Principles for an open-ended artistic research

Statements by Anthony Masure and Doreen Mende

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As a member of one of the signatory umbrella organizations of the Vienna Declaration on Artistic Research – the Society for Artistic Research (SAR) – the HEAD – Genève is indirectly linked to this declaration. However, the HEAD advocates for and develops research formats that depart from an overly academic, or application-oriented, framework. In an interview, Anthony Masure, Head of the Research Institute at the HEAD, describes the school’s initiatives to develop an heuristic research process driven by creation and whose restitution can bypass the academic text. In addition, Doreen Mende, Researcher and Head of the CCC Research-based Master Programme, discusses the political role of advanced art practices in their dissemination of knowledge and how they deconstruct historical hierarchies, which, conversely, the Vienna Declaration tends to rigidify.

 

Escape conditioning

Interview with Anthony Masure

Sylvain Menétrey: Where do these European efforts to impose a framework for art research come from?

Anthony Masure: The Vienna Declaration on Artistic Research follows the 1999 Bologna Declaration, which aimed to structure higher education in Europe. The Vienna Declaration completes the Bologna process by examining its consequences in the field of art and design, not only to define but above all to institutionalise it, as Cramer and Terpsma clearly indicate when they speak of “administrative policy.” The Vienna Declaration thus aims to frame, standardise and administer artistic research, which causes a number of problems and controversies, given art’s ability to constantly question itself and escape definition.

​​S.M.: What is the legitimacy and impact of this document – which is the result of the consideration of a few higher-education organisations – at the level of the HEAD – Genève community in particular, and artists in general?

A.M.: The signatories in fact include a large number of schools. The SAR (Society of Artistic Research), for example, is an important consortium, of which HEAD – Genève is a member: we are therefore indirectly involved in this initiative. More generally, we must not underestimate the concrete consequences of the Vienna Declaration, which is programmatic in nature and which is not debated in a democratic manner. Schools that do not recognise themselves in these declarations – and there are certainly many of them – come to suffer consequences (in terms of recruitment, budget, etc.) as soon as the initiatives are transformed into government policy. This is why I wanted to open a debate and have ISSUE Journal translate and publish Florian Cramer and Nienke Terpsma’s critical commentary.

S.M.: Beyond the Vienna Declaration, the institutionalisation of research in art and design already seems to be a reality – through the academic constraints on Doctorates in Art, for example, or the format requirements imposed by public funders. Are the non-institutional research practices defended by Terpsma and Cramer (situationism or pataphysics for example) really possible in art schools?

A.M.: There is little space for research outside of funding. A lot, if not most, of the budget has to be found through calls for proposals akin to architectural competitions, in Switzerland but also increasingly in France. You write your applications, which are accepted or not, and often you don’t take the time to question either the meaning of the forms you’re filling in, or their neoliberal vocabulary. You dismiss these issues by saying that the research – the real research – will grow apart from the application anyway… But the link between the two is obvious: a formatting takes place, from which we must try to protect ourselves.

S.M.: How can we avoid this conditioning?

A.M.: The challenge is to make a shift from what was expected, during commission or production, and to succeed in creating the unexpected – or to move from the “prise” (the catch) to the “surprise,” as the researcher Yves Citton puts it. It is accepted now that not many people would want to do without funding agencies overnight, as this would jeopardise schools. However, there is a fundamental need to challenge these funders. The Vienna Declaration speaks of institutionalised research-creation, but we must bear in mind that within the SNSF (Swiss National Science Funds) this type of practice is not recognised yet. The institutionalisation of research-creation certainly comes with some risks, but when research-creation is not institutionalised, only the possibility of doing research “on” art and design – and not “with” the specificities of art and design – remains. It should be noted that the HEAD – Genève has clearly positioned itself on these issues, for example through a project by Lysianne Léchot Hirt which led to the book Recherche-création en design, published in 2010 by Métis Presses.

S.M.: Among the controversial aspects of the Vienna Declaration against which Terpsma and Cramer protest is the idea that artistic research can produce patents and copyright. Terpsma and Cramer also object to peer review. What is the position of the HEAD – Genève there?

A.M.: The idea that the outcome of research is to produce patents is one of the issues at stake in the text and one with which I am certainly at odds. The HEAD – Genève and the HES-SO have made a clear commitment to both open science and open access. In just a few years, we (at the HEAD) have made nearly 400 records of articles and conferences freely available through an almost exhaustive retroarchive. These efforts contribute to the international sharing of knowledge: I am thinking in particular of Africa, where researchers often have difficulty getting printed works delivered. Another initiative is the HEAD Publishing’s new “Manifestes” collection (2021), which offers digital versions without embargo, in bilingual format and under a free license (CC BY-SA), thus ensuring the widest possible visibility and dissemination. Finally, open access is not only about text, as shown by Valentine Ebner’s KnitGeekResearch project (2018-2021, HES-SO funding), which develops open-source knitting machines.

Exhibition view Making FASHION Sense, 2020, HeK Basel, with Valentine Ebner’s open source knitting machines. Photo Franz Wamhof

 

Research’s peer review is a subject of much controversy in art and design. The people who control the quality of a project or an article usually have a doctorate and a tenured position in a university, which effectively excludes most artists and designers. This system therefore tends to generate what Cramer and Terpsma denounce, i.e. an endogenous research, locked in an ivory tower of self-congratulation and self-legitimation. There is a need for a more open approach, such as the one I apply in the research journal I co-edit, Back Office, the scientific committee of which also includes artists and designers. What is more, the peer-review system can be contested. Indeed, studies show that, probably because of power games and reviewer bias, there isn’t much difference between a peer-review system and a simple drawing-lot system, the peer-review system only slightly improving the quality of papers.

S.M.: Is there a risk that art research will transform into “laboratory” type research, cut off from the practice of art, as Terpsma and Cramer predict?

A.M.: I wrote an article with the researcher Alexandre Saint-Jevin, to be published under the title “Form, format, formatting” in which we try to retrace the history of art-science laboratories in order to show that we should move from an idea of “sciences of design” to that of a “design of sciences.” This reversal of perspective shows how design can play a role in displacing the so-called hard sciences or humanities, and this is why I am more nuanced than Cramer and Terpsma in their criticism of the idea of the laboratory. For example, the Bauhaus, which they cite, was a form of laboratory to which Walter Gropius gave a positive meaning. In a lecture entitled “A Certain Idea of the Laboratory” (2019), the philosopher Pierre-Damien Huyghe provided an inspiring re-reading of the Bauhaus, recalling that Gropius thought of creating “laboratory-studios,” i.e. spaces where ideas can move around and be reinvented.

Experimentation as value-process

By Doreen Mende

Only within the last five years, research practices situated in the local-global-continuum of contemporary art have been shifting tremendously under the impact of planetary challenges in the 21st century. These changes have been discussed as “forensic turn”, where the field of contemporary art operates as a repository of methodological cross-experimentations with the capacity to reach beyond established faculities of knowledge towards the mobilization of a public forum or “forensis” (Eyal Weizman); furthermore, for example, the Rapport sur la restitution du patrimoine culturel africain. Vers une nouvelle éthique relationnelle (2018) by Felwin Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy on restitution of looted artefacts in European museums under the regimes of French colonialism has sparked an important debate across various museums’ collection practices, e.g., in Neuchâtel, Genève, Paris, Dresden and Berlin, which includes the inquiry for new methodologies of doing research in museums of Europa today: even art itself is implicated in the need for research methodologies of “unlearning” as Ariella Aïsha Azoulay proposed in 2019 in relation of material cultures in art- and exhibition-making; furthermore, Saidiya Hartman speaks of “critical fabulation” as a necessary research methodology to acknowledge the afterlives of slavery through fiction, poetry or speculation; or, last but not least, the European Forum for Advanced Practices (EFAP), of which I am a co-founding member among 40 more artists, theorists and museum professionals, was initiated exactly following the need to find new vocabularies, methods and criteria to evaluate art-based research practices that cross the fields of science, art, non-art and life beyond academic quantification, because “advanced practices” matter for society as public knowledge beyond academia and funding bodies.

Earlier this year, the “value group”––that is working group 5 of the European Forum for Advanced Practices (EFAP) bringing theorists, artists, historians, curators, academics and administrators from various intra-European countries together––continued to discuss the concept of value in difference to evaluation within the context of practice-based research in the expanded field of arts. While value marks a material function in the equation of art, labour, knowledge and economics, evaluation has become not only a buzzword, but an administrative tool for validating, quantifying and managing knowledge as data as capital. In this regard, reading the Vienna Declaration from July 2020 reveals to me a proposal of paralyzing and dangerous demands.

Phoebe-Lin Elnan, « 250221: Transcription of gestures during #01 Decoso Meeting between CK Raju, Dr. Ramon Amaro, Aarti Sunder and Ghalas Charara » © Phoebe-Lin Elnan / DECOSO at HEAD.

 

In that regard, I agree with Nienke Terpsma and Florian Cramer who righteously argue that the Declaration is not only a worrying proposal for us researchers, artists and curators individually. It puts not only extreme pressure on us working in the expanded field of art/education and art/research of the Higher Arts Education Institutions to “fit in” a scheme that is not made for us, because it forgets about art’s unique potency of experimentation as value-process itself without any guarantee for a measurable outcome (data, statistics, object). Moreover, it dangerously constructs a self-fulfilling prophecy that collapses practice-based research into evaluation schemes that (a) not only limits practice-based research as a process of a novel value system itself, and thus, cuts off the air for para-disciplinary or non-disciplinary research experimentations, and (b) proposes to confine a profoundly cross-disciplinary process and sometimes anti-disciplinary desire into a discipline instead of an open field of practice; but also (c) re-enforces an euro-centric protocol on research. Specifically the last point is surprising in a moment when the whole world––and contemporary Europe specifically as a composite of cross-cultural societies facing its own histories, shortcomings as well as contemporary position in world economics ––tries to overcome the epistemic impasse of such a past.

Considering signatories such as SAR (Society of Artistic Research), one could assume that the policy paper wishes to be helpful in regard to an institutional legitimization of “artistic research” as an academic discipline. Yet, what I read in the Declaration is a giving up and selling-out of the care for creating the necessary conditions of making art-led methodologies that depart in the first place from the forms of practices themselves, including their principles of value to start with, within a context of planetary challenges. Art has rarely been interesting nor long-lasting when it follows a logic of conformity under the name ‘Art Miami’ or ‘Frascati Manual’ in the first place. Only if we remain able to develop our research methodologies beyond quantitative schemes of evaluation, it will be possible to fulfill the mission of art-based research: a cross- and paradisciplinary unearthing of knowledge that has been undocumented or unthinkable by normative orders of administration. This needs the creation of elastic conditions beyond evaluation for the inclusion of unexpected or incomputable knowledge as critical value for contemporary art. The possibility for building such conditions as part of a research-process by artists, curators and theorists is what the Declaration misses out. Instead, it dangerously prepares the conditions for funding-conform and evaluation-oriented research practices in art and design.

EFAP was initiated in a moment of the European crisis around 2018 of which Brexit is only one concrete example. It consists of about 70 Europe-based members working as artists, educators or researchers either independently or/and in institutions worldwide. We are working in five working groups. Around the notion of “advanced practices,” the group has been composing a set of concrete concepts, proposals as well as characteristics of practice-based research: In this moment of crisis, “we propose to go a step further in order to include practices that act as unexpected convergences of many forms of knowledge” as the Charter proposes. In other words, the realities around us––the climate-global condition, social movements, racial justice, digital ethics, political challenges, since 2020 pandemic capitalism––profoundly contribute to the configuration of not only what knowledge is beyond expected forms, but also how to get there. There is no other way than mobilizing art as tools of confronting these realities by methods of assemblage, speculation, theory-fiction, multi-dimensional, and fragmentation. From experience, both trans-generationally transmitted as well as currently made, we know that advanced practices are not only absolutely possible, but also urgent and necessary.

Vanessa Cimorelli #rose#rose#rose 2021, lecture performance, sound, neon LED, gelatine, poetry, virtual gift, CCC juries January, 2021 © Vanessa Cimorelli.

 

Certainly, the CCC research-based Master and the CCC PhD-Forum of the Visual Arts department has a rich history since the late 1990s in contributing to the positioning of HEAD in these debates institutionally and internationally. The CCC program’s transdisciplinarity, which attracts international and Swiss-based students from art and non-art backgrounds alike, is an invaluable resource. Over the last few years, together with the students and team, we were able to actualize the program towards decoloniality as a complex, thus, propositional condition for art-research being situated in planetary and transhistoric constellations; it is not easy to foster decoloniality in the framework of a Master program and I am not sure whether it should or could succeed to unfold in a study program fully. Yet, the decolonial call departs from an urgency to rethink our connectedness on a planetary scale. The search for research methodologies demanding and/or responding to this call crosses the spheres of students and teachers and peers alike. In this context, our conversations circulate exactly around the realization that decoloniality cannot be measured into a scheme of quantitative evaluation, because decoloniality resides beyond or below the computable, yet, provides a strongly necessary resource for mobilizing novel research methodologies for a world of the 21st century. Certainly, in this regard, the Vienna Declaration feels out of place, date and depth as well.