Nov 22, 2008

Art Research Reading Group at New Museum

I went to the inaugural meeting of the Art Research Reading Group at the New Museum on Thursday. The reading group is led by Sabrina Locks, and is part of the Museum as Hub program. Texts for the series are drawn from a published collection of essays: Artistic Research (Lier en Boog: Series of Philosophy of Art and Art Theory, vol. 18), eds. Annette W. Balkema and Henk Slager. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004.) Available online here.

While I was at Goldsmiths College, they renamed their woodshop the "Woodwork Research Laboratory." I asked a staff member how a woodshop is a research laboratory, and he explained that the rebranding was part of a broader effort to raise the college's research profile, in turn to help with fundraising. I wonder if "artistic research" is another kind of branding effort. More in a followup post...

I raised some of my concerns during the Art Research Reading Group, and was pleasantly surprised by the conversation that followed. One attendee (still getting names straight) suggested that art is being framed as "research" partly because aesthetic accounts for art no longer make sense. I agree with this. The implosion of Modernism and the collapse of the radical left created a vacuum. Art research can be seen as an alternative narrative to fill this vacuum, one that is not directly linked to aesthetics or critical theory, but which skirts the social practice / relational aesthetics debate.

Update: I just read this interview with Jörg Heiser, where he is asked "to what extent ... do debates on ‘artistic research’ count among the ‘things that matter’ in contemporary art?". Jörg replied:

It’s a little tricky. Research as such is not an achievement, and artists impersonating scientists, ethnologists or sociologists have to be careful not to a) underestimate the discourse in these respective fields they are tapping into, and b) keep in mind what they do their research for. Like one could get carried away with self-referential questions of the specificities of a medium – ‘New Media Art’ that becomes techy-nerdy in an unproductive, or even oppressive way; or abstract painting that becomes merely tautological and plainly dull – it is equally problematic to be absorbed by the mere aura, or political gravitas, of the material one encounters in the course of one’s research. You can see the effect of that in press releases that highlight that an artist explored this social context or did research on that obscure 1950s phenomenon, without bothering to argue whether the artist then managed to do anything productive with that artistically. If an artist did great research, say, on a case of corruption, why don’t they – to put it very bluntly – do a good reportage rather than a crappy installation, i.e. chose the appropriate context and method to communicate? A productive methodology would be then to remember what really mattered, which I think (in generalising terms) is to remember what art can bring to that research; a sense of form, of perceptive qualities, and conceptual reflection – which would be precisely its political stake in this.

To give a recent example: Duncan Campbell has made a fantastic film, Bernadette (2008), about Irish dissident Bernadette Devlin. The material he did four years of research on, ploughing through the archives of film stations around the world, is in itself fascinating. Devlin – who was the youngest Member of Parliament at Westminster at the age of 21 – was an amazingly self-confident and charismatic activist. One wonders immediately, however, what the artistic ‘surplus’ is in terms of the way he treated the material, as opposed to just feeding off its aura. In the end, Campbell succeeds because he refrains from the well-trodden ground of the conventional biopic, and – as one would expect of a good, auteur film essay for that matter – instead opts for surprising juxtapositions of uncommented material, amazing footage - like a journalist rehearsing the questions he wants to ask Devlin. It is, again, method and contextualization that make the difference, not just research as such relying on biography and medium.

This idea of artistic 'surplus' seems crucial here. Artistic research only makes sense if it is not about research, but about something in addition, the surplus, which transcends the research and offers new insights and perspectives. However, the term "surplus" may not be the best word for this other thing that is art. As we have seen in the economy, in difficult years the first thing that is cut is the surplus.

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