The obvious way of reporting artistic research is by sharing the process and/or sharing the resulting artworks. Often you must, and sometimes you also want to, write about the research and the works as well. Many artists shun away from this “about” and try to find ways of writing next to or alongside the work, describing the context or other people’s work or ideas related to the topic of the research. This is understandable and can be useful; writing about one’s artworks can be tricky. I have never felt the urge to discuss the final artworks of a project in terms of meaning or interpretation, although I find it important to stick as closely to the work as possible while writing. So how do I do that? By speaking of the choices, decisions, strategies, and problems in making the work, for example. The choice of approach or style nevertheless remains a problem, for example, should I use the first-person mode in writing or not? In the beginning of the preface of a recently published book Performing and Thinking with Trees1 I felt the need to explain myself:
As is common in the context of artistic research, the project and the works described herein were created by the author. A first-person perspective is an important feature of much artistic research, which is here further accentuated by the fact that the artist-researcher also functions as the performer. Writing in first person singular “I”, rather than the academic “we” or a neutralized passive voice, might give the impression of wanting to emphasize a subjective interpretation or an explicitly personal account, or to engage in artistic self-absorption, even when that is not the case. In the following, I will nevertheless use that style of writing, honoring the feminist legacy of criticizing the illusion of the objective or detached and supposedly universal perspective and endorse the partial perspective of being entangled, embedded and enmeshed in and with a site and situation. (Arlander 2022, 9)
And I also admitted the choice of a report-like style:
The text is structured in three parts, following a somewhat unusual order. The introduction describes the plans and delineates the context. The second part, Performing with Trees, describes the practices, various methods and strategies employed. The third part, Thinking with Trees, discusses some theoretical approaches. This order emphasizes the practice-based nature of these reflections. Despite the report-like style – “I did this and then I did this…” – I hope these accounts will serve as examples of possible strategies and stimulate the reader to undertake further experiments. (Arlander 2022, 10-11)
If you begin with the practice, you are inevitably specific; the practice is tied to a situation, site or circumstance and probably to your personal experience as well. It is not a “practice in general”. Can the account of such a specific practice speak to or inspire somebody else, with a different practice, without first being abstracted and generalized; made quasi-universal in some manner? I hope and believe it can; in my own experience I can recognize specific strategies or problems and relate them to my own work, even if they stem from a completely different context or practice. If I write about the problems I have encountered in some particular cases, I assume my account to exemplify something that can be ‘converted’ by others to their own experiences, horizontally, such as the choice of using the first-person mode in writing.
Besides the choice of style and structure, another problem became evident with this book, related to publishing rather than writing, namely the problem of format. Should I aim for a printed book or an online publication or try to combine both, which poses new problems? In the two previous books related to the same projects the problems were less obvious, because they were either only printed or mainly online.
The picture book Att Uppträda med Träd / Performing with Trees2 published by SKH (Stockholm University of the Arts) in 2019 is available as a printed copy only and consists mainly of images, video stills or freeze frames from video works, one still of every single image, with only very brief textual descriptions of where and when the work was made. I called the book a picture book rather than a photo book, because of the image quality, although it is not that bad, while the layout focused on making the best of the video stills. And with hindsight I really regret not making a digital version of the book available online.
As a contrast, the online publication Meetings with Remarkable and Unremarkable Trees in Johannesburg with Environs3 published by ARA (Arts Research Africa) at the University of Witwatersrand is available also as a print-on-demand version, an option that is secondary, because the publication is made with the online reader in mind. Some privately-made, printed copies revealed the problems with the print-on-demand layout, while the online version utilizes the possibilities available. For example, the descriptions, images and scripts of the works made during my residency in Johannesburg are combined with links to the actual video works on the RC (Research Catalogue).
The current book Performing and Thinking with Trees published by the Academy of Fine Arts, University of the Arts Helsinki was originally planned as a printed publication with text only. In response to peer review suggestions, images were added for each chapter or subchapter as supporting illustrations or vignettes of sorts. The choice of paper was originally made for a pleasurable reading experience and was not changed, with the knowledge that the image quality would suffer, although not fully realizing how much. With hindsight the pictures might have been better in black and white, at least for the print version. As I knew that a pdf version would be openly available online, and presumed more readers would encounter the book in that format, plenty of links to the actual works on the RC were added in footnotes. In the printed version they are nearly meaningless, while in the online pdf they provide the option to see for oneself. Providing a pdf version of a printed book online is of course not the same as a web publication, although better than nothing. In this case the combination of a printed and an online publication was a minefield of compromises, and it probably often is, unless you can afford double, or triple the work. The benefits of online publication are nevertheless obvious: accessibility, linking facilities, image quality and more.
One could question the need for publishing books, since journal articles or contributions to edited anthologies are often more carefully peer reviewed and commented on by editors. And there are other ways of sharing your writing or making it public, such as blog posts or even transcribed vocal journaling shared as ‘ponderings’, which I have recently experimented with. Many artist researchers (like me) prefer to share their work and their writing online, on the go, as it were, immediately and alongside the work. While careful, though often slow, peer review is the benefit of publishing journal articles, private publishing modes like blog posts or shared RC expositions allow for more flexibility and the option to keep editing the text following new findings. The need of a fixed publication is often considered an academic institutional demand, not necessarily conducive to or supportive of an artistic research process. There is something special and rewarding, however, in gathering work into a book, a completed and fixed object, for good or bad, thereby considering the project closed. And many old-school artist researchers (like me) love to have the actual printed book in their hands, not instead of, but in addition to, an online publication. Today such love is perhaps not enough of an argument for the use of paper, though, especially if you try to do some thinking with trees…
Annette Arlander, DA, is an artist, researcher and a pedagogue, one of the pioneers of Finnish performance art and a trailblazer of artistic research. Former professor at University of the Arts Helsinki and Stockholm University of the Arts. At present she is visiting researcher at Academy of Fine Arts, University of the Arts Helsinki and a member of the editorial board of JAR. Her research interests include artistic research, performance-as-research and the environment, especially trees. Her artwork moves between the traditions of performance art, video art and environmental art. See https://annettearlander.com
- 1Performing and Thinking with Trees, Art theoretical writings from the Academy of Fine Art 15, University of the Arts Helsinki. Downloadable online here: https://taju.uniarts.fi/handle/10024/7666
- 2Att Uppträda med Träd – Performing with Trees. X-position n 6. Stockholms Konstnärliga Högskola 2019. An unofficial pdf file of the final layout is added on the project page here: https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/316550/316551/26347/95
- 3Meetings with Remarkable and Unremarkable Trees in Johannesburg and Environs Arts Research Africa, The Wits School of Arts, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 2020. Downloadable on Wits’ repository, here: https://wiredspace.wits.ac.za/handle/10539/30395 And also on the project page, here: https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/761326/761327/4/1708