— Cultural Sources of Newness

Boundary crossings

The past ten days have been spent in almost constant motion. One way of characterizing them is as working across boundaries, disciplinary and geographical. At a Kolleg seminar in Konstanz (D), at a conference in Liège (B), and at meetings in Nantes (F). Each opportunity in different cultural settings to share my research questions and findings about artistic interventions in organizations is also an opportunity to learn from others, be it through their questions or their stories.

One of the commitments of Fellows at the Kulturwissenschaftliches Kolleg in Konstanz is to present their work in a seminar, and I opted to open the series this term, on April 18th with the topic “So what do you do? Experimenting with space for social creativity.” I had decided to talk about the  research I conducted with my friend and co-author of many years, Victor J. Friedman, for which we ran and filmed a series of action research experiments in a studio in Israel.  As the date of my Kolleg presentation approached, however, the prospect of trying to compress into forty minutes what we had learned about the dynamics of relational space from our analysis of the film footage became increasingly frustrating.  I would need to explain to colleagues from totally different fields—e.g., political scientists specializing on conflict, legal scholars with expertise in governance, historians steeped in centuries past—the cultural context in which Victor and I had conducted the study, the diverse social science theories our research was nourished by and fed into, and the action experiment method we had developed in the studio, in order for them to understand what we feel is new and exciting about our findings. Victor and I had taken months to develop our research and many more months to conduct the analysis and write the article. And I was going to expect my audience to travel that foreign intellectual territory with me in a 40 minute presentation? My powerpoint slides were multiplying in preparation.

The day before the presentation I threw them all out and changed my approach completely, under the influence of the discovery of this year’s theme for the Kolleg: “Nichtwissen.” Instead of focusing my presentation on what I now know from analysing the data and writing a book chapter, I decided to share the process of engaging with not knowing, the heart of my research with Victor. Rather than using powerpoint slides with key words and references, I put together a selection of photographs taken during the experiments in the studio and its geographical context, with the intention of letting the pictures flow on the screen while I spoke, bringing into the seminar room a feeling for what had happened in the research space.

Cycling from Seeburg to Bischofsvilla

Getting to the presentation entailed geographical border crossing between Switzerland and Germany: a great opportunity to collect my thoughts while cycling from my office at the Seeburg in Kreuzlingen to the Bischofsvilla in Konstanz, across the fields, along the lake, and over the bridge that spans the Rhine as it emerges from the lake.

My objectives for this Kolleg seminar had become to introduce my colleagues from diverse disciplines to the intellectual and personal challenges (a) of conducting action research experiments as a method of generating knowledge about social creativity and the use of space, and (b) of moving out of the comfort zone of focusing exclusively on words to generate and share knowledge. Although I know little about their research methods, my guess was that such experimental work was not part of their repertoire, so I hoped to intrigue them. And I wanted to push back the unspoken boundary that separates the experiences in such research and what actually gets written about the research process. Furthermore, I hoped that they might have questions and comments that would stimulate my ongoing thinking about space and knowledge creation in organizations. I also distributed copies of the chapter Victor and I wrote so that they could read the full argument and findings, then possibly follow up with me later. If you are interested in what came of this experiment in sharing experiences with not-knowing across disciplinary boundaries …. ask me or ask them!

A few days later, at 4:45 a.m., I walked across the border from Konstanz to the station in Kreuzlingen. A Swiss local train rumbled through the dark to Kloten airport (Zürich), Air France delivered me to Roissy (Paris) then the SNCF took me to Bruxelles Midi station, where a driver met me and whisked me out to Liège/Herstal (Luik, Lüttich). The purpose of this border-crossing travel was to contribute to a “Eurégio” project conference called “Creative Drive In” for the region Meuse-Rhin (Maas-Rijn, Maas-Rhein). The conference location reminded me of the studio that Victor and I used for our experimental research in Israel: a large space that seemed unused, therefore potentially open for creative inputs. From preparatory exchanges of emails I had been delighted to discover that the other two keynote speakers, Roy van Dalm  (journalist and senior lecturer on urban identity and creativity at HAN University of Applied Sciences, NL)  and Philippe Reynaert (Director of Wallimage , and administrator at Pole Image de Liège,  B) wanted to put across messages that coincided well with my presentation on artistic interventions and their intermediaries in Europe. Roy summarized it particularly clearly: “build trust, empower citizens, involve people.”

What energized me the most during this event were the messages about the value of cross-border collaborations that came across during the presentations as well as during conversations. The participants at this Eurégio event felt strongly that their ability to come up with and implement original ideas is nourished by the special combination of local roots and regional interactions between the French, Dutch and German speaking communities of Belgium, and their neighbours in Germany, France and the Netherlands.

Early the next morning, because the driver feared we would get stuck in commuter traffic if we left for the airport after 7a.m., I started the onward journey to Nantes, where I had scheduled several meetings and a half-day course on artistic interventions in organizations for students of arts management. The boundary-crossing meeting was held at Nantes Métropole –a working group bringing together experts from the city administration, companies, civil society organizations, and researchers from Audencia Nantes School of Management  is seeking to create a virtual resource center on global responsibility, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises. Rarely have I participated in a planning meeting that was so effective at pooling expertise from different types of stakeholders—and I learned during the discussion that this collaborative spirit is actually quite typical of the community there. Three of the other aspects of the planning process that I found particularly effective were: the focus was consistently on how to make existing knowledge resources available rather than duplicating efforts; the question about budgets was postponed because  the administrator felt it would be a barrier to formulating needs and developing good ideas—she is experienced in addressing budgets at the right time in the process; and a doctoral student will generate an overview for the project in conjunction with her research on the stakeholders’ perceived synergies or conflicts between social, environmental and economic aspects of global responsibility.

The only boundary I did not succeed in crossing at Nantes Métropole that morning was the one between business and the arts. The person I spoke to was intrigued about the idea of artistic interventions and curious about how that might connect with global responsibility, but a different department is responsible for the arts in Nantes, and she recommended I definitely be in touch with them. I will, next time.

The afternoon was precisely about the connection between the arts and global responsibility—a meeting in the studio of an artist who is inspired by what he finds nature and humans abandoning as waste. My colleague, André Sobczak, and I went there to explore how to bring the ideas of the artist into the RIODD conference Audencia is hosting on global responsibility in May. That story will be for another blog post….

Having returned to Konstanz for the weekend, I relaxed in the sunshine on the balcony. It was amusing to watch the neighbors tend the flower beds that mark the boundaries between the small patches of lawn in front of their apartments. Their children played together, completely disregarding these territorial borders.

Little gardens, little boundaries