The Search for the ‘Irreversible Moment’
A field report
The ‘Irreversible Moment’ is an object of discourse. But it is not so much an object as a thesis that Jenny Brockmann debates on the basis of different works and situations in her exhibition Open Lab ‘Irreversible Moment’. Thus, the exhibition is an expression of her endeavors, on the one hand, to visualize the ‘Irreversible Moment’ in the image, while simultaneously putting it up for discussion. Consequently, nothing seen here should be regarded as an assertion. Rather, the exhibition shows the process of lending form to the ‘Irreversible Moment’, identifying and dating it.
The objects, documentation and working situations that visitors find in the exhibition space are all the outcome of Brockman’s research and at the same time tools which help to advance this research. In this sense Brockmann does not distinguish between research as a process and the work as an outcome. On the contrary, the exhibits often form the starting point for new research processes and thus for future works. And so, for example, together with the curator of the exhibition, Nora Mayr, the artist organized a ‘research meeting’ in the exhibition space of the Ernst Schering Foundation in February 2016. The furnishings, the selection of participants, and the function of the sculpture Seat #12, which served as a conference table, identified this meeting as a prologue to the exhibition. A group researching into the ‘Irreversible Moment’ gathered together, its constellation corresponding to one of those working meetings that will take place again during the exhibition period.
The meeting’s aim was to discuss the question of the ‘Irreversible Moment’ in an interdisciplinary group, which comprised musician Franka Herwig, dancer Jeremy Wade, chemist Kevin Bethke, physicist Andreas Menzel, art historian Heike Catherina Mertens, myself the author of this essay, and the organizers of the meeting. They all sat down on Brockmann’s sculpture with twelve arms, Seat #12 – a special, programmatic item of furniture. This construction touches the floor in only one place, meaning that the arms, which start in the middle and each conclude with a seat cushion, create dangerous tipping motions as soon as one tries to sit down. And so the person sitting requires a counterpart to balance out the tipping motion caused by his or her weight. For the group as a whole, this means that the more people wish to sit down, the clearer the agreement needs to be on when and how each one sits. The weight needs to be distributed accordingly, and so seats have to be swapped or some places left empty to optimize the state of equilibrium. The moment of sitting down, therefore, was also a collective process of sounding out possibilities, ultimately collaborating to bring the ‘conference table’ into the correct position. ‘Sounding out’ is also the phrase most suited to describing the course of the subsequent discussion: because the ‘Irreversible Moment’ is a neologism coined by the artist, the participants could not depend upon previously secured knowledge. Instead, it was a matter of apprehending the concept individually, or rather of sounding it out and so defining it for oneself through acquired experience and reflection upon one’s own practice. The communicative situation thus delineated a wide space for knowledge, which did not, however, aim towards a collaborative definition of the term. Rather, the exercise comprised of each participant adopting a standpoint and then communicating it to the others. The interdisciplinary nature of the group therefore corresponded to interdisciplinarity in terms of the concept. It expanded into a collection of personal interpretations, which Brockmann brought together in a drawing during the discussion.
In the still fresh discourse on artistic research, research by artists is often described as contrasting to academic research. “The charm of artistic knowledge production,” as art theorist Kathrin Busch writes, “[is] the vision of a different culture of knowledge associated with it.”1 Indeed, it is possible to find a whole array of terms that have been created in order to emphasize the different quality of artistic research. In this context, South African theorist Sarat Maharaj is regarded as one of the most prominent advocates of its autonomous and refractory nature. He coined the term non-knowledge, intended to describe the fact that artistic research not only fundamentally questions established knowledge but also the conventions of scientific work: “(…) avidya or non-knowledge (…) is not anti-knowledge (…). It is more a détournement of readymade knowledge systems, a flip-over and displacing of structured data and information (…).”2 However, with her research on the ‘Irreversible Moment’ Brockmann presents a counterargument to Maharaj’s interpretation. She has no recourse to existing research material or established research concepts, adopting a decidedly ‘different’ approach to them. Instead, she works – as every scientist does – on a field that is unfamiliar to her: she explores a concept with different methods and within changing research constellations.
From a formal point of view, this approach by the artist – her cooperation with changing research partners from the humanities and natural sciences, as well as artistic disciplines – is extremely interesting. Ultimately, she does not work any differently to today’s scientists. On the contrary, she draws upon structures that currently characterize academic research processes more and more: interdisciplinary, dialogic work is not only the future of natural scientific research, as a US-American company specializing in research facilities, Tradeline, predicted in 2012: “Research activity will become an increasingly social process involving face-to-face collaboration within small interdisciplinary teams focused on targeted research problems.”3 For some years now, this approach has also been characterized by interdisciplinary research among natural sciences, humanities and the creative disciplines. For example, the Cluster of Excellence Image Knowledge Gestaltung started at the Humboldt- Universität zu Berlin in 2012 with several research projects, whose themes were each examined by research teams comprising representatives of all the aforementioned disciplines. In addition, interdisciplinary work itself is being analyzed and shaped in the context of generic research projects.
Bearing in mind the manner in which she works, Brockmann’s artistic research is less a contrast to scientific work than a variation on it. This becomes noticeable in the way that she is not concerned with “regulated application of theoretical knowledge or the methodical registration of insights gained”4. Her research shifts the focus to the process rather than the findings. This means that priority is given to the debating of a thesis and to collecting and generating ever new forms that apprehend and describe the ‘Irreversible Moment’. The forms are then dealt with equally, as they appear – without assessment – side by side in the exhibition space. Although the thesis is kept open, and the exhibition visitors in turn are encouraged to help shape the concept – the strategy of how knowledge is generated is fundamentally similar to the processes essential for the development of a thesis in scientific work. Jenny Brockmann’s artistic research, therefore, cannot be declared ‘different research’ per se.
It merely sets other emphases. Her research method does not imitate academic research, certainly, but it does adopt specific aspects of it. These include both the collection of material and specific working structures, for example an interdisciplinary approach.
And so Open Lab ‘Irreversible Moment’ presents something that we should perhaps term processual research: it proposes a thesis and exhibits the process by which this thesis is handled. In this way it grants insight into the methods and strategies of research, which are just as important as the thesis per se. Thus, research also signifies a visualization of those material, instrumental and epistemic processes that characterize every research process, whether it is artistically or scientifically motivated.
1. Kathrin Busch: Wissensbildung in den Künsten – eine philosophische Träumerei. In: Texte zur Kunst Vol. 20, 2011, Issue 82, pp. 70–79, here p. 73 2. Hans Ulrich Obrist: Sarat Maharaj and Francisco Varela. In: Thomas Boutoux (ed.): Hans Ulrich Obrist. Interviews. Vol. 1. Milan: Edizioni Charta 2003, pp. 538–559, here p. 548 3. Tradeline: The growing human factor in research, 2012, 4. Kathrin Busch: Wissensbildung in den Künsten, 2011, p. 73