epistemological core of artistic research is not fixed

Mika Elo’s chapter in Futures of artistic research: at the intersection of Utopia, academia and power is called FAQ. The chapter deals quite directly with the unknown in artistic research and how "sometimes one is lucky enough to come up with a question that points at something unforeseen" (p.49).

Elo writes that the "epistemological core of artistic research is not fixed – some even say it is empty – and appears only indirectly at the intersections or boundaries of different contexts" (p.51).

I take a lot of pleasure in the possibility that when we practice artistic research we might be filling this epistemic core (even if only for the duration of the research) and that the substance of that filling is strongly context dependent.

Elo’s thinking reminded me — rather tangentially — of how Jon Kabat-Zinn has described meditation as the method of no method. In a way I understand artistic research to be a method of no method. It is certainly not a set of protocols that is more or less followed by its practitioners.

But where does this very slippery thinking leave artist-researchers new to the field? Is there something more tangible for these people to grasp before they are able to live in the "mangle of practice" (Pickering, 1995) akin to Keats’ negative capability?

Steyerl on specificity and singularity

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.

Reference: Steyerl, H. (2010) ‘Aesthetics of Resistance? Artistic Research as Discipline and Conflict’. MaHKUzine. Journal of Artistic Research (8), 31–37.

responsibility and community

In 2003 Peter Thomson published an article in Studies in Theatre and Performance called Practice as Research. The article is an edited collection of exchanges that happened online on the SCUDD list-serv in 2002. The whole exchange is fascinating, not least because it makes clear just how many of the contestable aspects of practice-research in theatre, dance and performance in 2002 remain somewhat controversial today.

In this post I want to draw attention to Caroline Rye’s contribution to the exchange and I quote it at length here:

Maybe the assumption is that the more ‘visible’ and revisitable our research, the ‘better’ that research is, and that the production of documents will facilitate this availability and confirm its quality as research. The emphasis on a repeatable form of dissemination might occur in order to maintain some notion of a ‘complete’ research community, which can have non-exclusive and unconditional access to the research in order to benefit and progress the whole ‘research’ organism.

Wouldn’t that be a slightly simplistic model of knowledge production? Our field of performance research is a highly contested area (as is, I imagine, research in other disciplines). There is little or no consensus, and any number of contradictory ideas and beliefs can be held by any number of ‘research bodies’ at any time. To admit to this much more fractured composition of the research community may also involve the replacing the notion of the ‘academy’ with a number of ‘academies’.

Additionally, we may also have to admit that some forms of knowledge are context-specific, but that, nevertheless, some kind of knowledge-exchange (modification/realization) has taken place, which is of benefit to the discipline as a whole (in the way individuals or groups might produce new work, talk, write, experience performance etc.). This is one of the challenges that PaR presents to the ‘academy’. Must, then, PaR practitioners articulate their activities in a manner which the academy finds acceptable (conventional, accessible)?

What I like about Rye’s challenges (or perhaps ambivalences) is that they hint at a question of responsibility, and how broadly we — artist-scholars — might take our responsibilities. That is, we certainly have some responsibility to the specifics (and perhaps uniqueness) of the artistic practice(s), but what do we imagine our responsibilities to be towards the artistic and scholarly communities at large? To present our work in some ways might serve the form-content of the practice, but render it inaccessible or even irrelevant to the research community (or academies as Rye describes). How to navigate this balance between responsibility and community?

See also Biggs and Büchler’s concept of Situated Position: practiceasresearchblog.wordpress.com/2020/11/26/situated-position-and-questions-answers-and-methods/

Reference

Thomson, P. (2003) ‘Practice as Research’. Studies in Theatre and Performance 22 (3), 159–180.

not knowing and surprise

I happened across the following writing by Henk Borgdorff in Emilie Gallier’s remarkable PhD Reading in Performance, Lire en Spectacle – The solitude or reading merged with the collective nature of an audience:

In the debate on the epistemology of artistic research, an antithesis repeatedly surfaces: between explicit, manifest knowledge and implicit or tacit knowledge, and between knowing that something is the case and knowing how to do or make something. I propose to add a third side to this: not knowing. ‘I don’t know …’ This is the more interesting position: not to know, or not to know yet. It creates room for that which is unthought, that which is unexpected: the idea that all things could be different … This is what we may call the radical contingency of artistic research.[^1]

Borgdorff’s writing reminded me of two things. The first is that epistemology starts with our fallibility,[^2] and the second is about surprise as described by Rheinberger:

If you want to be a productive researcher, you have to conduct your experiments in such a way that you can be surprised by the outcome, so that unexpected things can occur. This only happens if, on the one hand, experiments are precisely set up but, on the other hand, are complex enough to leave the door open for surprise. The magnitude of such surprises is itself constituted in a recursive or iterative loop. It doesn’t expose itself in a flash of enlightenment at one particular point in time. That is how people who have effected major breakthroughs in science usually depict their own achievements in hindsight, which I think is due to a self-stylisation that can only come after the fact. The surprises, when they show up for the first time, are of a minor magnitude, and may even make their appearance as contaminations, which is why they often tend to be overlooked. The experimental spirit lies precisely in not overlooking these small effects.[^3]

[^1]: Borgdoff, H. (2008) ‘Artistic Research and Academia: an uneasy relationship’ [online] available from https://www.researchcatalogue.net/profile/show-work?work=129283, p.96.

[^2]: Sheff, Nate. ‘How Do You Know?’ Aeon, 2 November 2021. https://aeon.co/essays/what-were-doing-when-were-doing-epistemology.

[^3]: Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg, and Michael Schwab. ‘Forming and Being Informed’. In Experimental Systems: Future Knowledge in Artistic Research, 198–219. Orpheus Institute Series. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2013, pp.200-201.

iteration

Walter L. Wallace described the wheel of science in 1971. It has plenty of variations but it’s more or less this:

(stolen from Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart)

I really like how simple and elegant the model it is. It conveys an enormous number of ideas, assumptions, and perhaps even ideologies.

I thought I’d try and make a version useful for people working through practice-research. It’s not quite as pretty as Brené Brown’s but I guarantee she didn’t do it herself.

I understand this iterative relationship between one’s practice and the community of practice to be at the heart of artistic research: to be circling outwards and inwards, outwards and inwards.

Some other thoughts:

  • There is also no clear starting point or sense that one is following a linear progression or set of protocols.
  • I was less certain about what to place along the sides and perhaps could have just let them be empty. I avoided refraction because I am so allergic to academic fashions, not because I don’t think it’s a useful idea.
  • Should I try and include the role of writing?
  • There is no place for outputs in this model

Any thoughts?

artistic practices in artistic research

The artistic research PhD students at C-DaRE and I meet twice a week (briefly) to raise questions and discuss things that are coming up for them. In the last couple of sessions we’ve talked about processes and products in artistic research and in particular how an artistic practice might be part of that equation.

This little video/animation is an attempt describe some of my thoughts about how artistic research makes it possible for an artist-scholar to zero in on a particular part of their artistic practice (including the whole practice) as an object of inquiry.

See also many possible futures for related material.