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Where do we go from here?

07 February 2010

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

Yesterday's discussion was largely about visual culture and embodied, de-centered modes of thinking. Today's was much more about institutions and curating. Kitty Zijlmans, in her opening keynote, described how she got ten tons of textile scraps from China to Leiden for Li Haifeng's The Return of the Shred. Stephan Dillemuth described his own Werdegang from artistic pubescence to bohemia to academia, which appears as a research career only in retrospect. Henry Jacobs, who is researcher in residence at the Rietveld Academy, spends his days there in a glass cube. And at the closing panel, course leaders sat next to curators, discussing where do we go from here.

Kitty Zijlmans writes global art history. She admits that this is a sort of impossibility, for the lack of a common line, but finds it equally impossible not to view the past of contemporary art from a global perspective. In opening new vistas on the globalizing world, she argues, contemporary art actually urges us to rewrite art history. For modern works don't come out of the blue: "the old permeates into the new". It is hard to see the relation here to The Return of the Shred, the installation she and Li Haifeng made of waste products from the Chinese textile industry. It is a telling image, though, of the dark side of the global economy - something we all know of course, but which presents itself inevitably there in a heap of shreds, "as an entity in itself, with a will of its own almost". The absurdity of all that waste is made even more absurd by the amounts of money that were needed, or wasted, to get all that trash from the sweatshops to the gallery: as nonstandard cargo, it cost considerably more than shipping jeans.

For some reason we aren't hearing much about the German Bildungsstreik, although the map of Germany is dotted with occupied universities and academies. Stephan Dillemuth refreshes our memory: these students are actually quite right, he holds, for Bologna, the monster that spawned artistic research, will only bring technocracy, study fees, and an end to university autonomy - as if the state of higher education wasn't bad enough yet. So in fact these protest are "University in the best sense".

Not, of course, that Stephan is against research in the arts - it's his job. In retrospect, he feels that all he has been doing in his artistic life has been research, even if he did not always perceive it as such. But if research is an obligation because every MA should have a research component, and if research is reduced to calculable outcomes, then it's not that much fun anymore. Good research, according to Stephan, comes in three forms: pubescent, bohemian, and academic. You start out powerless: you do something and your teacher tells you it has already been done. In this pubescent phase, all you can do is bashing against the walls (and here he bashes against the walls). The real learning, at least for Stephan, takes place in your Bohemian years, when you set up your "research lab" - that is, your studio, your group - and help yourself. (In that sense, all avant-gardes were research labs.) And finally, you might go back to the academy to teach. And there, you'll have to describe your research as research: state your research questions, and apply for research funding. But that needn't all be bad, as long as you have some space to create your own academy, and allow that experiments can also fail. The good news, for all the commodification of research, is that it's a resource that doesn't run out; the more you use it the more there is.

The problem with Stephan's definition is that it turns everything into research. And this problem is inherent in many of the attempts to define the artist as researcher. One artist investigates the Dutch landscape by exploring random points on the map, with as blank a set of mind as possible, to see if it is really the country that is made from the drawing-table of planologists and engineers - and analogously to Aglaia Konrad's sculptural view on Egyptian desert towns, the project is called "NL sculpture". All right, Jeroen Boomgaard says, but good research can fail; and what would be the condition of failure for yours? Another claims to "integrate life itself into the research" - well it's seldom done by dead people. A third states that "to start from an idea is too articulate - it starts from what is already known".

This is not to say that the art they make is bad - in fact Henry Jacobs makes wonderful drawings on photo paper by erasing subsequent layers of text and drawing new ones on top, in strict geometric grids, so that older lines shine through and the drawing becomes a process in various stages, meticulously documented on photo and video. What he does in his glass cube at the Rietveld Academy is a lot more interesting than what Ben Benaouisse recently did in a white room at S.M.A.K., "investigating his own creativity". But what does this have to do with research? What is missing is the matter-of-factual way of talking about one's investigations that was common to the conceptual work of the Language Artists and the concrete art of BIT International and the Groupe de Récherche d'Art Visuel, long before the wake of the monster Bologna. And it is not for nothing that research-intensive institutes such as IRCAM, ZKM, and MIT Labs, for all the artists they employ, do not describe their activities as "artistic research".

"If we have definitions we're lost", Maria Hlavajova concludes. For her as a curator, research isn't an institutional requirement. And in a similiar vein, Ann Demeester announces an exhibition at the Appel with the title Blind man looking in a dark room for black cats that aren't there. Still Arno van Roosmalen, the third curator on the panel, sees it as one of the responsibilities of art centres to present works of art as research, precisely because they are not yet perceived as such. If there is a common denominator to their reactions, I would opt for "amused puzzlement".

Frans de Ruijter, too, urges for a careful use of the term research: we shouldn't call everything research because that's in the Bologna agreement. You don't have to do it; the majority of university students aren't doing research either. What artists really need is open-mindedness. Research in the arts requires something more: what you do should be experimental in every respect. And that means you don't take its status as research for granted. For all the tacit knowledge that comes into art-making, you can't rely on it: you have to view it as "to-be-explicated".

There are more recommendations on Frans de Ruijter's list. When talking about research, we should also bear in mind that the university is not a university but a diversity: there are so many different types of research accross the disciplines. And the same applies to the arts. Research in music or design can be something completely different from research in the visual arts.

"Do we know a lot? No, it's all brand new." The count of doctors in the Netherlands so far is one. True, there are more under way, but even so the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Research at DocARTES, De Ruijter adds, is incomparably different from what it was like in 2004. You learn as you go along.

Finally, will this lead to better art? "No. The path of development has changed."

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