Smith, Marquard, ed. (2020). Research: Practitioner, Curator, Educator. Research as Practice Series, Vol.1. (Vilnius: Vilnius Academy of Arts Press) <https://www.academia.edu/42249558/Research_Practitioner_Curator_Educator>
Contributors: Žygimantas Augustinas, Tom Corby, Tom Holert, Lolita Jablonskienė, Marquard Smith, Vytautas Michelkevičius, Ieva Pleikienė, Emily Pringle.
The collected volume Research: Practitioner, Curator, Educator (2020) gathers talks and discussions that formed part of an inaugural event, in a series debating the relations between research and creative practice. The contributors were chosen in line with the volume’s strategic goal of sharing and extending “‘local’ academic knowledges,” as Lolita Jablonskienė, Chief Curator at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Vilnius, and Ieva Pleikienė, Pro-rector of Studies at Vilnius Academy of Arts (VAA), put it in their introduction.
Marquard Smith, the volume editor, organised the series as part of his course on “Research as Practice” at VAA's doctoral studies programme. The series presents individual research approaches within different professional settings: decolonising the museum, curriculum, and mind; forms and formats of writing; projecting the future; and presenting 21 PhD projects.
Research: Practitioner, Curator, Educator includes talks and discussions with museum curators, artists, educators, writers and researchers—all of whom wear more than one professional hat. They were asked to “set the stage” by expressing their research approach. The presenters included Vilnius-based professionals and so-called international guests; the latter being based in London (at least regarding their work assignments). The event, held during the academic year 2018/19 at the NGA, was open to the public.
“Learning in public”
I very much appreciate Smith’s teaching stance and willingness to share pedagogical insights and course content, by transforming his PhD classes on “Research as Practice” into “learning in public” sessions, by including different professional perspectives and by sharing the information with interested publics, and—through this reviewed publication—with a wider circle of PhD students and colleagues at other institutions. Obviously, this approach did not first emerge with the rise of artistic research but long ago. Not that this limits its value—it actually involves a lot more work than a more conventional approach to teaching.
Student learning objectives
In his introduction, Smith presents some of his guiding principles for his course “Research as Practice.” These include a detailed account of student learning objectives; the qualification, quantifications and capabilities (presented in tabular format) to be attained by students by the end of the course. This approach highlights the fact that PhD students need to critically reflect on the neo-liberal specifics of higher education institutions, i.e. their limits and openness for experimental art research, as well as seriously consider their institutional positioning.
“Art in the knowledge-based polis”
Given this key orientation point for PhD students, it comes as no surprise that Smith “topped and tailed” the event with Tom Holert’s “Art in the knowledge-based polis” (first published on e-flux in 2009 and republished in this volume). Holert’s text provides various entry points to artistic research (e.g. by referencing “The Hornsey Affair” (1968), national funding bodies and research assessment groups such as PARIP, and texts by Angela Piccini, James Elkins, Irit Rogoff, etc.). He discusses in detail the effects and challenges of implementing artistic research in the university context, talks about the commodification of education, service aesthetics and other transforming dynamics in recent decades that now form our present. He also brackets the VAA talks with Holert’s supplement (“Afterword. ‘Art in the Knowledge-based Polis’, ten years on”). Holert more or less explicitly calls on art and artistic research to take a particular ideological and political stance. Historically, this is problematic. Very fitting is his observation that artistic research developments should not remain caught up in higher education politics and assessment dynamics, but keep on developing modes of research with a life and future outside educational settings within professional environments.
The talks mostly tied in rather loosely with Holert’s text, some addressing its themes indirectly (e.g power-knowledge dynamics, the possibilities and limits of research given institutional, organisational, evaluation and control mechanisms). This linkage arises from presenters being asked to share their approach to professional research.
Practitioner-led research in museum and museum education contexts
The presentations by Lolita Jablonskienė, NGA Chief Curator, and Emily Pringle, Head of Research at Tate Modern, address both practitioner-led research in museum and museum education contexts. While Jablonskienė discusses knowledge production as part of everyday museum curating, Pringle presents research results based on interviews (conducted in 2017/18) on the status of research in museum contexts.
Exhibitions as knowledge sharing formats
Lolita Jablonskienė describes her curatorial team’s research by reviewing past exhibitions at NGA (founded in 2009). She first emphasises that generating knowledge is integral to museum work and always includes research. She outlines different research starting points, approaches, aims and outcomes. She shows that research is sometimes motivated by audience response and sometimes part of exhibition planning requirements. She understands exhibitions as a knowledge sharing format, one that develops particular narratives and articulates the aesthetic and socio-cultural entanglements of artistic expression. Jablonskienė assigns art various roles within the museum research context: from being the subject of research to initiating, to being part of research activities. However, she leaves unaddressed the forms and guiding principles of such practitioner research—for instance, whether more formal or informal research modes constitute best practice in the described contexts. She does, however, include ample references to the artists and curators who contributed to the described exhibitions and research activities.
Museum discourses effect research possibilities
Pringle presents various findings on the status of research in the museum context. Funded by the UK “Arts and Humanities Research Council” (AHRC), she interviewed museum professionals, educators, curators, directors, conservators and other stakeholders at four museums in Euro-American contexts. She found that the research possibilities within these museum contexts relate to four competing discourses: programme decisions, budget allocation, staff recruitment, institutional messaging and branding. She concludes that the relevance of one or the other discourse within a particular museum directly impacted which kind of research was possible. She substantiates this fundamental insight with concrete examples and emphasises that most of her interviewees did not see themselves as researchers. This needs to be understood in terms of the general confusion about what museum-based research is. Value judgements about professional and academic work play an important role in this respect, and to some extent also rampant administration and programming leave little space for the museum staff to accomplish other activities.
Scholar-curators and professional researchers
Jablonskienė and Pringle both commend the research done by professionals in their everyday working environment—the museum. I agree with Pringle that what she calls scholar-curators are much needed and that we also “need more” professional knowledge production and dissemination, positioning and reflection on current issues. If they wish (or have) to meet formal requirements (in addition to informal research), professionals researching in their everyday work context face complex challenges. These might be tackled by learning from other disciplines. An excellent source, among others, is Linda Heath and Pat Drake’s “Practitioner Research at Doctoral Level: Developing Coherent Research Methodologies.”
PhD’s in the arts
Tom Corby and Zygimantas Augustinas discuss doing a PhD in the arts. Corby is Associate Dean of Research at London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Zygimantas Augustinas, now an Associate Professor at VAA, defended the first-ever arts PhD in Lithuania back in 2015 (also at VAA).
Corby mentions some basic principles of artistic research and gives two examples of PhD projects. Regarding the former, he draws on Christopher Frayling’s differentiation in the early 1990s (taken from Herbert Read): research for, into, and through art. He briefly and comprehensibly specifies each mode, thus enabling listeners and readers to revisit or update their knowledge. The PhD projects cited by Corby as good examples illustrate that PhD work can be understood as “shared, embodied, critical, hybrid and cross-disciplinary modes of knowing.” His first example is Nicola Triscott, the founder and former artistic director of Arts Catalyst. Her PhD focused on interdisciplinary knowledge and strategy using case studies based on which she developed a framework for curating art-led projects. The second example is Jonathan Kemp’s research on understandings of computational media in arts practices, including face-to-face manipulation of the materials. What makes these PhD projects good?
“Let the practice ‘breath’”
Corby believes that the better PhDs are those that “let the practice ‘breath,’” and that document and analyse it in a way “that lays bare the making and thinking process behind the practice.” In contrast, he considers those PhD projects problematic that do not open up their “black box” of work processes but weave theory-based textures often with “little connection to the actuality of practice as pursued.” He advocates the pragmatics of practice as a site of knowledge production, arguing that, in a research endeavour, this should be accompanied with documenting and analysing the making and thinking process and the “contextual review.”
Work process, rich-media documentation, outcome
While I share Corby’s views, my own teaching experience suggests that the principal artistic research formula—“practice, documentation, and analysis”—is less comprehensible for students than “work process, rich-media documentation (including analysis and contextual review), and outcome”—as articulated, among others, by Henk Borgdorff, in his “Foreword” to Jenny Wilson's Artist in the University. It might sound like a minor change and actually has no effect on the research process itself. And yet, as rather blurry comments about artistic research are still around, a clearly communicable formula that makes immediate sense to art students should not be underestimated.
Curiosity as a crucial driver for art and research
Zygimantas Augustinas uses his own PhD project (2015) to illustrate how a seemingly boring task can turn into an exciting research project and substantially influence one's art. Known for his painted self-portraits, he describes the organic development of his project, starting from being invited to contribute to an exhibition marking Kristijonas Donelatis’ 300th anniversary. Initially, the proposition seemed unattractive—and yet, while researching, he discovered facts and phenomena he had not reflected on previously: how to portray a person of whom no photographs and images exist; how to visualise and use scientific data for portrait generation; discovering that imaginary portraits strongly resemble their painters; critical reflections on craniometry, scientific racism, painting traditions and ethical issues. He values curiosity as the crucial driver of art and research. While Augustinas' account of his research process helps PhD students reflect on their procedures, methods and research contexts, his summary research description is perhaps too generalised. Based on his presentation, the abstract could have been more specific.
Power dynamics in research networks
Vytautas Michelkevičius discusses different perspectives on, as well as the roles and effects of various understandings of artistic research. Michelkevičius is Associate Professor at Vilnius Academy of Arts. He is concerned with the expectations and essentialities that go along with different perspectives. He is sensitive to the power dynamics within international research networks and the challenges of using English as a research language. Most of us are not native speakers and publishing in our first language would severely limit our audience. Michelkevičius distinguishes these challenges along institutional lines: academia, art academies, galleries etc. I would find it more plausible to group different approaches and specify methods and method clusters. Next, it would be helpful if we explained why we are using a specific research approach within a particular setting and articulated our underlying assumptions.
Alternative frameworks defined through the research process
The talks were followed by a discussion, which is also published in the volume. My expectations about the discussion were not entirely met—largely because it centres on what could or should be understood as knowledge and knowledge production. It includes angles and views that have been reiterated time and again over the last thirty years of artistic research in European higher arts education—a fact also addressed within the discussion.
Obviously, which kind of knowledge is accepted by whom is a crucial issue and fiercely debated worldwide. Such discussions ought also to involve problematising the limits and reach of knowledge definitions, as well as critically examine what underpins art understandings and traditional viewpoints. Thus, knowledge definitions and productions are important research topics in their own right, and not fundamentals that can be sorted out entirely before we initiate art research projects. Rather, such projects might continuously formulate alternative frameworks, based on critically addressing knowledge production. Let us not forget that artistic research is in-the-making and hopefully will keep opening up new sites for experimental art research. For future meetings, the organisers might consider chairing sessions, to focus discussion more strongly on the pragmatic themes addressed, and to ensure that discussants contribute more explicitly to the issues on the agenda.
A good read
To conclude this review, Research: Practitioner, Curator, Educator provides useful insights into inter-regional discourse dynamics, presents diverse (in)formal research approaches and attitudes, offers PhD students a rich palette of ideas for reflecting on their own research projects and provides content and evaluation insights into the VAA doctoral studies programme.
Borgdorff, H. (2018). "Foreword". In: Jenny Wilson. Artists in the University. Positioning Artistic Research in Higher Education. Singapore: Springer.
Drake, P. & Heath, L. (2011). Practitioner Research at Doctoral Level. Developing Coherent Research Methodologies. London, New York: Routledge.
Dominique Lämmli is an artist, philosopher, educator and researcher based in Zurich, Switzerland. She holds a professorship in drawing & painting at Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK), co-runs FOA-FLUX and runs mAiA GmbH. FOA-FLUX carries out transregional art-centred research projects and activities. mAiA GmbH undertakes applied projects emerging from FOA-FLUX research, as well as ones funded and commissioned by third parties.