We don’t do meetings on artistic research as such anymore

February 23, 2015
Author Inga Lāce
Published in Interview from Latvia

The discussion about research has entered the field of art during the last two decades evidently and convincingly. Nevertheless there are many misunderstandings related to the term artistic research, its distinction from research in other fields of science and humanities, its methodology and results, as well as its boundaries and role in the process of creation of an artwork. Discussions are continuing on whether there should be a canon of key examples established that would set a clearer path for the development of the terrain of artistic research, however, a question of a canon would be intrinsically opposing the experimental nature of this artistic practice as such.

There are several sides from which it is possible to enter the debate about artistic research. A bureaucratic or institutional discussion focusses on how can we get art recognized and funded through naming it research and whether or not institutions like universities or art centres provide the necessary conditions for its development. There is also a philosophical debate that delves into the question of what does research in art mean, is it a special way of thinking and does this thinking produce a special kind of knowledge and how does it do it. There is also an artistic side of the debate that is concerned with questions like – what the artistic research should be (look) like, is it a research or a process that is displayed or is it the actual work – a result.((Floris Solleveld. A Paradigm for what? Krisis, Journal for contemporary philosophy. 2012, Issue 2)) All these sides of the discussion have been entangled and often mixed up creating an even bigger confusion about what artistic research entails. Moreover, as an outcome of the apparent exhaustion of the discussion and the current tendency of instrumentalization of the field of artistic research within both the academia and art institutions new terms are being created to replace the artistic research with experimental aesthetics or alike suggesting there is a turning point in the discussion. It is still questionable though whether a turning in the theoretical discussion actually follows the changes within the process of artistic production and thus helps to define a certain shift or whether it creates the shift itself regardless any changes in the artistic field.

Meanwhile the art landscape in the Baltic region seems to be slowly shaken by the artistic research debate, mostly through certain individual artistic practices. But there are also initiatives in development like the Nida Doctoral School which is a joint non-degree doctoral program organized in collaboration between Nida Art Colony of Vilnius Academy of Arts and Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture. Acting within the framework of the artistic research the program will merge international doctoral courses and residencies for art, art history, design, media and architecture. The RIXC Center for New Media Culture in Riga has been fostering the discussion about the research in art for the last years through their projects that take place on the intersection of art, science and emerging technologies addressing these issues through the annual festival “Art+Communication”, exhibitions, as well as publishing of Acoustic Space journal series. It is true that at least in Latvia where the Art Academy is still strictly divided in departments by media, the practice of research in art enters mostly through the department of Visual Communication that used to be dedicated to the new media arts.

I invited Henk Slager, a Dean and a professor of Research at the Utrecht Graduate School of Visual Art and Design (MaHKU) to discuss questions around artistic research. He has been actively involved in the discussion about it since its beginnings in the Netherlands and internationally. He is carefully observing and thinking along the processes in art since he divides his time between the academia and the art world, thus having an overview of both environments developing, and having a possibility to look closely at the artists’ practices both through being a professor in the university, as well as curating exhibitions. I decided to start the conversation with a look back at how artistic research entered the art landscape and question its territory through areas of connections and frictions between the artistic research and other research fields and art practices, as well as its consequences. I was also particularly interested in how institutional context has evolved around it and how important it is for the practice to exist. I am always the most curious when the prospects or concerns over the future of a certain topic emerge in the conversation which also happened this time.

As a practice that strives to discover what is not yet known artistic research was already present throughout the 20th century, starting from the movements like Constructivism, Conceptualism or Feminist practices. However, how to explain the recent debate and focus on the artistic research?

It is a happy coincidence that a strong focus on contextual perspectives currently dominates the topical art world, which quite smoothly enabled the debate on artistic research. On the other hand, in art education we experience for more than a decade the implementation of the Bologna process. Before that art schools could independently develop their own programs, but now they have to format themselves according to European laws: they have to follow the Bachelor, Master and PhD structure. Subsequently, the artistic research debate entered the university structure that has over time as well put a lot of efforts on instrumentalizing or at least on institutionalizing research programs. Of course, the notion of artistic research already existed before this institutional discussion. However, nowadays these two realms have come strategically together and that is why the notion of artistic research has appeared so dominant on the agenda. But this can change in the near future. Perhaps artistic research, as we know it right now, might even disappear.

Why do you think it might disappear?

I often compare this attention for artistic research with what happened to new media art in the 1990s. At that time there was a strong focus on media art and special institutions were being created. A decade later, however, people realized media art had just become part of the general art scene and there wasn’t any necessity of having separate institutions. The same will presumably happen to artistic research; it has already become part of the general art discussion. A side-effect from the discussion on the artistic research is also that nowadays most of the artists are aware of the fact that they have to talk about their work. When I went to studios fifteen years ago, most artists would say: this is my work, please have a look at it. It speaks for itself. Moreover, the current focus on discursive practices such as research and knowledge production makes it easier for artists to develop mutually inspiring connections with other fields of research. Strategic alliances become possible. Such connectivity is very necessary, as art, more than ever before, is aware of the fact that it has to address and discuss urgent matters.

Artistic research discussion is also connected to the autonomy of art. Artworks that bring forward voluminous researches usually need additional explanations, annotations. What is your position towards that?

A good artwork has a certain retinal quality, catching the attention and being interesting for a broader audience. Besides that it has an intellectual quality: it can satisfy the group of professionals by bringing in perspectives on a more theoretical, discursive level. The Berlin Biennale 2014 offered strong examples, as many of the displayed works had these two levels. For example, the work of Irene Kopelman had a wonderful presentation that could be perceived without reading; however, the work also participated strongly in the current discussion of offering critical perspectives on the academization of – artistic – knowledge production. There is at this moment a risk of building “Artistic Research Institutes”, where people only deal with a set of academic values, without being aware of the audience. Some artists simply go into the direction of making it hard-core academic and then it becomes a shelter for mediocre practices that focus on all kinds of academic rituals. This development will strongly contribute to an unavoidable collapse of artistic research.

There is not such a big difference between the research in science and artistic research if the purpose of the research is to discover something that is not yet known not only to the person doing the research, but in general terms((I connect the nature of the research here with the notion of the „not-yet-known-knowledge” introduced by Irit Rogoff when she discusses the art academies and whether their environment allows students to explore something that they don’t  yet know they want to know http://summit.kein.org/node/191)). Not all the scientists actually do research as they suppose to, as well as not all the artists are doing artistic research. Where is then the difference between a general artistic practice and artistic research?

Artistic research is something that happens within an institutional framework. A lot of artists are doing all kind of tests, probes and inquiries, but research is more related to huge, multifaceted projects and it is something that you have to contextualize, you have to be able to communicate about it in a coherent way, and you have to be able to accept peer-review in critical discussions. Discussion and constructive critique are significant parts of the whole research process. I am actually not such a big fan of the term artistic research, because “artistic” sounds a bit cute and not as a fully accepted form of research. Of course, we started with artistic research or art research when the discussion began ten years ago, but now I would prefer to just call it research.

Why do you think there is a necessity of institutional context at all for artistic research to be pursued?

This institutional context is important for organizing an environment of peer-review and critical feedback. This is something you won’t find outside institutional spaces. But of course these spaces, like the art academy, have to present themselves as Temporary Autonomous Zones: organized free spaces where long term research projects can be developed, discussed and realized. Artistic research can be conceived as the – institutional – consciousness of these spaces. Nowadays, especially after the “educational turn”, we are facing an institutional landscape that could be characterized as an “expanded academy”. Other institutional spaces, like for example residency programs, or small-scale art institutions, offer a similar institutional environment for critical reflection. In that sense institutions such as for example BAK (Utrecht) and PRAXES (Berlin) can be seen as other forms of research environments that offer modes of critical feedback and knowledge production.

What do you teach the students when you teach artistic research?

I am responsible for an MA program at MaHKU that has a very strong focus on contextualizing one’s own artistic practice. There is also a clear focus on how to present work, which is why curating or curatorial knowledge is a significant element of this program. I am a philosopher, not an artistic researcher, so I can only deliver critical tools or perspectives that can enable artists to work on artistic research projects and contextualizing their work. There is actually not a very huge gap between critical studies and artistic research. It is important to be aware of the fact that for a long time there was no theory in the art universities. When this debate around research came about, it manifested itself most of all as a kind of emancipation: artists became aware of the necessity to talk about their works. Moreover, this emancipatory turn also made artists realize that they do not have to be dependent of others to disseminate their artistic thoughts: they themselves are able to interpret and discuss the work (the former role of art critics), and they themselves are able to develop the most adequate models of presenting the work (the former role of curators).

Is there a friction between the traditional universities and the art schools within the artistic research discussion?

In the Netherlands we have to deal with a split between universities and polytechnics, and art schools are still considered to be part of the polytechnics. Therefore, at art schools we are only allowed to award professional BA and MA degrees. For a research degree (like the PhD) we need to move to a traditional university where we need to negotiate the terms. We might as well end up having a requirement of a 200 pages text as in other disciplines of humanities, for example, art history, while there is no – or very less – space for assessing the artistic work. The system in Finland is much better, because here art schools – as independent universities – are allowed to develop their own PhDs. Could you imagine if other fields like medicine would have to go through another discipline to get validated. It would be great if we could adopt this Finnish model, and experiment with new models for doctoral research.

In “The Pleasure of Research” you mention in reference to Bifo that “research should not be subjected to any restraining criterion of functionality, because its very function is to explore solutions that, although dysfunctional in the present paradigm, may reveal new paradigmatic landscapes. That is the role of research, especially when we are facing conundrums that seem unresolvable within the capitalist paradigm”.((The Pleasure of Research, a book written by Henk Slager, will be published this spring.)) How do you see the relation with the unexpected in the process of artistic research?

For artistic research processes there are no established methods available, which makes it different from other fields like art history and sociology. Artists start from their own, experimental, practice. Through that process they are allowed to connect to existing methods that they experience as interesting or constructive, but they should never baboon other scientific disciplines. They have to develop their own trajectory again and again, and for that reason I do think that there is always chance and unexpectedness involved in artistic research, more than in other, already established, disciplines. At this moment we do not have a very clear set of examples of successful artistic research. Of course, this is something that we are discussing now, whether it is necessary to have a canon of some good examples, like the keystones in the field. But such canon could make the field more disciplinary, whereas at the moment, without such a canon, it is still possible to do a lot of things without the constraints of a disciplinary – or disciplining – perspective.

Naming some practices artistic research excludes the other ones. Do you feel that there is still enough space left for them?

I think that it’s not so black and white. Research will also catalyse other practices. As I described previously with the example of the introduction of new media in the 1990s, which made artists – even while they continued as painters – think in a different, perhaps remediated, way about their (painterly) practice. Something similar will happen as a consequence of the current research paradigm. Of course, we have had a very strong painterly tradition in the Netherlands and as I mentioned earlier, ten years ago – when we started the MaHKU program – theory didn’t really exist in the art school. But nowadays artists like for example Falke Pisano, Nicoline van Harskamp and Jonas Staal are offered such a strong and visible platform because of the current focus on artistic research. But this doesn’t mean that as a consequence other artistic approaches to art are excluded. The art field is by nature very fragmented and there will always remain different ways of how to approach the discussion.

You mentioned earlier that artistic research both as a term and as a method or field of working might as well disappear. What will happen next?

I did a first suggestion with the publication “Experimental Aesthetics”. Although I knew on beforehand that the term experimental aesthetics will never replace artistic research, I wanted to demonstrate that it is possible to use different words for the same practice. I wanted to go back to the understanding of the experimental – the experimentality – that is very important in and for doing research. That is why I decided to connect the terms experimental and aesthetics. Of course aesthetics refers to cognitive processes of contextualizing. But simultaneously, it always has to start form an experimental trajectory. With this, experimental aesthetics, I wanted to say farewell to the – sometimes boring — ontological discussions of the last ten years. We have to stop with symposiums and discussions about “What is Artistic Research”. It is time to focus on topics and themes that play a significant role in a topical artistic research practice, and ask ourselves: What does it mean to articulate and recontextualize urgent topics from an artistic research perspective?

You have mentioned in “The Pleasure of Research” that spaces for artistic research are shrinking within the art schools. You also mention PhDs as the only autonomous zone left for research. How do you see the future development of the situation?

When I discuss the PhDs within the art schools I would like to say that it functions as the consciousness of the academy. It should keep an experimental attitude alive, and never forget what the art school is intrinsically about. It is an institutional free zone. If research will become too much instrumentalized, artists will move to other potentialities and find novel possibilities to translate or reinvent this temporary autonomous consciousness.


Henk Slager is a Dean and a professor of Research at the MaHKU, he also teaches Artistic Research in the PhD program in the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts. In 2006, Henk Slager initiated – together with Jan Kaila and Gertrud Sandqvist – the European Artistic Research Network (EARN). He has recently edited the “Experimental Aesthetics” (2015) publication proposing to look back at the experimental nature of research to “save” it from the current instrumentalization within both the academia, as well as the art world. “The Pleasure of Research” by Henk Slager will be published in spring 2015. Slager has curated a number of exhibitions that deal with the questions thriving around research and education.