Stilling the flow of signs: creative action and the discontinuity of the museum archive

Chris Dorsett

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


For decades Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of ‘flow’ has influenced the way creative action is theorized, particularly when those theories reference the creativity of artists. (Bourguignon & Dorsett, 2002) ‘Flow’ has it’s origins in Csíkszentmihályi’s admiration of the artist’s ability to optimize the routines of studio practice, to make routine intrinsically rewarding. (Csíkszentmihályi, 1988) In contrast, the collecting, archiving and display of material culture and art objects in museums is usually thought of as a cessation of flow (for example Dewey, 2009). Despite the busy routines of attentive conservators and curators, museum objects are severed from the sensory registers that shape our day-to-day embodied experiences of things. However, the unworldly stillness of the museum environment has itself become a creative proposition as, in the past twenty years, artists have sought to engage with the poetic and political dimensions of the museal process. (Putnam, 2001) This paper interrogates Csíkszentmihályi’s view of creative action from the perspective of two artists whose artworks respond to the everyday discontinuities of the museum. The authors draw on a wide range of theoretical approaches to ‘everyday’ practices including de Certeau and Lefebvre as well as key texts on the notion of ma, a Japanese term for poignant intervals and meaningfully discontinuous experiences (for example Matsuoka, 2000). Recent works by the artists are used to illustrate the semiotics of creative action in which spatial and temporal disruption motivates the ‘flow’ of signification. Here Thomas Short’s (2004) account of the ‘discovery’ of the indexical sign by C. S. Peirce and Rosalind Krauss’ ‘Notes on the Index’ are useful. The paper concludes with an evaluation of the role of ‘semiotic uncertainty’ in generating artworks in response to two museum collections: the unplayable musical instruments at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Parkes archive at the Centre for Economic Botany, Kew – the largest accumulation of unused Japanese paper in existence.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSemiotics and Hermeneutics of the Everyday
EditorsLia Yoka, Gregory Paschalidis
Place of PublicationNewcastle upon Tyne
PublisherCambridge Scholars
Number of pages17
ISBN (Print)9781443871921
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2015


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