Artists’ Research Centre (ARC)

Essay: What is artistic research?


Corin Sworn, winner of the biannual Max Mara Art Prize for Women at Whitechapel Gallery.
© Richard Eaton 07778 395888

By Julian Klein

originally published in: Gegenworte 23, 2010, Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities


According to the UNESCO definition, research is “any creative systematic activity undertaken in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of man, culture and society, and the use of this knowledge to devise new applications.” (OECD Glossary of Statistical Terms, 2008).

Research therefore means not-knowing, rather: not-yet-knowing and desire for knowledge (Rheinberger 1992, Dombois 2006). Research also seems to be no unique selling point of scientists, but to include many activities that have been made by artists, for example. The fact that most of them worked creatively and many systematically, is mostly undisputed. The motivation for knowledge enhancement was on the other hand not comparably obvious overall, even as they sure need to perform and reflect their work by the use of knowledge they must have somehow acquired and therefore researched for – and this not only recently, but from the very beginning.

For many reasons, as Baecker (2009) describes in short, resentments to junctions of research and art begin primarily with their substantification: that artists are “researching” appears easier within a scientistic worldview than that some of the products of their work must logically belong to “research”. Lesage suspects that this rejection also is concerned about the restriction of resource access and titled his article (2009) with the question “Who’s Afraid of Artistic Research?”

Before we cite in a potential dispute as a penultimate argument McAllister (2004: “I think, artistic research exists”), we can probably save a couple of points by offering a categorical distinction, for example a triplet, according to Jones (1980 ), Frayling (1993) and Borgdorff (2009), among others: a distinction in art, which is based on (other) research, then, in art, for which research (or research methods) are used for, and finally in art, whose products are research. Dombois (2009) extends this trichotomy by the chiastic complements: “Research about / for / through Art | Art about / for / through Research.”

Even natural scientific research alone is very diverse in its objects, methods and products, as McAllister (2004) notes. How much more this applies to research including the humanities and social sciences, and further industrial, market or opinion research. Not surprisingly, this is also true for artistic research. Among the authors cited here, there is agreement that this diversity has to be preserved against efforts to canonical restrictions.

Art without research is lacking an essential foundation, as this is the case for science. As cultural developments, both live on the balance between tradition and innovation. Tradition without research would be blind takeover, and innovation without research would be pure intuition. Wherever scientists do not research but teach, judge, advise, treat, apply, or talk more or less telegenically (hence: “PUSH”… the button), they might still operate science – but if they undertook this all without research, they were not quite in their cause. The same can be said of artists. On the other hand it is clear that not all art quite counts as research, as little as this is the case for science.

The principal diagnosis is, however, “research” in the singular exists not more than “science” or “art” – they all are collective plurals, assembling very different processes, which often are closer related to others over category boundaries, like disciplines, than with some other members of their own faculty, and then assemble much better under common interdisciplinary roofs, such as topics, methods or paradigms. This “urge of singularization” is probably the strongest root of the supposed and stubborn opposition between art and science: Baecker (2009) calls this the “organizing principle of the functional difference”, which emerged in the 19th century according to Mersch & Ott (2007).

Art and science are not separate domains, but rather two dimensions in the common cultural space. This means that something can be more or less artistic, while nothing would be already said about the amount of being scientific. This is also true for many other cultural attributes, such as the musical, philosophical, religious or mathematical. Some of them are, on the contrary, more dependent on each other than isolated. In this respect, Latour’s diagnosis applies, mutatis mutandis, here: “There are no two departments, but only one, their products to be distinguished later, and after joint examination” (1991, p. 190). However, at least not everything, what is considered being art, has therefore to be unscientific and not everything that is regarded as science, inartistic. Dombois proposes for a “Science as Art” five criteria (2006). A wealth of examples for which there is here no space shows that artistic and scientific content of objects, activities and events independent of one another can mix in more and different dosages. Research is not then or only artistic, if carried out by artists (as helpful as their participation may be), but deserves the attribute “artistic”, where, when and by whom whatsoever been made to a specific quality: the mode of artistic experience.

Artistic Experience

In the mode of aesthetic sensing perception is present to itself, opaque and sensible. Artistic experience can be determined similarly as the perception mode of sensible interfering frames (for details see Klein 2009). According to this diagnosis, to have an artistic experience means to have a look from outside of a frame and simultaneously enter into it. Frames, which cross in this way our perception, are comparably present and sensible (Fischer-Lichte 2004 calls this a “liminal state”). The artistic experience as well as the aesthetic sensing are modes of our perception and, as such, constantly available, even outside of art works and art places.

In the experience the subjective perspective is constitutively included, because experience can not be delegated and only be negotiated intersubjectively in second order. This is a major reason for the conception of the singular nature of artistic knowledge (Mersch & Ott, 2007, Nevanlinna 2004, McAllister 2004, Busch 2007, Bippus 2010. Dombois 2006 points to Barthes’ proposal of a “mathesis singularis” in 1980). Artistic experience is particularly dependent on and inseparable from the underlying undergoings. Artistic experience is an active, constructive and aisthetic process, in which mode and substance are fused inseparably. This differs from other implicit knowledge, which generally can be considered and described separately from its acquisition (see Dewey 1934, Polanyi 1966, Piccini and Kershaw 2003).

Artistic Research

If “art” is but a mode of perception is, also “artistic research” must be the mode of a process. Therefore, there can be no categorical distinction between “scientific” and “artistic” research – because the attributes independently modulate a common carrier, namely, the aim for knowledge within research. Artistic research can therefore always also be scientific research (Ladd 1979). For this reason, many artistic research projects are genuinely interdisciplinary, specifically: indisciplinary (Rancière in Birrell 2008, Klein & Kolesch 2009).

Against this background the phrase “art as research” seems to be not quite accurate, because it is not the art, which evolves into research somehow. What exists, however, is research that becomes artistic – so it should be rather named “Research as Art”, with the central question: When is Research Art?

In the course of a research, artistic experience can occur at different times, be of different durations and different importance. This complicates the categorization of the projects, but allows on the other hand a dynamic taxonomy: At what times, in which phases can be research artistic? First, in the methods (such as search, archive, collection, interpretation and explanation, modeling, experimentation, intervention, petition,…), but also in the motivation, inspiration, in reflection, discussion, in the formulation of research questions, in conception and composition, in the implementation, in the publication, in the evaluation, in the manner of discourse – in order only to begin the list hereby. These phases can be summarized only posthoc and categorize, for example in the usual triple of object, method and product. This sequence is important: for the discussion on artistic research is not to fall into a normative restriction in a canonical system (Lesage 2009).

At what level will the reflection of artistic research take place? In general at the level of artistic experience itself. This does not exclude neither an (subjective or intersubjective) interpretation on a descriptive level, nor a theoretical analysis and modeling on a metalevel. But: “It is a myth that reflection is only possible from the outside.” (Arteaga 2010). Artistic experience is a form of reflection.

Artistic knowledge

Who are we? How do we want to live? What are things meaning? What is real? What are we able to know? When does something exist? What is time? What’s a cause? What is intelligence? Where is sense? Could it all be otherwise? – These are examples of common artistic and scientific interest. Their treatment does not always lead to secure and universally valid knowledge (with regard to the history of science: only in very few cases, no?). The arts are granted the authority to formulate and address such basal and yet complex issues in their specific ways, which don’t have to be less reflected than those of philosophy or physics, being capable to gain specific knowledge that could not be delivered otherwise.

Whether artistic thirst for knowledge is acceptable as a reason to call an investigation also “research”, depends obviously on the question, what types of knowledge assemble under the concept of cognition, or which types of cognition form the category of knowledge. Even if we could agree that knowledge is “justified true belief”, we would have to argue further, because we would have to agree in the understanding of when an opinion is a belief and what exactly can be a justification for this – the concept of truth remaining apart. This path leads, occasionally, to final arguments, which appear in each case acceptable to us or not (see Eisner 2008). For those kind of terms being, in the end, part of a meta-language, such as knowledge, we often experience: the more we try to determine them, the more we are forced to normative judgments, which are mainly based only on what we want them to mean. And then, it is equally operable, if knowledge as a third species in addition to cognition and skill includes experience, or whether knowledge and experience stand side by side as forms of cognition – they should at least be considered equivalent.

Some authors require that artistic knowledge must nevertheless be verbalized and thus be comparable to declarative knowledge (e.g. Jones 1980, 2004 AHRB). Others say it is embodied in the products of art (e.g. Langer 1957, McAllister 2004, Dombois 2006, Lesage, 2009, Bippus, 2010). But ultimately it has to be acquired through sensory and emotional perception, precisely through artistic experience, from which it can not be separated. Whether silent or verbal, declarative or procedural, implicit or explicit – in any case, artistic knowledge is sensual and physical, “embodied knowledge”. The knowledge that artistic research strives for, is a felt knowledge.


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