory and post-Fordism. Amsterdam: Valiz.
Burrows, J. (2014) Body not Fit for Purpose. Notes from notebooks and conversations with Matteo Fargion for work commissioned by Biennale Danza di Venezia.
Jonathan Burrows, Choreographer, Dancer, Writer
Jonathan Burrows’s MasterClass, held in Royal Holloway’s Bedford Square house in London, invited participants to think back to an idea of research that, as in dance, might be seeking to deal with meanings that might be felt, but not at all easily articulated – as Jonathan put it in his pre-sessional notes for the participants of the MasterClass. He noted that in his own case, the first step in “knowing what and how to research is premised upon accepting a state of not knowing and of feeling overwhelmed”, what he also describes as a “lostness”.
Participants were provided with a set of readings that have stimulated and sustained Jonathan in his work as maker, performer and researcher/writer. His sources embraced literature, philosophy, aesthetics, and his own process of creative making, as in his Body Not Fit for Purpose, commissioned by the Biennale Danza di Venezia 2014. Other readings were some notes on dance dramaturgy by André Lepecki; a text by Marianne Van Kerkhoven entitled Looking Without Pencil in the Hand, championing dramaturgy as “the conversion of feeling into knowledge”, also seen as “the twilight zone between art and science” in which the dramaturge is also his/her own first spectator; a chapter by Rudi Laermans on artistic autonomy/freedom; and an overview on the conceptual potential of “artistic murmuring” in an excerpt from Pascal Gielen’s The Murmuring of the Artistic Multitude: Global Art, Memory and Post-Fordism.
In an open atmosphere – initially, all participants in a circle – Jonathan showed how thinking back to the beginning, to the act or the practice, can offer a foundation for integrating practice and research, for presenting the practice as research. Participants responded enthusiastically to the concept of murmuring, to its “vitalistic power” as Michel de Certeau put it, quoted in Gielen’s text. The session also introduced a playful and creative means of building interpretive connections in series of selected words, individually proposed and then collectively generated. It was a provocative day, miles away from formulaic methodology textbooks, and much appreciated by participants who felt that Jonathan Burrows’s uninhibited use of ideas and concepts linked to individual experience offered much for a particular kind of doctoral study or research project.
Jonathan Burrows subsequently sent this link to a keynote speech he had given to open the dance academics conference, which he felts linked to, and borrowed something from his MasterClass:
MasterClass 4 with Dr. Robert Macfarlane, 6 May 2015. Venue: Grand Parade, Brighton.
Dr Robert MacFarlane is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and an award-winning travel writer. His latest book, Landmarks, was published in early March 2015, and has been hailed by Telegraph writer Horatio Clare as “passionate and magical”. In his MasterClass on the ARENA programme at the University of Brighton on May 6th 2015 he discussed the process of landscape writing that has established him, in his three earlier books, as a pioneer combining the scholarly and the experiential, the historical and the literary. Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003), The Wild Places (2007), and The Old Ways (2012) have had widespread impact on travel writing and nature broadcasting. In the MasterClass participants concentrated upon the third text in this trilogy, engaging with the process of writing and the writer’s personal narrative in identifying historical and cultural legacies of our landscapes.
Feedback from participants:
“I just wanted to say ….. what a fantastic experience yesterday’s MacFarlane Masterclass was. I was thinking this morning about how generally overused the word ‘enriching’ is in academic life, but how singularly appropriate and meaningful it was in this case. In terms of his scholarship, his amazingly poetic way of articulating his thoughts and the intellectual flexibility and genorosity that he showed to everyone in the room, I think it would be hard to surpass. Of the many things I will take away, one is the particular value of producing and sharing writing, both as a response to a particular author or thinker and as a way of flexing and adapting our own approaches to writing in research – it seems like a process that might be experimented with further. I think I will be digesting that day for a long time to come.”
“It was a hugely inspirational and uplifting day and has made me determined to pay much more attention to language and precision”.
“I would just like to say how much I enjoyed the masterclass with Robert Macfarlane and how disappointed I was not to be able to participate in the evening session.”
“I really want to express my thanks to ARENA for allowing me to participate in the MasterClass and associated events, and to the group and Robert for such generous and stimulating discussion. I found the experience enormously thought-provoking and helpful in terms of thinking about my research, as well as more generally inspiring, and I came away feeling energised and excited.”
Dr Robert Macfarlane, Emmanuel College, Cambridge
In preparation for the MasterClass, participants received a copy of The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Penguin, 2013 [Hamish Hamilton, 2012]), and were asked to read through the book, concentrating upon five chapters. These were:
Separate groups were allocated one of these on the day, to discuss and feed back on. Robert also distributed examples of his ‘evidence’, small stones and tiny fieldwork notebooks, dampened and splodged by inclement and unfriendly weather, the longhand writing luckily not obliterated. He also mingled among the five groups as they discussed the work(s). This established free-flowing and rich exchanges among all participants, from the beginning of the event.
Time permitting, participants were also asked/encouraged, in personal dialogue with The Old Ways, to write up to a page on landscape and memory for pre-circulation to Robert and the group, quoting as appropriate Robert’s examples, engaging with examples and interpretations from the book, and drawing upon their own experience. The majority of students were able to do these pieces, and Dr Macfarlane read these on his flight from Italy and on his journey from Stansted to Brighton, providing insightful, illuminating critiques, sensitively and positively delivered in the form of collective public tutorials within the MasterClass.
In the evening, Dr Macfarlane extended the MasterClass into a public event – scheduled in the Brighton Festival Fringe – on his new book Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton, 2015), in conversation with Andrew Tomlinson from the BBC in the William IV Room, Royal Pavilion. In all, ninety or so participants took the opportunity to engage and enter into dialogue with Dr Macfarlane on the day. It was an inspirational day, highlighting the challenges of precise writing and the nature of interpretive work generated in dialogue or collaboration with others, these latter being, potentially, natural objects or the environment, not only fellow humans. “My books are made of other books … my thoughts are made of other thoughts”, noted Dr Macfarlane, in tribute to the writers and thinkers with whom he has developed his distinctive corpus of interdisciplinary writing on people and places in the natural environment. Participants throughout the day entered his works in his company, grasping his sense of “walking as a reconnoitre inwards”, recognising “the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move” (The Old Ways, p. xi).
Arena Masterclass film: Dr Robert Macfarlane talks about his book ‘Landmarks’ in conversation with Andrew Tomlinson at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton.
Arena Masterclass film trailer: Dr Robert Macfarlane talks about his book ‘Landmarks’.
As preparation for the masterclass participants were invited to write a short piece on landscape and memory, engaging in personal dialogue with The Old Ways, and drawing upon their own experience. A small sample of participants’ responses, accompanied by some post-masterclass reflections are included below.
Bergit Arends, Royal Holloway, University of London
I had spent time over the Easter break with the family at my parents’ place in Eastern Frisia on the Dutch-German border (I am German, from the former West). My train ride to Leipzig took me on a journey from West to East starting at Emden via Oldenburg, Bremen, Hannover, Magdeburg, and Halle, to Leipzig in the former German Democratic Republic. Leipzig has been very visibly renovated since the ‘Wende’ in 1989, a term for the reunification that has crept into everyday use but is criticized by some as a flawed term in as much as it implies some form of restoration. For others that time of change is characterized as the Friedliche Revolution (Peaceful Revolution).  This study trip afforded me insights into the city’s complex past beyond the recently gilded and contemporary glassy facades.
My doctoral research, provisionally entitled ‘Experimental Fields: Curating Art and Environment Projects in the Age of the Anthropocene’ considers the relationships between humans and the natural environment with particular attention to field and expeditionary practices, to the co-production of knowledge, and to re-enactment.
One of my case studies is the photographic album ‘Kohle unter Magdeborn’ (Coal beneath Magdeborn), 1976, by photographer Nguyen The Thuc (b. 1949 in Nam Dinh, Vietnam). During the time of the German Democratic Republic he documented the environmental and the social impacts of the intensifying coal mining in Espenhain, near Leipzig. The historic village of Magdeborn was only one of many swallowed up by the expanding open-pit brown coal mine, but seemed to have attracted the most attention. Its around 3500 inhabitants were decanted to nearby villages or the newly-built ‘Plattenbauten’, buildings made from prefabricated concrete slabs, on the outskirts of Leipzig. Thuc accompanied this process over a period of a few months, creating a unique documentation of the bulldozed buildings and the displaced life.
The Espenhain surface mine scored deeply into the landscape to unearth the crumbly brown coal between 1937 and 1994 and was closed after having extracted coal to depths of 60 to 100m. The site was transformed into the Störmthaler See, which began to be flooded in 2003, creating a lake with a sailing and other leisure facilities. The re-cultivated area and its futuristic landscaping was photographed last year by Leipzig-based photographer Christiane Eisler. Both artists, Thuc and Eisler, were educated at the famous Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts or Hochschule for Grafik und Buchkunst (HGB), where they studied photography. My attention was drawn to the Magdeborn project by Thuc and the retake by Eisler through the exhibition ‘Freundschaftsantiqua’, curated by Julia Blume and Heidi Stecker for the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, which marked 250 years of the school in 2014. The curatorial proposition was to show works by foreign students at the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig as a much neglected chapter of international art in the GDR, with a special focus on photography. Interestingly these students often worked on themes that were not officially recognized or were subversive, selecting themes that were taboo in the GDR at the time. 
You can see some works and exhibition installation shots here Freundschaftsantiqua.
Thuc documented the people of Magdeborn. A lot of the inhabitants had small holdings, and Thuc recorded details of their everyday lives, their festivities, and their religious celebrations. His photographs became particularly poignant knowing that it was forbidden to talk about the process of ‘decanting’ and the problems of environmental transformation and of pollution. In fact, religious groups in particular started to draw attention to the toxic environments around Leipzig at the time, contributing to the dissidence that led to the change in the late 1980s.
Eisler (called Schwenn at the time of her studies) has taken a long-term interest in documenting social environments of marginalized individuals under an oppressive regime and those affected by a changing society. Her portraits of East German punks of the 1980s were considered undesirable and were censored. She contributed to the ‘Freundschaftsantiqua’ exhibition with her photographs of defunct sites of labour, the immigrant situation of Leipzig’s Eastern district and by revisiting the former Espenhain site, in whose depths lie the remains of the Magdeborner Heimat (homeland).
Through these photography projects I have started to explore a critique of a utopian societal and economic model. Thuc’s intercultural encounters within the ‘closed society’ of the GDR afford subtle and subversive observations of the dramatic changes in the industrial landscape and the effects on people. I am beginning to explore how Thuc’s transcultural perspective from the 1970s, and Eisler’s existing and commissioned photographs, were reframed through contemporary curating practices.
During my stay, I interviewed one of the exhibition curators, other artists who had photographed the changing landscape, and inhabitants of the extinguished Magdeborn. One day was spent driving and walking the outline of the one-year old Störmthaler See, which was opened for public use last April. My site-visit started on the Grade 3 waste deposit that now covers part of the former mining site, from which vantage point I could oversee the lake. It was the hottest day of the week when I climbed this ashen mountain of waste.
The GDR in the 1980s was the world’s leading producer of brown coal. The Federal Republic of Germany still ranks among the most significant extractors of the remains of the carboniferous forest, and is engaged in mining sites from West to East. Despite the Energiewende (energy transition) and heavy investments in alternative energies, Germany still relies on coal, the more so since its stepping away from nuclear power following Fukushima. A layered model of an anthropogenic Earth would picture the gaping holes in the land left by coal extraction, a transformed society through energy generation, and an atmosphere laden with CO2 caused by burning coal. How do artists critically represent our hunger for energy? Can we afford to be sentimental about the loss of Heimat as the cost of the energy demands that underpin our standard of living? Does our understanding need the top of a waste heap from which to look down onto the moonscape of a surface pit or the turquoise mirror of a leisure lake?
On my last day in Leipzig I went to the motet in the protestant St. Thomas church, where Johann Sebastian Bach, was cantor. Every Saturday at 15h the motets are sublimely sung, this time with the world-famous St. Thomas boys’ choir. 70 years earlier to the day, the American troops had entered Leipzig in the last throes of the Second World War. Back home in London I had a heated debate with a German friend about which verb to use for the advancing and the retreating armies and the German population caught up in these battles. Were the Germans in Leipzig ‘liberated’ or were they simply ‘defeated’? The pastor speaking from the pulpit in the St. Thomas church related that the Americans were in Leipzig until 1 July 1945. When American troops withdrew as agreed with the Soviet Union, Leipzig was taken over by the Soviet army. During the time of the GDR the official story was that the Soviets had liberated Leipzig, thereby erasing 10 weeks of American rule from history.
I will use the research material gathered during an intense week to trace the layers of the living archive south of Leipzig. The photographic representations and the narratives evolving around these images are my primary sources. The artists’ works appeal to social justice in their portrayal of the individuals within the different states, which is something I will particularly draw out.
I am exploring landscape as a palimpsest of human interventions and the agency of nature. Artists’ representations of environmental change can draw on the fields of economy, science and technology, and culture. In my thesis research I study and trace these through a number of artists’ works including photographer Chrystel Lebas, installation artists Mark Dion and Hu Yun, and painter Daniel Boyd. Their explorations led them to the re-enactment of archives and to working in the field to create their art. The current debates around the geological age of the ‘Anthropocene’ serve as a framework to analyse and interpret these works afresh. I will look at the understanding of time in nature and humans and the complex role humans assume within nature by being passive observers and active agents.
Acknowledgment: I would like to thank the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group in the Department of Geography and the Department of Drama at Royal Holloway, University of London for the support of this study trip.
 Simon, A, (2014) ‘Wende? Revolution!’, Die Zeit Online, No. 44.
 ‘Freundschaftsantiqua. Ausländische Studierende an der Hochschule fὒr Grafik und Buchkunst – ein internationals Kapitel der Kunst in der DDR’ exhibition curated by Julia Blume and Heidi Stecker at the Galerie fὓr Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig, 1.2.2014 to 1.6.2014, and accompanying Journal #2, issued by the HGB
Miranda Ward, Royal Holloway, University of London
Goleta, California, Christmas Eve. I’ve driven 45 minutes to have a swim, not in the glittering Pacific, which opens out along the edge of the 101, spilling over the edge of the horizon as I speed south, but in a pool, 25 metres long, divided into four narrow lanes. It’s 80 degrees out, a heat wave, a drought. The hills are already bleached gold, a sign of profound thirst, presaging summer wildfires.
When I arrive the pool is half in shadow, half in sun. Today there’s only one other swimmer plowing up and down, and as I approach I recognise the stroke of my 87-year-old grandmother, on one of her thrice-weekly swims. We share the pool for a while, until she gets out, and I have it all to myself, and I do a few lengths of backstroke, gazing up at the clear-blue sky. When I go back to England we’ll write to each other, as we do every month or so, about conditions at our respective pools. ‘Today the water was warm, the sky was full of interesting clouds and birds and the pool was empty except for one other swimmer, and I still remembered how to swim,’ she’ll say. ‘The temperature here is just above freezing and all the trees are bare. It’s actually very appealing to swim in the winter, when it’s too cold and dark to stay outside for very long,’ I’ll say.
Pools are reliably dull, at least at first glance. Everything is contained, controlled, regulated. Step into a pool in London or Los Angeles or wherever, and you’ll soon get the hang of things, settle into a rhythm. Maybe you’ll count lengths, or focus on a slight twinge in your shoulder, or sing little snippets of song to yourself as you swim. Maybe a single word or phrase, uttered by a companion the night before, will get lodged in your head, rolling through your mind: cremant du jura, cremant du jura, cremant du jura. A plaster floats by. A hint of mould in the grouting of the tiles. Sunken elastic hairbands make rings on the bottom of the pool. The landscape is both blank canvas and painting, mirror and window. As Thomas Van Leeuwen put it in his history of the private swimming pool, astutely observing how the architecture of the pool corresponds to its use: ‘While the pool allows, even invites, intellectual wanderings, at the same time it prevents the wanderer from losing his way…The container encloses but also retains, holds together, and keeps from spilling. While stirring the imagination, it also prevents it from rambling; the container both kindles and quenches.’ When I read that I think of the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan: ‘Place is security,’ he wrote, ‘space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other.’
It’s a landscape that leaves a mark on you: the distinctive stroke of my grandmother, acquired after eighty years of practice. And yet the thing about water, or pool-water, anyhow, is that it’s impossible to leave a record of your own journey through it. How many hours, days, have I spent forging and re-forging the same path, up and down, in the very same lane? The water opens up to my body and swallows it, embraces it, but it doesn’t remember it: once the body’s left so too are all traces of its movement, the splashes and bubbles, eddies and swirls. The memory is in muscles, in heart.
My research is on lap swimming. I write about swimming pools and swimming bodies, repetition and mundanity, the ugly-beauty of the contained watery world and what it might mean. Perhaps this seems at odds with the scope of The Old Ways, with its ancient tracks, its expansive landscapes, its walks and poet-ghosts. But I have long been an admirer of Robert Macfarlane’s work, and particularly his approach to writing the embodied experience of place – what Bachelard calls a ‘muscular consciousness’ – which is also a driving concern in my own work.
We talked about this throughout the masterclass: What does the body know? How does it remember? How do we write about these things – things under the surface, inscribed in muscle and bone or somewhere deeper, hard to identify let alone understand – how do we find a language for this?
There was a lot of talk too about a perceived tension between forms of ‘creative’ and forms of ‘academic’ writing, and particularly about the potentially problematic role of the ‘I’. Macfarlane spoke at one point about how so-called creative writing can extend ‘forms of hospitality to the reader that academic writing doesn’t necessarily extend,’ and I like this way of thinking about the act of authoring: that you can choose to invite the reader in.
Towards the start of The Old Ways, Macfarlane writes that he is ‘fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains,’ and it strikes me now as a fascination that transcends any specific setting. Why not think of the pool as a landscape, as part of the swimmer’s topography of self?
Uschi Klein, University of Brighton
I received the email and thought I struck gold – it was the confirmation that I would be partly funded to do some research in Nepal. My team had already started working on a new campaign that we temporarily referred to as ‘poverty porn’ but we needed to gather more information and interview people working in the charity sector in a developing country before we could launch it. There was no time to be wasted; my plane tickets were booked within one hour and four days later I was on the plane to Nepal where I would spend the next ten weeks. I had never been to Nepal before and was very excited about this adventure.
Oliver picked me up from the airport. We had met at a party in London six months previously when he told me about his work in Nepal. When I emailed him about my arrival he instantly offered to pick me up. Tired from the flight, I relied on Oliver to navigate me through the airport and into the taxi. It was already dark when I arrived so I couldn’t see much on our way into Kathmandu but I remember the overwhelming tooting noise from the cars, scooters and buses on the busy roads. It was chaotic and I couldn’t see many street names; I had to trust that the driver knew where he was going and wondered how he did it without a GPS system. Oliver spoke to him in Nepali and I was eager to learn a few words and phrases.
I spent the next few days setting up meetings with charities, organising myself and walking around the centre of Kathmandu. The smell of petrol, dust and incense was overwhelming; the colours I saw were vibrant; the high humidity unbearable. Nepali people were trying to sell me souvenirs and many of them, mainly children, were begging and asking for money – an instant reminder why I was there in the first place. I decided to buy a map to orientate myself, and a dictionary to learn some Nepali phrases.
The research led me to remote parts of the country. I was advised to catch ‘tourist’ coaches as they were more comfortable but decided to take the ‘local’ ones so I could meet local people, not tourists. I was glad I did otherwise I would have never experienced traveling with goats and chickens on a bus. And I would have never met Aneesha, a young Nepali undergraduate student, who agreed to be my interpreter during my stay in and around Pokhara. I told her about my project and that I was planning to visit schools and talk with parents as well as charities and orphanages. She was very interested and enthusiastic so we exchanged phone numbers and I said I would be in touch over the next few days.
Nepal is a beautiful country; the people are warm and friendly and the landscape picturesque. I saw much of it from the long bus journeys. I covered many hundreds of miles by bus and walked dozens to remote places that buses wouldn’t reach. I saw people working in the rice fields. I saw people walking their goats. I saw buffalos and I saw holy cows in the middle of the roads. I was grateful for this experience.
The colourful and simple houses made of clay and bricks reminded me of Transylvania, where I was born and raised. I was thinking of my grandmother who had died ten years previously. She raised me and was my last strong connection to the country. Looking over the hills and mountains of Nepal felt positively strange. I had never been to Nepal yet felt a strong familiarity. The warm memories of my grandmother connected me to Nepal. I was not just looking at picturesque landscapes; the memories I had enabled me to be part of Nepal. I felt connected.
I have read many books in my life but only a few had a lasting impact on me, and Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways was one of them. It only took me two days to read it from cover to cover, and I was almost disappointed when I finished it. His writing is rich and engaging, beautiful and enchanting; I was completely inspired by it.
Given that my research is not related to environmentalism and travel, I got a lot out of his book and masterclass. His writing greatly influenced and motivated me to improve my own writing for my thesis, and in particular for describing the case studies. The latter was something I dreaded for a long time, asking myself how I could write about my participants’ work and their engagement in my study in a way that accurately reflected them and their photography. I didn’t want to just be descriptive and boring in my writing, but reveal some of their unique personalities that came through in the interviews and their photography. Reading The Old Ways certainly helped me overcome that fear, in particular because the book includes descriptions of people too, so it highly motivated me to try out a writing style that would be more appropriate for describing the case studies.
I was genuinely impressed by Robert’s masterclass. His enthusiasm was infectious and he was well prepared. Sharing his notebooks with us during the day was another highlight; it encouraged me to be more rigorous with my note-taking and more importantly, to be more reflective.
Eley McAinsh, Royal Holloway, University of London
Whitby is most Whitby when you can’t see it, when the fret has rolled in like a cloak on the tide. Invasive, white, dense, it distorts and disorientates. It muffles sound, obscures sight and settles, damp, on everything.
It can stay for days, this mist, when the air is warm and the sea is cold, and just as you know on waking in a thin-curtained room if snow has fallen overnight, so too the mist’s arrival is sensed before rising, in a red-brick villa above West Cliff. No matter that up and down the coast, in Saltburn, say, or Scarborough, the sun may be bright and the sky clear, Whitby has a weather all of its own. A wise visitor packs for all seasons, in all seasons, but you can’t pack for the fret. Once, I waited in its white cocoon for seven days, the only thing visible above it, the high gable and tiered arches of the ruined abbey.
There are many Whitbys, distinct but overlapping. The Whitby of Abbey and Synod, Caedmon and Hilda; the Whitby of fanged beasts and falling bones, of mourning jet and costumed-Goths; the Whitby of exploration and adventure, of ship-building and alum mines, of fishing fleets and colliers; the holiday town of Magpie Café and pink rock, donkeys and open-top buses. And the ordinary, everyday Whitby that I watch from my window, that I overhear in the convenience store, that I pass and greet on the dandelion-cracked cliff paths: a place of habit and routine, of work and school, of errands and chores, of worries and small pleasures, of dog-walking and chat and sudden squalls of loss and joy.
Whitby is a place of layers and legend, seeping into each other, melding and blurring. It’s a place of atmospheres and associations, memories and rituals, a thin place, some say, where the boundary between worlds is porous as silk, where there is always more than meets the eye, always more than can be spoken. From every vantage point, from sea, from moor, from within the town, the abbey ruins stand out, stark and defiant against the grey horizon, brooding above a town where the familiar remains strange, where history sings through the back alleys and geography mutates in the night with cliff-fall and surge-tide and burrowing mine.
Robert Macfarlane is, for me, one of the most inspiring contemporary writers on place. I am most drawn the precision and inventiveness of his language, and his ability to evoke place in a rich and multi-dimensional way, not merely visually, but in terms of affect and atmosphere. His skill as a writer is both minutely figurative and powerfully impressionistic. The workshop in Brighton was a much-appreciated opportunity, in part to hear his comments on our work, but mainly for the insights into his own process as a writer, which he shared with a rare openness and generosity.
Professor Grant Kester is Professor of Art History in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California, San Diego. He is the founding editor of FIELD: A Journal of Socially Engaged Art Criticism, and author of The One and the Many: Collaborative Art in a Global Context (2012) and Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (2013, updated edition). His work contests the theoretical position of Nicholas Bourriaud in relational aesthetics, and engages with and assesses the work of contemporary artists, in an ongoing debate on the nature and implications of activist public art. Professor Kester ran a MasterClass in the University of Brighton’s ARENA programme on Wednesday July 15th 2015, at the College of Arts and Humanities in Grand Parade, Brighton. Participants read selected excerpts and readings from his work, and Professor Kester responded to participants’ experiences of cultural production and practices in collaborative contexts. In the evening of the same day, Professor Kester presented a public lecture in the University.
Feedback from participants:
“I found the workshop sessions with Grant Kester followed up by his evening lecture really enjoyable as well as critically useful. It was very important to my practice-based research to benefit from a day-long session with Grant in the company of other researchers based in CRD, to explore the trajectory of thinking of an academic who maintains such a lively critical relationship to his profession. I found the discussion rich in scholarship as well as feeding directly into my own work around how practice engages the archive. This day was a great follow-up to the writing residential where we engaged with practice directly, and could step back through Grant’s work to consider critical writing in a fresh relationship to practice as an international field of participatory art.”
“The day with Kester was an honour. He is an internationally renowned academic and one central to my research so not only was it a prestigious booking for the university but also one essential for my PhD; to be able to have access in the masterclass environment, to talk with Kester and delve deeper into his thinking, has been inspirational for my thesis and has helped my research exponentially”.
“While Grant Kester connected many of the themes we explored throughout the year, he also left us with much food for thought to take away and examine for ourselves and in relation to our individual PhDs. It was particular useful for me to delve deeper into the hermeneutics of texts, feeling encouraged to re-read and re-interpret some of the works we discussed during the MasterClass”.
“The Grant Kester Masterclass was the most directly useful event for my research in the entire ARENA calendar, with a world leading academic in the field of dialogic theory and arts activism, sharing his expertise in a way that developed participants’ clarity and insight into the ontological, epistemic and practical issues involved in contemporary arts-based practice”.
Background readings suggested by Professor Grant Kester:
Kester, G.H. (2011)The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context. Durham and London: Durham University Press.
Kester, G. (2013) The Device Laid Bare: On Some Limitations in Current Art Criticism. E-Flux Journal 12(50): NP. Available: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-device-laid-bare-on-some-limitations-in-current-art-criticism/
Todorov, T. (1984) Philosophical Anthropology. In Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Honneth, A. (1991) Horkheimer’s Original Idea: The Sociological Deficit of Critical Theory. In The Critique of Power: Reflective Stages in a Critical Social Theory. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Professor Grant Kester, University of California San Diego
The MasterClass was based on several sources/selections, two by Professor Kester himself (The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context, Duke University Press, 2011; and an article ‘The Device Laid Bare: On Some Limitations in Current Art Criticism”, e-flux journal 50, December 2013). A further two sources, selections from Tzvetan Todorov’s Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle (University of Minnesota Press, 1984) and Axel Honneth’s The Critique of Power: Reflexive Stages in a Critical Social Theory (MIT Press, 1991) provided broader contextual theoretical frameworks and debates, and conceptual and interpretive principles that have influenced and inspired Grant Kester’s work in challenging orthodoxies in art history and in developing his alternative approach to the cultural analysis of creative and artistic practices.
In the morning, after Grant sketched his own intellectual journey from practice (initially as a photographer) to critical theory and contemporary cultural analysis of the dialogical and collaborative dimensions of practice, four separate groups debated in depth his critique of orthodoxies in “The Device Laid Bare”, concentrating on particular statements/quotes from the article. The quotes, allocated to the groups on the day, focused upon the displacement of critic and/or historian by the theorist, in the hermeneutic process; the implications of the development of participatory and collaborative art practices for the understanding of artistic production; the challenging of boundaries in realizing “the unfinalizable quality of dialogic production”; and the implications of dialogic practices for our understanding of “the relationship between consciousness and action within the aesthetic”. Encouraged to draw upon their own experiences of practice, groups and individuals generated lively exchanges and challenging responses to Grant’s work and his approach to the theorizing of art/practice; he also spent time with each of the four groups as they were responding to his work. In the afternoon, questions concerning art’s place in a capitalist world, including culture’s resistance-generating capacity, allowed participants to range widely in applying core ideas; and Grant presented his reading of the two key ideas to be gleaned from Bakhtin’s work. These latter are the idea of ‘surplus’ or ‘excess’ of seeing; and the recognition of the unfinalizable nature of a literary or cultural artefact.
In the evening, Professor Kester extended the MasterClass event into a public lecture on the dialogical turn in art criticism/cultural analysis. In all fifty or so participants took the opportunity to engage and enter into dialogue with the presenter of the ARENA programme’s final activity day.