Jason Hoelscher, IDSVA cohort ’12, defended his dissertation this past October. He is an Assistant Professor and Gallery Director at Georgia Southern University, and worked with 1st-year students as the IDSVA Writing Fellow at Spannocchia this past June. His fresh perspective was more than welcome for the students, and offered encouragement that indeed this journey we have all embarked on is one of a kind.
I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Hoelscher about his second time in Spannocchia and his process for completing his dissertation.
WM: After more than five years away from the castle, perhaps there was a small feeling of homecoming.
JH: It was great to be back, and interesting to see how things have changed. The castle itself had changed little, of course—as George Smith says, it’s transhistorical. But the texture of the experience itself was quite different. It was less intense being on the other end of my time as an IDSVA student: I had literally mailed my dissertation off to my defense committee the day before boarding my flight to Italy, so that was weird timing.
WM: As students after a week of intense reading and writing, we were anxious to hear you speak more on your dissertation From Artworks to Artworlds: Information Efflorescence and Complex Systems Aesthetics. With so much breadth in the program, how were you able to narrow it down to something so precise?
JH: My dissertation is a weird beast, conceptually speaking. The main philosophers I’m writing about, arguing with, and building upon aren’t people we read in the IDSVA curriculum—philosophers like Whitehead, Simondon, Souriau, Langer and Vološinov. That was in part due to my dissertation director, whose work we read in the IDSVA curriculum, but whose interests lie more in affect and process philosophy. So I ended up applying the modes of thought I learned from IDSVA to non-IDSVA texts. I spent most of year one of my post-orals dissertation work absorbing yet another 12,000 pages’ worth of texts my advisor suggested, which definitely yielded a rather odd hybrid.
In terms of a precise dissertation, mine is actually pretty broad in approach. One hears about the increasingly-crippling specialization of PhDs, a problem inherent to the expectation of contributing something new to human knowledge. We hear that all the big questions have been addressed, so we’re left with increasingly specific issues to wrangle over. Something cool about IDSVA, however, is our program is unique in its openness to inter- and transdisciplinarity. There are big challenges, problems and questions out there in the world that few are equipped to handle by the time they reach dissertation stage—their focus has by then, by training, become extremely specific.
But by combining my own interests I brought to IDSVA (such as information theory and complex adaptive/emergent systems) with the new ideas and methodologies I encountered as part of IDSVA, I found such low-hanging fruit as areas of overlap between information theory, phenomenology, and aesthetics. All three of those involve how we experience the world—a big issue—but it’s such a strange and complex overlap that nobody had really taken a systematic approach to unpacking the subject. So, rather than something super-specific and perhaps overly limiting in scope, I was able to create a space for approaching art experience at a broad, deep-structure level by triangulating viewpoints that don’t often share the same cognitive space in programs laser-focused on maintaining siloed hyper-specialization.
WM: What key things along the way have made you most prepared for your dissertation defense?
JH: Writing the dissertation was tough—in many or most ways more difficult than doing the coursework—because the focus and approach is left so much up to you. Rather than writing a paper with clear guidelines on whom to intertextualize, it’s largely up to you.
Something that helps is to be flexible in your approach. However dynamite one’s proposal is, it is a starting point—a blob of clay that kind of resembles what you want it to end up as, but remains open to further (and sometimes extensive) shaping and reshaping. Especially early on, don’t get married to ideas that aren’t working, or that hold the dissertation back from being what it wants to be. For example, it was only after writing a really lame version of the first chapter (about 60 pages) that I realized what that first chapter really needed to do, so I scrapped the whole thing and started over, and then the whole rest of the dissertation finally clicked into place. I wouldn’t recommend that approach as a goal, but writing out some things immediately revealed how I was fighting where the text really wanted to go. It set me back a couple of months, but I’m glad I was able to isolate and deal with the problems early on, rather than much later in the process when it would be harder to fix.
I’d also suggest gathering more material than you can use. Over about two years I took notes on absolutely everything that seemed even potentially relevant, then essentially curated that down to an argument, methodology, and outline over the next year, based on relationships I’d not noticed before, themes that kept appearing, and so on. Though most of that didn’t make it into the text, it still contributed to the texture and density of the final result.
Being open to other fields is good too—I spent most of summer 2016 learning how to do first-order and second-order differential equations so I could fully grasp the mathematics underlying information theory, for example (the core info theory text by Claude Shannon is about 130 pages long, 80 pages of which is math). Thankfully, none of the math made it into the dissertation, but grasping the subject matter at that level revealed interesting approaches or problems most other philosophers don’t seem to have noticed if they haven’t worked the math out for themselves, and coming at it from a philosopher’s point of view yielded insights that more technical and mathematically-oriented tech people don’t seem to have considered either.
So the short answer, re: my advice: don’t get too attached to ideas, and jettison them if they end up getting in the way; gather more material than you’ll need, so you have lots of good currents to follow that allow the dissertation to emerge according to its own modes of flow; and don’t be afraid to fold together things that don’t seem to go together, because it’s the areas of friction where the most heat is generated.
WM: Rome was a new addition to the IDSVA summer residency since you first began. Are there any other cities that you may have visited that we will not? How do you see these shifts impacting the curriculum?
JH: The places we visited are all still part of the residency curriculum, which has only increased since I began. I do think the addition of new places has changed the curriculum, or at least the experience of the curriculum—the broader the exposure to difference the more opportunities for differentiation, which will inevitably feed into how one absorbs and enacts their IDSVA experience.
WM: Immediately following your stay at Spannocchia you left for Copenhagen to present your work Art as Information Ecology, an adaptation from the research of your dissertation. How easily were you able to transfer or distill the information into a presentation for a specific audience? What advice may you have to offer other students with ambitions to do the same?
JH: I’ve been presenting my dissertation research at conferences since before I’d even passed the qualifying exams. I think it’s a great way to shape and then refine the project. So, while I was still zeroing in on what I wanted the dissertation to be about, I presented early versions at CAA, SECAC, MSA, SLSA and other conferences. Nothing stress-tests an idea better than presenting it in front of 10 or 50 or 150 people! So I kind of used CAA as a focus group to see how things went over, what kinds of holes were poked by knowledgeable audience members, and so on—the Q&A sessions and after-panel conversations were great for that. Later, once I had the ideas, questions and arguments generally set, I presented the work in progress as I was writing it, which was also a great way to refine and stress-test the work in progress. The paper I presented in Copenhagen was a subsection of chapter two combined with a subsection of chapter four, which I presented largely to see what conversations it might prompt.
Sharing your in-progress ideas can be good for other reasons. The dissertation stage is crazily intense but it’s pretty much just you with your own thoughts, punctuated by feedback from your advisor (because keep in mind that the residencies etc. are done with by the time you’re at the dissertation stage). While you have to be careful that your ideas not go too far astray by coming into contact with others (and you don’t want to give away too much too early), I think it’s important to share aspects of what you’re doing. There were times sitting here in my writing space that I couldn’t tell whether I was doing something brilliant and game-changing, or whether I was on the verge of some sort of brain-melting nervous breakdown… so it was good to have like-minded folks to throw ideas around with. By now I’m plugged in with a whole subset of conference-goers—scattered around the world, but all primarily affiliated with SLSA—who generally share concerns, interests, and knowledge-base, so those folks are my tribe and we all share whatever we’re up to.
WM: Copenhagen was a new city for you and offered a rich contemporary art scene. As an artist, how did you find the juxtaposition from Rome to Spannocchia and Copenhagen? In between the academic and professional pursuits were you able to find time for further inspiration?
JH: All three places were amazing, for different reasons. Rome is so massive in every way possible—its cultural gravity field still shapes event trajectories 2000 years later. Spannocchia is Spannocchia—a tautology anyone who’s been there might recognize as containing some sort of deep truth (or not). Copenhagen was very cool too. To go from Rome to Copenhagen in such short order was like going from the stadium-filling bombast of a Led Zeppelin concert to seeing an amazing acoustic performance in a nice, cozy coffee shop.
As for your question about inspiration, it’s not so much finding it between academic and professional pursuits, but from entwining them in different ways to act as an inspiration-generator. I’m blessed to have a varied career and concerns, as each feeds off the other in nice little reciprocal loops that keep the whole system chugging along.