Autonomous Research within and/or Beneath the Ruins; Or, We are Finally Getting our Feet Wet

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Over the course of our first year or two while getting MFAs in at a large research university, a few friends and I began an on-going informal conversation about our frustrations with our respective programs (all within the field of studio arts), the neoliberal university, the seminars we had taken or were taking, and various other problems.

We felt that our art programs were failing us, unable to provide a theoretical and political footwork for what we wanted to do in our practices. Our programs were beholden to the confines of art disciplines and we were pushed into the wide world of humanities PhD seminars, looking for a deeper and more textured understanding of our varying political interests. In turn, we found ourselves frustrated by those seminars—while initially interesting, they overworked students with tons of reading only to end up skimming it, ultimately learning little more than facts as though we were in grammar school. Of course, these facts remained, in large part, only relevant to specific disciplinary paradigms and quickly meandered into irrelevant and apolitical academic indulgence, excusing itself (and thus students) from any real political possibilities of worldly relevance or responsibility. As art students we felt doubly alienated by PhD seminars spiraling into a rabbit-hole only meant for those along for the 6-8 year ride of getting a doctorate, all others along for the ride had to hang on and adapt to the rules of whatever is en vogue that week in the Journal of something er other.

We bitched about the ever presence of liberalism saturating almost all the academics we were working with. But worse we noticed the structural conservatism raining unto us from the increasingly business model of a university.

We bitched about being underpaid and overworked, about debt and poverty.

We complained about stupid degree requirements clearly written by an out of touch bureaucrat who knew nothing of our interests or research. Related, we struggled to find rarefied faculty who understood our politics, our artistic interests, or why we were struggling to push back against the university. “You’re so lucky to be in grad school, doing what you want!” we hear all the time. When we did have good experiences with faculty we respect, we usually found that they too were overworked and sparsely available. We learned quickly the problem isn’t the faculty per se, rather the institution producing the faculty to speak its domineering and disciplinary languages, all the while running them ragged (of course, we shouldn’t excuse faculty whose work doesn’t maintain some integrity, either).

In the hallways between classes or at night during studio sessions, over beers and coffee, we found ourselves arriving at something of a critique of the surely common problems listed above. But we also found that we didn’t know how to proceed, how to make critical work in such a structurally problematic environment. We realized we spent all of our time trying to explain ourselves to our peers—“what is wrong with getting an MFA? If you hate it so much, why are you here? What is wrong with critiques? What is wrong with the University?”—Legitimate questions that we still can only sort of answer.

In the same hallways, bars and cafes we came up with not so much an answer to our problems or a deeply sophisticated critique, but rather an idea for an experiment among friends with a common interests in twisting away from the normative and cowed paradigms of university Art production. And so we arrive at our not-so-creatively named project—“self-organized seminar.” Shorthand we’ve taken to calling the experiment SOS; perhaps tellingly, if inadvertently, suggesting a double meaning—Help! Save our souls! But no longer do we look to anyone but ourselves; any faith we once had in the university has been soured. The writing is on the wall and has, for us, become clear.

In large part the project looks like a reading group, an autonomous research project, or maybe militant research. All of which one could probably comfortably align the project with, but for us it is probably too soon to say for sure. We only have a sense for what we’re doing, and we are, like so many others, only beginning…

Basically, the plan is this: we take classes that are not especially time intensive—no seminars but instead primarily workshops where we can focus on “our” work. Our specific MFA programs typically have at least one class in which you are expected to perform only research pertaining to one’s individual practice. Multiply that by taking our required minor area workshop, and you’ve got a fair amount of time to do your own thing. This extra time and energy is re-directed into this self-organized research project, reading self-selected texts and meeting once a week to discuss and figure out our next steps.

Over the summer we spent several hours coming up with texts, topics, theories we’d like to investigate together, with the assumption that not all of our interests will be immediately pertinent to our respective research or interests, but with an understanding that it is important to both learn to work together in a collective way, as well as discover much more deeply the ways in which our political, cultural, and artistic interests are entangled.

We want to deepen our friendships, our ability to collaborate and to comprehend. We want to learn how to resist and build a new way of working in an environment that feels overbearing, normalizing, and paralyzing. To borrow from one inspiration for the project—to begin to occupy and/or evacuate.[1] We desire a double-movement of pushing back while twisting away.

As I’m writing this we’re in the week before the semester starts and thus the week before kicking off our engagement together with SOS (although we’re already done a lot of important work setting up some infrastructure). We decided we’d start with some ‘preschool’ readings to get us in the spirit and begin, quite fittingly, with two brief and wonderful texts: Brian Holmes’ “Continental Drift: Activist Research, From Geopolitics to Geopoetics,”[2] and Marto Malo de Molina’s “Common Notions Part 2: Institutional Analysis, Participatory Action-Research, Militant Research”.[3]

From Molina we learn the beginnings of radical critiques of institutionalized practices, that the purported neutrality of an institution “is a trap: one is always compromised.”[4] Molina offers us much insight from theorist, political militant, and radical psychoanalyst Felix Guattari, especially his vehement condemnation of the normative practices of psychoanalysis. But we also learn roots of activist research projects—from feminist consciousness-raising to Brazilian pedagogical theorist and activist Paulo Freire’s poverty centered and empowering ‘action-research,’ designed primarily to educate illiterate peasants. Molina also provides notes on the at times heady practice of militant research.[5] Militant research is important in its materialist inspiration, where content and power flows through the body, simultaneously inscribing it. We learn that the gestures we make, the art we produce, inside and through the institution are immediately swallowed and digested into its belly—always growing, always making itself stronger. Militant Research always begins with the concrete, with our own bodies and experiences as subjects. Politics and resistance can’t be separated from the micro-gestures we make, the ways in which we inhabit and use our bodies as well as the spaces in which they exist. Thus we find ourselves discussing some kind of exit route, or Guattari’s ‘lines of flight.’ SOS! We’ll try and slip out the back door on company time, returning only when we have to.

The co-production of critical knowledge generates rebellious bodies. Thinking about rebellious practices provides/give value and potency to those same practices. Collective thinking engenders common practice. Therefore, the process of knowledge production is inseparable from the process of subject production or subjectification and vice versa.[6]

Until finally our new rebellious bodies can stand on their own with affinities, deterritorialized from its original body and becoming something new with others, something capable of resistance, communalism, and struggle.

But first we must remake ourselves and re-chart our territories. Another inspiration for SOS, Brian Holmes, who has with many collaborators been in the forefront of experimental and very committed research projects,[7] states this clearly in our preschool reading:

[…]disciplines have to be overcome, dissolved into experimentation. Autonomous inquiry demands a rupture from the dominant cartographies. Both compass and coordinates must be reinvented if you really want to transform the dynamics of a changing world-system. Only by disorienting the self and uprooting epistemic certainties can anyone hope to inject a positive difference into the unconscious dynamics of the geopolitical order.[8]

And so we have something of a exit plan, something of a compass, pointing us toward each other in collective inquiry.

Til next time,
From a sunny Iowa, August 2011

[2] Brian Holmes, “Continental Drift: Activist Research , From Geopolitics to Geopoetics.”
[3] Marto Malo de Molina’s “Common Notions Part 2: Institutional Analysis, Participatory Action-Research, Militant Research.”
[4] Jack Beillerot, “Entrevista a Felix Guattari” In Felix Guattari et al, La Intervencion institucional. Quote taken from Molina’s “Common Notions”
[5] “Militant Research,” while summarized by Molina, is typically attributed to the Argentinian group Colectivo Situaciones. Theoretical footwork for militant research can be found in their text “On the Researcher-Militant
[6] Molina, “Common Notions”
[7] See especially “Continental Drift,” an on-going project in collaboration with 16 Beaver and several others. Additionally, there is the “Slow Motion Action / Research Collective” at the great Mess Hall in Chicago, among others. For more of Holmes’ writing see his blog.
[8] Holmes, “Continental Drift”

Written by heath

August 29, 2011 at 5:20 pm

Posted in SOS

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  1. […] learning in the ruins with disenchanted art students in the US Midwest. See something of an introduction for how we got here. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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