February 8, 2019

by Laura Wolff Scanlan


The act of experiment in its many forms throughout history, from the scientific to the aesthetic, shares the same pathway to discovering new truths. Whether through poetry or physics, decoded in a controlled lab or the Mojave Desert, or if standard conventions are manipulated or blown up, the practice of experiment has evolved to be notably complicated in the twenty-first century.

To explore the concept of experiment as a framework, objective, method, and provocation, the two-day symposium, “Disciplines of Experiment” was held at the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago on October 18-19. Organizers David Simon of the University of Maryland and Patrick Jagoda, associate professor at the University of Chicago, brought together faculty from the University of Chicago, University of Sussex, University of New Orleans, and University of Pittsburgh. A range of participants who conceive of their research and pedagogy in experimental terms including a historian, curator, physicist, poets, artists, game designers, musicians, and social and political scientists convened for panel discussions and experimental presentations.

The two-day symposium opened with an evening of performances and presentations by UChicago staff. Ashlyn Sparrow of the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab had participants create a board game on the topic of social impact. Director of Undergraduate Studies in Theater & Performance Studies Heidi Coleman’s talk “Exquisite Pressure Composition Work: Containing the Maeneds” culminated in experimental theatrical pieces performed by symposium participants. To conclude the evening, Assistant Professor of Composition Sam Pluta discussed “Experiment and Expression in Electro-Acoustic Duo Performance” followed by an improvisational musical performance featuring Jason Roebke on bass. “In both art and science, experiments are exceptions to the rule,” says Jagoda. Of his interest in experiment, Jagoda says it comes at least in part from the games he writes about and designs, since they are open-ended situations in which players have access to real-time human decision-making and creativity. “Experiments don’t happen in nature but are created by artists and scientists,” he adds. “They are not closed worlds. They have consequences.”

To Jagoda, this symposium represented an attempt to experiment with experiment. “"Disciplines of Experiment" gave us both critical distance and also intense proximity so that we could think together about both experimental researchers and participants, experimental designs and artworks. While we may all be research subjects, in one way or another, through forms of FitBit self-quantification or submission to social media algorithms, we are not all identical research subjects.” When talking about experiment in literature and the arts, the term often refers to those aesthetic projects where the clamor and untidiness of subjectivity matters. This is especially the case in poetry. Like the avant-garde poets of the early twentieth century and the American beat poets of the 1950s and ’60s, today’s experimental poets challenge mainstream conventions, styles, and attitudes toward language in innovative ways. For the contemporary experimental poet, this encompasses the continual absorption of other artistic media, including digital and visual media, in a way that can be manipulated and improvised.

In a panel discussion titled “Poetic Experimentation,” poet John Wilkinson, along with fellow UChicago faculty Rachel Galvin and Edgar Garcia discussed their journeys into experimentation.

“The work that matters to me is driven by a tension between the emergence of formal principles and the pressure of spontaneity,” says Wilkinson. “A mistake can turn into a structural principle; I don’t want to be able to predict what will come out. I don’t keep drafts, although who knows what my computer remembers.”

Early in her work as a translator, Galvin, who is also a poet, felt a need to be “faithful” to the original text. In her talk “Transcreation as Poetic Practice,” Galvin says she now practices transcreation, that in her work she’s “interested in juggling ideas of originality, artistic recycling, and testing lines between reconfiguration, response, and translation.”

“There’s this question of how creative you can get when and how much permission you have to be creative,” she says. “I am deeply aware of the ethics of taking so-called liberties with someone else’s work.” Galvin’s recent experimental works include a visual art installation that incorporates transcreated poetry and collaborating with an international consortium to homophonically translate a French poem into five languages, which a Chilean experimental composer has set to music, performed by a soprano.

Garcia, in his presentation “Poetry of the Desert Codes,” discussed how the most experimental work in his discipline developed after meeting Alfredo Figueroa on the TV show Ancient Aliens,where Garcia discussed his research on pictographs, petroglyphs, hieroglyphs, and khipu.

Figueroa is the keeper of the Blythe Intaglios, gigantic gravel figures in the California desert, where Figueroa believes lies the birthplace of Aztecs. Through this chance encounter on Ancient Aliens, Garcia traveled to visit the sites with Figueroa where he recorded Mayan walking songs and Lakota prison songs sung by Figueroa’s son, which Garcia played for the audience. Although he has no game plan yet of how to experiment with these recordings, Garcia hopes to collect more oral histories of the regions along the Colorado River in the Southwest.

If experimental literature is concerned with what can happen, history works in reverse, with what has happened. In experimental terms, a historical event cannot be observed, only its effects.

When historian Carla Nappi began thinking about creating her experimental presentation for the symposium, she decided to combine the crafts of history, translation, and DJ’ing to produce a visual piece that could be viewed and experienced in multiple ways. Nappi, the Andrew W. Mellon Chair in History at the University of Pittsburgh, performed “Remixing History” by dissecting, sampling, manipulating, and remixing video, historical texts, images, and storytelling techniques in the framework of an academic lecture to tell the history of China. The result was an exciting multimedia mix of history, fairy tale, poetry, performance art, sound, and video. “How we pay attention helps create objects into what they are,” says Nappi. “There needs to be a space to break that open, there needs to be a space that creates joy.”

The experimental practitioner in the arts and humanities retains control over both independent and dependent variables. On the other hand, experimental research is created by scientists in which extraneous variables are controlled and manipulated to determine their effect on a dependent variable, thereby establishing cause and effect relationships. In other words, experiments are inherently artificial.

“In several fields, such as public health,” says Jagoda, “randomized controlled trials are considered the most rigorous form of experiment. Even so, experimental methods extend to a broader set of practices that entail manipulating or changing reality in order to understand it more thoroughly. It is important to emphasize that such practices have always been plural.”

Jagoda says that this has been true from experiments of the Royal Society in the seventeenth century to the expansion of the scientific method in the late nineteenth century, and even to the Big Science complex of the post-World War II era. In all of these contexts, he adds, “there was no such thing as a single standardized experimental method that every practitioner adopted to study all material phenomena.”

For the social sciences, where human participants are involved, experimental stakes are high. For example, scientist Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience study of the early 1960s—where well-intentioned participants agreed to deliver what appeared to be increasingly painful electric shocks at sometimes fatal levels to actors who would sometimes produce screams—could be considered a piece of theatre complete with actors, scenery, props, blocking, pre-recorded sounds, a script, and an audience.

In her talk “Artificial Experiments,” sociologist D’Lane Compton questions the commonly-held perception that something that is artificial is something that is bad.

“Experiments’ greatest strength is that they are artificial,” says Compton. “Yet, what’s most interesting to me is that their greatest critique is that they are artificial.” From the context of the sociologist, she explains, there’s a tendency to question if the work is representative of real world. “There’s typically a notion about small samples, or that the experiment is potentially too simple for the real world. However, it’s in that simplicity that we’re able to strip away what is happening to look at the underlying mechanics. Labs are very real and have real world interactions.” The symposium’s final interdisciplinary panel included University of Chicago experimental physicist Heinrich Jaeger. “I’ve been listening to what everyone has to say about experimentation, and I think we can agree that it is a deliberate perturbation of the status quo with some detection of change,” he says. “For me it’s to upset the scientific applecart.” In an academic setting, he adds, there is risk to discovery, but one worth taking. “That’s where it becomes interesting.”

Jagoda sums up the nature of experimentation across the disciplines with a nod to the inherent creativity in the practice. “If experiments are artificial and artful, they are also ambivalent. If you delve into both outcomes and history, you see both experiments that are unethical and exploitative, as well as experiments that are jaw-dropping in the ingenuity of their design and beneficial to human well-being.”

The Disciplines of Experiment symposium was co-sponsored by the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, Franke Institute for the Humanities, UChicago Arts’ Arts Science + Culture Initiative, and the Nicholson Center for British Studies.