From the scenic essay to the essay-exhibition

Expanding the essay form in the arts beyond literature and film. An International conference. April 27th - April 29th 2022. Research centre S:PAM - Studies in Performing Arts & Media, Ghent University.

Theme of the conference

More than 400 years after the publication of Michel De Montaigne’s leading Essais, the enduring afterlife of the essay form attests how this ‘heretical form’ (Adorno) not only continues to challenge the literary conventions but also transgresses the borders of the literary field to venture into other artistic disciplines. The genre of the essay film is the most prominent example of this dissemination but the expansion has set out in other fields as well. Art historian W.J.T. Mitchell introduced the notion of the ‘photographic essay’ and theatre scholar Hans Thies-Lehmann coined the ‘scenic essay’ as one of the constitutive elements of postdramatic theatre. In addition, the work of contemporary artists such as Ralph Lemon, Hito Steyerl, Thomas Bellinck, DECORATELIER and Oliver Zahn attest to a commitment to the essay form. More recently, the essay form has entered the curatorial field and the practice of exhibition-making as the ‘essay-exhibition’.


Engaging with this emerging prominence, the conference welcomes scholars and art practitioners to present their academic and/or artistic engagements with the essay form. Unlike the realm of literature and film, the essay form in the field of performing arts, visual arts and curatorial practices has received only modest attention. The goal of this three-day conference is to continue the mapping the essay form in these disciplines. By doing so, the conference aims to enrich the existing vocabulary of theatre and performance studies and aspires to resolve the hiatus between the existing theories on the essay. The conference’s emphasis on the essay form beyond the field of literature and film by no means that scholars or artists operating in these fields are not welcome. On the contrary, by assembling a wide variety of contemporary perspectives on the essay form this conference aspires to create a productive dialogue between more established fields of study on the essay and the new articulations presented during this gathering. 

Keynote Speakers

Nora M. Alter

Nora M. Alter is professor of comparative film and media studies in the School of Theater, Film, and Media Arts at Temple University. She is author of Vietnam Protest Theatre: The Television War on Stage (1996), Projecting History: German Nonfiction Cinema, 1967–2000 (2002), Chris Marker (2006) and The Essay Film after Fact and Fiction (2018 . Wit Timothy Corrigan she co-edited the edited volume Essays on the Essay Film (Columbia, 2017).

Frédérique Aït-Touati

Frédérique Aït-Touati is a historian of literature and modern science, a seventeenth century specialist, and a theatre director. She is a research fellow at the CNRS and a member of the Centre de Recherches sur les Arts et le Langage at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. She conducted research on the use of fiction and narrative in astronomy in the seventeenth century, as well as the history of images and scientific instruments.  More recently, her research has focused on the narratives and aesthetics of the Anthropocene, particularly in theatre. Her books include Fictions of the Cosmos (2011), Histoires et savoirs (2012), Le Monde en images (2015), Terra Forma (2019).

Thijs Lijster

Thijs Lijster (1981) studied philosophy at the University of Groningen and the New School for Social Research in New York. In 2012 he received his PhD in philosophy (cum laude) at the University of Groningen, for a dissertation on Walter Benjamin’s and Theodor W. Adorno’s concepts of art criticism. He lectured on philosophy of art and culture at the Faculties of Philosophy and Arts of the University of Groningen, and the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Amsterdam. Currently he is assistant professor of philosophy of art and culture at the department of Arts, Culture and Media studies of the University of Groningen. He contributed to books such as Conceptions of Critique in Modern and Contemporary Philosophy (eds. De Boer and Sonderegger), Institutional Attitudes and No Culture, No Europe (ed. Gielen) and was coeditor of De Nieuwe Duitse Filosofie (The New German Philosophy, 2013), De Kunst van Kritiek (The Art of Critique, 2015), and Spaces for Criticism. Shifts in Contemporary Art Discourses (2015). In 2017 he published Benjamin and Adorno on Art and Art Criticism. Critique of Art (AUP).

Ho Rui An

Ho Rui An is an artist and writer working in the intersections of contemporary art, cinema, performance and theory. Working primarily across the mediums of lecture, essay and film, he probes into the ways by which images are produced, circulate and disappear within contexts of globalism and governance. He has presented projects at the Asian Art Biennial (2019), Gwangju Biennale (2018), Jakarta Biennale (2017), Sharjah Biennial (2017), Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2014), Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (2018), Haus de Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (2017), Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center, Manila (2017), NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (2017) and Para Site, Hong Kong (2015). In 2019, he was awarded the International Film Critics’ (FIPRESCI) Prize at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Germany. In 2018, he was a fellow of the DAAD Berliner Künstlerprogramm.

Anselm Franke

Anselm Franke has been Head of Visual Arts and Film at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) since 2013. There, he initiated and curated the exhibitions Neolithic Childhood. Art in a False Present, c. 1930 (2018, with Tom Holert), Parapolitics: Cultural Freedom and the Cold War (2017/18, with Nida Ghouse, Paz Guevara, Antonia Majaca), 2 or 3 Tigers (2017, with Hyunjin Kim), Nervous Systems (2016, Tactical Technology Collective, Stephanie Hankey, Marek Tuszynski), Ape Culture (2015, with Hila Peleg), Forensis (2014, with Forensic Architecture), The Whole Earth (with Diedrich Diederichsen) and After Year Zero (both 2013). He previously worked as a curator at KW Berlin and as director of the Extra City Kunsthal in Antwerp. In 2005 he and Stefanie Schulte Strathaus founded the Forum Expanded for the Berlin International Film Festival of which he has been co-curator since. He was the chief curator of the Taipei Biennial in 2012 and of the Shanghai Biennale in 2014. His exhibition project Animism was shown from 2009 until 2014 in collaboration with various partners in Antwerp, Berne, Vienna, Berlin, New York, Shenzhen, Seoul and Beirut.

Mobile Akademie Berlin

Founded by curator and dramaturg Hannah Hurtzig, the nomadic platform Mobile Akademie Berlin has been experimenting with new forms of knowledge production and knowledge transfer in various projects, workshops and lectures. Its most well-known project is Blackmarket for Useful Knowledge and Non-Knowledge, adopting the format of a market to facilitate individual encounters between clients and experts of all thinkable areas of non-knowledge.

Call For Participation 

The twenty-first century seems to be the century of the essay. Almost 400 years after the publication of Michel De Montaigne’s Essais, the continuing afterlife of the essay form attests how this ‘heretical’ form (Adorno 1984 [1958]: 171) not only continues to challenge the literary conventions but also transgresses the borders of the literary field. The introduction of the notion of the ‘film essay’ by Dadaist filmmaker Hans Richter in 1940 marked the beginning of the essay form as a travelling concept in other artistic disciplines. The features of the essay form were apt to explore and to apprehend the cinematic practices of filmmakers like Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, Jonas Mekas, Harun Farocki and Hito Steyerl (amongst many others). The (re)new(ed) interest from the 1990’s onwards resulted in a substantial body of theoretical work on the essay film within the field of film studies (Arthur 2003; Alter 2007, 2018; Alter & Corrigan 2017; Biemann 2003; Corrigan 2011; Hollweg & Krstić 2019; Rascaroli 2009, 2017).

In her seminal text from 2007, Translating the Essay into Film and Installation, Nora M. Alter pointed out how ‘the nature of the essay encourages and promotes its translation not only into different languages but also into other media and forms’ (55). Additional to this observation, W. J. T. Mitchell’s definition of the ‘photographic essay’ (1995) and a more recent body of work on the photographic essay illustrates how the essay form provided a productive framework to approach the work of photographers like Jacob Riis, Dorothea Lange or the collective photographic projects of John Berger and Jean Mohr (Graf 2013; Klingensmith 2016). This conference takes Alter’s observation as a starting point and as an invitation to trace, to map and to explore the essay form and essayistic practices beyond the field of literature, film, or photography.

This conference has a particular, but not an exclusive, interest in how the essay form, once leaving its written or audiovisual format, appears and is manifested in the field of performing arts, visual arts and curatorial practices. In his canonical book Postdramatic Theatre (2000), German theatre scholar Hans Thies-Lehmann coined in a concise way the ‘scenic essay’ as one of the elements that shaped the panorama of postdramatic theatre. Accompanied by theoretical and philosophical texts on stage, Lehmann’s ‘scenic essay’ referred to how the means of theatre were used ‘to think aloud’ about the actors’ subject, its mode of representation and the role of language (113). In contrast to many other ideas and insights that appeared in Postdramatic Theatre, Lehmann’s rather brief expository on the ‘scenic essay’ was not picked up in the field of theatre and performance studies. A rather remarkably observation when one, as noted earlier, explores the history of the essay, its evolution and how it disseminated in the field of cinema and photography. Especially when we observe a rather explicit engagement with the essay form in the theatrical, performative, and curatorial practices of artists coining work as ‘audio-essay’, ‘theatrical essay’, ‘performance essay’, ‘choreographic essay‘, ‘performative essay’, ‘essay-exhibition’. The temporal and theoretical gap between Lehmann’s observations and these recent developments coerces to explore new grounds and to expand the theoretical frameworks to capture this tendency.

The extensive collection of theoretical work on the essay in literature and film proves how the attribution of the label ‘essay’ or ‘essayistic’ to an artwork does not necessarily mean an artist designates the work or its artistic practice as such. Some artists are explicitly engaged with the form, others are not. This observation prompts to welcome contributions on artworks and artistic practices that comply with the hallmarks of the essay but do not label it as such. By its preference for a dialogue of ideas, the observational, the display of a process of thinking, a high degree of subjectivity and (self-)reflexivity, speculation and ambivalence, the essay form could resonate with a wide array of artworks and artistic practices. The history and the dissemination of the essay attests how these attributes assisted the essay as a key agent in challenging conventional modes of expression, representation, and knowledge production. By welcoming artists, art practitioners, curators and theorists operating outside the academic realm, the conference aims to host a productive and enriching dialogue between those explicitly committed to the essay form and those (unintentionally) engaging with the essay’s hallmarks. Within this context, we welcome submissions that address the essay form from a multifaceted understanding as emergent in theatre, dance, performance, visual arts, and curatorial practices. These submissions include but are by no means limited to:

  •  The essay form within the field of theatre, performance, and dance
  • The essay form within documentary theatre
  • The essay form as a dramaturgical tool or method
  • The essay form and performativity/the performative dimension of the essay
  • The staging of essays
  • The essay form and scenography
  • The essay form or the essayistic as a curatorial mode or curatorial practice
  • The essay-exhibition
  • Essayistic spectatorship
  • The essay form and installation art
  • The lecture performance as essayistic practice
  • Audio-essays
  • Essayistic storytelling
  • The essayist as first-person narrator on stage
  • The essay form in exilic, diasporic, or transnational contexts
  • The essay form in the Anthropocene
  • The essay form within autoethnography or autotheory

We accept:

  • Individual paper-presentation (15/20-minute presentation)
  • Thematic panels (max. 3 presentations of 15/20 minutes)
  • Other presentation formats: performances, workshops, …

All proposals (max. 350 words, including a short biographical note of 100 words) should be addressed to For further information about the conference, send an email to If an official invitation is required earlier for research funding purposes, please contact the convenor to ensure that you submit your abstract as early as possible.

Important dates:

Deadline for submissions: 1 October 2021

Notification of acceptance: 15  November 2021

Date of the conference: 27 – 29 April 2022.


Institutional partners:

Ghent University (Faculty of Arts and Philosophy: Department of Art History, Musicology and Theatre Studies, Department of Literary Studies and Department of Architecture and Urban Planning)

KASK & Conservatorium / School of Arts Ghent

University of Antwerp (Faculty of Arts: Department of Literature)

KU Leuven (Faculty of Arts: Research Unit Literary Theory and Cultural Studies and Research Unit Art History – The Lieven Gevaert Research Centre for Photography, Art and Visual Culture)

    Practical Organization:

    Research Centre S:PAM – Studies in Performing arts and Media (Ghent University, Faculty of Arts, Department of Art History, Musicology and Theatre Studies)

    Organizing Committee:

    Wouter Davidts (Ghent University)

    Jasper Delbecke (Ghent University)

    Laura Herman (KASK/School of Arts)

    Kyoko Iwaki (University of Antwerp)

    Steven Jacobs (University of Antwerp)

    Anneleen Masschelein (KU Leuven)

    Alexander Roose (Ghent University)

    Christel Stalpaert (Ghent University)

    Bram Van Oostveldt (Ghent University)

    Hilde Van Gelder (KU Leuven)

    Scientific Committee

    Maude Bass-Krueger (Ghent University)

    Wouter Davidts (Ghent University)

    Jasper Delbecke (Ghent University)

    Steven Jacobs (University of Antwerp)

    Anneleen Masschelein (KU Leuven)

    Alexander Roose (Ghent University)

    Christel Stalpaert (Ghent University)

    Hilde Van Gelder (KU Leuven)

    Bram Van Oostveldt (Ghent University)

    This conference will be organized with the support of Commissie Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (CWO) of the Faculty of Arts & Philosophy of Ghent University, Research Centre S:PAM (Ghent University) and KASK School of Arts (Ghent).