International Institute for Asian Studies
Reconsidering, intervening
Submitted by Philippe Peycam on 10 July 2015 - 1:20pm

With the two major IIAS-supported events of ICAS 9 (Adelaide) and the Africa-Asia Knowledge Axis (Accra) approaching, it is fitting for me to update you on how our institute is progressing in its efforts to explore new research-led orientations through the programme ‘Rethinking Asian Studies in a Global Context’ and its five forums (urban, heritage, geographies, arts and Africa-Asia; more information can be found at www.rethinking.asia).

The last four months have seen significant activities taking place, all aimed at opening new pedagogical perspectives in the field of Asian studies. I shall focus here on two recent events: ‘Reconsidering Craft as a Pedagogy from Below’, a roundtable held in Jaipur on 16-17 March 2015, and ‘Artistic Interventions – Histories, Cartographies and Politics in Asia’, a workshop followed by a roundtable, held in Hong Kong on 30 March-2 April 2015.

The Jaipur event was organized jointly with the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and the American Institute of Indian Studies (find reports and other information pertaining to this event at http://tinyurl.com/reconsideringpedagogy ). It was the last of a series of activities under the programme’s ‘Uses of Culture and Cultural Heritage’ forum, which also included a Summer School (Chiang Mai, 2014) and a roundtable on the ‘Politics of Craft Textile’ (Chiang Mai, 2014). In Jaipur, the outlines of an educational programme that could combine the use of craft in its cultural location as ‘Asian’ – as an alternative method of research and teaching knowledge – were explored. Discussions were multi-leveled. Most participants agreed that craft as an autonomous ‘space of making’ could well be mobilized as an integrative citizen-focused pedagogy. Notions of ‘ecological sustainability’, ‘everyday life archives’, or even the question of time as a non-quantifiable value necessary for the conception of knowledge, were brought up. The kind of pedagogies that should result from the encounter of artisans, scholars, designers, non-governmental organizations and governmental structures should effectively connect workshops, households and classrooms, not just in the transmission of craft knowledge, but also in the mapping of local traditions through a focus on historical case studies, with an emphasis on building a methodology where various forms of social knowledge could inform each other. The use of trans-local /regional networks like those supported by IIAS, as well as the possibility of e-academic platforms, could well help validate craft practices as ethically, economically and ecologically legitimate forms of knowledge of societies and their cultures. In sum, as one participant noted, the proposed process of learning should be understood as ‘an integrated pedagogy framed through the idea of the right to livelihood’.

In many ways, the Hong Kong forum ‘Artistic Interventions’ reinforced the conclusions of the Jaipur event (please find reports and other information pertaining to this event at http://tinyurl.com/artisticinterventions). Resulting from a collaboration between IIAS, Hong Kong Baptist University, the Centre for Globalization Studies at Amsterdam University, California College for the Arts and One-A Space Gallery, as well as local civil society partners, the double event brought together participants from the academic, artistic and curatorial fields who set out to unravel the question of art and social intervention, as well as the way artists could define unconventional modes of reading the histories and cartographies of Asia. The first workshop saw artists and scholars interpreting each other’s works in a dialogical fashion. The ensuing roundtable consisted of an interactive exercise that aimed to assemble concrete programmatic ideas. The various interventions sought to combine aesthetic and ethical exigencies, drawing on utopian thinking to question existing institutional constructions and established lines of social, cultural and political groupings. By transcending disciplinary borders, participants also sought to revisit the position of Asia as ‘a mobile vessel of connections and dislocations, a political construction that can be deconstructed and re-created through artistic, curatorial, and scholarly practices’, a point of ‘alternative global imagination’ to today’s Western-dominated model and its present crisis.

More specifically, participants agreed that art should be viewed as a unique space capable of questioning the neoliberal ideological determinism that came into dominance in the 1980s. As it is itself produced under the constraints of financial cuts and institutional disadvantages, it is well placed to think creatively about the conditions of survival of humanistic knowledge, while it is also capable of expressing ambivalences against what could lead to exclusionary counter-determinisms. Discourses on art, moreover, should help to push the boundaries of regional politics by revealing hitherto unnoticed connections, often restrained by the nation-state model. Quite devoid of the self-centered aestheticism often found in certain art milieux, the Hong Kong discussions - perhaps inspired by the recent ‘Umbrella movement’ in the Territory - carried an interventionist intention that aimed to reach out to communities and their social lives, to engage spectators as participants. In so doing they rejected the high-modernist idea of an artificial autonomy of art. Like craft, moreover, ‘artistic interventions’ shared a place-based focus, bringing up local genealogies, narratives and experiences, that otherwise find themselves concealed by linear national histories.

Through these two rich intellectual exercises, the Mellon-supported programme ‘Rethinking Asian Studies in a Global Context’ is helping to deepen IIAS’ intellectual humanistic commitment and providing it with potential future tracks of ‘interventions’.