‘Do that thing that you do’ – More on art & research… and exhibitions

Just a quick update to the post I wrote a few weeks back on art science research. Yesterday, I went to a conference at the Tate Britain (thanks to Kellie again for telling me about it) which explored the relationship between research and exhibitions. In the previous post I talked about two quite polarised positions among artists about describing the process of art-making in relation to research (yes it’s research/ no, it’s not research, it’s going beyond research, because it’s art). During the Tate Britain conference, there was an interesting comment by Brian Dillon (UK editor of Cabinet magazine) about the relationship between artists and researchers. He described this relationship as a form of envy: the academic wants to be artistic and playful, the artist wants to be rigorous and not be consigned to the ‘realm of imagination’. I think there is quite a lot of truth in that, although I wouldn’t necessarily call it envy – mutual admiration, perhaps? Or a mix of the two, maybe…

Dillon also pointed to the potential difficulties in making the approaches of both professions more fluid. He found that there is a certain need from outsiders to draw on artists/academic for their archetypal qualities. As Dillon phrased it: artists and academics are always asked to ‘do that thing that you do’.

In an earlier session, artist David Cotterrell also drew attention to the problems that artists encounter when ‘doing the thing they do’, particularly with regard to their ‘research methodology’. An example he gave are the uneven levels of (institutional) recognition of different artistic approaches to research:  whereas research-led practice is widely advocated, the (in a sense more archetypal) practice-led research continues to struggle for recognition.

Another theme I picked up on through my ‘thesis googles’ was the ways in which exhibitions act as engagement platforms for a particular topic for both researchers and audiences. Over the course of the conference, exhibitions were portrayed as knowledge transfer to publics (David Solkin), pit stops and moments in a research process (Susan Pui San Lok), experiments that not only researchers but audiences are part of (Bruno Latour, Angus Carlyle, Peter Ride), as a means to broaden the perception of a particular topic (Felix Driver) and as an opportunity for audiences and other researchers to carry on the research presented in the exhibition (Driver).

An different take, compared to these fairly positive functions of an exhibitions, was added in the keynote speech by Bruno Latour who described the exhibition as a constraint to research. Unlike many other speakers, he maintained that he did not perceive exhibitions as opportunities to popularise research, the reason being that people have their own ways of engaging with the work: ‘they ignore it, eat their sandwiches, makes all sorts of other connections’ (note: this was perceived as a positive effect by Driver, although he did not explicitly mention the sandwiches…). Hmh, I am not sure ifI personally see such audience interactions as a constraint to my research, but I can understand how not only audience reactions and – as he also mentioned – design constraints limit the ‘transmission’ of research. Not sure if I’ve understood him correctly here… maybe once I’ve put my own ‘research exhibition’ together (I’m putting ‘research exhibition’ in inverted commas – as you may have guessed, the term ‘research exhibition’ was/is a highly contested term).

Latour also talked about a few other experiences with exhibition audiences. The point that was taken up most intensely by the audience in the Q & A as well as foyer discussions (as far as I could tell) was the fact that his exhibitions did not attract many visitors. Both exhibitions both exhibitions he initiated (‘Iconoclash’ and ‘Making Things Public’) were deemed failures – mostly, it seemed, by Latour himself. Latour was very upfront about this and went into quite a bit of detail about what failed in his opinion. He also admitted that he relied upon curators to know their audiences, because he was ‘just an academic’. The lack of ‘publics’ in his exhibitions, however, was not seen as a  problem in a one-dimensional way. The sentiment reminded me of a conversation I had with Simeon Coxe from Silver Apples. Coxe pointed out that when the band first performed in the 60s, no one wanted to hear them. But in the 90s, people started to understand and appreciate their sound, and, most significantly, started to influence many other musicians. It appeared to me – and other people in the room – that some experimental exhibitions may be subject to a similar phenomenon: they have effects which are not measurable in visitor numbers. They may influence other exhibitions (as Latour’s exhibitions have, as he noted) or ‘take on a life of their own’ – not necessarily for the duration of the exhibition, but afterwards e.g. through catalogues, articles, blog posts. A concern of many artists and curators was that such exhibitions are not allowed to take place any more, because of a reliance on visitor numbers as an indicator of success. In Latour’s case, the exhibition lacked the pressure to draw high visitor numbers, because a generous budget was at his disposal, but in many other cases, the verdict will just be that ‘it’s too high risk’ or that has no discernible lasting impact. One audience member who advocated the right of exhibitions to not have wide-spread appeal joked that this attitude could be mistaken as an unwillingness to admit failure to engage audiences.

Failure to engage audiences, especially long-term, was another difficult issue that was discussed – again, with many open endings. An argumentation I can empathise with came up in a very inspiring presentation by John Byrne (Liverpool John Moorese University) and Alistair Hudson from Grizedale Arts, stated that although he was sympathetic to the scholarly, the careful, the long-term, he was primarily interested in the quick, the spontaneous, the ‘frayed edges’. Such ‘instant’ or even clumsy manifestations of creativity (Byrne mentioned his experiences with blogging about Ruskin as a process of sharing a discovery), he emphasised, also have a value, something which was affirmed by Angus Carlyle who remarked that a series of short things or seemingly incoherent bursts can turn into a long term trajectory.

Success and failure were fairly strong themes in the conference in general, particularly with regard to concerns about doing exhibitions on academic research badly (that they would have been ‘better as a book’), and it was never resolved what criteria should be applied to measuring impact – or whether ‘impact’ should be measured at all. In this context, the value of academic research talking on publicly displayed ‘physical form’ was debated. Leslie Topp talked about her collaborations with designers for an exhibition at the Wellcome Trust on Madness & Modernity and how this collaboration was (and is) crucial to providing a different kind of experience of the research. A very important point in this respect was made by David Cotterell who warned about the common assumption that people’s experiences will be more profound if something is rendered in ‘material’ form. This assumption is also challenged in the ‘Mutable Matter’ workshops, and, in the near future, I would like to talk more about it on this blog.

One last thing that might be of interested to readers is that Bruno Latour mentioned plans for a third exhibition he intends to, once again, co-curate with Peter Weibel. As far as I gathered, it is going to be on natural philosophy – about bifurcation of nature into primary and secondary qualities (see Whitehead) and how this distinction is contested or collapsed by the current ecological crisis… Sounds to me like they may want some Mutable Matter workshops! ;D


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