When Art is Research

by Monica Westin

The Way of the Shovel, an ambitious group show focused on artistic production as a mode of “history, archaeology, and archival research” opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago last month. Much of the work in the show takes the form of documentary photographs and films that attempt to create alternative historical narratives, filling out our everyday understandings of the world and its pasts. In my interview with him last month, curator Dieter Roelstraete noted that the show, based on his previous e-flux essay of the same name, grew out of his observation that

“in the last ten to fifteen years the rhetoric of art has been rephrased in broad terms using the language of research…I really appreciate the ambition of artists to think of themselves as not just working with forms and ornaments, but also with information…. But while I'm interested in the critical charge of art's claim to be some kind of research, the whole discussion of artistic research is a huge one that is also based in the academization of art in recent years. There's increasing pressure on students to present what they do as some kind of intellectual enterprise, which has its own advantages and disadvantages.”

Roelstraete's salient point is that artists are encouraged to frame their work as research at a time when discourses surrounding art are increasingly influenced by science and other academic disciplines. But what practices should “count” as research, and which are just part of the process of art-making?


Mark Dion, Concerning the Dig, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. Installation view, The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology, MCA Chicago November 9, 2013 – March 9, 2014.

In the western tradition, we have historically understood artists' contributions to social consciousness as generally either representing/preserving images of the world as it is, or imagining ways it might be otherwise. For the ancient Greeks, art was exclusively concerned with mimesis, or the direct copying of nature, and ancient art criticism judged successful art as that which depicted its subject with the most realism. It wasn't until the second century AD that the sophist Philostratus first argued, in his biography of the mystic Apollonius, that phantasia, or creative imagination, was a more important quality in the artist than mimesis. (And it arguably took centuries after that before western artists themselves began to make this argument for their work and to break from imitation in their practices.) The western history of art can often largely be read as a tension between changing technologies of mimetic representative realism (increasing understanding of perspective in the Renaissance, the invention of the photograph) and intellectual movements towards new modes of phantasia or reaching for that which is beyond the skills of technological reproduction (Mannerism as a reaction to the Renaissance, Impressionism as a reaction to photography).

This dialectical back-and-forth was most obviously and famously interrupted with the early twentieth century avant-garde, which challenged the very category of art as a practice and institution, paving the way for conceptual art in the sixties that subverted the art object to the processes of its creation (and introduced scientific, documentary vocabularies into art discourse). Increasingly throughout the last century, art became self-conscious and even anxious about its own identity and methods. And at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of this one, a new category of art arose, arguably directly from conceptualism and more generally from the experimental, agitated state of the field: the category of art as a kind of scientific research.

Davincicodex1To think of art as being engaged in research is nothing new: artists have always been researching new technologies for their practices. But their research has usually been understood as being directed solely towards the creation ofthe art object or aesthetic experience (da Vinci's imagined war machines and other engineering speculations provide one kind of exception to this tendency– in part because the Renaissance had such a different understanding of disciplinary divisions, one of the underpinnings of this essay). Increasingly, artists are now presenting their work as being done in parallel to academic, largely scientific disciplines– history and archaeology, biological engineering, and theoretical physics, to name a few– or even intervening in and informing those fields. The dominant mediums for self-described “artistic research” are photography and film, though sculptural work often casts itself this way as well (it is interesting but not surprising that the genre of painting mostly steers clear of such positioning). And across media, artists making use of scientific instruments and methods, and archival and documentary processes and technologies, understand themselves to be engaged in the kinds of experimental investigations that have until now been the domain of people with PhDs. (The contentious rise of the PhD in studio art seems relevant here but is worthy of an essay in its own right– Jim Elkins writes well on the subject.)

Artists are currently being given grants and fellowships under the nebulous heading of “artistic research,” sometimes to collaborate with scientists in laboratories or interdisciplinary centers, but more often for their own self-designed research. Conferences, peer-reviewed journals, and even masters programs focused on the field of artistic research are springing up around this new category. A two-day conference at the international mega-exhibition dOCUMENTA (13) recently wondered what we mean by artistic research:

“Is research a discipline in its own right? Or is it the term used to name the knowledge leading to art? Can it be both? How does it affect art history and writing? How does it challenge the agency we assume art has in society? Artists, like scientists, are pioneers when it comes to creating new forms of connectivity between worlds that seem to have nothing in common…that is, they embark on the endless study of everything that contributes to the different formulations of what we call reality. It would be dismissive to describe all this as mere play.”

Julian Klein suggests that the important question is not “what is artistic research” but rather “When is a research artistic?” Research itself, he argues, is a process of systematic work designed to uncover knowledge, so as a process it is a state of “not yet knowing,” a “desire for knowledge.” This position saves art as a product from having to make claims about its status as scientific knowledge or academic argument, rather suggesting that the process of art-making as a kind of incomplete thinking can comment on research as a human activity. It also suggests that in practice, what is actually interesting about artistic research, for those of us who don't make art, is that it offers a way of seeing human knowledge more broadly.

What do artistic knowledge-building projects look like? What kinds of research methods are only available to artists? Academics can attest that we are trained to work conservatively, to make step-by-step careful connections between evidence and theories, and to work to connect our research to previous studies. These processes help academia in its sometimes utopian attempts to create communal knowledge-building projects across time, but they also severely limit our ability to express hunches, make broad connections, and apply methodologies and theories beyond our disciplines. Artists, as non-academics who can put academic practices into the world, are in a unique position to expand the research that academics do, even if the results of their work cannot be understood as the products of academic work.

As one example, an artist friend and collaborator of mine, photographer Jeremy Bolen, builds his own multiple-lensed cameras that have managed to capture ambient radiation from past experiments and disasters (the Ottawa watch-dial radium painting, the first nuclear reactor buried outside of Chicago). And the resulting images turn information into aesthetic experience. Scientists monitoring these areas could use Bolen's methods, but they don't, obviously because taking photographs is expensive and unnecessary for their ends, but also because it doesn't result in the kind of specific information they require to meet guidelines. However, because he has often managed to document radiation where none has been officially recorded, Bolen's work can easily be considered as an alternative science of radiation detection. Moreover, Bolen's use of scientifically-based measuring devices is grounded in his sense that he's doing research and not just creating beautiful images, and this belief adds a particular kind of force to the work for viewers.


Jeremy Bolen, above/below ground and in the Fox River at npl-1 (remnants of radium dial company), Ottawa IL 2012, archival pigment print, unique print, sediment from fox river

The perception of meaningfulness (whether understood as “real” or merely aesthetic) embedded in products of artistic research is partly the reason why artists in across media are being rewarded for presenting their work as scientifically-based. To those of us in academia, particularly in fields that are less and less valued within and outside of the academy, it feels ironic that presenting work as being part of academic conversations adds relevance and value to work. But seeing art as a source of information and understanding about the world and our methods of making sense of it means that the freedom and autonomy of art, which has historically been put toward imitation or imaginative creation for the sake of itself, suggests that art has always been a kind of research. The most interesting question is not whether artistic research “counts” as research, but what it says about culture now that artists are increasingly framing their practices as being scientific.

At a time when creativity is especially seen as a magical economic tool, almost a kind of alchemic substance to be harnessed for problem-solving of all kinds, it is curious to imagine what those in industries dependent on superhuman imagination-as-entrepreneurship might say about artists interested in working with what are perceived as less imaginative disciplines. While artists are trying to be taken seriously as doing work in and about the world as studied by scientists and academics, the market is trying to make use of the phantasia of creativity for its own needs. To speculate on the relationship between markets, creativity, and academia would spin out into well-known arguments. It's more rewarding to consider the category of artistic research as a historical, intellectual stake in the ground, and its implications for understanding our cultural commitments now.