I’ve been invited to participate in a 10 day conference and research residency at Pompidou Centre, Paris from 1st – 10th July 2014. The topic we will will be discussing is the exhibition ‘Magiciens de la Terre’, which is now celebrating its 25th anniversary. The exhibition was, and still is, the subject of intense scrutiny and debate, concerned as it was with unifying modes of artistic practice across global dimensions.

Lost Magic Kingdoms and Six Paper moons from Nahuatl
In preparation for this visit, and to further contextualise my practice of working with museum objects in an art  context, I decided to investigate previous examples of artists producing exhibitions using cultural artefacts from different countries. One such example was the work of the Scottish artist, Eduardo Paolozzi, a sculptor best known for taking bits of machinery or other found objects, and synthesising them into new associations”.

Paolozzi’s inclination towards finding inspiration in found objects, led to him curating the exhibition ‘Lost Magic Kingdoms’ at the Museum of Mankind, London in 1986. The invitation to work with the museum collections came at a time when other institutions were expressing an interest in the relationship between modern art and ethnography. However, unlike the Museum of Mankind’s previous retrospective of Henry Moore’s work, or the exhibition ‘Primitivism in 20th Century Art; Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern’, concurrently held at MOMA, New York, Paolozzi’s exhibition was to focus directly on the question of the production of contemporary art within the context of a museum collection (1985, p15)

Exhibition style and themes
The exhibition (of several hundred items) existed as a bricolage installation of elements, exploring such themes as: the artist as curator, material semiotics and technologies, classification, authenticity, reproduction, and divination. Drawn from an early interest in visiting the collections at the Museum of Mankind and Le Musee de l’Homme, Paolozzi was influenced by the contemporary ethnographic style of display, where artefacts were densely packed in cases and were mainly intended only to show the objects, rather than to provide interpretation. (1985, p26)

Furthermore “the majority of these displays were organised on one or more of a small number of principles. The first was the wish to show something of the life of a particular region or group by exhibiting ‘typical’ items of material culture. The second principle was that of [showing] underlying similarity [between objects]… Thirdly, some displays were organised to show how societies and their material culture might have evolved…” (1985, p26)

Object identities
Such decontextualisation of objects and images has proven to be destructive through “a dismemberment and denial of the normal associations between phenomena and an expunging of the contexts which helped give them meaning”. However, it is suggested that Paolozzi’s process of continuing this disassociation of elements, was intended both to critique the strategies of the museum and also to discover “how far the item’s meaning is contained within itself and how far it changes by being placed in association with other items”. (1985, p25)

Paolozzi’s methods for investigating the meaning of objects incorporated explorations of material and form; for example, how different cultures use similar materials to produce objects, and what functions those objects might have. The use of recycled or repurposed materials within artworks was also a subject of interest within the exhibition, which included a Mexican mask with electric light bulbs for eyes. (1985, p35)

Art and magic
Although Paolozzi stated that his interest was in highlighting “the sublime of everyday life” (1985, p159), and in subverting the tendency to exoticise the other, the choice of the exhibition title ‘Lost Magic Kingdoms’ and the inclusion of divination tools within the selected objects, seemed to run counter to this suggestion. Such techniques were intended to expose the artist’s practice of producing meaning through the correlation of images and objects, but the title also suggests that these original techniques and societies have been superceded or ‘lost’.

The relationship between art and magic has continued to fascinate artists and curators, throughout, and despite, modernity, and I will continue to consider this within the context of the ’Magiciens de la Terre’ exhibition in the coming weeks.

Further reading:


Framing art practice within an anthropological perspective is related to ideas about the ways in which cultural context contributes to art practice and creativity. Such ideas show how patterns of thought can re-emerge in societies, through the gradual “restructuring of a certain number of elements already given (Jameson, 1983, p123)” (Cameron and Kenderdine, 2007, p4). For example, although our increasingly technological society is generally viewed as a recent phenomenon, scholars are now becoming interested in the ways that contemporary media reflects elements of historical events and conditions. In particular, the Media in Transition series, published by MIT Press, has brought together essays under the mission of showing how “the media systems of our own era are unique neither in their instability nor in their complex, ongoing transformations”.

Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage
Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage is one such publication in the Media in Transition series. Published in 2007 and edited by Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine, its aim is to “identify some of the ways in which digital technologies have transformed the traditional museum, [thereby] altering our understanding of such fundamental words as indigenous, artifact, heritage, space, ecology, [and] the past”. Although previous publications have discussed the role of technology within the museum, many have tended to focus on the effects of these digital capabilities rather than placing these developments within a historical context (Cameron and Kenderdine, 2007, p1).

While digital technologies continue to shape the museum experience, conversely, “cultural heritage ‘ecologies’ also appropriate, adapt, incorporate, and transform the digital technologies they adopt”. Given that “collecting organizations are vehicles for the enduring concerns of public spectacle, object preservation, shifting paradigms of knowledge and power”, the challenge is to ensure that the ‘intellectual capital’ of the museum becomes, and remains, accessible throughout these transformations, particularly to the communities from where these objects derive (Cameron and Kenderdine, 2007, pp.1-30). The book, Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage, is separated into three sections: Replicants/Object Morphologies; Knowledge Systems and Management: Shifting Paradigms and Models; and Virtual Cultural Heritage.

Replicants/Object Morphologies
The collection of essays in the Replicants/Object Morphologies section of Theorizing Digital Culture and Heritage is primarily concerned with the ways in which the use of images and new media technology influence the production, interpretation, and dissemination of art and heritage collections. Peter Walsh details the history of photography, particularly in the roles of object acquisition and the dissemination of collections. He also presents the museum photograph as a cultural artefact itself, an argument continued by Andrea Witcomb in ‘The Materiality of Virtual Technologies’. Here she argues that “taking digital media [interpretations] as material objects in their own right [enables] the emergence of new perceptions on the relationship between the display of objects alongside digital media elements”  (Cameron and Kenderdine, 2007, p6).

Concerns about the virtual/real divide often relate to concepts such as materiality, aura and authenticity, authority, interpretation, representation, knowledge, and affect, based on “[vision] as the interpretive frame and physicality as a stable, truthful, and objective marker of culture”, thus positioning the digital and virtual in opposition to the real. However the discursive framework ‘epistemic relativism’ discussed in Replicants/Object Morphologies, “views knowledge of the ‘real’ as derived through our ideas and concepts, including linguistic, spatial, cultural, and ideological compulsions… [therefore] objects and their meanings are now seen as contingent, fluid, and polysemic” (Cameron, 2007, pp.53-54).

Furthermore, in certain cases digital reproductions can be seen to transfer qualities of the original. For example, in ‘Te Ahua Hiko: Digital Cultural Heritage and Indigenous Objects, People, and Environments’, Deidre Brown discusses the relationship between Maori taonga (cultural treasures) and non-Maori museum classification. Here she proposes that Maori cultural values and taboos are transferred through virtual or augmented replication (Brown, 2007, p79). In this way, such technologies create the conditions for the repatriation of objects. However, they also require specific protocols in relation to the viewing of images. For example, “many restrictions are placed on institutionally archived images of deceased Maori — a consequence likely to be transferred to digital replicants” (Brown, 2007, p85).

Knowledge Systems
Part two of Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage – Knowledge Systems, Management and Users: Shifting Paradigms and Models – focuses on the ways in which knowledge (in the form of objects, texts, interpretations, etc) is organised and presented, and the impact this has on audience learning and access. Key questions raised in this section related to ways that audiences could be engaged through personalised experiences and possibilities for co-creation. As Parry and Arbach state: “The new space for online museum learning represents a shift in the conception and design of Web-based education provision for museums, carrying with it a greater emphasis on specificity, reciprocity, and activity” (Parry and Arbach, 2007, p290).

Such community co-creation programs (referred to as Digital Cultural Communication), aim to increase audience participation by expanding the museum’s curatorial mission “from the exhibition of collections to the remediation of cultural narratives and experiences” (Russo and Watkins, 2007, p149). Systems which allow for personalised navigation pathways and individually profiled users can enable “information [to be] organized, manipulated, segmented, reworked, and delivered in modular and multifarious ways (Manovich, 2001, p131)”. However, although these methods can produce “alternative and sometimes mutually contradictory object interpretations” (Cameron and Robinson, 2007, p186), for Harald Kraemer such audience interpretations can also add to the rich historical documentation of the (contemporary) artwork. In capturing user interactivity with the object through virtual museum systems, Kraemer suggests that these relationships “become an integral part of the work of art” and positions “the recipient as a coauthor [with] the artist” (Kraemer, 2007, p193).

Cultural Heritage & Virtual Systems
The third, and last, section of this anthology, Cultural Heritage & Virtual Systems, “examines the intersection of cultural heritage research, documentation, and interpretation—as it is mediated through the techniques and modalities of virtual reality” (Cameron and Kenderdine, 2007, p10). These essays explore how and whether virtual and augmented realities can express and transmit ‘real’ experiences, particularly in relation to place. As Erik Champion and Bharat Dave state in ‘Dialing Up the Past’: “A sense of place in virtual environments and real experiences is not just a consequence of being surrounded by a spatial setting but of being engaged in another place. A place is particular, unique, dynamic, and memorably related to other places, peoples, and events, and it is hermeneutic” (Champion and Dave, 2007, p344).

These ‘multiple modalities’ include exploring the possibilities of tangible or sensory experiences of virtual places and objects, coupled with crowdsourced data linked to user perspectives and experiences, with the aim of providing a wider interpretation. In relation to this, Scot T. Refsland, Marc Tuters, and Jim Cooley discuss the potential for developing an online collaborative project for mapping cultural heritage: “Virtual heritage could greatly improve its efficacy by developing user-centered and dynamic systems for nonlinear storytelling [through a definitive archive of spatial culture]. Such a system would give users the sensation of being able to navigate beyond the official story of heritage into a web of interconnected complexity” (Refsland, Tuters, and Cooley, 2007, p415).

Through an understanding of the ways in which Cultural Heritage is interpreted, disseminated and received, artists can conceive of new methods of producing work that responds to its potential exhibition environments. Conversely, by presenting new methods for understanding the context of production, art can be considered through anthropological factors, enabling greater equivalencies with which to compare art cross-culturally.

Further reading:
The Wired Museum: Emerging Technology and Changing Paradigms


One of the criteria to achieve doctoral status is the production of new knowledge. For Practice Based Research in Art this includes the possibility of exploring new methods of research as well as the creation of new artistic works. In understanding how practice-based research contributes to knowledge in an academic sense, it is useful to reflect on the current state of theory relating to artistic knowledge.

What do artists know?
In 2009, the Stone Summer Theory Institute held their annual conference in Chicago. Organised by James Elkins, and entitled, ‘What Do Artists Know?’ it was initially conceived to interrogate the conceptualisation of art education worldwide, from Foundation level through to PhD. However, in the process of organising the conference, it became clear that there were other ways of understanding the question. Therefore, co-organiser Frances Whitehead also introduced the subject of her own research; the types of knowledge that are particular to the activities and processes undertaken by artists. Such ideas include theories around tacit knowledge and aesthetic cognitivism, “the doctrine that knowledge is contained in artworks”.

The conference was conceived as a series of seminars rather than paper presentations, and each of the topics were discussed among the group in order to draw conclusions which would be published at a later date. The topics included: the relevant histories of art education, their practices, ideas, skills, techniques, and how these impact on the current conceptualisation of art education; an understanding of different methods of artistic training outside of major international art schools; and how the terms ‘knowledge’ and ‘research’ apply to artworks, both as vehicles for knowledge and as traces of transformative processes. Elkins outlined the conference proceedings and conclusions in his preliminary report which was published in maHKUzine. Conclusions and areas for further research were published in the book ‘What Do Artists Know?‘ by Penn State University Press in 2012.

On not knowing
Contained within ideas of ‘artistic knowledge’ is the deliberate practice of ‘not knowing’. In the publication ‘On Not Knowing: How Artists Think‘, Elizabeth Fisher and Rebecca Fortnum (eds) aim to “map an expansive field of reference that situates the idea of ‘not knowing’ in relation to the artist’s sense of self, the place of the studio and creative problems of language, interdisciplinary practice, education, philosophy and of course, the experience of the viewer… where not knowing is not only not overcome, but thought, explored and savoured” (Fisher and Fortnum, 2013, p7).

These essays not only explore art making as thinking through doing, or practice as research, but also consider it in relation to the histories of Western metaphysical thought and the production of knowledge itself. Art as a mode of enquiry has been explored by theorists, including Kant’s ‘genius’, Plato’s ‘technē’, and Levi-Strauss’s ‘bricoleur’. In each case, the ‘artist’ in question veers between knowing and not knowing, utilising the resources at their disposal (in the form of tools, materials, technical ability, and historical awareness) in order to create a framework within which “to experiment without a plan and allow something unforeseen to emerge” (Jones, 2013, pp.20 & 27; Fortnum, 2013, p76; Siukonen, 2013, p92).

Not knowing in practice
Emma Cocker’s essay, ‘Tactics for Not Knowing: Preparing for the Unexpected’, resonated most strongly with my own feelings toward art making. Here she states: “Artistic practice recognises the value of not knowing, less as the preliminary state (of ignorance) preceding knowledge, but as a field of desirable indeterminacy within which to work. Not knowing is an active space within practice, wherein an artist hopes for an encounter with something new or unfamiliar, unrecognisable or unknown. However, within artistic practice, the possibility of producing something new is not always about the conversion of the not known towards new knowledge, but rather involves the aspiration to retain something of the unknown within what is produced”. (Cocker, 2013, p127)

She continues by outlining particular tactical strategies that artists may use “to produce the conditions of uncertainty, disorientation or indeterminacy”. Such methods include “submission to the logic of a rule or instruction… as a way of surrendering responsibility, absorbing oneself of agency or control within a practice in order to be surprised” as a way of creating a space for not knowing or “rupturing the terms of what is already known” (Cocker, 2013, p127-130).

Practice as research/Research as practice
Exploring art as a method of thinking or mode of enquiry has allowed theorists to consider the lateral benefits of art making in a knowledge-based economy. For example, Estelle Barrett suggests that the value of art may extend, and even surpass, the production of the work, due to its specific “processes of enquiry and their potential for innovative application” (Fortnum, 2013, p77). Equally, Donald Schön felt that artistic processes were particularly suited to negotiating risk due to their nature of “reflection-in-action… by which practitioners… deal well with situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness”. (Siukonen, 2013, p92) As Fisher states in her opening essay ‘In a Language you don’t Understand’, “such modes of working have helped to reconceptualise art as ‘a place where things can happen’ rather than ‘a thing in the world’.” (Fisher, 2013, p12).

However, while it is beneficial to consider the particular benefits of practice and art making to the production of knowledge, the essays here often appear to position text and writing as synonymous with knowledge. Therefore, although text may occupy a hierarchical precedence over image, I propose that the benefits of practice based thinking can also apply to the process of writing and the experience of text in affective terms.

Further info:
Mike Jarvis “articulating the tacit dimension in art making”