Kilian Jörg is a philosopher and artist based in Vienna and Berlin whose research focuses on ecological epistemology and the intersection of art and philosophy.
He is the founder of Philosophy Unbound, a collective which organises regular open stages for performative philosophy. The Public Life of the Mind spoke to Kilian to learn about his experiences with Philosophy Unbound.
Kilian Jörg. Image by Anna Lerchbaumer
The Public Life of the Mind: Hi Killian, so to start, could you say a little bit about your personal and philosophical background?
Kilian Jörg: So, I think I discovered quite early that I wanted to do philosophy. It was the classical story of a kid from a middle-class family who discovers Nietzsche, reads everything and is literally crying in bed about it! Since then I've sort of thought about it as my kind of thing, to think philosophically.
For a long time, I didn't want to go to any kind of formal school or get an academic background to form my philosophy, but just to do it on my own. So I started writing poetry very early on and travelled quite a lot after finishing high school. I lived in Berlin for a while, doing an art project, deejayed a little, tried to write philosophical texts and novels and everything; I don't think I would want to look at these now! I think when I was 22 I came to the point where I thought maybe it's not too bad to have this classical education in philosophy, to learn this sort of basic canon which can help you to orient yourself in your thinking. Also, it's not easy to publish or, you know, do anything within philosophy outside of the academic world. So I started studying philosophy in Berlin but soon, and because of a mix of reasons, I moved to Vienna and continued studying there.
When I started studying philosophy I was already a bit older and had read quite a lot more than the average student who starts philosophy, and so I had quite a clear opinion on what is philosophy and what isn't. I was frustrated with much of how philosophy was taught at university but since I already knew how this game was played I stuck to it - and I made friends who had similar experiences (it is not rare to be unhappy with how philosophy is taught but still love philosophy!). Out of this circle of friends the idea of Philosophy Unbound emerged.
I've always done art and philosophy and I never could really discern between the two, though, maybe I'm learning this right now, actually. You see, now I am writing a PhD project on ecological reason but initially, after doing my bachelor's degree, I decided I wanted to write it without any further academic background. I'd already started writing and I showed it to the professor of mine I liked the most, who was very supportive of what I did, and he said that maybe I could do a Master in Transdisciplinary Research and then come back to do a dissertation in philosophy. He didn’t see a point in why I should do a Master in philosophy since he judged that I already knew my way around quite well. I felt the same. I didn't want to go to another seminar on Aristotle's Ethics or something, I don't care so much. I know enough or, rather, I know how to access stuff; if I want to learn something about Aristotle, I know how to access the adequate sources. So I did a Master called 'Arts and Science', which is basically a Transdisciplinary Research Master where many postgraduates, including many scientists who already have a job within the sciences but who are frustrated at how narrow their field of action is, come to do their thing in a broader setting. There's been biologists, there's been physicists, but then there's also been performance artists, for example. It was a really interesting mix to learn from - especially by seeing how difficult and enriching at the same time communication between various disciplines can get. For myself, I've found a lot of interesting ways of combining art and philosophy I would have never had the chance to explore in a traditional Master in Philosophy.
Already in my Masters I have started to write a part of this project on ecological reason of mine, however it became more and more independent and self-sufficient while working on it because it acquired a more and more political undertone, mainly because of the political developments in Austria, Europe and in the world more generally: the backlash. It's now being published and the book's title is Backlash: Essays on the Resilience of Modernism (that’s, of course, the translation of the German title). Now I am doing the rest of this project on reason back at a classical philosophy department, as a PhD.
PLM: So could you say a little bit more about what Philosophy Unbound is and how it came about?
Kilian: I've always felt at home in underground music scenes, so to speak; musicians who usually don't make a living from their music but who have a nice sort of network and play gigs here and there and who can also go on tour, thanks to their networks. I have friends who will play a gig in a little loft space in Brussels and then they go to Ghent, and then they go to London and so on. Since this was always the social area I felt the most comfortable in (and I'd also done music before but had learnt that music is not my thing, rather philosophy is), I felt the need to establish some kind of underground philosophy. This was actually the first title of the project but we decided on 'Philosophy Unbound' (PU) instead. The idea was to create spaces and forms for people who want to engage with philosophy outside of the established ways.
We have this analogy to the musical world: In philosophy, it feels like there would just be the opera house or the big concert hall: you have the universities, this big, state-funded institution and nothing much else. Yet, music has these thousands of little sub-scenes which can make it so vivid and so alive, and I wanted to try and establish something like this for philosophy.
I think it's also very hindering to the development of philosophy if it's just professors who have
possibilities for such an exchange. If the exchange becomes more low key then, if you have an idea but don't have a degree and you're also not "the" expert in anything, you can still talk about it. Like, some random guitarist: he's not Bob Dylan but he's still able to play in front of people and it's still nice for them. I guess the same could be true for philosophy if this would be developed as a culture.
I think this was the sort of initial mind frame of what became Philosophy Unbound. I had this idea for a long time and it became concrete in the first year I studied philosophy and when I changed to Vienna I talked about it with a lot of people and many liked it. Then it was just by chance that I was at a festival for bio-art and I talked to someone I really liked and I told him about the idea and he told me, "Oh you have to do this, it's a good idea, I will help you". So I invited the 10 people I thought could be interested in this and asked them to invite other people, then we had the first meeting at my flat in Autumn 2014. I presented my idea and people liked it and so we had several meetings discussing what we could do. We decided on Philosophy Unbound as a name; we made a list of about 10 names and I think the second favourite was 'explosophy', which is an impossible name, of course, as nobody gets it! But we did really like it too.
The Viennese Philosophy Unbound collective on stage in 2015 at their third event
PLM: Ah! But you did manage to sneak it into the Philosophy Unbound manifesto?
Kilian: Exactly, that was our solution! Yeah, at the time we wrote this manifesto collectively. We still have this tradition of opening up every event with an interpretation by musicians of the manifesto. It's still the old manifesto and when we had an event two weeks ago I read it for the first time in a long time and I thought, "Aw, this is so nice but it's already so far away from us”, in a way. We did think about writing a new one or updating it but decided we couldn't really, so we just put the date on it, so that people know it's a historical document but that it's a departure point; you can see from it where we went after.
We wrote this manifesto and then we thought how can we easily and concretely start something which might work? So we decided to invite some friends of ours and some people we’d met who already wanted to do something, and we set up an event at a sort of underground club in Vienna; not in the venue's big club space but in their cellar space. It used to be a jazz cellar and had a maximum capacity of 50 people, I would say. I was going to read something from my project about reason and other people were doing performances and music and so on. We had a dancer, who was sort of famous already and liked our idea. So we put a programme together, we made a Facebook event, we invited our friends and then from there, it skyrocketed. We had 600 attendees a week before the event! The owner of the club knew me personally and he rang me and said, "I'm sorry, but you can't do this in the cellar because you're going to kill people if you get even just a fraction of them turning up!"
So, this club at the time was opening up a new theatre space that was destined to be opened 2 months later, but it was almost finished so he told us we could use it if we liked. We changed the location and we still filled the theatre to the point that people had to sit on the floor everywhere and we still ended up rejecting people because they wouldn’t fit anymore. So it was much more successful than we had ever anticipated. We had about 250 people in this location that had, I think, 120 stalls so it was so packed but it was really nice. We saw that we had hit some kind of nerve - that there's a need for this - and I would say also that the Viennese environment was very helpful for us because Vienna is a city where philosophy and art are closer than in other cities. For example, in Berlin, it's harder to make this link. But the two main art universities in Vienna both have a philosophy department and offer courses in philosophy. So, artists are closer to philosophy and also philosophers are generally more inclined towards art than what I've sensed in Berlin, for example. So we sort of attracted the performance, dance and more discourse-oriented art scenes, as well as the philosophy students and we brought them all together in a room and everybody really liked it.
PLM: So, it seemed quite intuitive to people, they got what it was that you were trying to do?
Kilian: Yeah. I guess at this point I also have to pay my tribute to my professor, Arno Böhler, because he's done the groundwork for this already for 20 years in Vienna.
PLM: Of connecting art and philosophy?
Kilian: Yes, though he does it in a much more established way. He’ll get a big location and have really big, established artists and philosophers but he also supports younger, less established structures; since he's a professor it's also kind of natural that he's not doing something like Philosophy Unbound. He had already set the climate for us to think this was possible, in a way. He has a festival in Vienna which happens every 2 or 3 years which is called 'Philosophy on Stage'. He was very supportive from the beginning and he actually came to the first event. I remember he gave a donation of €50 when the suggested entry was only €5.
I think it would have taken me longer without Böhler connecting the dots for me in a way; they were sort of necessary for the intellectual background to create Philosophy Unbound. He was always saying how the good philosophers have never been strict academic philosophers because many have been much else. For example, Plato wrote plays and poems and Nietzsche did music and poetry as well, so this distinction is actually a new academic outlook. He always says, jokingly, that it is some sort of conservative movement that we want to (as we say in our manifesto) bring back the ancient plurality of philosophy. Because it used to be there and it's now more this academic standardisation, of footnotes and journal publications and so on, that kills this. Leibniz wrote dialogues and everything. Philosophy is a struggle for bringing something into a concept, in a way, and it's very limiting if you have just one kind of form for it as the form also decides upon what you're saying, content-wise.
But back to the history of Philosophy Unbound. So, since the first event was successful we continued doing this 2 months later. We did it roughly every 2 months in Vienna and it continued to have this success, with always around 200 people turning up until today still. Since it was so successful it sort of also quickly became our standard form for doing Philosophy Unbound: we produce a call for a certain kind of topic which we decide upon, then two people of the collective are the main responsible persons to organise it, and they look for the sort of balance between proposals which come from the call alongside inviting people which we know and also through sort of networking. Usually, if we have a topic some person likes she or he proposes it and they write to her or he to ask them if they're interested in participating in any form. We always had this classical form of inviting people and waiting for proposals, then forming a programme out of this. We also usually had an open stage afterwards, this is now sort of dying out, maybe we can come on to this later. We didn't do this in the last 2 editions, it didn't make sense to do it anymore.
What was also sort of central to our initial outline which is now also dying out is that we always wanted to relate it to clubbing as well. So, it's always about dancing - we wanted philosophers to dance. We were always interested in having a party afterwards as it's fun and it connects people. My first book, which is now released in September, is about club culture, so this was always a very personal interest of mine. Similarly, we've organised regular club events where we really tried to... Well, for example, we went into a big club in Vienna and did a really hard techno party and tried to do little interventions, philosophical interventions in it.
PLM: So kind of the reverse of having the party at the end of the other events?
Kilian: Yes, exactly. We did a performance as well, as a collective. When Philosophy on Stage happened last time - this festival by Arno Böhler I mentioned - he invited us and we were interested in doing something. The festival was about Nietzsche, Nietzsche as an artist-philosopher, and we really had fun developing something. There were these so-called 'art labs' to prepare for the festival and when we went there we always had the feeling that it's just people loving Nietzsche, you know, just praising Nietzsche! I'm also up for that but we felt this was just too melodramatic. We wanted to look into something else so we designed a performance where we put Nietzsche into a fitness studio and this worked super well, because many of the slogans of these studios could have come from Nietzsche! One in Vienna said, "Make yourself true" - all this kind of stuff. So we had a 45-minute performance where we basically did gym exercises and had mantras of Nietzsche aphorisms which we were doing whilst doing our exercises. So this was something else we did, aside from the Philosophy Unbound events where we organised this stage for others. Although, of course, the stage was always open for us and many of us have done something on the Philosophy Unbound stage as creating a stage for us was always an interest as well.
I guess the last point in its history is that, since my second home town is Berlin and I'm still there for 2 to 3 months a year, and my writing partner and best friend lives there, we decided to do Philosophy Unbound there, as well. This resulted in several events there and they're now independent and working by themselves.
PLM: Whenabouts did it start there?
Kilian: The first one was July 2015, about 6 months after the first one in Vienna.
Philosophy Unbound's performance "No Pain, No Gain (Nietzsche Gym)" at Philosophy on Stage #4 Festival
PLM: Have you found since doing Philosophy Unbound that your ideas about what it means to be doing philosophy have changed considerably? In your case it would be especially interesting to hear more about this as you had been engaged with many related discussions - the relationship between philosophy and art, for example - for some time by the sounds of it.
Kilian: I mean, it's been quite gradual and over a long period, so it's trickier to say exactly...
PLM: True. What about if you return to those first Philosophy Unbound events. Was there anything quite early on that perhaps you or others involved were saying, that it had taken the actual events to realise?
Kilian: I suppose, to start with the positive stuff, I guess I learnt that many people are in fact interested in philosophy - it's just that the way it's presented to them is not very appealing. This is something I see growing more and more, actually, and it's quite problematic. For example, at the University of Vienna I think I now couldn't have completed a bachelor in philosophy there any more, because the programme's getting more and more rigid and you're less and less free to choose what you want to do. I always had this feeling in studying philosophy that the smartest people are those who really struggle with the curriculum. Those who have a real philosophical potential, they are not the ones who have A's after 6 semesters. They struggle around, they just drift. My feeling for now is that it's much harder to stay inside this academic realm and still be enthusiastic about philosophy in the way that I would like, because it's more and more becoming this geeky, analytical thing of, like, doing a calculation with -isms, and there’s none of the enthusiasm that I see in Nietzsche and so many other thinkers.
If you open up a space for [the latter], then many people still have a positive connotation of philosophy and they want to do something, even if it's a song or something, it's philosophical for them. So, I guess I learnt that I'm not alone with this. I think I knew that it was possible, I knew that philosophy could be like this from my own practice before. But what happens is, though you realise this is not your revolution or a new way, it starts to gets labelled as such. I recently overheard a conversation in a cafe in Vienna where someone was talking about Philosophy Unbound as this way of dealing with stuff and so on, so it's becoming one other "thing".
Also, in a way for me as well, though I still love Philosophy Unbound I also see that it's limited in what it can provide as a space. You also discover, getting older, that you're not the first person to do this; there is an existing label of performative philosophy and art-based philosophy. What might maybe not be unique but is not ordinary about Philosophy Unbound, is that it has this underground element to it and that we still don't have any budget or anything. I think, for myself (and I hope for others) I established that this is a way of doing philosophy, but I also think for me it strangely helped me stay in the academic realm. Now I'm happy to do a PhD actually, I guess in a rather classical form. I don't think I'll struggle with this form as I can see it as a plurality of forms as well; I'm in a phase - which I'm sure is not a terminal phase - where now I see the necessity of a plurality of forms in philosophy. It's really cool to do an academic, scientific kind of PhD if it's also possible to then do a performance where you're shouting Nietzsche quotes from the stage, or something. But both of them have to exist so you can decide what is the right thing for what you want to express.
It's hard to talk in these dualisms of form and content because they don't really exist in that way but just for this mode of speaking, there is "the" content, as such, and then you just put it in one form or the other - finding the right form is part of finding the content as well. So some thoughts end up, for me personally, becoming an installation and some end up becoming a dissertation project. Or they come from the same place and then sort of branch out. I think it helps me to find different ways of putting out a thought, putting out philosophy, depending on what it is. I'm not sure, does this answer your question?
PLM: Yes, it does. This process, of rejecting the academic environment as a space to practise your discipline before coming back around to appreciating its value and necessity alongside the non-academic, tends to comes up often, at least across these interviews.
We've touched on this so don't feel the need to embellish on it further if you don't want to, but another interesting dimension is how these experiences can change, not just one's conception of what it is to do philosophy, but also how it can change oneself. Is there anything from doing Philosophy Unbound that has changed you, do you think?
Kilian: Uhmm.. Maybe I'll do a detour of sorts to reply to that. I think it made me self-conscious enough to pursue my own way and that's the problem, I think. I'm very privileged and privilege is a necessity to be able to create something like Philosophy Unbound and to get it to work because you need the network to do it and so on. I think if I hadn't had started it I would have become too frustrated with how things were in academic philosophy and perhaps would have left. I think because Philosophy Unbound has been recognised by some inside the university, it also gives me a sort of standing in a way. It sort of gave me some security to be able to say, "Okay, I can do philosophy like this and it works". You know, I was also younger at that point and if you're not secure and you're trying to do creative stuff in your papers and your teacher criticises it because it's “not scientific enough”, or something, you doubt if this is really your thing.
Other than that, I found I really like organising! And I see this as part of the, well, one could call it a philosophical practice, but essentially I like bringing people together and organising this kind of stuff and, though at the beginning I was super stressed out all the time with organising, I now really enjoy it. When you start off it's hard to pay attention to the performances because you're always thinking "Is this on time? Are the lights okay? Does the crowd like it?", and so on. Now, with experience, I feel detached enough that I can organise and be a member of the public at the same time.
PLM: So, now you can truly participate in the events?
Kilian: Yeah. For me, I think I'm still doing Philosophy Unbound because I access something I can learn from it. I have been in Delhi recently and I did Philosophy Unbound there, from making an environment of interesting people (I mean, not just me but many other people!). There’s something interesting about this kind of working relationship and a very positive connotation of work where people are creating something like this and are enthusiastic; you learn so much about people and other cultures from working relationships. So, I think I also learnt through Philosophy Unbound how much I like this kind of work as well, all the social work.
Philosophy quite often is associated with, well, being alone in front of a writing desk and being frustrated with your ideas! And I think that stereotype is the wrong image or thought and a dangerous one for philosophy, although I think this is very much sustained at the university. I think this constant practice of producing other little works helps me also in thinking about my bigger philosophical projects... It's one thing to have a good idea but the other thing is how do you present it? How does it take some concrete shape? This is something else I've learnt but I think my answer here is by no means complete.
Supriyo Karmakar's performance "Black on Black" at Philosophy Unbound #20
PLM: Well, that's certainly still very interesting, thank you! One of the things that's interesting about asking people this question is that, invariably after a bit a reflection, people say, "Actually, it did have the effect of X" What's nice, and encouraging, about that is that it reminds people that the variety of ways philosophy can manifest in their lives is just so much greater than they tend to realise. Again, this seems especially so if they come from that academic background but, conversely, from the perspective of a member of the public who doesn't have that background it has an effect too. Often their idea of philosophy, if they have a particular one, will be that frustrated person at their desk with their piles of books.
So, these kinds of reflections seem worthwhile because they make everyone aware that philosophy is a very varied and very human endeavour. For example, in your experience of ideas about people coming together and organising things together, which isn't an answer people have given yet.
Kilian: I think our Occidental tradition of philosophy is always very idealistic in the sense of people having this sphere of transcendent, spiritual ideas which we sort of have to link to our ephemeral, bodily existence, in the extreme case. I think this image of the frustrated academic alone at their desk is a result of this conception because he - "he", of course! - is only accessing this transcendent sphere but he has no ground. Because my background is ecological philosophy I always think it is very useful to "ground" philosophy, to bring it back to the Earth. This also means that this “thought-sphere” is fine but we have to consider, what is the place of the thought? What is the milieu of thinking? This brings back this question of how do I organise something, how do I frame something so that it works? How can I make this event appealing so that many people come to it?
PLM: Because it becomes a social, rather than an individual, engagement?
Kilian: Exactly, and an ecological one; you have to think about the ecology as well. I think our Occidental tradition is, by definition, based on an exclusion of ecology. It's just about a sort of mechanistic, causal relationship between these "spheres", like I said, and there's no environment, no surroundings, it's not able to consider them.
PLM: That touches on something that perhaps isn't addressed enough and which, without you mentioning it, it's been possible to glean from what you've been saying so far, namely that for everyone involved in Philosophy Unbound it sounds like an important thing is literally the spaces that are involved (quite aside from the health and safety and the risks of, you know, 600 people in a 50 person room!). You mentioned before the interview that you had run a recent event in some kind of cultural centre and that something very appealing about it was that it fitted the topic well. The event was about "Radical Cities" and, well, there you were in the heart of the city. You mentioned you even were able to use the space outside of the venue at one point in the evening.
If someone thinks about doing philosophy and they're so used to the activity manifesting in certain environments - whether it's on their own or perhaps at a conference - the possibilities that are opened up from using different spaces, well, they may not see the value in doing that. Is that something that's always been there for people in Philosophy Unbound? Or is it more of an unconscious thing?
Kilian: I'm always coming back to Nietzsche, which is a bit scary now, but I would consider Philosophy Unbound as quite a Nietzschean project. He was super, super tedious about making a note of where he thought what, how his environment is creating thought. If we get away from Platonism and really think ecologically about thought, then its no longer this independent thing which is the same everywhere. I think something different in a forest than in Trafalgar Square with loads of traffic and there's no transcendent sphere which unites them. But, if you want to reach a certain togetherness of thought you have to create the right environment. You can also see this already in the architectures of most universities, that they are perfectly tailored to create one kind of thought, a very detached kind of form of thought.
I would say that a more ecological form of thought would need to consider also, where can we place this thought? Maybe if we think much more on the streets then people would see much more the need for philosophy, because not everybody has access to the academic spaces as well, which reproduce this Occidental tradition of being detached from the place where reflection is happening. It's the first time I've really said this but I also consider [Philosophy Unbound] as some kind of ecological move as well, to think about a place and the relation of thought to it.
PLM: That ties in nicely with something that we touched on earlier, about the manifesto, and the original ideas behind Philosophy Unbound. Are there now things that you would change about the manifesto or add to it?
Kilian: There's actually one thing we always wanted to add but never did, which is "failure is welcome". We try to avoid Philosophy Unbound becoming a 'product' of sorts. We always wanted to make philosophy less elitist and more accessible and for this I think it's important that it doesn't have this appearance of being a perfect thing. You know, of it being “we've got these weird artist-philosophers here doing their perfect thing and I'm just some small audience person”. We want to break this hierarchy between a performing person and a regarding person and for this I think it's very important to invite experiments which can also fail; to invite people who are doing something for the first time and they don't know if it works and they are super nervous to try it out. There's so little spaces to do this in public but I think it's so important because this opens up a very important process of ecologically aware thought...
There’s something I learned from a public speaking course: if you make mistakes in your speech this actually helps others to understand what you are saying, because then people pay attention. If it's too perfect and smooth, in a way, it just...
PLM: It becomes less natural, less conversational?
Kilian: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, there are also good ways of presenting something perfectly but I think it also helps to do a mistake so as to engage people. They will think "Ah, this bit was good but I would do this better" and we always have discussions after each performance, so I guess this failure thing is very important to us to create a space that engages rather than excludes.
PLM: That seems to contrast with an academic environment, insofar as the pressures there to be perfect can be quite acute given that people are thinking about their careers and so on. The idea that failure is fine or even beneficial in some circumstances would probably strike some in the academic world as very alien, or at least people would recognise its value but would think, "Ah, but I couldn't do that with my paper".
Kilian: Yes, and that's such a huge problem because it's actually a problem for the development of thought. Thought is never something individual and in terms of opening up one’s problems - this has been my experience of PhD colloquia - most people just read something straight from their paper. How open is that for discussion if you just read this perfect thing? I always try to just make very brief notes to not know exactly what I'm saying before I go there and to just speak about the problem I am looking at at the moment. For me, this is a super way to learn from that. It contrasts with what I see when someone is reading this perfect paper for half an hour and then when it comes to the questions it's like, "I'm not sure about your reading of Merleau-Ponty..." Everyone feels they need to ask these kinds of questions but it's never really getting to the problems they're facing. I think good thought only happens when it's a personal issue as well. There are of course also realms in the academic world where this is all more appreciated, but I still think the mainstream academic culture is not embracing failure, or maybe 'openness'. It's a less negatively connoted word to use. Let others participate more. Why would you want to participate in something perfect? What do you want to add to it?
"I still think the mainstream academic culture is not embracing failure, or maybe 'openness'. It's a less negatively connoted word to use. Let others participate more. Why would you want to participate in something perfect? What do you want to add to it?"
PLM: Indeed and the present era seems like an important time to listen to those who are part of traditions - including many philosophical traditions - where talking to one another is central. Moreover, this particular consideration of openness seems to speak beyond just the discussion of how to present philosophy, perhaps. This leads on nicely, actually, to the next question. One thing motivating these interviews is two developments: the current wave of interest in public philosophy, and this sense among many that the public sphere is in decline, due to distrust in institutions, social atomisation, the impact of social media and so on.
For some people engaging in these public philosophy projects at this time, they often say it has more of a political motivation. Yet, one thing that’s distinctive about the Philosophy Unbound manifesto is that the whole project is ostensibly primarily about creating a space for performative philosophy. Indeed, you were talking earlier about the relevance of clubbing culture and, more broadly, underground music scenes as an inspiration, as well as the intersections of art and philosophy.
Kilian: Yes, I mean, when reading [the manifesto] it's clearly tailored towards this kind of hipster crowd as well; we mention Berghain in it, for example.
PLM: Right, exactly! And the hipster element here is not being disparaged. On the contrary, perhaps, it makes Philosophy Unbound all the more interesting because it's happening during this same period when philosophers are saying, "Hmm, maybe I should write a newspaper article or go give a lecture to the public" or something. Philosophy Unbound seems to come to the same conclusion, essentially, about engaging with people, people doing philosophy together outside of academic institutions, but the starting points - art, music, subcultures - are pretty different. Is that a fair reading of the motivations of Philosophy Unbound? Is it more political than this suggests? And beyond that, do you think that whatever the motivations were that they are still the motivations for doing it?
Kilian: Well, to the second question I would say, to a degree, yes. The difficult situation in this is that it started as a sort of student project. Most of us are now no longer or have just stopped being, students, and we're trying to get younger people involved because if we're all 30 plus or something, this won't work. In Vienna, we now have younger people so the transition to a younger generation will hopefully work. As to the political issue, well, leaving aside the boring stuff about how opening up a space itself is already political etc. ...
PLM: The suggestion wasn't that just because it's performative it's not also political - the two aren't incompatible, of course.
Kilian: Well, to talk first about the main motivation at the beginning, about these 'hipster scenes', which I don't mean in the negative sense; I always believe that you can take more out of them, they could get political, they could think about philosophy as well. They are part of a social milieu which is easily accessible, I would say, for these aims. They are usually more educated, more culturally interested than other 'labels', so to speak. So, coming back to this ecological situatedness of Philosophy Unbound, I think we semi-consciously decided on the ecology of a hipster, underground music club scene world to situate ourselves in, which worked very well. Then a year ago, with the backlash of the far right in Austria, we asked ourselves, "Okay, we are reaching this group and it works well, but let's not lie to ourselves, most of these people would not vote for the far right without us anyway", so we're not helping the mainstream of politics in any way.
So we thought how can we engage with other people who might not be of our opinion of being, you know, queer, LGBT, pro-refugee etc. We're still thinking about this but I have the feeling that we're kind of failing with opening up in a way. So now we're doing it again in a very "cultural" environment and the next one will also most likely be in a museum and so on. We also have a matter of economics, because at the moment we don't have a space where we can do it for free. We had this in the beginning. We got invited by a theatre space in Vienna to do it for free and since we strictly have no budget, it's easier to say yes to the theatre, but then, of course, it being in the sort of creative part of Vienna, a certain sort of crowd will come.
We thought about going to social housing in the city's outskirts and doing something about a topic that engages with them. But then there are all these problems of what role are we assuming? Are we assuming that we're the educated people educating the stupid people? That would be fucked up. Also, what topic can we talk about? It has to be one which everybody can engage with. We still have this topic, which I think would work, which is ‘masculinities’. Everybody will have something to say about what masculinity is and it would be very interesting to talk to... Well, I'm creating this as I speak, this 'other people'; I'm already saying "I'm like this and other people are like this". Creating this huge gap is already a problem in itself. We've tried to become more political in this sense in the last year but maybe this kind of format has its limit within its environment and if you displace it too brutally to another environment it might just die because the new one is not fertile enough. I would say that it's already something political that this space exists and that people can use some form of expression that they couldn't have expressed otherwise. I think it's always important to express yourself because otherwise, this will end up as resentment and hate.
It is a really difficult question, though. As I said, we’ve discussed going to social housing and doing something there a lot, but in doing this we already assume so much about the people there, which is hugely problematic. Another member of Philosophy Unbound rightly said I think, "What do we wanna do? Do we really want to sit with them for 2 hours and talk about stereotypical stuff? Who would be content with this, maybe they would be but we won't, we won't take anything out of it". We don't get paid to do Philosophy Unbound or anything, we do this because we want to learn something from it, we like doing it. This future perspective is still very open. What has been very political for me recently is going to India [and doing Philosophy Unbound there], for example, and hopefully being able to create some sort of exchange in the future. Of course, the people in India... I mean, there you can see much more distinctly and clearly how elitist it is what you're doing. Here, most people sort of share a cultural space in terms of museums etc., but in India, many people don't know what philosophy means (in our sense, that is). It's not an Indian word, so people interested in 'performative philosophy' are already part of some sort of upper class, maybe not economically but socially and culturally.
PLM: It's an important point, about slipping into talking about ‘another' public. It can make assumptions about how divergent others from yourself.
Kilian: Yeah, exactly. Noticing it helps with creating openness. We're not saying "no" to anything we're just saying, "we're doing it". I still assume that if we take this thing which works very well in this one environment, this kind of bubble, if we take it out of the bubble, you know, it can become very bad very soon if this 'no racism, no sexism' bubble suddenly is shared no longer. My next writing project with my friend is thinking about bubbles and how we need bubbles to exist as well. Classical leftists attitudes are always about engagement to the maximum and giving all your energy and going outside all the time, but sometimes people who do that realise that you also have to stay sometimes in your 'safe zone' to stay yourself, as well. To have the power to create, to do what you're doing which, in this case always is, I guess, not the norm, not part of the mainstream, the power needed to do this... Well. if you don't create your own bubble which makes it easier to live outside the norm in a way, it will take too much energy on a mundane, everyday level to actually do your thing. You naturally will just go back to an easier way of life.
Carola Fuchs’ performance “Tableau vivant” at Philosophy Unbound #1
PLM: So, one last thing. You mentioned much earlier things that initially were part of Philosophy Unbound but which have started to die off; the open stage and the link to this music subculture element. Why do you think these are dying off? And do you think this has little to do with where Philosophy Unbound is going or are they being put to the side precisely because of how you are all thinking about where it could go next?
Kilian: For the open stage, it never really worked super well. It sometimes worked okay but the issue is that there's sort of a double-open stage. It's an open stage because we have an open call for the events anyway and everybody can propose something. But we thought we'll still do an open stage afterward and ask people if they want to contribute something spontaneously. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it's just some random person coming up and doing some very random stuff which can give a not so nice ending to the evening if everything's been good up till then, especially since they tend to be too long anyway! So if some person comes up and does something uninteresting, people can get annoyed, it kills the mood a bit. Usually we're never below 3 hours of programming, which is already a lot, so we rarely felt like what happened on the open stage was adding value to the evening. The last time we just forgot to do the open stage but we didn't really mind! In the experience of doing it, it became less and less necessary, in a way.
For the underground music connection, I think this is still there. The last events now have been... Well, the one in Vienna was in a space where there's no club around so we couldn't do anything and in Delhi there's no clubbing culture in that sense, so we didn't do something there. I mean, I don't even think there's a 'hipster scene' as such in Delhi, so we entered into a different kind of social milieu then we have in Europe; that connection there didn't make any sense. But I still think we are very interested in the club culture aspect. I think it sort of died off because it became very naturally integrated into the entire thing. We have musicians from these scenes regularly attending and doing something, so we don't have to say anymore that this is connected because it's just happening naturally. But we want to do a club event maybe in the future again.
PLM: Was there anything you feel hasn't been touched on that is important to say?
Kilian: I think, something mentioned briefly earlier about Philosophy Unbound going to new places is very interesting to me right now. We're thinking about going to London and also Athens. I think this is a very interesting dilemma of how do you create something in a new space, and who creates it and how do you avoid it becoming this sort of spaceship landing in different cities? It's an issue that many projects and structures face but I think I'm realising more and more that I understand it more as a sort of 'ground fertilisation' project than an artistic project in itself. So it should never become, you know, we the 10-15 members of Philosophy Unbound tour and show how great the kind of philosophical performance we're doing is. It should be more that we're going to a space and that we hope we know enough people there and that something comes from the soil very naturally. Being the founder of this and having helped bring it to the place where it is now, this is maybe my main research question, just for me personally. I don't know what I'm researching there, maybe social dynamics, how scenes work, I don't know, but it's very interesting to me personally, how can you make this happen? How does it not become a product?
PLM: Indeed. That's driving a lot of these public philosophical projects, whether it's something coming from a more explicitly political background or something closer to Philosophy Unbound. They both face the same problem - which comes back to something you said right at the start - this question of organising people, getting people to engage in this kind of activity with one another rather than by themselves.
Kilian: Yes, there's even a label for it from Joseph Beuys. He has this concept of 'social plastic', of creating spaces where social interactions can happen which don't usually happen. It's hard, it's really hard, but I really like it still - I like working with people.
PLM: That seems like the right thing to focus on. Thank you for the chat Kilian and best of luck creating these spaces!
Kilian: No problem, thanks!
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