Sep 3, 2010

Research in an art school

Rachel Schreiber kindly invited me to be on a panel talking about research for the Humanities & Sciences divisional faculty meeting at the start of term at Califorinia College of the arts. A copy of my statement is below.

Thank you Rachel for inviting me to speak. Its a pleasure to be back in San Francisco after a summer break. I spent much my summer in England, while there I had the opportunity to watch my niece learn to use the slide for the first time. It was pretty cool...

Rachel asked me to respond to four questions: (1) what methods of research are used within fine arts? (2) What is the current state of the discussion around studio practice as research? (3) What would you like CCA students to learn about conducting research that will help them become better artists? and (4) Can you articulate connections between research in fine arts and research for science.

Pondering these questions, I quickly hit a stumbling block. It is this: 

I don't believe in "research". Or rather, for me the concept of "research" is a myth: specifically it is the myth that rational processes and rational methodologies will lead to positive outcomes. It is a positivistic vision, and, as James Elkins has pointed out in his books, it is invading the shores of creative practice. When Goldsmiths College, a well respected art school, renames their woodshed the "woodwork research laboratory", we know what's in store. Art is in the process of being territorialized by research. The panel we are having today is evidence of this, as is the fact that I was able to enroll in a PhD program in research based art practice - something that didn't exist ten years ago. The myth of research is spreading.

What do I mean when I say research is a myth? My friend Andre Fenton, a neuroscientist at NYU, recently related to me how, when he is teaching science to his students, he has them read two papers from the 70s. One paper follows stringent methodologies. It is well articulated and clearly presented. It provides extremely accurate data. It is beautiful research. Meanwhile, the second paper, by some competing scientists on the same topic, is scrappier, it has some holes, patchy methodology, weaker writing.

It just happens that the conclusions of the first paper are wrong - or not wrong, but the authors were so focused on the details that they missed the big picture. Meanwhile, this second paper, which was initially dismissed as bad research, had some ideas in it that changed how people conceived the problem. It led to breakthroughs. The second paper is now a seminal landmark in the field. The learning lesson for Andre's students is that there is no a-priori criteria for evaluating good or bad research. Without criteria, the entire category of research is unstable. Most of what we can say about research is rhetoric.

And yet countless books continue to written on the subject and the story these books tell is almost inevitably the story of the first paper, because this is the story we know how to tell, and this is the myth of research: follow the process, get your results, communicate well, and you produce value.  We know how to discuss this. We know how to discuss "how do we follow a process?" We know how to discuss "how do we communicate results?" How do we… how do we? Any amount of elaboration of the "how do we" line of thinking can only get us to that first paper.

Lindsay Abromaitis-Smith and Matt Lebo

My visual aid today is an image of two artists asking the question: how do we perform puppet dissection? (Lindsay Abromaitis-Smith and Matt Lebo). It strikes me that in this image we have a clue to a response to the "how do we?" problem. Taking a line from Donna Harrayway, when faced with a myth, our best course of action is to create a new myth to replace it. Rather than allowing art to be territorialized by research as is, we must do the opposite, we must articulate a new vision of research, one that overthrows the idea of research as primarily a rational engine of epistemology, and reinserts what art has always laid claim to: processes of ontology - the making of worlds; and phenomenology - the experience of those worlds; the non-rational; the nonsensical; the compelling but utterly useless.

There is something paradoxical to what I am saying. I'm arguing that we must embrace the insertion of research into art, along with research's logic, precision, and intellectual authority, not to make creative practice more rational or more predictable, but precisely the opposite: Research through art, research through creative practice, is, in my opinion, a political project that aims to undermine the authority of research and remind us of those woolly, soft, and very human qualities of expressivity, emotion, affect, hunch, guesswork, intuition, doubt, or blind leaping... ironically, all qualities that have been downsized by academic art in its play for legitimacy in academia. Research based art is a way to return us to unresearch concepts, or 'pata-research. It might mean simply trying something, whether it is puppet research or neurobiology research, or research on using a slide for the first time … to see what happens. Because, as Andre Fenton would agree, this is at the core of good science, at the core of good art. It is probably at the core of everything.

Our challenge as teachers, then, in an art school is to not be overly seduced by terms like "design research," or "design thinking." Yes, teach rigorous research practices. Yes, teach the latest tools and processes, Yes, teach exquisite communication skills. But this is not our quest. Our quest is to  demand, assert, struggle, and cry over something that no amount of rationalism can explain: the awesome reign of the imagination.


Ben Bederson said...

What are the two papers? Compelling story - but is it true?

Jon said...

1) Ranck, J. B., Jr. (1973). "Studies on single neurons in dorsal hippocampal formation and septum in unrestrained rats. I. Behavioral correlates and firing repertoires." Exp Neurol 41(2): 461-531.
2) O'Keefe, J. and J. Dostrovsky (1971). "The hippocampus as a spatial map. Preliminary evidence from unit activity in the freely-moving rat." Brain Res 34(1): 171-5.