Understandings of artistic research

Much has been written on artistic research and its place within the academic context. In an attempt to contribute to this debate and answer the questions proposed, I have chosen to write about it from my own experience as an artist working with a research-based art practice for over ten years and having completed a practice-based PhD at Gothenburg University in 2009. From my perspective, doing artistic research is similar to conducting any investigation in which one makes selected decisions to reach a desired result. In the arts, the desired result is unlikely to be predicated on finding a solution to a predetermined query. Rather, it is to embrace an experimental approach in which the unexpected is to be encouraged.

In my considerations on artistic research I have chosen to give little credence to debates surrounding intrinsic differences and refer to research as a transferable activity equally applicable to all academic disciplines including the arts. For me personally, as someone already navigating a multicultural and multi-linguistic zone on a daily basis through my Icelandic native language, my adopted language English, and the Swedish of my professional environment, the debate concerning the inherent meaning of the word “research” is revealed as being too much about semiotics. As such, it all too often sidelines itself by this process and serves as a distraction from what is really important for us here, that is the research that happens to be conducted in the arts. In matters of definition it is always useful to remember that the starting point must be an acknowledgement that “research” is just a word, like most others an academic exercise in the place-marking of meaning (semiotic) and necessarily flawed in its acceptance as such of the inherent limitations that come with textual language and its gendered and colonial history.

Being part of an academic artistic research program and thus working within an institutional framework should not require us to limit or reduce anything of the artistic processes. One could consider it as yet another framework/structure that artists must or might choose to negotiate in the process of transition from studio to public exposition. Contemporary artists are used to engaging with different contexts and the framework that each will require or allow. In many cases these are politically charged informing and impacting constructively upon the development and the final readings of the work. The same applies within an academic context, but it will be the choice of the artist concerned to situate his/her ideas within that framework. Further nuance is applied in the degree of visibility or concealment of such factors within the presented work. The idea that the academic context will lead to novel forms of perception or consciousness is an imponderable in general terms. It is dependent on the artwork and the form that such engagement with context takes. Following on from this, being part of a PhD program should not result in a method being applied on top of an art practice, the method should already be there inherent within/ intrinsic to the artwork/practice. Participating in courses and discourse as part of the program may help to identify, locate and fine-tune an artistic method.

From my perspective there is no doubt that serious research goes on within the arts and that there is an immense value in artistic research to non-human and human alike. Perhaps the time has come to allow artists to get on with their research without their having constantly to account for it as a principle? Every new field or discipline needs space to be, in order for it to develop, in order for it to connect and find the position from which to speak. Although the arts have been awarded this space within academia, possibly for reasons more to do with institutional economics and politics than the desires for or belief in the possibility of providing alternative approaches to the production of knowledge, because of continuing, intrinsic, perceptual tensions it has not been able to settle in its place. Perhaps this is not surprising, considering the critical nature of art and its need to challenge conventions and institutions, including those that may sometimes appear to host an art practice or activity. Debates on its place within academia have, for some, been unsettling as they have found themselves in a highly textual environment in which they are by default, rendered voiceless.

Artist and researcher

I position my own work as collaborative, relational, and research- based. In the late 1990s, I made a conscious decision to change my practice and find ways of making the processes of development more part of the artwork itself. At the time I was looking for a way to make the artistic process a learning process, which would feed my own needs for making sense of things. I wanted to enter into or interfere in the process of art making so I took control over and responsibility for the production. I felt that in this way I was making a step to a more sustainable practice in that I was no longer treating my resource as indistinguishable from my own personal experience. Despite taking control in this way, I still rely heavily on intuition and I welcome unexpected discoveries during the process of researching and making, but as there is transparency in the concept of enquiry these (intuition and discovery) allow for an expansion in my own production of knowledge. In the processes of exhibiting my artwork and/or research, the acquisition of knowledge/discovery is moved from the personal to the public in the context of a wider enquiry. I mentioned before that I define my practice as ‘’relational” and it is in these networks of relations that a space is created for a production of knowledge existing outside of the self. This I have seen happening when my art projects have instigated change and/or been a catalyst for new discoveries within the institutions that I have worked with. What happens to the production of knowledge when the artwork engages or is engaged with by a member of the audience is hard to measure. However, in acknowledgement of what I see as an unbroken line between development and effect, I involve different “audiences” at every stage of development and exposition. During exhibitions, for instance, I strive to make an instrument of the work in order to prompt public discourse during gallery seminars or mini conferences.

Related concepts and terminologies Through our art projects we (Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson) explore specific relations and unusual circumstances, be it “natural” or “cultural”, and how these continually generate new hybrids and material conditions in turn leading to new hybrid assemblages and resonance. In this respect, by giving preferential treatment to the particular and even possibly what might be deemed deviant or aberrant, we fly in the face of the scientific imperative towards the generic, typical and reliable. The findings of such research-based art practice has been proven to further a new shift in perspectives beyond art and into other models of practice (in our case e.g. museology, animal studies, human geography) granted by the very methodologies and processes of artistic development specific to it. Such a practice as we maintain has the additional potential to contribute to an understanding of how non-linguistic beings might navigate and construct their knowledge of the world and in turn bringing such sensibility in order to challenge and critique our unthinking dependency on words and our other representations. Bryndis Snæbjörnsdóttir