This article was part of FORUM+ vol. 27 no. 3, pp. 90-91
Artistic research … Where to start? – Why not with a handbook?
HKU Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht & ArtEZ Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Arnhem
As the various contributions to this thematic issue on methods undoubtedly show, it is safe to say that both the discipline of research in and through the arts, as well as the discourse on methods within the discipline are still highly in flux, pluralistic, and ‘under construction’. This not only applies to methods in particular, but also affects aspects of education, institutionalization, and the contextualization of the field in relation to other research disciplines. The polyphony of both different aspects of a research field and different visions and perspectives on this field is the point of departure for the Handbook Künstlerische Forschung. It aims to provide ‘a provisional overview of the status quo’ (p. 10, all quotes and chapter titles my translation), covering an extensive array of issues, questions and themes in artistic research, a discipline that is still relatively young.
Künstlerische Forschung presents a rich panorama of short chapters, each highlighting a particular aspect of the artistic research field. This approach generates a very productive read: It is exactly the sharpness of each chapter that raises awareness of the broader topic in which the discussions are situated and how they are interconnected. Moreover, it makes the book easy to access and ‘fast’ to work with, as a reader can very quickly get to the central argument of a certain contribution. This might be a rather practical aspect, but from my experience as a researcher, teacher, and reader I can certainly appreciate and value this point.
The book is structured into three major parts: 'Epistemology & Aesthetics', 'Practices', and 'Institutions & Contexts'. The second part, on which I will focus in more detail, is conceived as a catalogue of practices. The first and third part are structured in thematic clusters covering specific areas within artistic research, such as the production of knowledge or questions of dissemination. Thanks to the ‘catalogue’-like format of the handbook, it is not required to read from beginning to end, nor to read one of the three parts in its entirety.
The introduction of the book is followed by a number of texts (for some unclear reason not part of the table of contents) providing an overview of artistic research in the various artistic disciplines: from visual arts, performing arts, design to music. The first part of the book, ‘Epistemology & Aesthetic’ contains twelve contributions that lay a conceptual and partly philosophical basis for the understanding of artistic research, structured into the four clusters Aesthetic, Research, Method, and Knowledge. With regard to aesthetics, Jens Badura departs from the philosophical tradition and argues for an extended and ‘sensual’ framing of understanding (Erkenntnis), which combines rational and intuitive aspects. Then Dieter Mersch argues for complementing the traditional aesthetic of the finished work, experienced by an audience, with the aesthetic of the production process and (experimental) event.
The following clusters examine the very notion of ‘Research’ in the context of the arts and in relation to other academic disciplines. This includes notions of research as being risky as well as pluralistic, and ideas on how to make tensions between different disciplines (and different areas of knowledge production) in this pluralistic field productive, and lesser discussed ideas on methods, such as ‘methodical disobedience’ or ‘thoughtful methodology’. In the last cluster the authors elaborate on various aspects of ‘Knowledge’, such as the duality between practice and theory, material and mind, or the notion of the arts as a scientific discipline reshaping and complementing existing understandings of knowledge in the natural and social sciences and the humanities.
The central part of the book, ‘Practices’, is presented as a non-linear catalogue of a large variety of practices. The editors consciously choose ‘practices’ rather than ‘methods’. In most cases this implies art practices, both disciplinary (e.g. singing, giving concerts, or staging) and non-disciplinary (e.g. annotating, noting, working serially), that are looked at from the context of doing research, or regarding their potential towards using them in research. The strong point of this approach is that the different practices can be made fruitful by the reader-artist-researcher in various ways. The practices are not yet clear-cut or well-defined methods, they don’t make statements about dos and don’ts. They remain open, which is exactly what makes many of them useful and convincing.
Each author presents a particular practice and contextualizes this practice within his/her vision on artistic research. Obviously, these visions differ from each other, but a little more of an editorial hand would have been helpful to streamline the visions behind the various contributions in accordance with the framework of the handbook. As interesting as these different visions are, in some cases authors simply describe a certain practice on the ground of a deep mistrust in the specific ‘research’ in artistic research (e.g. Alice Creischer). Although such positions are legitimate, they do not help to widen one’s imagination of what artistic research practices can be, which is likely one reason to explore such a handbook to begin with.
Another incoherency in this part is that not all practices are actually practices as such, but rather approaches to research in the arts in general. ‘Recherche-création’, for example, refers to the Canadian context, in which ‘research creation’ is a term rather close in its meaning to what we in our European context call ‘artistic research’. The associated chapter describes the practice of Erin Manning’s SenseLab, for example, but it is unclear to what extent this is supposed to work in the context of the larger book section of practices.
Of course, these incoherencies could just be put off the table with the remark that artistic research as a discipline is (still?) incoherent and a handbook needs these different viewpoints in order to more or less faithfully display the various tendencies of the discipline. Nevertheless, I think a little more nuance already could have been expected in 2015 (when the book was published) and that an editorial team should have been more mindful of readers who are not yet specialists in the field and – especially in the case of a handbook – would profit from a collection of practices that at least are all practices within the context of carrying out research in and through the arts.
Regardless of this critique, there is a lot to gain and a lot to learn in this part, and ‘browsing’ or wandering through the different practices is an inspiring and informative joy. I will mention only three ‘highlights’ of my travel through these practices: ‘Annotating’ by Scott deLahunta is written from the context of dance (research), and elaborates on the situation when the choreographer or dancer aims to disseminate and articulate research findings for an audience outside of the studio context. DeLahunta explores annotation as an approach to work with, ‘as a means to understand the articulation of ideas and concepts from the research context of dance’ (p. 117). Elke Bippus elaborates on ‘installing’ as a form within artistic research, related to scientific experimental systems. She examines a few key characteristics of installation works – the embodied viewer, the mobility of experiences, the installations’ performativity as well as reflection of the contexts in which they are presented – as relating experience and knowledge to each other. As a third example, Annemarie Matzke sees ‘rehearsing’ as etymologically close to the experiment, and elaborates on it as an artistic practice characterized by collectivity, performativity and mediality, as an ‘overlay of social and aesthetic processes.’ (p. 189) At the same time, rehearsing ‘performs’ the situation of a constant switching between making and observing, which has an obvious closeness to key characteristics of artistic research.
Just as Part I, Part III is structured into several clusters: academization, formats, research- and funding dispositives, economization, places, politics, and dissemination. In the cluster ‘Academization’, Dieter Lesage sheds a welcome and somehow ‘correcting’ light on the misunderstanding that the Bologna process has been responsible for the (sometimes seen as negative) forced development of art education programmes to become more academic. Instead, Lesage argues that art universities should see this as a chance for teachers not only to teach and supervise, but quite explicitly stay learners – through inquiry and research. Building on this, Giaco Schiesser provides a historical and substantive context for the artistic PhD programmes that have emerged since the 1970s.
The following cluster ‘formats’ includes contributions on performance and on the essay, as different forms and formats of both art and research, as well as discussing different aspects of the balance between process and the finished work. ‘Research- and funding dispositives’ and ‘Economization’ offer contributions that cover areas such as political aspects, criteria, presentation, and practice of artistic research grants, as well as thinking critically about the position or perspective artistic research can (or needs to) take in the value system of a globalized and ‘economized’ society.
The cluster ‘places’ does what one would expect: a collection of various kinds of places for artistic research to happen and to be carried out. Most of these contributions do not so much present concrete and in-depth views on examples, but are rather a reflection on a certain place/space, and its potential of being understood as a place for research. This cluster can be interesting also in the light of developments at various art institutions to create, develop, and explore ‘research environments’, both in a physical and an educational sense. The different chapters (archive, studio, stage, internet, cinema, concert hall, laboratory, and museum) offer compelling ideas to work with. Part Three closes with elaborations on politics, the relationships between the arts and the public sphere, and the publication and dissemination of artistic research.
In summary, despite the rather small frustrations regarding coherence throughout the book, this volume presents a truly valuable and still up to date addition to the literature on artistic research, specifically regarding method and methodology. Where other books either lack the necessary close connection to actual artistic (research) practice due to overly philosophical elaboration, or are oriented very practically and concrete but lack conceptual or reflective depth, this book offers a wealth of practical ideas that are open enough to be used by various artist researchers with different sorts of experience, yet at the same time places these practices in the complex context in which artistic research finds itself in the twenty-first century. The only real pity of this book is its language, which truly limits its potential and possible impact in the wider global community of arts and research. The publisher told me that an English version is not planned, yet I truly hope that it will be accessible at some moment in time.
Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht & (HKU) ArtEZ Hogeschool voor de Kunsten