The Unknown

The Unknown

“What do we not know, and where can we make progress?”
David E. Kaplan
“What matter does not is matter not is it.”
Chris Goode

In broad terms we can understand the unknown as something constant and insoluble—on an existential level because we have very little solid information on why or how we’re here; and on an individual one because, if we care to look close enough, we have only an approximate idea of what will happen tomorrow. In this sense the unknown is a kind of invisible dark matter, holding all the rest together, and our relationship to it is fundamental to the larger structures of meaning and belief that we adopt in order to make sense of our lives. On a day-to-day basis, it will also define our sense of curiosity, our degree of openness, and our approach to learning.

For artists the balance of what is and isn’t known, and the dynamic shift between these two values, has always been the very material and rhythm of a creation process, and the arts have played an important role in helping us to apprehend feelings or ideas beyond the horizon of what we consciously or logically understand. Classical philosophy saw art as a sensory experience, rather than an intellectual one, and it remains true that the majority of audiences appreciate art on an intuitive or reflexive basis. In the imaginations of many, exceptional art (especially the non-verbal kind) emerges from processes which are instinctive and largely inexplicable.

This image, however, is not without its problems. Artistic intuition, invoked as a mysterious and irrational gift, can at times be used by artists themselves as a refuge from rigorous thinking or external criticism. It is also in friction with attempts to structure an artistic sector by developing systems of codified education, acting for the documentation and transmission of artistic knowledge, and establishing criteria for the judgement of work and the allocation of resources—endeavours that require a vision of art as a defined practice that can be sustained and improved rather than as a mystic individual act that bursts from nowhere. The intuitive rationale is at odds as well with much contemporary art practice, which is interdisciplinary in nature, occasionally conceptual in form, and draws explicitly on the theoretical output of other fields and forms of knowledge.

It is easy perhaps to frame one approach as old and naive and the other as modern and integrated, just as it is easy as well to disperse the energy of their interplay into the kinds of semantic argument that few are interested in or consider relevant. In beginning to explore this territory in more grounded terms, then, the growth of artistic research in the circus field can be a useful starting point.

How is research planned and what is its purpose? If the methods, instincts, collected experiences and works of artists constitute ‘knowledge’ how can this be usefully rendered and shared? What are the consequences of shifting our idea of art away from the product toward the process, and how does this challenge established modes of presentation, as well as any division between professional and ‘participatory’ arts?

A consideration of these questions might lead to practical discussions around structures and methodology, but the unknown, as a broad theme, is also intended as the venue for conversations that are themselves difficult to frame and that centre on whether art remains important, or in the contemporary age perhaps even preeminent, in socialising our experiences of the overwhelming, the inconceivable, the irreducible—ideas and sensations that escape the reach of the mind, if not its awareness.