Knowing From the Inside

by Tim Ingold

8 Feb 2017

Knowing From the Inside: Anthropology, Art, Architecture and Design (or for short, KFI) is a 5-year project funded by a European Research Council Advanced Grant held by Professor Tim Ingold.

KFI seeks to reconfigure the relation between practices of inquiry in the human sciences and the forms of knowledge to which they give rise. Its fundamental premise is that knowledge is not created through an encounter between minds furnished with concepts and theories, and a material world already populated with objects, but grows from the crucible of our practical and observational engagement with the world around us. Knowledge, we contend, comes from thinking with, from and through beings and things, not just about them. Our aim is to show how research underpinned by this premise could make a difference to the sustainability of environmental relations and to the well-being that depends on it.

The project is founded in the discipline of anthropology. Its primary aim is to establish and trial an experimental and speculative mode of anthropological inquiry which allows us to join with the persons and materials among whom and which we work, in exploring the conditions and possibilities of sustainable living. This mode of inquiry, however, also lies at the heart of the disciplines of art, architecture and design. All four disciplines offer paths to knowing-in-being which challenge the conventional division between data gathering and theory building. Thus a secondary aim of the project is to work towards an interdisciplinary synergy which would see anthropologists working alongside artists, architects and designers in the common tasks of forging a world fit for future generations to inhabit.

The project will customise this general approach to knowing to specific contexts of practice including landscape management, craft heritage, environmental conservation, building and restoration, drawing and notation, theatre and dance. Our method will be distinguished by observation and experiment, the outcomes of which will be not just written texts but works of art or craft, performances and installations. The project will contribute to both education and design for sustainable living through a renewed emphasis on the improvisational creativity and perceptual acuity of practitioners. It will promote the dissemination of knowledge through shared experience, and advance a new vision of interdisciplinarity as an intertwining of lines of interest.

The research we have undertaken so far includes studies in woodworking, carried out with foresters and conservationists in Scotland, and with migrants and refugees in the city of Brussels, looking at the ecological relations of craft practice and at how working with materials can create an environment in which stories can be told, the past relived and the future imagined. A parallel study carried out in northeastern Japan has experimented with a range of woods and papers, in collaboration with international contemporary artists, in order to explore responses to the seismic and nuclear disaster of 2011. Besides wood, materials that have become central to our research include earth, straw, stone and concrete. Joining with eco-builders in Scotland, and with post-quake reconstruction in central Italy, we have shown how each material has its own history, properties and temporality in terms of procurement, use and decomposition. Concrete has emerged as a topic of particular interest, and was the subject of a collaborative performance on concrete’s role in the Anthropocene, which took place at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in November 2014.

A key concern in our research has been how to bring together the know-how of scientists, policy-makers and local practitioners in designing for sustainability, and we have addressed this concern through fieldwork in a marine conservation area in Argentina and with glaciologists in Svalbard. Equally important is to understand the modes of communication, listening and responsiveness needed to achieve collaboration in sustainable policy design, and we are currently exploring this using tools from dance and experimental theatre. These studies have drawn particular attention to the dynamics of attentionality, by which we mean the ongoing responsiveness of practitioners to their materials and environments. Our research has also led to a stress on the importance of drawing, as a method of observation and description with far-reaching anthropological implications. Finally, a study of the relations between art, architecture, design and anthropology in the history of the Bauhaus school has pointed to the significance of education. Indeed the theme of educationis currently taking centre-stage in our work and has led to our determination that a key objective of the project must be to address the pedagogical and curricular implications of our approach to knowing from the inside.

The project has hosted numerous researchers and practitioners on shorter or longer visits. It has convened many workshops, as well as panels and exhibitions at several national and international meetings. A highlight in May-June 2015 was the KFI Kitchen, a week-long residential workshop designed to explore the implications of the project for education and the curriculum. Among the major project outcomes will be an exhibition, entitled The Unfinishing of Things, which will be on display at the University of Aberdeen from April to September 2017, and a series of special volumes which will push at the boundaries of what a ‘book’ can be by experimenting with media beside the printed word, including handwriting, drawing, various notations, painting and photography.

Knowing From the Inside: Anthropology, Art, Architecture and Design is a 5-year project funded by a European Research Council Advanced Grant held by Professor Tim Ingold. It commenced in June 2013, and will run until May 2018. Find out more:

Sign up to our email newsletters