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Sublime Imperfections

Sublime Imperfections

NWO VIDI Project Ellen Rutten (2016-2020). Participants: Fabiene Rachmadiev, Jakko Kemper.


Ours is an age of digital spellcheckers; of refined street mapping technologies; and of advanced visual editing tools. Word’s spellchecker, Google Maps, Photoshop: myriad digital technologies aim at lightening our everyday lives.
Against this growing mediatised and digitised perfection, the late twentieth and early twenty-first century boast a strong preoccupation with imperfection. From shakily shot cinema to ‘be imperfect’ self-help programs, from torn jeans to raw restaurant interiors: between the late 1980s and today, practices that resist perfection have blossomed.
Critical inquiry on this preoccupation with the imperfect is swiftly accumulating. Across multiple socio-cultural domains, experts and practitioners analyze imperfection as a powerful social drive (for details, see ‘Innovation’). Sublime Imperfections synthesises the rich but fragmented existing critical reflection on the non-perfected into the first systematic theory of imperfection. It expands a set of pilot studies by the applicant that were highly successful (see 4f), but exploratory in character and scope (Rutten 2009, 2011.1, 2013, 2014.1 & in print). The program embeds their preliminary outcomes in a transdisciplinary, transnational and historic framework for critical reflection on sublime imperfections.


The notion of sublime imperfections covers a geopolitically, historically, and functionally diverse, but aesthetically coherent set of mostly urban-based practices whose makers share
1. a preoccupation with objects/systems that are subjected to decay, deformation, or incompletion (either actively or through non-intervention in organic processes);
2. a habit of rhetorically framing imperfection as guarantee for authenticity or the sublime in an age of technological and/or socio-economic transition.
As this working definition indicates, the program tracks not the ‘discourse of warning, of imperfection’ (Nemoianu 2006.1: 4) that informs creative production by default. Neither does it focus on bohemianism and its timeless, convention-defying cultivation of shabbiness (Stansell 2009). This program scrutinises a narrower, more sociologically driven longing. It argues that the principally human desire for imperfection heightens in times of radical socio-economic and technological change – and that we are witnessing an age of drastic transition today.
The program critically explores how imperfection is glorified as hallmark for the sublime and authentic by European creatives. Building on analyses of ‘creative labour’ (Hesmondhalgh & Baker 2011) and ‘cultural creatives’ (Ray & Anderson 2000), it uses this term to demarcate a social group encompassing designers, architects, artists, thinkers, writers, filmmakers, composers, musicians, IT specialists, marketeers, scholars, cultural entrepeneurs, and art directors.
Creatives embrace the imperfect across different geopolitical regions (Rutten 2011.1). This program takes as its test case creative practices in post-1989 Europe. Between the late 1980s and today, Europe’s major social transitions – environmental concerns, financial crises, technological advancement – partly intertwine with global developments (Risse 2010; Delanty 2013). But 1989 also marks the start of a sweeping social shift for European identity: the collapse of the Eastern Bloc.
The program examines how, in this period of multi-level transformation, creative professionals across Europe embrace imperfection as social or cultural intervention. In three mutually interdependent subprojects, conducted in close cooperation with design/innovation practitioners, it rethinks imperfection as pervasive creative practice and powerful social tool. PhD project 1 focuses on Western Europe, with the Netherlands and its renowned 1990s anti-design as sample case. PhD project 2 examines post-socialist space, with Russian trash aesthetics and Ostalgia as sample case. The researcher uses cross-European examples for a contextualising historic analysis. Together, the projects aimto understand how we develop ideas and practices within a swiftly changing and culturally mobile community of practitioners.
With that goal in mind, the program asks:
1. Which cultural, social, and economic interventions can sublime imperfections facilitate?
2. What triggers their vast popularity among cultural producers and consumers? Departing from these questions, Sublime Imperfections theorises the complex and sometimes contradictory practices and discourses in which the concept of imperfection circulates today.

Project 1. Dutch Design, Glitches, Misfits:Why Western European Creatives Crave the Imperfect

Historical background: Experts have repeatedly argued that the Dutch boast a special relationship to imperfection. They point to eighteenth-century philosophers who hail ‘deliberately imperfect’ Dutch legislation (Schama 1988: 468); they observe a ‘stylistic creation of imperfection’ in Dutch architecture, fueled by Jewish tolerance towards life’s incompletion (Verkaaik 2014); they trace a Dutch ‘anti-design’ tradition back to frugal Calvinist morality (Junte 2012); and they point to a move away from modernist perfection among disproportionately successful Dutch designers (Thomas 2008).
Research design: How do Dutch sublime imperfections engage with local high-tech industries? How do they remediate historic creative traditions? What explains the economic success of Dutch ‘anti-design’? Is this success consistent between the late 1980s and today? What role do subversive aesthetic practices play in Western-European democracies with a large public sector? PhD project 1 examines how practices and discourses of sublime imperfection function in the Netherlands. In recent decades, Dutch creatives celebrate imperfect systems and objects in part to address such globally experienced concerns as technological innovation, economic deficit, environmental crisis (Thomas 2008; Ramakers 1998 and 2002), and to discuss the meaning of craft and humanness in the face of technological and genetic standardization (Jongerius & Schouwenberg 2010; Junte 2012; Van der Zanden 2009). At the same time, Dutch design emerges emphatically within a local creative landscape – one that cultivates the rough and unofficial but is heavily state-subsidised (Aalbers, Mulder & Poort 2005).
Corpus: A transdisciplinary set of 5 influential creative objects produced in post-1989 Netherlands and public discourse about them (for details, see ‘Methods and techniques’).

Project 2. Ostalgic Trash and ‘Poor’ Aesthetics: Sublime Imperfections in Post- Socialist States

Historical background: Russian authorities are known for a low imperfection tolerance (Rutten 2014), with the ‘perfectionist’ Soviet ideology as notorious example (Haas 2005). Despite or perhaps thanks to that topdown perfectionism, Russia has often been framed as a nation more imperfect than others – and as priding itself on that capacity.
Nineteenth-century intellectuals lauded a Russian ‘lack[… of] aesthetic value’ as sublime remedy for ‘the inauthenticity of western Europe’ (Ely 2002); in Soviet-era underground and everyday life, a punk-like, homemade aesthetics thrived (Arkhipov 2006; Shaw 2009; Gerasimova 2009); and today, leading curators and architects hail post-Soviet creative life as ‘poor’ but ‘authentic’ (Gordeev 2008); ‘unfinished, imperfect’ (Goldhoorn 2012); or as charmingly ‘unprofessional’ (Brodsky 2009).
Research design: What do sublime imperfections mean in post-Soviet Russia? Does their cultural and political effect change under Putin’s increasingly authoritarian regime? When do post-Soviet trash aesthetics respond to technological and economic transition, and when and how do they remediate (n)Ostalgic longings for a grand but troubled socialist past (Gioni, Gregory, Valdez & Phillips 2011; Satter 2012)? Does the cultivation of post- Soviet ‘ruin porn’ enhance a damaging ongoing ‘othering’ of Russia (Rann 2014)? Or is imperfection a successful export product for Russian creatives? PhD project 2 explores how practices and discourses of sublime imperfection function in post-socialist space. It problematises ‘post-socialist’ labeling (see also Stenning & Hoerschelmann 2008; Rogers 2010): Russian sublime imperfections partly merge with global developments that are as market-driven and medium-specific (Hayles 2004) as they are locally defined. At the same time, the project acknowledges the legacy of failed socialism that ‘Eastern European’ states share (Rutten, Fedor & Zvereva 2013). This legacy resonates tangibly in local creative practices that cultivate imperfection. More often than not, they act as technologies of a highly traumatised public memory (Plate & Smelik 2009 & 2013); almost inevitably, they are perceived as politically seditious (Rutten 2013, 2014).
Corpus: A transdisciplinary set of 5 influential creative objects produced in post-1989 Russia and public discourse about them (for details, see ‘Methods and techniques’).

Project 3. Sublime Imperfections: History and Politics

Historical background: The practices that PhD projects 1 and 2 explore are unique neither for Europe, nor for the present day. In 10th-century Japan, the elite cultivated an ‘aesthetics of imperfection and insufficiency’ (Saito 1997); in Enlightenment theorisations of the sublime, beauty, creative expression, and imperfection went hand in hand (Burke 1993; Kant 2011); in nineteenth-century Britain, art critic John Ruskin glorified imperfection in the face of industrial innovation (cited in Rosenberg 1998); and by the mid-twentieth-century, an ‘aesthetics of imperfection’ blossomed in American jazz (Gioia 1988). Many more examples could be added.
Research design: How do contemporary creative practices revive and revise existing imperfection cults? Which recurring patterns of imperfection resurface across different settings and periods? What triggered the success of such historical advocates of imperfection as DIY (do-it-yourself), wabi sabi1, arts & crafts, and punk movements? How do their dynamics relate to the current preoccupation with imperfection? In answering these questions, subproject 3 substantially expands five exploratory pilot studies by the applicant (Rutten 2009, 2011, 2013, 2014.1 & in print). It takes post- 1989 Europe as departure point for a historic, transnational inquiry into the social politics of imperfection. The project provides a diachronic, comparative framework for the outcomes of PhD projects 1 and 2; in turn, the applicant integrates their findings.
Corpus: a transdisciplinary set of 5 influential creative objects produced in post-1989 Europe, public discourse about them, and their historical roots.