I am going to argue that artistic innovation is an overrated concept. More specifically, my view is that, contrary to business innovation perhaps, innovation in the context of the arts cannot be a valid goal. I want to underline this because I find it surprising how often the expectation seems to be that for something to have true artistic value it has to be seen to be innovative. And conversely, disappointment often ensues when something that was expected to be innovative proves not to be so.
Only last night I was told in an informal conversation that one failing of the work of the collective Ontroerend Goed was the fact that some of what they do, had already been seen or done before. For those who don’t know the work, a large part of Ontroerend Goed’s oeuvre (The Personal Trilogy, Audience) can best be summed up as the kind of work whose dramaturgy depends on the input of the audience, or as my colleague Cathy Turner and I would call it, ‘porous dramaturgy’.
The point I like to make in response to such accusations is that if you look closely, in fact, (successful) artists rarely set out to be innovative. Innovation is an inevitable byproduct of their other concerns. Picasso’s paintings were not a result of a desire to shock or offer something new for its own sake, but a result of a thoughtful engagement with the world around himself. On the cusp of a paradigm shift between representational and conceptual art, Picasso was able to go in step with the time and express this in his work. Similarly with Ontroerend Goed, I devote a large part of the final chapter of my forthcoming book Theatre-Making to analyzing the creative impulses behind each of several pieces the company made. Often the questions they wished to tackle were very simple and primarily meta-theatrical in nature – that is, concerned with exploring the form. Most of the company members were literature graduates who fell into theatre-making through performance poetry and their examination of the form was often unencumbered by any theoretical understandings. But, yes – even despite the fact that their work has given me a completely new and fresh kind of theatre experience on more than one occasion – I would agree that there is nothing new about the way they make theatre.
Some aspects of their and other interactive theatre companies’ work can be traced right back to the mystery plays, and maybe even to ancient Greece. This only seems new to us because we have been blinkered by a century of sitting quietly in theatres behind the ‘fourth wall’.
It seems that we are on the cusp of another paradigm shift as far as theatre is concerned, or at least I hope so. And in this perhaps we are lagging behind science already. In the early 2000s, the Finnish physicist and former Nokia research scientist, Ilkka Tuomi developed an interesting thesis for his book Networks of Innovation (2001, 2006), based on the idea that innovation, like knowledge itself, is a social product, contingent on the involvement of a ‘community’. This principle was made particularly obvious by the advent of the internet and the philosophical shift towards the ‘Open Source’ development model in technology, where networks of software writers were being enabled to add to the development of a particular product thus replacing the previously used linear model of closely guarded corporate secrets. This change of outlook came about as a result of the realization that many technological innovations (such as the telephone, the internet and email) had acquired their significance and popularity because of the user initiative, rather than because of the original goal with which they were created. Thus one of Tuomi’s conclusions is that ‘innovation happens in periphery’ even though ‘such peripheries are conventionally described as frontiers’.
It is interesting that this theoretical interest in the notion of ‘community’ in the field of epistemology and science – which Tuomi traces back to Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s 1991 title Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation – also coincides with the moment in which the notion of ‘community’ was largely discredited in the Humanities due to its association with the dogmas of the then failed ideology of communism. We in the arts have therefore shied away from the concept of community while the scientists were able to redefine and understand it as something that does not emerge from putting together a sufficient number of individuals. “On the contrary, individuals became persons with individual identities through their membership in the various communities they are members of.”(First Monday).
This is related to the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s idea of ‘community’ as a collection of individuals ‘being together’ which he posed as far as 1986, but it has taken a while for this to really reach those of us in the arts, which perhaps explains why we have remained stuck with the idea that the individual artist has to be the one who innovates (rather than this being a process which involves the user, or a process which involves community). Perhaps this also explains why the biggest enemy of artistic innovation is the artist’s own ego – but that’s another story altogether.
Duska Radosavljevic is a dramaturg and a Lecturer in Drama and Theatre Studies at the University of Kent. She has worked with various UK theatre companies including Northern Stage, Circomedia, and the RSC and has written for the Stage Newspaper since 1998. She is the editor of The Contemporary Ensemble (Routledge, 2013) and the author of Theatre-Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).