UBC professor Ilya Parkins and alumna Lara Haworth collaborate on public exhibit in London, UK
Picture this. You walk into a room. The phone rings, and suddenly you’re having a conversation with a stranger, about a subject matter you are not familiar with. What could possibly come of this?
Talk To Someone You Don’t Know About Something You Don’t Know is an interactive installation by UBC Okanagan Associate Professor Ilya Parkins and UBC Okanagan M.F.A graduate Lara Haworth, on display in the Atrium Gallery of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) from April 25 to April 29, 2016.
The installation creates a recognizable yet abstract environment where you are invited to come and have a conversation with someone you don’t know, about a subject you don’t know.
The project combines forces of artist Haworth and Parkins, who teaches in the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences, to create a compelling installation that explores questions raised by Parkins’ research project, which resituates obscurity and mystery as potentially hopeful modes of being for people who were otherwise imagined to be fully accessible.
We spoke with Haworth and Parkins, whose research areas include, feminist theories, history and theory of fashion, theories of modernity, and early twentieth-century cultural formations, to learn more about this contemporary project that encourages conversation, while also exploring mystery and silence.
Q: How did you and Haworth connect? When did you two decide to collaborate?
IP: I connected with Haworth when she came to UBC Okanagan to begin her M.F.A in 2008. She initially took a course with me, and then became my research assistant, as well as a collaborator on my last project. She’s a great researcher, and we are very much intellectually in-sync. I trust her to intuitively get what I will be interested in, and the direction I’d like to take a project in.
When I went to London on sabbatical in 2013-2014 as a Visiting Fellow at the LSE’s Gender Institute, I knew I wanted to work with Haworth again. I hired her as a research assistant on my SSHRC-funded project on unknowable femininity in the early twentieth century. It turned out that as we each worked on our bits of this project, we had both been wondering if we could blend her expertise – in interactive live installation – and my research, and produce a new kind of research outcome.
Q: What was the inspiration behind Talk to Someone You Don’t Know About Something You Don’t Know?
IP: In part this was about the search for new ways to transmit research findings. The research climate is really shifting toward innovative, open access circulation of ideas. But of course, this experience will not be a straightforward representation of research findings! Rather, we want people to be confronted with questions. We want them to think about what it means to know something, and more importantly, what it means and feels like to not know. We wanted to privilege not knowing, in a sense, and allow people to explore this as a liberating state, and one from which good learning can happen. This is especially important in a university – and especially a social science-based institution like the LSE, which really imagines that knowledge is quantifiable and easily accessible.
Q: Tell us about your research that’s rooted in this original and compelling public exhibit.
IP: The research is about what I like to call “unknowable” femininities that were frequently represented in popular culture in the 1920s and 1930s. British, French, and U.S. Women’s magazines especially, were full of discussions of women as mysterious, inaccessible, veiled, and hidden, even as they also contained many spectacular visual images of women that seemed to suggest they were fully available and knowable. I’ve been asking whether not being knowable, or being opaque, preserves a kind of precious autonomy for people in a system that objectifies them. This has implications for thinking about marginalized people in general – when and how is refusing to be known an act of resistance?
Q: Mystery, unknowability, and invisibility are core to this interactive installation. Do you think two strangers can discuss something and still preserve its secrecy and their own? Will this exhibit serve as the ultimate social experiment?
LH: I’m becoming more and more interested in this idea of strangers. It is probable that at some point during the exhibition the two participants in the phone booths will ‘know’ each other. But can you ever really ‘know’ anyone? I often feel I barely know myself, and there’s something endlessly interesting to me about that. I love this idea of us as these mysteries akin to deep sea, in contrast to all the information out there that has us self-knowing, self-aware creatures making all these rational decisions.
I think one’s own secrecy can always be preserved, in fact, might be instinctive to any conversation and any discussion about the limits of knowledge. The question is whether you actually know your own secrets! As to the secrecy of the topic under discussion, certain ‘facts’ might be revealed over the course of the conversation, but in your memory, the origin of that knowledge will always be associated with this deeper tug into the unknown, this strange, obscured moment in a gallery, in a telephone box.
What’s interesting socially about this project is that it’s taking place in the Age of Information, a time when we can pretty much pull up everything we need to ‘know’ in seconds, or less. We mine for information now, and we sell data. This piece asks people to work against that, to make themselves vulnerable to another in a place of not knowing. If you think about it, it’s almost socially unacceptable not to ‘know’ things these days.
This piece questions that, wonders if there’s something powerful, something precious, in not knowing. I don’t know if it’s the ‘ultimate’ social experiment … but I hope it might offer a new way of encountering each other—it might be awkward, it might be funny, or strange—I imagine every encounter between each set of participants will be totally different.
Talk To Someone You Don’t Know About Something You Don’t Know is the centrepiece of a weeklong event hosted by the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
The interactive installation opens on Monday, April 25 and runs until Friday, April 29, 2016. Events are free and open to all.
For more information, visit the Gender Institute Spring Festival website.