Artistic Research - Dead on Arrival?
Research practices of self-organized collectives versus managerial visions of artistic research

Florian Cramer
(First published in Henk Slager [ed.], The Postresearch Condition, Utrecht: Metropolis M Books, 2021, p. 19-25)

artist-run research

Since at least the early 20th century, artists groups have called their work “research”. Canonized examples include the “Bureau des recherches surréalistes” (“Bureau of Surrealist Research”) founded in Paris by André Breton and fellow Surrealists in 1925 and the Situationist International which, from 1957 to 1972, operated under the moniker of a research group and whose periodical had the form of a research journal. Since then, artist-run research groups and projects have only grown in number and increasingly involved non-art practitioners next to professional artists. The Free International University founded by Joseph Beuys is another such textbook example, as is the research-based “Institutional Critique” from the Art Workers Coalition in the 1970s to contemporary feminist, queer and PoC artist-activist collectives.

Today, transdisciplinary art/research collectives seem to be more common as a contemporary art practice in non-Western regions than in Western countries where art systems are more institutionalized.1 At the time of this writing, self-organized artist-research collectives are still mostly known to people working in, or in close neighborhood to, art practice; not to wider audiences.2 This may change with the forthcoming documenta 15 in 2022 that will, for the first time, be curated by an art/research group, the Indonesian ruangrupa collective. Documenta 15’s preliminary participant list, published in summer 2020, almost exclusively lists transdisciplinary collectives that work at the boundaries of art, research and community organizing: “Fondation Festival Sur Le Niger (Ségou, Mali), Gudskul (Jakarta, Indonesia), INLAND (various locations, Spain), Jatiwangi art Factory (Jatiwangi, Indonesia), Question of Funding (Jerusalem, Palestine), Más Arte Más Acción (MAMA) (Nuqui, Choco, Columbia), OFF-Biennale (Budapest, Hungary), Trampoline House (Copenhagen, Denmark), and ZK/U – Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik (Berlin, Germany)”. Is the practice of these artist-run collectives and projects identical to artistic research as it has been discussed since the 1990s, typically in the context of (European) higher art education?3

While this question might have been purely academic ten years ago, it has become political and epistemological in a time where, on the one hand, artistic research is being more firmly institutionalized – among others, through PhD programs -, and where on the other hand the definition of Western contemporary art has narrowed down, even in art theory, to curatorial white cube art.4

For the sake of simplicity, I would like to focus on the work of two contemporary artist-research collectives – the aforementioned Jatiwangi art Factory (Indonesia) and 展銷場 Display Distribute (Hong Kong) – by contrasting their research practices with artistic research as it has been institutionally defined in the “Vienna Declaration on Artistic Research” from 2020. To clarify my own position, I need to mention that I worked with those two collectives in the research project ‘Bridging Art, Design and Technology through Material Practices’ and its public conference ‘Making Matters II’ that took place in November 2020 at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. The Vienna Declaration on Artistic Research has been authored by, among others, the European art school umbrella organization ELIA of which my art school is an active member and in whose research conferences I have participated. Therefore, any incompatibility between artists’ and institutional concepts of artistic research creates a dilemma for my own work, as a researcher working at an art school.

Jatiwangi art Factory and 展銷場 Display Distribute are part of a larger global phenomenon of self-organized, commons- and community-oriented collectives whose respective practices are highly specific to their own local environment while, at the same time, being internationally networked. These collectives consist of people with mixed or overlapping backgrounds as artists, researchers, theorists, activists, journalists and community organizers. They often focus on one specific material practice – “tanah”/clay in the case of Jatiwangi art Factory, publishing and logistics in the case of 展銷場 Display Distribute – that they turn into a social experiment and artistic-philosophical inquiry.

JaF’s explanantion… …of tanah

Jatiwangi art Factory (JaF) calls itself a “community-based organization focused on examin[ing] how contemporary art and cultural practices can be contextualized with the local life in [a] rural area, both [in] form [and] ideas”.5 JaF combines local community activities, including festivals, with an international artist residency program. Ismal Muntaha, a founding member of the collective, explains how the JaF’s activities tie into the history of Jatiwangi, a village 200 kilometers East of Jakarta, as Indonesia’s post-colonial industrial production site for roof tiles. The area’s major natural resource is clay or “tanah”, the Indonesian word for soil, ground and clay. JaF’s work investigates the history and culture of tanah and reactivates it in new forms: “digging again the memories, spiritual value, ritual, proudness, cultivating attitude from our Tanah as local material as a tool of subjectivity”.6

Collective activities organized in the village community include a “Zero Point Ritual” whose participants “choose the zero point of Terracotta City as the beginning of a new clay culture, a city based on the people’s desire and their collective agreement”.7 It involves the creation of a terracotta structure on a piece of land in order to prevent its privatization and keep it as a public community space. JaF also organizes a music festival with community-built clay instruments. All together, JaF’s projects amount to a postcolonial poetics and discourse analysis of tanah and the Jatiwangi region. This research is not published in scholarly papers or textbooks, but through JaF’s public performances and presentations. The research outcomes are not only practical, but also theoretical, as shown in JaF’s diagram of ’Material Subjectivity:

JaF, material subjectivity8

The subjectivity and politics of materials and their communal exchange also characterize the work of the 展銷場 Display Distribute collective in Hong Kong. Its English name is a literal translation of the Chinese “展銷場” (Zhǎnxiāo chǎng), a type of small pop-up store common in Hong Kong whose spaces can be rented from retail estate owners on very short notice, without much paperwork, and for a short period of time. Accordingly, 展銷場 Display Distribute calls itself a “now and again exhibition space, distribution service, thematic inquiry, and sometimes shop in Kowloon, Hong Kong”.9 Its web homepage lays out the typical stock of such a store (“手袋及襪子 Bags and Socks / 條紋襯衫 Striped Shirts / 中國人壽保險 [海外]China Life Insurance (Overseas) / 出版物 Publications / 日本設計師手錶 Japanese Designer Watches”) and links it to actual pop-up shop manifestations, projects and appearances of the collective.10

展銷場 Display Distribute, homepage

Never mind the diversity of trades, activities of the collective are focused on artists’ and activist DIY publishing and its communal distribution. 展銷場 Display Distribute’s members conduct many practical, often performative experiments with publishing, retail, distribution and cross-border transport that reflect the political situation of Hong Kong as a simultaneous capitalist experiment and part of the communist People’s Republic of China. The collective experimentally participated in the semi-legal commercial cross-border transportation of retail goods into the PRC, and runs as its most elaborate project a self-organized worldwide courier system “LIGHT LOGISTICS” for DIY publications and other merchandise. It operates on the basis of private travels of volunteer collaborators and is coordinated through 展銷場 Display Distribute’s own tracking-and-tracing bureaucracy. Each shipment is assigned an alphanumeric ID, and its travel is being documented on 展銷場 Display Distribute’s website.

展銷場 Display Distribute, screenshot from ‘Making Matters’ presentation

The above screenshot was taken from the live video performance “Packaging as Propaganda: On circulation, new psychogeographies, and the discursiveness of boxes” that took place in November 2020.11 By referencing psychogeography, 展銷場 Display Distribute continue an artistic research discipline that was invented in the Lettrist and Situationist International (with forerunners in surrealism and symbolism). When interviewed for a Chinese multi-disciplinary arts magazine and asked about her working definitions of “open platform”, “architectures of commerce” and “documentary gesture”, 展銷場 Display Distribute member Elaine W. Ho replied:

“Together, these questions refer to a socio-politics of syntax informing various paths of artistic research. For example, the LIGHT LOGISTICS project with 展銷場 Display Distribute instigates a series of encounters based around the act of reading. We want to support independent publishers whose work contributes to the discourse on grassroots, radical, and critical practices in East and Southeast Asia. Considering the power of reading as a 1:1 form of exchange, there is still something to be said for kindling these small moments of encounter between individuals with similar interests or that can support by way of coincidental mobility. Setting up this albeit crude infrastructure of a logistical operation makes use of slow couriers’ movement to physically and immaterially transport art, ideas, and practices in ways that may be difficult for independent practitioners otherwise. By playfully highlighting the banal details of this circulation, we want to lay bare the systems of production as they are embedded within the everyday and trace new possibilities for a distributed but self-organized community.”12

This fully meets the proposition text for this publication and its characterization of “artistic thinking” as “open-ended, speculative, associative, non-linear, haunting, thinking differently”.13 In other words, there seems to be no discrepancy between artistic research as defined by artists and as defined by art schools such as the one which initiated this publication. Elaine W. Ho’s statement clarifies and underlines that artistic research does not merely exist as an institutional or higher education discourse, but is claimed by artists as their own, non-institutional practice.

what was research again?

So far, I have dodged the question of how to define research, in the literal sense of drawing boundaries between research and non-research, and between artistic research and art practice. “Research”, like “art”, strikes me as a word whose semantics relies on a superficial social consensus that evaporates upon closer inspection. Even in Western languages and cultures, “research” is not the same thing. To take only the three (geographically and linguistically) neighboring languages and cultures of my daily use, English, Dutch and German, not even the words are related: “research” in English, “Forschung” in German and “onderzoek” in Dutch. Their meanings differ as well.

In German, “Forschung” includes the humanities and effectively everything that a scholar publishes. Not only the interpretation of Shakespeare poems by a literary scholar counts as “Forschung”, but also the publishing of those poems in a critical-philological edition. On top of that, teaching and research are defined as an inseparable “unity”. This humanistic concept of research, which dates back to Wilhelm von Humboldt, has the least incompatibilities with artistic research. One might even argue that some forms of German humanities “Forschung” such as Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, were already hybrids of humanities and artistic research.

Unlike German academia and even the German language, Anglophone academia differentiates “research” and “scholarship”. Warburg’s and Benjamin’s projects would likely fall under the latter rather than the former category. This begs the question whether higher-education “artistic research” isn’t a mistranslation, or continental European pidgin English, for a discipline that should rather be called artistic - or creative - scholarship. (The term “artistic research” is still less common in anglophone countries than in continental Europe. I have been told by colleagues from the UK that the word “artistic”, as an equivalent of “artistiek”/“artistique” in Dutch and French or “künstlerisch”/“kunstnerisk” in German and Danish, is much less commonly used in English and even avoided by professional artists.)

In the Netherlands, the word “onderzoek” has a strong semantic bias towards empirical research. Linguistically, it is not differentiated from “investigation” and can also refer to investigative journalism and police work. The empirical bias of “onderzoek” often manifests itself in academic practice, among others in acceptance problems of non-quantitative research as research in Dutch academia and in the requirement of specifying data management in every Dutch research funding application.

In other words: Even before questioning ‘research’ as a Western concept and epistemology, one needs to be aware of the fact that “research” is not even a consistent or unified concept in Western countries. Discussions of whether or not artistic research should have a place in academia, are part of that larger disagreement.

In linguistic terminology, “research” could thus be called a floating signifier; or, using film terminology, a McGuffin: a package that is passed along different parties who may not even have the same idea of what it contains. A McGuffin is an ultimately empty device whose only function it is to tie together a plot. While ‘research’ in its diverse meanings may have McGuffin tendencies (as a device that ties together academia with its very diverse disciplines and epistemologies), artistic research in particular is a word on which two or more parties can reach superficial consensus while having something quite different in mind. It is therefore prone to becoming transactional rather than epistemological, or – to once more use linguistic terminology – defined by its pragmatics rather than by its semantics.

Fernando di Leo’s 1972 semi-famous gangster b-movie Milano Calibro 9 opens with a long McGuffin sequence in which a suitcase is handed from person to person. The suitcase initially contains money but, at the end of the chain, turns out to be a bomb that kills its final receivers. Similarly, artistic research is being understood, among others, as a project-oriented contemporary art practice, as lab science done in collaboration with artists and designers, as art school PhD trajectories, or as academic scholarship whose outcomes are ‘creative’ - audiovisual, performative and/or experimentally written - rather than research papers. But the question is whether the institutionalization of artistic research will marginalize or, in the worst case, kill off some or even most of these understandings.