Current Concerns in Artistic Research

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

From Amy Balkin’s Public Smog project, the long-term ambition of which is to have the earth’s atmosphere listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site, to the legal testimonies of Forensic Architecture,  artist-researchers are creating work that no longer merely formulates problems, serves as a provocation or publicises its concerns but instead seeks to actively submit evidence, build a case, propose an alternative or challenge an existing power structure.


Examples such as these seem to me to move beyond what Tom Holert identifies as the demand “voiced in various sections of public culture” that artists “work on appropriate, adequate and timely responses to historical events, political change, social crises, or environmental catastrophes”. Conversely, the demands made by these practices refute the artists position as simply a ‘respondent’ to their geopolitical context, invoking in its place a role in which the work of art serves to actually alter that context.


Peter Sonderen has said that “artistic research actualises what it wants to show, it makes its knowledge tangible”, but in works like these there remain emphatic aspirations that are not realised, and that are often considered unrealisable, or perhaps even unrealistic.

It is then somewhat ironic that artist, activist and occasional curator Paolo Cirio used the title Evidentiary Realism for a group show encapsulating the work of artist-researchers who investigate, document and “examine the underpinning economic, political, legal, linguistic, and cultural structures that impact society at large”. Balkin and Weizman were both included in the 2018 exhibition alongside work by Suzanne Treister who exhibited these print-outs of documents from the Edward Snowden files, defaced or redacted with doodles that appropriated the graphic content of the original slides to partially obscure the leaks – and Ingrid Burrington whose lenticular prints overlaid before and after satellite images of locations in which major data centres had been built, evidencing the physical scale and environmental impact of the data storage that we have all come to rely so heavily upon. Alongside these contemporary examples were what might be thought of as historical precedents for such research-based evidential practices, exemplified by the work of Hans Haake, Mark Lombardi or Harun Farocki.

The controversy surrounding Cirio’s own most recent project Capture, which was censored prior to the opening of the exhibition Panorama 22 in France, exposes the difficulties of producing work on the boundary between art and politics. The work consists of a collection of widely available press and social media images of the faces of French riot police officers, processed by facial recognition software and then pasted both on the interior walls of the gallery and exterior walls throughout the city. The project is intended to highlight the danger to privacy represented by facial recognition, and is accompanied by a provocative online platform that proposes to crowd-source the officers’ identities. Cirio adopts the now familiar strategy of inverting the gaze of such technologies back upon the authorities who usually wield them.


The controversy surrounding the work and its subsequent censorship highlights the fact that when the research questions posed by artists raise implications beyond their own discipline, the consequences can also extend beyond the control of cultural institutions. In this case it is too soon to know whether the outrage and demands by the French Interior Minister to withdraw the work from the show will eventually serve Cirio’s own aim to challenge the increasing use of facial recognition systems, or are merely a demonstration that such inversions of existing power structures will never be tolerated. For the artist stepping beyond their discipline into a political arena, there can also be disciplinary consequences.

Stepping back to consider the relationship between a project such as this and research in other disciplines, I am struck by how often the agenda of research in engineering, technology and the sciences has – intentionally or otherwise – established possibilities, protocols and systems which end up becoming embedded in society at large. The streaming of this talk, and in fact the vast majority of University lectures this semester, are made possible by two research projects from the 1960s, one in the University of Southampton which pioneered the transmission of data in fibre optics and another in Bell Telephone Laboratories which invented a rudimentary image sensor capable of digitally encoding the incident light on its surface. We all carry the outcomes of innumerable research projects in these fields in our pockets and produce critical artworks or write theoretical tracts about their societal impact either too late or from too marginal a position to have an impact on their widespread adoption.


It will doubtless sound like what in business talk is referred to as blue sky thinking – which is also surely not so far from having one’s head in the clouds – to think that an artistic research project could ever realise such widespread impact. But nevertheless one of my questions today about the future of artistic research is: How we might develop mechanisms or means for its knowledge and understanding to be put into action, for the problems which it formulates to become part of our shared social discourse?


Another question that I believe remains unresolved is how exactly to make use of the position of artistic research within the academy or University. Now that it has become institutionally accepted that artistic projects can constitute research might it be possible to leverage this privilege into some actual influence? And if one of the strengths of artistic research lies in its ability to formulate problems outside of itself – then might it be possible to cluster around those problems a transdisciplinary team of researchers, practitioners or experimentalists who between them have the expertise, facilities and resources to adequately address those problems.

Interdisciplinarity itself is also certainly rife with the familiar difficulties brought about by collaborations in general and the conflicting interests and frames of reference that arise when people from different backgrounds work together. This has been highlighted by a current artistic research project at Central Saint Martins in London. Manifest Data Lab is a transdisciplinary research group “employing climate data within critical arts settings”. The project aims to provide a visual imaginary of climate change that is “capable of accounting for how the planet and its climate functions as a set of connected material, social and cultural relations within which we are implicated”.

The first in a series of slides mapping the problematics of art, data and climate states: “artists illustrating science rather than imaginative transformations of climate knowledge” highlighting a particularly intransigent issue that was also identified by Hans Jorg Rheinberger, almost a decade ago. As he puts it art science collaborations have often been “nurtured on the part of sciences, mainly in the name of renewing understandings of science”. Indeed in my own experience of such collaborations scientists often seem naïve of – or surprised by – the ability of the arts to formulate and address many of the same questions that inform the ethics and ambitions of their own discipline.


The expectation that hiring an artist-in-residence will increase public engagement with – or comprehension of – your scientific research outcomes seems exemplified by a recent call from the Sinfonia research project at the Center for Biosustainability of the Technical University of Denmark. Their specification that a musician or composer is “especially welcome” to apply conveniently aligns with the project’s youtube explainer which relies heavily on musical metaphors of cellular harmony to argue the benefits of their synthetic biological methodology.

To break out of this pattern it might be necessary to develop the current model of the artist-in-residence in which an individual artist is embedded in a discipline or organisation to produce work responsive to that context. Within this model there exists a structural imbalance between the organisation – which is always in the role of the host and sometimes also that of the funder or the commissioner, and the artist, who is bound by the etiquette of the guest, and usually also grateful for the opportunity, expenses or fee, and may also be isolated, immersed in a practice or disciplinary culture which is alien to them.


A precedent from before the time of artistic research is perhaps instructive here. The Artist Placement Group, conceived and founded by Barbara Steveni in 1965 arranged long-term placements for artists in various industries and government departments in an explicit attempt to “shift the function of art towards decision making”. Its ground-breaking activities throughout the 1970s are often cited as establishing the model of the artist-in-residence that is now so familiar to us. As John Walker wrote in 1972 “the Artist Placement Group’s position was one of realism: in the present society it is decision-making that counts, and therefore the greatest hope for change resides in the attempt to influence decision-makers”. This hope is, I believe, is the same as that which motivated Amy Balkin to send 90,000 signed postcards to Germany’s Minister for the Environment in 2012. And it is the same hope which motivates the transdisciplinary team of researchers that make up Forensic Architecture to prepare meticulous reports into state-sanctioned atrocities.


Perhaps the model of the solitary artist-in-residence – striving to articulate problems in other disciplines of which they have little expertise, while surrounded by experts – is not one capable of delivering this influence. This is not intended to discredit the impressive legacy of APG’s pioneering work, but to say that perhaps we need to look to other models of transdisciplinary collaboration if the research agenda of the arts is to be taken seriously beyond it’s own boundaries.


How else then might we think of the interaction between disciplines? While one obvious alternative would be to formulate research agendas in a transdisciplinary context in the first place, I would like to suggest that perhaps a model of “co-inquiry” articulated by curator Nicola Triscott, founder of the Arts Catalyst and now director of FACT Liverpool might be more fruitful. According to Triscott, this model “enables different types of inquiry to work side-by-side, to cooperate rather than demanding collaboration which requires a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem”.


The desire of artistic research to have an impact on decision-making brings us back again to the evidential role played by some contemporary practices, because – as Susan Schuppli has said – “the notion of evidence has become crucial under the conditions of climate change and global warming, because one requires evidence in order to make a political claim and to influence environmental policy or political decision-making”. Schuppli’s practice, and writing, is to my mind particularly pertinent here, because in reframing the legal-linguistic term “material witness” in relation to artistic research, and in doing so she locates the evidential as a capacity of the material.


For Schuppli “Materials record, capture and carry traces of external events, and can be scrutinised and unfolded to produce some kind of history, sometimes even a counter narrative”. In her own practice this capacity is demonstrated most recently through her project Learning from Ice in which she has been working with Ice Core scientists who use the tiny bubbles of air trapped in an ice core to map the historic changes in the quantities of atmospheric carbon dioxide, so in this example as Schuppli says “the thing itself is captured by the materials”. Ice then carries an irrefutable testimony in its very materiality, one which connects to theoretical debates in artistic circles around indexicality and material truths.

But examples such as this might also be seen by some artists as placing demands upon artistic research that move the field beyond its traditional concerns — or even imply that it is only through meeting this requirement for evidence which Schuppli cites that artists can contribute to such debates. As it is certainly not my intention to imply that the only way in which artists can make an epistemic contribution is through this sort of documentary practice. I would like to close by briefly discussing a work which – to my mind – equally contributes to ecological debates, but through a less earnest and more speculative means.


In their collaborative project Asunder the conception shared by Tega Brain, Julian Oliver and Bengt Sjölen is of network technologies being diverted from their current disturbingly authoritarian, extractive and accumulative practices to face the environmental challenges of a changing climate. At the heart of their installation for transmediale 2019, a supercomputer analysed satellite, climate and geological data to generate geoengineering plans for various terrestrial regions before simulating these possible futures. On the one hand the project seems to propose a viable technological solution to repairing environmental damage by tasking an algorithmic intelligence trained on our communal knowledge of climatology.

But in the absurdity of some of the solutions generated – including for example the straightening of coastlines and re-routing of rivers – it also demonstrates a healthy dose of scepticism about what the reality of such a system could entail. The project poses a plausible scenario in which artificial intelligence is used to inform environmental planning while simultaneously pointing to its likely pitfalls.


In extrapolating from current trends in machine intelligence and applying them to planetary problems, the artists pre-empt a speculative science, but also embed its critique within its prototype. It seems to me that this capacity to poke fun at one’s own creations, to problematise solutions while you are working on them will be indispensable if we are to envision and implement new relationships between biosphere and technosphere. And that artists should always be part of those conversations.

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