Responding with art and research in dystopian scenarios

In this forced isolation period, Eutopia Dystopia’s artistic director, Inga Gerner Nielsen, shares a protocol she developed to try arts-based research at home.

When we started the training with the students for the project Eutopia Dystopia back in the autumn of 2019, we got a kind of head start to creating artistic ways to respond to a dystopian scenario. With this post, we would like to share some of the insights and arts-based research methods of Eutopia Dystopia we have found to be useful in the current dystopian scenario we found ourselves in only months after the performance of Your Past Belongs to Them Now. One of them being an online protocol, you can use to try arts-based research in your room. 

Presenting the arts-based research of Eutopia Dystopia

In March this year I went to a conference at Malta University hosted by the School of Performing Arts. The theme of the conference was Performance Knowledges: Transmission, Composition, Praxis. I came to present an art installation of the stories and sculptural material we developed through interactions with audiences at Polo del ‘900 in Turin. It was a fantastic chance to reflect on the knowledge which came from making Eutopia Dystopia with an international crowd of more than one hundred other artists and researchers. Everyone committed to exploring and communicating the strength of the artistic bodily knowledge we accumulate in the performing arts. 

Highly influenced emotionally by the vast developing situation of the lockdown which was suddenly about to happen on Malta at the beginning of the conference, I decided to initiate my presentation with telling the story of the scenario we had worked with in Eutopia Dystopia.  

The scenario was about a global energy shock, which caused a total loss of the internet and all digital data. During the three-day performance at Polo del ‘900 in autumn, we experimented with how a group of young people could combine immersive art and qualitative research methods. A combination of ways, which became the starting point for making a new historical archive of memories based on the personal stories people shared with them in close encounters.

In this way, the performance became a tribute to humanist values. It emphasised the importance of the historical archive and storytelling in a state of crisis. An archive, which we felt should now include subjective and bodily experience. One that would not be based entirely on words, but could also be material representation through sculpture or embodiment. In the presentation, I asked the crowd of listeners the same question I once posed the researchers we involved in developing the scenario in a future studies back-casting session with FRIDA (the Research Forum of the University of Turin) back in September: 

What would happen to your field of work faced with the loss of all digital data? How would you work?” This question has suddenly turned into: “What will happen to our field of work faced with the inability to move? How will you work?

Today, the lockdown due to the Coronavirus is, in some ways, a reversed situation compared to our scenario. Now all of our interactions have to be based on online communication and digital data. We cannot meet and share the energy of the close physical encounter and materials. But somehow, the ensemble of Eutopia Dystopia and I still feel a bit prepared for a rupture like the one we are now living. Because with Eutopia Dystopia, we developed a vision for how art and qualitative research would remain a vital element in remembering who we are after a global crisis. In the performance, we explored how immersive techniques could induce storytelling. Such as touching an object could unlock a memory from your everyday life. Or how, by guiding you into telling a story of crossing a border while stimulating different senses, the performers could lead you into a sensual feeling of traveling without actually moving more than your fingers across a piece of fabric.

Online insight into the arts-based research of Eutopia Dystopia

If you weren’t there to experience this in the performance at Polo del ‘900, you’d still be able to get a thorough insight into these interactions. Professor Falk Heinrich from RELATE (Research Center for Art & Technology at Aalborg University), is about to publish a video article about the immersive techniques of Eutopia Dystopia. Together with his former students, Dagmar Bille Milthers and Christine Hvidt Grønborg, Falk was in Turin to inquire into how we used a qualitative interview technique as a way to produce the artistic content of the performance. They chose to use video material from the installation to visually accompany the performers’ descriptions of how they met and guided audiences. As a whole, the format of their video article creates a poetic frame for their academic reflections and the artistic sensations of the installation to merge.  

A video will never be able to replace the physical sensation of being carefully guided directly by a performer sitting right next to you. But we feel so fortunate to have such digital documentation and reflections of the interaction. It now makes it possible to share the work of Eutopia Dystopia even if it might not be possible to meet in person for a long while. From the beginning, our project initiated to find ways of combining the online digital tools with the sensual experience of the direct human encounters in an immersive performance. During the preparation and performance, students across Italy could join the project through a social reading activity on the Betwyll app. There they could comment and share their reflections on the future 2039 scenario with us, as well as on key texts of the European literature. 

We also used methods to continue to work together online with the performers of Eutopia Dystopa in-between the rehearsal periods. And now, we are happy to find one of these methods to be very relevant in sharing with more of you at this moment in quarantine.

A protocol for trying arts-based research in your room

To explore artistic ways of researching memories, we used a research protocol I had developed as part of the course I was teaching on Art & Technology in Arts-based Research. It is a simple guide to create an artistic inquiry into a personal memory at home in your room. Fifteen minutes a day, for five to seven days. The protocol has been made available here along with other online instructions for artistic work for students during the 2020 quarantine by the Danish BMMK-initiative. We now publish it here below for non-Danish speakers to try. 

  1. Memory. Choose a memory which is challenging to express verbally.  
  2. Medium. Choose one artistic medium or choose a new medium each day. 
  3. Research. Express the experience through the medium 15 minutes every day, for five days 
  4. Document. Be sure to document your process. If you make an artefact, then this is the documentation. Should it be sound or movement, be sure to record it.
  5. Share your method and knowledge. Organize your process visually and write how you chose to approach the work. If possible, try to describe what happened to your experience of your memory.

You are very welcome to share your work with inga@houseoffutures.dk

The idea for the protocol came from reading artist and art therapist Shaun McNiff’s approach to using the making of art as a way to research art. His advice to such work is to: “Keep it simple”. I developed the protocol assisted by Dagmar Bille Milthers to give students a sense of how following the rigorous structure of a research protocol in combination with art-making can open up to an in-depth exploration of experience, which traditional scientific means could not render visible.   

This brings me back to what I was there to share reflections on at the conference at Malta: the flourishing combinations of performance art and research. So many of them I didn’t get to hear of, as the conference, meant to last three days, had to be closed only hours after I had given my presentation on the first. Now I will have to practise for myself what I normally facilitate for others. I will close my eyes to travel in time and space. To feel what it was like to sit there in that beautiful new lecture hall of Malta University and listen in great anticipation for the day to come together with the other participants. To recall the presence of their bodies and exhilarating thinking processes. To sense the encouragement of knowing we are many dedicated to art, research and storytelling. 

The best thing I have done since I came home to Denmark is to be in touch with the performers of Eutopia Dystopia. Many of them have started a new protocol. If you are curious to try, you can also go check out how they chose to use it by going to our ‘stories’ on Instagram or have a look at this video by performer Chiara Berard

To me the fascinating aspect is not so much the product of what is made, but how each of them chose to do it. I love to be granted access into someone’s perception. To notice the little details in how you remember. To try and feel what you did at that moment in your life. 

Should you decide to join us in our research, you are very invited to share your work. Even if we are alone in our rooms, art grants us the possibility to drift along into each other’s worlds. And remember that we are in this situation together.

IEUTOPIA DYSTOPIAnga Gerner Nielsen has a BA in Sociology and a MA in Arts in Modern Culture. She is the co-founder of the performance collectives Club de la Faye and Fiction Pimps, as well as a partner in the futurist association House of Futures. Her artistic and scientific work is driven by her desire for framing and investigating how people experience and reflect upon the world. While studying sociology, she has developed new qualitative methods to document and study the subjective experience of performance art and the social situations it portrays. She is s a censor at Performance Design at Roskilde University and teaches courses in immersive strategies and performance documentation and research methods. Recently she’s been teaching Art in Context at Universität der Künste Berlin and New Performative Practices at DOCH, Stockholm University of the Arts.

 

Eutopia Dystopia is a two-year project realized with the support of Fondazione Compagnia di San Paolo within the grant CivICa, projects of Culture and Civic Innovation.

 

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