Whose knowledge? Reflexivity and ‘knowledge transfer’ in postcolonial practice-based research.

Keynote address to symposium On Making: Integrating Approaches in Practice-Led Research in Art and Design. Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, University of Johannesburg, 15th October 2009

It’s a great privilege to be here, and my thanks to Leora Farber, the research centre and the University of Johannesburg for allowing me to come and visit. I moved to Aotearoa New Zealand about 16 years ago to play experimental music, and worked as a designer and new media arts worker before teaching in art schools and media consulting for the last decade. But my intellectual development happened largely outside the academy, with Donna Haraway’s feminist science studies being the political writing that to me seemed to ask the urgent questions about how information and knowledge was shaping our lives. So the study of scientific research and knowledge production has been a research interest of mine for a long time, and it is merely good fortune that the relationship between research and creative practices has become a popular field of enquiry. With Maarit, Ken, Anna and others who have published great work on these topics being present, those general questions will take a bit of a back seat in this presentation.

Over the last six years or so I have also been working with a range of indigenous and non-indigenous artists on what happens to what we call “culture” in the condition of the colonial nation-state. And once again, while these have turned out to be topics of interest to many others, they began less with a conscious desire to learn about these issues as a field and more just a way of making sense of the world I see around me and the community of practitioners I work in. This postcolonial condition, as you know, connects Australia, the country of my birth, to my adopted home in New Zealand, to the continent of Africa, which I am visiting for the first time.

However, Africa as a continent is not unknown to me. My partner, whose family are from Goa, was born in Tanzania and spent her initial years in Nairobi before coming to New Zealand. I have not picked up any Swahili or Marigoli from her. And my favourite rapper, Jean Grae, was born in Cape Town and is the daughter of Sathima Bea Benjamin, the singer born here in Johannesburg. Jacques Derrida’s visits to South Africa have also affected my work, as I try to understand what happens when the European certainty of what it is to be human falls apart under the weight of its reflexive discovery that we have denied so many others their humanity. And J.M. Coetzee’s criticism and fiction and have staged this problematic in its impossible form – a mode of fiction which is subject to some of the same constraints as visual work when it comes to defining the knowledge held in the creative artefact.

I outline all this because I want to indicate why I will use material I have learnt from African writers and practitioners in this talk. This is not because I think I have anything to tell you that you don’t know about your world. [I have in mind the title of Dennis Ekpo’s classic Third Text essay: “Any European around to help me talk about myself?”]. But if I talked about things from my home, I would more easily be able to generate authority, based on my”identity”, “knowledge” or “experience”. Instead, I hope to give a reading of work connected to here to benefit from the full weight of your evaluation over the next two days. Knowledge exists in a place, among people, and the most important knowledge is not what I “own” and give to you in a performance of knowledge transfer, but what this talk might illuminate within you and between us in where our ways of thinking connect and depart. I am here to learn about here, and more particularly to connect with others who might share a sense that the way I’m approaching these questions can be productive. There is a lot of work for us to do in the future on practice-led research in the postcolonial situation and none of us will be able to do it within the perspective of our own nation-states, so I am looking forward to our discussions over the next couple of days.

My argument as outlined in the abstract is too ambitious for a 30 minute paper – especially one with so many prefaces – and it will run into question time, but it is simple enough in its schematic form [think of it as a drawing for a larger work]: Much of the discussion about practice-led research turns on whether creative practices can contribute to a body of knowledge. The practice is interrogated for its systematicity and reflexivity, asked to prove its contribution. But in these discussions the same pressure is rarely applied to the concept of “knowledge” in all its grandiosity. I believe that there is a strong tradition of work in science studies that shows us that the University’s position as the default holder of all knowledge is the result of practices that are not at all “universal”, but highly specific to European culture and the institutions and archives that it has built to store and transmit that knowledge – ones that have held certain people and material practices outside the category of “knowledge”. Universities exist not because they happen to naturally hold human knowledge, but are enabled by nation states with specific policy aims to bolster their own growth and development. However, in the colonial situation we know that the state was not established for “the people” in any general sense, but against indigenous sovereignty, and the various archives which have been developed by the state and its cultural institutions – that material which we call knowledge – have ultimately been established to continue that suppression. While postcolonial critique has sometimes aimed for correctives to the colonial archive to allow it to include all peoples, this does nothing to overturn the aporia between the types of knowledge at stake: a universalising history of European modernism on the one hand, and the various resistances that assert local authority and ways of life. It is my view that these gaps are precisely where the most interesting questions arise in contemporary knowledge production. Therefore, our position here in the colonies gives us a tremendous opportunity to address these questions which affect all “human knowledge”, whether that in Europe or its Others. And creative practices can address these gaps in a specific and powerful way, sharing and provoking knowledge without necessarily reproducing the urge to tame and control every experience into a predetermined knowledge system.

So, what is research? When we discuss it as a verb, in what Raqs Media Collective would call “practices”, the term “research” is full of life, movement and discovery. In the old French, rechercher is to find out about something thoroughly. In this artisan mode, we can share or ways of searching, within and across disciplines. In my experience most people with a research practice, even of the most conventional positivist scientific kind, are interested in the practices of those of us working in the creative disciplines. It is these kinds of relationships and dialogues that are enabled when we describe creative practice as a form of research.

But this is not the conundrum that is driving practice-based research as a hot topic of study. The primary driver of the practice-based research question is an institutional one, stemming from the integration of art and design schools into the University sector and the development of higher degrees in these fields. Institutionally, we are asked to account for our research not as an artisanal practice but as a noun, as something which can be looked at from a distance by a spy. The institutions will seek evidence to piece together a case for the “value” of the research in terms of its meaningfulness to someone else. We are under evaluation. Niles Norris effectively describes the evaluation mindset:

To the governmental frame of mind, beset with accountability, other people’s autonomy is a problem. It is a source of contingency, ambiguity, and unpredictability and a potential for loose cannons. The increasing tendency of governments to prespecify the characteristics of good evaluation by providing guidelines and standards stems from an understandable desire for greater predictability and control over the content and process of evaluation. It is a kind of security blanket.

Immediately we are struck by the poor fit between the unbounded material autonomy of the arts on the one hand; and the forces of accountability that constrain science and research policy. There has even been a substantial amount of scientific research in social psychology “proving” that expected evaluation has a negative impact on creativity by wiring up artists with electrodes and measuring their brain function. As Borgdorf puts it, “art is thought, not theory. It actually seeks to postpone ‘theory’, to re-route judgments, opinions and conclusions, and even to delay or suspend them indefinitely.” Even more problematic is the need of institutional structures to authenticate the value of the work in advance. As Macleod and Holdridge note, the findings presented through art “are always a posteriori and thus, ill suited to the institution’s pursuit of truth and prescribed outcomes. Meanings are made after the event, through the act of viewing or contemplation and by the artist initially.” This is not to deny the importance of creative practices gaining recognition within the academic system of research evaluation. It is just to say that the desire for recognition must be a strategic one, marked by all the ruptures Fanon has discussed in his dynamics of racial and colonial recognition.

So what kind of research is this work which is more valuable to the public sphere than art practice, research whose worth can be measured, assessed, and funded? The dominant research paradigm is scientific, technological, engineering or medical knowledge. Its public utility is generally self-evident because the discourse of the public value of knowledge has become almost synonymous with science. Scientific knowledge is not just the production of data. It is, as Bensaude-Vincent puts it, “a normative activity that generates universal standards and strong values that in turn shape society at large”.

Sandra Harding notes that the claim to neutrality and its particular universalism is quite specific to Western culture. But the material facts belie a specific history rather than a universal one. Xavier Polanco suggests that “the epistemological claim of the ‘universality of science’ . . . covers what is an empirical fact, the material and intellectual construction of this ‘universal science’ and its ‘international character.’ The ‘universality of science’ does not appear to be the cause but the effect of a process that we cannot explain or understand merely by concentrating our attention on epistemological claims.” In this case, attention to the materiality of dominant claims to internationality or universality – soon leads us to the the specific spatialisation of the colonial history. This material history is usually suppressed by science due to the ruptures it introduces into scientific authority. Usually, Harding notes, “for conventional science theorists it is controversial to use the term “science” to refer to the sciences’ social institutions, technologies and applications, metaphors, language, and social meanings: they insist on restricting the term’s reference to sciences’ abstract cognitive core—the laws of nature—and/or the legendary scientific method, thereby excluding the other parts of sciences’ practices and culture.” This account of course makes it easier to control, if less true.

For those of us in the arts, the clearest way of understanding of the essential boundedness of human knowledge is through the study of its material incarnation, the archive. As Ann Laura Stoler notes from the landmark Refiguring the Archive seminars here in South Africa 11 years ago, “where the archive was once a source of knowledge, an unproblematic space for intellectual detachment, a means to an end, this is no longer the case.” Thomas Richards describes the Victorian archive as the “imperial equivalent of the bourgeois public sphere; it presupposed the neutrality and instrumentality of all communicative networks at the same time as it formed and channeled knowledge within epistemological networks specific to a class, a state, and a nation.” Knowledge in the archive was positive and comprehensive. But during the period 1870-1940 institutions like the British museum could not keep up with all the knowledge they were amassing through their colonial apparatus. Richards describes Victorian England as one of the first information societies, a period in history “when it was no longer possible to imagine one person or one institution knowing everything, when the task of collecting and classifying knowledge increasingly fell to civil servants operating under state supervision.”

In the British Empire, this meant that civil servants (rather than academics) in the colonies were routinely involved in information gathering as their key task. As Richards describes it,

The India Survey […] provides a clear example of the process by which an imagined epistemology could intervene to shape the political definition of actual territory. In the series of procedures that the state-organized survey devised to classify Tibet, the archive intervened both in imagining territory as representation and realizing it as social construction. What began as utopian fictions of knowledge, in other words, often ended as territory.

The knowledge that was seen to be important for humanity’s stock of knowledge would be in the first instance, that which would secure the colonial relationship. It is no surprise, then, that the archive would be the site where those subjugated by colonisation would seek to find redress. Arondekar believes that throughout South Asian scholarship in particular, the colonial archive has been recast as “the site of endless promise, where new records emerge daily and where accepted wisdom is both entrenched and challenged.” It seems that only if this archive could be expanded, there would be the potential for the colonised to be adequately represented and the tensions in the relationship could be overcome.

However, in a very useful reading of Derrida’s Archive Fever, Susan van Zyl outlines the fundamental aporia at the heart of the archive that prevents colonial and indigenous knowledge to meet. She says: “the archive does not consist simply in remembering, in living memory, in anamnesis; but in consigning, in inscribing a trace in some external location – there is no archive without some space outside.” For Foucault, the archive is not simply the “sum of all the texts that a culture has kept upon its person as documents attesting to its own past.” It is the “system of discursivity” that determines what can be articulated. Appadurai outlines the political economy of this system, noting that “an earlier, more confident epoch in the history of social science – notably in the 1950s and 1960s during the zenith of modernization theory -€” […] was a period when there was a more secure sense of the social in the relationship between theory, method, and scholarly location. Theory and method were seen as naturally metropolitan, modern, and Western. The rest of the world was seen in the idiom of cases, events, examples, and test sites in relation to this stable location for the production or revision of theory” Thus, Achille Mbembe could describe how the archive “becomes a material trace which reinscribes the original violence of its creation even in its democratisation.”

[As an aside, I think there is a lot for practice-led researchers to explore about the availability of audio-visual archives in the networked world. Perhaps Youtube is humanity’s stock of knowledge? I can certainly find all kinds of rare Northern Soul singles that I couldn’t in a library, and indeed many lectures by South African scholars that I viewed in writing this paper.]

Māori researcher Linda Tuhiwai Smith bluntly notes that:

belief in the ideal that the primary outcome of scientific research benefits mankind is as much a reflection of ideology as it is of academic training. It becomes so taken for granted that many researchers simply assume that they as individuals embody this ideal and are natural representatives of it when they work with other communities. […] There was no difference, from [an indigenous] perspective, between ‘real’ or scientific research and any other visits by inquisitive and acquisitive strangers. At a common sense level research was talked about both in terms of its absolute worthlessness to us, the indigenous world, and its absolute usefulness to those who wielded it as an instrument.

Hawaiian activist Haunani Kay Trask demonstrates this gap through the material practices of knowledge collection, noting that “no anthropologist has ever dug up missionary bones, despite their plentiful presence. Nor any haole ‘expert’ ever argued that missionary skeletons should be subjected to osteological analysis, despite historical evidence that missionaries did bring certain diseases to Hawai’i.” The questions of who any knowledge benefits, as this discussion should point out, are deeply fraught and can sure no longer be given unproblematically as a rationale for our research. This brings to mind Joburg academic blogger Pumla Gqola’s related point, that the media only need to evoke the public interest in order for the public interest to quickly become assumed. We need to stage the who benefits question more clearly in our research undertaken in the public interest.

Knowledge in the European academic sense is a unique and paradoxical creature: it is supposed to be cumulative and universally available, yet it can only be acquired through disciplinary expertise and extreme forms of specialisation. The challenge in this environment, as Patti Lather notes, is to develop forms of translation between worlds and the linking of diverse methods. This is the well-rehearsed call for interdisciplinarity, but as the NZ-based artist Charles Koroneho says, one’s ability to be interdisciplinary is a function of the time spent at the limits of one’s discipline. As makers, we know this better than anyone: the time required to develop a practice, the time required to change it, do not occur simply at the level of conscious, instrumental thought or through funding a research programme seeks to “make things better.” Most of the greatest thinkers of modernity, from Kant through to Benjamin and Foucault, Derrida, Spivak and Butler to name a few, are not frightened by this as a limit, and unsurprisingly they have been the writers most attentive to the operations of the aesthetic. As van Zyl and Kistner note of Foucault, “it is only in paying careful attention to the threshold positions and the great aesthetic works that so often exemplify them most vividly, that it is possible to uncover both the emergence and the obsolescence of discourses. This is why, most noticeably in Foucault’s archaeological writings, references to works of art, and literature are never far off.”

As we seek to activate a material interdisciplinarity, we can see the opportunity for the creative artefact to act as what Susan Leigh Star calls a “boundary object”: “Boundary objects are both adaptable to different viewpoints and robust enough to maintain identity across them.” They are curious objects, both uniquely positioned between known paradigms and yet elusive in their operation, for their role is to sensitise us to gaps and slippages in knowledge, rather than to incorporate experience into the disciplinary realm of the known.

Coetzee has described fiction as being defined precisely by its lack of exact correlation to the world, to the tight discourses of critique and knowledge. Stories are defined their ultimate irresponsiblity, or better yet their “responsibility toward something that has not yet emerged.” Spivak points out that it is a mistake to treat art and literature as a blueprint for social policy – they are “figures awaiting disfiguration” in the meeting between creator and audience. There is an element of abstraction in required in this kind of reading. As William Kentridge puts it, “Our theatre is a reflection on the debate rather than the debate itself. It tries to make sense of the memory rather than be the memory.” Creating objects that bridge and breach boundaries in the imagination requires us to depart from the governmental mindset and the “impact factor”, to trust in the recipient and their ability to work with what we provide for the future.

The contemporary creative work requires not just an audacious producer but a willing receiver: it is characteristically incomplete, awaiting the viewer who will bring the meaning into the world. Writing on Coetzee, Spivak discusses the craft not only of writing, but of reading. As she puts it, “literary reading teaches us to learn from the singular and the unverifiable. It is not that literary reading does not generalize. It is just that those generalizations are not on evidentiary ground. In this area, what is known is proved by vyavahāya, or setting-to-work.” The knowledge is proven in practice. As the nursing theorist Gary Rolfe has argued, the kind of knowledge involved in a nursing research case can only be utilised by the skilled practitioner, and this skill in writing and reading, sensing and making takes time to develop.

So it is worth remembering that there is a reason why Humboldt’s initial Kantian conception of the German research university described both the freedom to teach (Lehrfreiheit) and the freedom to learn (Lernfreiheit). The consumer of knowledge is not a passive object, but its creator in a social world of meaning. It is the shift in perception in the learner in their social world that is the true possibility of “knowledge transfer”, it is what Spivak calls the “uncoercive rearrangement of desire.” To believe in this possibility is to fundamentally to believe in freedom.

This dynamic of a work waiting for a viewer is captured by the late Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, writing in the 1990s about seeing Roni Horn’s Gold Field for the first time:

L.A. 1990. Ross and I spent every Saturday afternoon visiting galleries, museums, thrift shops, and going on long, very long drives all around L.A., enjoying the “magic hour” when the light makes everything gold and magical in that city. It was the best and worst of times. Ross was dying right in front of my eyes. Leaving me. It was the first time in my life when I knew for sure where the money for rent was coming from. It was a time of desperation, yet of growth too.

1990, L.A. The Gold Field. How can I deal with the Gold Field? I don’t quite know. But the Gold Field was there. Ross and I entered the Museum of Contemporary Art, and without knowing the work of Roni Horn we were blown away by the heroic, gentle and horizontal presence of this gift. There it was, in a white room, all by itself, it didn’t need company, it didn’t need anything. Sitting on the floor, ever so lightly. A new landscape, a possible horizon, a place of rest and absolute beauty. Waiting for the right viewer willing and needing to be moved to a place of the imagination. This piece is nothing more than a thin layer of gold. It is everything a good poem by Wallace Stevens is: precise, with no baggage, nothing extra. A poem that feels secure and dares to unravel itself, to become naked, to be enjoyed in a tactile manner, but beyond that, in an intellectual way too. Ross and I were lifted. That gesture was all we needed to rest, to think about the possibility of change. This showed the innate ability of an artist proposing to make this place a better place. How truly revolutionary.