Beijing, 25-27 May 2018

 “…failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.”

Judith Halberstam, 2011: 2

Our global, and some may say neoliberal, mindset has excluded the possibility of failure, in its constant validation and celebration of notions of progress, development, innovation, and improvement. In particular East Asia seems to be hooked to the idea of progress and development – more is better. But is it really? How can we rescue failure from its negative connotations? How can we bring it back into and beyond the classroom as a valuable tool for thinking, for knowledge production, and also for creative production as well as political activism? According to the late Marc Karlin, politics is a learning process about how to live with pessimism and how to work on yourself in relation to that pessimism. We may think the same of failure. This workshop aims to explore to possibilities and impossibilities of failure  for three different domains:

  1. Pedagogy
  2. Creativity
  3. Activism

All three domains are driven by a teleological idea of progress, newness and change, the notion of failure can be seen as a potential threat of this underpinning rationale, but in our view, failure can also be mobilized as an enabling technique, a tactic that resists the demand for more and better, a way to recuperate different forms of education, different modes of being creative, and a different kind of politics.

This seems to be a quite timely concern, not only given the reception of Halberstam’s publication on failure, but also when witnessing different initiatives around the world that are now contemplating the idea of failure. South African artist William Kentridge, for example, has started the independent center for less good ideas in Johannesburg, a space for artists to learn by failing.[i] At Smith college, failure is now part of the curriculum.[ii] And in May 2018, at the Institute for Provocation in Beijing, we will further explore the creative, political and pedagogical potential of the notion of failure. This workshop is part of the Humanities across Borders: Asia and Africa in the World (2017-2020) programme from the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, a programme funded by the Mellon foundation that calls for expanding the scope of the humanities by mobilising knowledge-practices that have largely remained unrepresented in contemporary academia. It is also linked to the ChinaCreative project, funded by the European Research Council, on the current move from China towards creativity and innovation. Its partners, aside from the Institute for provocation, are the IIAS, the University of Amsterdam, Tsinghua University and Baptist University.

This workshop will bring together academics, artists, activists and students to explore and develop different pedagogies and strategies of failure. Failure, we argue, is part and parcel of knowledge production, creative work and political activism. To insert the possibility of failure in our pedagogies, our research, our creative practices and our politics, will help to open them up to alternative possibilities, ideas that may privilege slowness above speed, stagnation above progress, amateurism above professionalism, and experimentation above modeling. In this workshop, we wish not so much to celebrate failure, as to bring it back as a possible source of inspiration, as an intervention that can help to counter the drive towards always better and always more.

Jeroen de Kloet


[i] See

[ii] See

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