scrivener on what might be

Stephen Scrivener’s work on epistemic concerns in practice-as-research has always been thoughtful, provocative and rewarding. See for example his work on the art object not embodying knowledge from 2002.[1]

In Scrivener’s contribution to Experimental Systems: Future Knowledge in Artistic Research (2013) he develops a case-study based on the PhD research project by Su Zheng (2007) called Eye-Jump:

Like problem-solving design research, the work was directed toward a desirable future. However, problem-solving design research begins with an undesirable situation in the designed world that prompts reflection, for example, "Why is this artefactual situation not as it ought to be?" That is to say, the process begins with the recognition that there is something known: a better world, which has not been realised. The Eye-jump story, in contrast, began with making and thinking that was not attached to specific instances of undesirable life conditions; it was not concerned with what ought to be but with what might be. In a problem-solving research process a theory of the problem is transformed into a theory of its solution, which is then affirmed through the testing of a new design; material interventions are solely for the purposes of testing the solution theory. In contrast, the Eye-jump project progressed from untargeted material interventions, through unprecedented artefactual situation, to reflection on its potential significance.[2]

This is important for all practice-as-research, including those of us working in dance and performance. We are all involved in the question of what might be, and then part of our responsibility is to attempt to communicate why these things matter and to whom (i.e. the question of significance). Although artists working outside of the academy are likewise profoundly working with what might be they are under no pressure to talk to the significance of their work (although many do).

[1]: Indeed, all of Scrivener’s writing for the various "Working Papers in Art and Design" series are fantastic (they can be tracked down with a Duck Duck Go search).

[2]: Scrivener, Stephen, 2013. ‘Toward a Practice of Novel Epistemic Artefacts’, in: Experimental Systems: Future Knowledge in Artistic Research, Orpheus Institute Series. Leuven University Press, Leuven, pp. 135–150. (excerpt from p.147)

bolt explains

Barbara Bolt has written an "explainer" called "What is artistic research?" for the University of Melbourne’s online (and offline) magazine.

She focuses on the role of the artist and their privileged position as being both inside and outside of the artistic research; that artistic research has made it possible for artists to "find their voice where hitherto they have been the object of study by art historians, musicologists, critics, curators, and cultural theorists, amongst others."

According to Bolt, the researcher as "maker and observer" identifies and argues the "research’s claim to new knowledge, or rather new ways of knowing".

It’s strange to me that Bolt would imply that the research is laying claim to knowledge, and, rather confusingly, that it is the researcher who identities and argues for this claim. Perhaps this isn’t quite what she meant, but as it stands there’s circular logic here, a snake biting its own tail: the research has claims to new ways of knowing, but only until that is identified by the researcher, who has also made the research, which in turn claims …

What a mess.

And then Bolt suggests that somehow the researcher is some kind of decoder or interpreter; the person to unlock the mysteries that aren’t yet "open to others":

The role of the artistic researcher is not to describe his or her work, nor to interpret the work, but rather to recognise and map the ruptures and movements that are the work of art in a way not necessarily open to others. The artist-as-researcher offers a particular and unique perspective on the work of art from inside-out as well as outside-in.

I think there is terrible danger in overstating the value of the researcher as subject; the researcher as all powerful, knowing and loving. Here’s Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (again):

This also means getting rid of the age-old thinking about Erkenntnistheorie as being about an I, an ego, a subject that tries to cast a theoretical net over an object. Instead, let us be a little bit more humble and see the experimenting subject as engaged in an activity that has, to put it in Ian Hacking’s (1983,150) words, "a life of its own," and one that is in need of many good eyes to see and many good ears to hear. Let us get rid of what could be called the tyranny of the subject.[1]

[1]: 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, p.199.


I’ve been reading a collection of essays edited by Michael Schwab called Experimental Systems: Future Knowledge in Artistic Research1. The essays respond to science historian Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s writing on experimental systems2 from the perspective of practice-research. There are a number of fantastic ideas in the book and so over the coming weeks I’m going to post small excerpts or quotes.

Here’s one about iterative processes and recognising difference:

It is all about the epistemic effects of these acts and activities. They don’t just occur out of the blue. Just to give an example: I have the impression that an artist like Cezanne, who painted hundreds of apples in his countless later still lifes, must have been caught in a kind of experimental system. It was all about tiny changes and iterations—doing it again and again and always with a small differential gesture. I am interested in the creation of differences through such processes of iteration, be it in the sciences or in the arts. Holding these small differences against each other produces knowledge effects. The very process of iteration brings these slightly different variants of an experimental process into contact with each other. It is not the relation between a thinking mind and object on the table in front of it, the classical relation between a knowing subject and an object posed before it; the basic idea is to introduce multiplicity at the object-level itself and thus to get rid of the classical dualistic structure of epistemology. Musical variations are a wonderful example of processes of iteration. In this sense, I think, scientific and artistic activities share something in common, although their respective knowledge effects may be of a different order or a different kind. Certainly the product is of a different kind.

– Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, in conversation with Michael Schwab. 2013. ‘Forming and Being Informed’. In Experimental Systems: Future Knowledge in Artistic Research, 198–219. Leuven: Leuven University Press. p.215

  1. Schwab, Michael, ed. 2013. Experimental Systems: Future Knowledge in Artistic Research. Leuven: Leuven University Press.

  2. His writing is mostly in German but here’s an example in English: Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg. 2012. ‘Experimental Systems: Difference, Graphematicity, Conjecture’. In Intellectual Birdhouse: Artistic Practice as Research, 89–99. London: Koenig Books.

a mess

A while back I read Kieran Healy’s book about using plain text[1] in the social sciences. He writes this early on:

The problem is that doing scholarly work is intrinsically a mess. There’s the annoying business of getting ideas and writing them down, of course, but also everything before, during, and around it: data analysis and all that comes with it, and the tedious but unavoidable machinery of scholarly papers—especially citations and references. There is a lot to keep track of, a lot to get right, and a lot to draw together at the time of writing.[2]

Healy is of course talking about the nuts and bolts of collecting ideas, managing materials, etc, but his writing did make me think about the beautiful messiness of practice-as-research in particular. It can be a remarkable cocktail of uncertainty, rigour, care, intuition, desperation, and failed experimentation.[3]

  1. Any of you who follow my personal blog will likely know that I am interested in text-based workflows. See if you are super keen.  ↩
  2. Kieran Healy, The Plain Person’s Guide to Plain Text Social Science., 2018, p.4.  ↩
  3. I’m currently reading Experimental Systems: Future Knowledge in Artistic Research (edited by Michael Schwab, 2013) and I’ll discuss the book – and the nature of experimentation in practice-as-research – in a future post.  ↩


Henk Borgdorff’s The Conflict of the Faculties : Perspectives on Artistic Research and Academia is a fantastic text about practice-research. It’s a goldmine really, but I particularly like the way he is very clear about the way in PaR that the art pratice is entangled with research and artistic development:

The entanglement of artistic research with art practice and with artistic development is so close that a conceptual distinction often appears contrived. (p.144)

He includes the footnote:

Such distinctions are usually made by people who first create a caricature of the one activity, believing they are protecting the other activity by doing so.

He then follows on with what is pretty old news, but does such a fantastic job of articulating the ways in which context helps to clarify the nature of the research:

Another distinguishing feature is that contemporary art practice constitutes the relevant context for the research, alongside the academic forum. The research derives its significance not only from the new in-sights it contributes to the discourse on art, but also from the outcomes in the form of new products and experiences which are meaningful in the world of art. In part, then, the outcomes of artistic research are art-works, installations, performances, and other artistic practices; and this is another quality that differentiates it from humanities or social science research, where art practice may be the object of the research, but not the outcome. This means that art practice is paramount as the subject matter, the method, the context, and the outcome of artistic research. That is what is meant by expressions like ‘practice-based’ or ‘studio-based’ research. (p.146)

The book is open access.

Borgdorff, Hendrik Anne Henk. 2012. The Conflict of the Faculties : Perspectives on Artistic Research and Academia. Leiden: Leiden University Press : Amsterdam.