Silvia Henke, Dieter Mersch, Nicolaj van der Meulen, Thomas Strässle, Jörg Wiesel (2020). Manifesto of Artistic Research, A Defense Against Its Advocates. Zurich: Think Art, Diaphanes. <https://www.diaphanes.com/titel/manifesto-of-artistic-research-5962>
In this book five authors meet to defend the inherent right of artistic research to be its own discipline. Manifesto of Artistic Research, A Defense Against its Advocates, is exactly what its title claims to be – both a manifesto of what artistic research is/can become, and a disclaimer of how artistic research is (institutionally) presented, promoted and performed to this date.
As an artist and a researcher, I could not agree more with the intention of this book. On the one hand, it is the right moment for artistic research to manifest its authentic contributions to human thought and praxis. The form of manifesto is well chosen. It allows the authors to claim a new vision for artistic research. On the other, this manifesto is different from what one might expect. It is not a straight lay-out of a future practice by its authors. It contains a large amount of explanation for its postulates; lacking, therefore, some of the directness of a manifesto.
The authors depart from an intention to abandon the “false competition” between scientific and artistic research, which is deeply engraved in any attempt to defend artistic research in the academic world, and in front of the funding institutions. This results in “…artistic research being still considered at best a junior partner of the academic disciplines” (p.5). They instead propose that “artistic research can only become established by emancipating itself from university research” (p.5) – from its methods, theories and regime. To arrive at a position where such emancipation is possible we need to deal with certain issues around the artistic research. In this respect, the authors recognise three problems.
The first problem according to them is personnel, who “often behave like apostates from the academic world and yet reproduce its working methods” (p.11). The second problem is aesthetic and philosophical reference points, invoking terms from scientific research, like “laboratory studies”, “experimental systems”, etc. In my opinion this problem appears because of the previous vagueness when it comes to the relationship between artistic research and theory. Artistic research has connected art practitioners and (art) theoreticians, creating a field of exchange, which has been neglected in its potential to truly contribute one to another. Instead we have witnessed the hierarchical positioning of theory above the practice because of its discursive power, and because of the prior establishment of theoretical language and terms over practice. Let us not forget that whenever we speak or write about art (and our experience of it) we are doing so with language, which is rarely a constitutive part of the practices it seeks to describe, such as dance, music, visual art, etc. In this equation language is predominantly the domain of theory and of science. To emancipate artistic research from science we need to allow a new language to develop, and we must be aware that this language will not satisfy scientific standards, but arise instead from the authentic aspects of each artwork (the authors write about this later in the book).
The third problem, the authors refer to, is the indulgence in fashionable theories that, in their eyes, do not serve the potential of artistic research to question the sphere of validity of conceptual labour, nor the possibility of dynamic dialogue between conceptual reflection and practices of aesthetic reflexivity. The authors state that fashionable theories are, too often, used vaguely and without any function in artistic research, except to give it a legitimation in the academic sphere. The consequence of this involvement of artistic research with fashionable theories, is an expectation from artistic research to provide similar outputs as the sciences, and to follow verifiable and comprehensible methodological steps. However, “the arts do not proceed according to a strict method along a predetermined trajectory, but rather in the form of leaps, digressions, and detours which continually generate new and unexpected counter-expressions, and do not set a goal for their nonlinear 'experiments', but instead trigger irritations and thus daring revelations.” (p.13)
It seems as if propagators of artistic research, distracted by the aforementioned problems, forget its raison d'être and aim to legitimise it in a wrong discipline, while “if artistic research were able to draw these practices out from art, to develop them further and to productively incorporate them into academic discourse, we would have to reckon with an academic revolution” (p.13). In my opinion, this is precisely the role of artistic research. It is only logical for one to think that where art and science meet, an opening to something new will unfold. How can it be that, so often, we witness the completely opposite result of this encounter - art practices being confined by scientific methods and subordinated to their evaluation criteria? The authors mention four misunderstandings which have led to this:
- a pervasive conviction that artists are primarily active as researchers when they are gathering and processing as much information as possible;
- a research practice has established itself which uses - and abuses - art in a secondary capacity, rather than working in and with its own form of thought;
- an understanding of research prevails, which imitates the granularity and specialisation of academic knowledge generation in order to affix an artistic signature to far-fetched or marginal questions. These aim at nothing more than miniature shifts in the fabric of something which has already been shown;
- a conviction that one is 'engaging in research' if one’s own praxis, in whatever way, challenges the hegemony of institutionalised academic research and frustrates its claim to sole legitimacy (see p.17-18).
To get out of the current state of affairs, we have to see artistic research as a discipline outside of academia, relating to, first of all, art itself. Once we turn the lens of artistic research from science and academia back onto the art itself, we will be able to encounter a couple of concrete conceptual (battle)fields to be explored.1
The first field to explore is the relationship between theory and praxis. The authors argue that both have their own role in artistic research, that “theory is consequently not the antithesis of praxis, just as praxis is not an antithesis of theory” (p.25). Approaching them both for what they authentically contribute to the research, opens up a space to develop a genuine concept of praxis and knowledge, which is called for by artistic research. The authors propose this knowledge be seen as aesthetic knowledge, which "is not subordinate to philosophical or scientific thought, or its explication through language; it simply uses other medial forms and types of expressivity. It calls for a particular kind of validity which does not comply with discursive demands for validity and yet is also not subordinate or inferior to them” (p.32). Furthermore, artistic research is seen by the authors as a “continuing reflexive process within practices which operates self-referentially and thus relates to processuality itself” (p.32). “The aesthetic thus encompasses a totality where nothing remains coincidental or even simply imperceptible, and whose precision can be measured by how consciously all of these parts or aspects are brought into relation with each other” (p.33). Relationality is the main aspect of aesthetic thought. To reconfigure the traditional oppositions between theory and praxis, the authors are proposing a field which they call “practices of aesthetic thinking”. “Aesthetic research refers to a praxis of thought subject to its own laws. It is ‘older' then the practice of the sciences” (p.41). While this is true we must understand that to emancipate artistic research from science we need to invent a new “praxis of thought” which integrates the development of science as well. This process needs to move along the following lines – “aesthetic practices map out non-scientific epistemologies by drawing their form of knowledge not from syntheses but rather from the sensuous relations of non-predicative conjunctions in which their insights merge and coincide” (p.39). Practices are rooted in “aesthetic doing”. Practice – a verb which sciences try to protect themselves from is, on the contrary, exploited by aesthetic research in order to create its authentic resources. “The practice of artistic research draws its energy from conflict” (p.48) While scientific research tries to find a factual and sensual coherence of its own postulates, aesthetic research looks for discrepancies, gaps, conceptual breaks and openings. Its praxis is active, provocative and performative. At the same time “aesthetic research ‘is’ the thought of how thinking genuinely occurs in the aesthetic ‘as research’” (p.49). Continual self-observation, “in a word, perennial self-doubt” (p.51) is, according to the authors, the essence of artistic research. “Art thus continually begins anew with every work” (p.51). This ideal of art – to be its own lens, with artistic research as a sort of extended art practice, a meta-practice which feeds art processes with new self-observation tools, with a potential for endless self-critique – is by default challenged by contemporary institutions which promote art. These institutions are compulsively answering to the demands of neoliberal capitalism and together they form the art market.2 Due to its global reach and impact, the art market is influencing art practices worldwide and limiting their authentic expression. The vicious circle of funding institutions, academia, art market, policy making institutions and art promoting institutions, is getting tighter and tighter due to the development of technology, social media and the creation of global trends. The authors claim, that although entangled in this circuit of interests due to its precariousness, artistic research has a potential precisely by virtue of this quality, to emancipate itself and take charge of its role; to stand for the sake of art in our society. In one of his public talks, Alan Watts elaborated on the importance of ‘play’ for the work of an artist. Grotowski also spoke of art practice as an activity of “playing seriously”. Our neoliberal society currently has difficulty understanding play, due to its ‘unproductive’ character. Therefore, there is an urgency for artistic research to manifest itself3 and speak up for the sake of the arts.
To conclude this review I want to address the issue that this ‘manifesto’ is still, inevitably, entangled within the same problems which the authors aim to escape from. This is a purely matter of agreeing to speak a common language4. It is inconceivable for scholars to express their opinions in a language other than the one they use in their professional environments. While this is a normal phenomenon in any profession, the specific subject of this book asks for a transgression, for breaking rules. In my opinion to properly approach the emancipation of artistic research from science and academia, one must adopt a language that serves art as well. This language must arise from art practices themselves, as they are the subject matter of artistic research. How this can happen is still to be discovered. One proposal here, is the integration of an artwork in this book. This artwork, called Bildstücke, made by Sabine Hertig, is a collage which was created in dialogue with the manifesto. The collage is shown in eight stages. The first stage presents one cut-out, on a white background, while each further stage accumulates more cut-outs in addition to the previous one. The final stage is a collage which integrates all cut-outs, covering completely the white background. For me this artwork simulates the mental process of accumulation, but also unpacking of information, concepts, thoughts, etc., which partake in the creation of the manifesto. Still, the artwork seems to ‘play along’ with the line of thought coming from the writing. Consequently, I am left with a question – how can we, even more radically, open up a dialogue between art and academia, practice and theory, towards a form which manifests their equal engagement; a form in which they ‘play’ and read together?
Branka Zgonjanin is a choreographer, visual artist and researcher. She holds an MA in Choreography from the Theaterschool in Amsterdam (2011), and an MA in Anthropology from Belgrade University (2005). In Zgonjanin's works, visual and performing arts meet in her unique technique of “physicalising an image and pictorialising a movement.” In recent works, she collaborates closely with the plant world and creates artworks which are hybrids of herbalism, performance-ritual and deep ecology. www.brankazgonjanin.com
- 1. “To do justice to research in the arts, we need a determined analysis of its practices and a revision of the traditional categories for the description of art - particularly the subjective centrality of the author, the connection to philosophical truth, as well as the definition of inspiration, creativity, originality, and imagination.” (p.32)
- 2. According to the authors these institutions seem to be “less focused on the fostering of the arts than on the procedures or their selection. On the other hand, the criteria of this selection are not measured against inherent aesthetic criteria” (p.59)
- 3. “We claim that there is no better way to cast a critical glance at the art of the market and its systematic managers than through those aesthetic practices which art itself makes use of. What or who is better equipped for this critique than the very aesthetic thought on which art is based (…)? It is the particular intellectuality of the aesthetic which manifests itself in the ability to exceed itself, to go beyond itself, to surpass itself, and precisely in this way to revolutionise art. If it makes sense to speak of the ‘freedom of art’, then it is only because this intellectuality of the aesthetic can be realised in it” (p.60)
- 4. A language spoken between different parties, allowing them to communicate without losing any of their integrity.