I was recently runner-up in applying for a new job. For the interview I was asked to give a presentation on this title, and as I spent some considerable time working on a response I thought I would post the text of the talk here (apologies for length, I was asked to talk for half an hour):
I find it increasingly difficult to separate the most pressing concerns of artistic research from those of society at large. Looking at my current students’ research topics sketches the territory clearly. Among them are students working on and writing about, the microbial health of the oceans, the surveillance of populations by data collection through smart speakers, and the effects of capitalism on the methods, markets and aesthetics of the arts. These same threads of ecological, technological and political critique seem to recur year on year, with ever more urgency. Over the coming decades we face an unprecedented triangulation of crises that will surely require extraordinary levels of co-operation between people of different cultures and disciplines.
Artistic research may not be equipped to provide solutions, but artists continue to engage with and contribute to these debates, to foster dialogue, to visualise possible futures, and to bring that which is obscured to the foreground.
Hopefully, faced with such challenges, we can declare the question of what exactly might or might not constitute artistic research to be irrelevant. I seem to have spent much of my professional life on the fringes of such fruitless semantic debates, for example about exactly where to draw the line between music and sound art. And I think we need to take seriously Hito Steyerl’s warning that such arguments over inclusion and exclusion in any one discipline become in themselves disciplinary. So – (as much as I don’t believe that science has a monopoly on truth) – I’m very happy to refer anyone still interested in drawing lines between disciplines to Karen Barad’s observation that the closer one looks at an edge .. the more it disappears, dissolving into a diffraction pattern, oscillating between dark and light, interior and exterior.
Before considering the current concerns of artistic research I would first like to quickly identify one of its strengths, one that has previously been highlighted by Michael Dieter in his writings on Critical Technical Practice , that is the creation, formation, or articulation of problems. This is of course not the exclusive domain of artistic research. As Dieter reminds us Foucault considered his writing to be ‘an act of thought involving the process of defining a problem’ and surely the work of much critical writing in the humanities today continues that tradition. But artistic research is perhaps unique in working with these problems materially, articulating them through practice and therefore often directly engaging with the very materiality that defines the problem in the first place.
Holding this fondness for realising problems in our heads I would like to propose that one crucial concern for a discipline with such heterogeneous foundations as artistic research, a discipline whose boundaries must necessarily remain flexible, pourous and indistinct is surely how it negotiates its relationship with other disciplines, both within and beyond academia.
Henk Borgdorff’s concept of the ‘boundary work’ continues to prove useful in this regard, because as much as artistic research will always be a located between art and academia it’s knowledge also often inhabits the boundary of another practice, another discipline, another field. If, as Borgdorff has written elsewhere “an important distinction between art practice in itself and artistic research” is that “artistic research seeks to contribute not just to the artistic universe, but to what we know and understand” and that knowledge and understanding is often targeted beyond the boundaries of what he refers to as the ‘artistic universe’. If artistic research is good at framing problems, and asking questions then those problems and questions are often addressed to another sphere beyond the arts. This is perhaps both why researchers outside the arts like to collaborate with artists, and also why others become frustrated by working with artists, because we revel in creation of problems outside of their own discipline.
This concern is not particularly new, the framing of the 2009 Sensuous Knowledge conference at Bergen National Academy of Arts for example included the question: “How can artistic research make a meaningful and relevant contribution outside of itself?”, but it is a question that persists today and, shows no sign of either abating or becoming satisfactorily resolved just yet.
One presumption of the arts that appears to be being actively challenged by creative practitioners from a wide range of backgrounds, is of the ambiguous relationship between the arts and functionality or maybe more accurately – purpose. We are, it seems to me, at a moment in which decreasing numbers of artists are content with the paradigm of ‘raising awareness’ of the issues with which their practice engages, while more and more are producing works that seek to operate actively in cultural spheres beyond their own