A lot of sweet-talking is currently happening in the field of artistic research: after Bologna and Salzburg, the Vienna Declaration (2020)1 and the Florence Principles (2016)2 promise us all orientation and common points of reference. But despite their culturally rich names, a spirit of optimism does not prevail everywhere. Many artists inside and outside the art academies do not find themselves represented in these political manifestos, in the style of the texts or in the developments they advocate. What is going wrong? Is it the institutionalisation of artistic research per se, or is it dashed hopes, as currently expressed in books such as Reclaiming Artistic Research?3 What does it mean for all of us when in The Postresearch Condition such an important artist as Hito Steyerl writes: "The debate about Artistic Research lost me a couple of years ago, when it became clear that that debate tended to be much more about creating an academic/bureaucratic discipline, than attempting to figure out something for an artistic discipline."4
I would like to look closely at this disappointment and make explicit various expectations that I believe are articulated in the diversity of what is subsumed today under the name of Artistic Research. I will focus especially on one expectation that, in my opinion, represents the central problem, namely that we still think of artistic research today implicitly or explicitly in relation to the sciences. Despite all declarations, we have not, to date, managed to free ourselves sufficiently –even intellectually– from the art-science question. As interesting as the relationship between art and science is, an encounter at eye level is nevertheless urgently needed. And for this we need a movement of sovereignty of the arts in research, be it visual arts, music or architecture, and I intend the following reflections and approaches to be an aid to this.
As I explore this topic, I will often not be able to avoid the binary juxtaposition of art and science, even if I am aware of the interesting transitional forms and mutual appropriations.5 But I don't think we are helped by emphasizing sameness when we look for the causes of dissatisfaction. So, let's pretend for once that artists and scientists are two consistently clearly separable groups, and that we can always assign things unambiguously. Perhaps in this way we will find a new language.
1. Research as Interaction of Peers
Let's start at the centre, with the all too well-known question –and please keep on board with me, I will soon leave this much talked about topic– What is research? In answering let us start by looking at the researchers and what distinguishes them, what brings them together, in what relationship do they act. Researchers are investigators and they search in a self-confident, consistent and organized way. Their searching forms a field that they survey with other researchers and that they develop together. They form expertise and they are each other's peers in their field, in critical dialogue with each other.
If we look at the scientific disciplines that exist today from this perspective, in which research is above all a social practice, we notice clear differences in how various scientists organize their individual practices, what formats of exchange and criticism they use, where exactly they demand expertise, what is taken seriously and what is not. One example of this is the history of the PhD: 800 years ago, doctorates were awarded in medicine, jurisprudence and theology, which is not only the oldest science in European universities, but also the discipline that has always kept the irrational explicitly negotiable in its research. Around 500 years ago, the natural sciences joined in, and with them new ideals. Experimentation, reproducibility and mathematical representability become important, to name just three prominent qualities. And when the engineering sciences were formed in the 19th century, it was under initially sceptical eyes: ETH Zurich, for example, which today regularly occupies top positions in international university rankings, had no right to award doctorates when it was founded in 1855 as an engineering school and supposedly lower polytechnic, and this remained the case until 1909.
What does this history mean for us today? Well, the polyphony of scientific research concepts and practices provides an often-unnoticed background when, for example, we discuss the right to award doctorates at art academies. We often hear research must, without adequately taking into account this diverse history of research concepts, as each of us projects a different concept of research onto the arts. Some demand hermeneutic precision from the artistic PhD and others experimental verifiability, some want the sources named and others forbid any contradictions. In discussion, artists and scientists often still impute things to each other and make outdated attributions, as if nothing much had happened since Impressionism in the arts and Cartesian mechanics in the sciences. This heats up the conversation but also contributes to further confusion. Even in the case of mutual hopes, the 19th century dominates when attempts are made to exchange assured knowledge for medial virtuosity, as if some are unquestionably knowledgeable while others are still old-master technicians.
It is important that we always keep in mind the plurality of research! There are many forms of research and sometimes they contradict each other; and even the sciences have endured this for several centuries. If the arts are now added to this round of research as a plural, new options emerge as to how research can be thought, new fields, new approaches or new insights become possible, which we can see, for example, in the sustained interest of science theorists in artistic research. And there is also not just one artistic research, but a whole spectrum of attitudes among artistic researchers, from those who explicitly lean on the existing sciences and humanities and seek overlaps, to those who try to act autonomously.
It needs all sorts to make a world. The different voices and the explicit negotiation of sometimes contradictory views are central to research, in the singular as well as in the plural, and I find precisely this aspect so interesting for the arts, because it gives the keeping awake and enduring of opposites a form that does not pacify; because people bring themselves into a relationship with one another in which they can agree and disagree, and sometimes do so simultaneously.
2. Who - How - For Whom
If we now take the idea of research as a social nexus further, it is not only those actors who conduct research who play a role, but just as much those who continue to work with the research results. Several variations can be thought of here: in physics, for example, it is common that trained physicists produce the research results and that other trained physicists continue working with the results. How exactly the transfer of research results takes place and what counts as a research result at all is a matter for the physicists. A non-specialist will not want to interfere in this.
The situation is different today in artistic research, where artists carry out the research, but where further processing by others, e.g. humanists or natural scientists or even partners from society, is almost always implicitly or explicitly demanded. This difference between the interests of the researchers and those who further use the research results gives rise to a tension that can have far-reaching consequences and that creates a blurred situation. What form should the research results take? What qualities should they have, what method, precision, rigour should apply to the research? In what formats should they be handed over?
As someone who often works on the borderline between art and science myself, I find the discussions about method, precision and disciplinary rigour fruitful, and would always approve of mixed forms of interests and concepts in the sense of mutual, transdisciplinary generosity. The whole thing is difficult, however, when the transfer of artistic research work into the realms of the sciences remains dominant or even exclusive. Then generosity becomes self-exploitation, and artistic research can become neither sovereign nor sustainable. Or as Michael Hagner put it: "[W]here a concept of research is brought into play that is completely free of the epistemic obligations of the sciences. I'm convinced that this movement is necessary for artistic research to break free from the racetrack where it potentially always loses out."6
Let me do a visual drawing of our three questions, focusing on four different groups that participate the scholars, the natural scientists, the artists, and the citizens or partners:
Depending on which group we draw to the horizontal centre line in the three adjusting screws of the illustration, different constellations and research realities can be described, from the research in physics mentioned above, to different variants of what is now understood under the term artistic research. Or a currently interesting example for me is the Creator Doctus project,7 where external partners take the place of For Whom? and thus have another influence on what happens within artistic practice. Important to me, is that the the graphic keeps reminding us of the interchangeability of the groups of people involved and how they affect the middle from the sides, via their implicit or explicit expectations.
With regard to the question of whether artistic practice can or should be called methodical at all, and under what conditions, my personal attitude is open: I can deal with the concept of method in art if it is understood as a way (which corresponds to the etymology of methodos) that exposes itself to the claim of precision. And I find this discussion actually interesting, although I think a canonization of methods in the arts is impossible (and explicitly not desirable).
But what I do desire – especially against the background of the dissatisfaction described at the beginning, which I share – is that we work out some form of artistic research that explicitly addresses the disciplinary self-interests of making art and wanting to make art. And that's why I describe the visualization just so: "Research by Artists with artistic methods in the interest of the community of Artists." It must be possible to validate artistic research also through its contribution to the development of the arts! And we need this self-confident standpoint to allow for a research not as stressful to art, but as intrinsic and opportune, as an opportunity for the arts.
3. Sharing - Challenging - Contributing to the Field
So, let us think of artistic research no longer as a movement of attraction to or repulsion from the sciences, but as a sovereign search movement of the arts. And in this movement, let us detach ourselves from knowledge as the sole object of research: on the one hand, because the term is so occupied by the sciences and humanities, and on the other, because we also want to operate beyond traditional canons of knowledge. In the arts, more than knowledge counts; limiting ourselves to it would be counterproductive. So, let us be generous in our search for a definition of research and ask ourselves what criteria we want to give ourselves? What value claims do we make for our research, especially against the background of taking research seriously as a social practice of peers?
Here I am grateful to my colleague Gunter Lösel,8 who makes a strong case for the terms "shareable" and "challengable", referring to Linda Candy.9 Research, they argue, must be accessible and shareable on the one hand, and critically negotiable on the other. This approach is interesting here because it shifts the gaze from the product of research to the process of research: the act of sharing and the act of challenging become the central instances of negotiating research. If we now add peers as the players in these operations and demand that research contributes to the field in one way or the other, we can establish a situation of sovereignty (comparable to scientific research) for the arts:
Disciplinary artistic research is one in which formats of sharing and formats of challenging are cultivated with one's peers, all of whom are engaged in the interest of artistic production and its fields.
This sovereignty is important because it is only now that the encounter with the established sciences no longer has to be set up as a tug-of-war over the concept of research or the production of knowledge, but can take place as an encounter between different peers at eye level. And just as theologians can watch the research of mathematicians and ask some justified as well as unjustified questions, this can also happen the other way round, on this basis the exchange between art and science reaches a different level.
For me, the approach of artistic research in the interest of the arts also supports a number of the interests I have as an artist myself: The Formats of Sharing and Formats of Challenging that we are discussing with Julia Weber, Michael Günzburger, Esther Mathis, Tanja Schwarz, Nadine Städler and HannaH Walter, as the basis of a PhD group formation aimed at collective forms of work and exchange. How can we advance each other's work, especially if we want to leave behind the cliché of the artist genius? How can we critically develop mutual references, how do we doubt or confirm each other, both in the process art making and in the results? How can we conduct the kind of professional dialogue that doesn't really stand a chance in the usual formats of exhibition and presentation, or in conversations with collectors or curators? How can we recognize each other's personal blind spots and then play them out anew ourselves?
The view of the arts as a sum of fields to be developed also corresponds to my perspective as a professor at an art academy. What is currently happening and how can I support the next generation of artists to get involved or to develop new fields and other directions? What local, national and international networks are important in terms of different peer communities? And how can I also form peer communities myself as references for the research projects I apply for at the Swiss National Science Foundation?
4. Not-yet Art
I would like to take this opportunity here to put another thought up for discussion: Not only are there always heated discussions about whether something is research or not, but often enough also about whether something is art or not. I have mixed feelings about the second question. After a good hundred years of discussion, the answer seems clear to me: anything can be art. In my opinion, that has been proven. And I therefore suggest that we leave aside or postpone this question, especially in the context of artistic research. Shouldn't we rather, where necessary, speak of not-yet art as something that has a high chance of still becoming art? In my experience, the concept of a not-yet art makes possible a state of openness that I consider productive, without leaving out the claim of making art. It names the claim to art as a tension.
The concept of a not-yet art is also in line with the idea of passing on and re-using research. In addition, experience shows that things that have not yet been articulated as a work of art, i.e. in an individual artistic style, are much easier to share and to rework. The non-univocalized state allows me as an artistic re-user more options in dealing, more freedom in appropriation.
Even in my own work as an artist, the gesture of this is art as a statement or supposed border crossing has long ceased to interest me. I find artistic Halbfabrikate (semi-finished products) much more interesting, things that change hands before being finished.10 I appreciate the things of which one is not sure whether they will ever become art, precisely for their ambivalence in the world and because I think it's important to take Duchamp's observation of the viewer and the viewer's collaboration in the art moment seriously. For me, this means, in concrete terms, that with my works I repeatedly stage public situations in which art can happen, as a hope, not as a claim. I see my task in initiating and creating and influencing the environment, the occasion, where everybody present becomes part, becomes a co-creator for art to happen. And this means to partly give up control, to raise confidence in the surrounding, to stay alert to whatever comes and integrate it as meaningful. And here again it is the unresolved tension between being able and not being able, both at the same time, which represents a value for me.
5. Alternative Economy
Another idea that I would like to put up for discussion here concerns the economy: if we look at the market, we see that payment is made according to product; in research, on the other hand, payment is made according to effort. These two different modes of refund develop different dynamics. In the case of the (visual) art market, we can see the product orientation very clearly: not only does the work of art as an artefact still dominate today, despite all the counter-movements of the 20th century, but in particular those artistic works that require little production time or can be specifically delegated to craftsmen fetch the highest prices. In other words, when we advocate artistic research, we also enable alternative artistic practices that do not shy away from longer developments. In my opinion, this complementary relationship between the market and research benefits everyone involved in art production, the artists as much as the critics, curators or gallery owners. And at the same time, research can also represent a specific opening of the art world towards society, which I very much welcome.
If we conduct publicly financed research at art academies, the results must be available to all, including artists with more limited economies, just as in the sciences. Because in my eyes, many of the successful artists with their studios are already doing something like research, which widens the economic gap between those who can live from art and those who cross-finance themselves, a familiar aspect of capitalism. The percentage of the successful relative to the rest is so dismayingly low that action is called for. One possibility is publicly funded research. And it is against this background of open source for all and artistic reuse that I see the debate about funding PhD fellowships in the arts. In my view, these need to be paid for the same reason as in the sciences: because they represent a contribution to the community. And that even if the contribution to society may only be to deal with something unsolved.
The disentanglement of art and science in the discussion of artistic research would also help us in another diffuse discussion: when people argue about theory versus practice. Apart from the fact that I already consider the binarity of the terms to be wrong, the hasty attribution according to which art is to be classified as practice and science as its theory happens again and again. But this is a mistake in thinking, because the juxtaposition only makes sense if practice verifies theory.
Such a relationship, however, rarely takes place. And this brings me back to the beginning: we need a research dedicated to the advancement of the arts. I think we all need it. Let us raise our glasses: Cheers.
Florian Dombois is an artist who has focused on wind, time, labilities, and tectonic activity. In 2010 he initiated with Michael Schwab and Henk Borgdorff JAR and the Research Catalogue. He is Professor at Zurich University of the Arts. http://floriandombois.net
Media thumb for this text: Ugo Carmeni, 2017.
- 3"[The book] proposes the need to reclaim artistic research in response to a strange paradox: namely, the increasing centrality of artistic research within art practice on the one hand, and artists' widespread lack of identification with artistic research discourse on the other." from the introduction of Lucie Cotter (ed.), 2019: Reclaiming Artistic Research. Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2019, p. 15
- 4"Response" to Peter Osborne in Henk Slager (ed.), 2021: The Postresearch Condition. Utrecht: Metropolis M, p. 13
- 5The transitions between art and science have interested me for many years and I have explored this relationship not only with institutional engagement but also with numerous artistic works, from explicit borrowings of format as in Using Audification in Planetary Seismology (2001, http://floriandombois.net/works/antikatastrophe.html), to more sculptural dialogues as in Antikatastrophe (2012, http://floriandombois.net/works/planetary-seismology.html). Thinking differently and anew about the relationship itself also appeals to me, for instance in the textual work The Ill-Mannered Daughter, which attempts to think of the sciences as the naughty daughter of the arts, that is, as their special case. First published in German translation in Dombois, Florian, 2011: "Die ungezogene Tochter". In Gegenworte 26, p. 67. Later in the English original in Dombois, Florian, 2018: "The ill-mannered daughter." In Anton Rey, Yvonne Schmidt (eds): IPF - The first decade. Berlin: Theater der Zeit, p. 197.
- 6Letter dated 20.3.2020 to the author, originally in German: "[W]eil hier ein Forschungsbegriff ins Spiel gebracht wird, der sich von den epistemischen Verpflichtungen der Wissenschaften ganz frei macht. Ich bin der Überzeugung, dass diese Bewegung notwendig ist, damit die Künstlerische Forschung aus der Rennbahn ausscheren kann, auf der sie potentiell immer den Kürzeren zieht."
- 7See http://creatordoctus.eu/
- 8Cf. his publications espec. Gunter Lösel, 2021: "Publishing Research. Academic Conventions, Videos, and Annotations". In: Lösel, Gunter & Zimper, Martin (eds.): Filming Researching Annotating. Research Video Handbook. Basel: Birkhäuser, p. 114f.
- 9Linda Candy, 2006: Practice Based Research: A Guide. CCS Report: 2006-V1.0 November, University of Technology Sydney.
- 10Two examples of my own work with "Halbfabrikaten" are: the allmend of research films http://filmallmende.net, which Christoph Oeschger and I founded two years ago. Or The Sound Kite Orchestra (Aliman / Dombois / Gutscher / König / Martin / U5 / Wang) and our release at dinzu artefacts, https://dinzuartefacts.bandcamp.com/album/the-venice-session.