3rd Provocation – 30th March 2011

Provocation 3 – What is the value of originality and authenticity in the work we do?

Salamanda Tandem Principle 1993- “Anything we create for ourselves is intrinsically better than what we are given; when we adopt styles, or assume / mimic existing ideas they can lose their original significance.  We need to make our own culture which has relevance to who we are and which reflects our own experience. Authenticity is therefore central to our work”


The fallacy of originality: “all ideas are secondhand and drawn from a million different sources” (J.Lethem, ‘The Ecstacy of Influence’)

The conceptual boundary between us and the world we inhabit – the device by which we get to conceive of ourselves as discrete individuals – is, in truth, a very porous (if not completely imaginary) separation.

We are made up of each other and the things that surround us, now and in the past.

In the light of this, where does originality stand and is it worth striving for?

And the how:

How do we aim to produce original work and how might we put structures in place to encourage others to do so?

How might we produce work that surprises – that avoids us repeating ourselves?

We begin with a quote:

In “The Ecstasy of Influence” Lethem writes, “The kernel, the soul – let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances – is plagiarism.  For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.  Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment.  There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands.  By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote.” (1)

On 30th March 2011 a fantastic gathering of practitioners, musicians, dancers, carers and designers got together at salamanda tandem’s space to debate and explore this provocation. Present were: Isabel Jones (Artistic director) Sarah Kettley (Senior Lecturer in Textile Design, Nottingham Trent University), Sara Sanderson (Diversity Officer, Arts Council), Duncan Chapman (composer), Ray Kohn (independent quality assurance consultant and musician), Julie Hood (dance artist/care professional), John Mitchell (architect), Kevin Hodgetts (writer/film-maker) and connected remotely via Skype from France, Tony Baker (writer and musician).

The following contributions were as follows:

Tony Baker – Glad to have been able to listen in on skype;  if I’d had the chance to say anything my pennyworth would have gone for authenticity because I think ‘originality’, in so far as it exists, is in any case subsumed within authenticity, though I feel more relevantly that originality doesn’t really occur. We all steal and rework from our own histories and never reach a true ‘origin’. I probably feel too that ‘originality’ is a buzzword in a culture that hawks its cult of personality through all the markets it can find so that as a quality it’s vastly over-priced: witness Susan Boyle if you like who, poor soul, had the misfortune (I’d say) to be able to sing fine well for the context in which she found herself and possibly quite authenticially – in relation to herself, who knows ? – but of course was taken up because she seemed such an ‘original’, such a one-off. Which, in terms of the music she actually made, was patently and ludicrously obviously not the case. She may have been nearly ‘an original’ but she certainly wasn’t ‘original’.
I also like the ambiguity of forgeries in painting: I mean, a forger undermines the notion of ‘originality’ by actually faking an origin, but he/she does it so well that it appears real even to those who are paid to say otherwise, so that they achieve authenticity by spoiling the notion of ‘originality’ without which the art market can’t justify its commodification of the art-object. To be honest I can’t see why a forger, if he/she can produce ‘Rembrandt’s’ to the point that I can’t tell the difference (and don’t care anyway), shouldn’t be celebrated for a talent. But the economy requires unique, ‘original’ objects so forgery is a crime.
Probably the real debate in an ST context is over the relationship between the maker and the thing made – to what extent it’s an ‘authentic’ thing so far as the maker is concerned (and the maker may be – in fact probably usually is – more than one person, often an ‘artist’ in tandem with another):   to what extent is what’s made the outcome of freely made/spontaneous choices, or felt to be satisfactory, by the maker, and to what extent is it imposed (stick your bit of colored paper in the box provided etc.). It’s the question we all face I guess: does this or that ring true or not. Which reminds me of the poet Tom Meyer who said of a poem that it’s like bread: you know that’s done right when you can tap it on the bottom and it makes the right sound…

Anyway, so to the live debate…

Sarah Kettley (SK)-  began the live debate by saying that conflating the terms originality and authenticity is unhelpful as there is a tension between the two. While aspirations towards originality can lead to a desire to create something that feels new for the sake of it (pointless), authenticity – which is more about being true to the essence of something – can be practically useful in steering us to create new work of integrity. Authenticity confers an authority to work. It is a quality that emerges through a good artistic process and is within the power of an artist to deliver. Claims to originality, on the other hand, are often arbitrated and decided upon by others, by critics for instance, after the fact.

Ray Kohn (RK) – posited that if there is value to be found in the qualities of originality and authenticity, we need to ask ‘valuable to whom?’ To artists, to audiences, to critics….? Depending on our position (our role) in relation to the work in question, descriptions of originality and authenticity will achieve different things. To an artist they might confer status, to an audience they might encourage identification and affiliation, to a critic they can be useful indexes by which work is placed, received and ultimately understood.

In response to SK’s point about the necessity of understanding these two qualities separately, a clarification of terms was attempted:

Claims to originality are often about separating off – the attempt by an artist (consciously or otherwise) to occupy a space of their own, to assert their individuality and unique status. This can be a powerful motivation for any of us to achieve our art and help others to do so as in the act of doing it we assert our presence, we fight ‘invisibility’ and alienation: we refuse power.

The quest for originality has a downside!

John Mitchel (JM) raised an issue around the unhelpfulness of originality in the context of architecture. Specifically he was concerned that expectations to deliver a very visible originality (as demanded by the market) now seem to trump other fundamental concerns such as the integrity of matching design and use which is more often a quieter yet more significant achievement proven over time. In other words, new buildings now have to be created with a view to establishing a specific identity: they are serving as advertisements for themselves rather than meeting the real needs of people. This focus on creating the noteworthy ultimately ends up encouraging a kind of second-guessing of what might thrill others (– and often it is the acclaim of professional insiders, of peers, that is courted the most). Originality is increasingly achieved at the expense of authenticity (2).

While there is a danger that the quality of originality can potentiality crowd out other – equally desirable qualities to be found in work – it is true that the original product has an aura, and a power in this aura, which can cut through a crowded world of communications and deliver messages of urgency and power that have real resonance (3).

Duncan Chapman (DC) raised the point that originality is a quality that is associated with Western traditions of art over Eastern. He talked about the closed repertoire of Japanese classical music in which the point is not to innovate, but to follow and connect to an age old tradition. This is where the power is in this form of music. A similar point can be made about Eastern traditions of visual art (4).

Kevin Hodgetts (KH) contrasted the values seen as important in the crafts tradition – humility, belonging to a tradition, belonging to a narrative of making, responding to materials and environments – against the fixation with originality in the arts world (5). In a sense the quest for originality in the field of participatory arts is a difficult fit. Do we use the arts to bring ourselves closer to others or further apart?

On authenticity:

We discussed how authenticity could be a feeling, a thought, a quality in a text, but it could also be seen as a commentary on a process, on the integrity of relationships involved in the production of work, on responses to materials and environments.

There is an issue around rationality. Julie Hood (JH) wondered, drawing on her experience of supporting dance works with learning disabled people whether authenticity can be planned. Is it possible to consciously produce the authentic, or, rather, is the authentic arrived at naively, by refusing to know that which might get in the way of an honest response? Often, it is what we do not know which releases us to achieve authentic work.

On the other hand RK talked of the conscious effort he deliberately brings to his work to achieve the authentic. Asking yourself ‘how could I be truer’ is an approach we are all capable of taking on and applying to work. Being conscious of the game and what is at stake is all part of our creativity.

According to KH this notion of choosing to be truer connects to an idea developed in the field of cultural studies by academic Judith Butler about how there is an increasing sense of individuals performing themselves in the contemporary world (6). She suggests we are less convinced by the concept of the one true self and instead navigate through different life situations choosing actions to perform that best fit the circumstances. This sense that performance is not just something that happens up on a stage but is deeply implicated in every aspect of our lives speaks of a playfulness and new creative licence in the way we all now live our lives. Of course this problematises ideas of authenticity. How can we be true to situations and contexts when we are not being true to ourselves, when our essential true self has ceased to exist or refuses to be identified?  We could call this the problem of the fractured self. That there is never one ‘I’, but a number of competing ‘I’s.

This isn’t to say that authenticity is impossible. Indeed authenticity is often a quality we can identify in a piece of work or in the actions of somebody. It is more that the decision to be authentic is one discourse among many and relates not to a description of real relationships between people, materials and contexts, but a perceived quality we can discern in these interactions or project onto them.

In summary it is possible to see that while originality and authenticity are obviously good and worthwhile aspirations (who, after all, would aspire to create work that is unoriginal or inauthentic?), there are limits to how far these values help us in the search to produce meaningful and satisfying work. Although the two values can often co-exist in pieces of work, we discussed scenarios where authenticity could only be guaranteed by relinquishing the commitment to originality (in the example of architecture), and where originality can only be achieved by eschewing the old, the familiar, turning away from the authenticity of where we come from and who we are.

As part of the day participants were asked to bring 2 objects; 1- an object of significance and 2-an object of insignificance.

KH shared a story about the significance of an important object – his cloth cap. Coming from a solidly working class family and neighbourhood, KH  was the only member of his family and local community who went to university and subsequently entered into a professional life and a lifestyle most commonly associated with middle class people. This has left him with a lasting sense of disconnection from his roots and an anxiety of betrayal about wanting away from where he came from. Wearing a flat cap was identified by KH as a symbol of political solidarity with where he came from; a form of public acknowledgement of his roots. He feels this is important to him, a political duty of sorts.

At the same time KH shared his concern that this issue of social class as a predominant point of identification in his life was potentially limiting in that it could make some advances in personal development difficult if not impossible. He therefore harboured mixed feelings about the cap: on the one hand it conferred a sense of belonging and affiliation with others (authenticity), on the other hand he knew this identification couldn’t be all consuming as it would close down new opportunities and the possibility of change (originality). In this example, the values can be seen in an oppositional tension with one another.

Artists then talked about their different approaches to work revealing how a similar tension exists for them between the significant and insignificant, between what they know and hold to be important and that which they encounter by chance in the world. DC talked of finding a group of pebbles on a beach and using these as an inspiration to create a new sound work. He enjoys finding starting points for new work in random elements and events. In this way he can surprise himself and be challenged to respond creatively(7).
JM followed up on the idea of how something apparently insignificant opened up a whole new way for a project he did; talked of a consultation that took place prior to a new school being planned during which a throwaway comment about whether the new premises would contain a shoe shop ended up being taken seriously and followed through into the final design.

Sarah Sanderson (SS)  talked about a memento from her wedding ceremony as an object she placed enormous value in and store by. She talked about exchange being important in any notion of authenticity.

JH contributed a prepared written tribute to the beauty and design integrity to be found in glass marbles.

Isabel Jones (IJ) brought an old and heavily used braille scrabble set used by her blind father until the dots had become too worn to read, she shared memories of its importance and how the set constituted a continuous presence in her upbringing.

RK brought a violin he was given as a young boy and talked about its value as a means to separate off and become immersed in his own creativity. It represented something pure and uncontaminated as opposed to the compromise he saw all around him in social relationships and contexts. RK went onto to his object of insignificance, and he introduced x-rays of his chest that he was instruced to keep after an operation. These x-rays would be taken by many as objects of significance telling the story as they do of mortality and bodily limits. RK refuses this definition. He deliberately refuses to place any value on these objects or give them any power over himself. As authentic as the x-rays are, RK chooses the originality of his own imagination over and above these official verdicts of who he now is (8).

This potential of our imaginations allowing us to escape limitations imposed on us is something we obviously have to hold onto very carefully. DC talked about his participatory work in schools with children bringing very narrow ideas of what music is. There is a need to escape questions of existing taste and to move participants beyond what they already know or think they know. The only way to achieve distinctive quality work with non-musicians is to broaden out the definition of what music is, to widen the repertoire of choices and responses.

This of course can be difficult because it cuts against common preconceptions and expectations as to what music is, as to what dance is, etc. IJ talked about her experience of working with non-artists. Participants can potentially be left feeling estranged and alienated by encountering strange new artistic forms so part of the job is for artists to build trust, to put in place supportive structures and contexts, to enlist participants in the adventure of doing something different (9). As DC reported the response of one young person to hearing a piece of avant-garde composition: “I don’t like it, but it’s good isn’t it?”. People can be opened up.

RK agreed adding that instead of asking groups what sort of music they would like to make, a more productive starting point would be to ask them how they want to feel.

SK talked about this ground-up originality being rooted in an attentiveness to the world, being alive to the detail and to the nature of the materials we use. In this way, we can start again in bringing forth an authentic response to what we find in the world rather than being inhibited by the pernicious influence of others and what has gone before.

It is clear that originality has always been critical to Salamanda Tandem’s work but that this originality is rooted in a particular set of practices that serve to guarantee integrity is present. This can be best summed up by calling it a “ground-up” approach, a process that starts with the person, a process uncontaminated by audience expectations, the market, or by the traditions of previous work.

This discussion has revealed that another kind of originality is out there, an originality that is more concerned with noteworthiness and playing to the gallery of received opinion. But the existence of some bad faith at work elsewhere in the creative industries shouldn’t deflect the company from the critical importance of originality in the work that it does. While originality and authenticity are clearly not the same thing, it is worth concluding that a combination of both principles applied to the work we do serves to ensure that our art continues to be distinctive but not at the expense of its integrity.

Notes and references

1) from Jonathan Lethem, ‘The Ecstacy of Influence’, Doubleday, not yet published (to be released Nov 2011). Extract found on website http://www.themillions.com in a very interesting post by Bill Morris about the sanctity of authorship and copyright in the literary world. Go to http://www.themillions.com/2011/01/jay-z-is-not-a-proudhon-of-hip-hop.html

2) There is a fascinating novel of ideas by Ayn Rand called “The Fountainhead”, Penguin Classics, 2007, in which the internal and external struggles of an emerging American architect in are discussed. Although the book champions a rampant brand of free market individualism bordering on the fascist, it raises interesting questions about the ideal contexts in which great architecture and great art is achieved.

3) The notion of original art work containing an aura of power wrapped up in its singularity was introduced by Walter Benjamin in his seminal work “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction”, Penguin, 2008.

4) A novel brilliantly documenting the clash between different traditions of visual art in Istanbul in the 16th century was produced by Orhan Pamuk “My Name is Red”, Faber and Faber, 2002. As well as being a riveting whodunnit, this book contains a fascinating account of the different values at work in the Eastern and Western traditions. While the Western tradition is all about leaving a mark on a piece of work to signal its uniqueness and establish a singular reputation for the artist, the Eastern tradition instead insists on the submission of the artist to the glory of an established tradition. In this world the job of the artist is to produce work that contains no trace of originality at all.

5) see very interesting book on this by Matthew Crawford, “The case for working with your hands”, Viking, 2009.

6) Judith Butler, “Gender Trouble”, Routledge, New Ed Edition, 2006.

7) There are numerous examples of artists making use of random stimuli to enhance their work. Notably Brian Eno and artist Peter  Schmidt (thank you for pointing out their joint ownership Duncan!) invented a deck of cards called the “Oblique strategies”. Eno has used these to support him in his music production work. On each card there would be a different prompt statement such as “trust in the you of now” or “question the heroic approach”. These lines of thought would then be applied to his decision making processes.

8) This theme of refusing the definitions of others, of refusing power, is much discussed in the work of Michel Foucault. See “Power: the essential work of Michel Foucault, Penguin, 2002.

9) Salamanda Tandem is planning to publish a handbook of practical techniques and methods by which work is achieved in 2012.

2 Responses to “3rd Provocation – 30th March 2011”

  1. Duncan Says:

    April 25, 2011 at 8:07 pm eGreat to see all of this up and lots to think about and respond to
    a couple of points (after a quick read)

    “Duncan Chapman (DC) raised the point that originality is a quality that is associated with Western traditions of art over Eastern.”

    I don’t think its a case of one tradition “OVER” another , theres plenty in the Western traditions of Art that is not about originality (Classical Ballet or the way in which you might perform Wagner or certain folk musics for example)…

    I do think that there has been a pressure to try and always be “innovative” which often becomes conflated with being Original. A little story (as Tony is probably listening !)

    A good friend of mine is an organ consultant and advisor, if you build yourself a concert hall or cathedral he will come and be able to help you commission an instrument or restore a historic one taking into account the acoustics and potential use etc, One of his big jobs is looking after the Organ at the festival hall in London which they are about to restore and put back in the Hall. Some “innovative” arts consultants were part of the overall planning for the Southbank centre and suggested a heap of “Original” and “innovative” events that they could do with the (pre)assumption that people would need a careful introduction to the idea of the organ in a big hall etc When the final proposal went to the Heritage Lottery fund they asked whether in addition to the Hip Hop Dance project, poetry competition, primary school history projects etc etc there would be an opportunity for people to simply walk into the hall and hear the instrument playing music that worked for the space ! With the desire to be Original the “innovation” people had almost missed out on the very reason why the Organ was put there in the first place something they would have found out had they asked the person who looks after it, but that’s not “new” and “sexy”…

    Sometimes you have to simply do the thing that works even if you have done it a thousand times before , with integrity it will always be different and with authenticity it will have the power to inspire…….

    my second point is a bit more pedantic ! (sorry)

    Oblique Strategies was a collaboration between Eno and artist Peter Schmidt who sadly died in 1980
    Eno is one of those “brands” (like apple ?) who has the ability for people to believe that they invented things or were the originators when often they were the force that brought them to the publics attention …………(something that we might want to discuss in terms of visibility of our work at some point ?)

  2. October 28th 2011.  Apologies dear friends for the sheer amount of time it’s taken me to upgrade this blog. I’ve been sent some fascinating contributions from Ray Kohn in response to the 3rd Provocation who has written an article on authenticity, a time lapse recording from Duncan he took during the day and words from  Tony Baker on the 3rd Provocation who took part in the debate via skype from France and as he tapped onto his keyboard the sound of us talking cut out so he snatched corroded moments!

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