Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.SA.12.1.8 | PDF

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Wan­der­ing as Method

Cre­ative activ­i­ties are use­ful only if they pro­duce new, so far unknown rela­tions,” Lás­zló Moholy-Nagy wrote in 1922. And if noth­ing else, the Ex-Situ col­lab­o­ra­tions are pro­duc­ing just that1. Every few years, the ongo­ing project puts aca­d­e­mics and artists togeth­er in unex­pect­ed ways, cre­at­ing work that is almost entire­ly con­ceived, pro­duced, and exhib­it­ed with­in a few days. It’s the oppo­site of the slow ges­ta­tion process of most aca­d­e­m­ic work: it’s some­where between a sprint and a ben­der, metaphor­i­cal­ly speak­ing, and it has the excite­ment and exhaus­tion to match.

For me it’s been won­der­ful to take part, most recent­ly in Wind­sor, Cana­da in May 2019. But it’s not easy to clas­si­fy what I did with my col­lab­o­ra­tor and pho­tog­ra­ph­er, Mon­ti Sigg. Much of it was sim­ply walk­ing, wait­ing, look­ing, talk­ing, and sort­ing through what I saw in the streets, then com­par­ing notes with oth­er par­tic­i­pants who were all look­ing to uncov­er some­thing relat­ed to our com­mon theme—“structures of antic­i­pa­tion.” It felt like a hybrid game whose rules were unstat­ed and flu­id. The ter­rain was pleas­ant­ly squishy, and I did some­thing that was not quite ethnog­ra­phy, not quite jour­nal­ism, not quite art, and some would say, not quite scholarship.

What this means in prac­tice is that I rum­maged through the built envi­ron­ment like a finicky record col­lec­tor at a giant flea mar­ket, mov­ing around Wind­sor and Detroit, talk­ing to peo­ple and col­lect­ing impres­sions. Mon­ti snapped pho­tos of any­thing vague­ly relat­ed to surveillance’s deeply antic­i­pa­to­ry nature, the theme of my recent work, while I took notes and enjoyed being inten­tion­al­ly adrift, far from the hard ground of dis­ci­pli­nary tra­di­tions and pro­fes­sion­al­ly-sanc­tioned methodologies.

Per­haps wan­der­ing and won­der­ing, col­lect­ing and reflect­ing, is not much of a method for the hard-core dis­ci­pli­nar­i­ans. Close tex­tu­al read­ing, care­ful philo­soph­i­cal argu­men­ta­tion, clever turns of the his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion, qual­i­ta­tive social science—we are accus­tomed to see­ing all of these in the human­i­ties, which has often made room for qua­si-poet­ic activ­i­ties. But mov­ing around and wait­ing for some­thing to emerge, well, that is more the ter­rain of poets, pri­vate eyes, and ethnographers.

Few of us trained for this lim­i­nal zone between art and schol­ar­ship, where we feel like we are mak­ing it up as we go along, rely­ing on intu­ition far more than our for­mal train­ing. It is awk­ward, raw, unset­tled, and unsci­en­tif­ic. It requires open­ness and even a kind of bold­ness. It is an unsafe space, con­cep­tu­al­ly speak­ing. Unlike a schol­ar pro­duc­ing anoth­er jour­nal arti­cle, you are doing some­thing with no obvi­ous prece­dent, and cre­at­ing a prod­uct with no obvi­ous market.

Yet that awk­ward, unset­tled, and intu­itive place is the most excit­ing part of the aca­d­e­m­ic land­scape for peo­ple like me. I’m an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary schol­ar with con­nec­tions to Amer­i­can Stud­ies, cul­tur­al his­to­ry, film stud­ies, and sur­veil­lance stud­ies. I often admire the work done with­in those sprawl­ing aca­d­e­m­ic zones. Yet what I find the most excit­ing is the work I’ve done with artists or as an artist/academic. As good stand-up come­di­ans know, the bound­ary between accept­able and unac­cept­able is often exciting.

I’ve had an uncom­mon num­ber of oppor­tu­ni­ties to explore the ragged edges of aca­d­e­m­ic work over my career. When the thick syrup of method­ol­o­gy evap­o­rates like a shal­low pud­dle in the desert, all sorts of things are pos­si­ble if you are not freaked out by the free­dom. At this point, I’m used to not know­ing, and I’m okay with that. Like the process artists of the sev­en­ties, I think I’m grow­ing intel­lec­tu­al­ly from just let­ting it hap­pen, fig­ur­ing it out, and wrap­ping it up sim­ply because I can sense that it’s ready. And I’m grate­ful for any com­mu­ni­ty of schol­ars and allies who encour­ages this experimental/experiential way of being. I’m grate­ful to have a com­mu­ni­ty who is like-mind­ed about redefin­ing scholarship.

When I’m writ­ing long cap­tions for evoca­tive pho­tos or cre­at­ing short videos that are more lyri­cal than ana­lyt­i­cal, I don’t have a set method­ol­o­gy nor a stan­dard prod­uct that can be eas­i­ly mea­sured for qual­i­ty, but I’m still com­pelled to try some­thing dif­fer­ent, some­thing out­side of the pro­fes­sion­al sta­tus quo. After too many years of watch­ing con­fer­ence papers read in a rushed monot­o­ne to a tiny audi­ence; after con­fronting jour­nal arti­cles whose titles allow you to pre­dict the inter­pre­ta­tive steps and cita­tion­al gen­u­flect­ing to come; after feel­ing impris­oned with­in the stan­dard aca­d­e­m­ic forms and the qui­et­ly self-con­grat­u­la­to­ry rhetoric of post-Enlight­en­ment intel­lec­tu­al life, it is frankly glo­ri­ous to explore dif­fer­ent ways of doing things, to cre­ate a semi-aca­d­e­m­ic space for sur­prise, beau­ty, ugli­ness, intu­ition, and even a hint of the irrational.

To put art and chaos and speed into the schol­ar­ly process feels infi­nite­ly hope­ful at this moment in his­to­ry. If pro­fes­sors could make more room for new­ness in form and out­come, if we were will­ing to explore the poten­tial of the Ex Situ mod­el and cre­ate work that is exper­i­men­tal, expe­ri­en­tial, and col­lab­o­ra­tive in nature, I think we might sur­prise our­selves with the results. I hope to con­tin­ue work­ing in the Ex Situ style. Work­ing in an inter­rog­a­tive mode of exper­i­men­ta­tion is sim­ply more mean­ing­ful to me than the declar­a­tive mode of most schol­ar­ship I have known—it pro­duces more sur­pris­es and joy­ful insights, and does so with greater humility.


  1. Ex-Situ was the orig­i­nal project (Austin, Texas, 2014) orga­nized by Craig Camp­bell and Yoke-Sum Wong that launched these var­i­ous inter­na­tion­al work­shops (which Struc­tures of Antic­i­pa­tion is part of). Its aim was to chal­lenge and remove the hier­ar­chies of con­ven­tion­al aca­d­e­m­ic con­fer­ence meth­ods in search of method­olo­gies in process.