‘I sleep in the kitchen with my feet in the hall’*: the space between art and geography

*Bob Dylan, Workingman’s Blues

Bob Dylan stole that lyric. Or so my Dad says. The image of Bob Dylan lying between the hall and the kitchen is vivid in my mind. Woody Guthrie also talks about his feet sticking out onto the landing in an overcrowded oil boom town, his body resting horizontally between two crammed spaces. But how do you do that? How do you sleep comfortably where your head touches one surface and your feet touch another? How do you ‘fit’ between two rooms, with two floor surfaces, two atmospheres, with different purposes and ‘ways to be’? Comfortably connecting up two physical and psychological spaces intrigues me. I want to know how Dylan and Guthrie manage to sleep comfortably in both places.

I have been struggling to sit between the disciplines of art and geography – being an artist and doing a PhD in Human Geography. And in this struggle, I’ve been wondering whether I can ever be or feel ‘at home’ in either discipline. I fight for and against each discipline in different situations with different people, depending on what I’ve drunk or who I’m with. My irritation is bound up in a personal frustration at failing to migrate smoothly between disciplines.

Perhaps the question in hand is: What of this journey? What is the ‘trans’ in ‘trans-disciplinary? In academia and in art we talk about ‘doing’ multidisciplinary work like it’s the simplest thing in the world, but no-one speaks of the process and the difficulties stemming from this. They ‘train’ you through endless courses in ‘thinking’ multidisciplinary. They ‘train’ you in white washed rooms, chairs rowed up, coffee and cake abundant, but creativity wanting. Why am I here? I ask myself. I’m searching for an easy answer, a way of living and learning between disciplines which can be easily imparted. But I don’t find it. People talk about ‘embodied geographies’ but how do you ‘embody’ multiple or dual disciplines?

The anthropologist Tim Ingold offers a good example of this. He developed a course, first at Manchester and then at Aberdeen University, which combines Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. Many of the teaching practices he uses stem from art and craft in order to get the students to ‘think through making’ as opposed to making and then thinking. In this course he used a range of methods with his students: trips to artists’ studios and making workshops as well as more traditional academic lectures. Using an amalgamation of methods he found that instead of learning across still-defined disciplines, the disciplines actually merged through this process – the borders surrounding the disciplines ‘simply vanished’[1].

So is this then an example of the ‘post-disciplinary’? This makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, in the same way that the term ‘post-politics’[2] or ‘post-modernism’ does. I am not saying that the disciplines do not contaminate each other, merge and muddy at points, but at what point does this create a lack of meaning? How far can we go with this poverty of language to describe very complex scenarios and ways of working across disciplines? Marcus Miessen describes this as a practice that “understands the plethora of tools available in order to apply them in an appropriate context”[3]. Yet these tools need to be distinguished from each other (within their disciplinary contexts) in order for them to be utilised. So distinguishing between practices and ‘tools’ is still important because these divisions continue to structure ways of thinking and working. I do however understand that this kind of thinking can “open up boundaries beyond artificial borders”[4] and can challenge the dichotomy between the professional and the amateur but it does not offer anything concrete to enable us to think through these processes. To explain further: when urban geographers talk about ‘global cities’ that are no longer products of unique local processes – the expansive hybrids of the cosmopolitan city – they offer no context, so the global city is something in the air, something not grounded in the here and now, in the concrete reality of everyday life. The ‘global city’ is not the experience of the city that I have, that I share with others, in which a sense of the global is still mediated through the local. So as this discourse erases place, so the ‘post-disciplinary’ discourse erase practice. Yet there is still something attractive about the post-disciplinary, something exciting about porous borders. The question: where emplacement in a discipline gives meaning, what can displacement shake up is an exciting and attractive idea. But we need to question what meaning it gives to individual practice, what grounding does it offer? How does it avert generalising and essentialising practices? And do we have the tools and the language yet to understand what the concrete materialities of this practice might be? These are questions that I am interested in thinking through, or in Ingold’s terms ‘thinking through making’.

So coming back to the problem of attempting to embody dual disciplines, and after all the training courses, after all the conversations between friends, artists and geographers alike, I realise that art practice is not just ‘creative dissemination’ of research findings – a more accessible form of ‘impact’, and it’s not just a research method either. It’s not something that can be practiced through research, it is the research. The art and the research are not separate components, they are one and the same. In a sense this revelation helps me to think across the two disciplines, but the problem is not so much knowing and believing that this can be done, that art can be research, that disciplines can merge, it’s the actual tactics used to practice this that are difficult to locate.

In a next post I’ll provide an example of how art as research has been and could be practiced.

[1] Ingold, T. (2013) Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture, London: Routledge

[2] The idea of the ‘post-political’ draws on the thinking of, amongst others, Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Rancière, Chantal Mouffe, Colin Crouch and Mustafa Dikeç who, building on Foucault’s work on governmentality, focus on how urban governance at the beginning of the 21st century has shifted, “giving rise to a new form of governmentality… one that is predicated upon new formal and informal institutional configurations – forms of governance that are characterized by a broadening of the sphere of governing, while narrowing, if not suspending, the space of the properly political” (Swyngedouw, 2010: 3).

[3] Miessen, M. (2012) ‘Participation and/or Criticality? Thoughts on an Architectural Practice for Urban Change’, in Crisman, J. Thresholds, 40

[4] Ibid

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