At the beginning of this project, in 2006, I wrote what’s generally called a ‘working paper’ (now part of various thesis chapters) about social science and art methods to think about some of the themes that would become more prominent in the project, which used art-practice inspired methods. For the project, as well out of general curiosity, I have been going to a variety of art-science events, at which I keep finding the same themes appearing, not necessarily in the presentations themselves, but in the post-talk discussions. These discussions occasionally surprise through their condensation of these themes and the ferocity of some of the exchanges (when I brought some artist friends from a different field, they appeared rather shocked). Contrary to what the recent influx of art/science literature wants to have us believe, it feels like the major debates in this burgeoning field are not taking place between artists/non-science academia on side, and science on the other, but between and amongst artists and non-science academia. Non-science academia, in this case, includes arts, humanities and the social sciences. A known minefield is the naming of the work that is alternately called art-science, art, sci-art, art-science encounters, which I might dare to comment on in a follow-up post.
In this post, I would like to draw attention to a debate that, through artist/social scientist hybridity and my involvement with so-called ‘creative research methods’, I have a particular interest in. The last event I went to, ‘Kryolab’ (facilitated by UCL’s Tesla team), conveniently delivered most of the contentious issues in one post-talk extravaganza. What are the issues? They could be expressed in the format ‘art vs. research’ or, to put it into more familiar terms: what does an artist do?
One position seems to be that the arts ‘lack definition’ and method. Popular questions from this position are:
‘What is your research question?’
‘What is your contribution to knowledge?’
‘What is your epistemology?’ (no worries, if you don’t know that word, it took quite a few people by surprise at the event in question)
The first two questions are normally asked of anyone claiming to do university research (science and non-science), the third question appears to be more of a non-science academia issue. But what about applying them to art? Rather than this being just a general arts issue, it seems to me that the artist crossing into the space of science is particularly held accountable with these sorts of questions.
Needless to say, the above position attracts a lot of critique, not necessarily, as some people claim, from ‘practitioners’ (a word that is used in increasingly interesting ways), but from, if that separation can be made at all, academics or other sorts of critics. This critique is often characterised by a desire to make advocates of this particular form of artistic research rigour reconsider the question ‘what is research?’
Positions tend to lie mostly between these two lines of argumentations:
Yes, we do research. We do it in different, but related ways, following a goal, a question, coming to conclusions. Our affective working with materials is part of the process of discovery of new knowledge. Sometimes it is added that this knowledge is co-shaped by the materials themselves which, in artistic research, is more openly acknowledged.
The second position is more openly provocative: no, we don’t do research, we do art. Art makes its contribution precisely through not being research. We play, transform, experiment, bring together new things outside and beyond the limits of academic research.
As many artists are also keen to point out, the kind of research questions academia is allowed to ask is frequently determined by the conditions attached to grant money or considerations regarding RAE ratings – and not as purely intellectually motivated as it comes across. Of course, artists are accused of a similar thing – that they often have to accept work because of their ‘precarious financial standing’ as it is described in the article ‘The logics of interdisciplinarity’ from the Interdisciplinarity and Society project.
As a hybrid artist/social scientist I am interested in these tensions. This interest is not motivated, as the phrase ‘interest in tensions’ might indicate, by a form of intellectual disaster tourism, but by a curiosity about where these debates might lead… or whether the discussants decide that these questions cannot – or should not – be answered. For my part, I am more and more drawn towards the questions our interactions with materials and the increasingly indeterminable human-material boundaries bring to the surface. These kinds of questions – about materiality, affect, engagement – seem to appear particularly in the kinds of things recent art-science work is trying to tackle. The questions ‘what is art-research?’ or ‘what makes art different from research?’ and their references to the different materialities of research, could be interpreted as one further example of our tentative probing around our, as Karen Barad would put it, ‘intra-relationship’ with matter.
For people grappling with similar or related issues, there have been a few projects and articles that have addressed this theme. Unfortunately, some of them have been taken off the web since 2006, so I will just give a few functioning links I have mentioned during conversations. The ones that can be accessed without having to go through special channels are:
Landing – eight collaborative projects between artists and geographers – which features some useful essays in the bottom left hand corner
Other examples require access to libraries or research networks:
Recent examples are Jane Bennett’s The Enchantment of Modern Life’, Barbara Maria Stafford’s ‘Good Looking’ (the page is worth visiting for the funky design alone), Cornelia Hesse-Honegger’s essays in ‘Heteroptera’, Joseph Beuys’ and Volker Harlan’s conversations on What is art?, Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, Deleuze & Guattari’s What is philosophy? and Michel Serres’ The Five Senses (Steven Connor’s talk is the closest there is to a preview). Also, there is a useful article called ‘Researcher as Artist/Artist as Researcher’ by Susan Finley and J. Gary Knowles (requires special access) which provides thoughts on the above named issues.
Feel free to post thoughts or links to alternative publications.