A Note on Artistic Research

Artistic research is a controversial topic in academia, and among artists as well. To complicate things further, there is a variety of terms that overlap with artistic research yet differ from each other in important ways, such as “research-oriented practice”, “practice-based” or “practice-led” research, “practice as research”, and “research-creation”. This is not the place to settle these disputes, or argue extensively for one or the other position. However, it’s imperative that we do say something about how we have approached this field.

 

Centrally important for us is the belief that artistic research offers a valuable and unusual opportunity, not only to enrich and transform artistic experience, but also to influence how researchers from other fields — and society at large — may view art, subjectivity and knowledge. An important point of departure is that artistic research is conducted by artists who research in and through art, so that artistic practices and experiences come to the fore (as argued by Henk Borgdorff, Professor of Theory of Research in the Arts at Leiden University). Experiential accounts are necessary to the extent that they tell us something valuable about artistic practice and intuition, articulating our evaluations and embodied knowledge, the music’s performative force, and “intertextual references” between performances. Collaborative and interdisciplinary discussion and reflection can then act as important resources for understanding, challenging and developing the artistic practice, as well as articulating and transforming the ethos involved in our work. Documentation of this dynamic process illuminates it for those outside our work, making it possible for peers to also evaluate the project’s insights.

 

We do not, however, regard the artists’ experiences as privileged in themselves. Other perspectives and contexts can make us become aware of something in our own practice, and this can react back on the practice and transform it, not least in the re-evaluation of aesthetic and ethical stances. For example, by drawing from resources such as contemporary feminism, new materialism and complexity theory, our ambition has been not only to develop new methods for collective improvisation but also to problematize terms in common use around improvisation, especially the notion of “freedom”.

 

Thus, our research is not simply about communicating an already-established artistic practice but rather about how this practice changes in and through the research process. Also crucial is the credibility that can emerge from research strategies that problematize the subjectivities of the researchers, as well as a contextualization that can make socio-political or other dimensions surface. Accountability is another aspect of this strategy: acknowledging one’s participation in and sharing of locations of power. Inspired by contemporary feminist scholars such as Rosi Braidotti, we have adopted a critical stance towards the allegedly “universal” subject of knowledge that pervades many research environments. We have thus attempted to articulate a non-aggressive methodology that strives to subvert the violence and sense of entitlement that comes from equating the “subject of knowledge” with rationality, consciousness, and moral or cognitive universalism. This also entails an accountability for the production of knowledge, insistently challenging our research process to find productive ways of dealing with irreducible complexity. This anchors the subject in an ethical bond to alterity and invites us to rethink the structures and boundaries of the self. In line with this view, the project has adopted a process-oriented perspective that considers collective improvisation as a genuinely temporal event — a “complex ongoingness”, an event always in the making. This, in turn, implies the qualitative transformation of subjectivity, a trajectory of experimentation that aims at transforming the very structures of subjectivity. This connects to the micropolitical potential of artistic research (developed by philosopher Brian Massumi, among others), as interventions that can unveil the power relations that compose the self.

 

The project offers a somewhat unique contribution to methodological development in artistic research by focusing primarily on how conceptualization and practice can modulate each other within the research process, thus creating a rhythmical circulation and enacting a cross-fertilization between experimental thought and experimental music (drawing upon philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze and Manuel DeLanda). This dynamic process entails exploring resonances, by opening different modes of thought-and-action to each other. On the one hand, we have articulated concepts that were already “on their way” in the artistic practice (regarded as a modes of thinking already contained in the act of playing). On the other hand, concepts would react back onto artistic practice, enabling us to act and think differently — what to listen for, when to react (and to what), or how to make sense of musical events — which in turn would produce new conceptual connections. This required working with deliberately mobile concepts, with an elastic “systemic connectibility” capable of generating a movement of thought, and leading us towards new practices. It is, then, the pragmatic use of concepts that is essential — understanding what concepts make it possible to do and think. This means that they are intended primarily to multiply and differentiate rather than to unify and contain. In light of this process of circulation between concepts and methods, we also found it undesirable to use an overly rigid separation between “theory” and “practice”.

Throughout the project we have distinguished between, on the one hand, concepts that function as meta-theoretical stimulants (Motivators), and on the other hand, “concept-methods” that connect more directly to the improvisational situation (Modulators and the Diagram). Among the more important of the Motivators, which act as driving forces within the project as a whole, are the following:

 

complexity (nonlinear dynamics and emergence; an intricate and non-unified enfolding of musical events within each other) 

 

reciprocal interaction (positive feedback mechanisms; how improvisers simultaneously influence each other in ways that make it impossible to understand precisely how it happens, as “intra-play”)

 

heterogenous assemblage (an inter-connection of diverse but overlapping elements, effected by catalysis; non-coordination or non-unification that produces resonances)

 

transversality (diagonal cuts, or the undoing of polarities, such as between theory and practice or thought and action; deflects both hierarchizing verticality and compartmentalizing horizontality)

 

playfulness (the ways in which control and non-control can be put to work with each other in creative ways)

 

These concepts, and others, have been useful for us while quasi-systematically exploring how we can enhance collective creativity. However, it is important to emphasize that our concepts are not intended as descriptions of how the music might be perceived (whether by a “generalized listener” or an “expert”). It is their pragmatic, or future-oriented, use that has been essential to us. For example, we have experimented with various ways in which reciprocal interaction could emerge between musicians, or between musicians and electronics, and how this relates to specific musical materials (in turn spiraling into other concepts, like the permeability and morphability of musical materials, in light of work on spectromorphology, leading to inter-structural relations of sound-configurations). But instead of staying with what has already taken place we have focused on the next step: how things can move on. Even if concepts have been useful when listening back to recordings and discussing how we perceive the music, the aim of this work has not been to establish any sort of consensus on “what happened”. In fact, divergent interpretations have often been more productive when looking for new ways forward, and for designing new experiments.

 

From another point of view, any kind of retrospective explanation — that might also become useful for predicting future improvisations — would require somehow disentangling the complexity of collective improvisation by depending on using a linear conception of causality. In such an approach, then, using a specific material in this way or that would always lead to certain things happening. But the nonlinear dynamics at work in collective improvisation contradict such an approach. Simply put, the same abstract methods could utilize very different materials, and the same materials could be involved in very different processes. Really, the most we can say is that a method may increase the probability for a given result to emerge, beyond which anything could happen. This requires a form of quasi-causal analysis, similar to the ways in which complexity theory thematizes “phase spaces” in terms of thresholds, triggers, patterns and sensitive zones. The abstract concept-methods in the Diagram thus function as “quasi-causal constraints”. They comprise a virtual space of possibilities — tendencies, capacities, qualitative thresholds — that will always play out differently in a dynamic process. The Diagram does say something about our ways of improvising — how they have changed and continue to change — yet it does so on a level of abstraction that challenges us always to conduct further experiments in order to understand what they can do. Because our concept-methods are pragmatic tools (rather than classifications or tools for logical analyses) they have to unfold by way of an open-ended series of experimentations (or “demonstrations”). Any significance they have can only be expressed in and through a practice of some sort.

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