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.

2 Responses to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Experimental”
  1. fiffe says:

    Terrific post Andy! It made me think about reviews that I have read about experimental work in “established” news sources such as the LA and NY Times and how more often than not they end up writing very neutral reviews of experimental works. I guess neutral would be better than bad, but I think their failure to properly discuss experimental works in terms of process often is misread as a poor review of the work because they fail to discuss the elements involved in pushing the boundaries of art, dance, music and theater, and how the process is reflective of, what you appropriately called it, “evolving hybrid culturescapes.”

  2. claudia says:

    Nice post .. I would add that “experimental” is often (sometimes willfully, sometimes lazily) misused, when the work at hand really is simply “contemporary.” If you’re talking about contemporary work, you have to contextualize it and deal with it, right? But if it’s experimental, that puts on a cheap label, a shorthand that people think they understand (see also postmodern, genius, canonical, downtown, etc.). I know I’ve been guilty of this. No doubt I will be again in the future!

    And most artists, if they’re actually doing the job, are experimenters (I say most because surely there are exceptions to this – but maybe I should say all??)


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