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«Imagine the following scene. Back in the 1970s, somewhere in the vast UNESCO complex in Paris, a public servant is cogitating one day about whether ...»

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Artistic research within the fields of science

Henk Borgdorff

Imagine the following scene. Back in the 1970s, somewhere in the vast UNESCO complex in

Paris, a public servant is cogitating one day about whether ‘artistic research’ should or should

not belong to the field of science and technology, and specifically to ‘research and

development’. That official (assuming there is no more than one) is preparing the 34th agenda

point for the 20th UNESCO General Conference, to convene in October and November 1978.

Agenda point 34 is entitled Draft Recommendation concerning the International Standardization of Statistics on Science and Technology. The preamble to the ultimate recommendation (UNESCO 1979: 23) will state that ‘it is highly desirable for the national authorities responsible for collecting and communicating statistics relating to science and technology to be guided by certain standards in the matter of definitions, classifications and presentation, in order to improve the international comparability of such statistics.’1 Part of the recommendation deals with the various ways in which member states should classify data in research and development. One approach is to categorise it in terms of the ‘fields of science and technology in which institutions belonging to the higher education and general service sectors carry out…research and development [activities]’ (UNESCO 1979: 27). This classification – later to be known as the ‘distribution list’ – contains the

following main categories:

1. Natural sciences

2. Engineering and technology

3. Medical sciences

4. Agricultural sciences

5. Social sciences and humanities.

The recommendation further specifies which disciplines each of these areas should encompass. Natural sciences, for instance, includes ‘astronomy, bacteriology, biochemistry, biology, botany, chemistry, computer sciences…[and] other allied subjects.’ Social sciences The text put before the delegates was later published in Annex 1 to the Resolutions of the Conference (UNESCO 1979).

and humanities is divided into two groups. Group II, the humanities, includes languages,

philosophy, history, religion, as well as arts; the latter are further elaborated as follows:

‘history of the arts and art criticism, excluding artistic “research” of any kind’ (emphasis added).

So at some point thirty years ago in Paris, someone decided that artistic research should be categorically banned from the field of endeavour known worldwide as research and development. And to prevent any misunderstanding – should anyone claim that some form of artistic research might qualify as research and development after all – the exclusion was reinforced by adding ‘of any kind’, and the activity was negated yet again as a legitimate form of research by putting ‘research’ into inverted commas (which were rare in the rest of the text). In other words, no oneshould ever think this is real research, even though the term might be occasionally so misused.

Since 1979, the distribution list of science and technology fields has been an authoritative standard in the international world of institutions devoted to science and technology and to research and development. With a few minor changes, the list was later incorporated into the Frascati Manual (OECD 2002), a publication of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development dealing with ‘standard practice for surveys on research and experimental development’. The definitions and classifications laid down in the Frascati Manual now serve as the reference categories when it comes to describing and defining what research and development are. All self-respecting research institutes, and universities in particular, now use the manual as a guideline for their actions.

The Frascati Manual’s distribution list (OECD 2002: 67) classifies Humanities as a

separate category alongside Social Sciences, and subdivides it as follows:

• History

• Languages and literature

• Other humanities.

‘Other humanities’ is further specified as ‘philosophy (including the history of science and technology), arts, history of art, art criticism, painting, sculpture, musicology, dramatic art excluding artistic “research” of any kind, religion, theology…’ (emphasis added). The modifications are noteworthy and odd, but they need no further comment here. The issue I am highlighting is the insistence with which artistic research is excluded here once again from the domain of research and development.

So what is actually wrong with artistic research to trigger such vehement reactions? Is it perceived as a threat? To what, to whom?

Artistic research versus scientific research

In the past 10 to 15 years, much has been said and written about artistic research, in relation to both philosophy of science and educational politics.2 A recurrent theme is to compare it with, or distinguish it from, what is generally understood as scientific or academic research. Can we identify elements of similarity or difference with respect to research in fields like humanities or natural sciences? Wherein lies the specific nature of artistic research? Is that in the research object – the uniqueness of artistic practice, of the work of art, of the creative process? Or does it lie in the research process – in the course it follows, the working procedures, the methods?





Or, from a third point of view, does artistic research seek to reveal a special form of knowledge – tacit, practical, nonconceptual, nondiscursive, sensory knowledge, as embodied in artistic products and processes?

In the world of academia, there is a broad degree of agreement as to what should be understood by research. Briefly it amounts to the following. Research takes place when a person intends to carry out an original study, often within a single discipline, to enhance our knowledge and understanding. It begins with questions or issues that are relevant in the research context, and it employs methods that are appropriate to the research and which ensure the validity and reliability of the research findings. An additional requirement is that the research process and the research outcomes be documented and disseminated in appropriate ways.

Does ‘artistic research’ satisfy these criteria? Ostensibly, at least, there is much to be said for excluding artistic research on these grounds. Let us look into it more closely. For one thing, much artistic research is conducted not with the aim of producing knowledge, but in order to enhance what could be called the artistic universe; as we know, this involves producing new images, narratives, sounds or experiences, and not primarily the production of formal knowledge or validated insights. Although knowledge and understanding may well emerge as byproducts of artistic projects, this is not usually intended from the beginning.

Perhaps more important is that artistic research as a rule does not start off with clearly defined research questions, topics or hypotheses whose relevance to the research context or to art practice has been established beforehand. Much such research is not ‘hypothesis-led’, but

For a systematic review of the debate on research in the arts, see Borgdorff 2006.

‘discovery-led’ research (Rubidge 2005: 8), in which the artist undertakes a search on the basis of intuition and trial-and-error, possibly stumbling across unexpected outcomes or surprising insights or farsights.

Moreover, because the researchers are intimately intertwined with what they are exploring – much artistic research actually serves their own artistic development – they do not have ample distance to the research topic, a distance that is supposedly an essential condition for achieving a degree of objectivity.

In terms of method – understood as systematic and reliable working procedures – artistic research also seems to diverge from the prescriptions set out in methodology manuals.

It is the very practice of unsystematic drifting and searching – of which serendipity, chance inspirations and clues are an integral part – that takes artists onto new, unbroken ground. They thus do not operate within a well circumscribed discipline that spells out what may and may not be part of the research strategy. In artistic research, both the research topic and the research questions and methods tend to become clear only bit by bit during the artistic search, which often transcends disciplines as well.

But does this really differ from ‘scientific research’? As Robbert Dijkgraaf, an expert on string theory, recently put it, ‘I would say that scientific research is about doing unpredictable things, implying intuition and some measure of randomness.… Our research is more like an exploration than following a firm path’ (Balkema/Slager 2007: 31). The idea that the ‘context of discovery’ is more distinct from the ‘context of justification’ than was claimed by classical philosophy of science up to and including Karl Popper has been substantiated by Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend and historians of science that succeeded them. In this light, artistic research may have more in common with scientific research than is often presumed.

The research hierarchy

Now let us step back for a moment. Research is currently a hot topic in Europe. In line with the political rhetoric about the knowledge society, the knowledge economy, knowledge management, knowledge circulation and the like, heavy emphasis is now being put on research and knowledge production in our society, where the production of goods and services seems insufficiently competitive in the global economy, especially with the future in mind.

The art world and the field of arts education have also become afflicted by the research and knowledge virus. It is no longer sufficient just to master your trade, and from that basis to create beautiful objects, performances, compositions or events. Artists are what are now being called ‘reflective practitioners’ (Donald Schön). This broadening of the artist’s trade can be partly explained by prevailing external circumstances – the hybrid (‘mixed’) arrangements in which artists increasingly operate, their need to contextualise and position their work, their accountability to grant providers and to the public. Yet the focus on research and reflection can also be partly understood through developments in art practice itself. Some years ago, Theodor Adorno (1970: 12) observed that ‘today it goes without saying that nothing concerning art goes without saying, much less without thinking. Everything about art has become problematic; its inner life, its relation to society, even its right to exist.’3 The same still applies in our postmodern times, where it often only seems as though the art scene is not really worried about its own legitimacy. The current hype about knowledge and research in the arts is proof of the contrary. It can be understood as both an attempt to conform to the conditions that have been imposed on art and artists (an externalist perspective) and a manifestation of the reflexiveness of the arts themselves (an internalist perspective).

Yet at the same time we also witness here and there, and more and more, some irritation, or even aversion, arising in the art world and in arts education against the subject of ‘research’. This can be attributed mainly to an understandable resistance to the disciplining effects of the frameworks defined in the academic world for the conduct of research. Artists are on their guard when it comes to issues that could impede their creativity, inventiveness or freedom. This is not just an inconvenient legacy of an obsolete, late 18th-century notion of artistry (certainly it is that, too, but not that alone). There are good reasons to defend the framework-transcendent, destabilising, sometimes subversive effects of art against the ineradicable tendency of people and institutions to frame the unforeseen.

And so the art world, as well as the field of arts education, now find themselves caught in a balancing act. One minute they profess the importance and necessity of research and reflection, and the next minute they resist the real or imagined association with the perceived oppressive world of science and academia. This is an uncomfortable predicament, and the discomfort manifests itself in the agitated tone in which people waver between defending different standpoints.



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