Reading “On methods of artistic research” by Anette Arlander in the recent yearbook of artistic research from the Swedish Research Council. It is a overview of some of the many voices heard in the last decade on the topic of methods and I am left in a feeling of general despair. The actual article is not to be blamed for my feelings, rather it is being reminded of the never ending argument concerning the nature of artistic research.
Artistic research is never, and should never, be only one thing. There are and will be times where examing the artistic outcome is the data for the research and there are times when the same approach would be ludicrous. Each artistic project will have its optimal mode of expressing its research potential. The project can start with a data gathering excursion fed into the artistic work or the project can start with the art work and open up into the world of science. As a field it holds information too important to for it to be confined in one modus operandi.Arlander is quoting Tuomas Nevanlinna, finnish philosopher with a special interest in artistic research, commenting the statement that artists are researching his or her own works: “There are at least two alternatives of interpreting this: either the artist investigates the works as if they were not his or her works at all, or then he or she subjectively reflects on their background and intentions.” Nevanlinna finds both of these interpretations bad. I have hear an opponent at a Finnish dissertation making the same claim his main critique against an artistic PhD thesis.
Apart from the fact that I haven’t come across many artists saying they research their own works the comment is an example of a common mistake made when discussing artistic research. Making art and thinking are two distinct activities and one of the very reasons we should at all engage in artistic research is that we have too little of that which is the substance of art in that which is the substance of thinking. In the last sentence we may substitute konwledge for thinking.
In other words, it not at all such a bad idea for a researcher to research his or her own works. It is only exceptionally difficult, but with the right methods it should be possible. It would be an activity of translation. Translating the artistic content to language and such a translation is likely to say something about the artistic process that could not have been gathered otherwise. Furthermore, it may contribute to thinking and knowing in that it uses something essentially non-verbal, but with a high density of information, in a context with a very different kind of information.
At the end Arlander suggests all artistic researchers to consider her advice to hold on to at least one of the question, the method or the material. I think this is an excellent point that it is well worth remembering. Although I can think of some projects where it would not have been possible - e.g. where there is a movement within the project and the question becomes the method or similar - and while I can also think of some projects where the question or the method is plain missing, it is a powerful way to structure the work.
As a final note I am surprised by the sentence “The easiest way to avoid the inherent duality of the ‘do first - write later’ model is to alternate between the two.” I think the bigger problem with the model is that it differs ‘do’ from ‘write’ and gives the latter the priority of research. Research is not writing, not in artistic research, nor in any other kind of research. Unless, of course, we look at ‘writing’ in the expanded sense, as recording. But that only moves ‘write’ even closer to ‘do’ and there is no reason at all to bring up the order as a problem.