— Cultural Sources of Newness

When an artist takes a risk with an academic

Flying unprepared to an international conference to which one has been invited as a keynote speaker can be considered arrogant and/or unprofessional. I hope I am neither, but this is what I decided to do last week for the 3rd Participatory Innovation Conference in Lahti, Finland . I had not taken the decision alone: the idea was born out of a conversation with Finnish artist Nanna Hänninen , who had been invited to contribute an artistic response to a selection of papers that had been submitted to the conference. During the conversation we had in my office at the WZB in May about artistic interventions in organizations, we decided to propose to the conference organizers to transform our separate roles into a joint contribution that would combine academic and artistic perspectives. Co-chair Helinä Melkas welcomed our unusual and risky suggestion, which she felt fit well with the theme and nature of the conference: innovation and participation as performance. And I felt that the idea fit well with one of the key findings of my research on artistic interventions in organizations, namely that one of the most valuable contributions that artists bring into organizations is the capacity to engage not-knowing. The conference offered an opportunity for me to shift from writing about the concept to actually trying to do it in partnership with an artist.

As the date approached, Nanna and I admitted to each other that we were indeed quite anxious, but also excited by this prospect. We really had no idea what we would do, nor how we would do it. One option could be to present our perspectives one after the other, another, more ambitious option would be to perform together. We postponed the decision about the format to aim for, choosing instead to intuitively “trust the process,” as Shaun McNiff says.

Our general plan was to experience the 2.5 day conference together and see what struck us in similar or different ways, then we would figure out how to communicate whatever emerged from our observations. We decided to go to all the plenary sessions and to selectively visit the five parallel paper tracks—all of which looked interesting to me as an academic, so I suggested that Nanna pick whichever ones attracted her in some way.

Nanna took out her pen and paper, I opened my computer. She jotted down expressions that struck her, I typed as fast as possible in order to capture almost every word. We both took pictures of the speakers and some of their powerpoint slides. For example, one of Elena offering the metaphor of an elastic band, which can be stretched in two directions to produce unbearable tension, or creatively opened in multiple directions to create new spaces.

Elena introduces the elastic band metaphor

Elena introduces the elastic band metaphor

During and after the sessions we exchanged thoughts and feelings about the content, the language, and the images we were hearing and seeing.

Already during the first day Nanna started to have ideas for materials that she could use to express her responses to experiencing academics communicate their research. She experimented with several possibilities that night and the next morning she showed me a series of photographs of the realization of those ideas. Looking at her pictures helped me start to crystallize in my mind some key themes I could talk about.

But on the second day I started to realize that maybe it is even harder for an academic than for a manager to engage in not-knowing! I struggled: wasn’t it my responsibility to share my research findings on artistic interventions in organizations with the 160 participants who had heard the other two keynote speakers, Elena Antonacopoulou and Giovanni Schiuma, talk about how the arts could transform business? After all, I had answers to some of the questions and suggestions they had raised! And some of my findings led me to disagree with certain points they had formulated, so surely I should not withhold my empirically-grounded knowledge from the participants?

I suggested to Nanna that I could just start with some key messages from my research, then talk about what I was learning from the conference as an academic and link in with her images. Isn’t that what the organizers expected of me? Nanna looked at me quietly. I sensed that my suggestion might well be an attempt to stay in my comfort zone. Not yet ready to let go, I checked with Helinä, maybe hoping she would confirm that I really should take some of the time slot to summarize results from the last 5 years of my research. Helinä gently left the responsibility for choosing the way forward completely with me, hinting her preference by saying “We invited you for who you are.”

I decided to free myself from the need to share my knowledge. After all, the participants could download that knowledge from the articles and reports that I have posted on the Web.

Nanna had noticed that the equipment in the auditorium included a document camera, offering another possibility to work with beyond the slide show of the photographs she had taken of her work with clay, toothpicks, and pins to visualize her responses. She showed me her collection of words and expressions and suggested she could somehow work with them on the document camera while I spoke. I asked whether she could work on the document camera with the materials she had experimented with during with night, and get the images to emerge in conjunction with my talking. She considered the idea. It would be a daring innovation in her practice to actually create artwork under the gaze of an audience. What if it failed? We recognized that this innovative, very risky, approach was what we had been looking for: an emerging, interwoven artistic/academic performance to share our ideas and responses to what we had seen and heard during the conference sessions.

Re-reading the 30 pages of notes I had typed during the first two days of the conference, I selected a few more words to add to Nanna’s collection, and we printed a set for each of us to work with. Early the next morning, just a few hours before the performance was scheduled to start, I selected a few words I would use for my introduction, and some for each of the three themes I had decided to focus on. The themes had grown out of my listening at the conference and my response to the three visualizations Nanna had experimented with. I called them: different worlds; how art “works”; and space. I showed Nanna the words I had chosen and how I planned to structure my thoughts, but we did not rehearse the performance, because both of us feel better with a fresh presentation. We simply agreed that we would coordinate the emergence of our ideas by my giving Nanna the slips of paper with my words, one by one. The oral and the visual expressions would be connected, without needing to be precisely timed together. Either I would wait at the end of one the themes for her to finish her artwork, or she would wait for me.

I realized that we had tacitly developed a scenario whereby I would speak and Nanna would express her ideas visually. I asked her whether we should change this assumption and whether she wanted to speak as well, and we thought about what that might be, but then decided to keep these roles until the discussion. We did not know exactly how long we would need, but we wanted to leave enough time for the participants to ask questions* and discuss the content or mode of the performance.

A last decision we took that morning was to leave out the slide show of the photographs Nanna had made of her experiments with visualizing the ideas with materials during the first night. We had envisioned the images slowly revolving on the second screen in the auditorium, an idea I really liked: the pictures were beautifully simple. But Nanna felt it would be disturbing for people to watch the still shots alongside the emerging work. The problem of dealing with “too much” was one of the topics I was planning to address in my introduction, so letting go of the pictures was a logical decision. They had served their purpose in enabling us to express and connect our ideas.

We opened with the collection of printed words, into which Nanna had placed our signatures.

 

Opening words, Ariane Berthoin Antal & Nanna Hänninen PIN-C3 June 20 2013, Lahti

Opening words, Ariane Berthoin Antal & Nanna Hänninen
PIN-C3 June 20 2013, Lahti

While I talked about “different worlds,” the participants watched Nanna’s hands forming and re-forming clay, connecting the pieces in different ways, bringing words in and out, following her aesthetic sense.

 

Different worlds

Different worlds

Nanna started a new piece when I opened the theme of “how art ‘works’”, using a handful of toothpicks, one of which was red. She created and changed the patterns, again playing with words that I gave her and others that she selected from our collection.

 

How art 'works'

How art ‘works’

The third theme, “space,” was visually accompanied by Nanna’s fingers inserting constellations of pins into a board. She stretched elastic bands around some of them, creating connections, tensions, and exclusions.

 

Space

Space

 

I had no text, no notes, only the words I had chosen, so cannot reproduce the content here. However, the performance was informally filmed by Juho Salminen (https://vimeo.com/69162425) (thank you, Juho and thank you to the WZB for uploading it for us).

What do I take forward from this experience that moved me completely out of my comfort zone as an academic with reams of knowledge to share? The collaboration with Nanna affected my entire intellectual process. First, I listened to and observed the conference sessions with double awareness: while I was taking my academic perspective I was also wondering what Nanna’s take on the situation as an artist would be. What would make sense to me but seem strange to her? What would strike her as new and interesting? In the next step, one might imagine that the cultural difference between academic and artistic ways of selecting and interpreting masses of input would be very time consuming. But the process of sensemaking by iteratively talking about our thoughts and feelings and visualizing them artistically turned out to be a really effective way of distilling themes. Rising to the challenge of designing and delivering such a risky, new way of sharing ideas was invigorating, and the positive feedback we received indicated that the approach was successful (e.g., comment posted on facebook**). It inspires me to continue experimenting and seeking opportunities to collaborate with people like Nanna.

Footnotes:

*During the discussion Giovanni kindly asked a question that opened the door for me to talk about my research findings on how artistic interventions can add value to organizations, so that need of mine was met too.

** Post on facebook by Kai Lehikoinen: “At the PIN-C conference today, Ariane Berthoin Antal and Nanna Hänninen performed one of the most creative and captivating scholarly keynotes I have ever experienced. The risky presentation, which was inspired by and reflecting upon conference presenters’ papers, combined improvised speech and live visualization with a documentary camera – wise insights on artistic interventions and arts-based work emerged organically and spontaneously. I was mesmerized! ”