Review

The currents of artistic research

Ned McGowan

Knowing in Performing is an anthology of thirteen writings in English and German on artistic research stemming from both a conference in 2018 and a lecture series organized by the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna. The focus is on music, but the disciplines of dance, theatre, visual arts, film, and philosophy are also represented, next to writings about artistic research in general.

Knowing in Performing refers to the multidimensional knowledge generated from artistic actions during development and performance, which are embodied and dependent on a ‘sensuous-situational’ knowing (p. 18). That being said, only several contributions refer directly to this form of knowledge; the others are either theoretical, examining artistic research in relation to its methodologies and institutional implementations, or artistic, summarizing projects or being wholly creative writings on their own. Despite this discrepancy between title and content, the anthology presents a wide range of topics and approaches to artistic research that give plenty of food for thought and artistic inspiration.

Annegret Huber, Doris Ingrisch, Therese Kaufmann, Johannes Kretz, Gisine Schröder, Tasos Zembylas (eds.), Knowing in Performing, Artistic Research in Music and the Performing Arts, Transcript publishing, 2021, 228 p.
ISBN 9783837652871

The first part of Efva Lilja’s powerful opening essay “The Pot Calling the Kettle Black” describes potential pitfalls for artists and institutions: ‘Art runs the risk of being held hostage by those universities where artistic quality is subjugated by pedagogical or scientific standards’ (p. 28). Drawing the distinction between artists who claim to do research and those who are formally recognized as researchers (through documentation, critical dialogue, and peer review) she sums it up as follows: ‘Good art is not equal to good artistic research. Good artistic research is not the same as good art’ (p. 31). A spur to both quality artistic action and quality artistic research is one of her main themes.

Not pulling any punches though, Lilja makes many sharp observations which will likely fling artist-readers into some self-reflection. For example, she puts forth that today’s market divides all artists into one of two categories: 1. the commercial or institutional artist, focused on reaching large numbers, or 2. the artist only interested in being valued among peers. She cuts further: the commercialized focus does not require documentation, ‘nor is there much time for in-depth processes, reflection or living non-productively’ (p. 32). I.e., the artistic process knows no shortcuts, and she tasks artists ‘to make academic infrastructures embrace artistic research’ (p. 33). One cannot simply blame the other for its own failings, the proverbial pot calling the kettle black.

Georgina Born’s essay “Artistic Research and Music Research, Epistemological Status, Interdisciplinary Forms, and Institutional Conditions” is a full sonata with three themes: 1. the questioning of Henk Borgdorff’s1 suture between academic and scientific research epistemologies, 2. the less contentious and better established epistemologies of music research (research for the arts) than artistic research (research through the arts), and 3. the detrimental effects on art from the rising culture of audits in the UK.

With many citations from Borgdorff’s seminal book, The Conflict of the Faculties, Born’s opening theme follows his inspiration drawn from science historian Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s theories about experimental systems. She brings criticism, however, to his assessment criteria of contextualization, methodology, and enhancement of knowledge, arguing that they lead rather to scientific epistemology than artistic practice. The theories from Rheinberger, she continues, seem rather to pull the possibilities for new artistic epistemologies towards academic research. While insightful and interesting, her arguments about artistic research remain in the theoretical domain, largely the same playing field as Borgdorff and Rheinberger, rendering contextualization with current practices somewhat difficult.

Born’s third theme laments how the rising audit culture in the UK has led to a focus on research, which in turn has elevated artistic research at the expense of the decline of Britain’s independent art and design schools. As an advocate for the concept of ‘artistic research turns craftsmen into artists’, I would argue this is a good thing and that the challenge rather lies in bringing traditional main-subject teachers on board with the catalysing qualities of artistic research.

For the recapitulation of her opus, Born weaves the first and second themes together into one grand statement:

Borgdorff and Rheinberger, however significant their work, position us only at the threshold of the scholarship and self-understanding that are necessary preconditions for the now-urgent debates to be had: debates about the epistemological status of artistic research and music research, and about the contributions to both fields of distinctive kinds of interdisciplinarity, and on this basis – most importantly – about what these fields could (pragmatically) and should (normatively) become in the future (p. 48).

From her arguments, a decade after The Conflict of the Faculties, it is clear that artistic research is past its infancy and further discussions about its implications and implementations are in order.

The next two articles treat the epistemologies of artistic research through the perspective of metaphorical images, which give welcome grip for the artist-reader. Kathleen Coessens’ “Artistic Paths in Five Images, Questioning Artistic Research” explores both the in- and outsides of artistic research via the perspectives of baking bread, hammering, the game, mirrors, and insight – outside. These metaphors give unique perspectives to understand the complexity and variety of knowledge as a result of the ‘embodied, dynamic and reflective’ approach of research in-and-through practice (p. 53).

Darla M. Crispin, in “Looking Back, Looking Through, Looking Beneath”, takes the image of a plain, white scarf made of a fine, silk material, to represent the filter of our perception of the world, in order to frame an in-depth exploration of the artistic and institutional approaches to reflection in research. She looks back at Europe’s political development of an approach to reflection, through to current evolved implementations, and beneath to consider a broader international perspective. Interestingly, she mentions a new artistic research PhD programme created in Norway which doesn’t require a written thesis; critical reflection doesn’t necessarily require words. This is a fascinating new frontier for the dissemination of artistic research findings. Crispin justifies this approach by pinpointing reflection as one of the most difficult facets of artistic research: artists’ credentials may be better suited for research and the making of art than for the producing of written reflections.

The possible uses of words, however, know few boundaries and in Knowing in Performing, several artistic texts are presented which use creative writing to explore perspectives, experiences, projects, and other artistic expressions in non-academic language. This is an open field in artistic research, and a very potent technique for dissemination.

“Voicings of an Auralist – a Series of Transmissions from an Unknown Source (Anonymous)”, is an interesting double text. The first is a series of statements that seem as if written from the perspective of an alien arriving on the earth and discovering music and its facilitating hardware. Sentences exist with multiple grammatical and synonymic options that create a sort of cubist text. The subject starts out as a general approach to the manner of sound and music and then goes much deeper into the translation of sound to digital mediums, exploring possible meanings of error correction and decay.

The second part of the double text is again an alien’s transcript, a seemingly internal report on the discovery of a compact disc buried in the earth at some future post-apocalyptic date; objective measurements of weight, thickness, and other parameters are given. While an audio stream is eventually extracted, the lack of ‘specific cultural context’, nor ‘documentation of adequate data interpretation’ leads to inconclusive results (p. 104, 106). These two artistic texts of unknown source, enhanced with photos and creative presentation styles, highlight the technical aspects of music which become apparent on objective investigation. For me these perspectives shine a light on how artists may only see artistic content, being oblivious to their medium’s artifacts.

Situated somewhere between academic and creative documentation, Johannes Kreidler’s “Schallnamen” is a very interesting artist’s statement of different perspectives on music. One theme has to do with language and music: the linguistic knowledge of sounds, how languages precede hearing, the countless names of genres (more than 70 within heavy metal!), and also the different onomatopoeia for a bicycle bell. The other theme has to do with money and he gives three examples of his work: 1. the translation of the 2009 stock market crash into a melody where each semitone represents billions in losses; 2. exploring aspects of globalization and exploitation by commissioning foreign composers for comparatively cheap fees to compose works in his style; and 3. earjobs, where one is paid to listen to works of music: five minutes of the author’s composition earns one €0.70 while five minutes of Muzak (Elevator Music in very bad mp3 quality) will earn one €10.00. Which would you choose? Based on the interesting ideas and perspectives in this documentation, I would choose his music, even paying to listen.

While all the presentations in Knowing in Performing are strong, I will talk about just two others.

‘Today, many traditional musical practices face the threat of imminent discontinuation’ (p. 111). Johannes Kretz & Wei-Ya Lin’s “Creative (Mis)understandings: A Methodology of Inspiration” gives an overview of an intercultural project they are currently leading, where composers from Europe and Taiwan interact within traditional Tao communities. Looking at long-established musical practices as endangered species, they strive not only to preserve, but to evolve:

The project aims to develop transcultural approaches of inspiration (which we regard as mutually appreciated intentional and reciprocal artistic influence based on solidarity) by combining approaches from contemporary music composition and improvisation with ethnomusicological and sociological research (p. 111).

To give one example of the insights necessary to carry out such a project, they illuminate an interesting perspective on transcultural performance: ‘The same content (e.g., some kind of “distorted indigenous music”) could be perceived as relatively unmodified “traditional music” in the context of a European new music festival, but as a “quite extreme experiment” in the context of “indigenous music”’ (p. 115). The project sounds very fascinating, and I look forward to the results, in particular how the core concept of misunderstandings can lead to new meanings and results.

Finally, in “Worldmaking – Knowing through Performing”, Barbara Luneburg presents a well-written essay that approaches artistic research from the integrated perspectives of the theorist-artist. It begins as a general pamphlet about artistic research, providing a detailed formula for solid artistic research, including looking into best practices which ‘can guard against possible epistemic blind spots’ (p. 189), both inside and outside the artist’s attention.

The second half of the essay drives to the heart of the book’s goal to examine ‘knowing in performing’. Luneburg treats three different artistic research projects that she herself has instigated or participated in: an ethnographic approach to developing a performative interpretation, an interactive game/art music performance and further a project where the notion of authorship between performer and composer is explored. In all three projects her approach takes on more dimensions than just interpretation, leading to either highly personalized signatures or newly emerged topics. I particularly liked how she connects researchers not only to their art, but also to questions of humanity, as inspired by Arnie Cox’s Principles of Mimetic Hypothesis: one of the reasons for art is so that the observer can attempt to identify with the performer, thus learning about themselves in the experience.

This concept and many more presented in these writings prove enlightening to current themes in artistic research in music and the performing arts. Who is the book for? Artists, artistic researchers, students and professionals, institutional policymakers interested in the political and artistic value of practice-based research, and those who would like to learn more about the deep conversations and reflections taking place among highly experienced experts in artistic research.

Highly recommended!

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Ned McGowan

nedmcgowan@gmail.com

Footnotes

  1. 1 Borgdorff, Henk. The Conflict of the Faculties: Perspectives on Artistic Research and Academia. Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2012.