Sunday, October 03, 2010

What are we talking about?


As the term ‘artistic research’ is being used ever more widely, its meaning becomes less particular than the diverse terminology that it is replacing.

In the early days, just a few years ago, really, one read and talked about e.g.  "practice-based", "practice –led" research, research "in-and-through" practice or "practice-as-research". These do not necessarily mean the same: the first two can still be purely academic (the first only departing from practice); the third is supposed to be rooted as well as developed within practice (by producing the art), implying also that the results of the research are not merely reflective but have an impact on that practice; the last one is a special case in that it considers the practice to be the research. Many people – but not all – saw and see such concepts to be different from the paradigm shift in musicology, whereby not only the score but also the performance was taken as the object of scrutiny. Such "New Musicology" or "Performance Science" is not necessarily the same as practice-based, –led, -as or in-and-through-practice research: the way a musicologist studies a performance may be very different from the way a performer studies it, due to the difference in the nature of the perspective.

Not every institution and individual applies these nuances to their vocabulary. With the adoption of the general ‘artistic research’, it has even become difficult to do so. That can make for quite some confusion, especially since a new discipline attracts people looking for opportunities to profile their interests. It is not always easy to define ‘artist’, so any theorist who also plays an instrument can consider himself an artistic researcher. The distinction would therefore have to be found in the work. One way to establish the difference is to wonder what the artistic research would have been like if carried out by an academic. If there is no difference, then what would be the point of attributing a new name to it? Some actively use this test ("The artist makes the difference" - the motto of the Orpheus Institute ), others go against this because the artist’s perspective would be too exclusive. Still others have given up and advise to drop any attempt at defining the thing so that get on with it.

On other levels, defining characteristics of artistic research depend on nationally demarcated evolutions: Holland and Flanders are remarkably unified in their view on (and especially in their institutionalization) of the matter;  Germany does not link a doctoral degree to the notion of research, which is the prerogative of the university (and so an artist’s research is not considered legitimate if not based on an academic training); in the US neither the D.M.A. nor the compositional Ph D is linked to any notion of research; many countries are still developing their stance (e.g. France); in some countries (England, Finland, Sweden), there is already a sizeable tradition.

It all becomes more confusing when realizing that AR is not confined to music alone. In those initiatives that foster trans-national and –institutional cooperation, music and visual arts are often coupled. However, much less can be seen or heard of AR in for instance dance, literature, drama, etc. As much as it would make more sense, though, it would also complicate matters: it has become very clear how intricate the differences can be between AR in music vs. in the visual arts; imagine a group of artistic researchers from all arts, having to agree on a single mode  of dissemination.

Even in music, all is not clear yet. Performers’ AR can look at the past as much (if not more) than to the future (i.e. being concerned with historically practices vs. developing e.g. new ways of playing). Composers, on the other hand, consider creating new ways to be their default task or activity, so why, how and when is composition not always AR, then?

Such questions lead to the idea that to produce art, or to be an artist (as such allowing for "non-product-oriented research"), is the defining characteristic of a musical artistic researcher. In turn, the consequence is that some do not see any use for a dissertation : the artwork is the research, and performing it disseminates the findings. Not only visual artists are looking in that direction, also the doctoral program at the conservatory of Brussels holds the artwork to be the real result of the research. For them, a logbook is as good as a dissertation. The problem with that is, on the one hand, that such a logbook is difficult to retrieve real information from and, on the other hand, that it is easy to prove that the artwork does not transfer enough knowledge about those aspects of the research that are necessary for the listener to know exactly what the research question, the method and the results have been.

For the purpose of this blog, I will in principle consider AR to be research that departs from and is carried out through practice, leading to results that change that practice. For sure, this is not the last blog entry on that subject.

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