CONFERENCE | Material Inventions; Lucas Ihlein

Posted on 05/12/2009

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Earlier this week, I attended a two day conference at Deakin University themed Material Inventions: Applying Creative Research. Creative arts scholars are experimenting with the possibilities of creative research – embedding research programs into creative projects and exploring the collaborative potential of creative research, in both university-based and extra-university projects. The conference addressed three main streams of enquiry:

  • Creative research as a site for knowledge-making and innovation
  • The broader, interdisciplinary and industry applications of creative research
  • Measuring the impact and assessing the value of creative research

I don’t think the conference really covered that breadth but it was a valuable and timely engagement with a diverse range of works that touched on a range of ideas about connections between research, practice, theory and thought. With Professor Paul Carter as a keynote speaker, Director of Creative Deakin and Chair in Creative Place Research at Deakin, the conference indirectly referenced Carter’s work on material thinking. Deakin Creative was established in the Faculty of Arts and Education in June 2008 to position creativity as a key strategic asset for the changing face of University research and education.

The conference gave me some space to consider and compare my own research and practice processes in relation to various writing projects and to reflect on the processes of an array of other practitioners. It seemed timely at this point in Placing’s evolution. As I am not a researcher embedded in an institution, I sometimes find it difficult to coast along the contours of the discourse about ‘creative research’, be it practice-led research or practice-based research or research-led practice. Yet, when Estelle Barrett described creative research as existing almost without borders as an open and inviting space, I felt a little less concerned about fixing my coordinates or reaching for my compass in order to orienteer my way through the terrain. Exploration can be so invigorating, unconstrained and generative.

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Several of the papers were of specific interest to me for Placing, presenting specific meditations on constructions and representations of place. I was particularly pleased to hear from Lucas Ihlein, a writer/artist/blogger, who had produced place-based blogs. I had become of aware of his work through his involvement with the artist run space Squat Space and also the exhibition and publishing project There Goes the Neighbourhood: Redfern and the Politics of Urban Space, both of these projects cleave the cultural politics of urban life.

Ihlein explores at the boundaries of art and the boundaries of places in ways that cultivate an awareness – potentially acutely so – of the present. Ihlein spoke of a deep concern for the ethics of engagement and the intensity of everyday life, referring to his doctoral research in which he presented blogging as an artform. It is apparent that blogging is an ideal platform to investigate those ideas of relational aesthetics. One of his projects was a formal residency in the regional community of Kellerberrin and another was a self-initiated project in Petersham, Sydney. Each presented specificities of place and people that required attention. In Kellerberrin, Ihlein was a visitor and in Petersham he was exploring his home suburban. To be a visitor is to unfold the tourist gaze and encounter the strange, to sense as only a newcomer can, while home enfolds us, challenging us to sense anew. Where we sometimes might look for taints of the familiar or the uncanny in other places, finding the exotic and unfamiliar at home can be especially demanding. He affirmed this when he said that he struggled to notice what was around him and that familiar of often ‘seen through’ rather than ‘looked at’. For me, Ihlein’s experience fundamentally captures the issues of writing place.

For his Petersham project, he set the constraint of living in, walking around and blogging about the suburb for a period of two months. He did not set foot outside the suburb boundary. The relationship between walking and writing come into sharp focus – not just through the words of de Certeau who wrote of our unconscious navigation of the city – where our bodies create places through acts of imagination and sensemaking, organising through movement and provisionally drawing fragments together through a form of spatial storytelling. These acts of walking also resulted in encounters with other locals and improbably conversations with the curious and disbelieving.

Ihlein generously gave me copies of his printed publications from Bilateral Kellerberin and Bilateral Petersham – ‘blooks’ are produced from his blogs – and these publications will be addressed in a future post. While chatting briefly, I was curious to know how and if the project had been taken up planners and the local authority as an intense engagement with place, a reflection that might inform planning and design or community design. For example, the description of walking along a main road – an inhospitable terrain – as if taking one’s life into one’s own hands. Understandably, for Ihlein that type of influence or communication wasn’t the point of the creative act (or the work) which was ‘in the moment’, situated or situationist. However, I feel strongly that as a process of research these artistic sorties should have legitimacy in city making (poesis)  in the same way that I proposed earlier that periplum might bring poetry and planning into contact.

What struck me most about Ihlein’s presentation was his mindfulness about the provisionality of spatial arrangement. Only those in power fix things in gridded coordinates (de Certeau). In setting out to capture or arrest the ephemeral, Ihlein takes a risk in upsetting the balance of the fragmentary and the fleeting. There are traces though, always traces, and relationships too, so many relationships. So Ihlein tends to these frailties with gentle care, almost loving and reverential, as if to reveal the joy of ‘discovering’ that which lies at our feet. If planners and designers could think and create in these ways, our cities would never stop whispering new stories, emerging from the sediment of the old and through an awareness of the present.

More reflections on the conference presentations are forthcoming.

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