In this Network Reflection, I am asking how SAR, as the leading international organisation in the field of artistic research, could better serve the actual need and interests of the versatile community it comprises. The following views are based on my long-term experience as a representative of the member institutions of the society, as well as on my two-year experience of board membership as an individual member. My critique does not concern the way SAR has been led so far. I am rather questioning the sustainability of the principles on which the functioning of the society has been based. As I see it, there is a discrepancy between those principles and the actual developmental needs of the SAR community. I do not suppose that everybody agrees with my views. My aim is rather to outline an alternative logic according to which the society could function and, thereby, raise discussion on the topic.


Advocacy and Administration

To me, SAR has always been primarily a community – one to which I have been belonging, as a researcher and a teacher working in the field of artistic research. Correspondingly, my professional expectations regarding the society have been linked to the developmental goals and how they could be promoted collectively and internationally: how, through the society, could we increase the quality of artistic research, diversify its modes of action, strengthen its prerequisites and, thereby, raise its artistic, academic and international significance? However, the two years I spent on the SAR board revealed to me that the focuses of its action reside elsewhere. I would sort these modes of action into two classes that I call advocacy and administration. Both are inherently linked to the three basic functions defined by the society’s by-laws: the Research Catalogue (RC), the Journal for Artistic Research (JAR) and the annual conference organised by a partner institution. The relationship between the two functions is simple: Administration aims at maintaining what is gained through advocacy. Therefore, in what follows, I will concentrate on the latter.

Advocacy for artistic research, a concept commonly found in board communications, takes place on three levels. First, SAR aims to promote the use of the RC and thereby advance the publication of research in various RC-based online journals. One of these is JAR, which is funded by the society, but has full editorial independence. In its openness, accessibility and technical progressiveness, the RC is an accomplished global digital utopia the existence of which we should be happy about and take pride in. JAR’s recent embrace of global languages has significantly improved the accessibility of the journal. Second, SAR aims to gain new institutional members, especially so-called portal partners. Portal status is based on increased administrative rights to the RC and enables, among other things, the creation of RC-based publications and worksites. The society’s budget is based largely on its membership fees. Its target group for advocacy consists of institutions of higher art education. The possibility of extending the right to portal partnership outside these, that is, among non-artistic institutions, is currently being discussed. The recruitment of portal partners is the primary means for increasing SAR’s budget and its resource-based development. The administration of the growing community, as well as the technical development and maintenance of the RC, requires more resources. Simultaneously, the recruitment of portal members is the most concrete way of promoting academic artistic research. The relatively high annual membership fee is reasonable only if artistic research fits an institution’s profile. 

The third target for advocacy is international science policy. SAR’s aim is to strengthen the status of artistic research and researchers at the level of international research funding and collaboration, especially within the EU. The challenge is to get top-level policymakers and administrative bodies to realise and recognise the academic autonomy, disciplinary credibility and societal significance of artistic research. The target groups are often non-artistic, and the arguments addressed to them must speak a language they understand. It does not suffice to appeal to art’s self-value, excellence or internal development. The Vienna Declaration for Artistic Research, published in 2020 and signed, among others, by the society, provides an example of top-level advocacy and its discursive and argumentative style. Another example can be found in the long-term efforts of the SAR board to reform the Frascati Manual’s guidelines for data collection and criteria for statistics in scientific policymaking, so that artistic research is better recognised. 

In sum, SAR is occupied with many important actions and functions. From the point of view of an independent artist-researcher who, in most cases, works within one of the partnering institutions, the society provides the following possibilities: using the RC, being tutored in RC use, publishing in RC- based journals, spreading information through the society’s announcement (SARA) system for a reduced fee, and participating in their conferences for a reduced fee (possibly with the support of one’s home institution). In a new initiative, SAR has enabled its members to establish autonomous thematic working groups (Special Interest Groups [SIGs]), the functioning of which the society sustains to a certain extent, e.g., by providing the SIGs with online visibility and organising special SIG sessions at conferences. SIGs now also can apply to publish special issues in JAR.

The problem is that, from the point of those who conduct research, SAR appears mainly as a service provider, not as a society.


Community and Development

Listing the current basic functions of SAR in this way, makes it easier to notice what remains outside them. This is what concerns me here. By focusing on advocacy and administration, the society, as a matter of fact, withdraws itself from the responsibility of the international and institutional development of artistic research, leaving this task to agents working in the field. Practically, this leaves artistic researchers at the mercy of inter-institutional competition, and I see this policy as both problematic from the point of view of the SAR community, and risky regarding the future of the society. 

SIGs as self-organisational units based on voluntary participation cannot be charged by complex developmental goals. SAR’s annual conferences might provide an opportunity for carrying such responsibility. However, although this may have been the case in the society’s early stages, in past years, these events have provided very few occasions, or none at all, for scrutinising the organisation’s tasks and challenges. By rule, the meetings of the General Assemblies have left little space or time for a critical reflection. In this respect, the Tilburg Forum this year did not change the game. Currently, the SAR board is the only ‘forum’ where things can properly be negotiated. A need for a more public (virtual?) forum, where the voice of the community could be heard, seems obvious.

What are the developmental goals that the society currently ignores? According to the draft for a SAR strategy and action plan communicated at the general assembly in Tilburg, SAR “aims to pay particular attention to the situation of individual, independent and early career researchers”1. However, this document does not contain actual measures for improving their situation. Instead, it puts lots of emphasis on the measures sustaining the functions that I have described above. To concretize the matter, I would raise two examples of problems areas in which no agent can operate alone and a cooperative organ like SAR would be needed: The first relates to the organisation of the postdoctoral artistic research; the second, to the role of artistic research practiced outside academia.


Two Examples of Developmental Matters

Postdoctoral artistic research: Doctoral education in the arts has, until now, been the engine for the field’s institutional development. For over two decades, it has produced hundreds of researchers who consider artistic research their profession, but who find themselves in a particularly precarious environment. Beyond the teaching positions, the research positions are rare and short-term. Artistic doctors have no access to positions in faculties outside the arts and international funders refuse to support their work. A few countries have funding systems or private funders that support artistic research, but there is a great deal of competition for these grants and the selection criteria often seem arbitrary. 

However, to ask what postdoctoral artistic research is or what a postdoctoral artistic researcher does is to question the very sense, direction, and societal and cultural significance of doctoral education. Many problems and controversies concerning the criteria and evaluation of the doctoral thesis, which continuously trouble both students and their professors and provoke public scandals, would be settled if there were a better common understanding of the practical goals of doctoral education and, thereby, of its needs. Although the question is most crucial regarding the future of artistic research, no organisation seems interested in taking initiative to approach it. 

International collaboration could solve this problem, for instance by creating developmental projects, combining the existing resources, and committing external funders and stakeholders to realistic long-term goals. These would help establish the relevance of the output of postdoctoral artistic researchers in various inter- and transdisciplinary contexts, and credibly argue that artistic research belongs at the highest level of science policy. However, SAR currently approaches the matter from the opposite direction by blindly trusting in the growing ‘critical mass’ – that is, unemployed postdoctoral researchers – and by appealing to it.

The tension between institutional artistic research and research conducted elsewhere: As I have argued in several contexts2, artistic research conducted outside institutions is significant only if it has institutional effects. Institutions should be understood, here, in the broadest sense possible, including not only public or private establishments but also institutions of perception, behaviour, communication, etc. It would be wrong to turn a blind eye to the fact that the bulk of the responsibility for developing artistic research resides in academia or art universities, with their significant national resources and funding. Researchers and research communities outside academia also benefit from such development. I think that the chain of artistic research is as strong as its strongest – not its weakest – link. In the big picture, the success of one interest group does not necessarily imply a defeat of another group – unless those groups see each other as their adversaries. 

To make a change here, it would be more beneficial to channel energy into building collaboration among different agents. A researcher with an artistic PhD could provide a non-academic research project or group with methodological, pedagogical, ethical, rhetorical or administrative expertise that the project or group does not necessarily possess. Similarly, researching artists and activists working outside academia could increase academia’s artistic and societal significance. Instead of getting stuck with the antagonistic premises of ‘institutional critique’, we should rather discuss the multiple modes and possibilities of transdisciplinary artistic research.


The Future

Do we need another, parallel organisation to take care of the developmental matters? I do not think so. Instead, I hope that in the future, besides advocacy and administration, the society would also carry responsibility for community building and development. The latter functions do not contradict the former ones, indeed, I see them as complementary. Like advocacy and administration, community building and development sustain each other. Nothing unites people and institutions better, and decreases mutual competition and rivalry, than the identification of common problem areas and developmental tasks, and their collaborative management. The widening of the variety of functions does not necessarily require more resources or staff, as SAR members, institutional and individual, could do the required work themselves and with their own resources. The change does not imply either, that the SAR board would define from above what its members should do or not do. Instead, the society would encourage its individual and institutional members to meet, discuss and self-organise around the topic areas that they consider relevant and, most importantly, provide occasions for that. 

The issue is undeniably political. By my remarks, I am not claiming more power or influence (potestas) for the SAR or its board over academia and the arts. On the contrary, I hold that to fulfil its collective responsibility, SAR should function as a medium or a platform that would enable progressive cooperation among its members and the liberation of the power (potentia) arising from that collaboration. 

SAR’s future should not be tied to its three functional pillars (RC, JAR, conferences), and these pillars should not become totem poles. Although each of these functions has once had pathbreaking significance, today the focus of development should lie elsewhere. The criterion for the society’s success cannot be solely the increase in number of its (portal) partner members. Counting on this is risky, and not only economically. Different kinds of digital publication platforms develop rapidly and the RC is no longer the only way to accomplish online audio-visual publication. New peer-reviewed online journals are being born in addition to JAR. The undisputed position of the SAR conference as the field’s major international gathering is also being challenged by parallel organisations and their events (such as ELIA, EARN, EPARM), as well as by the general post-pandemic reconsideration of academic conference practices. Finally, the top-level advocacy of artistic research remains ineffective, if the field itself is not capable of, or does not have means for raising its standards.

If the problem resides in the paragraphs of the by-laws, then they should be amended so that the society could take a more operative role in the opening of the future perspectives. Now, by concentrating uniquely on advocacy and administration, the society fails to meet the needs and interests of the community, which, after all, constitutes its reason of existence. Will SAR give its community a chance to develop? 



Esa Kirkkopelto (born 1965) is a philosopher, artistic researcher, and performance artist. He has worked as a professor of artistic research at the University of the Arts Helsinki (2007–2018), Malmö Theatre Academy (Lund University, 2020–2022). From 2024 onwards, he continues in that same position at the Tampere University. He holds the title of docent in aesthetics at the University of Helsinki. He has a PhD degree in philosophy at the University of Strasbourg (2003). He is a former board member of the Society of Artistic Research (2022–2024), a former core-convener of the Performance Philosophy association and the organiser of the Helsinki 2022 Performance Philosophy Biennial. He is the founding member of the Other Spaces performance collective (2004–). His research focuses on the deconstruction of the performing body both in theory and in practice. His monograph titled Logomimesis. A Treatise on Performing Body is forthcoming at Routledge in autumn 2024.

  • 1Towards a SAR strategy 2023-2024. Proposals and measures for the strategic development process, published on 11 April 2024 at the SAR General Assembly.
  • 2For example: “Searching for Depth in the Flat World: Art, Research, and Institutions”. Artistic Research in Music: Discipline and Resistance. Artists and Researchers at the Orpheus Institute. Jonathan Impett (ed.). Leuven University Press. 2017, 134–148. “Artistic Research as Institutional Practice” / “Konstnärlig forskning som institutionell praktik”, From Arts College to University, Yearbook on Artistic Research 2015 / Från konstnärlig högskola till universitet, Årsbok 2015, Swedish Research Council / Vetenskapsrådet. 2015, 41−53.