Hito Steyerl is an experimental video artist. She also has a PhD from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.
In 2010, she wrote an article for MaHKUzine: Journal of Artistic Research called ‘Aesthetics of Resistance? Artistic Research as Discipline and Conflict’. You can find it in lots of places but here’s one version: transversal.at/pdf/journal-text/270/
The writing covers a lot of ground including how "current debates [in artistic research] do not fully acknowledge the legacy of the long, varied and truly international history of artistic research." (Steyerl, 2010, p.32)
One section in particular caught my eye and I’ll quote it here at length:
In all these methods, two elements collide: a claim to specificity clashes with a claim to singularity. What does this mean? One aspect of the work claims to participate in a general paradigm, within a discourse that can be shared and which is manufactured according to certain criteria. More often than not, scientific, legalistic or journalistic truth procedures underly this method of research. These methodologies are pervaded by power relations as many theorists have demonstrated.
On the other hand, artistic research projects in many cases also lay claim to singularity. They create a certain artistic set up, which claims to be relatively unique and produces its own field of reference and logic. This provides it with a certain autonomy, in some cases an edge of resistance against dominant modes of knowledge production. In other cases, this assumed singularity just sexes up a quantitative survey, or to use a famous expression by Benjamin Buchloh, creates an aesthetic of administration.”
While specific methods generate a shared terrain of knowledge – which is consequently pervaded by power structures – singular methods follow their own logic. While this may avoid the replication of existing structures of power/knowledge, it also creates the problem of the proliferation of parallel universes, which each speak their own, untranslatable language. Practices of artistic research usually partake in both registers, the singular as well as the specific; they speak several languages at once.
— Hito Steyerl 2010, p.35
So much of this language is vague: "certain criteria" (which criteria?), "more often than not" (how can one disagree with this?), "pervaded" (compared with what?), "power relations" (as if they are always ‘bad’), "many theorists" (what of theorists who have demonstrated alternatives?), "relatively unique" (relative to what?) … you get the drift.
But I think Steyerl articulates a genuine issue for practice-research when she places specificity of methods in tension with the singularity of epistemic claims ("its own field of reference and logic"), and her sense that artistic research exists "in both registers".
The problem, as I think of it, is to recognise that we — artist-scholars — are in common with other practitioners in (at least) three ways: i) how we go about making work; ii) who our practices are in relation to; and iii) how the form-content of our practices is in relationship to those other practices. Indeed, I see this understanding of being in common (and being ‘in difference’) as a clear division between artistic research and just plain making art. That is, in order to do artistic research it behooves us to clearly acknowledge the ways in which we are part of a field of practice. This is not to say that artists making work do not do this (clearly artists acknowledge — and cite — influence all of the time), it’s just not a necessity.
The alternative, in which artist-scholars just go about making work with specific and singular methods, is precisely the proliferation of Steyerl’s parallel universes: individual bubbles of originality adrift in epistemic wonderland.
Steyerl, H. (2010) ‘Aesthetics of Resistance? Artistic Research as Discipline and Conflict’. MaHKUzine. Journal of Artistic Research (8), 31–37.