Topologies and blurred boundaries

Today’s seminar discussion was around ideas of disciplinary boundaries. The essay (Academic Disciplines: Homes or Barricades? by Gary Poole) which began our discussion threw up some interesting points for me.

I began by thinking about my own work and the cross-disciplinary nature of my art practice blending traditional textile techniques with experimental digital technology. But what defines a contemporary art practice? Poole talks of an “academic home… a secure place” but the discipline of contemporary art practice would seem to be boarder-less – we as artists define our own boarders, working with themes, subjects, materials, processes and approaches that are wildly divergent – so are we as a discipline ‘homeless’?

Poole also talks about “discipline-specific thinking” as a way of maintaining comfort within a particular discipline (or “academic home”) – so perhaps our discipline is not defined in terms of common practices but in terms of how we think?

He goes on to talk about the comfort of discipline in terms of “complexity” and “uncertainty”, with complexity being the particular accepted concepts within a discipline while uncertainty refers to the conceptual conflicts, stating:

Uncertainty is reduced considerably by homogeneity of thought processes within a discipline… there is much less “starting from scratch” within the discourse of the discipline when people share a way of thinking…. [However] the discipline discourages diverse thinking patterns, epistemologies, or approaches to problems. The discipline stays insular and homogeneous.

While we certainly do have accepted (and taught) processes and language within art practice, I think we are unusual as a ‘discipline’ in that we are encouraged to embrace the uncertainty, to look beyond our boarders and embrace heterogeneity. It’s a multiplicity of thought processes, practices and approaches – and where our discourse arises is within the tension, comparisons and fusions of concepts.

Poole later goes on to discuss interdisciplinary thinking, arguing that “divergent views regarding the nature of thinking within a discipline should be encouraged because these views enrich the discipline.” but that “[w]ithout some clearly defined pattern of thought, there is no discipline.” What then, are the patterns of thinking within contemporary art practice as a discipline?

Again, I’m drawn back to the idea of embracing uncertainty, experimentation and taking risks. I think this is what training at art school cultivates, it was certainly my experience.

In short, I’m perfectly happy with the uncertainty of art practice, indeed I believe that’s where it’s strength lies. However, I am not just working within my own (albeit porous) discipline – my research is sited within a heritage setting with it’s own boundaries and I wonder how that will impact my work…

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