— Cultural Sources of Newness

Unleashing the research spirit–and body

Artful conversations and Lunchbeat at the WZB, November 26-28

What happens when you bring together (a) curious minds whose bodies usually reside in Sweden, Finland, Germany and France, (b) the topic of artistic interventions in organizations, and (c) an array of art materials? Rich ingredients indeed. The three days of “Artful Research Conversations” at the WZB this week unleashed ideas, images, questions, plans for collaboration, and … dance.

The first in our series of Artful Conversations at the research unit “Cultural Sources of Newness” took place in 2009. We had invited artists who were engaging in different kinds of artistic interventions in order to learn about their motivations and experiences. For that event it seemed to me to be obvious and fitting to enrich the academic meeting space with some art materials that would offer additional forms of expression: oil pastels, plasticene and large sheets of paper covering the meeting tables. The positive experience encouraged me to expand the use of art materials into other workshops, including those with academics, for whom they are less evident but potentially equally useful. I now call the approach “artful listening” because our experience suggests that playing with such colourful and tactile materials during  such meetings can support the entire reflection and communication process by enhancing the quality of listening. (Anke Strauß and I have been collecting feedback from participants for an article we are preparing to write.)

The idea for this particular Artful Research Conversation was born when Anna Grzelec (TILLT) contacted me about a visit Ulla Johannson (University of Gothenburg) was planning to make to Berlin. Ulla is currently embedded in TILLT in order to study the organization from the inside, and she wanted to talk with us at the WZB about possibilities for sharing knowledge about artistic interventions and collaborating on future research. And Anna wants to define a research question she could pursue in connection with her work in TILLT. Then Kai Lehikoinen (Theatre Academy Helsinki) scheduled a visit for the same purpose. Perfect timing! From Berlin, in addition to Anke and me, we had Ingrid Scherübl (Universität der Künste Berlin, UdK), who has been working with a reflective learning approach based on Joseph Campbell’s concept of the hero’s journey (Heldenprinzip), Martin Ciesielski (Medienmosaik Berlin), who works with impro theatre, Elke Tismar (Humboldt University) who wants to write an thesis relating to artistic interventions. Claudia Nentwich, singer-songwriter and administrative assistant in our research program at the WZB joined us for part of the time. Unfortunately, Brigitte Biehl-Missal (Berlin Business School Potsdam/ University of Essex) could only be with us in spirit.

The image that came to my mind when I was planning these three days was an orchard, with mature fruit trees, berry bushes and little seedlings. I envisioned us explaining to each other what we had been growing in the orchard, which plants might be causing us concern, which ones we hoped to nurture in the coming years, and which patches we could envision gardening in together. With this forward-looking image we started the conversation on Monday morning. Out of this collection we shaped the agenda for the rest of our days together.

Our curiosity focused first on Anke’s  freshly completed PhD thesis about the complex artistic intervention project at Cornelsen Verlag. Her study encompasses the project from its birth to its “afterlife,” and the shift from its representation as a model of success to one that some stakeholders now call a failure. Her multistakeholder and multilevel analysis reveals the factors and dynamics that impeded the fulfillment of some initial objectives, and it shows how innovative ideas emerged from the margins, pointing to the need to look more carefully at what is kept secret. She will be defending it at the University of Essex in December, and several journal articles are in the pipeline already.

On Tuesday morning Ingrid led us through a rich reflective exercise with the Heldenprinzip, which she has developed with Nina Trobisch and colleagues at the Berlin University of the Arts in a research and development project supported by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research and  European Social Funds.  It also led into a fruitful discussion about the distinction between drawing on the arts to develop tools for use in organizational settings versus the instrumentalization of the arts for corporate ends. The discussion grew out of the concern Ingrid formulated about the risk of using artistic interventions without considering the implications for society.

In the afternoon Anke and I explained the emerging categories of impacts of artistic interventions in organizations for which we have found empirical evidence so far. This is the focus of our contribution to the European team project “Creative Clash“. We tapped into Ulla’s extensive experience in evaluation research to check our thinking during this formative phase of the research and Kai’s work on the categories of competencies he has identified for artists engaging in such processes. From there we moved on to the Web-based survey instruments I have developed to give voice to the artists, managers and employees in artistic interventions in Spain this year, and which I am interested in extending into other countries. We ended the day with a visit to Martin’s office in Kreuzberg to learn more about their work with impro.

On Wednesday Ulla laid out her research experience and her current research, covering enormous amounts of territory!

Stimulated by the connections we saw with her work, we discussed epistemology and pragmatism, irony and gender, design/designerly thinking, the discourse of selling relating to artistic interventions, various perspectives on responsibility in and for artistic intervention processes. And the role of friendship in conducting research.

Kai explained that the Finnish government is currently launching a major initiative to tap into the arts for innovation in society, and in this favorable context he is engaging in developing both research and teaching activities. So we worked with him in different constellations during the day to develop ideas for collaborating in these domains.

Over the course of the three days, our meeting room reflected an evolving  landscape of images and sculptures, evidence of the ideas that had interested and moments that touched us during the conversation. Every half day we cleared the tables to start afresh, pinning the visualisations of the previous session onto large Metaplan boards. By the end of this Artful Research Conversation, each of us had benefited from comments and questions we had received on our current projects, and we had agreed on things we wanted to take forward in pairs or small groups. For example, Elke will join Anke and me for a month to analyse reports in Swedish for the Creative Clash project. We accepted Ulla’s invitation to contribute to one of her new book projects. Ulla, Anna and Kai agreed to work with us to extend our Web-based surveys of stakeholders of artistic interventions into Sweden and Finland. Kai and Ingrid decided to explore how their universities could collaborate on a multi-country course, and Kai worked intensely with Martin on yet another plan. A need we identified but for which we did not succeed in formulating a plan was the lack of attention to the issue of gender in artistic interventions. But I am confident that we will.

The hours of artful conversations were intense and rewarding–and we had the pleasure of energizing our bodies with a Lunchbeat! In fact from the outset, the only fixed point in our 3 days was the prospect of dancing at the first such event at the WZB. The opportunity arose because Emilio Brandao, DJ E-1000 who plays for the successful Gothenburg Lunchbeats accompanied Anna to Berlin. The top management of the WZB had been very supportive of the idea from the outset, but we had no idea how colleagues would respond to the unusual idea of dancing at work. Might we be alone in the Café Garage? It turned out that the experiment was wonderfully well received; the space brimmed over with energy. The most frequent question people asked us was: can we do this more often? Artistic interventions may have a future at the WZB…

photo: Anna Grzelec