Chris Fremantle: Improvising as a method in the time of Covid-19

GARDENING AS ASTRONOMY from Chris Dooks on Vimeo.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of statistical modelling in the context of decision-making at national and international levels. The methods associated with statistical modelling focus on trends (and the now ubiquitous curve that needs flattened). We are provided with comparisons between different countries and cities, all focused by numerical data.

Based on this modelling unprecedented constraints have been imposed. Familiar and everyday habits are being rethought. Everyone is talking about ‘the new normal’ and wondering what that will be like.

The pandemic has forced rapid adaptation and improvisation at all levels of society from our homes and settlements, through the way authorities, businesses and organisations deliver services, to global policies and processes.

Improvising is one of the ways that we respond to changed circumstances. Elizabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold say,

“There is no script for social and cultural life. People have to work it out as they go along. In a word, they have to improvise.” (2007 p.1).

The arts have had to improvise, and artists working within health and social care have had a particular challenge because so much of that work is ‘face to face’. Improvising new ways of working has also been a refusal to lose contact with ill and vulnerable groups and a willingness to ‘move to a new place’.

The way artists respond to crises, the DIY reinvention of projects and activities, is often celebrated, but sometimes it looks like artists thrive in difficult conditions. Rather it is important to understand that the arts have particular understandings of improvisation. The practice of artists can sometimes be overlooked (seen as a ‘black box’), with the outcomes being the focus of evaluation. Drawing on the various writings of Professor Emeritus Anne Douglas we can identify some key aspects of improvising as a methodology in the arts:

Working with constraints: where in an everyday context improvising might be generally understood to be making do with means at hand, in the arts it is more specifically used to manage the interplay between freedom and constraint. It is inherently risky. Constraints whether externally imposed or self-selected can serve to highlight freedoms. Improvisation as a method attends to constraints, using them to define the scope of freedoms.

Using existing forms but not being limited by them: an aspect of constraint can also be existing forms. Improvising is a way of working with conventions and traditions whilst finding ways to create something new.

Relational: whilst some improvisation in the arts is understood to be collaborative, most obviously in jazz, there is a wider sense too in which improvisation as an artistic method involves ‘working with’, whether that is other people, materials or circumstances. Central to this is ‘listening’, whether literally or metaphorically. Attention to the other, rather than control of the other, is fundamental.

Providing structure: improvisation in the arts leaves a trace, offering a ways to repeat processes without replicating experiences. Where improvisation in everyday life can be very ephemeral, the arts have developed improvisation as a replicable process enabling it to be used and reused intentionally.

Improvisation is a particular form of experimentation, distinct from others because of its ‘open’ qualities. Some experiments are designed to test particular pre-defined outcomes. Improvisation has method but does not have a pre-determined outcome. Being able to do something different, finding new ways of working, particularly in circumstances where it is difficult to imagine how to act, is important now. Methods of improvising in the arts understand how to use limitations and constraints as well as specific processes to generate novelty from a known context. These can be shared and adapted, making improvisation an effective way of enabling different people to develop new responses.

An example: Using improvisation in the context of chronic illness

Chris Dooks’ art practice has focused on making work in the context of chronic illness (ME/CFS). He has focused on a particular aspect of improvisation known as ‘bricolage’ - a work of art or construction put together from whatever materials are available. This is a key improvisation approach and is particularly relevant.

Dooks’ work has a performative dimension: audio works, installations, tours and stories. He also produces physical editions (books and vinyl records). He completed his hybrid practice-led authoethnography PhD in 2014. All of the quotes below come from a more recent presentation at the Centre for Creative-Relational Inquiry, University of Edinburgh in 2019.

Dooks highlights the way that chronic illness has both shared and individual characteristics, is social, mental and physical. He highlights the idiosyncratic character as well as how it affects the whole of life, coining the term ‘idioholism’ for this.

He talks about creating work under conditions not dissimilar to ‘lockdown’. His PhD included a number of audio works (as well as a text) including ‘Gardening as Astronomy’, the piece above.. Albeit involving international travel for a family holiday, the recordings for his work ‘Ciga(r)les’ were all made within a 500m radius during a local festival in a small town in the South of France. This small area provided a rich palette for him.

He describes another involving,

“…windowsill recording, where for a week I left a field recorder blindly recording the atmosphere of the street for 24 hours a day and then, purely by looking at the waveforms where spikes occurred, edited down that content into a soundscape.”

These ways of working use both a context that is immediately available in the home or on a holiday. All the works involve editing, but this can be done as energy levels allow. He goes on to say, referring to a different work, but true of his process in general, “All I had to do was notice that, then appropriate it and I’d made a composition without composing”. Dooks is not just making work, but finding new ways to make work (finding a new sound and mastering its production in Eddie Prevost’s terms).

Dooks’ offers a number of important aspects in which exhaustion is his teacher, such as talking about, “…just enough diversity in the practitioner’s life to generate an array of potential art…” or more humorously, “Some of my projects required light walking, others required light thinking. Some projects required what I sometimes refer to as ‘heavier cognition’ and some failed altogether.” He says, “some components of the work were completed in 24 hours. Others took a year or more, depending on which aspect of my life the illness was attacking.” And sums up saying works were, “…designed with an economy of energy in order to tread lightly with the illness.”


There are historical (e.g. Frida Kahlo and Henri Matisse) as well as contemporary examples (Claire Cunningham and Alec Finlay) responding to the pandemic from the perspective of living with long term conditions.

Claire Cunningham, performer and creator of multi-disciplinary performance based in Glasgow, has commented on the weirdness of finding the rest of the world experiencing the sort of limitations artists with disabilities experience daily. Cunningham’s work is often rooted in the study and use/misuse of her crutches and the exploration of the potential of her own specific physicality with a conscious rejection of traditional dance techniques (developed for non-disabled bodies).  

Alec Finlay has recently meditated on protecting himself, but not feeling protected. He too speaks about the experience of reimagining how to make art and life saying, “We can use the imagination to enrich a constrained walk or devise imaginative tweaks to how life is lived at home.” He is also one of the many artists who have opened up their practice, providing a collection of strategies and tactics, a creative toolkit. Each of the nearly 50 suggestions is a project in its own right. All address place and most involve poetry.

Improvisation as an intentional way of working offers a counterpoint to statistical modelling, focusing on what we can do in relation to specific contexts, in co-operation with other people, in the here and now, in spite of apparent limitations.

With thanks to Anne Douglas for comments.

You might also be interested in this collection of creative professionals responses to covid, from around the UK.

Chris Fremantle is a practice-led researcher and producer working across environment and health. He has worked as producer on art and design strategies for 7 new hospitals. He teaches at Gray's School of Art and is a Board member of the recently formed Arts Culture Health + Wellbeing Scotland (ACHWS). He is also responsible for

GARDENING AS ASTRONOMY from Chris Dooks on Vimeo.



DOOKS, C. M., 2019. Transcription of seminar “The Fragmented Filmmakerfor CCRI / MSc in Wellbeing. University of Edinburgh.

DOOKS, C. M., 2014. The Fragmented Filmmaker - Emancipating The Exhausted Artist. [Thesis]. University of the West of Scotland.

DOUGLAS, A. 2018. ‘Venturing out on the thread of a tune: the artist as improvisor in public life’. In Oliver, J. (ed.) Creative practice and the art of association, trajectories of practice as research. Melbourne: University of Melbourne Press [online], chapter 6.

DOUGLAS, A. and GULARI, M.N. 2015. ‘Understanding experimentation as improvisation in arts research’. Qualitative Research Journal [online], 15(4), pages 392-403. Available from:

DOUGLAS, A. and COESSENS, K. 2013. ‘Improvisation and embodied knowledge: three artistic projects between life, art and research’. In Frisk, H. and Östersjö, S. (eds.) (Re)thinking improvisation: artistic explorations and conceptual writing. Malmö: Lund University, Malmö Academy of Music, pages 29-41.

HALLAM, E., and INGOLD. T., 2007. Creativity and Cultural Improvisation. ASA Monographs, Berg.

PRÉVOST, E., 1995. No Sound is Innocent: AMM and the Practice of Self-Invention: Meta-musical Narratives: Essays. Copula: Harlow, UK.