What is it?
The format Laboratory Series is an investigation and improvisation set-up with an overarching question, task, or subject matter, that is based on the isolation and reduction of elements with controlled variations in a repetitive pattern. Similar to proceedings in a laboratory (Rheinberger 2015), this format is intended to gather effects, characteristics, and dynamics of a research topic, which often cannot be fully grasped or perceived at first sight. In proximity to rehearsal and creation processes in the arts, a series like this is often conducted in a rehearsal space or studio. The controlled setting allows for a clear selection of elements in the room, including tasks, instruments, specific participants or co-researchers, as well as protocols of interaction and documentation. As the series continues, the participants can either stay the same or change from session to session. This approach allows for adjustments of the set-up – introducing new elements, tasks, or instruments – and for referring back to results of previous experimental sessions. In difference to a rehearsal process or to a training these adjustments are made to further explore the overarching subject matter, rather than to produce some form of showing.
The repetition creates a familiarity with the matter at hand, in which a spectrum of approaches can unfold, which in turn sharpens the researchers’ perception for the subject matter, material or question. Operations need to follow a formal structure or score to document changes and enable comparisons. As in a scientific laboratory, discussions and findings that might lead to modifications of the setting and/or subsequent testing, have to be based on documentation of former experimental results (Plischke 2020, Matzke 2012, Latour/Woolgar 1986: 47).
The same group can handle the complete investigation together or new constellations (see Improbable Assembly) of co-researchers can reassemble for each new encounter. In case there are different groups, the research leader ensures that the laboratory setting is maintained and that the results from the different groups are secured within the same protocol of documentation. For her investigation on the practice of marching, Elisabeth Rech organised seven workshops with different co-researchers. Participants came from dance, music, visual arts and activist backgrounds and looked at the act of marching focusing on different aspects such as objects, sound, choreography, etcetera. (>>> Marching Session I-VI____>>>>, 2016)
This research format aims at experts working together and can be designed for groups with heterogeneous knowledges. Each new test is structured and marked by gradual shifts of perspective or new ways of approaching the task. This shift in perspective might simply occur because a day has passed, or it might result from a new constellation or a reformulation of how the score is implemented, based on the experiences and results of the sessions carried out before (Matthias 2018: 67-74). If the instalments of a series do not differ much in regard to the elements present in the room, the series might aim at a familiarity with the material, which can open up new perspectives that would remain invisible if the elements and scores changed every day. The experimental system is defined by a specific relation between continuity of practice and material on the one hand and different access points on the other (Rheinberger 2015: 313). A rotating system of acting/performing and observing as well as the diversity of participants’ experiences and inputs structure the collective investigation. Action-based and discursive parts are combined to generate and share experiences.
What is researched?
The human body and its habituated practices are one major topic of this research format. Questions concerning bodily activities, skills, sensations, emotions, or perceptions are investigated in the set-up. Often, interactions of human and non-human agents are explored. The collective negotiation in the laboratory brings the subjectivity of each participant’s experience into a productive relationship with the group – physically and discursively. Sequences of acting (Post-Production Workshop 2013)and observing each other enable dynamics of intuitive feedback processes. As the group of researchers is confronted with the same task, different knowledges are triggered, collected and combined. This produces a spectrum of results that forms the basis for new modulations. The duration and continuation of the experimental series enables the participating bodies to bring forth new practices, as they slowly adjust and develop their processes. It goes along with the development of perception – new ways of seeing and reading bodies. Perspectives are broadened and changed in relation to the material at hand. Variation in repetition therefore is key for this format.
As research processes, Laboratory Series should include formalised protocols of feedback, to report and collect individual experiences. Adjustments of settings should be accounted for with reference to documented data. This could, for example, be done in a collective writing practice, in which all participants face the challenge to find words for their experience. However, a notation or mapping system can also be used to organise the feedback process. In the research process to The Bodies We Are (2016), Antje Velsinger protocolled the discussion with the performers after each set of improvisations. As in a laboratory (Latour/Woolgar 1986: 87), the co-researchers are constantly adding modalities, citing, enhancing, diminishing, borrowing, and proposing new combinations in movements or practices. Conducting a Laboratory Series will always also create knowledge about choreographies, bodies, artefacts, and ways of collective working.
The research format Laboratory Series has a proximity not only to the laboratory but also to art practices that use limitations to provoke and spark creativity (Stravinsky 1947:65). Under these circumstances, first ideas and superficial approaches are spent quickly, making way for deeper understandings and innovative interaction. Through playful and non-judgmental attitudes, the group can encounter a question over and over again and look at the matter at hand in numerous unforeseen ways. To overcome or even utilise boredom in this durational process, all participants need to stay focused and disciplined, but also open for unexpected and seemingly silly impulses. Over time, new skills are developed that can lead to a virtuosity of practice. Repetition supports the development of skills and techniques that can manifest in the researchers’ bodies and change the range of physical coordination. For example, when investigating the interaction of human and non-human agents in the construction and use of barricades, Moritz Frischkorn limited the elements present in the laboratory to wooden euro-pallets, tires, cobblestones and dancers as co-researchers. He hosted a series of daily improvisations, each lasting one hour, for the duration of six weeks (A Careful Process of Composition, 2016). He limited the options of co-researchers even further by imposing silence.
As a result, interactions between human and non-human actors emerged which, whilst being artistic, nonetheless revealed a dynamic inherent to barricades, related practices, and politics.
Potentials, problems and outcomes
The development of skills and an innovative virtuosity of practice are common results of this research format. With the developed technique, new perspectives can be opened that were not physically possible before. The development of skills runs parallel to a sharpening of the perception. Knowledge derives from repetitive practices, which are embodied, shared and observed, and is inscribed in the movement repertoire and the bodily skills of participants. In Laboratory Series, dynamics often manifest physically first and then are grasped intellectually.
Through the reduction and isolation of actions, the affective dimensions of contributing elements are uncovered. Though artificially enlarged and detached from everyday reality, the new skills researchers experiment with highlight formerly hidden perspectives. This finally enables an informed transfer into a performance or a performance lecture that makes the research accessible to a wider public. This often is in itself a test (see Testing in Performance) to find out whether the outcomes of a laboratory series are received as innovative or have become too far removed from established perspectives on the matter and from sensible applications to be relatable.
The format Laboratory Series can also be opened to the public in order to either widen the outside observation process or the testing situation. If opened to a public, the same method of feedback and documentation should be applied as in the preceding laboratory situation.
Sebastian Matthias, Kathrin Wildner
Latour, Bruno/Woolgar, Steve (1986 (1979)): Laboratory Life. The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Matzke, Annemarie (2012): Arbeit am Theater. Eine Diskursgeschichte der Probe. Bielefeld: transcript.
Matthias, Sebastian (2018): Gefühlter Groove. Kollektivität zwischen Dancefloor und Bühne. Bielefeld: transcript.
Plischke, Eva (2020): Zukunft auf Probe. Verhältnisse von szenischer Kunst und Zukunftsforschung. Phd. HafenCiy University.
Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg (2015): “Labor”, in: Badura, Jens/Dubach, Selma/ Haarmann, Anke/Mersch, Dieter/Rey, Anton/Schenker, Christoph/Toro Perez, German (eds): Künstlerische Forschung. Ein Handbuch. Zürich: Diaphanes, pp. 311–314.
Stravinsky, Igor (1947): Poetics of Music – In the Form of Six Lessons. Cambridge: Harvard University
Works / Projects
Frischkorn, Moritz, A Careful Process of Composition, 2016, Hamburg.
Matthias, Sebastian, Post-Production Workshop, 2013, Hamburg.
Rech, Elisabeth, >>>>> Marching Session I – VI________ >>>>> – An Interactive (Lecture) Performance for Followers and Pacemakers (2016)
Velsinger, Antje, The Bodies We Are, 2016, Hamburg.