Schindler, Johanna. (2018). Subjectivity and Synchrony in Artistic Research: Ethnographic Insights, Culture and Social Practice. Transcript Verlag. https://www.transcript-publishing.com/978-3-8376-4447-0/subjectivity-an…
Discourses and discussions of artistic research are often characterised by their rhetorics of positivity and potentiality. Such discourses are usually premised on an optimistic celebration of the potentials of artistic research as an emerging space for academic production. Either as a conventional protocol or a more cynical attempt to manage the field, this core positivity continues to inform claims about what artistic research can or cannot do.
Johanna Schindler’s Subjectivity and Synchrony in Artistic Research: Ethnographic Insights is a timely intervention in this debate. The book presents a comprehensive ethnographic study and conceptualisation of two artistic ‘research settings.’1 Following Schindler’s account, research settings are to be understood broadly, invoking a complex and multilayered arrangement and ecology where research takes place. The book addresses two case studies that operate at the intersection of artistic research and scientific inquiry in Central Europe. Schindler’s ethnographic insights offer a refreshing perspective on the material, affective, institutional—and of course political—infrastructures that define the practice of artistic research within this geography.2
Willingly or accidentally, the knowledge-bases of artistic research seem to have veered towards an insistence on disciplinary formation—as evidenced by the field’s preoccupations with its own impact measurements, along with debates over its own legitimisation and epistemic validity. On the other hand, the relative tranquility of ethnography as an established academic discipline seems to allow for a fresh analytical appraisal of this situation.
Schindler suggests an ethnographic analysis of artistic research through its infrastructures of dissemination, collaboration, and the multilayered processes of affective governance that entangle the subjective positions of the researchers, within the blurry limits of their respective settings of investigation. To aid my analysis, I follow Abdoumaliq Simone (2012), who defines infrastructure as a ‘complex surrounds’—a register of the possible, latent constraints. In this amplified sense, Schindler’s book can be read as a valuable contribution to a pressing debate on the infrastructural surrounds of artistic research.
Subjectivity and Synchrony in Artistic Research: Ethnographic Insights is split into four chapters. The first Chapter, titled ‘Approaching an Elusive Field’, aptly maps Schindler’s methodological ethos. This section is guided by Schindler’s impression that, within the contemporary landscape of knowledge production, the field of artistic research is as ubiquitous as it is elusive. Rigorous ethnographic observation comes in as a corrective procedure that can help chart the topography of this elusiveness (Schindler 2018, 18–19).
Chapter 1 presents a combination of three theoretical perspectives that comprise the analytic layering of the book (Schindler 2018, 13–15). The concepts are affordance, boundary object and affectif. This threefold articulation counts as Schindler’s own claim to a new contribution to knowledge. Building on the work of Gibson (2011), Schindler formulates affordance as an array of possibilities that research settings allow for. Schindler reads these arrangements and degrees of possibility from a spatio-temporal and ecological perspective. Here, human and non-human interactions influence one another, configuring each research setting by bringing together diverse actors, materials, and processes (Schindler 2018, 9). This ecology of interactions is the ground where the boundary objects of each research project emerge.
The concept of a boundary object figures as one of the key theoretical articulations of Schindler’s book. A boundary object is a transactional artefact that allows for mediation and collaboration across the different disciplines involved in each artistic research project (Schindler 2018, 15). Crucially, given their status as transactional mediators, boundary objects are determining mechanisms for transdisciplinary collaboration and translation (2018, 15).
The third term, affectif, builds on affect theory’s appraisal of multidirectional modes of affecting and being affected. Schindler uses this concept to bind the macro-perspective of the research setting with the micro-registers where the participants operate. The standpoint of the affectif allows Schindler to focus on the individual qualities of the researchers involved in each research setting and the way in which their personal dispositions influence the research project.3
Chapter 2, ‘Ethnographic Field research’, grounds the methodological criteria that delimits each case study. Specifically, project teams evidence the following characteristics: (1) teams should involve researchers with artistic and scientific backgrounds; (2) projects should address questions of artistic research; and (3) projects should have a longitudinal timeframe and institutional support that allows for iterative and long-term ethnographic engagement. Additionally, Chapter 2 includes useful fact sheets that define each research setting through its goals and key boundary objects.
In this chapter, Schindler meticulously recounts the choices taken to explore the field and delimit the project, focusing on a comparative framework that takes two case studies into consideration. The first case, ‘Case A’, is a project that aims to develop a responsive installation environment in a Swiss Media and Art Research Institute. The second case, ‘Case B’, is a project that aims to develop an experimental musical instrument, in a collaboration between an Audio Communication Institute, in a Technical University, and a Media Institute in an Arts university in Germany. The leitmotif of the boundary object successfully emerges within this framework to further bind the two cases. The boundary objects in question end up being material and recognisable: the responsive environment for Case A, and the musical instrument for Case B (see section on Chapter 3 for more details).
Self-reflexively, Schindler claims that the strength of the book lies on the ‘depth of insights achieved through repeated research stays’ (2018, 30), placing emphasis on how iterative visits and durational immersion played a pivotal role in the fine-tuning of the ethnographic analysis. For this reviewer, the importance of such reflexive moments is twofold. First, these moments help evade the projection of the ethnographer’s theoretical knowledge onto the observed practices of the participants. Second, they reinforce two of Schindler’s key motifs, subjectivity and synchronicity (addressed in Chapter 4).
Chapter 3, ‘Recounting the Field’, is the longest and most detailed chapter in the book. This core chapter focuses on the two aforementioned case studies. To recap, Case A describes the routines of a research group in a Swiss Art Academy, whose aims are to ‘build a space that functions as a computer-controlled responsive environment and to use it for empirical studies on the perception of control and interaction with that environment’ (2018, 41). Case B describes the routines of two research groups that come together to ‘[develop] digital musical instruments, establishing a new classification system for these instruments, carrying out empirical audience research on the basis of the designed instruments, [and] examining questions of sound spatialization’ (2018, 32).
Schindler analytically presents each case study through its singular particularities, while common aspects bind both analyses. This chapter describes the following aspects for each case study: the spatial and institutional surroundings, including the architecture, the interior design of the work environments, and the location of the research centres; their research dynamics; the funding status of each project; internal reflexive discussions about artistic and scientific research; the working protocols of the team; the technical setup; everyday conversations across team members; the individual roles of the practitioners; and the composition of the teams, and the individual motivations of the researchers involved in them.
Chapter 3 offers a short discussion on the role of boundary objects, revealing a key aspect of Schindler’s investigation. The success of the immersive environment, Case A’s boundary object, is diametrically opposed to that of Case B. The musical instrument in Case B ‘fails’ to mediate the formation of a cohesive research community across the two participating institutions. In other words, this musical object failed to fulfil its mediating potential as a boundary object (2018, 131–133). Schindler concludes that the affective environment and the research dynamics of the team over-determine this breakdown.
Chapter 4, ‘Reflections on Research Dynamics’, returns to the notion of the affectif to unpack the results of previous ethnographic observations. Schindler expands two theoretical discussions that run throughout the text. The first pertains to the management of affect in collaborative research settings. Here, Schindler returns to a reflection on the research setting as a site and object of inquiry, along with a discussion on the implications of the role played by the affective disposition of the researchers within these settings (and the effects of this disposition has in shaping each setting). Understood as an analytical objectivation of the personality of the researcher, this disposition involves the subjectivity of the researchers and their disciplinary background. The second discussion builds on Seyfert (2012) to demonstrate how the affectif defines the configuration of research settings, including their singular entanglements of human and non-human interactions. Schindler’s claim is that these dispositions and affective arrays impact the production and articulation of boundary objects and, subsequently, of the research settings themselves.
Crucially, Schindler questions the fact that artistic research projects should follow traditional result-driven protocols of research assessment. Especially, because these protocols often fail to acknowledge affective registers (2018, 162). Instead, Schindler proposes new patterns of evaluation that include ‘the project’s’ affective atmospheres, synchrony, and [their] emerging research dynamics’ (2018, 162). Such integration allows for a more consensual negotiation of differences in the expectations of the researchers and the ‘affective management’ and synchronisation of interdisciplinary researchers, broadly speaking (2018, 162). While the book’s title indicates an emphasis on subjectivity and synchronicity, the expectation for a more extensive analysis of these categories remains unfulfilled. Without a critical grounding of both concepts, the tentative call for a synchronisation of subjectivities within artistic settings risks a reading that stresses a reductive managerial perspective.
Subjectivity and Synchrony in Artistic Research provides a detailed ethnographic basis for an assessment of the transactional and infrastructural logics of artistic research—as it emerges through the everyday pragmatics of the institutional and affective everyday. An immediately striking contribution of this book is the fact that it tackles artistic research, not only conceptually or discursively, but also infrastructurally. In this infrastructural sense, Schindler’s attentive study will be relevant for the heterogeneous audiences of this journal. Especially, because of the book’s potential to frame how a definition of artistic research is pragmatically and institutionally configured in an ecology of practices—to borrow Isabella Stengers’ term (Schindler 2018, 53–54; Stengers 2013).
Recalling the introduction to this review, my take is informed by Simone’s definition of infrastructure as a complex surrounds—understood as multiple arrangements that range from material to symbolic and are co-extensive to what can be done (Simone 2012). This insistence allows us to address the infra-institutional arrangements that articulate the configuration of artistic research as a disputed category. My discussion and emphasis on the infrastructures of artistic research is designed to go against the grain of a notion that treats an ‘artistic’ mode of research as if it were a style, a way of doing research that is ‘artistic’. As O’Neill and Wilson (2015) argue, such an assumption takes art or the ‘artistic’ as a self-determining agency, and brings in a problematic set of presuppositions about the autonomy of the art object or of aesthetic experience. While this type of definition is sometimes favoured in Schindler’s reflexive recount, the study’s own emphasis on infrastructure indicates more expansive possibilities.
Schindler’s book focuses on artistic research settings that are framed as purveyors of ‘sensuous knowledge’ (Schindler 2018, 164). While at times Schindler’s argument does seem to favour such purveyance, its infrastructural analysis allows for broader extrapolations. This, because the production of knowledge through sensuous means may be an aim of some artistic research settings but is not necessarily a rule for all of them.4 A problematic corollary of this claim lies in its assumption that artistic research obeys a thoroughly subjectivised and individualised logic. Juxtaposed to this, of course, is the long-standing claim that comes from sensory studies, which examine the ‘social life of the senses’ in a broader field that cannot be reduced to the individual (Bull et al. 2006). Such an emphasis may salvage a discussion on artistic research that does not end up taking for granted a model of a unitary subject that coincides too closely with a neoliberal definition of subjectivity and whose affective logics are always-already permeable to management and steering.
At points, Schindler’s arguments may picture research settings as sites for a neutral and transactional exchanges of affect, often resorting to a desire for making ‘affective management’ more efficient (Schindler 2018, 163). Take for instance, the claim that ‘artistic research contexts mainly aim at creating and investigating aesthetic experiences and are constantly involved with affective management’ (Schindler 2018, 163). Within the current proliferation of managerial procedures for the governance of academic outputs, along with the ensuing precarisation that accompanies it, readers may wish to take this suggestion with a dose of skepticism. How we sift through the politics of this management, however, remains an open question. And it is precisely this question—about the politics of infrastructure within artistic research—that Schindler’s book has generously articulated through its exhaustive ethnographic work.
Schindler’s rigorous piece of research will certainly be of interest to the multiple audiences of this network. Readers of this journal can make their own conclusions in relation to their own (trans)disciplinary meshes. For this reader, Schindler’s ethnography of artistic research infrastructures offers a welcome critical distance from the commonplace celebrations of the potentials of artistic research, pointing to a promising discussion on the politics of its infrastructures. Perhaps pointing to in a different direction to earlier claims of artistic research as infinite potential, artistic research is not only a new and jubilant new mode of inquiry but also a contested site of dispute. Schindler’s ethnographic contribution emphasises this pressing epistemic-political point.
To conclude with a speculative remark, given Schindler’s inclination to consider the agency of boundary objects, I cannot but ask the following question: Has Schindler provided us with a boundary object? Is Subjectivity and Synchrony in Artistic Research itself a material intervention that allows for transdisciplinary translation and mediation? The meta-layering that allows this question to emerge already suggests an affirmative answer.
Bull, Michael, Paul Gilroy, David Howes, and Douglas Kahn. 2006. “Introducing Sensory Studies.” The Senses and Society 1 (1): 5–7. doi:10.2752/174589206778055655.
Gibson, James J. 2011. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. 17th ed. New York: Psychology Press.
Osborne, Peter. 2013. Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art. 1st ed. London; New York: Verso.
O’Neill, Paul, and Mick Wilson. 2015. “An Opening to Curatorial Enquiry: Introduction to Curating and Research.” In Curating Research, 11–23. Occasional Table. London, Amsterdam: Open Editions; de Appel.
Schindler, Johanna. 2018. Subjectivity and Synchrony in Artistic Research: Ethnographic Insights. Culture and Social Practice. Bielefeld: Transcript.
Seyfert, Robert. 2012. “Beyond Personal Feelings and Collective Emotions: Toward a Theory of Social Affect.” Theory, Culture & Society 29 (6): 27–46. doi:10.1177/0263276412438591.
Simone, AbdouMaliq. 2012. “Infrastructure: Introductory Commentary.” Cultural Anthropology. November 26.
Stengers, Isabelle. 2013. “Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices.” Cultural Studies Review 11 (1): 183. doi:10.5130/csr.v11i1.3459.
Manuel Ángel Macía is a UK-based Latinx interdisciplinary researcher, artist, and educator. He holds a PhD from the Art Department at Goldsmiths, University of London. His work entails installation, curatorial platforms for knowledge exchange, editorial work, and lecture-performance. His work has been shown in the UK, Europe, and Latin America. Currently, his projects explore Acoustemologist Julio Ramos’ concept of pharmacoloniality in the context of the contemporary global War on Drugs; and the futural articulations of Project Cybersyn, a nation-wide computer network to manage Chile’s transition from capitalism to socialism through cybernetic principles (1971–1973).
Manuel is also Resident Artist at Primary (Nottingham) and was a founding member of the Goldsmiths Latin American Hub (2014–2017).
Research Catalogue Profile: https://www.researchcatalogue.net/profile/?person=303254
- 1The ‘research setting’ is Schindler’s unit of ethnographic analysis throughout the book.
- 2For a Latinx reviewer, the ‘meta-setting’ of artistic research that is taken as universal is clearly Central European, risking the peril of universalising a geographically situated notion of artistic research—especially when such a notion is configured through the protocols and infrastructures that are so deftly mapped by Schindler.
- 3Schindler’s account does not take issue with a notion of individuality that could be critically problematised. See the speculative remarks section of this review for a discussion of this point
- 4Especially so, if we choose to agree with Peter Osborne’s account, where such a distinction is unable to account for a postconceptual condition of contemporary art, which points to the ‘ineliminable [but] radically insufficient […] aesthetic dimension’ of contemporary artistic praxis, more generally (Osborne 2013, 48).