The Art of Not-Knowing by James Clegg

The Art of Not-Knowing by James Clegg


Talbot Rice Image

Bullet points of what you would like to talk about:

I would like to talk about:

  • How it is okay not to know what you feel about an artwork or even contemporary art in general. That it isn’t your problem or failure if you don’t ‘get it’.
  • BUT, how feeling uncertain can be the start of a really interesting set of questions and the beginning of you genuinely finding your creative self. ‘Getting it’ might turn out not to be such a good thing after all!

In order to make a convincing case I will need to draw from a broad set of reference points. So, more formally, I would like to talk about:

  • How contemporary art practice is driven by a process of discovery, a not-knowing relationship to materiality that delights in the unexpected coming-together of disparate ideas.
  • Some of the roots of contemporary art practice, particularly those that emphasise experience, a transient not-knowing that is distinct from structural thinking.
  • A not-knowing set of concepts drawn from thinkers like Giles Deleuze, Karen Barad, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, Donna Haraway and Jacques Rancière.
  • AND, how you might defend not-knowing (as a life-affirming position that enables a much richer understanding of the world) against a context in which it is often being politically, economically and culturally undermined.


A few paragraphs on your subject:

My passion is for contemporary art practice. Specifically, I think it lies in the messy and often ambiguous area where materials and ideas come together. For me, the best artworks create an experience that is akin to tasting something for the first time, they send your mind racing backwards and forwards trying to find similar things and points of comparison, ultimately drawing a new space around something you don’t yet know.


So, as someone who has spent a lifetime in art, I don’t know what I look for when I go to see an exhibition. I think that’s okay, in fact I think it is the right way to approach it. Maybe if more people knew that was okay then more people would go and see art and enjoy it more.


So much of our experience is repressed that the not-knowing I want to talk about has a deep political component. Those new flavours you experience come from other ways of being in the world, other ways of thinking about history and other possible futures. They relate to things that are covered up, hidden or eradicated.


Contemporary art is speculative and it operates on a general level, but it is this aspect of it that allows it to form critically important conversations about these things across different disciplines, arenas and in everyday life. It touches upon things that affect real people every day. If my talk is successful then I hope that I’ll help you to see how you might (at least sometimes) think about your life as if it was contemporary art, which means not-knowing your relationship to the familiar things that define you and your boundaries.


This is an intentionally over-ambitious talk, somewhere outside my own comfort zone too. I’m trying to put a finger on something I don’t quite understand. But that’s because I want to use this as an opportunity to discover things with you. I hope you’ll find your own meanings in the inevitable cracks and fault-lines of what it is I’m talking about.


This will be a creative talk, bringing together lots of different elements in order to give you a new flavour that we won’t ‘know’ in the normal sense of that term, but that might just offer a space from which to be with things differently.


A few paragraphs about you:

James is an Assistant Curator for Talbot Rice Gallery. Passionate about contemporary art he has curated and helped to curate lots of exhibitions for the Gallery since 2010. He is specifically interested in artists that work across disciplinary boundaries and he works hard to create meeting points for different types of practitioner and different types of audience.


This includes public events that see academics, performers and poets coming together to create new dialogues around specific ideas. It also includes talks and tours with a range of different groups, including ones connected to the Scottish Refugee Council, Crisis Scotland and various colleges and adult education groups.


Seeing a close connection between education and creativity he has organised events with The Ragged University since 2016. In particular, he is interested in approaches to learning that do not assume that the world will ever yield easy or permanent answers. ‘acts of dis play’, an exhibition he made in 2016 with the artist Rob Kennedy foregrounded this principle by emphasising the relative ‘jeopardy’ of live experience over and above the reductive explanations that are usually offered in this context.


In this way, act of dis play – which featured a nine- metre tree apparently held in place by debris and a leaning scaffold tower – placed emphasis on audiences’ self-learning and discovery.


Other exhibitions James has curated include John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea (21 October 2017 – 27 January 2018) and Stephen Sutcliffe’s Sex Symbols in Sandwich Signs (28 July – 30 September 2017). He also writes occasionally as an art critic for Art Review and Art Monthly.

What free internet knowledge resources would you recommend ?

You can read James’ writing about experience in art here:


Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene [Lecture]. Donna Haraway’s work in relation to ecological change, other species and kinship is much more complicated than the sense of ‘not-knowing’ I will discuss in my talk. However, this lecture captures her most recent ideas and demonstrates how she is having to really strive for new kinds of ‘knowing’ – moving away from our ‘impoverished geometries of knowing’ – in order to find solutions to our contemporary situation:


YouTube player

Allan Kaprow’s happenings were an important part of 1960s art movements. Here, his short essays discuss his practice which ranges from trading dirt dug from specific areas to cleaning his teeth. Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, J. Kelley (ed.), University of California Press, London,1993:

Tate Gallery, Art Term: Fluxus:

What are your weblinks?

Blog –
Twitter – @JCwritercurator
Facebook – James Clegg
Public Email – [email protected]

This event took place on 27th Nov 2018 at St John’s Church Community Hall (Princes St, Edinburgh EH2 4BJ)