What about research?
When research involves artistic practice, terms formed around the notion of ‘practice’ are often used, such as practice-based, practice-led and practice-as-research. This is especially popular in fields related to performing arts and is evident in the names of anthologies such as Practice as Research – Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry (Barrett & Bolt 2007), Practice-as-Research in Performance and Screen (Allegue et al. 2009), Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts (Smith & Dean 2009) and Practice as Research in the Arts – Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances (Nelson 2013). Sometimes the term ‘performance’ is used, as in Mapping Landscapes for Performance as Research (Riley & Hunter 2009). The use of the term ‘practice’ can be criticized for creating a false practice-theory dichotomy, or for failing to distinguish artistic practice from other practices. Regardless of this critique, within contemporary art the shift in emphasis from an artistic practice aiming first and foremost at producing an artwork into an activity undertaken mainly as an exercise, a performance, or a contemplative practice, is a strand in the general trend since the 1960s, accentuated in this century, towards valuing the ‘working’ of art above the artwork as an object. This trend can be related to research as well, and to the discussions about the impact of research, as Barbara Bolt has done:
“Whilst the terms are often used interchangeably, the artwork is not the same thing as the work of art. In this context, the artwork can be defined as the production – the novel, poem, screenplay, performance, painting, film, installation, drawing or event that has emerged in and through practice – it is what is published or exhibited or performed. The work of art is the work that the artwork does; it is the movement in concepts, understandings, methodologies, material practice, affect and sensorial experience that arises in and through the vehicle of art and the artwork. The work that art does is its performative quality. This can relate to the process of making the artwork and the effects for the artists and for the field, and/or to the effects that the artwork may generate in the world.” (Bolt 2014, 29-30.)
This important division into what the work is and what it does, does not, however, distinguish between working (the practice), and the work (the result of that practice), but only notes that both have effects. It seems research that entails an attempt to articulate and theorize an on-going practice, which is based on acquired (and thus more or less unconscious) skills, has often a different focus and uses different methods compared with research that tries to develop and conceptualize an artwork or a new type of design product, and explain the route to that result. We could distinguish a) product-oriented or object-led artistic research, focused on the creation of an artwork or a design product from b) practice-based or practice-led research, engaged with an on-going practice, often with a practical, critical or emancipatory knowledge interest. We can further simplify the idea and say that artistic research can be a) product-oriented, when the main goal is the creation of an artwork, or b) practice-led, when a particular form of practice is more important than a specific artwork or performance. (Arlander 2011, 321.) This distinction could be attributed to traditions within the creative and the performing arts respectively. Such a division, however, is contested by contemporary art, which often focuses on processes and interaction rather than products and finished works. And of course, practices can be developed and reified into object-like methods.
Besides this difference in emphasis between practice and product there is often a difference in approach regarding time. The research process can be c) developmental, striving to create something new. It can also be d) reflective, trying to understand and articulate what one has already done. Either approach, or rather, mixtures between them, with emphasis on either aspect, can be found within artistic research, although you would expect the developmental to dominate. For the critically minded, however, the reflective approach provides a space for questioning and criticizing the ingrained conventions of the art world. For the more conservatively inclined, it offers an opportunity to formulate and document tacit knowledge and to articulate methods within an existing tradition.We can form a classical field combining these four aspects:
Product-oriented (a) Practice-led (b)
Developmental (c) (ac) (bc)
Reflective (d) (ad) (bd)
Creating this kind of typology can seem meaningless, like a useless habit borrowed from social sciences, but in some instances, it could be clarifying, especially if we remember that most cases of artistic research include all these aspects in some degree. As generic examples we could imagine a research project aiming at a technological innovation, like a flying carpet (ac) or a new method for singing together with birds (bc), a research project trying to understand the responses to an artwork in public space (ad) or criticizing a traditional teaching technique (bd). In real life clear-cut examples are hard to find; nearly all research projects, for instance, include a reflective or backward looking component simply because they are reported.
Returning to my practice described above, focusing mainly on the video works, would make the approach more product-oriented (a) while emphasizing the practice, as I have done here, exemplifies a more practice-led (b) approach. In terms of temporal orientation, the practice is not primarily developmental (c), no new innovations are aimed at. Although my goal was to write before I knew what the result would be, parts of this text are necessarily written as reflections (d), after the practice of recording and editing. Unlike many of my previous attempts, which generally tended to reflect upon already finished works (ad), I have here tried to write about an on-going practice, although not necessarily with a developmental (bc) agenda, but have nevertheless ended up writing after the fact. As an overall assessment this research report could probably be characterised as practice-led and reflective (bd).
Surprisingly, there are few typologies created around artistic research; most categorisations concern the various relationships of art and research, often assuming a dichotomy, like “The Three Configurations of the Studio-Art PhDs” (Elkins 2009), creating a third zone (Biggs & Karlsson 2011) or some form of boundary work (Borgdorff 2012) between the two, or then suggesting various combinations: research interpreting art, art interpreting research, art placed in a research context, research placed in an art context, art contributing to research, research contributing to art, and so on (Keinonen 2006). Other typologies relate to methodology in a more general sense adding a third dimension to quantitative and qualitative research, such as performative research (Haseman 2006), arts-based research (Leavy 2009) or conceptual research (Smith & Dean 2009). In many cases, artistic research can be understood as an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary activity; different inter- or transdisciplinary entwinements lead to different types of artistic research (Arlander 2016).
Often artistic research appears to find contact points with philosophical study, and to share its speculative freedom, despite inevitably also having an empirical dimension. We can think of artistic research as a speculative practice, not necessarily linked to speculative realism in philosophy (Meillassoux 2012), but as an activity engaged in imagining alternatives, as a form of speculation through practice. Not only the practice-led and developmental alternatives in the field above, but also all other forms of artistic research could be called speculative practices. The point is that the speculation takes place with the help of and through practice.
It is relatively easy to see the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary aspects of the practice in my examples (between disciplines like performing arts and visual art, reaching out beyond academia to the art world and to the everyday), but how could it be considered speculative? What would be the speculative or imaginative dimension, searching for alternatives, in recording the same view repeatedly? Setting up a quasi-experimental situation where one can expect changes to take place is of course a form of speculation or guesswork in a literal sense. Working with the agency of technology, the automatic functions of the camera, and letting the elements of the environment perform for them, means reducing the human interference to some extent, and could be considered speculative in the sense of reaching beyond a human understanding of the world. The how of agency resided in the specific details of the practice, with the camera, the tripod, the tree trunks and the weather as the main intra-acting components (Barad 2012, 55-56). In theory, no human activity was needed to produce the images. The practice was nevertheless rather human centred, because the camera did not choose the site for the tripod, nor the framing of the image, and did not decide on the moments of recording either.
The practice in my example seems documentary rather than speculative in character – if we understand speculative in the sense of imagining, of envisioning alternatives – because it was recording the action and emphasizing the perceived or the sensory rather than the imagined. It nevertheless had a speculative dimension as well, creating a routine, a basis, for the unexpected to appear. One documentary aspect is my way of handling the results of these explorations, not using only the unforeseen image or the interesting exception; rather, by maintaining and showing every repetition I am foregrounding the practice itself as a performance and the resulting video as witness to and evidence of the action. Thus, calling these projects examples of speculative practice, the emphasis must be on the word practice. Rather than speculate on alternative possibilities as a mental exercise, the speculation takes place by repeatedly creating the conditions for alternatives to appear, or not to appear, in and through the practice.
See the video material:
Summer at Söder