Wind tugging at my sleeve
feet sinking into the sand
I stand at the edge where earth touches ocean
where the two overlap
a gentle coming together
at other times and places a violent clash.
Gloria Anzaldúa (1987)
Following the Bologna Accord (launched in 1999) and its introduction of a three-cycle system of higher education, doctoral degree programs for artists started to emerge around Europe. This has raised questions regarding the nature of the epistemic contribution made by art practices: what kind of knowledge does art-based research produce and how does it fit within established standards for ensuring the quality of doctoral research in traditional academic disciplines? Is it not ironic that academic artistic research, implemented as part of the standardization of higher-education systems, also has the capacity to challenge the hierarchies and conventions of academic knowledge production? While the Bologna process offers greater mobility, employability and competitiveness of students and academics across European borders, it also imposes a unified standard over disparate academic systems, institutions and degrees; insensitive to differences and variations between them, and to the uneven conditions in which they operate. In what follows, I reflect on the capacity of practice-based research to resist the bureaucratization and commodification of knowledge, in terms of decolonization. I consider academic artistic research in relation to Gloria Anzaldúa’s concept of Borderlands (Anzaldúa, 1987) to open up the question of the coloniality of knowledge: how are the rigid delimitations of academic disciplines related to walls and fences on the borders of nation states and how are both constitutive of hegemonic forms of power?
Anzaldúa grounds Borderlands in her experience of a Chicana living on the US-Mexican border, being neither fully of Mexico nor fully of the US and learning to become a part of both worlds. But equally she addresses “the psychological borderlands, the sexual borderlands and the spiritual borderlands” (Anzaldúa, 1987, preface) experienced by anyone split between two or more places, languages and cultures; forced to constantly switch between codes and live a life of contradictions. What kind of Borderlands, then, are we dealing with when it comes to artistic research torn between conformity to academic standards and rejection of standardized protocols? And what kind of experience does such positioning imply?
Being a border resident, according to Anzaldúa, is an uncomfortable experience. It is an experience of mental and emotional perplexity, of ambivalence and unrest (p. 4, 78). The experience of living in a place of contradictions is nevertheless compensated for with some joys, and it is rife with emancipatory potentials: “Living on borders and in margins, keeping intact one's shifting and multiple identity and integrity, is like trying to swim in a new element, an ‘alien’ element. There is an exhilaration in being a participant in the further evolution of humankind, in being ‘worked’ on” (Anzaldúa, 1987, preface).
Applying the concept of Borderlands to artistic research by no means implies that the experience of students of practice-based PhD programs implemented in art schools around Europe is somehow similar or comparable to that of marginalized people living on the US-Mexican border. Rather, it is a proposal for learning from those whose origins and life are spread across imposed borders. A proposal for staging the uneasiness and discomfort that the in-between position of artistic research entails, and for mobilizing the impossibility of reconciling Western traditions of art and science; in order to create a rupture and make way for new ways of creating/knowing. What sort of “alien” element may emerge out of the ambivalences and contradictions of artistic research?
Objective rationality, universal morality and autonomous art, the three pillars of Western humanist modernity (as conceptualized by Immanuel Kant in his Three Critiques) are unsettled by artistic research in which not just art and research, but also activism, come together. Artist and writer Hito Steyerl (2010) is among those who have marked this connection and emphasized the socially engaged nature of artistic research. Steyerl acknowledges “the legacy of the long, varied and truly international history” of artistic research that can be framed in terms of “aesthetics of resistance.” She traces this legacy back to the experimental practices of avant-garde artists who developed new means of investigation and representation (such as productivist design, constructivist montage, film essay, situationist dérive) as part of revolutionary struggles, and in order to promote social change (p. 32–33). But even if we consider a more conventional narrative that traces the origins of artistic research in the practices of artists associated with Institutional Critique, then we may realize that socially and politically engaged position is an integral part of an overwhelming majority of them (Hans Haacke, Mierle Laderman Ukeles or Andrea Fraser, for example).
The conditions for “articulating protest” (Steyerl, 2002) using aesthetic strategies and research tools have changed now that artistic research has been turned into an academic discipline. Today, artistic research is sitting at the table, though at its far end, and can no longer claim to be in opposition to hegemonic structures of power, and conventional knowledge production. As an academic discipline, artistic research is itself being disciplined to conform to academic standards of knowledge production, evaluation and application, as Steyerl (2010) notes, and this may adversely affect artists’ ability to experiment, invent and engage in social struggles. Curator and theorist Irit Rogoff (2010) also expresses her reservations about artistic research in its academic form, fearing that academic discipling of “creative practices of knowledge,” as she prefers to refer to artistic research, may lead to a uniformity of methodologies and outcomes. Ultimately, she asks: “What does artistic research have to offer and if it does have something to offer, how can that possibility be protected rather than mainstreamed?” (p. 37).
Ten years after the publication of Steyerl’s and Rogoff’s articles, we can say that academic artistic research has given rise to an impressive number of interdisciplinary, collaborative and methodologically and conceptually diverse projects (as evidenced in the research catalogue, for instance). But this does not mean that artistic research has not been subject to normative academic mainstreaming. Instead, it suggests that there are more issues at play and that we need a more nuanced understanding of how artistic research forms and conforms in academia, where it is impeded by academic conventions but also facilitated by research funding, infrastructures and networks. Artistic research is indeed being integrated into academic structures but, in doing so, it is also challenging and disintegrating them. The task is, now that artistic research is in the position to assert itself, to push in the direction of “undisciplining” and to mobilize knowledge formations, assembled by academic art-based researchers, “to undo the ground on which they stand” (Rogoff, 2010, p. 40).
In her article examining artistic research in terms of “aesthetics of resistance,” and from the perspective of “discipline and conflict,” Steyerl (2010) conceptualizes the in-between-ness of artistic research as a convergence of two conflicting approaches or methodologies —specific as well as singular. Artistic research, Steyerl explains, engages singular methods referencing their own set up and logic, and speaking their own unique languages. But it also lays claim to specificity by participating in a shared paradigm, predicated upon shared criteria, logic and language. It speaks several languages at once, as Steyerl puts it, including its own, untranslatable language (p. 35–36). Steyerl’s framing of artistic research as multilingual, and translating between languages, brings us back to Anzaldúa for whom juggling languages is a key concern. Anzaldúa situates herself at the crossroads of Spanish-American, Anglo-American and Nahuatl cultural and language traditions. She writes Borderlands in all of these languages — switching from one language and cultural code to another, from theory to prose and poetry; creating a “living language” (Anzaldúa, 1987, p. 55). Anzaldúa’s account of how Chicanas are subject to “linguistic terrorism,” being scolded and ridiculed for speaking “illegitimate, bastard language” (p. 58), is somewhat echoed in Steyerl’s remark that artistic research is frequently dismissed as neither art nor research by conservatives (Steyerl, 2010, p. 36).
“At the juncture of cultures, languages cross-pollinate and are revitalized,” writes Anzaldúa (1987, preface). As diverse languages and conflicting cultural concepts come together, they converge, combine and clash. Somehow, in the process, new “alien” consciousness emerges, a “hybrid progeny, a mutable, more malleable species with a rich gene pool.” This emergent consciousness, a “new mestiza consciousness,” is the consciousness of the Borderlands (p. 77). It is a consciousness that is plural and multiple, a heterogenous assembly in which severed parts come together in new ways (p. 77). Following Steyerl’s claim about multilingualism of artistic research, we can read this as a proposal for art-based researchers to experiment with the languages they speak and to learn, and invent, new ones. Crucially, in this context, Steyerl notes that the claim to singularity grants art-based researchers “an edge of resistance against dominant modes of knowledge production” (Steyerl, 2010, p. 35). Similarly, Rogoff points out the ability of creative practices to “singularize knowledge” (Rogoff, 2010, p. 42)—by which she refers to their capacity to resist placement within a framework pervaded by hierarchical relations. “Practice-based research,” Rogoff asserts, “is a permission for knowledge that is tangential and contingent and whose sociability as it were, its search for companionship, is based not on linearity and centrality but on dispersal” (p. 42). The notion of singularization, as put forward by Steyerl and Rogoff, bursts open the idea of a single, universal plane onto which diverse knowledges can be mapped. In line with Anzaldúa`s propositions, it indexes the plurality and multiplicity of possible entry points, languages and ways of knowing the world. In doing so, it also recognizes the potential of artistic research as a decolonial strategy, dissolving the totalizing reach of Western colonial modernity.
To announce artistic research as academic Borderlands is to designate it as a frontier where decolonial struggles take place. To the extent that the cultural biases and inequalities inaugurated by colonialism have not been disintegrated since its formal end, and the imposed epistemic domination of the West still pervades academia today, a critical reflection of this problematic heritage is still due.Thinking artistic research with the notion of Borderlands, I suggest, can be a good starting point for grappling with this problematic legacy. Borderlands forming around borders guarded by academic gatekeepers are different from those patrolled by armed military forces, but they are linked through interconnected systems of power-knowledge. Declaring artistic research as academic Borderlands marks the importance of investigating these connections and engaging in struggles to undo and unlearn imposed borders. What languages might artistic research need to learn and develop in order to do so?
Anzaldúa, Gloria (1987). Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
Kant, Immanuel. (1781). Kritik der reinen Vernunft [The Critique of Pure Reason].
Kant, Immanuel. (1788). Kritik der praktischen Vernunft [The Critique of Practical Reason].
Kant, Immanuel. (1790). Kritik der Urteilskraft [The Critique of Judgment].
Rogoff, Irit (2010). Practicing Research: Singularising Knowledge. MaHKUzine: journal of artistic research, 9, 37–42. https://issuu.com/hku-online/docs/mahkuzine09_web
Steyerl, Hito (2002). Articulation of Protest. transversal texts. https://transversal.at/transversal/0303/steyerl/en
Steyerl, Hito (2010). Aesthetics of Resistence? Artistic Research as Discipline and Conflict. MaHKUzine: journal of artistic research, 8, 31–37. https://issuu.com/hku-online/docs/mahkuzine08_web
Lenka Veselá is a PhD researcher at the Department of Theory and History of Art at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Brno University of Technology. Her research concerns “synthetic bodies” (bodies emerging by synthesis — manipulated by technological interventions and responding to technologically transformed environments) and “synthetic bodies of knowledges” (knowledges synthesized across different sites). She develops these concerns through research of synthetic sex hormones and endocrine disrupting chemicals in the environment. Lenka is a member of an international feminist collective researching hormones and hormone-mimicking chemicals. She has published articles and presented in conferences on topics related to synthetic becoming and artistic research.