ASA05: Creativity and cultural improvisation

4th - 7th April 2005, University of Aberdeen, UK

Opening address

Improvisation and the art of making things stick
Professor Karin Barber, Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham

If everything social is made up as we go along – if improvisation and invention sustain all our actions and institutions, and if social and personal existence are only to be understood as continually emergent – this does not mean that the ideas of fixity and of durable cultural installation must be thrown out of the window. Our ceaseless innovative and re-creative activity is often directed precisely towards making things stick, making things last, making a mark that transcends space and time. Performance theory has helped us to conceptualise the fluid and emergent aspects of social life; the theory of ‘entextualisation’, which grew out of performance theory, has focused on the means by which the fluid is solidified and made transmissible. Between them, they broach – though without really getting to the bottom of - some central questions: how do new cultural things happen, and in what sense are they ‘new’? how and in what circumstances are they made to stick? how do people collectively constitute social traditions and institutions so as to furnish sites in which ‘new’ things can happen, and can then be retained?

Genres of performance which, in the cultures concerned, are demarcated for special attention – such as verbal arts, ritual, music, theatre - may provide specially valuable sites for investigating the knot of improvisation-and-consolidation of cultural forms in everyday life, for two reasons. First, they involve the framing and staging of improvisatory competence in sequences which are thus demarcated for preservation and future recreation. It is as if they bring the continuous daily processes of innovation and fixing to the surface. They may thus offer clues to local/indigenous understandings of creativity – understandings on which we could draw in our own attempts at theorising. Second, because what they stage is an interaction, such genres can open a view onto the way that social creativity happens between people rather than originating with a single consciousness and then being disseminated to others. Looking closely at performance genres may thus allow us to trace in symptomatic detail at least some aspects of the wider processes of collective cultural generation.

Closing plenary

Creativity and cultural improvisation

Simon Unwin, Professor of Architecture, University of Dundee
Colwyn Trevarthen, Professor of Child Psychology and Psychobiology, University of Edinburgh
John Burnside, Reader in Creative Writing, University of St Andrews
Alan Johnston, Reader, Edinburgh College of Art

Tim Ingold, Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Aberdeen

For this plenary session four distinguished panellists were invited – an architect, an artist, a scientist and a novelist and poet – to present their own views on issues of creativity and cultural improvisation. Rather than consisting of formal paper presentations, the panel took an interview format in which a series of pre-agreed questions were put to the respective panellists from the Chair, allowing them to improvise their responses on the spot. This then generated a wider discussion to which members of the audience contributed with both further questions and comments.