A Report to the Academy
“HONORED MEMBERS of the Academy! You have done me the honor of inviting me to give your Academy an account of the life I formerly led as an ape”. ~Kafka, A Report to an Academy, 1919
The adventures of Kafka’s ape began when he was shot and captured in the jungle of the Gold Coast, then encaged and shipped to Europe. From his cage on the ship the ape observed the crew and began to mimic their behaviour: “It was easy to imitate these people. I learned to spit in the very first few days”. When he reached Hamburg he entered the variety stage and learnt to speak and behave like a human. In a matter of years he achieved celebrity status and the “cultural level of an average European”.
When the “erstwhile ape” was eventually invited to give a lecture, he found that he was no longer in a position to provide this account of his former life as an ape:
“I regret I cannot comply with your request to the extent you desire. It is now nearly five years since I was an ape […] To put it plainly, much as I like expressing myself in images, to put it plainly: your life as apes, gentlemen, insofar as something of that kind lies behind you, cannot be farther removed from you than mine is from me.”
The ape emphasizes that his transformation was not guided by a desire for freedom, nor by a desire to imitate humans, but the need for a “way out”. If the place for apes was a cage, “well then, I had to stop being an ape. A fine, clear train of thought, which I must have constructed somehow in my belly, since apes think with their bellies.”
The ape wanted to escape his ontological predicament. The only way to achieve this was to cease being what he was and to become something else: “In revenge, however, my memory of the past has closed the door against me more and more.”
In many ways I feel that writing this thesis is like giving an account of my life formerly led as an artist. And I too have undergone a transformation. When I started the PhD, way back in 2003, I faced two setbacks in my practice. The first was the constraint to read texts properly, instead of creatively misreading; which was my artistic license. I suddenly found myself reading in two different mindsets, sometimes as an artist and at others I read critically and in context. But I found I couldn’t keep this dualism up for long and the critical reader in my head took over. The loss of the artist-reader had a profound effect on my practice and my thinking. No longer was I reading for myself; I was now a disinterested reader, not an invested artist.
The second existential conundrum was a result of the self-reflexive aspect of the research project. For the practicing artist, practice-led research entails something of a tautology, almost a short-circuit between practice and thinking about practice.
On the one hand the artist receded as my investment in reading became externalised. On the other, the artist featured self-consciously and critically in the foreground. As a result the artist was constantly undermined.
The effect on the sense of conviction which had previously motivated my practice was profound. This conviction had nothing to do with certainty. It was not based on some sort of verifiable premise. This was a subjective and unfounded conviction, possibly a single-minded obsession with no other end than the work itself.
The critical distance I’ve achieved in the process has had the effect of reinvigorating my sense of conviction in the work. This time it is founded on a premise. Not an academic premise, nor even a theoretical premise. It is founded in the recognition that there is a fundamental difference between art practice and theory. As Uriel Orlow said in the panel discussion at IM2 on the morning of February 12th, there is
“…a fundamental difference between how artworks work and how theory works, and I don’t think they produce ideas in the same way […] it’s something to do with the relationship between transparency and opacity, an artwork does not necessarily wear its ideas on its sleeve, as it were, and perhaps even hides them in the folds […] knowledge is produced in a different way, you are expected in the written part to reveal ideas […] it creates a lot of potential problems, perhaps like the old problem of the relationship between criticism and art, where the criticism tries to shed light on the work and how it works, and expose things and I think that relationship loses what is actually happening in the work.”
The main question addressed by this workshop was whether we, as artists, can redefine the criteria of academic research and theoretical writing whereby PhD research is evaluated, by pushing the boundaries through our practice.
Anne Tallentire suggested that with a skilful manoeuvre one could, without authority, set precedents which would affect change in the criteria whereby RAE and AHRB are assessed, reverse the master slave narrative and shake the authority of the terms whereby the definitions of practice-based research for artists were first authored. Anne suggested that researchers are currently doing this in many institutions. One such project is the collaborative initiative Double Agents, formed in 2002 by Anne Tallentire and Graham Ellard to engage the activities of artists at Central Saint Martins.
Doctoral research is increasingly an appealing endeavour for artists. So why do artists choose to do PhD research? According to Richard Woodfield in his 2004 report titled “The UK Fine Art PhD and Research in Art and Design”, published in the L&B series of Philosophy of Art and Art Theory, the “PhD is simply a requirement for getting a job in a university.” His argument in the text substantiates this claim, and an academic career may be a significant factor for artists pursuing a PhD. Nevertheless, the main appeal for artists lies in the space the PhD provides for them to concentrate on theoretical or textual aspects of their practice which they cannot achieve elsewhere. The investment required for the completion of this kind of PhD is too onerous for us to suppose otherwise.
From the audience, Dr Janet Hand addressed an open question to the panel concerning “the consequences of theory on the practice […] and whether research within an academic environment has affected the kinds of practice that you are producing.”
For Nicholas Stewart there is no danger that “knowledge” will compromise or destroy the intuitive approach to his practice. He nevertheles finds that the thesis does mean that there is less time for the practice: “the thing about the practice is it’s only when you’re doing it that anything happens, you think through the doing of it and you can’t think about it when you’re not actually doing it, in advance.”
For Uriel Orlow, practice-led PhD research
“…produces a contradiction, […] in one way it has made the process of the practice more concise […] but at the same time it has also allowed me to think about things for much longer than perhaps I would have done if I didn’t do a PhD […] which I guess comes back to this notion of the master and the slave and being complicit with the system but perhaps also being able to be subversive to it, where you have to take on the structures that are there and you have to work within those but at the same time it does allow you to work against them.”
Anne Tallentire and Uriel Orlow suggested that artists are infiltrating the institution, and Uriel pointed out that the artist in the academy is perhaps a “Double Agent”, a mole.
In contrast, Sharon Kivland used psychoanalytic discourse in a performative lecture to set up a master/slave, analyst/hysteric metaphor for the artist aspiring to a PhD. She tried to show us that although we are effectively trying to debunk the authority of the master, we inevitably merely validate this authority by reproducing its signs:
“At least in being a good hysteric one can poke holes in the master though at certain times one also might worship him, that’s the danger.”
Nick Stewart suggests that the notion of “academic authority as a master discourse, as some sort of inflexible an unchangeable thing that your having to take up some position of either acceding to or worshipping or opposing or subverting” is a fiction:
“The problem I find in university education in my experience is no one gives you any knowledge at all, they just make you undermine what you think you already know […] that’s not a master discourse. The problem seems to be an absence of a master discourse.”
Kafka’s ape successfully mimicked his human captors, trading his naive ignorance for a self-conscious cynicism. The crack in the door which his memory closed behind him, the crack which he might just about have slipped back through at an earlier stage in his transformation “has grown so small that, even if my strength and my willpower sufficed to get me back to it, I should have to scrape the very skin from my body to crawl through”. But for all that, the ape has not become human.