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July 13, 2014

Artistic research ethics

Research ethics is a big topic, but in general, ethics are not widely discussed in our field. A while ago we brought it up in our supervisor's seminar and although the discussions were somewhat hesitant in the beginning we soon noticed a pressing need to dwell on the complexity of the theme. One part of research ethics is how we refer to other pieces of research, what should have a reference and what may be seen as general knowledge within the field. These lines may not be easy to draw but it is my impression that in science, the rule is to refer to the source for almost all knowledge used in the project.

For research questions that may already have been answered, the project has to validate its own reason to bring it up again. This is rarely a problem in artistic research, or the social sciences in general, as near to all questions will get a different angle in every project. That fact in itself is part of the larger effort of the research community: striving for multiplicity.

Not only being a young discipline but also one which departs from the century-old scientific paradigms in som important respects, artistic research, I believe, will have to start evaluating what research ethics should consist of more specifically. Especially the term research misconduct I believe is interesting for us to explore further. Research misconduct "usually refers to fabricating, falsifying, plagiarizing or stealing scientific data and results, that is, cheating in various ways" (http://www.codex.vr.se/en/etik6.shtml) and since all four criterias may well be part of any artistic work without ethical issues, it is essential to begin to discuss these.

Furthermore, looking at it from the field of artistic practice, holding on to the criterias of research misconduct may help to counteract the modernist concept of originality as a key aesthetic value. Taking a recent example where Beethoven's 5th symphony was re-interpreted by a Swedish composer and composed into a new work, using the paradigm of the theater director staging a play in a new context, it would be almost unthinkable for me to do the same thing. We all know that the result would be very different, the research results - would it also be turned into a research project - would be different, and the listening would different. For me to do it would be consistent with the very idea of the project to begin with, but these kinds of re-staging or art works is very rarely seen in practice. Visual arts have explored it to some extent, Matts Leiderstam in a notable example departing from 18th and 19th century painters, but there are contemporary examples as well.

This is obviously a problem in artistic research since it leads to artistic singletons, free floating artistic projects without clear connection to other artistic projects. To put it bluntly, summarizing the last fifteen years of research in the arts in Sweden, this is precisely the problem we have. All projects are unique, drawing on the originality standard - would they not be original, they would not be good art projects - and are more or less self referential.

What does this have to do with ethics? If we establish a tradition and a conceptual model of research ethics upon the four categories above, then artistic works part of an artistic research project should clearly state its references (where applicable), its point of departure and its raison d'ĂȘtre allowing it to unproblematically draw upon other works of art and research. Furthermore, this would counteract the dividing line between the writing involved in the project, often filled with references to all kinds of theoretical knowledge, and the artistic practice. Also, at best neutralizing the tendency to use the artwork as an assesment of a theory, not a problem per se, but unfortunate if it becomes the dominant method.

Back to research misconduct. What is it? The Swedish Research Council and SUHF has suggested the following definition:

Science misconduct includes acting or omission to act in connection with research, so that research results become false or distorted, or so that a person's contributions to the research get misrepresented. To be held accountable, a person must have performed the misconduct intentionally or shown great negligence.

The expression "must have performed the misconduct intentionally or shown great negligence" obviously makes it possible to always say that one wasn't aware of previous work. In combination with the lack of conformity in our field as to forms, formats, methods and theory this may in the end make it clearly impossible to judge wether negligence was intentional or not. The huge and never ending discussion on writing formats in artistic research becomes even more interesting in the context of research ethics. If I am not writing an academic text and use art works as my method, do I at all have to worry about research misconduct? Probably not.

However, my point here is that we should look at this as a possibility rather thatn a restriction. A possibility to allow different approaches to artistic production where carrying on someone elses work should be seen as a legimtimate course, one that should be encouraged. Unless the members of the artistic research community can show that they have a mutual interest in the works produced, no one else will.

Posted by henrikfr at July 13, 2014 10:55 AM

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