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Tony Fry Reflecting Upon the Artlab Process to Date: Remnants of the Day

Remnants of the Day

The five core ArtLab projects and two satellite public event projects, as listed, now completed appear at first sight to be totally different from each other. What could an urban ‘bat problem’; (Lab 2/SatLab 1)  a new form of the city (Lab 1); a series of investigations into the cultures of/surrounding water (Lab 3/SatLab 2) and a Southern India sacred ritual (Lab 5) have in common with each other? The answer is that they all are linked by an acknowledgement of the agency of a ‘trace of historicity’ – that is, they all carry something of significance from the past into the future and in so doing contribute our gaining an ability to be futural. More specifically, they help us think and act towards new cultural practices of sustain-ability that draw from explorations of the distant past.  

A concern about the way human beings both treat and strive to understand bats is indivisible from the way ‘we’ treat and seek to comprehend animals in general. To be able to do this requires we human beings recognise our own residual animality. But as many leading thinkers are now making clear, we overlook this part of our being at our peril (see for example, Giorgio Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal (trans Kevin Attell) Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004). Effectively to repress the trace of our animality is not just to negate empathy with animals but more significantly it is to fail to see our interdependence with them and with organic life in general. As the French philosophy Maurice Merleau-Ponty put it: we are ‘flesh of the world’. Unless we learn the full importance of this we will never become more sustain-able.

Thinking the new for of the city, the ‘urmadic city’ – the city that moves – the first ArtLab, was no science fiction fantasy but a recognition that our current dominant mode of earthy habitation is in the end just not viable. The more static our way of life, the larger and denser our cities get, the more at risk we become. This applies to an exposure to existing threats, like ‘natural disasters’ and conflict, and especially to the still unfolding dangers of climate change. Against this backdrop we do well to remember that while human settlement has been around for some 10,000 years for the approximate 150,000 years prior to this Homo sapiens survived by being nomadic. As the climate changed people moved. Embracing the trace of our nomadic past to conceptualise the forms of cities of the future may thus be one of the key factors in our species future survival.

The last ArtLab in India was essentially an inquiry into the trace of the aesthetic of community. It was based on the acknowledgment that community is no mere socio-geographic construction but, as been understood by thinkers over the aeons, centres on the power of belief. As we learnt first from Goethe, and many sociologists thereafter, is the commonality of belief, the sacred, ritual, tradition, which bonds people together and constitutes community – this is equally true of secular and non-secular cultures, both modern and ancient.

Thus with the now dominance of secular society in the West that lack central values and core politico-ethical beliefs, the power of community has dramatically weakened. Clearly, some of the strongest and most powerful expressions of the actual power of belief are found outside the Western tradition. To this end the ArtLab explored the use and power of mantra and chant in the Samavada tradition in the ritual practices of Southern India – it did this by visiting, with local mediation, three families who are the sole remaining keepers of this knowledge. As research by Indian scientists working in the region has made clear, the trace of the power of ritual in this example brings much knowledge underscored by reason into question (including the relation between cultural practice and environment).

What can be learnt from this tradition, specifically and in general, is one question this Artlab posed to itself. Another goes to how its knowledge can be conserved and explored? Likewise, the question of the place of the trace of the sacred in innovation in the making of secular traditions was also deemed to be of considerable importance. What the research in India – not just of the three families but also of traditional music and its educational methods – made evident was that whatever the practices attain, they stand upon an induction into rigor, discipline and absolute commitment to the heuristic agency of aesthetic forms. Evidence of this was seen across all generation, from small children to very old men, from the pupil to the guru.

                                                                                           Tony Fry, November, 2011


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