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The artist as speaker

06 February 2010


The artist as researcher, The Hague, 5-6 February

When I started working for ELIA two years ago, I hadn't heard yet of artistic research. That wasn't uncommon then. Even two months ago, I still had to explain it to a group of philosophers and historians of science with an interest in discipline formation, unaware of this new department at their university. Since then, two large articles appeared about it in a national newspaper, announcing the first Dutch doctor of the arts and the Artist as Researcher conference, and that probably reduced the number of innocents in the Netherlands.

There are still not too many people directly invoved in it. PhDarts, the visual arts programme of the Royal Academy in The Hague, has 6 PhD students; DocARTES around 30 but that's coordinated from Ghent. Those numbers, however, don't say everything. Today, the Artist as Researcher Conference started in The Hague, and the attendance was overwhelming. The queue at registration was like a South African voting booth; lunch like a UN distribution point. Of course, almost all these people are from art academies, so this isn't a measure of impact on the wider public, but it makes one wonder about the re:public conference in Dublin this month, which lasts a week and is about artistic research and its publics.

In a keynote entitled New roles for new realities, Graeme Sullivan argues for a "post-disciplinary" approach to artistic research. Instead of repeating the last scientific revolution with a leap from myth to knowledge, artists should aim at the sort of understanding anthropologists gain from real-life contexts: "you don't solve problems, you surround them." Here he gives the example of Richard Jochum, who literally surrounds philosophers, curators, and other theoretical entities in a circle of glass walls, and asks them, what do you make? And that's not a cynical question. As a theorist, Graeme describes his task with only mild irony as "making yourself artfully redundant" - it is to make people enthousiastic about art, and fortunately he isn't good enough at it to be able to close up shop.

Discipline, for Graeme, is a way of making things all too measurable; like education has been reduced to statistics, as if it's a symptom to be cured. In art and education, one should rather care than cure. (And this, Graeme claims, is why even nurses in New Zealand buy his book.) To make his point even more visually, he shows a camel in a suitcase, a car pulled apart and suspended by ropes, and trees hung upside down, as examples of how artists even as researchers resists discipline.

Aglaia Konrad affirms this. Yes, she has made a film and a book about The new desert cities in Egypt, sixteen ghost towns that were built under Sadat to house peasant migrants, with no regard to whether and why people would want to live there. But she doesn't want to be an anthropologist, planologist, journalist, or whatever. The rows and rows of abandoned buildings she films are nameless, filmed from a riding car. Some documentation was needed, because the film alone didn't work, but she doesn't aim at factual accuracy - rather, she approaches the surrealist environment with the enthousiasm of a child, "architecture as sculpture."

This is not a fully convincing position. It is hard to see how more information could have done harm. There is a lot of discussion about showing things rather than classifying them - Graeme Sullivan speaks of a "visual turn" to match the linguistic turn, and Paul Carter calls it "material thinking" - but sometimes "show, don't tell" is just en excuse for being short of words.

Sophie Ernst has drawn visual thinking further: she has asked Palestinians who lost their homes during the naqba to draw their old houses, filmed their hands drawing, and reconstructed maquettes from the drawings, with the drawings projected on them from above. The projects speak very well for itself; the formulation of the research question, however, leaves something to be desired. "How does space relate to images of memory?" This is not the kind of question to which there is an answer, visual or verbal.

There seems to be a larger dilemma between showing and telling here. Famously, if your dance were a statement you wouldn't have to dance it. But the epistemic claims about other types of knowing seem to hinder artistic research rather than help it. Even if you are a sceptic about "new knowledge", there is a clear advantage in artists exploring new subject matter, investigating their material and mode of presentation, and understanding better what they are doing. And here artistic researchers have something to learn from their predecessors in concrete art and the Groupe de Récherche d'Art Visuel: a more matter-of-fact way of making themselves explicit. As Luc Vaes, the first Dutch artistic doctor, said it in the interview: "if you can't explain, then work on your vocabulary".

I'm not sure if that is also what Paul Carter is after, in his keynote What matters after all. At any rate, he argues for a more outspoken and engaged attitude. "If artists are reluctant against offering their work for a reductionist description in terms of social value, what do they have to offer as an alternative?" In an age in which consumerism has absorbed the public space, artists should create a "common place", breaking in upon the lines set out by the "straight planners". As modern savages, Paul states, they have to feed on associations and coincidences, in a kind of "material thinking" that is concrete, transparent, and not reformulable in bureaucratic formulae. But in his argument, there is the same ambiguity about speaking out: "I am not sure if creativity is communicable. But if it is, it is because it leads to good ideas." I am all in favour of Janneke Wesseling's interpretation of this, that it's the ideas of the artist one should discuss rather than abstract notions such as creativity. But is that what Paul said?

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