Altering a Fixed Identity: Thinking through Improvisation

Anne Douglas


"Replacing artist with player as if adopting an alias is a way of altering a fixed identity. And a changed identity is a principle of mobility, of going from one place to another…" (Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life 125-6)
This paper explores an experiment in improvisation in which the practices of music, the visual arts, philosophy, and anthropology come together. Calendar Variations (2010-11) draws different kinds of artists into creative experiences through the use of verbal scores. The score invites participation in a process in which the outcome is indeterminate. The experiment raises a question within the group of artists and participants about the nature of artistic practice itself and whether any single aesthetic approach is more appropriate than another.
The experiment frames the following questions: Why do we have/institute improvisation in life? Can art particularly inform those situations in life in which the unscripted and contingent challenge us to rethink in situations in which we may be encountering failure either in what is around us or failure in ourselves to cope?
Drawing in particular on Allan Kaprow’s articulation of Experimental Art (Essays), informed by Ingold and Hallam’s construct of improvisation as a metaphor for existence (Creativity and Cultural Improvisation), I propose that the radical questioning of certainty in experimental art practices offers a different insight into improvisation, one that deals with experiences of failure. The paper concludes that sustaining uncertainty about what the arts might be has given rise to two possible understandings of visual art, one based on contemplation, and the other on time and duration. Our creative imagination is challenged by the collisions and complementarities of these different understandings to sustain a perpetually mobile state of creativity, akin to "adopting an alias as a way of altering a fixed identity" (Kaprow, Essays).

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Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation is generously supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (through both its Major Collaborative Research Initiatives and Aid to Scholarly Journals programs) and by the University of Guelph Library.
ISSN: 1712-0624