Skip to main content

Research Repository

Advanced Search

Improvisation as experimentation in everyday life and beyond.

Coessens, Kathleen; Douglas, Anne


Kathleen Coessens

Anne Douglas


Kathleen Coessens


In this chapter we analyse two interrelated projects across the fields of visual art and music, philosophy and anthropology. Calendar Variations (2010-11) is a visual activity initiated by Anne Douglas, visual artist and researcher. A Day in My Life (2011-12) mirrors this activity in music and is developed by Kathleen Coessens, pianist and philosopher. The two projects are research driven and frame questions about the relationship of improvisation to experiential knowledge. First, what might experimentation be in the context of experience of life and experience of art? Does improvisation as a concept and a practice offer new potential to inform experimentation in a distinctive way? We will use Dewey as a starting point for a phenomenological approach to experience as a form of ongoing experimentation and adjustment, a process of learning endemic to life itself. We will map this articulation onto Hallam and Ingold's four characteristics of improvisation. These closely resonate with Dewey while nuancing/inflecting the resulting learning as an experience between people, formed socially and culturally. Moving deeper into experience, experiment, and improvisation as three key interrelated concepts, we look briefly at Bergson, who offers a way of imagining experience as time dependent: life is constantly in a process of formation that is unstoppable even in reflection. This implies a conflation of intuition and intellect into one single activity, leaving the artist-as-researcher in a paradoxical situation. How is knowledge created if we cannot look back on experience by stepping outside what is ongoing? Arnheim helps us to unravel this paradox: intellect and intuition are distinctive but interrelated modes of being. We limit ourselves in life, Arnheim argues, to what is useful and necessary to know, working within this contingent. Art enriches possible ways of imagining. These challenge and extend experience. We lay out this theoretical ground as the basis from which to analyse the two artistic projects. By interpolating between the theoretical and artistic experiences, we enlarge not only our perspectives on but also our actions in the world.


DOUGLAS, A. and COESSENS, K. 2017. Improvisation as experimentation in everyday life and beyond. In Coessens, K. (ed.) Experimental encounters in music and beyond. Leuven: Leuven University Press [online], pages 159-176. Available from:

Online Publication Date Dec 4, 2017
Publication Date Dec 4, 2017
Deposit Date Dec 22, 2016
Publicly Available Date Dec 5, 2018
Publisher Leuven University Press
Pages 159-176
Book Title Experimental encounters in music and beyond
ISBN 9789462701106
Keywords Visual artist; Music; Philosophy; Anthropology; Research; Improvisation
Public URL
Publisher URL


You might also like

Downloadable Citations