Cotter, Lucy, ed. (2019). Reclaiming Artistic Research. Berlin: Hatje Cantz Verlag. <https://www.hatjecantz.de/reclaiming-artistic-research-7621-1.html>
Contributors: Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Katayon Arian, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Sher Doruff, Em'kal Eyongakpa, Ryan Gander, Liam Gillick, Natasha Ginwala, Sky Hopinka, Manuela Infante, Euridice Zaituna Kala, Grada Kilomba, Sarat Maharaj, Emma Moore, Rabih Mroué, Christian Nyampeta, Yuri Pattison, Falke Pisano, Sarah Rifky, Samson Young, Katarina Zdjelar
In an age of global pandemic, we have become aware that trusted linear patterns of thinking and expectation must now be reassessed in what is a changed present and uncertain future. Lucy Cotter’s edited book Reclaiming Artistic Research (2019) is prescient of a need to break with linear expectations and to remember that we can never step in the same river twice.
The central ambition of this book is to offer different perspectives from creative practitioners, who reflect on how they use artistic research to further their practices and critique the institutional structures that seek to envelop it. This is a time when artistic research has been co-opted by art institutions particularly in academia through research degrees. This book reminds us that the processes of art cannot be codified, contained or pinned down like a butterfly in a collection. The search in artistic research is intrinsically open-ended – a way forward. This book is not a manifesto but rather an accumulation of dialogues that loosely pique our awareness.
The book is formatted in a way that readers can ‘dip in’ to conversations about how artistic research is being used in practice. The authors present a multiplicity of voices, perspectives and positions and amongst them are Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Sher Doruff, Em'kal Eyongakpa, Ryan Gander, Liam Gillick, Natasha Ginwala, Sky Hopinka, Manuela Infante, Euridice Zaituna Kala, Grada Kilomba, Sarat Maharaj, Rabih Mroué, Christian Nyampeta, Yuri Pattison, Falke Pisano, Sarah Rifky, Mario García Torres, Samson Young, and Katarina Zdjelar.
Like artistic research itself the book is an open-ended collection of experiences of practitioners using research, which explains how they are sometimes (and rightly) challenging the institutional frameworks that have in the past generation influenced the relationships between artists and institutions. The book does not propose to be a manifesto. It does not offer solutions or next steps but importantly reminds us that artistic research is ever being co-opted and assimilated within universities and other institutions, where now the lenses of research occlude and constrain the very potential of art that artistic research seeks to explore. Through self-censorship and the pervasiveness of professionalization in the industry, artists often explore and present only fragments of the depth of their creative practice.
Three key themes emerge: 1) how artistic research has evolved and the questions that emerge from its often uneasy relationships with universities, 2) how the perspectives of artists research are used as a fecund space for artists to expand and open-end their creative practices, and 3) the spaces of non-knowledge – a theme opened up in the dialogues.
Evolution of Artistic Research
The book’s first interview, with artist Liam Gillick sets the stage for how artistic research has evolved in the 1990s, particularly at the dawn of the Internet and the resulting grab for territory, and with the easing cross-flows of information and the parallel proliferation of texts on art and its relation to procedure. Artistic research engages the work of art outside of its former autonomous Modernist positions and into text, location, and stages. The dialogue reveals how artistic research has been used as a tool to enhance art’s transparency – and in so doing privilege artwork that lends itself to being scrutinized, as if to remove (like the tweaking of a gene sequence) a sense of anxiety. Gillick mentions that while artistic research opens up new spaces in creative practice and interpretation, it also tends to “use artists like parallel institutions to kind of think about it, but not do it” (32).
Gillick and Cotter reflect on how research expands relationships between the material and the virtual – that creative practices have increasingly become immaterial – and it is there that Gillick rightly points out that the added value lies precisely in the sensibilities proffered by artists. This added value builds in tandem with the evolution of new technologies and creative disruption of not only industries but also social structures. They acknowledge that in contradiction to building transparency, artistic research can be used to create layers of complication or confusion. This layering can also create a form of camouflage challenging the observer to easily access what Gillick refers to as the “art moments” and thus creating a “troubling absence” (39) in the work of art. As such artistic research can produce both activities and an environment, which index numerous art moments.
In their dialogue, Gillick and Cotter discuss the emergence of a generation of curators who have seldom or never dealt with artwork materially. As such there may be a privileging of art that can be independently verified through research over art where the leaps are more from associative thinking – likened to that of going through a wormhole to a yet undetermined space in the universe.
Reading this first interview we are reminded that the thing to which art refers may still elude us and continue to exist as something that we cannot directly see. There is a sense that we can map the processes and mine authentic art moments as if they can be teased out, agitated, sifted and gleaned like pieces of gold in busy streams. What does artistic research index then? Is it the authenticity of these signified connections through authentic art moments, to something more empirically tangible? Is it through process that it gains definition? And does this process require definition? Or is it an open-ended search, where something of value might (or might not) appear? Who justifies what artistic research is and does? Is it the artist? The critic? The Research Excellence Framework in universities? And what, where or when is the deliverable?
Once independent and autonomous, art schools now nestle closer and closer into the arms of universities and their academic frameworks. I remember a colleague of mine in London telling me some years ago how he had to defend his art department’s need for studios amidst outcries from the business department’s dean at the same university that “if art students need studios then our business students should have offices.”
And how do artists and curators navigate these churlish currents, particularly in academic environments where knowledge is empirically constructed to drill down, pin-down, and reveal? Since the introduction of practice-led research degrees artists are encouraged not only to plumb new interdisciplinary depths but also to question and challenge current institutional structures.
Artistic research is not only about finding answers or solving riddles - it is also about continuing to pose the questions. Artists by their very nature move into new terrae incognitae – often embracing areas not yet defined by knowledge – areas that are still not yet knowable.
Through these interviews we see into the often uneasy relationships between art, other disciplines, and wider discourses. Our attention is drawn to how artists and curators use research as a set of lenses and non-linear lines of inquiry. It shares with readers what they are thinking, their sensitivity to materiality and space. Through their perspectives on the fringes of what we know, we see how they traverse into territories of the unknowable. Through them we peer into areas that cannot be easily defined or characterized, and we share in asking those questions that cannot be answered. We observe suppressed and under-acknowledged hierarchies where Cotter observes the “radical potential lies precisely in the destabilization of reality insisting on this essential incompleteness, a non-closure or non-totalizing of form” (12).
Reclaiming means not only re-affirming what artistic research is and does but also acknowledges its role in expanding the way artists open-endedly engage practice in the 21st century. As a resource Reclaiming Artistic Research invites the reader into the most valuable site of research – the artist’s mind.
Below are synopses of the interviews:
Dutch artist, Falke Pisano uses research to re-path standard forms of representation, exploring the human body in moments of crisis and through this nexus re-examining external socio-political and economic structures. Research becomes a means of evoking something that may only exist through language. Research defines and becomes the artwork where a work of art is constructed piece by piece through its iterations. Pisano also challenges the relationships between the artist and the spectator. Spectators engage bodily with the sculptures, activating their relationship with them as diagrams and introducing the notion that each interface has the “becomingness” and open-endedness of the first marks of a drawing. Approaching this from the perspective of the Deleuzian idea of ‘abstract machines’, the research and art emerge dynamically through repetition in the forming processes of the diagram. Forms are then defined through the amalgamation of these unique and open-ended iterations. (65)
Mario García Torres is a Mexican artist examining methodologies of appropriation, reenactment and re-pathing of structures conceived or initiated by artists of the 1960s such as Robert Rauschenberg, Alighiero Boetti, composer Conlon Nancarrow and curator/researcher Seth Siegelaub. Reinterpreting concepts originating from the past into the present, these investigations continue the thread or re-explore creative conversations. He uses research as a catalyst to recursively re-map, re-contextualize, other and re-familiarize us with art making as it recedes into the past.
While Ryan Gander laments the artwork of the post-Internet generation as sometimes as “fickle and empty” as a free association of signs, he also speaks about the need for the artist to be able to pivot and change. There is a risk that while caught in the re-application of research processes or methodologies the artist may slip into the illusion that they are creating new work whereas they may be only reiterating the same work of art through other means: colors for example. He suggests that the artist has the potential to engage their practice with “loose association” - think like an inventor – invent something new, fail and try again.
Natasha Ginwala speaks of curatorial spaces as sites for artistic research particularly in the Global South, re-examining notions of City, the Village and humanity’s impact on the natural environment. Blurring the lines between the curator and the artist, Ginwala discusses positions from which we claim reference, particularly 19th century spaces for empirical research and findings that examine both the mechanisms of empirical exploration as well as the overseas geographical territories that have prefaced contemporary interpretations.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan is a contemporary artist investigating sound as part of advocacy for human rights and environmental awareness. In his interview he discusses his project ‘Forensic Listening’ and the role of a sound investigator in examining the agency of sound and voice in law. As such his research raises our awareness of sites of epistemic failure. One example, on torture in prisons, considers how the artist and investigator’s role is to construct a language of the sounds in spaces (behind doors, behind walls) what he calls an “Earwitness Inventory” (133).
Yuri Pattison explores how commercial entities are constructing and designing spaces - communal tables in restaurants, forms that communicate an industrial warehouse aesthetic that mirror consumer desire for security. He identifies their sense of repurposing and reclaiming the history, its currency as a form of hackneyed authenticity, owning it like real estate. These spaces often are replicated into networks across geographical boundaries that contain an ad hoc and superficial selection of motifs, signs and signifiers from these past utopian spaces. Pattison goes further to explore the hipness and spatial validation of digital labor and examine open-sourced communities, hack-spaces, open-access sharing models and the notion of how they become gradually monetized, privatized and less-communal. Pattison explores in his installations the manifestation of networks of things that invisibly bind and connect many aspects of our lives – the research excavates the ubiquity of these spaces – picks them apart, teases them open and reveals their existence and connection to the realm of labor and the human.
Sky Hopinka, who identifies as a Native from the Ho Chunk Nation, uses moving image, sound, performance, spoken and written language to explore notions of native identity and a sense of “neomythology”. His practice examines the transversal movement between ritual, contemporary poetry performance and film towards spaces of abstraction. He uses tools such as the International Phonetic Alphabet to transliterate and thereby other the Hocąk language to, not only open up new spaces for poetry, but also examine myth and mythmaking and their utility in the formation of the contemporary tribe.
Christian Nyampeta examines the space of translating as a way of revealing notions of identity through his films. As research, he examines how spoken languages evoke identity particularly as addressed by writers and filmmakers within convocation spaces, multi-universe spaces, temporal spaces, and African spaces.
The artistic director of Documenta 13, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev examines the artist’s production, in the age of advanced knowledge capitalism, as alienated cognitive labor. In the 1970s artists explored research particularly as a counteraction to the market dominating tendencies of institutions. This eclipsed the need for a material art and fostered an iconicization of art which then became concurrent with the development of conceptual art, where the image became a placeholder and a currency. On their computers, artists today are similarly, increasingly engaging data as constitutive elements of their working processes. Corporations that must wade through vast amounts of gigadata are working with artists to activate intermediary spaces between data, art and knowledge where their research can pull-back, reframe and widen the perspective of what is perceived.
The practice of multimedia artist Em'kal Eyongakpa’s research problematizes and re-maps traditional Western/colonial filters that observe culture. He explores ethnobotany, sound art, surrealist imagery and other epistemological systems to examine intersections between traditional and spiritual forms of healing, non-Western philosophies and forms of time through the lens of indigenous African cosmology. Specifically, he uses artistic research to explore trans-generational memory through recorded conversations with (Nyang) clan elders. The artist uses metaphor, for example, forests as the Earth’s lungs and the spread of fungus in spaces that represent networks, connectivity and ecosystems. He uses sounds from African rainforests to attune us to sensorial signs of disruption (chainsaws, gunshots in deforestation) that enmesh harmony and rhythms of the ecosystems.
Using “not knowing” as a place of departure for his work, Lebanese artist and actor Rabih Mroué uses his practice to blur the borders between art and theater. sometimes positing himself into fictional biographies and into politically charged situations. He examines non-linear connections, artistic thought-processes as ways to broaden the parameters of what constitutes knowledge – and how pieces of knowledge can have use-value to the artist. Using a variety of strategies often gleaned from theater and performance, Mroué also investigates the liminal spaces between art and history and how artists can use procedures from other disciplines to explore politically charged topics such as armed conflict.
Sher Doruff uses the experimental spaces of writing to tap the conscious and the subconscious, and is particularly attentive to elements that emerge as potential methodologies. Doruff also integrates online images from Google and Wikipedia Commons which often act as nexuses to build new spontaneous directions in her artistic research as demonstrated through the characters in her novels.
Manuela Infante uses theater and performance to enter spaces of “embodied philosophy” where she tests and plays with models of philosophy often free of the confines of academic structures, entering into a realm of the Post Human. She breaks with anthropocentric norms and explores what plant philosopher Michael Marder refers to as a “vegetal other” within us1. It is this othering that pushes artistic research beyond the norms of academic thinking. Through theater she investigates post-identity and transitions out of ingrained gendered roles. Almost reaching towards a form of “botanic synesthesia”, Infante’s work with plants encourage us to think about out human-centric thinking that tends to privilege sentient organisms, exploring the “non-human” and thereby challenging existing attitudes.
Katarina Zdjelar is a Serbian filmmaker who uses video as an art form to explore the limits of language and how it manifests in the human body, exploring for example accent removal and how this creates a sense of altered selfhood. As a research system, art can reflexively pinpoint, isolate and scrutinize elements in our own ‘habitus’ – re-coding what would otherwise go unnoticed. She explores power structures in language, particularly how imposed languages in post-colonial contexts can be used to reinforce forms of identity. She also examines the boundaries between acting and real-life, particularly with actors recreating their own behaviors – akin to semantic satiation when a word becomes othered through repeated utterance.
Euridice Zaituna Kala is an artist and visual researcher from Mozambique who explores how practice can retrace, voice and reclaim the subjectivity of peoples, races, genders, particularly where histories have marginalized their memory. Her interview examines her personal exploration of narratives that emerge particularly from Africa around the slave trade, labor and power, and involve reclaiming knowledge. Distinguished from Western-dominated models of cultural production that have defined colonial era archives and museums, Kala reconstructs narratives that intertwine her experience and imagination and “re-call into existence” a separate experience that questions what history is, what academic research does, and what the artist can imagine.
Grada Kilomba is a Portuguese interdisciplinary artist particularly known for her work on “Decolonizing Knowledge: Performing Knowledge” which challenges our assumptions of the origins and legitimacies of knowledge. Katayoun Arian and Kilomba discuss “registers of knowledge” including printed matter, performances, installations and theory and a departure from the academic towards more open-ended art-based practices. Influenced by her psychoanalytic training she creates performances that tap into the human subconscious and examine symbols through which we construct not only memory and knowledge, but also gender and race.
An artist exploring performance, music composition, archives and drawing, Samson Young explores sound to trigger imagination around historical and contemporary notions of border. Using technology within installations, he unfolds the spaces between music composition, sound and the graphic, where the spectator can meditatively experience the human voice as ‘othered’, and explore how music can be interlaced with certain types of events: specifically geopolitical conflict and collective memory in Hong Kong.
In her speculative fiction, curator and writer Sarah Rifky, imagines a world where art disappears in the 2030s. She uses fiction to create immersive spaces that reflect a growing sense that the current models that have defined the art world are becoming obsolete. Originally taken for granted as time-honored institutions, there is a rise in imitations of the original, such as the franchise created by the Guggenheim and other museums in the Gulf. At the level of institutional critique, Rifky explores the tenability of such institutions to continuously claim value. She instead wonders whether, if works of art were themselves sentient beings, how they would imagine and manifest the world around them. In the context of artistic research this repositions and broadens the scope of language as it is used to define and confine art.
These interviews in Reclaiming Artistic Research shed light on an ecology of creative practices that are using artistic research as a way to open-end the potential of art-making. It also gives examples of how some are using critique, and change how we think about relationships with institutions.
Particularly compelling is Lucy Cotter’s interview with Sarat Maharaj where they discuss the role of “non-knowledge” in artistic research, and processes that make intuition possible – as contrasted to Bergson’s notion of a methodology (196). There is a recognition of the indeterminacy of the “creative moment” as well as the space that is “non-knowledge” – what Bataille called the “other side of knowledge” or what Maharaj calls “cluelessness” (198) on the part of the practitioner, suggesting that practitioners, in the form of bricolage, use artistic research to glean ideas – sometimes superficially – from other disciplines.
Referring to Karl Popper’s hypothesis Maharaj comments “we can never know what knowledge is. We can only say we have failed to attain it and in failing, we get a glimpse of what it might possibly be.” (199). Thus, knowledge is approached in the processes of problem solving. One might also infer that to glean from other disciplines is not necessarily to be a dilettante, but may constitute an attempt to construct new narratives, albeit with tools that are not completely understood.
Maharaj and Cotter also discuss how artistic research can be a safe harbor for experimentation, risk and failure, moving into what Cotter identifies as “a space for what cannot be named.” (202). Artistic research works as a non-linear space that can freely weave a dialogue with materials and ideas across disciplines – particularly those that acknowledge there are always spaces where we lack knowledge. Research also calls into question what forms constitute a discipline - what is in and what is out - and how it deals with this notion of non-knowledge. Maharaj alludes to the Joycean spaces of “disorder” or the Duchampian “possibility of there being multiple dimensions in which our existence comes to flourish and define itself” (202)
Finally, Maharaj speaks of the art academy as something the artist carries with themselves after graduation and something that can be unpacked and shared (209).
In light of the past generation’s intellectual developments in technology and social media, creativity has often taken a back seat. Now more than ever contemporary art is expected to be promoted on the grounds of the artist’s intellectual credentials. While maintaining an open-ended creative practice, artists must demonstrate that they can operate effectively within other parallel spaces: the art market, academia, and within systems created through grants.
We are also aware of the professionalization of practice that influences artistic research – groups of students are now referred to as cohorts and their work is defined as a professional practice that gives rise to images of the uniformity and respectability of lab-coated scientists, and yet art-making is often a messy endeavor as we are reminded by Roberta Smith (2007).2 Art as a career choice, as a university department, as a ‘discipline’ is striving for recognition, and so often resources seems to be on the back foot.
Reclaiming Artistic Research presents a cross-section of artists using research not as a way of justifying their practice, but rather as one of many tools to deepen (and open-end) their inquiry and to test and challenge academic and institutional politics, that has resulted in art work often looking packaged and thematized. Artistic research is a relationship – it is a set of tools that can deepen and broaden creative practice, as it is an interface with other systems.
Particularly reflecting the ever-present sensation of vertigo in a world radically shifting from materiality of process to a virtuality of processes, artists use research as a tool to produce new syntaxes and increasingly complex works of art and exhibitions.
Reclaiming refers to artists making ‘claims’ for research, as a tool used in creative practices and not only its anticipated reception within broader systemic structures.
Reclaiming also means the agency to explore new synchronicities and take unexpected turns, where artists construct areas of thinking that dwell outside of formal categorizations. The authors bring our attention to each creator’s realm of thinking, their sensitivity to materiality, the immaterial, to space and histories. In the interviews we observe how artists can harness the skills and knowledge of diverse teams in forensics, architecture, graphic design, sciences, and the law, to produce exhibitions that index across multiple fields.
Reclaiming refers to claiming back the agency of artists within institutional environments, particularly within research degrees in academia. Some institutions have been engaging research as a vehicle for creative inquiry for decades now and some are just beginning to get their footing. Where artists can use research to participate in root-level institutional critique and re-evaluate and challenge the implied contracts with what constitutes knowledge and who are writing those contracts.
This book incites further questions: how can art and these relationships transform when agency is reclaimed? What is the future of artistic research and how can we navigate these complex relationships with institutions? What can we learn from institutions that for the past decades have supported artist-led learning? How can we recognize that this is, and will always be, an uneasy relationship and still continue to create structures that trust and support artistic agency? How can we advocate a way forward towards engaging artistic research in a way that preserves this agency and foments new forms of learning in the future?
Artistic research is coming of age. As a set of tools it interfaces artists within broader interdisciplinary structures. Artistic research is becoming a shared language across the arts, in education and other institutions. Artist research creates new spaces and the opportunity for permutations to discover new forms of knowledge – not plumbing the depths and shedding light on that which is unknown, but exercising themselves in both linear and non-linear spaces that produce insight. Each artist possesses a unique history and experiences that, interfaced with research, can re-map our understanding of what constitutes knowledge. We are today observing that universities are reassessing and changing how they teach and that museums and galleries are reassessing how they present work. Taking a longer view, we see that these systems are always in flux – and that this ‘uneasiness’ - this reclaiming of agency - is a component of growth and presents an opportunity for us to re-assess these relationships.
Dr. Leslie D. Joynes (US) is a contemporary artist and writer based in New York. He serves on the Editorial Board for ProjectAnywhere, a peer-reviewed journal on artistic research at the University of Melbourne and Parsons School of Art, New York and was TrAIN Research Fellow at the Centre for Transnational Art, Identity and Nation at University of the Arts London. He is recipient of the Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Award for research on art, ritual and performance at the School of Art and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Educated in the US, UK and Japan he has a BA Fine Art from Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London; MA Fine Art from Goldsmiths, London; MA from Musashino Art University, Tokyo and M.Sc from Boston University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussels Faculty of Economic and Social Sciences. Exploring collaborative models in artistic research, he completed his PhD in Fine Art from the Faculty of Art, Environment and Technology, Leeds Metropolitan University, UK and Post-Doctorate in Fine Art from the School of Communications and Arts, University of São Paulo, Brazil. In New York he researches contemporary visual cultures in the Department of Art History at Columbia University in New York and is visiting faculty at Renmin University, Beijing.
- 1. Michael Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. (New York: Columbia University Press 2013), 186
- 2. Smith, R, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Art, NYT.com, New York, New York Times, 2007, https://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/23/arts/design/23smit.html (accessed 20 June 2020)