Dwell / Act / Transform. Three views of an exhibition on artist research
Anke Coumans, Peter Sonderen, Ruth Benschop, Sara Malou Strandvad
In November 2017 the Image in Context lectorship of Academie Minerva in Groningen took, in its annual exhibition and symposium, the way in which research is made public as its central theme with the name Artistic Research in the North. If exhibition is a specific platform for the presentation of art, is it therefore also a suitable format for the presentation of artistic research? After all both are partly discursive and partly graphic and spatial practices. Three researchers (two art lecturers and a professor) were invited to submit their reflections in this respect. Sara Strandvad (RUG) sees the exhibition primarily as an opportunity to bring the graphic aspect of artistic research to the fore. Peter Sonderen (ArtEZ) draws our attention to the necessity of the presence of the research process as a form of transmission. Ruth Benschop (Hogeschool Zuyd) wonders whether an exhibition of artistic research can produce another viewer than an exhibition of art. These reflections make it clear that the transformation from art exhibition to art-research exhibition is complicated. The curator of the project, Anke Coumans, provides an introduction that explains the intention the project.
In november 2017 stelde het lectoraat Image in Context van Academie Minerva te Groningen in zijn jaarlijkse tentoonstelling en symposium onder de noemer Artistic Research in the North de wijze van publiekelijk maken van onderzoek centraal. Als tentoonstellen een geëigende vorm is voor het presenteren van kunst, is het dan ook een geschikt format voor het presenteren van artistiek onderzoek? Beide zijn tenslotte deels discursieve en deels beeldende en ruimtelijke praktijken. Drie onderzoekers (twee kunstlectoren en een hoogleraar) werden uitgenodigd hierover een reflectie te bieden. Sara Strandvad (RUG) ziet in de tentoonstelling vooral een mogelijkheid om het beeldende van het artistieke onderzoek naar de voorgrond te halen. Peter Sonderen (ArtEZ) brengt de noodzaak van het present zijn van het onderzoekproces als overdrachtsvorm onder de aandacht. Ruth Benschop (Hogeschool Zuyd) vraagt zich af hoe een tentoonstelling van artistiek onderzoek een andere toeschouwer kan produceren dan een tentoonstelling van kunst. De reflecties maken duidelijk dat de transformatie van kunst-tentoonstelling naar kunstonderzoek-tentoonstelling ingewikkeld is. Curator Anke Coumans licht in een inleiding het opzet toe.
Artistic Research in the North: exhibition and symposium November 2017, Groningen. A coproductionbetween researchers from the Art and Society Knowledge Center [Academie Minerva, Hanzehogeschool Groningen] and the University of Groningen. Film of the exhibition with explanation: http://Hanze.nl/artisticresearchinthenorth
In its annual exhibition, the Image in Context professorship of the Minerva Art Academy Groningen focuses on the method of making research publicly available. If exhibiting is an appropriate form of presenting art, would it then also be an appropriate form of presenting artistic research? After all, both are partly discursive and partly visual and spatial practices.
Within the professorship, we approach art as a vehicle and a method enabling the artistic researcher to navigate the world around him. In this context, the focus is not on the work of art as a final objective, but rather on the insights the researcher derives from his artistic navigation, both with regard to the world around him and to the method of artistic research he has developed.
In Artistic Research in the North, the focus on the relationship with the environment places part of the research outside the academy. The exhibition brings the projects together and presents them to their own community, to the people who collaborated on them and to the wider public. In dialogue with participating researchers from the professorship (students, alumni and lecturer-researchers from Minerva), the curators (Andrea Stultiens and myself) explored how both the visual and the systematic character of the research can be visualised. The exhibition shows the images used in the research and the way of working. This year’s edition was produced under the overarching title Dwell, Act, Transform. The term to dwell was taken from anthropologist Tim Ingold, who uses it to emphasise the non-instrumental relationship between the researcher and his environment. The dwelling researcher immerses himself in the research environment and allows himself to be led off track, which leads to action. And the transformation is the result of the respectful dialogue between the artist and his context that arises from the dwelling. How can we visualise this in the form of an exhibition?
Since last year, the Dutch art professorships have been collaborating on the Kunst ≈ Onderzoek [Art ≈ Research] platform funded by SIA.1 This platform aims to contribute to the (public) debate on the value/valorisation of art and art research. Placing the exhibition within this ambition implies questioning the exhibition’s ability to achieve valorisation. Is this possible, and if so, what is its added value?
Three researchers (one professor and two art professors) were asked to reflect on this. Sara Strandvad (RUG) sees the exhibition as an opportunity to bring the visual aspect of artistic research to the fore. Peter Sonderen (ArtEZ) points out the necessity of the presence of the research process as a form of communication. Ruth Benschop (Hogeschool Zuyd) wonders how an exhibition of artistic research could produce a different viewer than that produced by an art exhibition. The reflections make it clear that the transformation from art exhibition to art research exhibition is a complex matter. This is partly because the exhibition will immediately trigger a pre-coded response in the visitor that has to be deconstructed in the very practice of viewing. And partly because we need new concepts to arrive at new exhibition practices, which will require rethinking the diversity of existing exhibition practices. And finally because we still lack knowledge of how we can communicate processes through images without additional explanatory text. In this context, the key question for us as curators of the exhibition is the issue of the relationship between the researcher and his audience. How can an exhibition itself become a means to enable the researcher to enter into dialogue with his environment? And which complementary performative forms of communication can help us achieve this?
Lector Image in Context (Academie Minerva, Hanzehogeschool Groningen)
Transformations and performances
Dwell/ Act/ Perform is the title of the exhibition compiled by Anke Coumans in Groningen. Or so I thought. But it turned out to be Dwell/ Act/ Transform. Strange.
How does a word change like that of Transform to Perform take place? One explanation for the mistake may be that at the time of the exhibition I was preparing for a meeting about performative research for Master’s students from many different directions for the ArtEZ Winter School. Performative research is research that takes place in and through the research; i.e. the process itself is the continual result. The research is, and leaves, a trail of transformations. Although transformations and performations are related, they are not one and the same. A performation is always a transformation, but a transformation is not necessarily a performation. Precisely how I should view my own conversion of transform into perform remains uncertain, but it is clear that the two concepts are closely related and stand for a certain active (re-)shaping, rather than being focused on fixation and stagnation. They are at home in the domain of artistic research. So it would appear. And with reason.
What trail was left on seeing the presentation of artistic research in Groningen? The initial impression was of an ordinary exhibition. The artists’ works were displayed individually and separately. Special places were found for them, which focused attention on them. And there was hardly any text on the walls or in the rooms. Texts that were handed out, however, indicated that there was more to it than just works on the wall or on the floor. What was their role? My preparations for the Winter School brought to mind a number of issues formulated by Barbara Bolt in a recent article, in which she explores the performative nature of research. According to her, performative research - in contrast to academic research - is less about constative utterances and more about performative ones. Constative utterances search for correspondences and lead to a specific truth, as they represent each other. This also facilitates exact repetition. In performative research, however, we see that iteration can never, and will never, produce the same thing. This type of research therefore develops newness not through correspondence, but through difference. Neither does it search for correspondences, but rather for the recognition and recording of the rifts and movements created by the research. In this sense, artistic research is unrepeatable; i.e. it is not possible for precisely the same experience to recur.
An important issue in examining and evaluating artistic research is therefore whether this performative aspect has succeeded. Bolt formulated a number of questions for this: Has there been a shift in material practice in the field? Which methodological changes took place during the process? What was revealed by the work? What did the work do? Which new concepts arose through the research? Do these concepts change the understanding and the practices in the field and/or in other discursive fields? Does the work have an aesthetic, kinaesthetic or affective effect or affect on its public? Does the work change the way in which we perceive the world?
She ends the series by saying that in order to be artistic research, it must also be able to argue the claim of producing new knowledge, or preferably new ways of knowing2 . The question, of course, is how that should be done. The interesting thing about Bolt’s inquiry into artistic research is that it does not concern questions that arise from neoliberal needs for measurability and transparency (as is usually the case in the field of education), but rather questions that aim to give scope to how the research presents itself, and whether or not - presented publicly - it meets the expectations we have of art that explicitly reveals itself as research.
The questions I have described here so literally did not go through my mind word for word when viewing the exhibition, but they did nudge me in a particular direction. The first question of the possible shift in material practice in the field is difficult to answer, especially as a viewer. In the case of all the works, the techniques used are not remarkably different to those of regular exhibitions. There are paintings, prints, collages, monitors and/or other media (such as piped audio). That is of no real help. The second question concerns the possible methodological change during the process. The collage-like character of much of the work means that we can probably assume this. Various works are reflections of ‘working meetings’, as shown in the work of Stultiens (Uganda) or the remnants of Kamma’s performances, and in other absences, such as Holth’s dais in the middle of the long room. It becomes clear that it is not only the visible results themselves that count, but rather that the works as objects are witnesses to moments in a process that is sometimes still ongoing. They represent and present at the same time. They are witness to found connections, like those literally woven into Perrin’s installation, or they represent special emotionally charged events, such as Westbeeks’ photos and poems. The portraits in the long room (Stultiens and Van Hoogdalem) look at us, but they also look back at what happened to them before. The only work that seems to exude a continual presence is the visual recording of our toilet data, by Westerhuis. The banal origins of this (big) data are transformed into moving diagrams. In contrast, Jongsma’s ‘feltscapes’ are literally ‘felt’ representations of the piecemeal composition of the landscape. In short, many of the works on display represent different ways (meth-odoi) of exploring and articulating things and people, or visualising them in this way for the first time. During the processes, various methods were used that appear to result from the idiosyncratic approaches.
The next question is what does the work do and what does it reveal? This can only be answered, of course, on the basis of each individual work or ensemble. What emerges from the whole is the variety of subjects, like dementia in actual practice, the effect of historical emotionally charged places, and artistic practice as a socially binding or divisive agent, etc. Do the works thus offer new concepts, new knowledge or new experiences? Although this question is relevant with regard to research, it is not so easy to answer, as the context of the areas of knowledge in which the work operates is an assumption, rather than a given. Do the works then operate mainly as concepts and ideas that can be experienced (i.e. affective) and do they suggest issues, rather than a specifically defined problem (as is usually the case in science)? It would appear so. The works show a wide range of areas that have often not been presented in that way before. If third parties were involved in the artistic creative processes, then innovation and transformation will certainly apply to them (this is more difficult where third parties concern only things). In other words, new forms of knowledge appear that can only become visible in that way. The question is whether the visitor to the exhibition can also experience (or re-experience) all these layers in this way. Can the viewer be convinced by the work as a visual argument (as Bolt wants, or does she mean that there are public confrontations during the process)? To me, at least, it is clear that we need a different way of looking and reasoning in order to experience and explain the transformation of performations. This way of exhibiting art research focuses on the artistic works themselves instead of the associated and partially absent discursive texts and events, which the viewer can anyway involve if they so wish. Only in this last total performation can a total transformation take place and can we determine and experience whether the artistic research has succeeded in its uniqueness.
Lector Theory in the arts (ArtEZ University of the Arts)
Thank you for inviting me to Groningen. I took your invitation as an opportunity to explore the ways in which your North and my South (my Research Centre for Arts, Autonomy and the Public Sphere is located in Maastricht) relate. The two days In Groningen, attending the platform meeting Kunst Onderzoek, the symposium Thought Things, and the exhibition Dwell, Act, Transform, helped to clarify why I believe so strongly in the opportunity of artistic research, as well as highlighting some concerns I have about how to take this opportunity.
When I arrived at the Minerva Art Academy, I almost immediately bumped into you, Anke. “Where is the exhibition?” I asked, and you pointed. In my first walk round the exhibition, I was immediately struck by how normal it all seemed: This white cube with works on walls, accompanied by gallery texts. It made me feel like a conventional museum visitor or an art critic. But rather than accepting this role, and thus taking artistic research as art, I tried instead during my visit to agnostically and empirically explore: How is this thing called artistic research done and defined here?
On the ground floor, I noticed work by Andrea Stultiens. A small stool was standing in front of her work. On it, a thick dark blue book. It caught my eye, so I sat down and started to browse. I took out my notebook to copy a sentence when someone addressed me. Andrea introduced herself and said I need not write anything down. She would give me a copy of the book. A moment later she handed it to me. Pleased as a hoarding magpie, I put it in my bag.
On the second day of my stay, Tim Ingold gave a lecture. He characterizes art that interests him as anthropological. And I think (as you do, I guess) that this is a wonderful way to think about artistic research. Such a practice is:
“a generous, open-ended, comparative, and yet critical inquiry into the conditions and potentials of human life in the one world we all inhabit. It is generous because it is founded in a willingness to both listen and respond to what others have to tell us. It is open-ended because its aim is not to arrive at final solutions that would bring social life to a close but rather to reveal the paths along which it can keep on going. […] Anthropology is comparative because it acknowledges that no way of being is the only possible one […]. And it is critical because we cannot be content with things as they are.” [Ingold 2014: https://kadk.dk/en/seminar-2-interventionist-speculation-august-2014]
For Ingold, this characterization is to be seen in a contrast to scientistic ways of working methods, primarily embodied for him by ethnography. Ingold distinguishes the truly anthropological practice of learning with, that is more like an education, from learning about, which is to do with extracting information or data. While I embrace his definition of a generous anthropology, the sweeping contrast to the sciences concerns me. When defining artistic research, I think we tend to feel too comfortable by taking the position of the subjective versus the objective. It is a good position from which to criticize the neo-liberal, managerial knowledge economy. And it gives us a way of showing how artistic research matters.
But we cannot be satisfied with such ideal typical oppositions. Not because science isn’t really as powerful, hegemonic and dangerous as we think it is, but because it often is. As many authors within my own field of Science- and Technology Studies have argued, we cannot afford to leave the sciences alone. We have to want to learn with the sciences, if we are to find out and possibly criticise in any specific way how those sciences shape the subject-positions we live with. Such inclusive generosity shows that there are many ways to understand ourselves and to answer the question how to live, some romantic and deep and slow, some modern, objective and quick. And everything in between. Finally, such an anthropology, I believe, can depend on a specific kind of ethnography. In my notes of Ingold’s lecture, with a reference to Hal Foster, I have him saying: “You cannot be faithful and speculative at the same time.” But I think you can and you have to! You can pretend to be faithful, to develop techniques of generosity.
Another moment, the day before: In her presentation, Ann-Sophie Lehmann suggested a nice way to undo big dichotomies between arts and academia. She suggested the term “neighbours” to think about how disciplines relate. I really like this term. It immediately suggests the mundane ways in which people casually go about ordering their lives. It also made me wonder about my own neighbours in Maastricht. In Groningen, it seems that artistic research is supported from a wonderful bottom-up association between fine arts (at Minerva) and art history/art theory (at the RUG) education. What I really like here, is the evident necessity of artistic research as well as the elegant circumvention of top-down institutional battles. In such a constellation, however, it would seem difficult to me to get away from a relationship between art as an object that is studied by art theory. In Maastricht, my research centre is located in the midst of a variety of arts curricula. Useful because this automatically fosters reflexivity both in practice and in theory whenever the two meet. Besides, we try to develop neighbouring relationships between artists and academics that are not in the first instance founded on an interest in art itself, but that take what I am starting to call a “substantive detour”. Collaborations between artists and academics arise from their concern with specific issues. Their research only in effect becomes reflective of their constituent fields. Taking this substantive detour seriously means that instead of immediately speaking about artistic research, art, or knowledge in any general way, we should attend to the specific issues that artistic researchers are dealing with.
To do so, I would have to return to Groningen to dwell there differently and to then start this letter anew. (This would not turn me into your neighbour, but I am eager to explore what us being “correspondents” might yield.) Instead of writing stuff about artistic research head on, I would dwell in and on specific projects and the substantive detours they propose. I would write about George and rehabilitation practices and resilience after detention (Anneke Sools), and about the lived reality of dementia care and how to pay attention to it (Herman van Hoogdalem and students), to name but a few of the fascinating projects presented in Groningen. And indeed I would dwell on photography and colonialism, as I have been doing since I returned home with Andrea’s book. I would write about how browsing through images in her blue book, makes me pass through the tangled problems of representation and power and beauty and circumstance and shame. How she opens up the history and use of photographs by following them wherever they take her, both back towards an ever retreating original, but also sideways along versions of versions of versions, and forwards towards new images she (and others with her) add to an ever-growing, marvellously rickety stack. I would have postponed attending the symposium, the meeting, the dinner to first learn about and with Andrea’s substantive detour. I would have sought a way to linger on that stool with Andrea and her work and her skirt and her book.
Reader Autonomy and the Public Sphere (Faculty of the Arts, Zuyd Hogeschool, Maastricht)
The triple loop of artistic research in the North
On the opening night of the exhibition, curator Anke Coumans suggested in her lecture that the title Dwell, Act, Transform refers to the three components of artistic research processes envisaged in the North. First, residing in a place to getting to know it, then using artistic practice as an explorative and embodied method to respond to this environment, and, finally, seeing how the artistic work becomes an intervention that sets something in motion by affecting those who encounter it. As a newcomer to the Dutch North, I was surprised that these three methodological components seem strikingly similar to the elements of students’ work practices in the programme of Performance Design at Roskilde University, where I worked prior to University of Groningen. In this programme, university students conceptualize and carry out cultural events of various kinds (concerts, exhibitions, festivals, etc.), thus bringing practice-based learning into the humanities, blending theory and practice, analysing and making, composing a case of practiced-based learning involving project management, design thinking, and to some extent artistic research.
In comparison with traditional academic reports, the reports that students write to account for their work at Performance Design are complex as they are describing and analysing three quite different processes. While such assemblages of different modalities may expand understandings of academic activities, these different components do not necessarily easily integrate into one uniform story. Hence, it may be useful to speak of three differentiated loops that can balance in various ways.
The first of the three loops consists in learning about practices at a specific site. To carry out this task, students may dwell and engage with an environment, becoming constituent parts of this environment, or they may investigate a research theme by different means, relating empirical material to existing research on the topic and analysing the empirical material with relevant theories. For classic academic reports, this would be sufficient and the process would end here. However, for students at Performance Design – as well as for artistic researchers – this only constitutes the stepping-stone for beginning the real work, composing the framing of the process of making.
With the second loop, acting, a different story starts, namely the creative process, which forms the core of the overall project. The creative process constitutes the central loop of the whole project, the research design. Yet, the creative process is not only a methodological issue, but also forms a research topic in itself. Tracing the pathway of making composes a subject matter to be analysed in its own right, a key research theme in cultural production studies. Hence, with this loop a second analysis arises, focusing on the process of making.
In the third loop, called transformation by Coumans, the creative process continues into the field of study and makes a difference there. Similar to the action research of the 70s, artistic research becomes a matter of collaborating with participants and changing things together. With this participatory agenda, this third loop entwines with both the first loop by making an impact on the issue of study and the second loop by extending the creative process. Making and sustaining relationships with various stakeholders also composes a loop in itself about collective processes, distributed agency and relational becomings.
In design research, these three components would constitute a neat phase model: first locating a problem and investigating it, then making a design in response to this pre-study and finally testing how the design works in practice. However, in the cases of artistic research and explorative practice-based learning processes the phases do not necessarily happen in that particular order. Nor are the phases necessarily phases in the sense that they have accurate beginnings and ends, but may be fluctuating, ongoing and open-ended. Hence, a sequential phase model may not provide an adequate illustration, but risks post rationalizing the actual course of events.
Moreover, such a phase model clearly indicates that the first phase, the pre-study, represents the theoretical analysis, and the design phase composes the practical response to this analysis of the situation at hand. Thus reinstalling the dichotomy between analysing and doing despite the aim of bringing the two elements together. This becomes evident in reports where the object of study is analysed with grand theories describing the societal relevance of the project, followed by an account of the practice-based methodological approach and its participatory foundation, which composes a text of a different genre, either purely descriptive or applying theories of another status such as guidelines or best practices. Ironically, this means what is powerful and appealing about artistic research and practice-based learning, namely the artistic practice and the processes of making, risks getting a secondary role in accounts about this work.
Focusing on the work, as in the exhibition format, provides a way of solving this issue of giving the academic study priority and may enable valuing artistic research on its own terms rather than on the register of worth from academic studies. For that reason, the exhibition format seems promising. Yet, this strategy of focusing on the artistic work also finds an allied in letting it take centre stage in written accounts. Hence, rather than seeing the written text about the process in opposition to the artistic process itself, an instance of “scriptocentrism” that shows contempt for practical activity,4 another suggestion would be considering how to also make the second loop central and strong in accounts about artistic research, also theoretically. To pursue this agenda, I believe it would be fruitful to establish collaborations between academia and artistic research in developing theoretical ways of accounting for the processes of making artistic research projects. Currently, sociology of art experiences a growing interest in production studies inspired by actor-network theory and science and technology studies (STS), which is in line with Helga Nowotny’s recommendation – and invitation – that researchers in the arts could “delve into the burgeoning STS literature. They will find much that appeals to them intuitively, but also much that allows them to ‘make sense’ of their own artistic practices”.5 Perhaps time has come to establish a sociology with art informed by artistic research.
Sara Malou Strandvad
Universitair hoofddocent Kunstsociologie (department of Arts, Culture and Media, Faculty of Arts at the University of Groningen)
- Nationaal Regieorgaan Praktijkgericht Onderzoek SIA / Netherlands Taskforce for Applied Research ↩
- See PARSE Journal Issue #3 Repetitions and Reneges, Summer 2016, p. 129-142 ↩
- Thanks to Ties van de Werff and Veerle Spronck for being test correspondents of this letter. ↩
- See Dwight Conquergood (2002): “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Resaerch”, TDR 46(2): 145-156. ↩
- P. xxii in Helga Nowotny (2011): ”Foreword,” in The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts, edited by Michael Biggs and Henrik Karlsson. London and New York: Routledge, xvii-xxvi. ↩