This essay was published in Metronome No. 11 'What is to Be Done?' Tokyo. Edited by Clementine Deliss as a special edition for documenta 12 magazines. 2007.
Written by Roger McDonald.
Having passed through a traditional academic PhD program, and its various research methodologies, it is good to be able to look back and survey what it all means. Now, as one of the programming directors of MAD, the independent study program of Arts Initiative Tokyo, and as an independent curator and part-time lecturer, the days of intense library-based research or reading have opened out to broader approaches of acquiring knowledge. The question of Moving Schools is also one that takes on an increased resonance within such a discussion. So in this short writing I would like to share my thoughts.
It seems to me that moving schools already exist in myriad forms. If one can define a school as any community – transient, impermanent or more solidified – which comes together to create or disseminate forms of knowledge, then one is faced with many examples. How we define knowledge also fundamentally alters the ways in which we can think about this, and I am always drawn to Henri Bergson’s approach of understanding knowledge as a spectrum spanning intellectual, analytical reasoning through to experiential, physical or even mystical gnosis. Pilgrimages constitute a nomadic, but highly directed, community of followers who wander through multiple spaces ingesting specialized forms of knowledge and insight. For them temples or sacred sites may function as knowledge bases, where new spiritual learning takes place. The conversations, meetings and sharing which occurs during their journeys become key knowledge acquiring routes.
The circus is another, highly mobile yet familiar and nostalgic kind of learning vessel. Offering different forms of spectacle and entertainment, as well as diversions from everyday life, the different forms of knowledge imparted by circuses as they pass through a town constitute an important counter-balance to the kinds of formal learning we are taught at schools. The circus shows us risk, physical danger, humour, thrill and elation, contributing to our emotional knowledge base. The phenomenon of raves from the early 1990s and continuing in various forms today may also constitute a moving school of sorts. Coming together to dance in fields or warehouses, often under the effects of drugs, the spaces created by raves generate unique energies and learning possibilities. Perhaps it is about communicating with a stranger through dance or an insight created by a particular combination of sounds. I learnt things in raves which feedback continually into aspects of what I do today. They are not particularly quantifiable, but perhaps about providing me with a sense of what a community could be, and actually participating in this.
What are some of the ways in which we acquire knowledge? I would like to outline four which I find interesting in my own research and work, and also all non-disciplined ways – in other words not tied to formal, institutional or testing methods. First, one can acquire knowledge from a community. This may be through events like workshops or therapy sessions where participants share experiences and ideas. It can also happen on dance floors, generating powerful energies which circulate collectively. Traditional learning environments, schools and campuses, also provide a community for knowledge travelers. Second, there is the route of knowledge acquisition through the ingestion of elixirs, plants or specially prepared substances. Most commonly associated with many forms of shamanism, this way is also the most biologically direct, literally altering the synaptic junctions in the mind to affect changes in consciousness. With the now popular use of so called ‘smart drugs’ to aid learning and memory, I feel that it is only a matter of time before we find ourselves returning to forms of ingestion-learning, albeit manufactured and controlled by large pharmaceutical companies. Third, there is knowledge acquisition through mimicry or copying. A fundamental aspect of most traditional arts of Japan including ikebana, tea and various martial arts, through copying a master, one becomes slowly imbibed with certain codes and forms. The practice of drawing from life and plaster casts (which still continues as a method of entrance examination in Japan) also relates to this kind of knowledge acquisition. Copying can be used to control and repress, but it can also be an effective tactic of resistance and camouflage. Fourthly, there is gaining knowledge through mistakes, trial and error, digression and waste – things which formal education tries to discard. Learning how to operate a new electronic appliance is usually like this, but it can also be used creatively and intentionally to generate dissonances. I think that dancers and performers would be highly aware of this as a way of proceeding, and the amazing work of Merce Cunningham comes to mind.
Finally, the question of creating or enabling specific spaces where knowledge can be accessed or tapped into. What kinds of spaces, if any, are suited to generating knowledge? What kinds of tools and adaptors encourage or aid learning? Traditionally such spaces have been identified with silence (the library, study) and solidity (imposing architectures of stone, permanence). But it seems to me that there are clearly different types and possibilities of space where learning or knowledge acquisition can happen. The tools which we use today to access knowledge or explore it have also radically changed – the internet and computers being perhaps the most important. Timothy Leary spoke of the importance of ‘Set and Setting’ in relation to the psychedelic experience, whilst the Swedish artist Oyvind Fahlstrom talked about building ‘Pleasure Houses’ instead of culture centers. The office and sofa designs of Verner Panton opened furniture out to embrace intimacy and collectivity. Modular design, mobility and fluidity characterize one of my favourite pieces of furniture, the bean bag, designed by Zanotta in 1969. I feel that curatorial studies should incorporate sessions in interior and furniture design, as these fields map our physical and psychological relations to spaces, colours, shapes and touch. The blog-sphere has been an important space for me, in sorting ideas and research and sharing it with others. It has an informality and ease about it which academic papers lack. Finally I must confess to doing much quality reading in the toilet – a fantastic space for learning. Perhaps one of the last private spaces yet to be fully invaded by media, it is on the toilet that one truly becomes a vessel through which various paths of knowledge pass.