Interview with Sean Leonard
Het Nieuwe Instituut catches up with Tilting Axis fellow Sean Leonard as he reflects on his research methodology, his decision to work with a Maroon community in Suriname, and the future projects he has in the pipeline.
What inspired you to apply for the fellowship?
Sean Leonard: I would say that my applying for the fellowship was prompted more by obligation than inspiration. This was an open invitation, rarely (if ever) offered to practitioners of architecture and design here in the Caribbean. By obligation, I mean that responsibility I felt as a long-practising architect in the region, to invest in this opportunity as a worthwhile challenge - that responsibility to simply act on opportunities that befall you and therefore challenge your commitment to the evolution of your profession and practice. It was one of those opportunities that I'd typically encourage the generation after me to take on board, so I suppose the fellowship invitation was now testing my ability to guide by example. I was completely preoccupied with the act of applying, as opposed to the prospect of actually winning the Research Fellowship. This was a space in which I also had never personally ventured, so there was a measure of accomplishment by simply being able to press ‘send’.
Why did you choose a Maroon community on the Tapanahoni River in Suriname as your research project, instead of the originally submitted project on the Caroni swamp in Trinidad and Tobago?
SL: I’d visited the three Guianas before and they've always held a special allure for me. This might be due to their evoking (for me) a peculiar sense of being Caribbean, sociologically and continentally in its geomorphic character; a combination of qualities which intrigues me. This would certainly account for my reference to them in my application when I wrote - ‘...however the Caribbean coastline of the Guianas (as well as their riverine communities) are very compelling’.
It is interesting for me now to observe that, at that time, though undecided, the rivers of the Guianas were beginning to enter my imagination around this research. On learning that I'd been shortlisted, I began to think of how I could stretch the potential novelty of the research experience, and so recognised that this would be the opportunity to attempt to access more unfamiliar landscapes in order to enrich that experience. The wonderful coincidence of a long imagined collaboration with Marcel Pinas (an artist of Maroon heritage) and my curious attraction to the waters of the Guianas, seemed to provide cultural and environmental reference points for staging a journey of intellectual and experiential discovery.
How have you experienced the past six months, working remotely due to the effects of the pandemic?
The effects of the pandemic and the need to work remotely created a different journey of discovery, transporting my pursuit of the novel experience, to unknown territories. The landscapes charted would now lack a certain kind of palpability and sensuality. It forced the need to seek and conjure new modes of attachment and intimacy. As an architect, it forced me to challenge an intuitive deployment of the haptic and visual, and therefore forced me to exercise other sensibilities.
As it happened, ‘the aural and oral’ took centre stage, qualifying not only what I heard, but how I listened. Whereas I was unable to travel, sounds, voices, speech and stories can travel across space. As the research highlighted, these elements also form the repositories for information to travel between generations through time.
How did you conceive the idea of a public journal on your website korjaal-ing.space?
Creating the website korjaal-ing.space as a public journal, I suppose sprung from being in the midst of research that started by depending heavily on conversation for immersion and in whose content the oral tradition features significantly. I suppose the content of the research also prompted me to seek those available systems, or attempt to custom-make a system for holding and communicating information. The idea of accounting and informing within the structure of a story or narrative became evident and was also more amenable to the infrastructure and culture of digital technology, which the world was now heavily dependent on due to the pandemic. Korjaal-ing.space became a space for a parallel investigation into the relationship between the communicating device or system and the aesthetic of the information being presented. A combination of testing and capitalising on the cultural mores (traditions) associated with the function and presentation of websites. Interestingly, all new territory for me in terms of the machination of the digital world.
Can you elaborate on your research methodology?
This is the sort of question to which I suspect a practitioner of formal research (academic) would have a coherent and immediate response. Not being one of the afore-described, but having a genuine interest in enquiry, I'd have to attempt to describe what I see as the overarching character of the research exercise, as opposed to a devised methodological structure. This because, outside of a very clear idea of the desired sequence of research locales (Suriname-The Netherlands-Suriname), the conducting of the research was necessarily a fluid and non-linear exercise. Not being a seasoned formal researcher, I conditioned myself to having to strategise moves as experience and insight evolved, noting that I am uncertain to what extent this can be attributed to my personality or the pandemic.
Coming out of the fellowship however, I have observed my penchant for framing or articulating the research enquiry through the motif of a design proposition, whether it be design in assimilating text as in ‘Verses’, design in assimilating life issues as in the ‘Graphic Notes' or design in the assimilation of societal shibboleths as in ‘Milli on the Marrow'. (‘Verses’, ‘Graphic Notes’ and ‘Milli on the Marrow’ are sections in the research website korjaal-ing.space).
How does the fellowship align with or divert from the lineage of your previous projects and interests?
At a technical level, the research of this fellowship contributes to an ongoing interest in exploring the possible mutability, responsiveness and even ephemerality of the architectural gesture in the context of coastal and inland water environments (estuaries, rivers, lakes, wetlands). Related to the resonance of the architectural gesture, my involvement in set design and carnival costume production has, over time, brought an awareness of the significance of the human being in projecting the character of that which is human-made (literally framing life and the living being). Like the significance of the living being in those creative practices, a question arises for me which seeks to identify when, whether and how life and living stories related to the conditions of an architectural gesture’s occupation and function can account for its resonance and therefore facilitate its role as a kind of register of those conditions. The fellowship has now of course added another dimension to that enquiry, related to the relationship between these gestures and the world of digital and virtual lives and life stories.
What are you imagining for future phases of this project?
I will continue to upload content to korjaal-ing.space (maybe not with the frequency that the fellowship afforded me). Ideally, I am hoping to be able steer the project towards identifying and developing technical information for some level of discrete prototyping of a physical installation in Suriname, for review and testing. At a macro scale, I hope that the content derived from the project will be accessed and used for the imagining and devising of project briefs related to establishing or redefining institutional frameworks and physical environments, founded in the evolution of Suriname’s Maroon heritage (and similar cultural environments).
Tilting Axis Fellowship
Het Nieuwe Instituut and Tilting Axis are launching the third iteration of the Fellowship program for mid-career or established applicants based in the Caribbean. The initiative aims to foster and stimulate mutual exchange between the Caribbean region and the Dutch cultural field. Together with the leading partners - Het Nieuwe Instituut and Tilting Axis - other cultural institutions including Amsterdam Museum, De Appel, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, and Kunstinstituut Melly will collaborate with the selected applicant during the Fellowship.
Korjaal-ing.space: concept and creation
Read about korjaal-ing.space, the research website Sean Leonard launched as part of his 2020 fellowship.
Tilting Axis Research Fellowship: thoughts on preliminary field research
The Tilting Axis Research Fellow 2020, Sean Leonard, shares thoughts around his preliminary field research which will inform his ongoing studies into the documentation of the construction and making of both spaces and things, of a maroon community on the Tapanahoni River in Suriname.