Artistic Research as a Process of Unfolding

Unfolding the Process – Darla Crispin, Director, Arne Nordheim Centre for Artistic Research (NMH)

By relating theory concerning ‘the margin’ to that of unfolding, using specific instances of artistic practice, this exposition aims to offer some ideas as to how the approaches associated with artistic research might generate both new knowledge and fresh social and cultural orientations for art-making and reception.


As the field of artistic research extends its reach, linking disparate domains through its emphasis upon interdisciplinarity and expanding its own and their horizons through re-evaluations of critical reflection, subjectivity and auto-ethnography, its potential to be grounded in practices based upon community, consciousness of ecology and, crucially, empathy, becomes more pronounced. By looking at a few simple and specific examples that are situated in these kinds of practice, I should like to offer an analysis of the nature and extent of this potential. In a sense, therefore, this exposition will act as a ‘hinge’, a site of folding, between different approaches to artistic research. Following Gillian Rose[1], Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari[2] and others, it is the idea of the fold that I should like to explore as an organizational metaphor, with art-making itself acting as the site of the folding and unfolding - a site of pressure, rupture, fracture, transformation – and with the fold’s marginal status serving as the potential point of emergence of new shapes, functions, ideas and even – indeed especially - new knowledge.

Pressure, rupture, fracture – these are all too apparent in contemporary Western societies and such transformations as we witness generally seem negative rather than positive. One could be forgiven for sensing that the human follies wrought upon the planet over the recent generations are returning with a vengeance in the form of disruption of the natural world. What has become apparent in the wake of such events – perhaps, in particular, events associated with climate change and the debate around it-- is that, in current geopolitical terms, ideas of the fold as eliciting a change of direction and even a rupture seem all too apposite. The first point about this is a literal one concerning the natural world: viewing our planet from space, for example, we see folding and unfolding: the movement of wind in upon itself, the folding of layers of stone and strata from seismic activity. This is natural activity – but some of it may well be affected by our human ‘doing’. And this is where the second point, the crisis of humane discourse, unfolds, in that the political language and leadership required to deal with crises seem to have almost vanished – and this in a world that is still trying to come to terms with things that until recently seemed inconceivable – mass migrations of war-torn and persecuted populations, tremors in Continental European politics, and the dystopian political situation in the USA. There seems little in the way of ‘expertise’ that can remedy these complex situations. Indeed, since the predictions of experts have been proven wrong so often in the past few years, the very idea of respect for expertise amongst our global citizenry has been undermined. What can it mean, in such times, to be engaged in the world of art and ideas and to be fired by an appetite for their explication – literally, their unfolding? What is ‘expertise’ now and, amongst the fields of expertise, what kind of value can we claim for that special corner which concerns itself with artistic understanding?

These upheavals challenge us in more than our political convictions; they force us to look at what we mean by ‘humanity’, when aspects of the public discourse seem so inhumane, and to try to do something about protecting it. The idea of holding multiple points of view, of being convinced that divergent beliefs can all be honoured, if not agreed, and that these aspects of the human condition will, in turn, generate artwork that is complex, not ‘black and white’ in its nature, its conception or reception – all this is challenged by the disintegration of the honest discussion and debate that should characterize the democratic process. The ‘truths’ of art can seem all-too frail against this disintegration, which already shows signs of undermining our very sense of truth and how we define it.

The horrific debasement of language that marred the 2016 U.S. presidential election and only grows worse in its appalling aftermath is an urgent wake-up call; it challenges us to protect and create anew our open, courageous and necessarily sophisticated discourses in-and-through art – and to do so overtly in resistance to trends of over-simplification and the telling of untruths. This is part of the demanding work of research, but also the seat of some of its most significant rewards.


You think the world is your idea… and if you don’t understand that and check it now it will make your whole life a gigantic hallucination.[3]

Robertson Davies, The Manticore

The notion of solipsism, with its inherent dangers of false ‘world-creation’, is often discussed in relation to research – but it is not merely about research: it is really about the delicate balancing act of becoming a fully-realised human being. The objective/subjective paradox is particularly acute in artistic research, where researcher/practitioners must constantly balance the unique and personal with the shared and replicable; this tension has prompted them to look at ways that personal reflection, auto-ethnography and self-reflexivity can continue to be developed as viable approaches to the conducting of musical research.

This new thinking is not confined to artistic research; it sits within a wider shift in attitudes that has been discernible across musical scholarship for a number of years. For example, in response to thinking exemplified by Joseph Kerman’s influential text Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology (Harvard University Press, 1986), the once traditional field of historical musicology has witnessed the rise of the self-styled ‘new musicology’, in which the previously narrow and selective focus of much musical scholarship was critiqued and counterbalanced by a conscious promoting of under-represented genres and non-standard ideological perspectives. This initiative challenged established assumptions in ways that revealed – one might even say unfolded - the hidden hierarchies driving our sense both of what is most important in music history and, perhaps more crucially, what constitutes neutrality and objectivity in our own attitudes and approaches. Significantly, it has introduced into our discourse a new awareness of the importance of plurality and contingency; we now speak of ‘musics’, not music, and ‘histories’, as opposed to history.

These moves have been part of a wider shift that has gone far beyond the purview of the arts; for example, soon after its foundation, researchers in the Orpheus Research Centre in Music (ORCiM) at the Orpheus Institute in Ghent became focused upon the theoretical writings of Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, a biochemist and philosopher working at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.[4] Rheinberger’s work has proven to be of interest to a wide range of artistic researchers on the continent, especially in the Low Countries, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, because of his concept of the ‘experimental system’. Crucial to the concept is Rheinberger’s essential notion that the nature of this system, the apparatus both physical and conceptual within which the experiment takes place, is not the controlled space of the ‘scientific method’, but a highly contingent arena in which the subjectivity of the experimenter is part of the desirable search for the ‘unexpected’ – the ‘new epistemic thing’ – or ‘new knowledge’. Experimentation, Rheinberger tells us, is an affective, emotive practice, not an ‘objective’, de-personalized following of rules. This legitimising message from a bona fide scientist has been seized upon enthusiastically – perhaps sometimes too enthusiastically.

Although we must be very careful when using scientific language and models metaphorically to describe the making of art, the parallels between Rheinberger’s experimental system with its ‘future knowledge’[5] and, say, the insight that emerges from certain kinds of musical performance have an undeniable persuasiveness. The resemblances they spark apply both in terms of the futurity of the ‘knowing’ in the act of performance and in relation to the imprint of the practitioner upon that knowing. This shift in understanding the nature of knowledge-formation has, in turn, transformed aspects of our music disciplines.

Discipline formation

The process of discipline formation generally follows a predictable trajectory, in which initially idealistic aspirations become swamped by a plethora of more partisan considerations as the number of stakeholders proliferates and their vested interests come into competition with one another. It is the all-too human desire for power, influence and ownership that largely drives this process, but it is undoubtedly exacerbated when resources, financial and otherwise, are in scare supply. Cooperation and complementarity tend to give way to tribalism and a fight for domination. Among the many hopes for artistic research among its first-adopters was that it might break down some of the cultural barriers between scholarly work and artistic production, giving for the first time an authentic voice to those practitioners who were also thoughtful and inquisitive about their practice. In an academic world where practice and scholarship were seen as separate, it was not uncommon for those who displayed hybrid interests and capabilities to be penalised, rather than being rewarded for their possession of more than one focused skill or talent. Artistic research offered a source of potentially reunified identity for such individuals and, it was hoped, would give them a context and vocabulary within which to articulate their questions and share their knowledge. In doing so, it would not negate musicology, music analysis and the other established disciplines but add to and enrich them; its questions – and therefore its ways of addressing them – would not be antithetical, simply different. But the fact that the term chosen to signify the new discipline not only contained the loaded word ‘research’ but also linked it with the provocative adjective ‘artistic’ – suggesting a dualism between itself and all other research, where the qualifier ‘scientific’ is sometimes explicitly added and always implicitly present – inevitably raised all kinds of anxieties. Many of these were legitimately bound up with a concern for academic standards and the possible threat to these from an insurgent discipline. But others stemmed from a perceived challenge to generations of privileged status and to the rights of guardianship concerning quality criteria. Those who championed artistic research were called upon to define and justify it and, unsurprisingly, to do so in ways that conformed to the frames of reference of the status quo. Not only did this constrain the boundaries of the discourse; critically, it forced that discourse firmly onto the terrain of language, disenfranchising any explanations that might, for those with the skills to detect them, be found woven into the practice itself.

Of course, practitioners themselves use language all the time as a tool for refining their practice. Composers talk to performers, performers to each other, teachers to students and musicians to audiences. They have vocabularies for all of these interactions but none of them is the same as that used by musical scholars. Crucially, they share a readiness to engage with their subjective experience and to talk in the first person – a practice that is generally shunned in scholarly writing. Engaging with the scientific research community meant entering a linguistic world of alien conventions and taboos in which they lacked experience. Conversely, those who had invested years of effort in mastering the language of research were on ‘home ground’ when it came to demolishing the arguments of the newcomers. In particular, they could pounce upon any manifestation of the subjective ‘I’, citing it as evidence of a non-scholarly approach. The derisive accusation was that such writing was not ‘re-search’ but ‘me-search’ and that, rather than finding new and intriguing insights within their own experience, those indulging in it were, like Narcissus, simply being dazzled and enraptured by their own reflections.

In this polarised terrain of discourse, artistic researchers looked for independent validation of their ideas and approaches in other disciplines and found some solace in the writings of certain philosophers and social scientists. References to these began to proliferate in the pages of books, articles and doctoral theses concerned with artistic research. But citation is one thing; weaving such ideas into the body of one’s own writing poses the same challenges of mastering an alien vocabulary but with the added jeopardy that one is no longer talking about a different musical discipline but about disciplines entirely outside the musical domain. Meanwhile, philosophers and social scientists have not been slow to pick up on the interest in their disciplines coming from artistic researchers and have begun to turn their own attention towards artistic research from a philosophical and social scientific standpoint. We now see many keynote speakers at artistic research events who come from these non-musical disciplines and who, with undeniable eloquence and intellectual flair, lecture artistic researchers on just what it is that they are engaged in. In this context, the fact that they have rarely practised that of which they speak seems less damaging to their case than the corresponding lack of fluency of practitioners when they attempt to verbalise their critical reflections on the inner workings of their lived practice.

Critical Reflection

It can be seen that subjectivity lurks at the core of many of these tensions and controversies. Critical reflection as a tool for research is respectable enough when applied, with ostensible objectivity, to other individuals or phenomena; when directed inwards upon oneself, it is commonly seen as fatally compromised. And, of course, there are serious risks in applying critical reflection self-reflexively. Doing so may open up research to new kinds of conceptualisations but it requires an unswerving rigour. Poor examples will only reinforce traditional scientific prejudice while even the best manifestations will face a wall of scepticism. And yet, there are notable exceptions to this pattern, not least in Norway. Significantly, when an artistic equivalent to scientific research was being proposed in Norway, the term chosen was a phrase that translates as ‘artistic development’; freed from the restrictive connotations of the word ‘research’ this activity could embrace wholeheartedly the concept of personal reflection as a tool to promote artistic development. An ‘artistic fellowship programme’ was developed in Norway as an equivalent for artistic practitioners working in higher education to the more traditional PhD. Personal reflection was not merely permitted but was made a mandatory element of this programme and, as a result, a significant body of experience concerning such work has been generated.

Then, in January 2018, the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Science passed a regulation establishing a new doctoral programme based on the performing and creative arts and specifically named as a PhD in artistic research. As a doctoral degree based on an artistic-research model, this programme aligns the Norwegian system with those of other countries that have developed artistic research doctorates but with the crucial difference that it has grown out of the experience of the artistic fellowship programme and, especially, out of the emphasis there upon artistic practice and production and upon the artist’s personal critical reflection on these. The Norwegian Academy of Music was the first institution to establish its own PhD programme based on the ministry’s new regulation. Its ‘Ph.d.-program i kunstnerisk utviklingsarbeid’ or, in English, ‘PhD programme in artistic research’ has been followed by similar programmes in the other major Norwegian higher arts institutions.

This development is a significant innovation which, nevertheless, continues to reflect Norway’s emphasis upon individual research programmes that are embedded in socially-conscious educational philosophies and practices. The PhD programme in artistic research does not have a thesis; it consists of the making of art, coupled with personal reflection upon the processes that lead to that art. And, by the way, that reflection does not have to be articulated in the form of writing, although none in the music field has yet ventured fully outside the confines of the written document into exclusive use of multi-media examples.

Although the artistic research fellowship programme has generated a wealth of experience in handling subjectivity, autobiography and self-reflexivity, this does not mean that the experience has been uniformly positive and successful. Even outside the confines of expectations relating to a doctoral programme, the level of sophistication and maturity with which fellows have engaged with the reflective element of their submission has frequently failed to match that of their artistic production. As a result, the issue of reflection has itself become the subject of research enquiry as the national regulatory body, NARP (the Norwegian Artistic Research Programme) has sought to identify strengths and weaknesses and to define best practice. A report commissioned by NARP, authored by Eirik Vassenden in 2013[6], articulated some of the challenges:

How [do we] put into words the experience of developing an artistic project or doing artistic work? All such attempts at articulation involve the writer […] finding a good and expedient language with which to describe his or her experience, a language that will also make it possible to share this experience theoretically and cognitively. A language that enables not only the sharing of experience, but also the discussion and problematisation of the experience, so that the creative practice, filtered through a different medium, also becomes visible to the creative subject. In this perspective, the attempts at articulation are based on an underlying literal interpretation of ‘reflection’ which can function as a mirror, but also as a contrasting element (Vassenden 2013, p. 31).

These observations and suggestions demonstrate how the Norwegian Artistic Research Programme has moved to develop a critique of what reflection might be, understanding that this, in itself, is important research work. But this does not mean that PhD candidates find this easy to achieve. When we request self-reflexivity, what we are asking is challenging. It entails a journey toward new kinds of languages, in addition to the other challenges of method and rigour which it raises. Moreover, the ‘out-and-back’, ‘call-and-response’, ‘question-and-answer’ aspects of self-reflexivity suggest a point of reversal – a hinge, as it were, which brings us back to the image of the fold.

Unfolding the Process

Inspired by the work of Gillian Rose, and experiencing genuine concern about the pressure on the arts to instrumentalise their arguments so as to justify the financial support they need in order to survive, over the past five years or so I have been in a constant process of revisiting the metaphor of unfolding as a way of understanding the processes that go on in artistic creation, interpretation and presentation. Its value as a metaphor in the exploration of self-reflexivity is just one aspect of this. More generally, it seems to me that its strong and tactile quality (we have all experienced the sensuous way that paper both yields and is made stronger by the process of folding) make it a vivid way of characterising the otherwise often abstract and complex way that creativity interrelates with knowledge-generation. Explaining complexity without feeling the need to explain it away seems to me a better way to demonstrate why the world needs the arts and the particular truths which they hold.

Using the word ‘unfolding’ in the context of knowledge-creation in the arts implies a different relationship between the states of non-understanding and understanding than that suggested by the more traditional research-related concepts of ‘discovery’, ‘invention’, and so on. It carries the notion of a knowledge that is always close to us: within reach and already an intimate part of our everyday experience, yet somehow enigmatic and wrapped in upon itself until skilfully opened out to our direct gaze. By contrast, the traditional metaphors of research conjure up images of bold and pioneering expeditions into uncharted territory from whose alien wastes nuggets of valuable knowledge can be retrieved and heroically brought back for the benefit of civilization – with all the post-colonial baggage that such imagery entails.

Of course, this is partly a matter of vocabulary and of how the connotations of words have evolved - and often diverged. One of the three common (and related) definitions of unfolding is ‘to remove the covers from’ – so, literally, to dis-cover! Perhaps it is worth looking at all three definitions and reflecting briefly on their shared and distinct properties:

Thinking of this last definition, it is interesting to contrast it with another cliché of scientific research – the ‘eureka moment’, the flash of inspiration in which revelation appears to come quasi instantaneously in a convulsive inversion that changes the state of non-comprehension into that of comprehension. For all that this is indeed a cliché, and by no means the invariable paradigm for either the manner or the rhythm of scientific discovery, it is revealing in the way that it once again implies the sudden, and almost inexplicable, arrival in our conscious experience of something previously absent and, to all intents and purposes, non-existent. The importance of the criterion of originality in the evaluation of research owes much to the idea that the researcher’s contribution to knowledge is something which they, and they alone, were able to reach out to and seize at a given moment in the linear evolution of knowledge.

It is from this paradigm of originality that we also derive the heroic notion of research as a kind of colonization of new territories of knowledge, and of the total colonized area being one that grows incrementally with each original contribution that is added to it. This, however, is a metaphor that disadvantages arguments wishing to portray artistic creation as a species of research.

Art is, in part, about making us see more clearly things that lie around us all the time but which we all too often fail to attend to as we should. It is a call to attention that reminds us to work actively, and with all our senses, so as to apprehend life in all its richness and detail. Rather than relating to knowledge as it has generally been perceived in post-Enlightenment Western thought - as a relentlessly advancing vector - if anything, it bears greater resemblances to Eastern traditions of knowledge as the expansion of wisdom through the practice of contemplation. This is a concept that chimes well with ideas of uncovering, expansion and a gradual, narrative-oriented exegesis - and with artistic research as making its contributions to knowledge and understanding in these terms.

Let us consider Artistic Research’s questioning of an enduring and thorny problem in music - the nature of ‘Werktreue’ - in light of the metaphor of the fold. We can define ‘Werktreue’ very simply here as the imperative that faces those of us who work with Western Art music and musical reproduction: that we should aim to make our performances as faithful to the musical score, and therefore, to the composer, as possible. This imperative can itself be seen either as a quest directed at a forever finitely elusive goal or as a search for a truth that is seen as immanent in the musical score and accessible simply through the performer’s unwavering fidelity to that score and every last instruction contained within it. Of course, even the latter concept contains a seed of elusiveness in the sense that only a perfect fidelity can yield a perfect truth. Moreover, in a world in which ‘the truth’ is ever more elusive as an idea, mere obedience to a score, even if exhaustive, is not really sufficient, even though, inside the walls of music conservatoires, the practices around Werktreue still hold sway. This is the site of one crucial fold: that which delineates the schism between the externally imposed demands of the score and the internal imperatives of the musical artist.

The conundrum of Werktreue with reference to Western Art music and the rise of Artistic Research can be conceived of in terms of two opposed, or folded-over, notions, with the former, Werktreue, being associated with the ‘faithful’ rendition of the musical text and the performer acting in the service of this, and the latter, Artistic Research, becoming increasingly concerned with breaching the stronghold of the text, so that performers may remake its materials in new ways, rather than ‘reproducing’ them in accordance with a series of rules. Seeing the unfolding of a musical performance as the imparting of knowledge at a specific time and place and through the rhythms and conventions of narrative encourages us to think beyond the simple equation that the more literally – and therefore ‘faithfully’ - a performance matches the set of instructions for it embodied in the score, the ‘better’ it is. It means that there are times when we might rate a performance more highly precisely in so far as it pushes creatively at the boundaries of identity that are defined by the musical text.

The Artistic Research movement more generally has an emergent question circulating within it to do with whether the rupture of the ‘truth-concept’ that characterizes so many artistic research projects is a near-inevitable corollary of the ‘post-truth’ world: if we can no longer believe in the ‘truth content’ embedded within the musical text, if we consider ‘composer’s intentions’ to be impossible to retrieve from the ciphers of the score, then our rigid adherence to its many markings and codes may belong to an era other than our own. Indeed, the scholar, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson has gone further in an address called: ‘Preening Mannerists and the Performance Police’ by proposing an argument that Werktreue could been considered to be ‘unethical’ because it places the human beings enmeshed within it into various kinds of physical and psychological servitude and hazard. He cites the high number of performance injuries within conservatoires as part of his evidence.

In response to such ideas, many artist-researchers in music are ‘going a different way’, by using musical texts more as repositories of source material through which they search for new ways of working, pushing hard at the boundary of what a ‘work’ actually ‘is’ to the extent that its predictable form can disappear, with something unexpected taking its place. Of course, it is still presumed that the work, in its most essential nature, survives this rough treatment. But is that necessarily true? And even if one accepts that the aural and performative milieu is part of what constitutes a work, are these kinds of machinations necessarily for the better?

Some exponents of the more ‘scientific’ disciplines within music scholarship are pushing back, suggesting that the unbridled messing about with scores is not all it purports to be. Some argue that it is merely a symptom of the exaggerated subjectivity and reflexivity of the post-millennial world in which all is autobiography, reduced to a series of selfies with blog captions underneath. The question then becomes: what is happening to the power of the critical voice in the echo chamber of cyberspace? Does this not make us vulnerable to precisely the doublespeak with which we are inundated in the wider media space? Is the boundary-testing model an approach full of expressive potentiality, or an ‘anything goes’ recipe for the flattening of that expression? Might it not, from time to time, lead us to devastatingly bad choices – artistic, ethical and both?

Perhaps, more productively, we might look at these divergent approaches as two sides of the same argument, but folded over one another. After all, the empathic communication of information and experience – and not merely the ‘verbally empathic’ – is a sign of research transferability, a marker for research content. But this, in some circles, is a heretical point of view. Research, in its more traditional manifestations mistrusts empathy and the individually-incarnated human experience; the researcher, although a sentient being in the world, is expected to behave dispassionately in their actual research, and with a distrust for insights that come quasi-spontaneously from instinct. For the construction of empathic yet ‘proper’ systems in which to study, and to research, our structures still need to change. Perhaps it is within art itself that we see instances of folding that can be read as a meta-language: i.e. that idea of fold allows music to talk to writing to talk to sculpture – and so on.

Here is a story. It is called:

The Cost of Perfection - by Mr. W[7]

"After a lifetime in the craft, he was startled to find in his rough hands the perfect dust brush. When he had made it, there had been no flaw in the polished mahogany handle, of course, but the wood grain swooped and curled more elegantly than he had realized. The fine horsehair had only subtle, but necessary, variations in its hue, and the brush flared from its compact base to a beautiful sweep. It was impossible that this dust brush could scratch a surface, no matter how delicate.

He knew then it was time to retire from the craft.

He built a grand, illuminated case with a glass front to display the dust brush. Several weeks later, he noticed (with professional eye) a thin film of dust on the glass. To use the dust brush itself would be sacrilege, but to use another brush in its presence would be an insult. At a loss, he shifted his weight from one foot to the other and blinked back tears. THE END".

The fold here is the sentence: ‘He knew then it was time to retire from the craft.’ It creates the hinge whereby the subject of the story moves from its protagonist being immersed in a virtuosic, aesthetically highly-realised practice – the sensuous experience of sweeping with the perfect dust brush – to his becoming a curator and experiencing the loss of his practice in a manner so poignant that he is brought to tears, with the perfect dust brush becoming a mere object of contemplation. Debating about this, we might consider it as a critique of curation that echoes many such discourses that are taking place in the arts. It also brings forward the question of ethics in the arts. An ethical moment is a moment of choice; here, the choice to retire, seemingly an ethical one emerging from an insoluble aporia – the high point of aesthetic appreciation of the dust brush being perceived as a sign to remove it, and its user, from action – simply leads to yet another aporia. The brush’s dual identity as art object and functional tool turns into an irreconcilable paradox that paralyses the artist’s capacity for action. Of course, sincere responses to ethical imperatives do not necessarily lead to happiness.

This example also requires us to consider the nature of story-telling. Narratives require both a storyteller and either a live audience or, as in this case, a reader. They are not just about the content to be delivered but also about the event of delivery, the transactional process, through which the content is transmitted. This process may be predominantly uni-directional (in general, the storyteller does the speaking/writing, the audience the listening and the reader the reading) but no decent storyteller unfolds the spoken narrative in the same way to each audience; subliminal feedback deriving from small reactions – expressions, postures, small murmurs, audible shuffling, etc. - will all influence the unfolding and, in the process, re-shape the storyteller’s own relationship with the content of the story. Similarly, while the storyteller cannot literally be re-shaped by every eventual reader of the text, they must think about the range and diversity of their readership when they consider how best to set down in text the narrative such that it will ‘read itself out’ in the inner voice conjured up by the reader.

As a result, both storyteller and audience are changed by each narrative that is unfolded. Knowledge is created within the event itself – not merely transmitted one more time in the self-same way that has occurred in the past and will again in the future. Each unfolding, while preserving the essential characteristics of the narrative archetype, is also unique and irreproducible. This offers a more general lesson about the limitations of trying to understand artistic research in terms of the criteria of its dominant scientific counterpart.

We have to be clear: hearing a piece of music, or listening to a reading of fiction, does not communicate a literal truth, but a compelling realisation generates its own sense of psychological verisimilitude, its own immersive world. Our sense of immersion in the best of such realisations is a function of the vitality of this kind of world-creation, but it is a complex thing, full of wonder, but also full of folds, striations and faults. I believe that this place of the fold is a place of potentially productive creative risk in its acknowledgement of the impossibility of perfection. Gillian Rose’s term for it, and for her theoretical system, is ‘the broken middle’:

The pathos of the concept, which is displaced yet emergent in all these attempts to transcend any comprehension of the diremption of law and ethics, shows its fate in the conceptuality and configuration devised in its stead. This is to challenge the prevailing intellectual resignation: to urge comprehension of diremption in all its anxiety and equivocation; to aim – scandalously – to return philosophy from her pathos to her logos. In this way, we may resume reflexively what we always do: to know, to misknow and yet to grow. The middle will then show: rended, not mended, it continues to pulsate, ancient and broken heart of modernity, old and new West and East. [8]

Expanding the view outward from the philosophical propositions at issue here to the expression of the problems in the form of practices, ‘the broken middle’ might also be called ‘the touching middle’, because of the ways that flat planes make contact when they are folded one over the other. It is a place of work, questions, and sometimes, differences and disagreements. It is also a locus for recognizing the impossibility of reconciling different positions, but allowing these positions to exist, mediating between ‘the ethical’, the collective tradition and culture of a particular community and ‘self-expressive nonconformity’. According to the modelling emergent from this set of ideas, we need to navigate back and forth in our process of ‘unfolding’. We need to move to and fro from:

Figure 1: Unfolding the Process modelling

We could think of these extremes of orientation as coming to a near, but never total, resolution in the middle of the figure, where the fold is shown. We might think of the act of moving back and forth from the personal realms to the transpersonal realms as negotiating this tight place of the fold, with its fractures, points of damage and weakness – but also its potential for reshaping, making three-dimensional, making less rigid and reforming: in other words, art-making. The fold, that blue dotted line in the middle, our place of transition and negotiation, is full of possibilities, and may even be seen as a site of epistemic possibility, a site for the emergence of new knowledge. But it is also the weakest place, the most fragile, the place that tears under pressure. Creativity is especially challenged by intolerance.

I referred to the ‘touching middle’. We could also say that when folded over, these two planes touch each other. Perhaps it is in those points of contact, of touching, that the most profound insights take place. In this kind of modelling, perhaps the most innovative of artistic research must somehow stand with Werktreue, with tradition and the past, in order for the full nature of both to be exposed. Wilful non-comprehension is not working well for global politics at the moment; for research, it is untenable. We need to keep looking.

Consider folding an origami water bomb from a flat square of paper. The processes of folding can make this raw material into an object that is no longer a flat piece of paper but which still has its folded planes pressed tightly against one another. It needs someone to breath into it in order for its context – and potential purpose - to be fully expressed in three dimensions.

Figure 2: Origami cube, or 'water bomb’

The Origami water bomb is a simple form of the art of paper folding. One really can fill it with water and throw it at an enemy; the irony of the implied aggression within the model suits our current global political situation all too well, as if the historicity of the making is imprinted upon the materiality of the object! But if I unfold the paper, I get the image of a series of lines, the traces of the art-making, ghosts of the research process. The past, present and future of the paper – as flat sheet, as inflated cube and as single-use conveyor of a liquid payload – are all somehow represented in this matrix of lines and intersections.

Figure 3: Unfolding showing lines of commonality

Art-making is very specific, for all that it contains multitudes. To make the cube, the folds must be completed in a particular way. Creativity and expertise are fused, not opposed to one another. Multidimensionality is an aspect of a responsible art-making; responsible articulation of what that may mean, and what is at stake, is the province of research. We may see the folding together of art-making and the articulation of the meaning of art as making a more flexible creative space – one that may be verbally mediated or one where the art simply speaks for itself. Working to spread this understanding beyond the small community of the art-form in question introduces the idea of social responsibility, the notion that art still matters. Given all this, artistic research could fold further over itself into becoming a more complex, multi-dimensional and consequential community, so that its discourses become the province of more than ‘the few’.

‘Unfolding’ implies bringing to the visible exterior things normally hidden on the inside, but it does not require their separation from one another to achieve this; on the contrary, the unfolded entity is still single and connected – indeed, it is the folds, the lines of intersection, that are more important in this process than the areas which they connect. Instead of disassembling (remembering that analysis comes from the Greek to ‘loosen up’) it is about explaining (from the Latin ‘explicare’ to fold out). Perhaps we can work creatively within this rich seam, allowing ourselves to be unsettled by the way that, as both ‘self-expressive nonconformists’ and people with collective traditions, we are forced to challenge our ideas and assumptions in the process of becoming creative individuals. But for this, we also need a strong community as a reference, and in this respect, in Norway we are fortunate to work in a country with a National Artistic Research Programme. This programme allows us to function as a true artistic research community, with consistent processes through which we exchange ideas, experiences, new creations, new knowledge, using these processes as ways to develop our expertise as researchers and to engage others with different world views. To artistically challenge everything whilst also remaining committed to our community, and the community of artistic researchers in the world, seems something worth doing.

Why? Because global politics continue to remind us of the real danger of the misuse of certain kinds of power and the plight of many in desperate circumstances who are forgotten by those who have power – the people for whom we should have the empathy that we keep speaking about. It is to be hoped that we can unfold a different story, because the liveliness of working with art and through art is sorely needed in a world where the deliberate speaking of untruths, with the intention of deceiving populations and even depriving them of basic human rights, is gripping our politics. If engaging with art can help us to become better ‘unfolders’, using our feelings and our intellect in combination as we strive for better understanding, it can also be an increasingly valuable tool for grappling with the complex and interconnected phenomena that we encounter in our modern, globalised societies, and for helping to explain these phenomena to people who feel outcast from life’s progress. With the right kind of explanation, perhaps they might be empowered to resume true, enlightened participation.

If art can teach us useful lessons in unfolding it can also offer valuable insights into how life is governed more by process than outcome. We may yearn for destinations, whether in our individual lives or collectively, but the reality of our existence is one of constant flux – sometimes with an apparent upward trajectory, sometimes downward and always, when the larger perspective is taken, cyclical. Art provides us with metaphors for this, and helps us to gain satisfaction and enrichment from dynamism as opposed to stasis. As such, it is again an indispensable tool for understanding the world in which we live and how, collectively, we can get the most out of it. We should not over-estimate the power of our discipline to change the world for the better, but nor should we under-sell its value as a corrective to the narrowing of vision and imagination. Artistic research can help us to link the concrete, personal experience with a bigger artistic discourse; I would further maintain that this, in turn, can show a few more traces to our wider society of the value of working with art and through art.


Davies, Robertson. 1983. The Deptford Trilogy – The Manticore. London: Penguin Books.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. 2008. A Thousand Plateaus – Capitalism and Schizophrenia, tr. Brian Massumi. London: Continuum.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1994. Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton. London: The Athalone Press.

Rose Gillian. 1992. The Broken Middle: Out of our Ancient Society. Oxford UK and Cambridge USA: Blackwell.

Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg. 1997. Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube. Standford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Schwab, Michael. 2013. Experimental Systems: Future Knowledge in Artistic Research. Leuven: Leuven University Press.

Vassenden, Eirik. 2013. ‘What is critical reflection? A question concerning artistic research, genre and the exercise of making narratives about one’s own work’, for the Norwegian Artistic Research Programme,

  1. Rose’s critique of modern philosophy, The Broken Middle (1992), is the principal point of reference here, with Rose’s reading of the diremption of law as a missing piece of the puzzle of contemporary thought becoming a space in which more recent critical reflections concerning research in and through the arts might become resonant, given the temporal conjunction of Rose’s thought with the emergence of the field. ↩︎

  2. See A Thousand Plateaus (1987/2008) especially '1874: Three Novellas, or “What Happened?” (212-228), and Difference and Repetition (1994). ↩︎

  3. Robertson Davies, The Manticore (1983), 512. ↩︎

  4. See Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg. (1997). Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube. Standford, CA: Stanford University Press. ↩︎

  5. See Schwab, Michael. 2013. Experimental Systems: Future Knowledge in Artistic Research. Leuven: Leuven University Press. ↩︎

  6. Vassenden, Eirik. 2013. ‘What is critical reflection? A question concerning artistic research, genre and the exercise of making narratives about one’s own work’, for the Norwegian Artistic Research Programme, ↩︎

  7. The short story can be found in ↩︎

  8. Rose Gillian. 1992. The Broken Middle: Out of our Ancient Society. Oxford UK and Cambridge USA: Blackwell, 310. ↩︎