Dai Chenlian

“Art gave me a Reason to Live”- Interview with Artist Dai Chenlian

Benjamin Stromberg Insights, Interview Leave a Comment

After a one and a half hour drive by car from Beijing’s city centre to the south the many skyscrapers and blocks begin to clear. The end of the city isn’t reached, but instead another micro cosmos which is not part of the everyday life in the Chinese capital: Abandoned, decayed buildings and curious looks mark the way to the artist Dai Chenlian. His studio lays in this remote part of the city where proper administration by the government doesn’t exist anymore. The bald-headed man with the smart smile invites me into his premises and prepares a black tea. “Art gave me a reason to live”, he tells me. “It exists for me to express something. Through art I found my way to live happily.” So, how did he discover his hidden talent? “I think first of all you have to be sensitive and second you have to work hard”, is his answer. His path as an artist already guided him to Germany, where he lived in Dresden for a couple of years. Now he is back in China. Soon he is going to look for a new studio at the other end of the city, around two hours away.

“The artist should not always stay in the rules of safety. The questions should be questioned.” Nevertheless routine is very important for Dai during his work. Creativity and routine are no contradiction to him, but part of the same system: “I always use the powers of nature to change the routines like the elements. Usually I use water or fire. I want the routine to change or to break.” In a way, Dai provokes moments in which he could lose control, in order to gain control again and to create something new out of it: “I think a good artist is an artist who can also control his work. And I think my position is actually like being an editor. I have lots of materials and I have to choose them or to pick them or to combine them, just like an editor.” And how does he know when to publish? “I know it is finished when it can help someone else. If someone else gains something from the project there is a stopping point. And I will set a time for it. Like a pot of water will boil, it will come to its end”, he tells me.

But the end of a work is for Dai just a small mark on a long, maybe infinite journey. “Art always breaks itself and goes to the future, to the supposed next stage. […] And we can imagine what the future looks like and this is always imagined from now. It is the artist’s job do these imaginations and the artist will always stand with the future.” Right here lays for him the biggest difference between art and business: “Business is sometimes satisfied with its situation. The economy should create more ways or systems to overcome the separation of the rich and the poor people. They have to create stable systems if they want to make progress instead of standing at the same point.” Our translator and Dai’s friend, Zhang Heming, completes this perspective at the end of our talk and closes with a well known German artist: “As Beuys said famously, ‘everyone is an artist’. I don’t think that everyone should be an artist but I do think that everyone should be creative in his work. This is my personal dream.“

Interview and Blog-Post: Benjamin Stromberg

Translation: Benjamin Stromberg and Stephanie Barnes

Picture Source: The Artist

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger

The Aspect of Activity – Interview with Hans-Jörg Rheinberger

Adina Asbeck Insights, Interview Leave a Comment

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger is a scientific historian. He not only has a humanistic background in sociology, philosophy, and linguistics, but also a life science background in biology and chemistry. Since adolescence, he has been writing poems and essays. From 1997 to 2014, he was director at Berlin’s Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science.

In his research, Rheinberger mostly occupies himself with the nature of the experiment and experimental systems, a term he coined for configurations which contain uncertainty, unpredictability and the state of not knowing, “One has to look at them as places of emergence, as structures that have arisen from the development of the sciences in order to discover the unimaginable. They act like a spider web, in that they need to be able to catch everything, without the knowledge of what it is or where it comes from. Experimental systems are precautions taken for the generation of spontaneous events.” It follows that (true) experiments are firstly, open-ended and secondly, that their findings cannot be anticipated. For Rheinberger, the experiment mostly constitutes of a “moment of activity and a moment of uncertainty (…) When doing experiments, one evidently has to combine different aspects within the process. If, say, a biologist is conducting research, the bio materials need to be treated so that they and the applicable technology productively coalesce. Imagine working in a room, in which the equipment is incomplete, or there are disturbing vibrations to be switched off. The whole process is an ensemble of elements – including the researcher, who one day might be more cheerful than the next. It is an ensemble that is constantly under configuration and re-configuration, but is not systematically assembled as e.g. a car, in which every part is built to fit the next for it to work. Indeed, the process exists because there is no working car!” 

What Rheinberger suggests has little to do with the stringent, linear process that generally comes to mind if one thinks of research. Rather, it is reminiscent of a playground of coincidences or more so, a system to achieve serendipity, with neither provides the end result, nor suggests a defined route. The activity aspect plays an essential role in this, as it integrates experimentation where one seeks to generate new knowledge: It is discernible in the rehearsal of a play, a draft, the trial run of an idea in the form of a sketch or model, the composition of different components or in the orchestration of teamwork. Usually experimenting is teamwork. Even supposing it was not, the work of a single researcher is still collective in that it attempts to disclose the previous findings of the scientific community. The new work is integrated into the debate and at the disposal of everyone from the community who challenges it. At least, that is the ideal, which describes the process at its core – although there may be deviations. Research is conceived as a collective discourse, which in the visual arts possibly features differently – despite the fact that they have brought about the phenomenon of the ‘Workshops’. One simply has to think back to the 17th century and Rubens’s studio. […] Evidently then, it can no longer be a closed-off room, in which the artistic process takes place in isolation.”

If one asks Rheinberger, who pens poems when he is not writing for academic purposes, whether he sees any parallels to art, he acknowledges a lot of similarities: “I think artistic work is a practical way of relating to the world and just as activity driven as the sciences. In both cases, it is about pioneering the unknown: a step closer in exploring a topic, of which one does not yet know much. Therefore, the execution of research and the execution of artistic work are generally comparable activities. One engages oneself in an adventure with an uncertain outcome. […] Both are not to be understood as a teleological process, but rather the rejection of a current state, which leaves much to be desired. Essentially, it is unclear where the journey leads. But there is an understanding, that the journey needs to be made – there is no arbitrariness in that. This is a situation in which both artists and researchers find themselves, although they potentially work with disparate materials and techniques. […] It would be wrong to assume, however, that this type of uncertainty equals flabbiness or generality. On the contrary: I believe that someone, who is willing to engage experimentally with a field of study already has a clear research objective in mind.” 

Creativity, for Rheinberger, means going on an open-ended journey while maintaining a clear intention and negotiating the research outcome in dialogue with the material. He believes that there is no method applicable to this and “that one has to have entered a process of confrontation and been truly involved in it, with all the faculties and capabilities available to the specific person.“ Rheinberger’s ideas discern themselves in his reference to the handling of the material and its resistance, “Within the life sciences ‘not everything goes’. The objective is to find out about material processes, which usually are not evident, and the researcher is more or less bound to the material used. No personal mark is to be left on it. In that way it is similar to art. There may be artists who believe that all art is created from within and that it serves as self-realisation. For me, that was never the interesting part, because I think the key issue is how to access one’s own world. The material used in the creative process, be it paint or canvas, is equally as resistant. The creation originates not within oneself, but the material.” Rheinberger does not perceive a restriction in the resistance of the material, but a challenge. To elaborate, he tells us about his poetic output: “Since the age of eighteen, I have been writing and never stopped, although I have also never made it my profession. The point for me, is not to express my innermost feelings, but to engage with a different material, namely language and words, and these can be very resistant. How they are arranged and what can be created with them are materially contingent processes to me. At their very end, things emerge, which one would not have thought of in the beginning, as they configure and originate only in the concrete handling of the word material.“

Download the full interview as a PDF. (German only)

Interview: Dirk Dobiey, Claudia Helmert
Blogpost: Adina Asbeck
Translation: Vivian Kolster and Stephanie Barnes

Zhang Wei

“Artists need to Express Themselves” – Interview with Photographer Zhang Wei

Benjamin Stromberg Insights Leave a Comment

In one of the most popular art districts in the East of Beijing, photographer Zhang Wei invites me into his stylish studio in a dark backyard. The neighborhood seems central and lively, even though we are at least two hours from the city centre. Zhang Wei has the view of someone who has seen quite a lot of things in life. He speaks quietly and thoughtfully.

On his walls hang world famous people depicted in perfect photographs. Zhang Wei is a master of illusion, because he has never met any one of these personalities. The celebrities are collages of hundreds of faces of Chinese people that were photographed by Zhang Wei. He says other people’s faces are his way to express himself. He pours us a boiling hot tea. The first sip burns the tongue. “It took a long time. About 15 years ago I truly wanted to find a way to express myself. At the beginning I was just very confused. I tried every method that I could think about. And actually all the methods were just about the method: So I came to the camera to record what I saw, to record what was around me. At first I just focused on myself and on my friends. Then I found out it would be a bigger thing to connect with the society – that is the process. Before that I made all my work just for myself or my friends. After that I just thought time has come to observe the world.”

That connection to society through expressing himself is, for Zhang, the key to his being an artist. To reach this point means hard work: “Before a lot of people actually told me that my work was not good. I felt really sad when they said that. As time passed on I thought it doesn’t matter if someone says something bad about my work. I didn’t care and just wanted to try my best.” This tenaciousness is important for Zhang, but one should not confuse it with trying more of the same: “Not only trying. Being an artist is not just to try things. It is mostly about experience and also to let it happen naturally.” After that he brews a new tea, another type this time.

It is important for Zhang to state his social connection to his fellow man as the core of his art: “I always try to record not just the moments but also the changes because our society keeps on changing all the time. I want to give back my thoughts about this to the people who see the pictures. And hopefully through this they also can connect better to themselves. So I definitely think that I want to help people.” Art is the instrument he chose in order to create such a connection to society. He names communication as the most important requirement: “Communication with each other is the key. What I like are some resident projects where artists from all over the world live together and communicate with each other. And they all say: ‘We are actually the same. All that we try is freedom.’ To give such a spirit also to the rest of the world is a fantastic idea.” He smiles and nods slowly. The time has come to say Goodbye.

Please read the full interview here.

Interview and Blog-Post: Benjamin Stromberg

Translation: Benjamin Stromberg and Stephanie Barnes

Picture Source: The Artist


Artistic Intelligence and Commercial Artists – Our Links of the Month

Adina Asbeck Education, News Leave a Comment

Artistic intelligence and Commercial Artists – this months links play with fire, so it’s only logical to surface a contribution that explains why it doesn’t make any sense to be an artist.

Sam Wetherell wrote an article for the Jacobin, presenting the new thoughts of Richard Florida, “who wants you to know that he got almost everything about cities wrong. Talking about “creative classes” and how they influence our urban lives, his latest book, The New Urban Crisis, represents the culmination of this long mea culpa. Though he stops just short of saying it, he all but admits that he was wrong. He argues that the creative classes have grabbed hold of many of the world’s great cities and choked them to death.”

So why be creative at all? Why be an artist? This video created by Simon Cade gives an insight  on “Why You Shouldn’t be an Artist” – Or should you at least try?

Cat Ellis published an interview with Jony Ive for the TechRadar, asking the question “Why add art?”. “The shift from STEM to STEAM is important as design will make technology better – more accepted, relevant to human need and much more desirable and useful […] from driverless cars to AI, VR and AR, design can ensure that new technology benefits people across the board.”

Directed and edited by Mitchell Mullins and produced and written by Eli Paul, “Too Far Gone” is a video and testament to creatives who often find themselves absent from the moment. Not through choice but from their own drive to create. It is so important to stop and appreciate the moments for what they are and what they stand for.

Picture source: Creative Commons (CCO)

Featured Image


Stephanie von Becker SAFI

Inside the Time Capsule with Musician SAFI

Adina Asbeck Insights, Interview Leave a Comment

SAFI is a musician and eponym of the same-named band; the band’s work can be identified somewhere between punk and poetry. After a graphic design education in Halle and Leipzig, and various jobs in that area, SAFI’s dream to become a full time musician became more urgent and she decided to concentrate on that genre while continuing to work as a graphic designer.

Because of her concerts and meetings with clients far away from her hometown of Berlin, she told us that to “work on the fly” is one part of the creative process. “When working on the road my concentration is the best. Probably because I have limited time and nothing can distract me. For sure my focus is better than if I was working in the studio for several days. For the whole time one has an observer’s perspective. One consumes influences and has a look out of the window or examines people. Especially that situation, to be trapped in a room that I can’t leave instantly, inspires me to create. For me, that window is like looking at a collage [of different people, scenery, events].” Therefore it’s obvious, to not only perceive those impressions, but to use them for my own work.


“I’m always collecting impressions – no matter where I am. I’m collecting through audio recordings or sketch books. In sketchbooks I am writing fragments of sentences and when I’m experimenting with audios on the computer – I’m putting together traces, taking them apart again and saving them within other archives: Sound Collage.”

SAFI described putting all those fragments together, as a whole, like this: “I treat text and music like a sculpture, I summarize and take away again, until I can find the form. At the moment the basis for a piece is the sound, the music, the rhythm, the melody. The text comes later – but sometimes it is the other way around.“ SAFI isn’t afraid of connecting her creative work with her education: “to me it’s kind of a painting; a compression and a process until the verdict that it is good enough and even after listening to it for the seventh time it still exists.” For SAFI, songs only survive if they are allowed to mature. “Generally I take time to leave pieces alone for a while. That creates the necessary distance to evaluate a piece in its being. With a fresh ear you are in the position of an aerial perspective and you realise immediately where it snags and is inconsistent, whether the piece really has a meaning, if the idea has manifested and whether the piece is relevant. Every second, every little shred can give rise to a new song.To me, every millimeter of writing on paper contains the potential to develop a story. The main inspiration is a playful approach: to liberate oneself, establish new rules, and to break them again; the passion to play and to create. The happiness is the main inspiration and motivating force. The next step is the aspiration: Where to go? What should it look like? What purpose does it all have?”

Contact with other artists plays a big role in the musician’s life, even if that can be painful from time to time. “It’s an amazing thing to work together with people from different genres. […] Together there is a creative process again. There, the songs are still able to change, they can get another character. If I notice that suddenly something weird happens with Matthias on the second guitar or Frank at the drums and we try to save that moment: ‘play this continuously and we improvise various things.’ Or they might say: ‘SAFI, that’s impossible to play, we can’t do it like that. What do you think about me playing it like this?’ Like that it’s amazing as well.”

SAFI/ Stephanie von Becker

For SAFI, even after several iterative loops the work isn’t done. “The reaction of the audience shows how well you’re able to perform the song. It is about the direct dialogue. If I played music just by myself, I would probably be very lonely. If people come to concerts and listen and understand, something magical happens. Everything has a purpose. It is being examined at its heart, screened by the audience, it is being absorbed, celebrated, or misunderstood – the whole work happens in that moment. It all becomes one.”

To share music or art, whether on a stage or in public, always means to be judged by people and to be confronted with critique. “Generally we think it is important that critique happens. The most instantaneous reaction we get is at concerts. On the one hand, the immediate reaction, the more or less strong applause during the concert, but also after the performance. Afterwards we get to talk to people at the merchandise stand: they buy things, ask questions, or share their excitement, but also their critique. Our friends and colleagues also share their compliments and critique with us. That feedback is more intense because our work really gets challenged or positively evaluated.”

It is important to SAFI to share the songs with the people she trusts and whose critique helps it to evolve. And she thinks, that it is important to, “not show her music to too many people, only to a small circle because otherwise there would be too many opinions. I am the most happy, when people say that I gave them something: they can take something home with them and think about it.”
SAFI also thinks that the artistic and creative influence of all kinds of genres contributes to our economy and improves our environment, that every person can be creative. “I noted, that everyone, even if he’s as far from the art as possible is creative because he decides about his own life and likes the things that he likes, otherwise he wouldn’t do them.
Project ideas emerge out of a creative impulse or will. If someone wants to hire one or one hundred employees, or how someone paints his own picture or dream is creative to me. The process is able to be designed. I would probably advise the managing partner of a collection agency to talk to creative people more often and to go to exhibitions and concerts. Additionally, we should have dialogues concerning idealistic and philosophical topics, so that the perspective is able to change and new opportunities arise.”

Read the full (german) interview here.

Interview: Dirk Dobiey
Blog-Post: Adina Asbeck
Translation: Adina Asbeck, Stephanie Barnes
Picture Source: SAFI/ Stephanie von Becker (http://safimusic.com/presse/)


Thinking the Complex – Our Links of the month

Adina Asbeck Education, News Leave a Comment

Our this months collection out of the world wide web gives some input on how our society and businesses struggle with their aim to control and structure the way of learning and working.

“What makes a genius?” an article  by Claudia Kalb, published by the National Geographic concentrates on the scientific research of genius minds, such as Michelangelo or Einstein and states that to achieve brilliant ideas we need “intelligence, creativity, perseverance, and simple good fortune, to name a few”.

““The more complex an organism is,” says artist and teacher Adam Wolpert, “the more capable it becomes. And the more capable it is, the more it can address challenges and seize opportunities. The downside of that is, the more complex it becomes, the more vulnerable it becomes.””, Steve Vassalo wrote in his article “Design Thinking Needs To Think Bigger” for Co.Design and introduces the need to renew our way of thinking.

Thomas L. Friedmann asks in his essay “From Hands to Heads to Hearts”, published by the New York Times, “what makes us humans unique?”, concentrating on the fact, that we live in a technical society, competing in thinking with machines. But machines “will never have: a heart”. “Humans can love, they can have compassion, they can dream. While humans can act from fear and anger, and be harmful, at their most elevated, they can inspire and be virtuous. And while machines can reliably interoperate, humans, uniquely, can build deep relationships of trust.”

The Guardian published an article by Christina Patterson, suggesting that dance might “future-proof our children”, meaning that “we will need all the creativity and curiosity and flexibility we can muster. We’ll need all the “innovation” we can get.”

Last but not  least, take the time to watch this short animated film by Daniel Martínez Lara and Rafa Cano Méndez, giving a colorful statement about our systematic, structured world, lacking the freedom of creativity and self expression and their necessity to be truly content.

Picture Source: Creative Commons (CCO)

Lucija Mikas

Empathy through Movement: Interview with Dancer Lucija Mikas

Adina Asbeck Insights, Interview Leave a Comment

“I think, that people can learn empathy through dance”, dancer Lucija Mikas said. She began her dance career at the age of eleven at the John Cranko School in Stuttgart and quit her classic ballet education there, after four years of hard training. What she learned during this strict dance lessons, confirms established clichés as she says “Discipline is definitely necessary, because classic ballet is on the same level with ice skating and gymnastics. To perform great accomplishments, unbelievable discipline and forces are required. Looking back, I don’t regret going to that school, because I captured a kind of discipline I can use for other areas.” Even if Mikas is very grateful for this experience, she realized, that this path was not her destiny. She turned towards contemporary dance, also because in that area talent is understood in a slightly different way. “There, talent is measured with creativity, expression or improvisation. […] Contemporary dance is described a physical expression of ideas and emotions.” So she decided to complete her degree at the Academy for Contemporary Dance in Berlin. She worked within several projects until she decided to move to Croatia, where she fell in love and has lived there ever since. A very limited cultural range and the lack of infrastructure in her professional world forced her to improve her skills and to organize her own projects. “That’s how how I started to teach myself how to write projects, which still benefits me greatly. I created an infrastructure, which on the one hand is an advantage for the teenagers and their projects and on the other hand generates an infrastructure for people who live out of town. Thats how we can apply for resources together, so that we are able to work on a professional level. After all those years, I can now say, that I created a network I can work with. For four years I now teach at a school as a dance teacher where I train contemporary dance.” What she learned at a very young age through her strict dance lessons, is to have discipline and to challenge herself. We asked her, how much talent dancers have to bring with them and how much they have to revise with discipline.

“Reflection”; production: Histeria Nova 2017; choreography: Marija Šćekić; dancers: Lucija Mikas, Elvis Hodžić; photography: Srđan Babić

The Process

As diverse the disciplines of Lucija Mikas are, as universally usable is the artistic creation for her. “I don’t want to confine the process to the artistic because it cuts across all areas of life. At the beginning I have an idea or an incident. It can also be a unreflected experience out of the past, that I now confront myself with. After that I check  what I already have for the transformation and what’s missing. Then I ponder the potential of the idea, split it into segments, which I pursue and get closure.  The closure then is the implementation.”

The Idea

“First, every movement emerges as a reaction of the emotional life. Contemporary dance is seen as a physical expression of ideas and emotions,” explains Lucija Mikas during the conversation about the origin of her ideas. “I for example see a fig tree, growing out of a stone. This fig tree reminds me of my rootlessness, because I don’t see his roots. The tree seems loose and not graspable. Other than an olive tree in the garden, where one exactly knows and sees, that he belongs to this garden. Then I put myself in the trees position and can pursue various approaches. I can start with the texture of the tree and feel how the leaves are constituted or how the roots are running. The metaphor can be followed and it can be seen that the tree only has small roots and doesn’t belong there. That I can translate into my life and on my art. Out of this inner feeling I can create movement while I physically transform, what structure the tree possesses. Due to improvisation a certain movement arises as a reaction. Either I define this movement or I let it loose. I can declare the freedom of the structure of a piece, so that it is being completely improvised or that it follows a determined structure with constituted movements.”

Der Froschkönig


The Creation

Even if the result of Mikas’ work is defined by structured procedures, the path to get there is characterized by the act in the moment, by playful improvisation and she isolates this procedure from focus and success orientation. “Due to my sensibility, concentration is a word, that doesn’t harmonize with improvisation. For me concentration has something to do with focus to do something willingly, which emerges out of a thought of success. Improvisation is better described by letting go. Even if one is concentrated, one stays open for influences. Maybe it’s a paradox and is similar to meditation, someone wants to do and absolutely wants to achieve. Most often, the fault is, that one is too restricted on the delivery and tries to absolve those things step by step. Basically, improvisation appears always and in every step, but if you emanate from a classical process then above all, at the beginning. Of course improvisation can be found on stage. I enjoy provoking something in a person and especially the surprise effect, that in every person you trigger something else. On the one hand, I think, that everyone on stage is desires applause. On the other hand nearly all artists state, that they feel the urge to do their art out of themselves. And I’m not an exception, but most important for me is the process, because I experience it as liberating.” A release, that also grows out of the collaboration with other people. For example the contact with other artists, the testing and experiencing of movement and the influence of another body for the own physical feeling. ”Dance has to do a lot with empathy. Contact with the outside world is being absorbed by the scences. Through a touch, the opponent can be experienced at once. Often much more direct than through eye contact, acoustic or scent, because the information is being sensed with the whole body. If I touch something hot, I feel it immediately. After collecting experiences and the analysis of a topic there is the synthesis. Little by little I put together individual fragments and finalize details. Thereby it’s helpful if someone from the outside has a look upon your work. In my case, that can be a director, an acquaintance or a colleague, who gives me feedback.” Furthermore she talks about the necessity of constructive critique to be aware of oneself in a new light and to evolve. “Doing ballet, I also learned to be grateful for constructive critique, because it is extremely important. In my opinion, other dancers are too sensitive and take critique personally too fast. with those people it’s also hard to work with. I adduce my pupils very fast, to be open minded and objective with their feedback. At the same time, it’s very important to be righteous and fair and to be mindful of not attacking someone personally.” If all of that works out, one day there is the performance in front of an audience. Thereby, Mikas clearly refuses the concept of perfection when she says, “It’s never really done. The need of the performance is a goal you work toward, for that moment your work is done, but can be completely different in a month. Today, we have every opportunity in forms of video and recordings, so that we can file everything, but dance is not determined for eternity. That’s as well reflected in the philosophy and way of live of dance, that you live from one moment into the other. Only if you live in the moment, you can really live the dance. It’s the art of the moment. […] There is no security. Terms like fault or failure only exist if you allow them. I experience failure when you don’t remain true to yourself and if you agree to a compromise that you’re barely willing to make.”

Read the full Interview. (German only)

Picture Sources (in order of appearance):

Florian Hammerich, Srđan Babić, Unbekannt, Florian Hammerich,

Interview: Dirk Dobiéy, Transcription: Eugen Buss; Blog: Adina Asbeck, Dirk Dobiéy; Translation: Adina Asbeck, Stephanie Barnes



Art of Innovation: London and Berlin Workshops

Dirk Dobiéy Education, News Leave a Comment

“When it’s time for something different it has to be different”, says Age of Artists member Stephanie Barnes. Together with Phil Dodson and Doug Shaw, kindly sponsored by Herman Miller, Betahaus, and The Wesley Hotel Stephanie is co-facilitating a series of interactive and practical organizational and personal development workshops: The Art of Innovation.

Innovation and creativity, powerful skills we need for differentiation purposes in business, and to which we are attracted as humans. Sadly, too often we let self criticism and anxiety hold us back from being creative. In the right environment, and with the right tools and techniques, we can progress past these blocks and let creativity and innovation become a regular, useful part of our daily lives and careers.

Stephanie, Phil and Doug invite you to join them for two one-day (London) or one two-day (Berlin) workshop  of carefully yet loosely structured exploration and work, focusing on:

  • Exploring curiosity
  • Identifying and applying the creative process
  • Learning ways to come up with new ideas and overcoming creative blocks
  • Reflecting on and adapting our own creative strengths and weaknesses

Course Outcome

Through our work together, you can expect to gain improved self-confidence and resilience, and take away practical tools and ideas to help you be more curious and creative, enabling you to create better work for yourself and your team. You will take away any art works you make on the day, some good quality art materials to enable you to continue your adventures, a reading list, and some creative prompts to support your learning.

Course Details

Through years of experimentation and hard work in our knowledge management, collaborative, and artistic practices, we have uncovered some important qualities which are necessary in order to sustain innovation and creativity.

They include:

  • Curiosity…An inquiring mind
  • Resilience…Strengthening and softening
  • Reflection…Thinking time
  • Improvisation…Going with the flow
  • A sense of community…Belonging

Exploring these themes, and how we can practice and improve them, will form the basis of our time together.

The outline for the day looks like this:

  • Creativity and our organizations
  • Critical Thinking
  • Innovation
  • Competitive Advantage
  • Resilience
  • Scene Setting
  • Principles of Work
  • Making and Doing
  • Personal Example
  • Deep Work
  • Vulnerability

Group Size

Minimum: 20

Maximum: 50


London: 1-day workshop will be offered twice, June 8 and 9, 2017

Berlin: 2-day workshop offered July 4 – 5, 2017

(Berlin is a 2-day workshop to account for differences in demand/interest based on anecdotal evidence in both cities. The workshops will cover the same material, it is the depth that will vary.)

Register here or learn even more at artofinnovation.net.

Your instructors

Stephanie Barnes is a painter and knowledge management consultant. She works with organizations to make better use of what they know, utilizing her strategic business knowledge, critical thinking, and creativity in the process.

Stephanie is a member of Age of Artists and she can also be found on her personal website or business presence

Philip Dodson: Coach, Mentor, Blogger, Artist, Podcaster, Coworking Space Operator, Facilitator and speaker.

Founder of the creative and inspirational coworking space @Work Hubs, co-founder of International Collaboration Day, founder of Dodson Commercial, Creator of the Deep Work Project and London Art Club Meetup.

It’s all about why we do what we do, not what we do. Life is all about stories and being able to tell our own story. Phil is in love with writing, art and other communication and how it helps collaboration, connection, ideas, self-confidence and productivity.

In a world that is sadly dominated by shallow and repetitive work, he is on a mission to help people have the environment and tools to be able to create meaningful deep work that will set us apart.

Where to find Phil: Personal blogCoworking blog, podcast and info and commercial property.

Doug Shaw : Artist, Organisational Development Consultant, Facilitator.

Doug is at his best when helping people find greater effectiveness, enjoyment and inquiry in their work. He believes together beats apart, productive beats busy, connection gives us meaning, and conversations are the bond. Curiosity is underrated. We are all artists.

Where to find Doug: Art and Organizational development.

Rob Austin

An Artist Lives in the World Like Everyone Else- Interview with Rob Austin

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Robert D. Austin is an innovation and technology management researcher and professor of Innovation and Information Technology at Ivey Business School in Canada. Together with dramaturg and emeritus professor of theatre Lee Devin he examines business innovation through the lens of art practice. Their two books Artful Making and The Soul of Design explore the striking structural similarities between theatre artistry and production and today’s business projects. For Austin, there is no doubt artistic practices are highly relevant in today’s’ business environment, and particularly “in developed economies because communication and transportation networks have become so usable and inexpensive that it devalues cost-leadership approaches to business. Many companies in many places can enter into price competition when goods move around the globe so cheaply. And there are many places you can produce for a lower cost than in developed economies because of structural advantages (e.g., lower wages in developing economies). So, if you are based in developed economies you have a structural cost disadvantage. It doesn’t really matter how good you are, you may still have trouble defeating the competition based on cost. That forces more and more companies to differentiate themselves. Business differentiation usually arises from some sort of a creative act. It involves a shake-up for you that frees you from historical patterns, habits, processes and procedures and comes up with something truly new. That is something artists are striving for and good at.”

At the same time, Austin rejects an idealistic starry-eyed view into the matter. “Especially the arts, but every creative activity, are in a kind of enriching your view or in other terms, they are good for your soul. They have a spiritual dimension but I think in my work I have veered away from pressing that too far. Partly I worry a little bit that it is a slippery slope. I think there is a certain line of logic you can encounter that kind of expects art to save the world. That’s a lot to ask. We have to be kind of careful with what we approach. I emphasize that, and don’t mean to say that it is not a real effect, but I do think it can be of overly dramatized and romanticized. I know academics that are guilty of that. They do research in what I would call arts in management. Deep down what they have at heart is a rather more romantic notion of the arts than I think most real artists have. I think artists approach their work from the standpoint that it is nourishing for them and for their soul but it is for them quite a practical matter.  My co-author was a playwright for a while and did many things in the theater. One of the things he likes to say is that writing, for him, was about putting his head into the work and keeping it down for a certain number of hours. Then do it again the next day. He was always quite skeptical on others who overly romanticized things. There are some concepts that come up into the discussion that can be dramatically romanticized. There is also a sense where some artists, in order to cultivate image and aura, cultivate a romantic notion of what they do for external consumption, but I think it has relatively little to do with what they actually do. Most of the artists I interviewed over the years working on this kind of thing, don’t try to romanticize what they do. In fact, it doesn’t mean that their project is unimportant or mundane but for them, they like to make things”, Austin comments. And he is certain that “an artist lives in the world like everyone else.”

Yet a world experienced through the four qualities of artful making allows to reconceive much of what one does along artful lines, Austin and Devin write in their first book. Those four qualities are release, collaboration, ensemble and play and while they sound not very sophisticated they represent some major differences to most established business practices. “[…M]any of the things that are expressed in these four processes are things that are not built into the reflexes of business managers who have learned to manage in a more industrial setting, where they are oriented to terms like maximizing, exploiting and value creation”, Austin clarifies. “I would say that what we are describing in our book is very much the exploration inclination. There are a lot of things in that process you would never do in a more industrial exploitation process like the whole idea of release, is not consistent with what you would try to do in a factory. There is also literature in the management research on what’s called organizational ambidexterity. Organizations are trying to do both, exploration and exploitation and are succeeding to differing degrees and we are trying to discover those companies. The decision attitude is based on logical frameworks where you focus on the machinery to choose between alternatives. The creation of entirely new attitudes like the design attitude would be much more focused on a creative act.” For Austin one major difference is the concept of emergence. “In a lot of creative processes, you don’t choose between alternatives but create the right alternative. At that point, the choice is obvious.  In the final situation of a creative act you have worked your way to an alternative through what is basically an emergent process. Many businesses are historically rooted in the decision attitude. They need to move the direction to a design attitude.” A design attitude for Austin also involves a certain resilience; an ability to define an objective but to remain open enough to end up somewhere different than originally planned. “Often when you are in a creative process you start out going from A to B but you end up at C and that’s just the nature of things. I do agree that often creative processes especially in practical settings start with an objective but there are always multiple ways of finding the objective. What distinguishes the creative processes is that the outcome of those processes sometimes doesn’t solve the problem that they set out to solve. They reframe it in a new way that is more solvable or more satisfactorily solvable. Part of the creative act, especially in the field of design, is not to take the problem or objective as a given but to see as something that is subject to reframing and redefinition. A classic, elegant design solution is something that reframes the problem, solves the reframed problem, and in the process which also solves the original problem. You start out thinking the problem and objective were defined in a certain way and often this is where in the field of design a lot of user research comes in.”

Clearly, approaching a creative act with a design attitude involves not having all the answers, sometimes not even knowing the questions to begin with. For leaders with an orientation towards efficiency this is not easy to overcome, Austin explains. “They don’t enjoy not being able to make sense of things. They like to think they have already a good grip on the world. One of the things that’s fundamentally difficult about the arts is that they are continually evolving the meaning of things. In certain kinds of activities, especially if you are a manager who has focused on an industry for a long time, you don’t want to see much evolving at all. You want to see everything under control. When something as major as meaning starts to evolve; that doesn’t look like a good thing. It looks like something that needs to get under control, it runs against your reflexes.” Many artistic reflexes seem run against traditional management reflexes, many practices challenge classical business practices. While Austin does not favor one side over another, he is convinced creativity and innovation require the artful side of things. “An artful leader would probably be much more attuned to the emergent nature of creative acts and the way creative activities need to feed on each other: reactions to reactions to reactions as a way of moving ideas. They would be much more open to differences of perspectives because creative acts see things in different ways and are able to create something truly original. A second part is that once you’ve created something original and valuable, to recognize that that’s what you’ve done. That is something businesses have a lot of trouble with. Sometimes they create something new and quite valuable but their habitual procedures, practices and mindsets keep them from seeing the value. It is a very common pattern in business that companies that invent things are not the ones which eventually make that into a business. They are too busy in a different kind of businesses; it’s a pattern that repeats again and again. […] Another thing is that an open realization, that variation is at the heart of innovation and creativity, whereas it is the thing to be discouraged in a more industrial process. Randomness is a bad thing if you’re in an exploitation mode, but it’s an absolute requirement if you’re in an exploration mode.  Companies have all sorts of systems that try to minimize variation in their processes, all of which work against creative and artful processes. Often in a creative activity you are making judgments about esthetic quality of a thing versus their practicality. In a design firm a limitation might be a certain budget of a number of hours for a certain activity. If we go beyond this number of hours we start to lose money, it would be an unprofitable job, if we go too far beyond the budget. That is one set of pressures. Another set of pressures might be, we’re at the budgeted amount that we expected to spend on this but we don’t have a solution that we think is satisfactory, of a sufficient esthetic quality. A designer’s inclination is to work beyond that boundary. A business manager’s inclination is to say, ‘no, we have to restrict the budget because the job needs to be profitable.’ One thing we see in creative companies is that the managers are sometimes willing to go beyond those boundaries because they see it as an investment in future reputation, in creation of creative capabilities that they will get to reuse, and even creation of ideas that would come back in other products or work with other clients. I guess it boils down to an inclination to set aside the classic cost minimization or profit maximization reflexes, for a lot of reasons: to create new capabilities, to keep the creative people happy because they don’t want to do only profitable jobs, they want to do interesting jobs. One of the things we see in a lot of creative companies is that they will engage in projects that they know are not very lucrative or profitable, even going in, but these projects might be very interesting or stretch the creative capabilities in an interesting way.  These companies talk about it in very practical terms: ‘we do this one and it’s going to be fun but the next job we take has to be one where we pay the bills’, Austin exemplifies. “There is that balancing act that a lot of creative companies engage in.” When listening to Austin, it becomes clear that the balance he is describing is not aiming at keeping the balance at all times but allowing a company to achieve it by also going through various conditions. “

I see another thing which is part of the paper we just written. The company we were studying there is having the right number of crisis in a year. When they have too many crises it is too disruptive, if they have too few crises then they are not poking their process enough. That’s really not much like someone running a factory would think. The optimal number of crisis in a factory is zero. Those are just a few things and there are probably a lot of them, tolerance for ambiguity, and a capacity in a leader to help the people who work for them to tolerate ambiguity, in an important characteristic. To tolerate the fact that in a creative act you necessarily don’t know where you are going and that can be uncomfortable.”

Austin realizes learning from art for better outcomes in business and society is a topic of great promise and  significance but he is also realistic enough to understand it is not an easy task to convince traditional leaders. “We have more than 150 years of industrial thinking to overcome. The problem is always, when you are proposing new things and thinking in new categories and naming categories with different terminology, that terminology in that world lives at a disadvantage to the much more established terminology that’s all been settled. Anything truly new is at first unfamiliar and therefore kind of uncomfortable and therefore without respectability and meaning for a while.” But Austin is also full of hope due to the simultaneousness of many initiatives in the field. “We all use slightly different terminology, but I have the feeling that we are talking about the same kinds of things.”

Please access the complete interview here.

Transcript: Eugen Buss, Stephanie Barnes
Blog: Dirk Dobiéy, Adina Asbeck
Picture Source: Rob Austin