Embracing the Fool
An Approach to Anti-Disciplinary Practice
I have long been drawn to artists who defy creative boundaries, and who can make work where the message seems to precede the medium. Often these creatives resist easy categorization, and cannot fit into predetermined artistic boundaries. Figures like Millford Graves, Gregg Bordowitz, Hito Steyerl, or Osamu Sato, who work between diverse mediums while keeping their distinct spirit, have served as models and guides for my own creative output. Moving into my next phase as an artist, I have been reflecting on what attracts me to these kinds of practitioners, and how I can work within this tradition in my own practice.
A key similarity I have found between these artists is an anti-disciplinary approach to their work. While inter- or trans-disciplinary have been common labels for artists in recent years, anti-disciplinary seems to only just be gaining momentum. Joichi Ito, former director of MIT Media Labs, describes the difference between inter- and anti-disciplinary as: “Interdisciplinary work is when people from different disciplines work together. But antidisciplinary is something very different; it’s about working in spaces that simply do not fit into any existing academic discipline–a specific field of study with its own particular words, frameworks, and methods” (Design and Science). Anti-disciplinary resists the pre-established frameworks and, though it may draw from some established methodologies, seeks to create its own fields in order to make works beyond binary categorizations.
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In my creative practice I have come to feel best described as an anti-disciplinary artist. Both artistically and academically, I have never felt quite at home within any one label as my work takes cues from multiple fields and mediums. My research is situated between academic spaces like digital anthropology, contemporary religious studies, game studies, and media theory, while my practice itself has taken shape as writing, audio, film, and sculptural work. Moving between many mediums and fields, an anti-disciplinary practice gives me the flexibility to investigate each, while never establishing myself firmly within their bounds. My practice, therefore, may be best described as having a research-basis and an anti-disciplinary approach.
Resisting the Expert
Despite living in a time which increasingly asks artists to specialize and narrow themselves down within very certain practices, a guiding principle of my practice is the idea of ‘resisting the Expert’.
Michel de Certeu notes that the Expert is someone whose “competence is transmuted into social authority” and who is an “interpreter and and translator of his competence for other fields” (The Practice of Everyday Life). As opposed to the work of the Philosopher where “ordinary questions become a skeptical principle in a technical field”, the Expert implies a degree of mastery within a certain specialization. Unlike the Philosopher, who is guided by a certain skepticism and curiosity, the Expert works with a supposed authority. Considering de Certeu’s assertion that “the Expert is growing more common in this society”, one does not have to look too far to find that the artworld is full of ‘Experts’.
Experts are middle-men, mediators who translate between one world and another. I do not see my practice as one of mediation, but rather of magnification. I may work between two (or more) worlds at once, but only because I am actively involved within multiple spaces. Therefore, I am not translating one world to the other, but magnifying aspects of one space into the other for collective consideration. The objects and experiences I choose to magnify are not ones that my audiences are wholly unfamiliar with, or would not have access to themselves, rather they may not have considered the certain aspects I highlight, and my work might allow new interactions with somewhat familiar objects. Unlike the Expert, whose authority allows them to tell audiences how to think about their objects and in what context, my work is more participatory, further bridging communities that may have some entanglement already.
An example of this is my research with the online community of Truck Simulator enthusiasts. Truck Simulator, a video game series that allows players to simulate driving commercial trucks through various American and European landscapes, has a massive and dedicated online fandom that congregates through SubReddits, Twitch streams, and YouTube videos. Many in my generation have become familiar with the game for its unusual following, and may have seen TikTok videos, Reddit posts, or buzzy think-pieces about it. I first became interested in the game after reading a Vice article which compared the act of playing the game to meditation experiences. Fascinated, I became a player myself and a participant within the online community. Most notably I began to use the game like a digital meditation tool, and noticed many others were doing the same. This made me curious: how could such a trivial game inspire transcendent experiences?
Natalie Loveless writes that “(y)ou can’t be curious about something you already know, but you need to know something about it in order to be curious” (How to Make Art at the End of the World). While I knew something about Truck Simulator and its community, I did not know how my experiences and preconceived notions related to the community as a whole. My curiosity led me to engage in digital ethnographic research with the online Truck Simulator community, to figure out how (and why) the game was able to produce ‘transcendental moments’. Eventually this research became both a paper, which was presented (virtually) at a panel for the Royal Anthropological Institute’s conference “Anthropology, AI, and the Future of Human Society”, and a short video piece, which has been presented as part of New Media Art Space’s “re:present” exhibition in New York and the H&R Block Space’s “On the Road Again” exhibition in Kansas City. Working between academic writing and filmmaking helped me expand on my initial curiosity, magnifying a unique aspect of the Truck Simulator community to an audience who was already somewhat familiar with the game.
Working in this way I did not feel like an ‘Expert’, rather an observer within a community investigating a micro-trend and amplifying it. Splitting this research between a more formal paper and an experimental video underscored this sense of non-authority too. Having multiple creative outputs, which explore different facets of the same phenomenon, demonstrates the multiple paths one could take based on a single curious impulse revealing that, no matter how much time you may spend within an area, you may never truly be an Expert. Rather than seeking authority, it may be better to magnify your curiosity and invite others into your research journey, working symbiotically with your chosen communities. This approach is distinctly anti-disciplinary, freeing one’s self from the authority of established discipline(s) and working solely from that libidinal place of curiosity to see where it may take you.
Academia: The Elephant in the Room
For all my talk of anti-disciplinarity and resisting the expert, I continue to embrace an intimate relationship with higher education and the university system. In some ways this feels paradoxical, as academia often emphasizes the ‘expertization’ of its students. However, the university setting is one that (at least somewhat) embraces working with multiple modalities and gives ample space to present work that fits outside the typical bounds of the art world. I believe situating myself further within the university will provide opportunities to exhibit and present my work in settings where I can highlight my specific research approach. The mode of research-based practice is not widely adopted within the American university system yet, but there does seem to be growing interest and opportunity to show such work even within more traditional higher-academic settings.
For example, this October I was invited to be a keynote speaker at a conference hosted by Georgetown University’s graduate English students where I was able to screen my film, In the End We Become Our Avatars. The film is a video-essay documentary, created in a similar fashion to “Transcendent Simulator”. As such it is the continuation of a research interest of mine, which has sprawled out to other creative outputs including a paper and the curation of a group exhibition. Presenting at Georgetown, to a cohort of academics from a variety of disciplines, I did not feel like I was participating in “the economy of ‘I know and now you know’” (as Loveless describes it) common to the neoliberal university, rather it felt like a natural extension of this research. Answering questions from fellow grad students, I got a chance to dive deeper into my own curiosity and to learn from others. Presenting at the conference felt symbiotic and not completely transactional, an actual chance to magnify my interests to a like minded community and explore together.
Fred Moten and Stefano Harney write that “to be a critical academic in the university is to be against the university, and to be against the university is always to recognize it and be recognized by it”. Where the university can feel like a safe haven for my work, and provide me with an income for what I do, I find this assertion very challenging. This idea also brings up hard questions regarding my relationship to the university system. What would my practice look like without recognition of the university? How can my anti-authoritarian beliefs extend to the academic in me? In the same way it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism, it is hard to imagine research-creational work taking place outside academia. However, I have a strong investment in alternative education models, and being an academic-artist both inside and outside the traditional university.
My interest in these alternative models may be best exemplified by my work with Six Minutes Past Nine, a ‘neo-new-media’ art collective based in the UK. I have been working as part of Six Minutes for a little over a year now, helping to develop a nine week intensive program for artists which focuses on building a virtual studio practice. Together with the Luxembourgish art collective MNEMOZINE, we will be presenting our pilot program starting in late February 2024. I will be acting as a facilitator, helping artists in the program to reflect on what their ‘virtual practice’ might look like. Rather than the Expert model of some art schools or residencies, we will seek to work collaboratively with our cohort, operating outside traditional academic hierarchies. As a facilitator, I hope to bring an anti-disciplinary approach to the intensive, encouraging curiosity over authority. In doing so I also hope to question my relationship to the academy, and find new ways to work both inside and outside the university.
Conclusions: Embracing the Fool
In Tarot, the Fool is generally the first card in the Major Arcana. Often unnumbered, or numbered as zero, the Fool represents new beginnings and a beginner's eagerness toward specific tasks. The Fool is perhaps best described as having a beginner’s mind, in the vein of Zen Buddhist Shunryu Suzuki. Suzuki writes in Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind that “(i)n the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few”. I see the beginner’s mind of the Fool as a model for my research-based practice. Working from a place of curiosity, rather than of social authority, there becomes many possibilities and channels for creative research output. The Fool is a reminder to enter the space of research with a beginner's mind and to search for new beginnings from genuine curiosity.
I believe the Fool is also representative of my anti-disciplinary approach. Working outside conventional disciplines means constantly charting new creative paths, which may have only been lightly traveled before. Like the Fool, to be anti-disciplinary is to be flexible, open-minded, and eager when starting down these new roads. In the same way that the Fool is excited about, but not ignorant of, the world, anti-disciplinary artists are not ignorant to established disciplines or mediums, rather they traverse their boundaries in new ways to find new possibilities. Considering my practice in the vein of anti-disciplinarity has afforded me a freedom from the constraints of certain contemporary art practices, while reinforcing my dedication to curiosity. Especially as a research-based practitioner, anti-disciplinarity allows the research to lead while the creative output follows, the message preceding the medium. In embracing anti-disciplinarity I embrace the Fool, allowing my curiosity to form its own paths in my practice.
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