On the nature of art-as-research. Do we really need it at all?
Art practice is inherently multi-disciplinary. This goes double for those who make their living creating art: such a person must not only master their medium but also the ability to communicate. The artist makes but also sells and, in a world where “personal brand” is an unfortunate but widespread idea, is expected to perform all the roles a typical brand would. An artist creates artwork but they also create promotional material, organize events, argue the value of their work and, occasionally serve as legal counsel, manager and pimp. To work as an artist is to build a world and then patrol the borders relentlessly.
This weird state of affairs exists in part because our current culture is dominated by the idea of attention economy: that is to say, attention or audience is seen as a commodity and valued in economic terms. It’s not sufficient therefore to create a work that is interesting: the work must also exist in relation to how much it is worth. This evaluation is applied to work even if, and perhaps especially if, the artist attempts to create the work outside of the dominant economic system. It seems we have no other functional system of valuation other than to assign a dollar amount (or a proxy: copyright, patent, credit or license). Everything we love, we love in terms of financial instrument. This is perversely most evident in the creative fields which defy commodification by their nature. Art and design tend to be (by definition) more art than science. For this we strive harder to make the financial stakes higher.
So what does this have to do with cross-disciplinary research? In my own work I have struggled mightily with the notion of artist-as-researcher. I consider myself primarily an artist but have, for many reasons, never been able (or more importantly willing) to make this my living. I have friends that do and I envy this. I also have asked them, repeatedly, if they have ever heard the term artistic research and what it means to them. Without fail, I receive responses like the following:
“The work to do before I can do the work.”
“A way of getting money out of an institution I guess.”
“I have no idea.”
The value proposition for practice-based research for those who identify strongly with the practice part (IE working artists) is vanishingly small. In fact, I have yet to find any compelling reason for those engaged happily in practice to also engage in research, or academia. Sheepishly (or gleefully), these artists will admit quietly that funding is perhaps a good reason to argue a research angle to their work. I am deeply sympathetic to this. We all need to eat, all-hail-the-hustle. I also find this fundamentally unsatisfying.
If we are to take practice based research seriously we need to take both halves (practice and research) seriously. We cannot define one in terms of the other, but should strive to find the space where the overlap makes sense. If this isn’t possible, the effort isn’t worthwhile.
In the last three years I have made artwork exclusively in a research context. I have enjoyed this immensely, I have learned a lot, and frankly the artist in me thinks the whole thing is a waste of time. In the period it took me to make a dozen pieces of software in the context of a handful of productions, I could have made dozens of artworks. In the end, the audiences are small, and the work I’m proudest of exists primarily as a textual description in the middle of a chapter of a lengthy academic work that few other artists (let alone audience members) will bother reading. Why do this?
For myself, I engage in practice-based research because I feel that the research makes me a better artist and, by extension, a better human being. I understand myself and my work better. In my particular case I believe I have developed a deeper understanding of how technology has shifted the way we generate and share culture. I consider this an investment and time well spent. Important also is the fact that I enjoy the academic and research portions of my work. On good days I spin a narrative in my head about the role of the artist and how this has changed but truly I must admit, in defining that role I don’t find this extra work of analysis and justification necessary.
As an academic, the value proposition is a lot clearer. Academia can be described as fundamentally about the creation and policing of the boundaries of knowledge. I say this without rancor: the role of the academic institution is to package knowledge for broad application, and this necessitates a common language and understanding between practitioners. This is only possible through a process of enculturation. Good fences make good neighbors. In this way knowledge becomes sharable but at a cost: To organize is to wield power, and whatever fences we build will always both include and exclude.
So all of this work only makes sense if I deliberately acknowledge engaging the work in a dual role, as both an artist and a researcher. They are the same person because I am one person, but otherwise these activities exist independently and occasionally at cross-purposes.
And this: I have thus far been unable to justify this work in economic terms. My research interests will not make your company, university or organization its next ten million dollars. In fact, I can pretty much promise you that, done correctly, the work I’m most interested in is what my former corporate employers ruthlessly call a cost center.
In the most optimistic terms, this is what academic environments are for: to further work which we believe is worthwhile but which is not of obvious and immediate value to the economy. But in an academic context, cross-disciplinary work must necessarily be threatening to the status quo. The work chips away at the basis of the academy: it calls into question the boundaries and the foundation of disciplines. It quietly asks the academy to please, for one moment, put down the bloody sword and stop doing what it is designed to do.
A conundrum then: work which is neither commercially viable (or more precisely, exceedingly risky) finds itself seeking a home. Academia seems a reasonable place but the cost of admission is subjugation of the work to a rigorous system of catalog, analysis and organization. This work renders the end product instrumentalizable, but often at a prohibitively high aesthetic cost.
Where, then does this leave us? This is the open question at hand. To make this work viable we might need to adjust the boundaries of the academy. This seems to me far more likely than adjusting the boundaries of our economic system (although, as always, the way is made more clear in times of excess and times of famine). The only thing I’m certain of is that finding and building the space to work between disciplines means taking ourselves seriously and allowing them both room to breathe. This is long, expensive and complicated work. This is work that better be worth doing.