A Written Conversation between Simon Ellis and Becky Hilton.

Hello Simon

Hello Becky

I’m interested in talking with you about the role documentation plays in dance and movement-based artistic research. I want to talk with you specifically because I suspect that while many dance people (including me) made a virtue, even a value out of refusing to document live art experiences, focusing hard on what it couldn’t do, you’ve been working on what it could/may/might do for many years, in many ways. How would you characterise documentation in your context/s these days?

It seems to me there are two quite distinct scenarios that bring with them different responsibilities. The first would be my professional practice (which certainly involves developing artworks or performances) and the extent to which I am interested in (and responsible for) developing records or traces of those performances or choreographies.

The second is work made in or for the context of the Academy and its quite specific – and yet not unproblematic – demand to develop ‘objects of knowledge’. This is something that Adrian Heathfield has written about quite a bit over the years; see for example the introduction to Shattered Anatomies (1997).

As Adrian’s term so elegantly articulates, knowledge production is an ‘objecting’; staking out territories, creating borders, framing affect/experience/knowledge in order to pass it on, to give it to someone else to do something with. It’s a way to track (and assess) transformation processes, moving something from verb to noun and back again. Art in the field doesn’t concern itself with such things.

Perhaps the ‘knowledge objects’ are moving knowledge from the implicit realm into the explicit realm, in which case practices of documentation are of paramount importance. Maybe art making in the context of the art field is a harbour for all the tacit knowledge? The deep pool from which we draw.

I like this idea of the ‘deep pool from which we draw’ – that there is expertise and experience soaked in our practices as artists, and how we bring that expertise to bear in the academy has tremendous potential. But, I’m not sure that we should assume a relationship between tacit understanding (or knowledge) and documentation; that documentation is some sort of a conduit to the deep and unable-to-be-articulated soul of practice.

I am a metaphor horror show right now, but suppose a tiny fragment of your ‘unable-to-be-articulated soul of practice’, let’s call that your tacit knowledge, dislodges and floats upward and lurks there just beneath the surface, implicit, as in yet-to-be explicit, knowledge? Perhaps artistic research practices via their documentations might articulate, make explicit, make accessible such realisations/ discoveries/ understandings/knowledges?

Everyone loves a horror show. Perhaps we should call this document ‘metaphor car-crash’. I think the idea of something going from tacit to explicit is worth thinking through. I don’t think it necessarily follows that there’s an obvious path from tacit to explicit. That is, part of our role as artists is to recognise what can be said, and to be open to what can’t be said. I really like the theological term apophatic – to make sense of something using only what can’t be said about it. Maybe it’s even a bit like the Kanizsa Triangle (Illusory Contours 2018). That there are things of value (even to the academy) that ought to remain tacit and/or implicit. But, I think your point still stands, that there is important work to be done in the attempt to make something explicit, even if this involves articulating a limitation or failure.

On another note, recently I wrote a chapter that critiques the production of knowledge through practice, and maybe it’s relevant here. I try to articulate an idea that one of the vital roles of artistic research is to create epistemic trauma or problems:

that how we understand our practices and actions is predicated on incompleteness. By acknowledging our ignorance, we can test and work with ideas through practice that exist at the border of our awareness, understanding and ignorance. (Ellis 2018, 488)

I think what’s key is that we find ways to allow art to do its work on its own terms. That we allow ‘art in the field’ to continue to concern itself with what it deems to be important. The struggle then becomes how to make those conversations and ideas sing loudly in the academy as well (I’d argue that this already happens in music). The role of the artist-scholar then becomes how to bring their materials into the academy and to shape them in such a way that their context changes while preserving what is at their heart.

Your words make me think of my colleague Chrysa Parkinson’s performance essay on ‘front’, the front, a front, front on, fronting up etc (2018). I know it, but I didn’t know I knew it until it was articulated in that particular way, by her. And perhaps she only framed it in that particular way because the research context provided her with – as Andre Lepecki said in a PhD seminar here in Stockholm – the time, space and the resources for an experiment to happen, which otherwise would never have happened.

Another thing that occurred to me is that the problem isn’t with knowledge production per se but rather with when, in which context and by whom shall it be considered or determined to be knowledge? How might practices of documentation and acts of documenting a performance or a practice frame or situate the ‘knowledge object’? Might documentation help provide a research project with the context, the conditions and even the criteria for its own assessment?

My experience has been that practices of developing traces of and around performances is much more fluid and flexible in the Academy; that, there is more space for experimentation, fragmentation and – as you so beautifully put it – the ‘framing of affect’.

Yes, I’m working with fragments, with bits and pieces, with parts and partial-nesses, with dismantle-ments and re-collections; this relation to documentation has only really happened for me because of the research context. I especially like the idea that a little fragment of the art practice, something that maybe went unnoticed or wasn’t even visible in the performed iteration, might be the documentable thing. And that very same fragment might, with careful attention, produce a realisation, and by the end of the research project it’s one part of a collection of realisations, and becomes part of a larger constellation of ‘knowledge objects’ produced by and for other people, connecting the academy, the field, other research, other fields. Increasingly I think of an artistic research project as a container, a concept I first came across in The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction by Ursula Le Guin (1989). Do you know it?

I don’t know Le Guin’s essay but I like the idea of the container, and what kinds of containers we might build for artistic research projects. There are limits of course, and some research projects want to resist such blatantly spatial metaphors (like containers) and the way those metaphors have epistemic implications: that we are creating things that are able to be grasped. What might it feel like to develop a time-based container (and thereby render the idea of a container obsolete)? What other metaphors are available to us to conceive of the work we do in an academic context?

One thing to note that in the professional context, there seems to be an implicit push for ‘documents of record’ (characterised anachronistically in dance by the single camera fixed frame reproduction of the performance event). That somehow these ‘documents of record’ are true (equating to unedited) renderings of a performance. It’s a strange business.

Maybe we can use this moment in time, where we don’t quite yet know what artistic research can do, to radically shift conventions of documentation? Can the plethora of documentation strategies, experiments, methodologies produced by researchers relieve the ‘single frame fixed camera reproduction of the performance event’ from its dominant position? Perhaps we can create an appetite outside of the academy for a diversity of documentation experiences, for a multiplicity of documentation practices? At the ADiE Practice Week here in Stockholm, Anna Koch, Artistic Director of Weld, curated two public seminars entitled ‘What’s in it for the Art? In essence they were investigating what research could do for art. Maybe this active and ongoing exploration into document/ing/ion/s is something research can contribute to the art field in a practical way?

I’m completely with you here. I think we could even shake off the term ‘documentation’ and all that it implies about originality, records, and truth. Rather, we can create complex, messy, experimental renderings of self-critical and self-aware research that allow the mystery and uncertainty of artistic work to shine. We need to expand the terms of the work we present (in and outside of academia). Wendell Berry wrote that ‘it is becoming clear that to reduce life to the scope of our understanding (whatever “model” we use) is inevitably to enslave it, make property of it, and put it up for sale.’ (Berry 2001, 7) How then might artistic research – and the strategies we use to present it – expand the domain of understanding and knowledge? And in an ideal world that expansion would overflow into the arts community. Perhaps, in some circumstances, it is already doing this.

Only connect!’ (Forster 2012, ch.22.3)

Reference List and Additional Resources

Berry, W. 2001. Life Is a Miracle. An essay against modern superstition. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press.

Ellis, S. 2018. “That Thing Produced.” In A World of Muscle, Bone & Organs [online] edited by S. Ellis, H. Blades, and C. Waelde, 480–498. Coventry: C-DaRE, Coventry University. www.coventry.ac.uk/research/about-us/research-news/2018/c-dare-e-book www.coventry.ac.uk/PageFiles/276435/AWofMBandO.pdf

Forster, E.M. 2012. Howards End. Penguin english library. London: Penguin Books.

Heathfield, A., F. Templeton, and A. Quick. 1997. Shattered Anatomies: Traces of the Body in Performance. Bristol: Arnolfini Live.

Illusory Contours. 2018. [online] Accessed October 20, 2018. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illusory_contours.

Le Guin, U.K. 1989. Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. New York, NY: Grove Press.

Parkinson, C. Disorienting Front. In ‘Within Practice’ [online] Accessed October 12, 2018. withinpractice.se/calendar/274.


Simon Ellis

Simon Ellis is a choreographer, dancer and film-maker interested in practices and ideas to do with (not necessarily at the same time) power, responsibility, memory, dialogue and screens. Simon has a practice-as-research PhD from the University of Melbourne. The research explored liveness, improvisation, documentation and remembering, and was presented as a DVD-ROM. His work as a scholar includes understanding ways of knowing through writing, choreography and film, and in supporting the development of practice-as-research (see practiceasresearchblog.wordpress.com) www.skellis.info

Rebecca Hilton

Rebecca Hilton is a performer, choreographer, teacher and writer working in the field of dance. She is a Professor of Choreography in the Profile Area Site, Event, Encounter at the Stockholm University of the Arts. Her research practice includes instituting long-term artistic residencies in contexts where art doesn’t usually happen. Currently she is in residence at the Malarbacken Residential Elder Care Centre, Stockholm as part of DoBra/Good Death, a Karolinska Institutet Transdisciplinary Research Program exploring relationships toward death and dying in Sweden.