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Interview about the a.r.t.e.s. Research Lab

by Silke Feuchtinger

Martin Zillinger and Thiemo Breyer (Photo: Evi Blink)

Martin and Thiemo, as a.r.t.e.s. junior professors, you run the Research Lab together. Can you tell us something about possible modes of collaboration you have developed in working together so far?

Thiemo Breyer: We have become quite a large group already, presently consisting of seven members. What highlights our work is the fact that the individual members continue working on their own, specialised projects, and at the same time their aim is to maintain an interdisciplinary connection.
We would like to further open this approach of working together, into the work of the a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School at large, and then bring our discussion topics further still into the Faculty of Arts and Humanities itself.

How do you see this developing, exactly?

Thiemo Breyer: In order to network ourselves internally, we decided to establish some instruments together in the winter semester of 2013/14, which serve as a very useful aid.
We meet regularly in a reading group in which we discuss different methodological texts; thereby offering the possibility of finding common terrain within our different approaches.
We also organise workshops with our Research Master's programme, in which we discuss texts together.

The Lab is still in its teething stage and can be shaped into whatever pleases you. What are your goals and where do you see the Lab leading towards?

Martin Zillinger: What I see happening at a.r.t.e.s. and especially in the Research Lab are the ideals of Humboldtian Science, in which research and teaching are interwoven in scientific institutions. This means that we not only offer seminars for students but that we also do research and learn from working with each other directly. When learning to think along the lines of Transformation in an interdisciplinary context, one cannot assume the solid and well-founded categories one is already acquainted with. It is in this sense that the Lab offers a wonderful space in which to go on a research adventure.

The concept of „Transformation“ is in the title of both groups of the Research Lab. How do you come closer to this concept in your two different projects?

Stefan Niklas: To begin with, my understanding of the concept of Transformation is that of an endeavour. I try to encounter this endeavour, or exercise, not so much in the form of a definition but rather in a methodological way. My research project deals with how culture handles uncertainty. In my studies, I look out for and observe which media and aesthetic forms approach the idea of uncertainty. There are similarities and also differences, depending on the media, and it is within these points of transition that I see the concept of Transformation occuring.
Yet, this also becomes a question in the historical sense: How does one transform the search for certainty in a world which is completely uncertain? In which ways are differences seen when looking at uncertainty, for example in novels, in films, or also in other areas like scientific experiments? These are the questions which interest me.

Johannes Schick: When I think about the concept of Transformation, it is to find out what kind of a phenomenon it actually is. Can one simply describe it biologically or physically, or can one also understand it as being knowledge? Can one experience Transformation? Or is experience itself tranformative? To what extent do the various technological and medial sciences lead even to philosophical concepts succumbing to Transformation? What Henri Bergson referred to in his work „l'evolution creatrice“ as Homo Faber in 1907 has changed over time. These days, and according to people like Gilbert Simondon; one speaks more of a Homo Coordinans, someone who does not appear unilateral anymore but who, amidst all the technical objects around us, rather needs to continually rediscover and co-ordinate themself anew.

Susanne Schregel: Perhaps I could add a further point to the concept of Transformation which I find particularly interesting as a historian. Transformation is, of course, also something which makes us think of processes, especially in view of a time frame.
The goal of my project is an historical comparison of the English and the German ways of looking at intelligence. The concept of intelligence that I examine generates an abstract umbrella term which doesn't immediately change.
Transformation takes place here in the form of something huge and unchanging.

Do you see Transformation as a completely new area of research, or was it also something you dealt with in previous projects?

Bernhard Hollick: As a mediaevalist, I have been and continue being confronted with various processes of Transformation when I read mediaeval literature. By this, I mean Historical Transformation, which appears in my pursuit of the questions arising in the reception of history, as well as in the analysis of the shift between prose, poetry, and in playful forms like the mediaeval board game, rithmomachy. It also involves simple language-based transformations in the parallelism of Latin, Middle English and Anglo-Norman in late mediaeval England. That in itself is in constant movement. The challenge, as I see it, is to find comparable structures within this jumble of different Transformation Processes; or at least to find a model of Transformation which I can incorporate these structures into.

Thiemo Breyer: To express it more radically: It is not possible for any form of scientific research to remain completely static. It is something which has always preoccupied us, in its varying shapes and forms. The more important question is that of what and how the concept of Transformation can contribute these days to the Humanities in a practical way and from a methodological viewpoint.

Martin Zillinger: When taking the concept of Transformation into account, we are often up against retrospective categories. One challenge would thus be to take a look at the transforming aspect itself and then to consider the regulations and structures which emerge out of it. Transformation is always accompanied by controversies: Institutions are placed into the check room, competitive demands need to be legitimised, and regulations negotiated. While viewing these controversies, one can reflect on how to put the idea of Transformation into a space where it is noticed.

Nina Engelhardt: The distinguishing factor of the Knowledge Lab and thus also of my project involving the literary reception of mathematics is the focus on the popularisation of knowledge. It is in this process that we are automatically able to consider the movement of Transformation.
It is only through discussing things together from our very different perspectives that we are able to experience this process.
Our disciplinary knowledge is removed from the controversial context and viewed anew from non-specialist perspectives. It is in this manner that we practise research in the true sense of the word.
What we find rewarding in this context, is our collaboration with the participants of the a.r.t.e.s. Research Master Programme. Here, we are able to present our texts and discuss them with the students.

The Research Lab is still in a rather malleable stage, and yet you already seem to have your research in full view. What's next?

Martin Zillinger: Even as a group, we are subject to continual Transformation. Within the course of the year, other post-doctorands as well as a Humboldt scholarship holder will join us, bringing with them still new perspectives from different disciplines. This is exactly what we need in order to approach a phenomenon like Transformation. No discipline can claim to overcome these issues alone. We are lucky to be in the privileged position of studying in an eclectic faculty composed of students who bring a wealth of knowledge with them.

As members of the Research Lab, your wish is not only to hold different discussions with students and scientists at the University of Cologne but to open up even further. Which events have you planned for the coming months?

Martin Zillinger: We plan to organise an array of different types of events, the product of which we hope will be an intense scientific exchange which will be benficial all-round. In May, a workshop will take place called „What can Theory achieve in Real Life?“ In this workshop, we look at how Transformation can be theorised appropriately. Experts will be invited who will hopefully be able to enter into lively discussion with interested participants.
An interdisciplinary series of lectures on the topic of „What is Anthropology? Questions concerning Human Beings and their Experience of Life“ also began at the start of the summer semester 2014. We have managed to attract quite a large number of colleagues from other subjects to take part in the series of lectures.
With our speaker from University College, London, David Wengrow, we plan to discuss one of the greatest transformations people have undergone, namely the threshold of hunter and gatherer societies becoming domesticated and sedentary.
Of particular importance for us is, of course, our anniversary in November. It is tailored especially for our post-doc projects, in which we hope to be able to discuss together with guests from abroad.

Nina Engelhardt: The planning phase for our anniversary is an especially productive time for us. We grapple rather intensively with the projects of our fellow members of the Lab. This sometimes quite suddenly results in very exciting overlaps.

Bernhard Hollick: It was quite hard to understand what the others were doing at the beginning. Once one began to understand the different ways of looking at the problems, however, we realised that we are connected much more strongly than we had thought. What we find exceptional at the a.r.t.e.s. Research Lab is that there is a strong focus on working together; something I had never experienced before. Our exchange amongst each other is at the fore. Only very rarely do we withdraw into our own, specialised niches.

Johannes Schick: What I find intriguing is the controversy which is constantly created in our work with each other. It is exactly these sources of friction which offer the potential for change; for something new to come into existence.
Very different methodological points of entry appear during our reading groups. It is sometimes quite a challenge to put oneself into the other's shoes in order to understand their perspective.
This can be an extremely productive process, in which contentious issues can come into being, thus transforming one's own way of thinking as well as one's modus operandi.