Field Theory: Artistic Research in Light, Air, and Matter

The project 2SMART, engineered smart materials for smart citizens, aims to develop smart solutions of engineering and design to improve the quality of life and health of citizens. 2SMART fits in the “Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities” mission of Horizon Europe, where the “cities and metropolitan areas”, as centers of economic activity, knowledge generation, innovation and new technologies, impact upon the quality of life of citizens who live and/or work in them and they are major contributors to global challenges.

Field Theory

How is Artistic Research Challenging Art, Design and Science in the University?

The past three decades have witnessed the appearance of a new debating space within and beyond academic sectors. Artistic research, or research in and through the arts and design, is now solidly rooted in the research ecosystem — although not without controversy —, as art and design research centres emerged alongside art-based and art-led doctoral programs. Its impact in the context of mission-oriented research and as a response to societal challenges is gaining increasing relevance. Since Christopher Frayling’s seminal essay on Research in Art and Design (1993), Brad Haseman’s Manifesto for Performative Research (2006), advocating for a third paradigm in research, or the recent Vienna Declaration on Artistic Research (AEC, 2020), the field has developed like a heartbeat, stretching and contracting the limits of its own discussion.

The present debate is no longer confined to the initial question regarding how or when art and design practices count as research. Or in what ways does the object of artistic research differ from the object of scientific research? As these questions remain open, we cannot but acknowledge that, like art, artistic research is an essentially contested concept. That means that it cannot be resolved by dogmatism (this definition is the right one, all others are wrong); skepticism (any definition is equally true or false, it will not change anything), or eclecticism (every definition is a partial view; the more definitions, the better). Recognizing artistic research as “essentially contested” means assuming that contradiction and contestation are intrinsic to its dynamics. This “essentially contested” discourse requires us to know how to deal with the external pressures we are subjected to — the excessive institutionalization of research, the increasingly complex and ever-changing evaluation processes, and the measurable indicators. At the same time, it leads us also to recognize the internal pressures that exist in the collective beliefs regarding artistic agency, where art is also defined.

Not knowing what its boundaries are, as the inaugural statement of the Journal of Artistic Research pointed out (Schawb, 2011), is a reminder of the transdisciplinary nature of artistic research methodologies; the transpersonal character of its discourse within a community of practitioners; the focus on the transformative impact of its outcomes or the claim for reciprocity between the characteristics of the artistic object and the epistemic models it mobilizes.

Today, the debate is shifting as the natural differences between artistic and scientific forms of inquiry are becoming increasingly irrelevant. What gains relevance is the transformative nature of research. What is at stake is the difference between research activities that seek to ensure the status quo of their own legitimacy, on the one side, and research that questions how things are by transforming ways of knowing, thinking, seeing, feeling and acting on the other side. This transformative nature of research — the state of not yet knowing, with a desire for transformation — is at the core of art and design practices. It stems from the premise that complex phenomena and societal challenges are far more likely to be addressed if various angles are brought to bear on them.

It was not only the cultural conceptions of artistic agency that have been challenged as a result of an increasing number of artists and designers producing their artistic work in a research environment. Research procedures and our received understanding of knowledge within the University have been reformulated, alongside the abandonment of the ideal of objectivity implied by a disembodied scientific realism. In fact, the fundamental idea underlying artistic research is that we must emphasize the process of knowing through art and design as contrasted with knowledge as a steady body of propositions. Mark Johnson acknowledged just that when he argued that knowing in art and design is a process of intelligent inquiry into and transformation of experience (2011) to enrich meaning, open new connections, and help us synchronize our experiences.


Why does this matter?

To understand how mission-oriented research in the University can be transformative, we also need to start thinking counterfactually through the subjective mode of “what if”. Counterfactual reasoning is a challenging cognitive skill through which we are able to create narratives of change by exploring the path of what happens “if…”. Art and design play a fundamental role in developing these counterfactual ways of thinking in research. That happens because the cultural value of an artwork lies in the ways it relates the meaning of experience with the imaginative exploration of how the world is and how it might be. To make a decision — in art, design or science — we need to search for possibilities and be presented with options. Only after other possibilities have been discarded are we able to imagine the alternatives. This way of thinking is the ground of artistic research, as it includes art and design practices that experience counterfactual ideas in the process of making. It is also able to trigger counterfactual reasoning in the audience through art and design artefacts or performances (Reinhuber, 2023, p.2).

In research, counterfactual reasoning is what allows a state of becoming to emerge. In general, it provokes a double movement: decontextualization, in which existing elements are rendered strange; and recontextualization, in which new families of association and structures of meaning are redefined. This may happen as “a pun or homophone in language, the Freudian form in architecture, the sound in between in music composition, the both-and gestures in choreography. As Paul Carter argued (2010, p. 15), this double movement is not only the basis of invention but characterizes any conceptual advance.

What does it mean, then, to create something new as artistic research? This question was a prompt for the conference “Too Early> Too Late<” on artistic research (SAR, 2023). The answer, of course, was not the question’s target but the need to emancipate the concept of innovation and the value of novelty in research towards circular or cyclic modes of creativity, to create other forms of value. It was also a trigger to artistic research’s accountability in exploring different forms of artistic agency.

Where are we now? The challenge facing artistic research today is the ability to keep alive a creative practice of sensitive experimentation, an artistic way of thinking open to perplexity and non-linearity, and curatorial strategies capable of reinventing modes of political imagination and transformative meeting spaces. At the same time, to be able to represent this triangle within the constraints that the growing institutionalization of research imposes on them.

Paulo Luís Almeida