Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Tim Ingold’s Keynote Speech for the Art, Materiality and Representation Conference

Tim Ingold in action


I’ve pointed out before that Tim Ingold has become an important theorist in relation to how drawing can be thought of within a wider academic context. In particular because he is an anthropologist he makes several links between how artists think and how anthropologists think. Ingold was this year’s keynote speaker at the Royal Anthropological Society’s annual conference, the theme of which was, ‘Art, Materiality and Representation’, this of course fitted perfectly with Ingold’s interests. I had submitted an accepted a paper and I was also a panel convener therefore was able to find out what he was now saying.

My notes are a very crude snapshot of what he had to say and I’m very subjective in my listening and do sometimes go off on thought tangents, but even so some of you might find my version of what he had to say interesting.

Ingold began the lecture by taking Paul Klee’s dictum from his Creative Confession (1920), “Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible”, as the touchstone for the presentation.

The central issue seemed to me that he saw art as not about reproduction or observation, (a very contentious beginning when you think about some art such as certain types of realism) but was more a process of revealing to us what is there. This revelatory process is one I do find I have great sympathy for but one that I also acknowledge can slip if we are not careful into a sort of spiritual or religious territory, but hopefully he does not go too far in that direction.

He set out 4 initial points that he wanted to make.

  1. That anthropology was to be seen as a speculative discipline.
  2. That research needs to move beyond its present situation as a discipline dominated by science and scientific methodology.
  3. That he wanted to see anthropology develop as a discipline that was opening out a view of the world that would have a place for everything. (A catch all discipline)
  4. That he wanted to finally bring together the disciplines of art and anthropology to create a way of thinking that could lead to true citizenship.

Ingold set out a definition of anthropology as ‘life as we find it’ and contrasted this with an idea that art was concerned with ‘forms that are new’. Both beginning with observations of the ‘real’ world. He believes that they share a common task; that of shaping a future and that both in their own ways are asking a question, ‘How ought we to live? Big claims and one’s that I found hard to swallow but an interesting declaration and a sort of ‘call to arms’. He suggested that every way of life was a communal experiment and it was in negotiating and finding shapes for the outcomes of these experiments that made disciplines like art and anthropology important. In particular the one thing that anthropology brought to this endeavor was the fact that it was a discipline that was concerned with all the peoples of the world. But what he asked would happen if art and anthropology combined as a new hybrid discipline?

This new discipline would have 4 key attributes:

1 It would be centred on acts of generosity; it would have an ontological commitment to give back. (By this I presumed that he was suggesting that the bedrock or solid nature of being of this new discipline would be to be generous, something that I would like to think would be the case but from what I have seen of both disciplines I would suggest this would involve a lot of wishful thinking) I was warming to his optimism though.

2. It would be concerned with open ended enquiry. It would in doing this reveal the various ways that what was going on was going on.

3. It would be comparative, i.e. that it would allow alternative approaches to be taken. (Considering his critique of ethnology for instance, I wondered how widely the alternative approaches would in reality go. In my own mind I was debating a ‘what if’ scenario such as how generous I might be when faced with someone telling me how a particular religion explains the world.)

4. It would be critical and in particular he reminded us of how important it was to continue to critique the society we live in today.

In effect a merging of art and anthropology as disciplines would forge a new discipline that would be concerned with ‘making a conversation of human life itself’. Art would help anthropology become less concerned with giving answers and make sure that it was inquisitive. The art process would benefit because it would be more experimental and less transgressive, and would be able to conceive without being conceptual. (Big statements, which I would like to question but perhaps at another time, as what I’m trying to do is give a flavour of his talk).

What he believes is special about art is that what it takes in it gives back out by making it sensible. In particular the areas of art that use various craft skills of making come closest to his vision of a new anthropology. (I presumed he was in this case referring to ‘material thinking’.

Ingold then turned his attention to the difference between anthropology and ethnography. However because I’m not an anthropologist I was little unclear as to the difference, so I’m going to presume that as art students you may be too, so here is a definition of the difference as far as I have understood it

Ethnography is a method of study and data collection involving a trained observer documenting the life of an extant people or group using a participant/observe strategy. The products of such research are the outcomes of organising, describing, and analysing the data collected. Ethnography is the method most commonly used by social and cultural anthropologists to collect qualitative data.

Anthropology is the scientific discipline that focuses on the human species, its origins, its evolution, distribution, commonalities and diversity in the way humans organise and adapt over time and space. It is self-reflective since humans are both the subject of the study and the instigators of the study. It is at times contentious because anthropology took on the study of the non-European and non-literate (no written history) peoples that Europeans encountered in their commercial and imperial expansion, therefore it has at times been seen as a discipline that reflects colonial power.

Anthropology can be thought of as a discipline and ethnography is a scientific method.

Ingold likes diagrams and used these two below to explain the difference.

The diagrams represent the fact that anthropology is woven into life and inseparable from it, whilst ethnography touches life at a tangent and never actually gets embedded into what life actually is. He is referring to the fact that ethnography relies on scientific method and he again warms to his argument that scientific method is not just wrong but harmful. Data collection turns life into numbers, and the problem with ethnography is that it makes an account of life. What anthropological study can do however is to join in with the forces and flows of life, (it was hard at times though to see how, because I would presume that any discipline by its very nature stands outside of life in order to establish the boundaries that enable us to see that it is a discipline. Once it dissolves into life it would I would argue cease to be a discipline, and in effect be part of life. Of course all disciplines are part of life, it’s just that by having an idea of a discipline we can use different lenses to reflect on life). Ingold further reflects that in an art of correspondence sometimes however art and anthropology are ill matched. This he believes is due to the continuing influence of ethnographic practices. Because ethnography fulfills the high standards of academic measurement it has led to an obsession with alterity (it is much easier to measure difference) and this has led some art theorists (like Hal Foster: see Artist as Ethnographer) into what Ingold calls, ethnographic envy. This can lead to the idea of radical alterity as a type of philosophy for art practice. However, Ingold further argues, some people are more ‘other’ than others. This ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ difference is a problem and binary differences lead to conflict and are unrealistic. Otherness is always an emergent thing. Ontogenesis is a coming into being and worlds of becoming are rather like conversations. Art and anthropology should therefore be dialogic, or conversational in their approach. As Karan Barad has put it, ‘Cutting together apart’. Ethnography’s coding of difference can if we are not careful lead eventually into a type of fascism.

Another problem Ingold has with disciplines is that they are always putting things into context. Context puts things into frames and in doing so disarms them. For instance Alfred Gell wanted to reveal chains of causal connections in order to develop an interpretive context for both anthropology and art history. (I have mentioned Gell before: see) However Ingold believes that the practice of art should be about unwrapping and peeling away the interpretive context, so that we can feel the force of the original again.

The real problem is that the default mode of research is led by science. It determines what will be carried out as research and how. But how can we know in advance what we will find? Because of the power of science we dress up most of our research enquiry in scientific garb. We fake it. What kind of knowledge do we look for? Perhaps the onus should be on scientists to show how science is research. Research means ‘going along with it’. There is no holding nature still and looking at it. It is an experience. Both the thing being looked at and whatever is doing the looking are moving on, therefore things change and in that change there is a sense of there always being a new a second search. (Re-search).

Nb. The word research has a history, so as an idea it has evolved. Research entered the English language in the late 16th century and was taken from the French word recercher, from Old French recercher "to seek out, or search closely," from re-, intensive prefix, + cercher "to seek for," from Latin circare "go about, wander, traverse," in Late Latin "to wander hither and thither," from circus"circle". Therefore circus and research are as words closely related.  For some other reflections on research: see.


Ingold pointed out that every step is a new beginning and not an iteration (repetition), it was more like an itineration, (journeying from place to place). At the centre of this attention to the passage through life should be curiosity and care, in the sense that we have a duty of care to look after the world, to develop a way of living curiously with due care and attention. The ‘slippery’ quality in relation to all this is ‘truth’, or the search for it. We were reminded not to blame truth for the wrongs committed in its name, (the post truth society, Trump’s ‘fake news’). Truth is inexhaustible, and all we can have are clues to which direction to go in if we are to seek it. True research is therefore always hopeful. It suggests that life will carry on, which is why there must be more to research than the collection of data. In fact the interesting thing about ‘blockages’ and difficulties that are put in the way of looking for truth, are often openings that let us in to new understandings. By thinking about research in this way, we can see it as being about new beginnings. We don’t use research to break through to a new understanding, we use it to join with other things and peoples and as we do the surfaces and boundaries between things disappear and this is our new understanding. We are in it, (life/reality) and being in it we know it. We cannot Ingold argues be objective, objectivity is a lie and you therefore can’t confirm the validity of your research by citing its objectivity. “Observation goes beyond objectivity”. We were reminded that the things we study will eventually guide our attention. Research is therefore more like correspondence as a form of experience. This calls into question the relationship between fact and fantasy. “Let us learn to dream” says Ingold. Then we may find the truth, but only after testing it against the fact of life. Research and science must unite experience and imagination.


Ingold then moves on to the final part of his thesis which was how the bringing together of art and anthropology could create a way of thinking that could lead to true citizenship. Citizenship is only attainable if people take responsibility for it. Responsibility and due care of the world should be centered on an awareness of sustainability. Ingold then states that research as correspondence is a condition for sustainability. Real sustainability begins when limits open up and when they do new possibilities open out. I.e. by joining into the flow with other things and peoples and by doing this removing the surfaces and boundaries between things, we will be able to see how the totality works and how our actions may be damaging parts of that totality and how by changing our actions we might create less damage. The point being that by standing outside of the world (being objective) we allow ourselves to damage the world because we don’t feel the effects of the things we do. Either we are part of everything or we are part of nothing. The problem is that we have been bamboozled by numbers. But, numbers have always been broken off from the ebb and flow of life. You can’t count the waves or clouds, they are constantly folding and merging as they flow from one form into another, they have no separate identities. Life is a holistic process not a series of discrete things. To count trees is to cut them out from the soil, from the mycelium that surrounds their roots. My reading of this was that a group of people can only be reduced to numbers in concentration camps, they are much more than a set of individuals, their intermingling with others and their environment is their reality and numbering them can only diminish them. (This reading I must admit is due to my own subjective response, my grandmother was of Polish Jewish extraction, so I have a particular awareness of history).


Ingold states, in the correspondence of voices we are an intermingling. We are part of an ever forming plenum, which is the world we live in, the cosmos, the universe. (Plenum: an assembly of all members, or a space filled with matter). Research is supposed to clear the ground, but to clear the ground is not to make a space, it simply smooths it out. The kinks, twists and knots of reality, as everything is enfolded into everything else is the true order of the plenum. The convolutions of material folding in on itself as it goes along doing its doing is limitless, because it is a process of always carrying on. The plenum is therefore perhaps time itself. We therefore live in a ‘con-crescent’ world. (Concrescent: in biology, a growing together of initially separate parts or organs). In the plenum nothing is final. The world is therefore a ‘pluriverse’, consisting of endless multiples of kinks and folds and it is this situation that we should be responding to. We should not be trying to transform this pluriverse into goods and services, not be looking to have ends in mind, not be designing for future consumers, because all predictions are wrong and all designs are predictions. Form is in the end death. Ingold reminds us again of Klee’s dictum, “Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible”. The aim to fill the gaps in knowledge is therefore wrong. There are no gaps to fill, we simply join in with emergent phenomena. As educationalists we are hopefully all concerned to educate and as Dewey states education is about the continuity of life. Our job is to help every student begin anew. When seeking the truth that emerges from the real a conversation will be everything. Therefore the process is fundamentally democratic and is concerned with conjoint actions. These bodies in correspondence are engaged in democratic conversations, they are communities of open-endedness. ‘Commoning’ or the joining with others will be the key drivers behind sustainability. Big science and big corporations are not interested in how we ought to live and their view that they are in control is often mistaken. Ingold was now drawing to a close and gave us the analogy of the mouse and the CERN Hadron Collider as final thing to think about. He was I think mistaken about the mouse but the point is the same. In April 2016 a stone martin entered the grounds of the CERN facility, it was electrocuted but in doing so it short-circuited a transformer and shut down the centre for two weeks. This has happened again since and this time a weasel was the cause of the problem. Nature will always remind humans of the hubris of thinking that they have any form of separation from or dominance over it.

Patterning, ties, entanglements and knots


Listen to a Tim Ingold podcast in order to get a much better idea of how he puts his ideas over.


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