In summer 2012, Elbow Room took part in Chapter Art Centre’s “Festival of Failure”. The festival, which took place on 29th & 30th June, was “a weekend celebrating our failings as human beings”. Artists and groups were invited to contribute to the event by designing activities that tested participants’ ability to fail.
Elbow Room was intrigued by the question of whether it was possible to set out to fail. If you intend to fail and do, have you succeeded? So have you failed to fail? In which case, perhaps, you were successful after all…
This circular enquiry led us to consider a host of life’s unanswerable questions and we decided that for the event we would invite members of the public to join us in failing to find the answers.
Elbow Room asked philosopher, Phil Cole, to lead the discussions and lend his extensive knowledge and experience to the conversation. The table was set as would be an after-dinner scene, with a cheese board, bread, fruit, olives and port. Some of the questions we hoped to explore were printed onto large newsprint. The conversation flowed from question to question and between us and several participants throughout the afternoon.
We think it was a success, which means we failed, which was what we wanted…
Here are some words from Phil about the value of failure:
The importance of failure
Chapter Arts Centre is holding a ‘Festival of Failure’ at the weekend, July 29th/30th, and I’ve been asked to take part in an event organized by the arts collective Elbow Room, a roundtable discussion of unanswerable questions, or at least questions people can never agree the answer to.
If, by the end of the afternoon, we succeed in finding answers, the event will be a failure. Hopefully we’ll all remain stymied.
But the invitation set me thinking about the importance of failure. It’s valuable to have the space to fail, and we can learn a great deal both from the experience of failure and the fact of failure itself.
What if the Large Hadron Collider at CERN fails, in the end, to find the Higgs Boson particle? Would that be a catastrophe? Scientists would have learned a great deal from the experience of building the collider, and the fact of failure may also tell us something important about the nature of the universe – maybe the ‘God’ particle doesn’t exist?
When I taught philosophy at various universities I always thought it important to give my students the space to fail. We were looking at some of the fundamental questions concerning the meaning of life – the existence of God, the mind/body problem, the nature of morality.
Why study those questions? Why study the answers philosophers have proposed throughout history and try to see why they don’t work?
Socrates supplied two good answers here. First, that the unexamined life is not worth living – we have to ask these questions. Second, that true wisdom lies in being aware of the limits of our knowledge – knowing how little we know.
The fact was that if great philosophers have failed to answer these questions satisfactorily, undergraduate students didn’t stand a chance. But plunging in and trying to puzzle them out taught them a centrally important human skill – how to think.
Many questions can be answered by looking them up in a book or applying a formula or, increasingly, consulting the internet. But that isn’t thinking. Thinking happens when we have to try and work something out ourselves, hopefully with other people sitting around a table laden with food and drink.
What is increasingly scarce under the conditions of what some call late capitalism is time to think. We need answers and we need them more or less immediately.
That attitude affects all fields, including the arts and intellectual research. Those of us who work in those areas, or any area these days, know that the key words are ‘impact’ and ‘outcome’. We need to state clearly what the outcome of our project will be, and what impact it will have. Otherwise we won’t get funding.
We’re not allowed to say: “I don’t know, why don’t we find out?” And we’re certainly not allowed to say: “Well, we won’t find out for a while if there’ll be any outcome or any impact. But it’s worth doing anyway.”
Teachers at all levels of education will know about outcomes. In recent years I had to identify the learning outcomes of all my lessons before my courses started.
Although I obediently did the paperwork, I was always thinking to myself, and complaining to colleagues, “I don’t know what the outcome of this lesson will be. Anything could happen. And that’s the point.”
And so the Elbow Room event is a radical intervention in the capitalist rush to impact and outcomes. It’s the carving out of a space and time where people can fail to find the answer or reach an artificial agreement that lets some bureaucrat tick a box and say, “We’ve got a policy!”
So – no answers, no impact, no outcomes. But we might just all learn something valuable.