— Cultural Sources of Newness

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Dezember 2011 Monthly archive

Some of our research projects pay close attention to the places in which new ideas are created, so that we can understand the cultural features in the context. For example, my colleague Ignacio Farías has spent many hours, days, weeks observing the flow and interactions between people and materials in artists’ studios and architects’ offices; and over the course of two and a half years I studied what happened when artists created their works in an unconventional context, namely a consulting company (a first essay on what I learned there appeared in the fifth catalogue for the residency program; more articles are under review for publication in journals).

We take our work seriously, and it is definitely fun to interview such diverse and interesting people and watch them at work. But it is not funny. So it was wonderful to come across a  BBC radio 4 program during my holiday break from work that bridges the gap between the serious world of research and the lighthearted mood characteristic of the festivities of New Year’s eve. The interviews reveal what happened in what I would call a highly unusual space for a cultural source of newness: a motel nightclub in Houston, Texas.    

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It was my colleague Lutz Marz who first got me interested in the institutions and processes involved in valuing newness. His careful analyses of constellations of stakeholders arguing for and against radically new types of automobile engines reveal the cultural dynamics behind why an innovation does (or does not) achieve the status of newness.

His research contributed significantly to structuring our research program on cultural sources of newness by suggesting that it is analytically useful to differentiate between two phases in the innovation process: the phase during which new possibilities emerge and the phase during which they are assessed as worth keeping. (Yes, we also recognize that valuation occurs throughout, as people evaluate ideas and their sources all the time, not just after an innovation has taken shape, but there is a definite shift in emphasis.)

Some of our projects focus more on the first phase and some focus more on the second. But none of them study the unique institutions that establish newness in the French language. A BBC radio program about the Académie Francaise revealed the roles played not only by that agency but also by the French family dinner conversation. This latter traditional institution is particularly active during festive periods like Christmas, while official agencies take a break. A written blog post cannot do justice to the topic, which must be heard with the wonderful French accents (including some great rapping!). I recommend not delaying to tune in, because I don’t know how long this program will be available online.

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The coordinator for Leonardo internships in Berlin called me last summer, urgently looking for someone to offer a placement for a student currently from Toulouse, originally from Slovakia. Since some of my case studies are in France, and the coordinator appealed so intensely to my commitment to the European dream, I accepted the responsibility. Katarina Masiarova started her internship with us in October. She had studied sociology, but not the field of business in society, and our research exposed her for the first time to the topic of artistic interventions in organizations. Not only the topic, also the research tools were new to her (EndNote and Microsoft Access), and she was surrounded by German speakers. Essentially, one might say that we were a cultural source of newness for her.

With guidance from our experienced student assistant, Martin Sauer, Katarina worked intensely on building our databases to document which organizations have experimented with which approaches and with which artists, and who is writing about them. All around the world (she did not find any in Slovakia, though). The field is growing quite rapidly, so there are many publications and websites to comb through, but details are scarce, so the task is demanding. Both Martin and Katarina tell me that they are frustrated about the many gaps that remain in the database. And I tell them that this lack of information, too, is a finding—and the reason that we are conducting case studies and surveys.

Katarina’s internship is drawing to a close. I asked her to contribute to the research unit’s blog about her learning experience from these three months. I enjoy her fresh and frank style of sharing insights and questions.   Ariane  

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A report that opens with the sentence “I have come to know that a good research project is like being on an adventurous journey” is an invitation that I cannot resist. And when the introduction summarizes the argument as clearly and personally as this one, I know that I will read every single page: “If I was to put forward only one thing of all the things I have learnt from the artists and designers interviewed along this journey, it would be how they welcome their ideas, process them, and then expose them to the world. Maybe that is the most important contribution of artists to society: how they are courageous enough to release their creativity, and how they inspire the rest of us to embrace our ideas.” (p.1)    

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Names matter. The media were abuzz last week with talk of the “God particle.” What is this thing? A closer look reveals that physicists refer to it as the Higgs boson  and they are looking for it because  

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This morning I learned from Melvyn Bragg’s documentary about Ted Hughes that the poet spent a great deal of time fishing. His capacity for intense concentration was nurtured by that activity, and many of his poems relate to it. My own fishing is not out on a lake in the wilderness, but inside, in books, on BBC radio 4, on Google, and in long conversations (preferably over meals). It is not pike or brown trout that I seek, but ideas.    

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The bus ride to work encapsulates me in a book, I see nothing else, hear nothing else, smell nothing else. The moment I get off the bus, my face is hit by the cold air and I remove my reading glasses so that the world can come into focus. The ritual walk begins, crossing the  bridge that spans the Landwehrkanal, looking to the left to see the small red bridge in the distance, looking up at the buildings and now naked trees ahead of me on the other side, down at the water flowing below, dark today for lack of sun.

The wind quickens me, reminding me each time of the wind that blew when my family released the ashes of my mother on an Irish hillside in 1992. She never visited us in Berlin during her lifetime but I feel her presence in the air that sweeps over the water every morning, stimulating me to reflect on what she, a gifted artist and teacher, would think about my work, encouraging me to aspire to channelling my energy into something meaningful.

Approaching the WZB this morning, a discarded cup thrown over the fence catches my eye. White garbage on the lawn in front of the “Herkules” sculpture on loan from the Neue Nationalgalerie.

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How do researchers come up with new ideas? This is a difficult question, because new, radically new, also means that it is different to what you are doing at the moment, different to what you are perceiving, and how you are evaluating things. Being in the routines of everyday life at university, in your research group, at home, in your city, in your country makes it difficult to change perspective, to make your mind move in a way that your thinking flows and does not get caught up in assumptions or conclusions that confirm what you have already thought before. Ariane Berthoin Antal[1] (2006) suggests that thinking in new ways may be more likely to be stimulated between institutions than within them.

So how do you generate a between situation? Certainly, there are many ways but this year, without knowing, I have decided to choose a rather self-evident way of getting in-between things: travelling. I have not been alone but with a colleague and although we did not expect anything from our journey from Berlin to Istanbul by train, we experienced how being in-between opens up the mind. After the journey we independently wrote down some reflections that surprisingly or not resonate with each other in a beautiful way. That is why I want to share both texts with you.    

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What does a work day look like for a member of the unit of Cultural Sources of Newness? We are so different in this team that I cannot say what typifies the days of my colleagues, but I can review one of mine. Yesterday, for example, I worked through emails before coming to the office and checked facebook for new posts from colleagues and friends around the world, saw updates from Creative Clash colleagues after the conference in Warsaw I had not been able to attend, promised to comment on a text by BMM. While riding the bus to work, read a beautifully written article by my friend DG, a retired professor of psychology, about his reflections on an art exhibit.  

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Our research program on “cultural sources of newness” is predicated on the assumption that not every new idea gains acceptance as something worthy of keeping and developing. A superfluity of new ideas is needed in the system, and there is always a gap between the creation of something “new” and its selection as worthy of the attribute of “newness.” Recent personal experience in my research is leading me to realize that achieving the status of “newness” can take a long time. Years, sometimes. 

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