IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No.17 | Institutes

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Performing Scholarship

R.G. Collingwood, in an essay on how philosophical reflections arise upon contemplation of subjects including history and art, draws an important contrast between views of art held by philosophers and artists. For philosophers, Collingwood says, art by definition is a transcendental concept. Artists, in contrast, view art empirically: they are interested in particular works of art as far as they are good and beautiful. A celebrated architectural atrocity (Collingwood gives the example of the Randolph Hotel) can be for philosophers not only a work of art, but a good one in the sense that it obeys architectural norms of what constitutes a class of buildings. Collingwood imagines a dialogue between a philosopher and an artist. The artist, upon hearing such an outrage as the Randolph Hotel being described as a good work of art, 'will probably leave the room, banging the door.'

By Matthew Cohen


The research programme of the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), 'Performing Arts of Asia: Tradition and Innovation' (PAATI), which began in October 1997, is an effort to raise a ruckus: banging (though never shutting) the doors, pounding on the ceilings, and hammering on the steam pipes of the halls of learning. Academic distinctions between artists and scholars of Asian performing arts have been breaking down for decades. The transcendental-empirical contrast between philosopher-scholar and artist outlined by Collingwood has been radically challenged in the last decades. In the Netherlands, Arnold Bake and several students of Jaap Kunst (considered by some as the founder of ethnomusicology), including Bernard IJzerdraat and Mantle Hood, long ago practised as well as preached about music. For such scholar-musicians, their instruments were their passports to musical cultures and societies of the world. As PAATI board member Ernst Heins suggested, however, performing scholars have potentially new and important roles to play as cultural mediators in a rapidly changing world. Abilities of scholars to play instruments, dance, sing, act, tell stories, clown, juggle, or animate puppets should ideally not only be means towards acquiring data. Such abilities, and the lengthy processes of training associated with their acquisition, are also potentially creatively subversive of sedimented distinctions between 'us' and 'them,' 'consumers' and 'producers,' 'scholars' and 'artists,' 'Europeans' and 'Asians.'

The year since the PAATI programme began has been a turbulent one internationally. Economies world-wide have been heavily impacted by what was first characterized as an Asian economic crisis that began in late 1997. The thirty-year regime of President Soeharto of Indonesia has ended. Tensions between India and Pakistan mounted over India's nuclear weapons tests. With all of these developments, there is an accompanying danger of falling back upon primordial defensive positions, reifying 'Asian values' or 'the Western tradition of capitalist democracy.' The ability not only to write about Asian art forms vis vis European scholarly models, but also to produce these art forms in ways similar to how they are performed in Asia is de facto a strong counter-argument against such primordial sentiments and essentialisms. Art does not make people more humane. But interacting with the people we study as artists, and being seen by others as participants in genuine exchange might help in preventing too-rigid barriers across cultures from being constructed or defended. And representing the products of this creative exchange not only as written texts but as artistic performances opens up the esoterica of scholarship to a larger public. Doors can be banged on entering as well as leaving a room.

The PAATI Programme

The PAATI programme is an initiative to research and represent contemporary and historical Asian performance grounded in a theory of practice and the praxis of theory. Three postdoctoral research fellows - Hanne de Bruin, Matthew Isaac Cohen, and Hae-kyung Um - with Wim van Zanten as programme director and an executive board composed of Ben Arps, Joep Bor, Ernst Heins, Wilt Idema, and Saskia Kersenboom, have recently completed the first year of a planned four-year investigation into Asian performance.
Each of the three research fellows has come to the study of Asian performance from different backgrounds and with distinct theoretical and disciplinary orientations. Dr De Bruin is by training an Indologist, with a background in philology, comparative linguistics, and religious studies. She is also a producer and costume designer for theatre, and has organized social relief efforts for actors and musicians involved in Kattaikkuttu, a folk theatre of Tamil Nadu. Dr Cohen is a cultural anthropologist specializing in Indonesian performance, literature, art, and religion. He is a practicing puppeteer as well, and during the five years he has lived in Indonesia he has frequently performed wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre) for village audiences in Java, extemporizing dialogue in Javanese in a traditional style associated with the Cirebon region of north-coastal West Java. Dr Um is an ethnomusicologist, but was first educated as a performer of Korean classical music. She not only writes about classical and popular Korean music, she also performs and has given lecture-demonstrations throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. More than anything, it is a shared interest in combining practical work as participants with scholarship that brings the fellows together in dialogue.

Kattaikkuttu in Europe

The PAATI programme's official opening was marked with a performance by a Kattaikkuttu theatrical performance of the play 'Arjuna's Penance' on 23 October, 1997, at Leiden University under the sponsorship of the IIAS. The performance was part of a tour of the Tamil Nadu Kattaikkuttu Kali Valarcci Munnerra Sangam under the direction of P. Rajagopal. This event was not only an opportunity for the PAATI programme to present the spectacle of this little-known Asian art form to a public audience, it also provided an opportunity for Hanne De Bruin, whose works focuses upon Kattaikkuttu and related Tamil theatrical forms, to investigate European audience reception of an Asian theatre and the creative choices made by performers in adapting their art to novel settings. The results of this investigation were presented in an article co-written by Dr De Bruin and Dr Wim van Zanten entitled 'Negotiating Cultures,' published in Oideion Online. (More about Kattaikkuttu on page 15).

Education through performing

Education is a performative process, involving the establishment of a common framework, the assumption of roles, dialogue, and trust. Performances are likewise educational: conveying information, evaluating skills, instilling values. Reciprocal processes of learning and teaching take place not only in classrooms, conferences, and scholarly journals, but also on radio, in trade fairs, at museums, on-line, and through artistic performances. The complex relation of performance and education is not only a central research topic for PAATI; it also constitutes an area for deep practical involvement.
The research fellows have consulted for a radio programme on Korean music and an exhibition on Indonesian performing objects; given lecture-demonstrations of Korean music and impersonation techniques in Kattaikkuttu theatre; given six lectures for a class on the performing arts of Asia, presented a course on music and politics in East Asia, and delivered numerous guest lectures in universities and museums in the Netherlands and abroad: all within the course of the first year of the project. During the coming years, the fellows plan to sponsor a theatre festival in India, assist in bringing an Indonesian theatrical troupe to the Netherlands for workshops and performances, and present courses on Korean and Indonesian theatres including acting workshops.
Project presentation

The first major collaborative presentation of the PAATI fellows took place at the Agnietenkapel of the University of Amsterdam on 26 May, 1998. It was an opportunity for the fellows to voice some of their plans for the coming three years and to engage in discussion with interested scholars and members of the performing arts community of the Netherlands.
The presentation took place at a particularly tense moment in Asian political and economic affairs: the Soeharto regime was in the process of collapsing; the South Korean economy ailing from 'the Asian flu,' and Pakistan and India apparently at the brink of a nuclear conflict. Many researchers interested in artistic aspects of Asian cultures were forced during the months around the presentation to justify the importance and relevance of studying art in these dire circumstances. Different solutions have been reached. Dr Heins spoke in his opening comments in Amsterdam about gamelan musical groups around the world presenting benefit concerts for financial assistance to Indonesian counterparts and raising public awareness of and sympathy for Indonesia's economic and political tribulations. Professor Stokhof developed a contrast between the playful nature of the PAATI programme and IIAS programmes focussing upon applied scholarship. In moments of darkness, play is not simply an escape valve, but also a source of strength, hope, and determination.

ICAS Panel

The major collaborative event of the first year of the programme was a panel at the International Conference of Asian Scholars in Noordwijkerhout on 27 June 1998, addressing the theme of performing arts of Asia and the methodology of practice. Talks were presented by the three research fellows, with Dr van Zanten acting as moderator and Dr Kersenboom as discussant.
The free-ranging talks and the discussions that followed focused upon the applicability of practice theory as developed by French sociologists Pierre Boudieu and Michel de Certeau to Asian performance, the development of methodologies that account for live performance's 'liveness' and detailed particularity, the locus and focus of scholarly observation and participation, the utility of a scholar training in a particular tradition herself, and the significant roles that new technologies such as CDs and the internet can play in future scholarship. It is planned that the next issue of Oideion Online will contain versions of the presentations given at the ICAS conference, with audio-visual examples.

Future Directions

An important initiative taken on the part of the PAATI programme has been the institution of post-doctoral level master classes on themes related to the study of Asian performance. The first three-day long session was given in July by Dr Stuart Blackburn from the School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, and focused on South Asian performative traditions, the concept of performance itself, and research ethics. The coming years will see more master classes and the generation of much more dialogue. A research seminar on popular theatres of Indonesia is being taught by Dr Cohen and Mr Wartaka, a sandiwara masres theatre impresario from West Java, in the autumn of 1998, under the auspices of the PAATI project. An international conference on the theme of patronage, spectatorship, and performance is planned for 2000. A jointly authored volume entitled Performing Asia Abroad, focusing on the experiences of Asian artists performing and teaching in Europe and the United States, is in the pipeline.
Finally, there are embryonic plans for the development of a European research centre or department with a focus on the performing arts of Asia. Such departments exist in Asia, and the United States, but no comparable institutions are to be found in Europe. The combined focus on scholarship and practice of Asian performing arts provides fertile ground for new approaches to performing scholarship.
Dr Matthew Isaac Cohen is a Research Fellow for the PAATI Programme at the IIAS.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No.17 | Institutes