Experiential knowledge and improvisation

Kathleen Coessens and Catherine Laws September 2010, Orpheus Institute Ghent, playing Kurtag's Jatekok (Games)

Experiential knowledge and improvisation: Variations on movement, motion, emotion

This paper was presented by Anne Douglas and Kathleen Coessens at the EKSIG Conference, University of the Creative Arts 23rd and 24th July, 2011.

Anne Douglas, Grays School of Art, The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, UK and Orpheus Research Center in Music, Ghent, Belgium

Kathleen Coessens, Vrije Universiteit, Brussels and Orpheus Research Center in Music, Ghent, Belgium


In this paper we position improvisation as a way of knowing that is experiential, pivotal to the body’s movement and growth in the world. Improvisation allows us to manage the constraints and freedoms of a world rich in possibilities, associations, and combinations. Improvisation, we argue, works across intuitive perception and intellectual analysis. We act and feel our way with whatever is to hand. The impetus is an urge to move from a point of stasis, to catalyse relationship: as we grasp the world, the world grasps us. Improvisation is a means of ‘keeping going’. Where in life it may be unselfconscious, in art it leaves a trace, the means to repeat the process but not replicate its experience. Improvisation provides us with a means to create new experience and new knowledge. We draw on selected artists including the Harrisons, Klee, Kaprow, Kurtag, Cage. As authors we take their work into our creative experience of musical performance and the visual arts. This is a research method that is experiential and generative in nature, articulating knowledge from the perspective of the maker/performer rather than that of the spectator. The research approach itself is therefore improvisational in nature. We draw on perceptions of improvisation in other fields including anthropology and psychology examining how far these inform artistic experience and test its assumptions. The question remains: Is improvisation a quality of all art? Can we speak in a precise way of forms of art (therefore approaches to life) that are improvisational and others that are not? What are the implications of this question for our understanding of knowledge more broadly?

Keywords: improvisation, experiential knowledge, artistic knowledge, artistic research

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