Contemporary Research

Michael Schwab



Despite the firmly established names used to describe epistemically minded art practices and the ebbing fundamental debates, I am still interested in the concepts on which the field is built. Most people will agree that the terms artistic research, practice-based research, recherche création or künstlerische Forschung, etc., essentially cover the same ground and that geopolitical and linguistic particularities account for much of the difference. For instance, practice-based research is chiefly associated with the United Kingdom, artistic research (my preferred notion) with continental Europe and so on, each expressing different national, cultural, or linguistic approaches. But how productive is a more relaxed approach to the intricacies of names?

Among these different uses of concepts, it can be difficult to see the larger historical trajectories. Any serious attempt at understanding artistic research’s present moment must rest on a sense of its wider history since it simply cannot be that ‘artistic research’, through its seemingly contingent institutionalisation from the late twentieth-century, has no base in artistic practice or the history of knowledge whatsoever. Naturally, I will not be able to deliver any detailed history of artistic research in this short text (or in my lifetime, for that matter); rather, I can but sketch a movement across history to pinpoint two important shifts. If and how this historical sketch might prove to be accurate needs to be determined in further study; my case here can only be an invitation for further engagement.

Accordingly, and to bring the history of Western concepts fully into view, I can also only briefly mention a possible pre-history to artistic research, which I already have alluded to elsewhere (Schwab 2008): the historical exclusion of art from the realm of the state as epitomized in Plato’s Republic (Plato 2003, 608a) as well as the revolutionary impact of German Romanticism in the wake of Kant’s critical project creating the conditions not only for artistic research but also for contemporary art as we know it (Osborne 2013, chap. 2). Bracketing this long span of time in this way naturally gives rise to questions, such as the role of the Renaissance in such a pre-history, or of non-ocular-centric discourses within either religious (Didi-Huberman 1995) or indigenous (Mignolo and Walsh 2018) contexts, and hence the degree of epistemicide (Sousa Santos 2014) at play within historical approaches such as mine. Acknowledging these shortcomings, I insist that ground still needs to be broken to see the present state of artistic research differently, that is, as part of historical movements outside the narrow confines of institutional ownerships and interests.

To illustrate this history, I invite you to enter ‘artistic knowledge’, ‘creative research’, ‘practice-based research’, ‘art research’ and ‘artistic research’ into Google’s Ngram Viewer ( while playing with the settings in such a way as to not smooth out too much (smoothing >10 will reduce some of the more recent trends). The resulting graph, scientifically very limited in its meaning, may look like this:

This graph illustrates two major developments. Firstly, how the importance of ‘artistic knowledge’, born in the nineteenth century, has lost its currency within a paradigm shift towards notions of research, certainly driven by empirical science’s success story. Important to me is the fact that the having, or better still, the owning of artistic knowledge by specific subjects (artists, geniuses) or the embodying of such knowledge in objects (works, masterpieces) has become less and less tenable. In fact, part of what begun around 1800 turned distinctly conservative if not proto-fascistic one hundred years later while the other, progressive part refused to behold knowledge in favour of creating it. I am using the terms ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ here mainly due to their historical rather than political connotations; in this sense ‘conservative’ means a relation to a (past) given knowledge (‘truth’) that acts as a reference (such as Plato’s ‘ideas’) while ‘progressive’ means a relation to a (future) not-yet achieved knowledge (whose unity in any form of ‘truth’ remains debatable).

In fact, epistemologically and not historically approached, we may even think of two notions of ‘truth’, one based on identity, the other on difference, or, temporally, as being and becoming. Again, I have alluded to this elsewhere (Schwab 2020) but if we assume forms of acceleration and growth as essential to capitalist societies, we must recognize how knowledges of the past are failing us, leading to extreme if not fanatical forms of conservatism while narratives of innovation and risk expressed in the disappearance of security (the knowledge that you are OK) on a global scale prevail. This leads me to a second, more recent trend illustrated by the graph: there is a rise of bottom-up rather than top-down approaches, that is, strong, institutionalized concepts (nouns), such as ‘knowledge’ or ‘art’, are being replaced by modes or styles (adjectives), such as ‘practice-based’ or ‘artistic’. (Also ‘research’, which I exclude for my point here but which, for good reasons, has been challenged both from within [e.g., Henke et al. 2020] and from without [e.g., Smith 1999] would need to be listed as a noun to be jeopardized.)

There would be much to say about the problematics of ‘practice-based’, but suffice it to mention that it runs counter to the necessary theoretical investments of much contemporary art, suggesting inappropriate alignments of artistic practices with applied rather than fundamental research. Accordingly, I see the later arrival of ‘artistic research’ on the stage of the debate as a response to the earlier model of practice-based research as established in the UK, but not only this. The adjective ‘artistic’ also relates to art in particular ways. As helpfully exemplified by Gina Badger and Alise Upitis (2012) with reference to issues of gender, the use of ‘artistic’ rather than ‘art’ identifies with practices excluded from the canon, with artists disadvantaged in their work or with art characterized as ‘low’ or ‘minor’ or not as art at all (craft, design, etc.). In fact, I would argue that with the term ‘artistic’ the notion of ‘art’ is disappearing from research – however, not by removal but by infiltrating its very ground. In line with the great Romantic project, we are less and less able to meaningfully differentiate between human-made and natural things; we have been learning to appreciate matter, to unlearn and to deskill ourselves often in unfavourable institutional conditions. Links to Beuys’s Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler, or his role in the Free International University are no coincidence.

The historical shift from notions of ‘knowledge’ to notions of ‘research’ as well as from ‘high’ to ‘low’ forms of making are not only a recent stage in the historical trajectory that I sketched. They are also, and importantly, developments from previous stages that ‘survive’ in modified ways within the later forms, perhaps akin to a Hegelian sublation (Aufhebung in German), which as is well known combines the seemingly contradictory notions of preservation and cancellation. Thus, despite the shifting paradigms, if we identify something as ‘artistic research’, we must thus also be aware of the ongoing agencies of ‘artistic knowledge’, ‘creative research’ or ‘practice-based research’ layered within it. These are difficult to address as due to the historical distance they are not available in any direct or immediate manner (despite occasional claims to this end); their respective historical context must be put in perspective leading to the various different flavours within the current debates and, often, a sense that the intellectual knot presented is not sufficiently dense. Without claiming that my own work focusing on expositionality (as proposed for the Journal for Artistic Research [JAR] in Schwab 2011; Schwab and Borgdorff 2014; Schwab 2019) – that is, the articulation of practice as research – can escape such criticism, I want first of all to advocate increased densities of concepts regardless of the specific preferences. For artistic research this must necessarily also include histories of art-making often forgotten in this context. To not recognize this is one of the major disconnects in the current discourse.



While the above chart nicely illustrates the historical dimension in terms of epistemology, artistic research is also part of the history of art-making (and of philosophy of art, that is, aesthetics). It is much more difficult to illustrate this history as progression; rather, in artistic practice, it is chiefly encountered as layers of sediments on which the present moment of art is built. Again, crudely and to start somewhere, I would suggest with Jacques Rancière (2004) an initial plurality of arts, which gave rise to a more singular ‘aesthetic regime of the art’. We should note, however, that historically this might not have been achieved if we take the different histories of, for example, style between the arts in the nineteenth as well as the twentieth century. For instance, Romanticism in music, visual art, literature or architecture was not historically synchronized, nor was it synchronized in postmodernism (Jameson 1995). Regardless of its factuality, the singular notion of (high) art managed to gain historical agency as a bar artistic practice had to pass, through notions of beauty or, later, the sublime. A sense (but only that) of a relation to such a high notion of art is, since, part of any contemporary art experience. 

An emphasis on such specifics of contemporary art in artistic research raises fundamental epistemological questions. From the vantage point of contemporaneity, artistic research aims neither for archaic nor future forms of knowledge; rather, it situates knowledge in an extended present with no historical agency, as Peter Osborne (2013) laments. If artistic research does not aim to give knowledge-answers to historical questions, what is the epistemicity of contemporary artistic research that gives it societal value in a culture struggling to make sense and direct itself? This question is surely not new – we only have to think back to Heidegger’s artwork essay (Heidegger 1993) – but, here, it is not anymore asked with regard to a vestige (art) set up in opposition to (techno) science, that is, from two opposing historical forms; rather, it is about aesthetico-epistemic investments made in forms of understanding that are more scientific than art but also more artistic than science.

However, historicity is also very much part of that notion of art leading the avant-gardism of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century (Bürger 1984; Buchloh 1984) as well as claims towards an ‘end of art’ in the 1960s and the subsequent ‘regime change’ towards the contemporary from 1970 (such as Danto 1997). At the same time, within singular notions of art, the plurality of the diverse arts and their practices kept reappearing. For instance, we may see it in Clement Greenberg’ (1993) focus on painting, despite the rise of notions of medium. In Greenberg’s case, the notion raises more a question of technique than technology when compared with later theories of media (McLuhan 1995; Manovich 2001). Today, we live in ‘post-medium’ (Krauss 2000) or ‘post-conceptual’ (Osborne 2013) conditions, that is, within a contemporary art still imbued by this history that comes in the form of vestiges rather than templates: to make art today means to foster an individual arts as a fundamental resource and reference point to a practice, to retain a sense of art as historical project and to suspend any formal criteria describing what counts or doesn’t count as art. In the contemporary moment of artistic research, it is to this situation of artistic practice that the ‘artistic’ in ‘artistic research’ must relate should research have any meaning in the context of art.

Here we encounter yet another pitfall. Usually, when we get together to exchange views about knowledge and its practices or when specific issues require collaborative efforts (as, for instance, Horizon Europe’s mission-driven research in areas such as health or climate change), we come together as artists or as scientists bringing with us resources of distinct disciplines. In an interdisciplinary methodological approach often referred to as ‘triangulation’, it is assumed that the understanding of a shared object of knowledge will be differentially enriched, and I don’t doubt that this is the case. However, what if the very nature of these objects rests on presuppositions not equally shared between the disciplines, for instance, what acceptable knowledges are, what problems are and what our societal missions amount to? (While sounding great on paper, ‘high risk/high gain’ strategies seem designed to be biased if assessment processes or conceptual frameworks perpetuate historical relations that for many have resulted in the current existential problems in the first place.)

I am very much convinced that interdisciplinarity can only scratch the surface (contra Barry, Born, and Weszkalnys 2008), since the historical import of the disciplines (their history as well as their historicity) situates whatever encounter or exchange there might be in particular ways. Even if, within my own discipline, I may have gained a sense of its constitutional problems, I will quite likely operate with a comparably superficial image of the other disciplines around the table. Not withstanding our own shortcomings as artists entering interdisciplinary settings, it is striking how little understanding of contemporary art is commonly shared – a delay of about fifty years would not surprise me. If the same is true for artists’ understanding of contemporary science, we can get a sense of the historical gulf that needs to be negotiated within interdisciplinary projects.

By focusing on the practices of the sciences, Science and Technology Studies (STS) has made huge inroads into the social and historical dimensions of science as well as issues of representation. While artistic research can take much inspiration from STS and despite its status as a fringe phenomenon of the (techno) sciences (that does not necessarily feed back into scientific developments), I don’t have the impression that a nexus fundamental enough has yet developed. Arguably, STS itself can be seen as remaining too scientific – its engagement with modes of presentation as not creative enough – to meaningfully link contemporary studio and laboratory practices outside art/science dichotomies. Hypothetically speaking, could it be that artistic research is to art what STS is to science, some form of reflective/creative extension amplifying some of the respective foundations and critically intercepting some of the presuppositions at play when the disciplines procreate, an analogy that prevents us from conflating fundamental differences in what has been termed a ‘third culture’?

While it may be interesting to focus a little longer on the disciplinary territory that may emerge with such speculations, my own interest in artistic research has not been to define what it is, but to utilize some of the affordances of this as yet under-defined concept. More specifically, I have been interested in how forms (forms of art as well as forms of knowledge) emerge from specific material practices. In this respect, I concur with Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s approach that maintains art and science as historically distinct cultural activities while seeking ‘an assessment of basic similarities with respect to the creation of artistic effects and the creation of knowledge effects’ (Rheinberger 2018, 248). Rheinberger’s ‘epistemology from below’ (Rheinberger 2023, 65), seeks insights ‘less into what they [scientists and artists] say, but more into what they do’ (ibid.). In my understanding, this means that we should not necessarily hope for a bridge to be built between science and art on a disciplinary level (or for a shared interest in their respective objects), but for mutually relevant practices of origination, which have ‘remained epistemologically underexposed, despite the efforts of the contemporary practice turn in sociology, history, and, more recently, philosophy of science’ (Rheinberger 2023, 47).



If there were nothing new under the sun, the question of origination would have to be asked on a very fundamental basis – certainly beyond the scope of this paper. However, within historical societies, we assume not only that change does happen, but, more importantly, that what is new in a change cannot be predicted – if it were, it would, in a sense, already have been given contracting the very possibility of historical change. We use the notion of ‘research’ for organized efforts to bring about novelty mainly in terms of understanding but also in terms of making. In fact, as part of the practice-turn, and in particular in the context of art, both activities, understanding and making, are always at play together: practice without theory seems ‘blind’ and theory without practice seems ‘empty’, to borrow a famous Kant passage (Kant 1998, A51 = B75).

However, before looking into the specifics of research processes, it is very important to realize that this approach shifts the setting between science and art quite substantially. If what is to be new cannot already have been part of a given history, it has to arrive into this history from somewhere else, since only then can history truly change. At the same time, if science and art are predominantly historical forms – or institutions, even – they themselves cannot be seen as the origins for change: they may condition what is the case or what may be possible, but they cannot (or may not even want to) control what is about to happen. ‘Research’, thus, describes an underdetermined area within a discipline as the driver for its historical change.

Stephen Scrivener (2006) observes that science and art have evolved historically differently here. He suggests that science has afforded itself a ‘professional research class’ while art has not – or may be seen to have developed one only with the introduction of artistic research. However, whether this is possible or desirable would require further discussion. Assessing the institutional frame of research is not something I want to do in this text, but it is important to recognize that research has in any case a specific role to play that cannot be reduced to the accumulated knowledge of a discipline or field at any given time. In fact, historically speaking, ‘research’ covers what is the not-yet accepted knowledge of a discipline (as well as what will never be accepted as knowledge), or its proto-form. The history of science is full of examples of what Thomas Kuhn (1996) referred to as ‘paradigm shifts’, that is, moments when accepted knowledges were turned on their heads and what hitherto developed at the fringes of accepted knowledge gained centre stage. To be sure, I don’t argue that it must always be ‘research’ that facilitates such shifts, in fact, to say it with Paul Feyerabend (1990), within and outside research, ‘anything goes,’ but in terms of epistemic governance, research occupies the designated space to drive historical change.

The further we go from established to not or not-yet established knowledges, the less constrained methodology and disciplinarity must be to facilitate difference with potentially historical effects. In the extreme, given its status outside disciplinary control, we have in principle no criteria to ascertain whether what is happening in research is either scientific or artistic, nor would we want to restrict what is possible to do by one determination or the other. Even if, as disciplines, art and science are distinct, their research activities can and must transgress those distinctions creating a more shared albeit murky space of inspiration if not exchange. While there is not (and cannot) be an ideal space for free research given that notions of research provide an institutional frame or at least a boundary within a field or a discipline with tentacles affecting most if not all of what happens inside that space (e.g., through funding frameworks), in its essence, ‘research’ must be conceived in opposition to determining factors.

In terms of the current historical moment, we seem to be confronted with two conflicting developments that are not settled on a societal level: on the one hand, there is an increased instrumentalization of research, which is restricted in terms of aims as well as returns – products, patents or solutions, as it were, to already given problems. The term ‘innovation’ is often used in this context; (venture) capitalist models of investment, risk and return apply even if we look at state-funded research. (As an aside, we should not forget that practice-based research in art as it developed in the early 1990s in the UK was a secondary effect to an opening of higher education to private funding and market forces [White Paper: Higher Education: A New Framework 1991].) This trajectory has given ‘research’ a bad name in the arts with massive opposition across much of continental Europe often fought over in terms of the autonomy of the university, less and less willed by the state. (In Germany, for instance, this has had extreme implications as educational frameworks were completely overhauled – the disappearance of the esteemed German engineering diploma, for instance, or the challenges to the no-less esteemed master-class model in art universities affording, at times questionable, extreme professorial freedom.) In fact, we should say that research across the board has been suffering from this, despite the many benefits of the system, and that an epistemic suffocation has been taking shape that has, perhaps by design, been limiting opposition to the current capitalist model.

Against what for many is a dystopian reality, on the other hand, inter- and increasingly transdisciplinary research has been developing often at the fringes that has been eroding and has the potential to further erode not only the instrumentalization of research but also the notions of knowledge it is built on. We may consider this an ongoing ‘epistemic turn’ in which research does not just create knowledge objects but in which what counts and doesn’t count both as knowledge and object is being jeopardized. As I describe elsewhere (Schwab 2020), two main historical transformations on a global scale have fuelled this development: speed and complexity. As we have strongly witnessed during the Covid pandemic but also during the current time of climate crisis or recent attempts at AI risk assessment, if we aim to base our decisions on established knowledges, we will, most likely, be too late to act. On what epistemic grounds should future decisions stand in order not to fall into the abyss of irrationality fuelled by populism and manipulated by demagogues with vested interests? Likewise, if the complexity of the problems that we see exceeds any single disciplinary scale, what types of knowledge can join up and potentially unify the various disparate and potentially conflicting findings that are all relevant to the understanding of a single phenomenon? While we don’t as yet have an epistemological framework for what some call ‘advanced practices’ (European Forum for Advanced Practices 2023), it seems clear that disciplinary structures provide the necessary resources and with them what may be considered the ‘activation energy’ for a progressive hybridization and fusion of disciplinarity at the site of the phenomena rendering materially real what hitherto may have been suggested only as metaphors. 

If I am permitted to speculate along this trajectory a little more, I would suggest that in epistemic terms spaces of transdisciplinary proto-knowledges will necessarily have to appear as superficial or amateurish in parts since it cannot be expected that acteurs will know enough in all relevant fields, that is, ignorance and not competence may be essential to such transdisciplinary settings. If we assume that the holding-together of all relevant knowledges in their proto-states is more important than specific knowledge outcomes, it is not the degree of ignorance but the degree of competence a research setting can afford and tolerate before it disintegrates. I will not follow this line of thought further here, just to say, that it is tempting to refer to Schrödinger’s cat and the ‘agential cut’ (Barad 2007) here: that if a suspended state of knowledge–matter (which we may relate to Deleuze’s virtual) encounters established items of knowledge (or questions that seek established knowledges; we may relate this to Deleuze’s actual), it will decay into facts as it is loses cohesion and, with it, critical mass and potentiality. Assuming that knowledge will need some kind of form, are there perhaps alternatives to what has historically been established? May artistic research, through its artistic foundations, perhaps not always already deliver forms of meta-research into possible representational forms of knowledge rather than new knowledges in established forms?



In this final section of my text, I want to return to the question of time and the importance of historicity in research. As may have become clear, I am indebted not only to my own contemporary art practice (and an understanding of contemporary art that comes with it) – my resource – but also to an interest in the history and theory of scientific knowledge from a Rheinbergian perspective – my declared field of ignorance. However, while Rheinberger’s scientific background and historical interests have delivered such a valuable contribution to my thinking, I have not been interested nor would I have been able to develop new shoots on his branch; rather, in line with material processes of grafting (Rheinberger 2023, chap. 4; which in some respects would be referred to as appropriation in art), I wish to cut-off ‘a twig or a bud’ of his theory of experimental systems and apply it to ‘the stock’ of art hoping that the resultant plant – and its fruits – will carry properties of both art’s material rootedness in culture and the life energy this represents, as well as a necessary redirection into something much more distant, colder even, than the still prevailing nineteenth-century notions of art. These fruits may not be called artistic research – I am not fixated on that term in any way – but they need to amount to some form of reconstitution of artistic form at the present moment of a kind I see nowhere developing but here.

I want to grow my plant of artistic research from a rebalancing of the graphematic and representational spaces that Rheinberger (1997) analyses in research, where in the former material traces appear that have knowledge effects, which are investigated and further developed into proper knowledge in the latter. If we step back from the details and gain a long view of Rheinberger’s project, I would suggest that his focus lies more on the graphematic than the representational aspects, setting him at odds with the more general field of STS, which seems to touch only on the graphematic when it needs to but is otherwise content in stirring the soup of science. At the same time, and this seems strange, the epistemicity imbued in the graphematic is said to originate only in the representational space; that is, only if a historical trajectory can be inscribed into graphematic operations of research can they be described as epistemically relevant. In Rheinberger, the graphematic is never formally available, it needs to host the representational (as a kind of parasite, Serres 1982) to be epistemically considered. Contrary to this, without having a comparably strong epistemological framework, current forms of art have cultivated the graphematic in forms of contemporary art, that is, it is not impossible to find non-historical societal forms for knowledge. Epistemologically speaking, this would entail a diversion of epistemic activity away from its directedness to a future without giving up notions of research as enhanced forms of understanding; aesthetically speaking, it would entail that graphematic items of knowledge (‘epistemic things’ in Rheinberger’s understanding) gain some form of (contemporary) artwork status imbued with value (sense) along more axes than just the epistemic.

From an artistic point of view, the role that representation as designated epistemic form plays in this context seems strangely retrograde. Even if, with Rancière (2004), we accept that there existed a ‘representational regime of the arts’ to every contemporary artist, it is clear that representation remains relevant but it is never the dominant form that contemporary artistic objects take. Leaving aside whether we refer to a possible current regime as ‘aesthetic’, troubled as that notion is already in the links Walter Benjamin (1999) makes to Fascism as well as those Guy Debord (1994) makes qua the spectacle to capitalism, representation is only one of the relevant aspects of a contemporary work of art. In fact, we may argue that the other aspects – such as a work’s performativity or its ‘openness’ (Eco 1989) – are there amongst other things to suspend a work’s closure in an understanding of what it represents, lending if not forms of subjectivity (Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy 1988) at least agency to works of art in which knowledge is not simply given and transmitted but actively established in every act of transmittal jeopardizing, in the extreme, what it is supposed to be knowledge of.

To be fair, in the theory of science (e.g., Hacking 1983), despite its epistemological dominance, representation isn’t such a simple notion either. It is an artifice of communication that has the effect of naturalizing knowledge as if it were given and not made (matter of fact versus matter of law [Shapin and Schaffer 1985]). Rheinberger (1997, 103) refers to this as the relationship between ‘representation of’ and ‘representation as’, where achieving the former depends on the latter’s successful disappearance from the equation. ‘The scientific object itself is shaped and manipulated “as” traceable conformation’ (ibid., 111). In other words, there is a difference between epistemic labour and knowledge effects, where the former can be seen to act as the latter’s blind spot: it is what makes representational knowledge possible without being available to representation itself.

Norman Bryson (1983) refers to a parallel to this in the context of realism in painting – realism as artistic effect. I, myself, have proposed similar explanations for photography (Schwab 2018): that the materiality of the photograph, the way traces of light are arranged in specific ways mediated through the optics of a camera, make us believe a photograph offers a representation of a scene when, in fact, we know that only a very narrow application of a set of protocols produces that effect, which is an improbability when compared with all other forms a photograph could take – over- or underexposed, blurred, distorted, discoloured etc., – but we stick to the representational use of the camera as the proper form of photography. Here, too, we see how in notions of representation everything artistic is drained from a photograph as not relevant or even detrimental to what is considered a ‘true’ representation.

From an artistic position, it is impossible to not problematize representation at the risk of losing epistemic traction – with Peter Osborne (2013) we would conclude that an emphasis on the ‘as’ of representation relegates contemporary art to the domain of the fictional relinquishing of political agency. However, is this not more an expression of disappointed expectations than a reflection of contemporary practice – namely, that new, more complex forms of knowledge are being developed that sublate representation? In the sciences we may, for instance, refer to the epistemological status of models (Rheinberger [2023, chap. 2] touches on this), in the arts perhaps to the distributive nature of contemporary works (Lowry and de Freitas 2013; Osborne 2013, chap. 5). In both cases knowledge is not be given at a singular moment of contemplation, but time and space are required to navigate and experience materials prepared specifically for this occasion in order to hold a more complex kind of knowledge between the various instances of models or works. (Theodor Barth [2018] helpfully refers to epistemic ‘holding patterns’ for such knowledges.)

Crucial to my argument here is that individual knowledge objects are seen less as technical objects (settled items of knowledge) or epistemic things (which Henk Borgdorff [2012, chap. 9], for instance, interprets the openness of art works as) and more as spatio-temporally distributed traces not different to the traces collected and assembled in the laboratory (or the studio) seemingly only pre-dating – but now also post-dating – representational knowledges, which are increasingly relevant only for very specific use cases. In other words, the very form of the setting in which objects can become traces has posed a challenge to which art has historically responded with contemporary artistic or, in my words, expositional forms too weak yet to be recognized as fundamental, transdisciplinary phenomenon, but which are on the rise nevertheless. We could, thus, speculate that when historically science followed art into representation, it would not be unlikely to now follow art into expositionality. On this basis, I would suggest it to be a mistake to keep focusing on known forms of knowledge in an attempt to narrow down art and science into some form of equivalence; rather, we should continue our art working to challenge hollowed out forms of art and to invent more and better forms of contemporaneity too attractive for science to neglect.

If this were to come to pass, we would not require historical agency (future knowledge) to explain and validate research, we would enjoy partaking in aesthetico-espistemic formation processes with potentially very different effects. Firstly, we would find value in the form this would take reducing the emphasis on outcomes. On this basis, I would argue that we should look at everything that is done and produced at least in the context of research, including in the sciences, as art work – both as activity and object. With this in mind, there wouldn’t be a choice but to conclude that the present operations of knowledge and its generation are for the most part interesting but artistically poor, flattened as they usually are in the reduction of phenomena into representational forms. (Scientific) knowledges have developed too fast, artistic labour has been suppressed, artistic forms have generally been too weak and artists too conceited to contain the wild growth of culturally effective forms outside art, in particular those with strong historical agency. In short, for a long time, we have underinvested in art as fundamentally relevant to our shared developing sense of ‘world’. While societal investments in contemporary research remain comparatively slim and conventional notions of art obstructive, we must continue to develop a credible framework because the various crises that we are currently witnessing leave us with nowhere else to turn. If we were to achieve this, a myriad of material, social, cultural, perceptual, etc. dimensions would be rendered active at the site of knowing, disallowing the kind of detachment that has favoured catastrophic notions of progress to dominate. Historically, I would speculate, that the bifurcation between art and science has really been a sign of the breakdown happening at the heart of our culture, which we currently aim to mend.




Preliminary work leading to this article was developed for the presentation 'Traces of the Not-Yet Known' given together with Alberto Casas at the Instituto de Física Teórica, Autonomous University of Madrid, on March 31, 2023. The event was organised by Rebecca Collins, Lecturer in contemporary art theory at the University of Edinburgh and David G Cerdeño, Beatriz Galindo Distinguished Researcher at the UAM-CSIC Institute of Theoretical Physics, as part of Collins' research project 'Understanding Uncertainty: Creative Practice and Sonic Detection as Strategies for Scientific Outreach (P4UU)' funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh (grant ID 1897). I am grateful for all the rich discussions that we have had.




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