Since artistic research was established more than 20 years ago, discussion of its merits have been a recurring feature. In parts of the artistic world, there is a view that art becomes limited in academia. In parts of the academic world, a discussion has at the same time been going on whether artistic research should actually be called research.
Niclas Östlind, a senior lecturer in photography at HDK-Valand Academy of Art and Design in Gothenburg, thinks that the debate about artistic research is treading water.
“The same things are repeated over and over, and discussion often focuses on a faulty picture, which is based on what different parties in the debate believe that artistic research is,” he says.
He and Fredrik Nyberg, a senior lecturer in literary forms of expression, has just published a book, Konstens kunskap (“The Knowledge of Art”). It is an anthology, where 12 writers consider artistic research by analysing twelve different doctoral theses.
“One reason why we wanted to publish the book was that we felt a need to look closer at what is being produced in the field. When people talk about artistic research, they rarely reference actual projects. The results do not often get very much attention,” says Niclas Östlind.
Wrong to call the research “navel-gazing”
Niclas Östlind feels that there is a perception of artistic research as being navel-gazing, and he believes that is it not correct at all. As an example, he mentions the doctoral student Kerstin Hamilton and her project “The Objectivity Laboratory: Experimental Documentary Photography in Times of Post-Truth.”
In her thesis, she investigates the claim of truthfulness made by photography.
“The questions she asks are of relevance for many different areas, not least in journalism, and media and communications science,” says Niclas Östlind.
The theses focused on in Konstens kunskap were submitted to the University of Gothenburg over a ten-year period, from 2008 to 2018. The University of Gothenburg was the first university is Sweden to carry out artistic research, and HDK-Valand is one of the largest faculties of fine, applied and performing arts in Scandinavia.
Niclas Östlind and Fredrik Nyberg hope that their anthology will increase awareness outside academia of the work that is done within artistic research. They also hope that the book will contribute to researchers in the subject area becoming more aware of each other.
“We have seen that relatively few references are made between artistic researchers. We need to get better at referencing each other. After all, research is to a great extent about utilising what others have done, and developing it further,” says Fredrik Nyberg.
“Research is a collective process”
Perhaps the lack of references within artistic research is because such references are rarely asked for in artistic practice, Niclas Östlind thinks.
“In research, it is important to have a dialogue between different research results. We must acknowledge the collective processes that research actually consists of, and not try to reinvent the wheel in every thesis,” he says.
During the Swedish Research Council’s annual symposium for artistic research, which was held at the end of November 2021, the need for an introductory programme or courses focusing on the philosophy of science for artists who want to do research was discussed. Maria Hellström Reimer, scientific adviser in artistic research at the Swedish Research Council, believes that this would strengthen artistic research.
“I think it would contribute to making the research more relevant,” she says, and adds that such initiatives have already been made in some places.
At the colleges of art in Malmö and Amsterdam, preparatory programmes for researchers are offered, as is the case also in Paris, via the joint university initiative ArTeC.
Maria Hellström Reimer, who is also a visual artist and Professor of Design in Theory and Practice at the School of Arts and Communication at Malmö University, describes this as a gap between the masters programmes focusing on art and design, and the doctoral programmes. Her view is that many new doctoral students would need more knowledge of scientific theory to enable them to be part of an advanced scientific context.
She believes that artistic research has an important role to play in academia, not least through its research-in-practice approach.
“Artistic research can contribute new perspectives on knowledge, and ask questions in a new way, just as is done by research using post-colonial, post-humanist or activist approaches.”
She hopes that artistic research will in future occupy more space in various interdisciplinary projects, and in this way contribute both new questions and approaches, and also new ways of presenting research results.
Prioritised by the Government
Fredrik Nyberg and Niclas Östlind feel that artistic research is becoming increasingly self-confident. More and more theses are presented, and it has become more common for artistic researchers to have careers in academia. Previously, researchers for the more senior positions in artistic research were often recruited from other, closely related fields, but this is changing, they feel.
In the latest Government bill on research, which was presented last year, the importance of artistic research for democratic discourse was emphasised. It is also expressly stated in the bill that “separate funding shall be added to strengthen the preconditions for artistic research” via the Swedish Research Council. Niclas Östlind and Fredrik Nyberg have noticed that many artistic reseachers have difficulty getting research funding and research positions. They think, in particular, that the number of postdoc position is not in balance with the number of doctoral student positions.
There are too few opportunities to do research, Fredrik Nyberg establishes.
“Where are you meant to go after your doctoral degree award? We admit and educate researchers that we can then not use,” he says.
Although artistic research has grown in self-confidence, Niclas Östlind describes the field as fragile.
“The increased funding from the Swedish Research Council is very important, but it is a problem that this is one of the few opportunities that exist to apply for funding as an artistic researcher. In other fields, there are usually more sources of funding you can apply to.”