Manchester 2018

Summary

The sixth and final workshop of the Network, on the theme of ‘Practising Aesthetics’ brought together lead Network partners and their colleagues with expertise in fields spanning Anthropology, Archaeology, Art History, Chinese Art, Cognitive Psychology, Composition, Dance Studies, Gastrophysics, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Music and Musicology, Music Psychology, Neuroscience, Philosophy, and Sociology. In order to reflect the theme of practice a number of those attending were experienced in practice-led research across the fields of dance, filmmaking, performance art, poetry, music and design.

This workshop was designed to question how the often tacit and experiential knowledge of the practitioner could further the academic discussion of aesthetics across disciplines; what practice could achieve that other forms of research could not, and how this might be articulated within differing disciplines.

Alongside furthering discussions around practice and aesthetics the programme was constructed to enable Network participants in ongoing projects to meet and plan for the future of these beyond the Network. On the final day, time was given to evaluation of the Network as a whole between the Partners, and then the whole group. This session considered the successes and difficulties in bringing together so many disciplines, themes which emerged as central to discussion, and what the afterlife or continuation of the Network may be.

Introduction

Function

The function of this report is to provide a written account of the proceedings of the sixth and final workshop of the Leverhulme International Network ‘Aesthetic Enquiry across Disciplines’, held in Manchester, 12-14 April 2018. It should be viewed in conjunction with our film of the event: https://vimeo.com/266744699, which acts as a parallel document more appropriate for capturing some of the practice-based elements the workshop included.

Rationale

This was the final in a series of six workshops held between September 2015 and April 2018. The report is intended to highlight continuity with – and progression from – the previous workshops and to feed into forward planning and preparation of publications by Network participants beyond the lifespan of the Leverhulme funding.

In the Conclusions and Recommendations we put forward agreed evaluations of the project and suggested strategies for further outputs either responding to aesthetics, or more widely, the methodological knowledge gained from operating an interdisciplinary network.

How can the visualisation of musical formations tell us something about the ways in which we make sense of place?

It is crucial to note that sounds occur within the rhythm of the place and the participants can feel this. The relationship between sound, image, place and experience seems perhaps rather self-evidently to be an essential feature of what this film is about. One of the ways this is explored is through the relationship between aesthetics and perception, a theme that has run through many of the meetings of this network. 

The session titled Listening to Okinawa: exploring sound as a memory of place through film began the workshop, with an introduction by co-director Rupert Cox to his film Zawawa – The sound of sugar cane in the wind, followed by the hour-long screening and a response by Eric Clarke. The screening was open to a wider audience (although limited by the 60-seat cinema space) which included Anthropology students and academics from the University of Manchester, filmmakers and practitioners from Manchester School of Art (MMU), and practitioners working within the city. The screening and discussion were held at HOME cinema, an independent arts venue within the city.

How do our individual experiences and disciplinary perspectives influence auditory perception and the ways we make sense of unidentified, non-human sounds?

Prior to the workshop Rupert Cox and Eric Clarke had shared five short audio clips with the attendees with the intention that they should listen and respond to these prior to, and then within, the workshop environment. This session reflected the move towards a more practice-based approach to this workshop, asking the participants to participate directly in listening to and reflecting on auditory stimuli.

Through the discussion it became clear that individual experience, personal memory,  and cultural identity all played into the differing interpretations of the sound clips we heard.

What is the nature of collaboration and authorship in relation to aesthetics, considering the form of the piece and how an audience might interact with it?

The piece [kiss] brought up a number of issues for the Network, including thinking about the durational nature of the work and the manner in which most of the audience determined their own experience, moving in and out of the space. Issues such as embodiement, physicality, power and gender were raised in considering how the work was authored and the manner in which the staging may convey meaning in this way.

The piece [kiss] was performed from 5-9pm on the first day of the workshop at the University of Manchester’s John Thaw Theatre. Matthew Sergeant (the composer) and Emma Lloyd (violinist) joined Network members the following morning for a Q+A session.

Network members had previously been shown clips from a prior performance of the work (2014, Salford) when Roddy Hawkins had shared video of this version and discussed the piece in his provocation at Workshop Four, April 2017 in Copenhagen. Video available: https://youtu.be/9hQtDF8_qT4

In what ways can practitioners talk across and through disciplines, and what knowledge might this bring to other academic disciplines? When might a researcher engaging with another discipline say they have reached the limits?

We might reflect on the ways that archaeology and dance speak to each other through the tensions of trace, movement and the problem of ephemerality. The loss that occurs when we shift between forms and representations. Approached from an alternative disciplinary perspective, the performance was read in terms of encoding, repetition, gesture. The question of authority was raised in terms of the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of the work, giving each other permission to step into the different domains of writing and choreography.

Performance Provocation – Scott Thurston and Sarie Slee // Responses – Rachael Dann and Alan Williams

Scott and Sarie began this session by performing their ‘provocation’: what has previously taken the form of a traditional paper here was a dance and poetry piece which reflects the nature of their collaborative research as being founded on practice. The performed work was a piece in development and had evolved following rehearsal in the space earlier that day.

What methods can an interdisciplinary team of researchers employ to interrogate one piece of artistic practice?

The idea behind the project is to take one work by Degas – the Little Dancersculpture produced between 1871 and 1881 – and gather a multidisciplinary team to interrogate the work using in part empirical methods such as eye tracking, movement and posture, looking at how body and eye are interrelated in engaging with the work, but also exploring how viewers move around the sculpture. This involves a process of translating the original set of (art historical) concerns into an experiment comparing the ways in which classically trained dancers and non-dancers look at the sculpture.

The process of working collaboratively has made team members aware of the limits of their own disciplinary methods, and they have found ways to discuss them . The researchers are asking the same question but have a different orientation towards it, leading them to examine exactly where the members of the group complement each other, where instead they talk past each other and where are there tensions?

Conclusions

In this workshop we explored practice, a new avenue that also brought together key themes from previous workshops, such as the relationship between aesthetics and perception, and cultural differences. The key focus was artistic practice – what the process of making itself contributes to aesthetics, and how audiences can respond to this. There are particular kinds of knowledge that are articulated through making, that audiences can experience in works that draw attention to them. Artistic methodologies have a knowledge that can show us what it is to see, move, and feel.

The knowledge articulated through artistic practice, of which we experienced many examples in the workshop, can pose challenges for critical thinking and for experimental methods of approaching aesthetics. This realisation is helpful in bringing awareness of disciplinary limits and the need for collaborative approaches in exploring aesthetics.

Reflections

The final workshop is an ending but also a beginning in a few different senses. It is an end to a series of six workshops, that has brought us to a realisation of much that has been achieved, but also much that remains to be developed.

The most important achievement is perhaps that we have all become much more aware that our own specialist approaches to aesthetics are not monolithic. There is always a potential space for dialogue, and no methodological approach can claim self-sufficiency. Given the disciplinary closure and self-referential debates that characterise a great deal of academic activity in the aesthetic domain, this is a significant step forward. Learning how to dialogue has not been easy and has taken considerable time and effort but is clearly considered to have been worth it. To move on from this point an important step would be to work together on projects that would lead to developing shared questions and working out methods to approach them.

Also, discussions have taken place and are ongoing about possible continuation of the Network through a follow-up meeting that would pursue an area that we started to discuss in Workshop 1, but which at the time we felt was not a productive avenue owing to its associations with outdated approaches. This is the topic of beauty and its links with pleasure. We are now in a position to return to that topic, and there is appetite to do this from Network members, as we would now approach it in different ways, for instance, through considering the unpleasing aesthetic and the sublime, and by relating beauty to our debates on complexity and also simplicity. Several publications are planned that are direct outputs from the Network.