What We Talk About When We Talk About Experimental

Experimental anything – theater, dance, music, film, etc. – frequently gets a bad rap. One of the biggest problems is the misconception that the word “experimental” refers to the product, rather than the process. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because there seems to be so much semantic confusion across the board.  So let’s start with the definition:



1. pertaining to, derived from, or founded on experiment: an experimental science.
2. of the nature of an experiment; tentative: The new program is still in an experimental stage.
3. functioning as an experiment or used for experimentation: an experimental airplane.
4. based on or derived from experience; empirical: experimental knowledge.

 I think we need to educate the general public that “experimental” doesn’t necessarily mean “weird” or “bad” or “hard to understand”. What “experimental” means is that the event/work that you are encountering was developed through a process of experimentation. Usually an experimental process closely models the organic creative/learning processes of trial and error, research, prototyping, revision and rebuilding. It means that we don’t always know what we’re making. Its like this – we’re not trying to make a car, we’re trying to invent a thing that moves us from place to place more rapidly and easily than walking. We may invent a car, we may invent the Segway, we may bioengineer a horse, we might invent a helicopter – we don’t know what we’re making necessarily or how it will turn out.

for that is the definition of “experiment”:

a test, trial, or tentative procedure; an act or operation for the purpose of discovering something unknown or of testing a principle, supposition, etc.

This is the difference between art and entertainment, and the connection between art and science. Art is the science of abstraction and experience, it is a different mode of investigation of the world.  It is a way of focusing attention on a condition, an experience, an idea, a historical moment, etc.

In some ways we are primed for an extraordinary moment in experimentalism. The internet and the evolving hybrid culturescape demand experimentation as we seek new forms appropriate to our moment. Our challenge as artists and arts advocates is to insure that we remain relevant by engaging in relevant investigations and by educating audiences on how to encounter our work in successful ways.

Just a few quick thoughts to share on a late afternoon.

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