Embodying investigation: reflections of an Artist in Residence


Cultural leadership and the place of the Artist, BOZAR, Brussels, July 2016 (photos courtesy of Julie Maricq, ENCATC)

Being a resident artist in a research project is an unusual and complex challenge. But it was a point of principle for On The Edge that we should have an artist centrally involved in our team during the latest phase of AHRC research into Cultural leadership and the place of the Artist.

Rosanna Irvine took up this role in March 2016 and, as this project reaches its conclusion, she reflects on her approach and experience in the second in our series of guest blogs.

Rosanna attended our pilot event in Banchory (March) before contributing to the research seminars in Edinburgh (May), Brussels (July) and London (September). A dancer and choreographer, Rosanna responded to the physical dimension of our discussions as well as to the conceptual content. As her blog demonstrates, she also paid attention to wider events happening around us during the course of the year. Her work generated different qualities of encounter between seminar participants, stirring space and movement into the density of debate and prompting us to pay fresh attention to the human dynamics of each gathering.



Participants engaged in ‘breathing a line together’

As artist in residence, I attended the four seminars through this phase of the research. I was present as witness, as participant and as one who offered a participatory artistic intervention – an embodied investigation – in proximity to ongoing discussions. Here I reflect on the discussions, on the interventions and on how particular artistic processes might change how we experience ourselves acting – and how they might forge a ‘leading’ – in the world.

Influence and process

Throughout the seminars it was generally agreed that artists lead by influencing. Yet there are many ways that influence may be exerted or experienced. A participant in Brussels suggested that what art can do is change how we experience reality. In such a scenario the artist is influencing a shift in our perceptions. Such ‘change’ may be felt at an affective level. Its repercussions may go on … quietly … under the surface … and may carry on influencing change. It was in Brussels one month after the bombings of March 2016 that Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker took a dance project to the streets of that city. A participatory work, ‘My Walking is My Dancing – Slow Walk’ began at five different points around the centre of Brussels with slow silent walking by five groups of people – gathered through an open call to participate. Over five hours the groups slowly walked, converging at Grote Markt/Grand Place in the centre of Brussels where a dance workshop and jam – led by De Keersmaeker – ensued. This work took to the streets, literally, quietly, affectively – placing its presence and its processes through the city with the slow meditative walking. The city was still in shock, yet during this walking, as others passed by or slowed with the walkers, qualities of calm endurance, persistence and commonality were quietly insisted upon. This is a work that can live on in the imagination and affective memory of people … delicately … under the suimg_3681rface … influencing how we experience the city … and influencing ways of being in the world … perhaps.

During the Brussels seminar, a participant suggested that as an arts worker in this current time of crisis what is needed is the projecting and situating of one’s self into something positive – arguably something that De Keersmaeker and the participants in ‘Slow Walk’ achieved.  Another suggested that good art poses questions. During the Edinburgh seminar, participants spoke of art’s capacity to hold together dissonant positions. And at the pilot event in Banchory, the notion of the ‘work’ of art, meaning its workings in the world, was mentioned. As art does its work in the world – its posing of questions, its changing of how we experience reality, its projecting into something positive, its holding of dissonant positions – it is exerting influence and is in various ways leading. This kind of leading by artists is not associated with the individual strong leader imposing a direction in the world. Rather it is associated with processes, with how those processes operate and move out into the world, and how they at times converge with currents of thought and action being played out by others within and beyond art contexts, to generate change.

Anne Douglas and Chris Fremantle identified in their Artist as Leader Report (2009) a “need to publicly recognise where artists are leading, and have led, through practice” (p.8) and it can be useful to acknowledge within this ‘how’ artists are leading through their practice – something that of course varies wimg_3646idely between art fields and artists. Through gaining insights into that ‘how’ – into the processes – we can perhaps discern the critical and political values that are at play – as initiated or ‘led’ by the artist. In ‘Slow Walk’ participants follow the simple instruction to walk very slowly along a designated route over five hours. This asks of each a quality of autonomy within the situation at a perceptual level, since it requires that each remains aware, attentive, in their own state of presence. In following the instruction there is an active holding together of this quality of autonomy alongside being part of a community of slow walkers. Perhaps it is in this dual awareness of self and others, augmented through the extreme slowness of the activity and within its context as a public artwork, that the process has a particular political power.

The interventions

The interventions that I offered during the seminars experientially addressed awareness towards self and another through activities of listening, leading and following.  Drawing on the sensibilities of a dancer and my approach as a choreographer, the activities orientated around somatic listening within relational processes.

In Edinburgh I led a short and simple leading/following exercise in which, using limited hand contact, partners took turns at leading the other in movement. This was followed by the task of sensing and, without prior agreement, allowing moments in which one’s activity of leading shifted to one of following and vice versa. This went on to sensing and allowing moments in which distinctions between leading and following blurred.

img_3648In Brussels the partner activity was the drawing score ‘breathing a line together’. Participants gazed at each other, brought their breath into synchronicity and, with eyes closed while mutually holding one pencil with its tip touching paper, followed the instructions ‘still when you breath in, move when you breath out’. Here the act of leading was invested in a mutual awareness of each other, the pencil and the temporality of the shared outbreath.

In London the activity was walking-while-talking. While staying in close proximity to a partner, pairs walked around the room, through and between other pairs, changing speed and direction, avoiding fixed rhythm and avoiding collisions. No leadership role was designated although decisions for change (of speed or direction) were continually being enacted. A period of reflection between the pairs followed – during which mirroring-while-listening was introduced: i.e. mirroring the gestures of the one who is talking. Pairs then agreed a topic for conversation relating to the seminar and their particular interests; the earlier walking was resumed and the mirroring-while-listening retained.

My intent in these interventions was to offer an experiential investigation into acts of leading and acts of following: one that might not only offer up insights into one’s own approach in the role of leader and that of follower, but that might also generate an experiencing of ‘activity’ in following and of ‘passivity’ in leading. Another intention was to create conditions whereby a palpable sense of change – or of something new arising – might arise non-discursively within a situation. The activities addressed the potential for somatic listening and qualities of responsiveness to generate a direction that neither party was enforcing. Each party was in a sense challenged to remain autonomous within their perceptual awareness to their own activities while being in a state of enhanced perceptual awareness with another.  For example in the score ‘breathing a line together’, a score for two with eyes closed and both holding the one pencil, each participant is called to an awareness of breath, touch and movement – their own and their partner’s.

‘breathing a line together’ produced a tangible trace of what had happened: a drawing that documented the process in which each movement and stillness of the pencil was a decision made, a direction forming, between two people. After completing the drawing pairs reflected on the experience annotating the drawing with their img_3676memories of the event and further thoughts. Annotations and discussion afterwards indicated a panoply of experiences including: sometimes leading, sometimes following, sometimes flowing, a self-questioning within the event “am I being too pushy?”, changes in direction that “seemed shared”, being “out of comfort zone”, a sense of intimacy with another, a surprising sense of ease within this intimacy, the feeling of working at it “my hand hurts”, pleasure “oh good she’s pulling me for a ride” and not knowing “am I pushing or being pulled?”

Processes again

The interventions highlighted processes; they orientated people’s awareness within the processual event rather than towards an outcome. In a small way they open a political space in which the play of power relations can (perhaps playfully) be exposed. They bring forward uncertainty, trust, and giving up control. They potentially offer an experience of ourselves in the world beyond that of distinct and separate selves acting on the world or being acted upon. The mutual awareness towards self and other in the processes of leading, following and listening potentially offers the experience of a decision forming, a new direction emerging – not through the intent of an individual leader but through relation itself.

And …

During the London event a participant spoke about the need in the UK for art and artists to be given fuller value in cultural life. This would involve greater visibility of artists in society – both within and beyond art specific contexts – as well as a higher status being conferred on the role of artist. Perhaps too it would bring a greater interest in and understanding of the workings of art – how it does its work in the world – at a wider societal level. And the force of artists ‘leading’ would be evident and valued. As things are in England, with the devaluing of arts subjects within the school curriculum and with more cuts to arts funding UK wide on the way, a fuller valuing of the artist in cultural life sanctioned by policy makers seems unlikely. Meanwhile artists of all sorts carry on doing their work (of influencing) in the world – whether supported by the public purse or not.

In this reflection I have highlighted participatory processes, those in De Keersmaeker’s ‘Slow Walk’ and in the activities of the interventions. In particular I have highlighted the kinds of experiences that the processes can engender. In the field of choreography there are increasing numbers of artists working with participatory practices in the making of art works. Perhaps this is a strategy that inserts the artwork and artist into cultural life more broadly. And reflecting in relation to this phase of the research entitled Cultural Leadership and the Place of the Artist – perhaps it is one way that artists are taking a ‘place’ …

Rosanna Irvine, October 2016.


Cultural leadership and the place of the Artist was organised by On The Edge in partnership with Creative Scotland, The Clore Leadership Programme and ENCATC

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