Observing newness generation at conferences
Conferences are interesting places for checking out how newness is generated. The professional purpose of these events is to share new research ideas and collect feedback in the hopes of getting their value recognized in the academic community. In other words, it is about establishing the newness of our work as scholars. The interactions between participants and with our materials in this process various kinds of moves between new and old. The EGOS 2014 symposium in Rotterdam this week, specifically in the track “Art, Design, and Organization” (ADO) offered a fruitful platform for observing and contributing to these moves.
Every year a new team of three ADO stream conveners develop a different approach to get us to walk the talk of combining art, design and organization in our process. As usual, all the participants had written and distributed our papers in advance, as required by EGOS. The conveners had sent us two kinds of instructions and one warning about the process they had designed for the 2.5 days: we were a) to prepare comments on the 4-5 papers in our subgroups and to look at the other papers in the track; b) to bring elements (e.g., image, object, recording) with which to introduce our paper in the opening session; and c) NOT to use Powerpoint presentation mode. Furthermore, they told us that the afternoon of the first day would be spent off-site at an arts school.
When we arrived at the conference venue, we discovered that our room was empty because the chairs had become an installation in the hallway, leaving us wide open space to work in.
While in other streams participants dug right into making their 15-minute paper presentations, we started with some physical warm up exercises, then spent 20 minutes creating posters with the materials we had brought. The instruction was wide open: what do you want to say with your paper? We exhibited them on the walls, then used the rest of the session to walk around the room, introducing ourselves and our ideas with our brand-new posters.
Some of us were “old” ADOers who had participated in one or more meetings since 2011, many were new to the stream, so the first session was also a community-building process. While most participants appeared to enjoy this way start our work together, one participant expressed strongly and clearly how uncomfortable he felt about this “new, unusual, strange, courageous, intriguing”approach, in which the author is present as a person.
The posters we created populated “our” room throughout the symposium, but our next move was to leave the business-school space for another space across town, at Codarts, the Rotterdam Conservatory. There we were greeted by artists who teach at the Conservatory and have participated in a two-year “Journey for Sustainable Performance.” We started by sitting in a large circle in silence, with the simple instruction of waiting until the space let us know what it wanted to express. A fascinating challenge for academics who usually know in advance what to say. After a minute or two, individual rhythms from various kinds of tapping and humming started emerging and gradually connected to one another.
We discovered that we had the unusual opportunity to learn about an artistic intervention in an arts organization—a new angle for those of us who have been studying artistic interventions in non-arts-based organizations. The Journey is a collective process to develop a new vision and new way of working for the Conservatory that was inspired by Joseph Campbell’s analysis of the structure of myths and work on flow. Our host, Frank Heckman, had read about both and had knocked on Csíkszentmihályi’s door in Chicago to talk about whether people can learn how to sustain flow.
Frank introduced us to his colleagues and to the model of The Journey for Sustainable Performance, which he started developing over a decade ago and brought to the world of sports, when the Dutch Olympic Committee asked him to support the athletes and coaches on their path to the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. (Note that others, such as the team at the Berlin University of the Arts have been experimenting with workshops using a similar model; my own first experiences with it were while experimenting with a colleague from Ashridge Management College in the mid-1990s.) Frank believes that his addition of the element of “fellowship” to the Journey is especially important. So he suggested we focus on putting that into practice with a brief artistic exercise: 5 groups of 7 people (including a member from Codarts in each group) would create a performance of whatever kind they wanted, under two conditions: 10 minutes to prepare, without talking.
Given that this year’s theme in our stream was leadership, it was fascinating to see how differently each group used the opportunity to build fellowship while tackling the task of creating something new in an artistic context. I joined a group with a Codarts music professor, and, like several other members of my group, was very happy to let her lead us in creating a polyphonic piece with our bodies and voices. We had 4 women and 2 men. One of the men from our ADO group also sings, and he tried introducing variations on the instructions, but our Codarts leader quickly signaled to him that in this situation his contribution was to keep the beat going. Another group had 1 woman and 6 men, and their dance performance expressed attitudes of power and sex. Two groups were composed entirely of men. One of them created a tall installation of chairs, allowing us to see how suggestions, sometimes quite forcefully made, were accepted or rejected. The most evenly gender-balanced combined a bit of drumming with a pantomime that involved grappling together with an invisible object. During the debrief, some participants described the silent process as a smooth emergence of form, but others challenged this harmonious view, saying that they had experienced the process as quite competitive, even violent, e.g., when offers were rejected. (Only the women appeared to notice the gender dimension—and we only talked about it among ourselves.) The performances (but not the practice sessions) were at least partially filmed, so it could be interesting to look at the dynamics of leadership the emergence of the new and the role of gender in these compressed exercises in the arts-space.
The two-year Journey at Codarts involved many different kinds of activities, always connected with moments of reflection. In response to my question about whether there were notable turning points during the process, Frank and his colleagues mentioned two: a session with a boxing coach , which released many tensions, and a weekend creating and performing an opera, during which members from all departments at the Conservatory discovered that it could be rewarding to cooperate across disciplinary boundaries. In other words, the turning points were an activity from a different domain (in this case sports) and a collective multidisciplinary artistic project under high time pressure. The boxing experience was so powerful that the professor for pop-music decided to import it into his program. He now uses it every year with his students to help them overcome blockages in their art.
On Friday morning we returned to “our space” at the conference venue to work on our papers, well prepared by a) the instruction to have read all the papers in the assigned subgroup; b) the warning not to use Powerpoint; and c) the community-building processes of the first day. The quality of the discussion was so good that members of some groups decided to skip the plenary sessions on the EGOS program in order to have more time to dedicate to deepening the conversation about the papers (ca 45 minutes per paper). The group I worked in discovered that when we asked each author to open the discussion by explaining what had stimulated him or her to engage with the topic, valuable material emerged that could strengthen the paper. We realized that we were silencing ourselves in anticipation of the standard academic review process and thereby losing elements that could strengthen the unique contribution of the paper.
After lunch we shared themes that had emerged during the paper discussions, summarizing them on new posters and adding them to the walls of our meeting room. This process led to the identification of themes we decided to work on in new constellations, e.g., artistic interventions; designing leadership and followerships; lost and found in translation; addressing the practice-theory gap; and performance culture—stepping into the moment.
The conversation in the group I joined to talk about research on artistic interventions included productive moments of disagreement: e.g., about the level of analysis, about using criteria from the world of business or the world of the arts to evaluate artistic interventions, and about approaches to theory building. It felt to me that we were starting to make progress on one of the problematic gaps in the field namely between scholars engaged in field work on artistic interventions in organizations and those specializing in theory building. The questions stayed with me and I continued discussing them with colleagues over lunch after the conference the next day.
On Saturday morning, we reconvened to consider issues members of the group wanted to take forward, together or individually, as a result of the discussions at the conference. We covered the floor with new posters to share our ideas.
Reflection on newness moves in the ADO stream in EGOS 2014:
- With the entrance of new people into the field, there is a freshness of perspective and energy, an eagerness to discover and to contribute to something new.
- For “older” members conversations with the new members are an opportunity to see their research findings and ideas being validated and developed.
- And new people also offer the opportunity to reconsider: how original/different are we really from the mainstream?
- One of the longest-standing members of the community commented how frustrating it is to see two phenomena about old and new:
- How little really “new” there is, compared with the ideas that the first small group of artists and scholars had formulated at meetings in Denmark in 2003. We have a lot of new data and evidence, which is important, but many of the ideas were already there at the outset.
- How many ideas have been taken up by the mainstream (e.g., business schools, management consultancies and management texts) but thereby “tamed” or even “misused” so that the inherent change potential in bringing arts into organizations is not being realized.
These two frustrations suggest something typical and something distinctive about the generation of newness in this field:
- Research on artistic interventions suffers from the “typical” problem of fields that attract new people from different disciplines: what is new to some is old to others.
- The less usual problem stems from the absorption of ideas into the mainstream. Whereas such a move is usually hailed as evidence of validation of newness, in a field like this one, when the ideas travel without the values associated with them, their use in the mainstream is considered problematic.
A theme throughout the conversations in ADO was that when we come together we experience an oral validation of the value of our work, but we are struggling with the barrier of achieving validation in publications, where we have to adapt our new material to old mainstream formats to meet the expectations of editors and reviewers in ranked journals. Colleagues encouraged me to submit my paper in its unorthodox structure, in the hopes that they might then be able to refer to it and follow suit. I need to work through the useful comments collected from my sub-group members and other participants first. For now, I take pleasure in starting to digest the experience in a blogpost, where I have the liberty to press “publish” when I feel ready and where colleagues can respond freely.