Artistic research, and art as other possibilities

If the world were a flat contoured surface and art were a medium like water, where would it flow? If art could follow its own urgencies and inner logics in any direction what kind of affinities and attractions would shape its course at this moment? Art, as it stands, already manifests as a range of phenomena that strain the possibility of their collective naming. Yet the routes art could take now, its temporary resting places and their immediate outcomes, might be very differently sited and manifest than the parameters, conceptions and expectations of art have facilitated to date. Art is changing in dynamic relation to its wider socio-cultural, politico-economic and technological conditions. Increasingly it is seen and approached by contemporary artists as “more a form of approaching something or a form of knowledge that can be ‘used’ to engage with the many different subjects or situations.” Artistic material has expanded to include dematerialized knowledge, while not excluding artistic material in the traditional sense or medium-based explorations.

The notion of “artistic research” was conceived partly to address this quality of art, yet to date this discourse has been generated from an academic-led train of thought, stemming from possible similarities with academic research. In the process art’s most important epistemological contributions have been largely overshadowed. These include the highly particular and medium-specific ways in which artists think and engage with materiality and dematerialised forms of knowledge. Rather than addressing artistic research as a separable phenomenon from art, I would wish to redefine the phrase “artistic research” to communicate art as an aspiration, an open-ended process and an open-ended object, which includes, but is in excess of itself as artwork. By not making rigid dichotomies between artistic process and output, artistic research might thus enable art to reclaim the day-to-day experience of the maker (in the widest sense of the term), for whom an “artwork” is part of a continuous (thinking) practice. If one considers artistic research in this way, its discourse offers an opportunity to re-examine whatever aspects of their practice that artists consider of significant value that dominant (market-led) understandings of art have filtered out, made invisible or underplayed.

Academically and in other areas of public life, there is currently a profound need for new forms of thinking and new epistemological possibilities that depart, not from existing bodies of knowledge, but a deep engagement with the particularities of a specific situation or set of conditions. As Irit Rogoff has highlighted in her recent talks, art’s shift towards acknowledging and foregrounding its own “advanced practices of knowledge” aligns with a fundamental shift within knowledge production more generally; a transition from working from inherited knowledges (which is how intellectual work has traditionally proceeded) to working “_from_ conditions” (starting in the middle, working from urgencies and generating methodologies and their complex relationship to existing knowledge protocols). Given that academic protocol has relied so heavily on its intellectual heritage, this approach lies closer to artistic territory. But the shift towards imagination-driven thinking is also being felt in other areas, and in the sciences in particular. A drive towards the decolonisation of knowledge, as well as critiques of the possibility of objective thinking, have also prompted academics in several fields to turn to embodied forms of knowledge and experience-driven research and means of representation, which moves towards closing the gap between artistic and academic ways of working.

There is growing reciprocity between academic and artistic communities, which was, among other factors, sparked by artists’ increasing engagement with discourses traditionally ‘external’ to art, following the so-called ‘discursive turn’ in recent contemporary art in the last thirty or so years. Recently, however, there is increasing academic recognition of the art world as an exceptionally open-ended field of creative intellectual enquiry, whose various (material) registers of knowledge open possibilities not available in traditional university settings, and even less so in their corporatised forms.

At the core of art’s activities is an operation of loosening parameters that have become fixed, of utilizing the malleability of thought and the formability of institutions, the fluidity of private beliefs and how they manifest in public structures. Art never closes down this process of opening up and subjecting its objects of enquiry to new formations. Rather, its range of media enables art to hold knowledge in flux, creating space for contradiction and ongoing change. This partly explains why artists are less driven by what the work is ‘about’ than by _how_ they approach their areas of interest. Perhaps the most radical aspect of art is that it does not necessarily have to be “about” anything to create new pathways for thought, to offer a new space of inner resonance that leads us to our lack of knowing, to the shadowy presence of what lies beyond the known.

There is currently what might be called a “social turn” in art discourse, partly in response to the global breakdown of democratic discourses and artists’ growing awareness of their agency in urgent matters of social justice. Despite the complex and often contradictory structures of the art world, including the role of the art market therin, art is an area in which work can be done that will not be done otherwise. The increasing presence of artists, curators and art workers of Colour lends weight to the urgency of social justice issues. Currently, artistic practices contribute to vastly different sections and segments of society in a manner that facilitates the artist to be an autonomous _and_ socially engaged figure. I see this quality emerging, for example, in the practice of Rwandan-born, New York-based artist Christian Nyampata, whose installations, workshops, films and publications facilitate previously non-existent translations of African philosophy, while producing environments for learning and co-production by youth and specialized individuals from different fields and fulfilling aesthetic demands associated with traditional exhibition formats. I think too of Oslo-based practitioner Mia Habib, whose choreographies of the mass movement of non-professional performers function alternately as activist protests (for example against the imprisonment of LGBT people in Chechnya) and as artistic performances in art and theatre spaces. Nyampata and Habib are among an increasing number of artists around whom a constellation of individuals and social groups can convene around shared concerns _with different aesthetic-social outlets_. Gone here are the rigid hierarchical distinctions between aesthetic and social outcomes; between use and uselessness; between the conceptual and the practical. There is a shift from the art world to art _publics_; from the art market to art’s variously defined values; from the artist’s (Romantic bohemian) autonomy to being an autonomous agent who can facilitate collective change.

One might ask more generally whether the artist as a figure is shape-shifting, not least in response to the heightened urgency for change, as well as to shrinking art world resources. Are artists gleaning unexpected sites of agency in the process? How do the current infrastructural shifts in art as labour lead to different self-understandings of artists? How in turn do these self-understandings give shape to artistic aspirations? Where in the content of contemporary practices of making and disseminating work can one tease out the material outcomes of a different “metaphysics” of artist-hood? What are the evolving self-understandings of the artist as a self-proclaimed autonomous social figure, whose complex sense of their act of cultural production and its repercussions is both fragile and compelling? These questions are intimately connected with a wider shift from free labour to “human capital,” with commodity production being replaced by speculative investment in the self. Rather than try to work against these conditions, Michel Feher asks if one could find potential in them, “allowing the shift to human capital to express aspirations and demands that its neoliberal promoters had neither intended nor foreseen”? The radical shift of emphasis to all that is an outcome of one’s being and skill-set breaks down distinctions between artistic and traditionally “non-artistic” aspects of one’s practice.

For the radical practitioners in any and every field, the difference between and/or distance between different fields of enquiry is getting smaller or perhaps collapsing entirely. Art offers a protocol for knowledge production beyond disciplinarity. Artists moreover defend a _pluralist_ concept of research, including artistic research, and a pluralist concept of research output, including exhibitions, performances, artworks, artistic interventions, etc. They are, for this reason alone, potential allies of researchers in several other disciplines who find academic formats too limited to document or communicate their findings.

Insofar as art generates knowledge through non-determinist and _acausal_ pathways, holding open space for chance, for contradiction and the unknown, it lies close in its ethos to branches of science that put pressure on the mechanistic rational view of reality that has dominated not only the natural sciences but academic protocol in general. A specialized thinker on any subject will eventually exhaust their knowledge and find themselves confronted with the unknown. Yet what lies “on the other side” of knowledge, is not only what is not yet known, but also what is _unknowable_, as Georges Bataille once observed. How can thinking continue when it moves in directions that cannot be assimilated as (formal) knowledge? Who will take the necessary leap of imagination and leap into the unknown? In a world where production has become rationalized and highly efficient and academic research is largely market-led, art offers a placeholder for the yet unknown and the unnameable to find forms of articulation. Art exposes the limits of traditional “knowledge production” and even the category of knowledge as such.

It is highly questionable whether the criteria used to evaluate art _as artwork_ are adequate to address the full potential and scope of art. Artistic research offers an alternative paradigm through which the terms of art can be expanded or rethought in ways that might do more justice to artists’ current endeavours. If artistic thinking is open-ended, why are the forms of art, its destinations, sites and publics not more open-ended? The answer to that conundrum seems to inevitably point to the art market, whose force on the definitions, legitimacy and value of art as art is still dominant, even in sites that appear to operate outside of its system. Yet art exists as a structural possibility whose value is arguably changing.

Change implies the courage to let go of traditions, to break with myths and to rewrite existing narratives and historically grown perspectives on all levels: art institutions, arts education, cultural politics, public perceptions of the arts and the public ‘claims’ that follow them, among other areas. Recognising that art is part of a spectrum of activities that cultivate open-ended thinking, collective processes and agency through aesthetic intervention, it seems timely to ask how art can forge new and unexpected forms to create new affiliations, to draw strength from changing technologies and demographics and to find unexpected sites, publics, resources and outcomes.