Sublime Imperfections: Creative Interventions in Post-1989 Europe
Sublime Imperfections is a research project based at the University of Amsterdam. On this page, you find details about its research design, aims, and methodology. For a short project summary, click here.
Ours is an age of digital spellcheckers; of refined street mapping technologies; and of advanced visual editing tools. Word’s spellchecker, Google Maps, Photoshop: myriad digital technologies aim at lightening our everyday lives.
Against this growing mediatised and digitised perfection, the late twentieth and early twenty-first century boast a strong preoccupation with imperfection. From shakily shot cinema to ‘be imperfect’ self-help programs, from torn jeans to raw restaurant interiors: between the late 1980s and today, practices that resist perfection have blossomed.
Critical inquiry on this preoccupation with the imperfect is swiftly accumulating. Across multiple socio-cultural domains, experts and practitioners analyze imperfection as a powerful social drive (for details, see ‘Innovation’). Sublime Imperfections synthesises the rich but fragmented existing critical reflection on the non-perfected into the first systematic theory of imperfection. It expands a set of pilot studies by the applicant that were highly successful (see 4f), but exploratory in character and scope (Rutten 2009, 2011.1, 2013, 2014.1 & in print). The program embeds their preliminary outcomes in a transdisciplinary, transnational and historic framework for critical reflection on sublime imperfections.
Design & aims
The notion of sublime imperfections covers a geopolitically, historically, and functionally diverse, but aesthetically coherent set of mostly urban-based practices whose makers share
As this working definition indicates, the program tracks not the ‘discourse of warning, of imperfection’ (Nemoianu 2006.1: 4) that informs creative production by default. This program scrutinises a narrower, more sociologically driven longing. It argues that the principally human desire for imperfection heightens in times of radical socio-economic and technological change – and that we are witnessing an age of drastic transition today.
The program critically explores how imperfection is glorified as hallmark for the sublime and authentic by European creatives. Building on analyses of ‘creative labour’ (Hesmondhalgh & Baker 2011) and ‘cultural creatives’ (Ray & Anderson 2000), it uses this term to demarcate a social group encompassing designers, architects, artists, thinkers, writers, filmmakers, composers, musicians, IT specialists, marketeers, scholars, cultural entrepeneurs, and art directors.
Creatives embrace the imperfect across different geopolitical regions (Rutten 2011.1). This program takes as its test case creative practices in post-1989 Europe. Between the late 1980s and today, Europe’s major social transitions – environmental concerns, financial crises, technological advancement – partly intertwine with global developments (Risse 2010; Delanty 2013). But 1989 also marks the start of a sweeping social shift for European identity: the collapse of the Eastern Bloc.
The program examines how, in this period of multi-level transformation, creative professionals across Europe embrace imperfection as social or cultural intervention. In three mutually interdependent subprojects, conducted in close cooperation with design/innovation practitioners, it rethinks imperfection as pervasive creative practice and powerful social tool. PhD project 1 focuses on Western Europe, with the Netherlands and its renowned 1990s anti-design as sample case. PhD project 2 examines post-socialist space, with Russian trash aesthetics and Ostalgia as sample case. The applicant uses cross-European examples for a contextualising historic analysis. Together, the projects aim to understand how we develop ideas and practices within a swiftly changing and culturally mobile community of practitioners. With that goal in mind, the program asks:
Departing from these questions, Sublime Imperfections theorises the complex and sometimes contradictory practices and discourses in which the concept of imperfection circulates today.
1. Dutch Design, Glitches, Misfits: Why Western European Creatives Crave the Imperfect (Jakko Kemper)
Historical background: Experts have repeatedly argued that the Dutch boast a special relationship to imperfection. They point to eighteenth-century philosophers who hail ‘deliberately imperfect’ Dutch legislation (Schama 1988: 468); they observe a ‘stylistic creation of imperfection’ in Dutch architecture, fueled by Jewish tolerance towards life’s incompletion (Verkaaik 2014); they trace a Dutch ‘anti-design’ tradition back to frugal Calvinist morality (Junte 2012); and they point to a move away from modernist perfection among disproportionately successful Dutch designers (Thomas 2008).
Research design: How do Dutch sublime imperfections engage with local high-tech industries? How do they remediate historic creative traditions? What explains the economic success of Dutch ‘anti-design’? Is this success consistent between the late 1980s and today? What role do subversive aesthetic practices play in Western-European democracies with a large public sector? PhD project 1 examines how practices and discourses of sublime imperfection function in the Netherlands. In recent decades, Dutch creatives celebrate imperfect systems and objects in part to address such globally experienced concerns as technological innovation, economic deficit, environmental crisis (Thomas 2008; Ramakers 1998 and 2002), and to discuss the meaning of craft and humanness in the face of technological and genetic standardization (Jongerius & Schouwenberg 2010; Junte 2012; Van der Zanden 2009). At the same time, Dutch design emerges emphatically within a local creative landscape – one that cultivates the rough and unofficial but is heavily state-subsidised (Aalbers, Mulder & Poort 2005).
Corpus: A transdisciplinary set of 5 influential creative objects produced in post-1989 Netherlands and public discourse about them (for details, see ‘Methods and techniques’).
2. Ostalgic Trash and ‘Poor’ Aesthetics: Sublime Imperfections in Post-Socialist States (Fabienne Rachmadiev)
Historical background: Russian authorities are known for a low imperfection tolerance (Rutten 2014), with the ‘perfectionist’ Soviet ideology as notorious example (Haas 2005). Despite or perhaps thanks to that topdown perfectionism, Russia has often been framed as a nation more imperfect than others – and as priding itself on that capacity. Nineteenth-century intellectuals lauded a Russian ‘lack[… of] aesthetic value’ as sublime remedy for ‘the inauthenticity of western Europe’ (Ely 2002); in Soviet-era underground and everyday life, a punk-like, homemade aesthetics thrived (Arkhipov 2006; Shaw 2009; Gerasimova 2009); and today, leading curators and architects hail post-Soviet creative life as ‘poor’ but ‘authentic’ (Gordeev 2008); ‘unfinished, imperfect’ (Goldhoorn 2012); or as charmingly ‘unprofessional’ (Brodsky 2009).
Research design: What do sublime imperfections mean in post-Soviet Russia? Does their cultural and political effect change under Putin’s increasingly authoritarian regime? When do post-Soviet trash aesthetics respond to technological and economic transition, and when and how do they remediate (n)Ostalgic longings for a grand but troubled socialist past (Gioni, Gregory, Valdez & Phillips 2011; Satter 2012)? Does the cultivation of post-Soviet ‘ruin porn’ enhance a damaging ongoing ‘othering’ of Russia (Rann 2014)? Or is imperfection a successful export product for Russian creatives? PhD project 2 explores how practices and discourses of sublime imperfection function in post-socialist space. It problematises ‘post-socialist’ labeling (see also Stenning & Hoerschelmann 2008; Rogers 2010): Russian sublime imperfections partly merge with global developments that are as market-driven and medium-specific (Hayles 2004) as they are locally defined. At the same time, the project acknowledges the legacy of failed socialism that ‘Eastern European’ states share (Rutten, Fedor & Zvereva 2013). This legacy resonates tangibly in local creative practices that cultivate imperfection. More often than not, they act as technologies of a highly traumatised public memory (Plate & Smelik 2009 & 2013); almost inevitably, they are perceived as politically seditious (Rutten 2013, 2014).
Corpus: A transdisciplinary set of 5 influential creative objects produced in post-1989 Russia and public discourse about them (for details, see ‘Methods and techniques’).
3. Sublime Imperfections: History and Politics (Ellen Rutten)
Historical background: The practices that PhD projects 1 and 2 explore are unique neither for Europe, nor for the present day. In 10th-century Japan, the elite cultivated an ‘aesthetics of imperfection and insufficiency’ (Saito 1997); in Enlightenment theorisations of the sublime, beauty, creative expression, and imperfection went hand in hand (Burke 1993; Kant 2011); in nineteenth-century Britain, art critic John Ruskin glorified imperfection in the face of industrial innovation (cited in Rosenberg 1998); and by the mid-twentieth-century, an ‘aesthetics of imperfection’ blossomed in American jazz (Gioia 1988). Many more examples could be added.
Research design: How do contemporary creative practices revive and revise existing imperfection cults? Which recurring patterns of imperfection resurface across different settings and periods? What triggered the success of such historical advocates of imperfection as DIY (do-it-yourself), wabi sabi, arts & crafts, and punk movements? How do their dynamics relate to the current preoccupation with imperfection? In answering these questions, subproject 3 substantially expands five exploratory pilot studies by the applicant (Rutten 2009, 2011, 2013, 2014.1 & in print). It takes post-1989 Europe as departure point for a historic, transnational inquiry into the social politics of imperfection. The project provides a diachronic, comparative framework for the outcomes of PhD projects 1 and 2; in turn, the applicant integrates their findings.
Corpus: a transdisciplinary set of 5 influential creative objects produced in post-1989 Europe, public discourse about them, and their historical roots (for details, see ‘Methods and techniques’).
The program’s innovative character can be summarised in three features:
1. Theory of imperfection: The notion of imperfection is today attracting rapidly accumulating critical attention. Practitioners and experts in fields as varying as design, architecture, cinema, photography, music, literature, visual arts, technology, genetics, spatial planning, marketing, psychology, and body and food cultures promote a logic of imperfections, misfits, dysfunctionality, failure, cracks, repair, ‘wrong theory,’ and digital glitches (Ramakers 2002; Brown 2010; Nemoianu 2006; Goldhoorn 2012; Gorham 2014; McGuirk 2014; Sandel 2009; Hung & Magliaro 2010; Jongerius and Schouwenberg 2010; Koren 2008; Rombes 2009; Ryan 2010; Cascone 2000; Halberstam 2011; Kelly 2009; Korine 2010; Van der Zanden 2009; Jackson 2014; Dadich 2014; Moradi, Scott, Gilmore & Murphy 2009; Menkman 2010 & 2011; Schiller 2014). Design experts signal a ‘trend in imperfection’ fueled by technological acceleration (Ramakers 2002); social development specialists propagate a ‘broken world thinking’ that embraces ‘erosion, breakdown, and decay’ (Jackson 2014); and psychologists ask their audience to ‘embrace imperfection … because we’re human’ (Brown 2010).
Existing studies acknowledge that imperfection can act as a powerful drive in creative production and consumption. As a rule, however, their scope is fragmentary: they scrutinise one or two creative disciplines, one (mostly ‘western’) geopolitical region, and/or one historic period.
Attention for the notion of imperfection is resonant but undertheorised, too, in increasingly loud debates on repair as answer to material deficit (Graham & Thrift 2007; Jackson 2014); on craft and its revaluation in a high-tech age (Adamson 2007; Sennett 2008); and on posthuman existence (Hayles 1999; Bostrom 2005). In critical reflection on these poignant social concerns, the notion of imperfection is implicated and often mentioned – but a systematic theoretic framework lacks.
This project synthesises existing thinking into the first transdisciplinary, transnational critical theory of imperfection. In pilot studies (Rutten 2011 & 2013), the applicant classified contemporary imperfection practices into ‘organic imperfections,’ ‘artisanal imperfections,’ ‘(post-)industrial imperfections,’ and ‘underground imperfections.’ The program uses recent studies in classification (see ‘Methods’) to flesh out this preliminary model into a historically and transnationally fine-grained taxonomy of imperfections. This taxonomy not only helps unpack and structure a dominant but undertheorised discourse; but it also takes critical reflection on imperfection – and, broader, creativity – beyond western paradigms (De Kloet 2010).
2. Sublime imperfections: By foregrounding the notion of authentic or sublime imperfections, the program makes a crucial contribution to thinking on today’s economy as an ‘experience economy,’ ‘creative economy,’ or as ‘artistic capitalism’ (Gilmore & Pine 2007; Pratt 2008; Lipovetsky & Serroy 2013). As central consumer sensibilities of these economic models, marketing experts foreground authenticity, creativity, and aesthetic merit (ibid.). In a parallel move, cultural historians, philosophers, and ethnographers all highlight the ongoing socio-cultural relevance of the authentic and sublime (Shaw 2005; Lindholm 2007; Vannini & Williams 2009; Brady 2013).
What neither marketing specialists nor cultural historians systematically address, however, is the question which aesthetic and discursive devices cultural producers use to make a product look or feel authentic or appealing. What creates the feeling of truthfulness and ‘nature taking command’ that consumers so avidly seek?
This program argues that one major device which lends products the sublime or authentic ‘aura’ (Benjamin 1935-1939) that currently is in such demand, is that of imperfection. It also argues that imperfection, authenticity, and the sublime have a long shared history. Social and technological change actuate social dreams and phobias (Boddy 2004; Baym 2010), including a fear for loss of authentic and sublime experiences. For that last fear, imperfection offers to many creatives a perfect aesthetic medicine (Rutten in print).
The program systematically explores how sublime imperfections function in cultural production and consumption, and how, in these domains, the categories of the authentic and the sublime interrelate. In doing so, it creates an important crossover between cultural and marketing studies – one that sharpens critical reflection on today’s creative economy.
3. Practice-based research: The program introduces a research model in which scholarly meets practice-based research (Candy 2006). The two PhDs and the applicant cooperate systematically with curators, artists, composers, performers, and practitioners in design, spatial planning, and social development (see 2b). In three workshops, one live event, a teaching program, one expert meeting, and one exhibition, they critically explore what happens if we tolerate more imperfection in urban planning practice; in sustainability policies and our relationship to consumer goods; in our approach to music; in knowledge collection; and in a responsible product design practice.
In this creative research model, the PhDs and the applicant methodically integrate their participation in the event program into their analyses; and the participating practitioners continually tap from the expertise that the scholars bring in. Updates and outcomes are shared on a public project website. The program’s practice-based and academic components thus complement one another: the one does not function properly without the other. In this working model – which is increasingly common in the arts (Rust, Mottram & Till 2007), but much less so among cultural historians and area specialists – knowledge utilisation is no bonus to academic-only core activities. It is formative to the project’s outcomes.
Methods & techniques
To guarantee maximum comparability, each subproject operates the same methodological toolset. Each performs the following five-stage design:
A. The responsible researcher selects a diachronically diverse set of five economically and/or symbolically influential creative products: one film or TV series, one book, one visual art work, one (clustered) building, and one text collection on design (on the latter, see C). For the selection, (s)he draws on a transdisciplinary corpus of roughly 400 relevant objects collected by the applicant. The preliminary inventory of objects per project includes:
Netherlands (PhD 1)
Russia (PhD 2)
Waltz (TV series, Alberdingk Thijm 2008)
School (TV series, Germanika Gai 2010)
Dancer in the Dark (film, Von Trier 2000)
Misfit (exhibition catalogue, Jongerius & Schouwenberg 2010)
Letters to the Next Room (handwritten poetry, Pavlova 2006)
Doro (novel, Khlebnikova 1992)
Visual art work
Scrap-wood cupboard (design, Eek 1992)
Printer’s Mistake (ceramics, Kabakov 2002)
Mould dress (garment, Martin Margiela, 1997)
NDSM Wharf (culture laboratory, Amsterdam, 2001-today)
Pushkinskaia Street 10 (cultural center/café, St. Petersburg, 1989-today)
De Hallen (food court/ shops/library/cinema, Amsterdam, 2014)
Project Russia (1995-today)
Google Books: design titles, 1989-2008
For PhD projects 1 and 2, a final selection will be negotiated with the PhD students.
B. The three researchers explore the products and the discourses surrounding them (see E.) as part of wider socio-economic and aesthetic trends. In doing so, they rely on leading studies of cultural production and consumption (Bourdieu 1993; Mayer, Banks & Caldwell 2009; Hesmondhalgh 2013); and, for a nuanced approach to the problem of examining material objects, on insights from object studies and aesthetics (Candlin & Guins 2008; Bryant 2011; Feagin & Maynard 1998; Kieran 2006).
C. The researchers use digital tools to examine a fifth ‘object’ from the field of interior design. They operate semantic-clustering software to map English- and Russian-language discourses on imperfection in: Frame, an internationally renowned Dutch design journal (PhD 1); Project Russia, the leading journal in Russian design (PhD 2); and design-related titles in the Google Books collection. In this step, the program utilises the University of Amsterdam’s strong digital-humanities competence (Bod 2012; Rogers 2013) and the applicant’s training digital-humanities methods (see CV). Each participant uses the following findividually tailored text-mining tools:
Google Ngram Viewer
D. With the help of recent studies in classification (Bailey 1994, Abbas 2010), the three researchers organise the products and practices mentioned into historical and typological taxonomies (for preliminary exercises in historical taxonomy by the applicant, see Rutten 2010 & in print; on her basic typology, see ‘Innovation’).
E. In crafting taxonomies, the project members explore concrete products, but they also critically examine talk about them. They conduct qualitative and quantitative (see B.) analyses of discursive sources, ranging from self-fashioning acts by creatives to writings about their work by others (interviews, but also (product) reviews, PR materials). In doing so, they build on critical discourse studies and their insights into the extent to which texts and talk shape our everyday lives and the power structures in which these lives are embedded (Foucault 1971; Gee 2014).
The notion of imperfection is central to a fervent public debate on technology, craftsmanship, humanness, power, sustainability, repair, and ‘social design.’ Sublime Imperfections both analyzes and actively contributes to this non-academic discussion. Between the project’s starting and end date, the two PhDs and the applicant cooperate systematically and on a regular basis with curators, artists, composers, performers, and practitioners in design, innovation, and spatial planning. In a series of seven events and programs, they gather to ask: what happens if we tolerate more imperfection in urban planning; in our relationship to consumer goods; in our approach to music; in knowledge collection; and in responsible product design practices?
The program entails a detailed societal action plan, comprised of the following series of (semi-)public events and programs:
Preliminary project literature
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Bod, Rens, Het einde van de geesteswetenschappen 1.0, oratie, 2012, online op www.oratiereeks.nl/upload/pdf/PDF-1433Weboratie_Rens_Bod_-_def.pdf
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Brodsky, Sasha, ‘Deliberate Imperfection’ (Interview), Mark Magazine, no. 13, 2009, pp. 172-83
Brown, Brene, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed To Be and Embrace Who You Are, Center City, MN: Hazelden 2010
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Candy, Linda, Practice Based Research: A Guide, Creativity & Cognition Studios Report, 2006, online on http://www.creativityandcognition.com/resources/PBR%20Guide-1.1-2006.pdf
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