Experimental (English version)

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The term “experimental” remains difficult to define in artistic contexts, and concerning PaaLabRes’ particular issues, it poses a certain number of problems. A first definition seemingly suitable to artistic practices goes towards the idea of trying out things in link with experience. Any sound production practice implies a degree of trial and error, of experimentation in order to achieve a desired outcome. One carries out a series of trials in order to arrive at a solution that is satisfying to the practitioner’s ear or to the external listeners’ ones. Through reference to experience, one implies that the trials are carried out in the framework of an interaction between a human being and some concrete material. This first determination of the meaning of the word is situated far from the definition of experimental in the sense of scientific research, which, according to the Petit Robert dictionary, can be described in the following manner: “Empirical experience which consists in observing, classifying, making hypotheses and verifying through appropriate experiences”.

However, for some years practicing musicians (instrumentalists, singers,…) have been present in the university, and this implied the necessity to contemplate the question of research in a manner appropriate to their situation. If the very act of interpretation can be considered as constituting, under certain conditions, an original creation in itself, it is then possible to propose the notion of experimental as being the best way to provide a framework for a research process: it would not only be a question of playing, but of defining a project similar to the empiric experience described above.

The definition of experimental is made more complicated by the fact that this term has been used to describe particular aesthetic movements inscribed in a singular historical context. On the one hand, John Cage and his circle have been very often described as typical of what we call “experimental music ».1 The well-known definition by Cage of the term experimental conditions its utilization on not considering it as the description of an act that can be after the fact judged successful or failed, but rather on considering it as an act the result of which one cannot know in advance.2 He emphasizes here an elaboration process in which the will of the composer creator should be absent, in which the agency and the nature of the sounds are not determined from the beginning, and which does not predict the way listeners might experience them. The term experimental has also been used to describe 20th Century composers – most of them Americans, inspired by pragmatism (Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Edgar Varèse, Harry Partch, Robert Erickson, etc.) – who refused to found their music on conceptual theories, and who turned their attention to the materiality of sound production. It is also on this idea of more direct production of sound matter, that electroacoustic music has been qualified as “experimental music”: electronic and concrete music studios had taken on the aspect of scientific laboratories. The label “experimental music” is applied today to an infinite number of practices, especially when they are difficult to categorize in a specific traditional genre.

This multiplicity of meanings, in certain cases very vague, results often in misunderstandings, and the role of “experimental” in the collection of concepts within the PaaLabRes collective remains particularly uncertain and unstable. We will limit its use to the perspective of a definition of what could constitute research in artistic domains. In this context, the Orpheus Institute in Ghent (Belgium) has recently published a book (Experimental Systems, Future Knowledge in Artistic Research, Michael Schwab (ed.), Orpheus Institute, Leuwen (Belgium): Leuwen University Press, 2013). This publication is centered on the work of Hans-Jörg Rheinberger3, director of the Max Planck Institute for the history of sciences, which is based notably on experimental systems, with some perspectives on eventual applications to artistic domains. For this author, experimental systems are articulated around four categories:

  1. There should be an intimate, interactive relation between scientific objects and their conditions of technical production, in an inseparable manner. This relation is at the same time local, individual, social, institutional, technical, instrumental and above all epistemic. He emphasizes the hybrid character of experimental systems and because of this, their impure nature.
  2. Experimental systems have to be able to produce surprises constituting new forms of knowledge. They have to be conceived in ways producing differential results that are not predictable. They have a certain autonomy, a life of their own.
  3. They should be able to produce epistemic traces (what the author describes under the term of “graphematicity”), which show and incarnate their signifying products and which can be represented in writing.
  4. Experimental systems should be able to enter networks that include other experimental groups, by means of conjunctures and bifurcations, forming thus experimental cultures.4.

Rheinberger speaks of “experimental spirit”. For him on the one hand, at the core of this concept lies the interaction between the experimental investigator and the material, which implies that, in order to create new situations, the investigator is immersed in the material. Here, as with Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, the material exists in itself and the interaction implies a relation that goes in two-ways. On the other hand, this experimental spirit proceeds from a particular attention to the fact that science is a practice rather than a theoretical system, he therefore advocates assuming inductive rather than deductive attitudes.5 It is here question of getting rid of the idea that a theory of knowledge is centered on an ego, a subject trying to apply a network of theories on an object. The experimental situations have to correspond to two requirements: a) a precision in elaborating a context; and b) a sufficient complexity in order to leave the door open for surprises.6

For Rheinberger, an “experimental system” can only be understood as a play of interactions between machines, ingredients, techniques, rudimentary concepts, vague objects, protocols, research notes, social and institutional conditions. The experiments are not just methodological vehicles to test (to be confirmed or rejected) some already theoretically established or hypothetically postulated knowledge, as philosophy of sciences usually claims. Knowledge is generated by experiments – of which no one had any idea beforehand.7

At the core of scientific processes of experimentation, according to Rheinberger, epistemic things and technical objects exist in dialectical interrelations. The epistemic things are defined as entities “ ‘whose unknown characteristics are the target of an experimental inquiry’, paradoxically, embodying what one does not yet know. »8 The technical objects are defined as sedimentations of old epistemic things, they are scientific objects that incarnate instituted knowledge in a determined field of research, at a given time; they can be instruments, apparatus, mechanisms that delimitate and confine the evaluation of epistemic things. The epistemic things are necessarily under determinate, the technical objects on the contrary are determined in characteristic manner. Rheinberger states:

In Towards a History of Epistemic Things I wanted to convey the idea that the experimental process plays out a dialectic between epistemic things and technical objects, and that there exists a functional relationship between them rather than a substantial one. Epistemic things that have reached a certain point of clarification can be transformed into technical objects – and vice versa: technical objects can become epistemically problematic again. The technologies with which one works are normally used as black boxes; they can, however, be reopened and become things of epistemic interest.9

Michael Schwab, in his introduction to the book, interprets the idea of experimental cultures as fit to bear on research in artistic domains, providing that one would have a more supple approach than the ones used in science:

During my conversation with Rheinberger (chapter 15 of the book), it became clear that a particular type of work ethic, experience, and sensibility is required in experimental systems that can also be found in artistic practice: dedication to a limited sets of materials, attention to detail, continuous iterations, and the inclusion of contingent events and traces in the artistic process, allowing the material substrata to come to the fore as a site where traces are assembled.10.

Schwab raises three issues that are at the heart of PaalabRes’ questioning relative to research in artistic domains:

  1. All artistic practices, to the extent that they confront materials to ways of treating them, can pretend to be experimental systems. In what way can one distinguish artistic research from any artistic practice production?
  2. The question of newness, of originality, of future, of progress, inscribed in the requirements specification of scientific research, as well as in the artistic modernity called “experimental music”, became in a subtle manner in the course of the 20th Century an idea that belongs probably to the past.
  3. There is a general crisis of representation, which leads us to wonder if the academic forms of research publication are appropriate for the artistic domains, and if other alternative forms of representation more suitable to practices can be used.

Moreover, one can ponder with Henk Bordgorff:

What is the epistemological status of art in artistic research? Are artworks or art practices capable of creating, articulating, and embodying knnowledge and understanding? And, if so, what kinds of artworks and practices do this (what is the ontological status of art here?) and how they do it (the methodological status)?11.

The notion of experimental remains a necessary term when contemplating the specificities of research in artistic domains, but its manipulation remains very problematic because of the multiplicity of references it generates, notably by the fact that it is often claimed as the exclusive territory of modernity in the European high art tradition.

In conclusion, we will refer to Paolo de Assis, a composer and researcher at the Orpheus Institute in Ghent, who proposes a pathway for thinking about artistic research on a basis somewhat different from the ones proposed by musical analysis, music theory and musicology turned as they are towards the interpretation of works from the past:

However, there might be a different mode of problematising things, a mode that, rather than aiming to retrieve what thingsare, searches for new ways of productively exposing them. That is to say, a mode that, instead of critically looking into the past, creatively projects things into the future. Such is the final proposal of this chapter: to reverse the perspective from « looking into the past » to creatively designing the future of past musical works. In my view this is precisely what artistic research could be about – a creative mode that brings together the past and the future of things in ways that non-artistic modes cannot do. In doing this, artistic research must be able to include archaeology, problematisation, and experimentation in its inner fabric. The making of artistic expérimentation through Rheingerger’s experimental systems becomes a creative form of problematisation, whereby through differential repetition new assemblages of things are materially handcrafted and constructed.12

In PaaLabRes perspectives, it would be necessary to widen the notion of works or things of the past to the practices themselves as they are present in tradition and as they adapt continuously to new contexts.

Jean-Charles François – 2015
Translation by the author and Nancy François

1. See Michael Nyman, Experimental Music : Cage and Beyond, New York : Schirmer Books, 1974, second edition, Cambridge and New York : Cambridge Univesrity Press, 1999.

2. John Cage, Silence, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: M.I.T. Press, 1966, p. 13.

3. « Hans-Jörg Rheinberger taught molecular biology and history of sciences at the Universities of Salzburg, Innsbrück, Zürich, Berlin, and Standford, and he is the director of the MaxPlanck-Institut in Berlin since 1997. Influenced by Jacques Derrida’s thought, he co-translated Grammatology, he argue for a historical epistemology, principally centered on experimental systems » (www.diaphane.fr)

4. See Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, « Experimental Systems : Entry Encyclopedia for the History of the Life Sciences » The Visual Laboratory : Essays and Ressources on the Experimentalization of Life, Max Planck Institut for the History of Science, Berlin. http://vlp.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/essays/data/enc19?p=1
A chart is presented in Paulo de Assis « Epistemic Complexity and Experimental Systems », Experimental Systems, Future Knowledge in Artistic Research, Michael Schwab (ed.), Orpheus Institute, Leuwen, Belgique : Leuwen University Press, 2013, p. 158.

5. See « Hans-Jörg Rheinberger in conversation with Michael Schwab », Experimental Systems,…, op. cit., p. 198.

6. Ibid., p. 200.

7. See Henk Borgdorff, « Artistic Practices and Epistemic Things », in Experimental Systems, Future Knowledge in Artistic Research, op. cit., p.114.

8. See Paulo de Assis, op. cit., p. 159. He quotes Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Toward a History of Epistemic Things, Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube, Stanford, California : Stanford University Press, 2004, p.238.

9. Ibid.

10. Michael Schwab, « Introduction », Experimental Systems…, op. cit., p. 7.

11 Henk Borgdorff, op. cit., p. 113.

12. Paulo de Assis, op. cit., p. 162.



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