Notes on Memorizing a Future

A text for Re.Searching, the Nordic Symposium on practice based research, Malmö

The longer I worked with the concept of Practice Based Research the more confused I got. The confusion is colored, and even created, by who I am and where and what I come from – by my experience of life and work. But…

About Practice Based Research I say – forget it. It’s a new title for a tattered and nasty old box full of rules and regulations that have absolutely nothing to do with art. I understand that this title ‘Practice Based Research’ is currently a growth industry in universities – but the rules and regulations that academia requires to be functional were never of any use for nurturing artists, either. Why an idea going by the title ‘Practice Based Research’ would be of any greater use for art is something I can’t even begin to imagine. It’s a question of LIFE.

Give it LIFE. If it’s your deepest desire to generate new knowledge that can be useful to individual and collaborative work, production and creativity, there’s only one thing you need to remember: give it LIFE. And if giving it LIFE is what you do, then you’re talking about something completely different from ‘Practice Based Research’.

Let me give you an example: Consider the work of Rembrandt van Rijn, whose 400th birthday is now being celebrated in Holland.

In Rembrandt’s work we see the apotheosis of creativity found, refined and achieved through the sharp-eyed observation of one’s own life. Whether you want to call it experimentation, or research – but it was both – the end result is a product that we very clearly know as art. Rembrandt’s life – that which was immediately around him – was his material. He carefully experimented with that material, researching what worked and what didn’t in his work (and not necessarily in his life)… even to the point of vulgarity, according to Robert Hughes in his excellent article ‘The God of Realism’ in the first April issue of the New York Review of Books.

There’s no getting around the fact that even in Rembrandt’s biblical, mythic, and historical paintings, and even in those portraits he made to pay the rent, you were given the portrait of a human being who was actively thinking. Rembrandt was constantly alive to the life behind his subject’s eyes. You can see in his self-portraits how his ability to use paint to translate thought and meaning onto canvas grew through his years of research, experimentation, observation… and life. As Hughes put it in his article, “Rembrandt would be remembered as an extraordinary self-portraitist if he has died young at, say, forty-five. But he lived much longer and it is the world of his old age that one most admires: that intimate, unflinching scrutiny of his own sagging, lined, and bloated features, with the light shining from the potato nose and the thick paint: the face of a master, the face of a failure and a bankrupt. Life, and his own mismanagement of life, has bashed him, but no one could say it has beaten him...”

I have given you a slide show of Rembrandt’s self portraits, something I based some of my own work on. But I offer you Rembrandt’s originals in the spirit of definition. When we talk about ‘Practice Based Research’, what are we really looking for? What is the meaning, the yearning behind those three words…?

So, the title of this seminar, Practice Based Research in the Performing Arts, originally made my hairs stand on end. Two other events, coinciding with the receipt of this invitation strengthened this reaction.  

The first had to do with DasArts, the Amsterdamse School/ Advanced Research in Theatre and Dance Studies. I founded DasArts in 1993, and ended my tenure as director in 2000. But last year I was asked to return as a mentor to students who were preparing for their final projects, or who were preparing for their individual trajectory blocks.

Frequently, too frequently, when reviewing their work I had to ask them, “But what about me, what about the audience for all this?” There was a catch in the question in that I wasn’t used to the idea that an artist’s work could simply be research; from my perspective, and within the context of their studies, the purpose of any sort of final project was to provide a performative response to a public. But much of the work I reviewed I found without focus, without purpose, and even without content.

The second thing to add fuel to this sense of dismay had to do with a proposal for a course of doctorate level study that would lead to a Doctorate in the Creative and Performing Arts at the oldest university in the Netherlands in Leiden. Janneke Wesseling is one of the leading Dutch art critics working now. She was asked to create an artistic plan on which a doctoral study program for the visual arts might be based. She had some wonderful ideas for a creative studio/work/study place, but didn’t know how to fit such an active and unruly plan as she envisaged into academia.

She knows academia well enough, through her own studies and the courses she’s taught, and it was that background that lead her to question how her ideas could be made to fit. She asked me about it. I suggested that she write an energetic and cheerful plan without any compromise. Then she should write a second proposal saying the same things in academic language, if it was possible to translate the one into the other.

But the idea that she had to do this bothered me. The idea that an exciting plan would have to be translated into a form that would fit academic expectations, rather than being presented for what it honestly was, left me feeling rather nauseated.

Here I have Leiden Universities’ pamphlet offering the following description under the heading of Practice Based Research: “…(it) results in a body of artistic work and systematic analysis of the research findings, which pertain either to the art itself or to the process of performing or creating it.”

Could we translate those lines and come up with a phrase: “the experience of a lifetime?” I’d like to think we can – indeed, most of what I have to say to you today requires that we do just that. So if the translation is problematic for you, just suspend your disbelief for a moment and follow my lead…

I’m 67 now, and can hardly claim that my life is the result of meticulous planning. And yet there was a core of absolute faith to myself in every step I took. Apart from a brief desire to be an airline pilot, my sense of direction always had me busy with that which I saw and I heard.

I made a last attempt to break this emerging pattern and fit a proper social framework by enrolling in Bristol University to study Economics and Philosophy. It didn’t work. At that time Bristol University was the only university in Britain with a full-fledged theatre department. Harold Pinter presented his Dumbwaiter and taught classes there. Productions like Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ opened at the Bristol Old Vic, which was then where you tried out shows before sending them on to London’s West End. I spent all my time taking pictures and working in the theatre department, activities that brought no joy to my economics tutors. The conflict could not be resolved, and I was invited to leave “with best wishes for a more successful career elsewhere”.

Those full time extracurricular activities in Bristol set the tone for the rest of my life. Were they the beginning of a process of practice-based research? I don’t think so. But they were certainly the beginning of a life.

Following my year in Bristol I went on to a succession of ‘real’ (i.e. paying) jobs, including – assistant to a master photographer, assistant in photo productions for educational filmstrips, set photographer for film, assistant cameraman graduating to a real cameraman, assistant scriptwriter, assistant art director, assistant producer and then producer of multi-screen projection fashion shows, dialogue direction for radio programs, radio commercials, production manager for TV-music programs, and art director.  

The Leiden pamphlet tells us that “In gaining their degree candidates must demonstrate their own coherent body of artistic work as well as a diversified approach to their professional practice.” Well… and so I was doing. But I don’t think that this program envisions anything quite so… active.

I started Mickery in my home, a farmhouse just outside of Amsterdam, in 1965. In addition to bringing a lot of international talent to Holland, I opened the Mickery art gallery, showing work from European and American artists.

We had no subsidy then, so we rented out the farmhouse for wedding parties, product shows, etc to pay the bills until there was enough money to invite a new group. After five years we finally got government subsidy to support Mickery’s work. Shortly after that Mickery moved to Amsterdam where we produced, co-produced and presented some 750 productions of what was then known as the ‘avant-garde’ from each of the continents in the world, with the exception of Antarctica.

Mickery was in existence for a quarter of a century. In that time I’d learned enough that I was able to create and direct 10 of my own productions.

Twenty-five years after I started Mickery, I stopped it. It was getting harder and harder to make the idea of Mickery work, and I refused to ‘adapt my model’ to fit the prevailing political winds.

What followed was a stint of being an actor in collaboration with the Brussels based Need Company: I was in two of their pieces one in co-production with Teater Am Turm in Frankfurt. This meant I was on stage rather than behind or in front of it when I was also preparing a proposal to fill a commission from the joint Dutch Ministries of Culture, and of Education, to design and then execute a program for post-academic theatre studies. The proposal was accepted and the school was called DasArts, de Amsterdamse  School/Advanced Research in Theatre and Dance Studies.

Back to the pamphlet again, when referring to the students it tells us that “Their work might be a comprehensive study of various facets: historical, sociological, philosophical, compositional, [and?] technical of a carefully delimited topic.” I’m not entirely sure what this means. (Are you?) On the other hand… perhaps my entire life fits this picture, although I’m not at all sure that I would be accepted were I to propose my life as plan for getting a doctorate there.

Although I couldn’t know it at the time, all those years up to the making of DasArts were also about gathering the experience I needed to create what DasArts would become. But perhaps by now you see my problem: You want to know what Practice Based Research is when I really have no clue. I never worked in those terms.

DasArts is certainly a successful example of post-graduate arts training, which must have something to do with whatever practice-based-research actually is.  DasArts’ purpose: the creation of artists. The shape and manner of DasArts’ operation was nothing more than form; there was a big element of anarchy in it, but the chaos was under heavy control. Without disciplined controls, all the power inherent in chaos dissipates wastefully and gets quite uselessly lost.

DasArts was both haphazard and intuitive. From the beginning we clearly understood that ready-made formulas would not work, neither those working via assumption, nor those bordered by obligation. There was very little that could be imposed in advance.

We said we would create the school while it was actually operational – and this was no joke, for it was exactly how it happened. From the word GO we ignored any requirements that we fit DasArts’ life into nationally laid down rules and regulations for educational systems.

But there must be a form, of course there must. Whether you call a thing a school, a workshop or an institute, all forms come with their own definitions ---- and definitions are about the same thing as rules. The difference with DasArts was that we didn’t worry too much about the ‘what’ when asked about the form. And the rules were something we predominantly bounced off of.

I come back to haphazardness, and intuition. Thanks to ‘the experience of a lifetime’ I developed the intuition required to create something as weird and as successful at turning out functioning artists as DasArts was, and is. It’s very haphazardness kept the fruits of our intuitions safe in a world of definitions, rules, and calculations.

Here it’s instructive to look back at Mickery again. It could not exist now. There is no institutional support, no money, and probably no audience for the avant-garde. Mickery’s operational keys were exploration, excitement, freedom, chaos, challenge, hope and naiveté. Those are not elements that would reassure a Ministry of Culture today. Similarly the plan we created for DasArts some fourteen years ago would not have any kind of warm welcome were it submitted now. In fact the opposite is happening, pressure mounts to make it fit to the rules.

But, never mind, each time creates it’s own form of intuition and expertise that will guide and nurture creativity. How long these forms remain in existence isn’t the most important thing. What counts is that they do actually work in their own time… and whether or not they ‘work’ is seen by what they produce.

The point is that the thinking and the actions we took to create DasArts then can’t be picked up and successfully used as a list of instructions telling ‘How to Make A Successful School’ now. Within that awareness, let me give you some ideas of what DasArts was in conception.

We decided not to deal with anything that could already be learned at existing institutions: no duplication. It was understood that applicants had finished their academic studies elsewhere, and then had some practical experience in their proposed profession before entering the DasArts program. DasArts was not a place to ‘find oneself’ – it provided a structure to develop talents previously determined. The DasArts’s staff was there to develop the strong points of each participant, even when those points were not part of the participant’s original understanding. For example, a student theatre director from the Ernst Busch Schule in Berlin followed two blocks of the DasArts program.
Then he curated a twenty four hour theatre program for Catherine David’s Documenta after which he went on to become an international curator of the visual arts. He’s currently the curator of the ICA in London.

Students from four disciplines invited were: theatre direction, choreography, mimography and scenography. But at DasArts these disciplines were dealt with as one interdisciplinary subject. ‘Guest’ students, participants who didn’t fit into the four basic disciplines, for example those working with film and video, added enormously to the overall mix.

Another example of a ‘guest’ was a young woman who’d finished her studies in Economy cum laude in Bonn. She wanted to find a translation of her subject into theatre, and did so by creating a theatrical road show that posed the question, “Why do you shop?” After the road show, Judith Wilske wrote and published a children’s book My First Shopping Book, which was banned after its commercial launch in Germany. After the first book was destroyed a second edition was published as art book and all kept quiet. Judith now has directed two plays successfully in Hamburg.

When I speak of a multidisciplinary approach, I’m not referring to some kind of politically correct melting pot. All disciplines remained distinct: completely themselves and each with their own integrity. But working with them as a whole created a new breeding ground of overall ideas.

Each individual student was carefully monitored, and individual trajectory blocks with participant-chosen mentors for monitoring and support were created as needed. But the basic idea – always the point of departure – was that the official program lasted for two years, each year being divided into two ten week ‘blocks’. Participants could ‘weave’ in and out of the program, skipping a block to take on practical work if they so desired, but they’d have to do their final project within a three year maximum.

Each block had a theme that dictated a block full of freely associated information. One day, an expert in something would insist that everything was red; the next a different expert would argue that all was black. Actually, the titles for the blocks give a nice feel for what the blocks were…

The Art of Survival
Object. Objective
Orchestra Zero & Family Tree
Culture and the Other
A Hunger Artist
The City as a Site for Questions
Structures: Map the Complexity of Reality Today
Reconciliation and Storytelling
What’s Cooking?
Still Life, Turbulent Recipes
The Makeable Truth…
and, etc.

You will have noticed that none of these themes had expressly to do with theatre, or, indeed, with any of the disciplines we were ‘charged’ to cover. No, these themes were very specifically to do with aspects of the environment in which the students were asked to create performative responses. And they were, very specifically, asked to respond performatively, without thinking about it too much.

Each 10 week DasArts block was stuffed, overstuffed, crammed, jammed and overflowing with an almost illness-inducing amount of STUFF to be observed, taken in, dealt with, digested, and worked with. A great deal of what participants did was done ‘on the fly’, and 18 hour days were not uncommon. The results were always extreme, one way or another: utterly fascinating, or breathtakingly awful.

I must emphasize one point here – and it’s a very important point. My time with Mickery served as an unending source of theatre makers and specialists. But none of the blocks were on theatrical overload. Among the sorts of people who came to DasArts to speak and participate, we had a widely published philosopher, several environmentalists, a policeman, visual artists, a composer, sociologists, a few musicians, clothing or lighting or house ware designers, politicians, fairground and circus performers, and architects – to name a few. People were invited to DasArts because they had something to share other than old, stuffy, presumed notions…. of anything. They came, and in partial payment (in addition to their fees!) for their freshness of perspective, they were able to siphoned off a bit of invigorating excitement for their own use.

Blocks then were usually mentored by two specialists who worked closely with the staff to produce the block, and closer still with the participants to bring out the best in them.

Each block was a mix of different disciplines, different degrees of experience, different ages, and different cultural backgrounds. First time participants mixed with those who’d already done more blocks, and the best of them set the standard for the rest of the block to meet – or to surpass.

Whatever could not be done in one block would flow over into the next. No curriculum was ever repeated – in fact, there wasn’t really anything that could be correctly termed ‘curriculum’. Programming was based on evaluations, talks with students, with mentors and with visiting artists.

Of course the Ministries of Education and of Culture required that we use a point system to ‘evaluate’ ‘students’. I made a mess of it, sometimes giving more than the required maximum, and sometimes too little. The point system gave points for the fact that a body was present in a space, while the mind was anywhere else at all. The point system was useless. It had nothing to do with quality of anything, and certainly didn’t have anything to do with whether a person became a functioning artist.

It’s wonderful when academia serves the arts, but service to art does not seem to be academia’s ideological priority. The arts must be free – there is no LIFE without freedom – and while things can be taken from the arts and applied elsewhere, the arts themselves should never become an industry that can be codified… or stuffed into a curriculum. Before you know it, you’ve got a sausage factory, and the art is dead.  Academia must pin things to a board to analyze them. Pin art – or artists – to a board so you can ‘look’ at them in an academic fashion, and its’ creativity dies.

Research is the vital homework in support of the expression of one’s craft. But in the academic translation – from an artistic and not an academic point of view – research is the creation of a parking place for deep thought and analysis of a creative product.

This product can comment on the artist, and on his or her work, but that comment, however brilliant, will never take the place of the work. A product of commentary and analysis needs, in the first place, the artist’s work to exist at all.

But the artist doesn’t need commentary or analysis to create work. The artist, with his or her work, provides a subject that can be researched by the Practice Based Researcher. This research may lead to a worthy doctorate degree, but it does not, and cannot, lead to art.

Academia presents us with an after-thought: a discussion, if you will, or an explanation and an in-depth analysis. From that point of view it may provide space for the artist (and certainly for students of the arts) to rest and reflect. But it’s built on the art the artist has created first.

It’s true that an artist’s practice may create openings for research, but I repeat – if the artist her or himself is doing it, that research is the homework out of which they create the work they make. It may be that there are different views on this for different disciplines, but I would argue that for the performing arts – certainly for the theatre – and for the visual arts, research is homework, and will never be anything else.

In this tradition, a number of artists have created workshops and literal training programs wherein ‘students’ or participants and peers come to work with the ‘Master’. Usually in addition to a fee, the students contribute their freshness, their energy and creative ideas to the always-simmering pots of work the artist/Master is creating. The results are frequently astonishing. The ‘student’s’ capacities are developed at an impressive speed. They very quickly learn what their capacities are, and they have direct personal access to people who are successfully working professionals. In this way ‘students’ are also shown methods for direct practical application of their own ideas.

 ‘Deafman Glance’ was a 23rd event created by Robert Wilson. It was also the show that was his European break-through at the Nancy Festival in 1970. Before his 1960 graduation from the Pratt Institute in New York, he’d already made 11 productions, all of them with impossibly low budgets and an ever-growing crowd of fans.

In 1968, two years before he hit Nancy, he created the ‘Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds’ as an organization that was largely devoted to fundraising. By then large numbers of untrained enthusiasts were seduced into becoming part of his productions. Many now reputable and very famous names can be found in small type in his old cast lists.

Hitherto a container for a growing family of unpaid collaborators, in 1975 the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds became an administrative and production facility. Around this time the Watermill Foundation came into being, and this became Wilson’s increasingly formalized workshop and summer laboratory for experimental research and ‘conversation’ with peers, colleagues, and ‘students’. In this lab new ideas and actions are tested and worked through to serve Wilson’s ever-growing inspirational needs. For Wilson is now traveling full time worldwide to design, direct and produce theatre, opera, and exhibitions of his designs.

In using Robert Wilson for a model here I can also call up the examples of Grotowski, in Poland (and even after his death still operative in Italy), and Eugenio Barba in Denmark, each of who could fit the bill with a workplace called a laboratory that contains practice and research until experimentation leads to a production and presentation. ‘Students’ or ‘participants’ are brought into these laboratories to learn as they work side by side in creating the next production.

Another invigorating example of this type of the above-mentioned laboratories though with a different focus, can be found in the work of Need Company operating from Brussels, under the direction of Jan Lauwers. He developed Need Labs to create periodic confrontations with the public in between his regular productions and his tour dates all over the world. In Need Labs Lauwers develops ideas, actions, performative points of view, and dance and music exercises, all of which is test material toward a next production. The Lab serves a clear practical purpose, but it also explains the phenomenal strength and continuing vivacity of the Need Company troupe.

By the way, the name, ‘Need Company’ came about when an earlier company that Lauwers headed crashed, burned and disbanded. After the disaster he muttered, “I need company,” and then put his words into action.

I’ve mentioned one former DasArts student illustrating an unexpected career. Another old DasArts student, Sjoerd Wagenaar, is another example of this. If Wilson and Need Company are international stars, Sjoerd decided early on to operate on a local level in an underdeveloped part of the Netherlands. His operational base is in Veenhuyzen, a former penal colony that’s now home to a prison for drug smugglers.

Sjoerd’s theatrical activities are developed and presented with a focus on local and regional story-telling, research into local myths their implications and their meanings, and lately on a 14-meter high castle built from 10,000 hay bales. The castle’s covered interior space for public and performance is 18 by 25 meters. The presentations and performances now on offer present views on agriculture and its future, with the Dutch Minister for Agriculture as a regular collaborator. Agitprop it isn’t. Instead it’s a vast range of ideas researched and presented by Sjoerd and his company, and made all the more powerful thanks to Sjoerd’s inventive and bizarre visual imagination.

Sjoerd now considers how to start his own school, by offering art academies and theatre schools places for bringing students into his company, known as PeerGroup, for final project and end of studies work. He thinks, and I agree, that the synergy of students working with his group will be exceptionally beneficial for all concerned.

I could also mention La Mama New York, but more specifically its village known as ‘La Mama Umbria International’ in Italy for it’s international workshops. Founded in 1990 by Ellen Stewart with the proceeds from her McArthur ‘genius’ grant, ‘La Mama Umbria International’ gives artists and students a chance to live together while working on productions or participating in workshops while they develop their artistic skills.

Just back to DasArts again.  

With DasArts, as you can see in the block themes, we addressed the participants as artists, and as adults, and then challenged them to put their artistry to test in real life with real life material. At the beginning, you see, it was about reality, not art. We provided the reality – REAL stuff, no theory. They made the art.

After 25 years of Mickery I decided never again an initiative of such duration, and made the point that the person who was providing the artistic leadership for DasArts could not remain in place for more than seven years. And even that is stretching it, as it really is the toughest job I know of. You’ve got to be thinking on your feet the entire time, no down time at all. Of course Mickery with its 750-odd productions was also a chore too, but it all kept me very much alive, completely engaged and wanting to know more.

This, plus a continuing hunger and curiosity makes up a large measure of my knowledge – and my understanding – of education. I’ve always wanted something I didn’t yet know, and couldn’t possibly expect to know ahead of time.

Does an intense and active interest stimulate a student? I hope so: that’s what I had to offer them. Or, put another way by the American performance artist Stuart Sherman who died in 2001: “When I make these pieces, its really terra incognita. I’m in a place that does not even exist yet.”

It’s opposite: the theme of these three days in Malmö, in which I find myself seeking confirmation, rather than exploration. The organizers have, with loving care, made the point that Practice Based Research is about practice. They’re making us aware of the fact that research and the thinking that goes into it must inescapably result in DOING.

But ultimately my preferences slide up to the practice based research of Winnie the Pooh, who’s walking in the fog with Rabbit and friends, anxiously searching for home.

“The fact is,” said Rabbit, “we’ve missed our way somehow.” They were having a rest in a small sandpit. Pooh was getting rather tired of the sandpit, and suspected it of following them around, because whichever direction they started in, they always ended up at it.

“Well,” said Rabbit, after a long silence in which nobody thanked him for the nice walk they were having, “we’d better get on, I suppose. Which way shall we try?”

“How would it be,” said Pooh slowly, “if, as soon as we’re out of sight of this Pit, we try to find it again?”

“What’s the good of that?” said Rabbit?

“Well,” said Pooh, “we keep looking for Home, and not finding it, so I thought that if we looked for this Pit, we’d be sure not to find it, which would be a Good Thing, because then we might find something that we weren’t looking for, which might be just what we were looking for, really”

Malmö (S)


NordScen. Edited by Colleen Scott