Option 4: The unknown and the differently known: Project 1: Unknowing: Research Task

25 hours.

Research Task – 3 hours

Rebecca Fortnum: B. 1963… Notes:… artist and academic… her practice is concerned with identity and how we know each other… editor of book, “Women artists in their own words”. She also wrote “On Not Knowing – how artists think” with Elizabeth Fisher in 2013. This book developed from a symposium held at Kettle’s Yard in 2009.

She has developed our understanding of what artists know, and how they make art and do research in a university setting.

Task: Take two essays from the symposium and make comparisons between them in order to gain experience in weighing up arguments.


The preamble on the website above says: This one-day symposium looked at the role of ‘not knowing’ within the creative process. The day examined how artists formulate strategies of not knowing and use the states of ignorance, doubt, block and failure within their decision making process. The state of ‘not knowing’ is also clearly acknowledged as an important aspect of all research, and speakers from across disciplines joined visual artists to debate these issues from a number of perspectives. 29 June 2009, 10am – 4.30pm

I think it’s important to know something about the speakers, here is a link to their biographies: https://www.kettlesyard.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/onn_biographies.pdf

I have copied the first line/two lines to give a flavour of their positions. Most of the rest of their entries list posts and achievements.

  1. Dennis Atkinson is Professor in Art Education at Goldsmiths, University of London and Director of the Centre for the Arts and Learning in the Department of Educational Studies.

  2. Georgina Born is Professor of Sociology, Anthropology and Music at Cambridge University

  3. Sonia Boyce was born in London in 1962 and quickly gained critical attention in the early 1980s as a figurative painter, for works that spoke about racial identity and gender in Britain.

  4. Rebecca Fortnum has organised this event for Kettle’s Yard. She is currently Reader in Fine Art at University of the Arts, London and Research Fellow at the Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts at Lancaster University.

  5. Rachel Jones is a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Dundee where she also contributes to the MLitt in Women, Culture and Society and the Art, Philosophy and Contemporary Practice Programme.

  6. Gary Peters is Professor of Critical and Cultural Theory at York St John University. Having worked for 16 years in the Visual Culture Department at the University of the West of England, Bristol, I took up my new post at YSJU in Sept. 2008.

  7. Zoë Svendsen is a director, translator and researcher, working internationally on a range of intercultural performance and installation projects with artists from Peru, Somalia, Pakistan and Berlin. Zoë recently adapted and directed Brecht’s short story, Four Men & a Poker Game (in association with Northern Stage, developed with Grid Iron, Cove Park and the National Theatre Studio).

  8. Neal White works across media, and in no particular medium at all – creating projects with the Office of Experiments that develop collaborative, social and critical spaces using art methods and art materials.

  9. Alison Wilding was born in 1948, and studied at Nottingham College of Art, Ravensbourne College of Art and Design, and the Royal College of Art (1971-73). In the late 1970s she had a studio in Wapping where her work first came to the notice of a wider public in a series of then innovative open studio shows. During the 1980s Wilding emerged as one of the so called ‘ New British Sculptors’ along with Tony Cragg and Richard Deacon, participating in many group shows both in the UK and abroad.


Stephen Scrivener is Head of Research at Chelsea College of Art and Design, University of the Arts, London.

Sarah Cole is a visual artist who makes work in contexts within and beyond the gallery or museum. Her practice involves the orchestration of collaborative encounters and conversations with people in their environments, and takes the form of performative events and recording, multimedia installations and educational presentations.

To set the scene further here is a link to the introduction by Rebecca Fortnum: https://www.kettlesyard.co.uk/wpcontent/uploads/2014/12/onn_fortnum.pdf

Fortnum’s introduction is fascinating. She is arguing for the artist’s studio and the unique process of creation that occurs inside it saying that it is like a learning machine, a magical space the artists enters that holds a repository of all their knowledge and work past and present. A space where they can ‘unknowingly’ search ‘knowing’.

She stresses that artists repeatedly say they do not know what they are making but constantly strive to make ‘the something’ that is new and revelatory and ‘finished’. They engage in pretending it is a controlled process in order to obtain grants or fill exhibition catalogues (and satisfy the marketplace) but they can never know what they have created and if they have succeeded… so are driven on a never ending quest.

Another point she makes is the way artists are often rescued by the unpredictable materiality of their media. Gone are the days where total mastery over your materials was the pinnacle of success; now it is the unpredictability of the materials that push artists forward.

This ties in very well with the new direction of my personal practice which as abstraction is based in the unknowing (there’s nothing to reference) but also driven by wanting to succeed (but having no model to what that success is) and by being driven by my materials.

There are only four papers on the Kettles Yard site by Gary Peters – Professor of Critical and Cultural Theory; Rachel Jones – lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Dundee; Sonia Boyce – gained critical attention in the early 1980s as a figurative painter; and Dennis Atkinson – Professor in Art Education at Goldsmiths.

I am going to pick Sonia Boyce because she was a practising artist in the 1980’s, she made art objects as I want to do. And even if she now works in the field of performative art she should have useful things to say that are relevant to my practice about the studio as a research tool. The other paper I am going to choose is by Dennis Atkinson because he works in art education and I am an art student.

  1. Sonia Boyce Paper: https://www.kettlesyard.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/onn_boyce.pdf

Notes: In conceptual art, the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work… execution is a perfunctory affair… intelligent art originates from a preformed ‘creative idea’, and registers, for all who encounter the work… the artist’s intention, from the outset, is the measure of the work… To know beforehand was the main framework of my art training in the late 1970s/early 1980s.

She then describes her new work. How she enters a world she knows nothing about, such as the university music department, feeds off it (like a parasite) and then when she has absorbed enough understanding from her ‘material’ she forms it into a work. In this case a performative piece that she videoed, as her contribution. She later said…

Two years after completing the project, my understanding of the final piece – and a clear instance of what my former tutors would have disparagingly called ‘post-intentionality’ that ‘For you, only you’ demonstrates the negotiations of the stranger to create a space for themselves and to confront the host. It also highlights the impact that the stranger has upon the host, and the host’s eventual willingness to enter into a productive dialogue with difference.

2. Dennis Atkinson paper: https://www.kettlesyard.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/onn_atkinson.pdf

In total contrast to Sonia Boyce he is almost unreadable, and is saying something very simple in difficult way. It is almost opaque, which having read an increasing number of academic papers they don’t have to be. They can be both clear and academic.

The intent of this paper is clear but the form it’s written in makes it elitist and exclusive. It normalises the exclusivity of academia by its formal qualities at the same time as it ideologically argues against them

I have tried to decode it as best as I can.

Notes: Pedagogy of the Event… He cites Foucault’s work on processes of surveillance and leads into the national curriculum… If we impose the power of the norm when it appears no longer relevant to our changing social and cultural contexts and lived realities… we effect a kind of violence upon difference. The national curriculum is a reactionary device trying to cope with a rapidly changing world.

Foucault’s later work moved from exploring the subject as an effect of discourse towards seeing the formation of the subject in relation to norms… But… in terms of poiesis… he agrees with Judith Butler (who says)… what it might mean to continue in a dialogue where no common ground can be assumed, where one is, as it were, at the limits of what one knows yet still under the demand to offer and receive acknowledgement: to someone else who is there to be addressed and whose address is there to be received.

Atkinson says of higher education… where teachers begin to question how they respond to learners when the latter do not conform to established frameworks of understanding… Is the teacher in such a situation risking his or her identity and professional standing by contravening the norms that govern ‘the scene of recognition’ anticipated by other professionals (inspectors etc) who want or need to feel reassured…. If in a pedagogical relation the learner is fantasised through the norm, the Other of the norm, then the learner becomes a surrogate identity (she produces what the teacher expects). If the pedagogical encounter begins from the question, ‘who are you?’ then a different relation seems to emerge and it is possible to turn this question into, ‘How does the other learn?’

In higher education… the notion of risk taking has often been put forward by educators in order to promote creative and individual approaches to learning. How do we theorise a relationship where the teacher is no longer ‘giving’ knowledge to the student? … real learning, as he calls it, involves a disruption of established states of pedagogical knowledge… The ethical imperative for pedagogy therefore is concerned with maximising the power of learning, it is not focussed on what we are and should be, that is to say on some transcendent position towards being, but upon the potentiality and ‘unknown’ of becoming.

Real learning involving a leap into a new ontological space, where the event of learning precipitates a new order of becoming and normative learning as that which comprises much of the daily procedures of learning, teaching and assessment.

New learning is things that… could not be easily understood within the existing knowledge frameworks. Atkinson talks about a GCSE student who was breaking new ground but unsure of their ideas… the teacher’s encouragement allowed her… to pursue and persevere with the truth of her ideas and her commitment to them.

We can think of ‘that-which-is not-yet’ as referring to forms of being that have no existence, that is to say, to being that does not count or is not yet valued… Accepting such new states (as when students produce work that doesn’t fit into the teacher’s ontological or pedagogical position… or the work of a student from a different culture not valued in our ontology… involves accepting new states of existence as learners. This idea would indicate a space of infinite potential. How can we facilitate and support such spaces? … In other words the learner’s existence is not recognised by the symbolic order of the pedagogical context… curriculum content of the pedagogic space can be culturally biased so as to privilege those learners who have access to valued forms of knowledge (cultural capital).

… real learning as a movement into a new ontological state… has to try to accommodate learning encounters that precipitate new forms of learning…

Comparisons between Sonia Boyce and Dennis Atkinson

Sonia is an artist and communicator, Dennis Atkinson is an academic. My first comparison is in their styles… Boyce is lucid and clear and (like her work) available to all… Atkinson’s meaning is muddied by a language that serves to do little more than reinforce his academic status, and is only available to an elite few.

However, their arguments are remarkably similar. Both argue in favour of of that which is not yet known, of fracturing/creating new ways of being, of learning by encounter rather than by reference to norms and of entering new ontological states.

They differ as Boyce is talking about the studio and Atkinson is talking about secondary education but if we conflate school/studio into ‘learning environment’ then they put forward the same argument.

The argument is that if knowledge is handed from a teacher who knows to a student who doesn’t then there is little (if any) opportunity for ontological change. This is a reactionary and controlling situation that excludes that which is not yet known and preserves the status quo. It is very good for passing on and preserving old knowledge and skills but cannot create new knowledge and new ways of being. Boyce would cite conceptual art as an example of this where the art object is preplanned and the execution is of minimal importance, Atkinson would refer to a reactionary national curriculum which marginalises the ‘other’, destroys open thinking, and excludes new ontological states.

We here widen the debate to cultural, social and humanitarian values to ask what sort of a society do you want? If the answer is an open society welcoming the other and open to dynamic change, and ontological shifts, then both Boyce and Atkinson argue that learning by event (like an artist learning from their materials rather than using the materials to make a pre-planned artwork… or a student able to bring new ideas to a secondary school classroom rather than being told the answer by the teacher) is what we need.

The state of unknowing (they both argue) is the best place for both learner and teacher… an unknowing artist in the studio/classroom learning from their materials or an unknowing student and teacher in the classroom open to new ways of seeing and being experiencing learning as ‘events with materials’ rather than packaged knowledge given by the teacher to the student.

In relation to my practice this reinforces what I have already discovered. That I don’t know what I am making, even as I am striving to make it to the best of my ability, and that my materials are constantly showing me new ways of seeing and being, and offering new creative answers. Of course, the answer is only ever partial, because I have no way of knowing if I have achieved what I set out to do.

For instance, if I am making a chair I can judge if my chair is good or bad… but if I don’t know what I am making I can never know if I have been successful… I can only ever try again.

0 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Crit Group

A very quick post… we’re several months in to our monthly crit group of Level 5 Exploring Media students… five of us in the group. I just wanted to mark that the sessions have evolved and are now much