All artistic activities can be considered research, especially if they involve searching for and experimenting with new things. What, then, is artistic research proper? There is no single answer to this question. The boundary between artistic research and other artistic work is not clearly defined. When making a work of art or giving a performance, the author continuously examines the nature and possibilities of their own medium: which solutions work, what must be done differently and why, what the result of different choices might be. The artist knows their work in a way that no outsider has access to, which opens a unique opportunity to explore artistic questions from within art-making and the work of art taking shape.

The artist’s work may also include a great deal of theoretical and practical knowledge from various non-artistic fields. A painter is familiar with colour theory and paint chemistry, a dancer with the anatomy of the human body, and a theatre-maker studies the historical background of the play they are working on. Art-making opens up different perspectives to knowledge than for example engineering, medicine or social sciences. It may also reveal blind spots in established scientific thinking: what is overlooked and unexplored within them, and perhaps not expressible by other means than sensory experience and activity.

In a layperson’s perspective, artistic research projects do not necessarily differ from other experimental works presented in contemporary art. Artistic research is done in many ways, with different emphases in different contexts. It is easiest to define artistic research as research conducted in art universities and other similar institutions and evaluated on the basis of criteria approved by the artistic research community. (see ”Artistic research at Finnish universities”) The focus is not the nature of the artwork or performance as such, but rather how it is made in its context, and how it is framed: whether it is primarily interpreted as art or as research. 

You could think that art-making turns into research when the author consciously stops to wonder about the understanding in their own working, instead of focusing only on making the artwork available for conventional reception. Their primary goal is not a performance, painting, sculpture, or writing aimed at an audience, but thinking and understanding that deepen by art-making. They reflect systematically on their work, document its stages, and are aware of their links to both previous traditions and contemporary trends. The artist-researcher subjects their understanding to critical debate, which requires presenting the research in a way that also unfolds to outsiders. A successful work of art may emerge as a by-product of research, but it is not the central objective. Even a production considered unsuccessful may serve as significant research that provides valuable perspectives for solving the research problem, and produces new understanding in the field.

An artist-researcher differs from their scientific counterparts in that they seek new understanding through artistic work. The author, the making, the artwork and the research intertwine and form an inseparable entity. While scientific discussion is mainly conducted in spoken and written language, artist-researchers can also communicate with their art.

The nature of artistic research has been described as ‘boundary work’. (e.g. Borgdorff 2009). This means that an artist-researcher moves between artistic and academic practices and strives to reform both. According to Mika Elo, professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, and Denise Ziegler, University Lecturer at Aalto ARTS, the artist-researcher holds an instable position between different kinds of phenomena, which makes them pay attention to the situational reception of art. Thus, the researcher becomes aware of the fact that the sensorial perception goes beyond conceptual thinking and cannot be controlled. In addition, they realise that work of art has its own situational existence independent of the author (Elo & Ziegler 2021, 14–16).

Through their practise, many artists are specialists in sensory thinking. ‘Sensorial’ refers to encountering phenomena in the world as they manifest themselves to the senses. A work of art speaks with sounds, colours, shapes, materials, human bodies, movements and other physically perceived things. Traditional scientific art research has only limited tools for dealing with such phenomena.

Artist’s skills as a research subject and medium

Skills are an important part of human knowing, with the master of skills lingering at the margins of knowing.

In art-making, as with life in general, we usually try to make things as effortlessly as possible, when it comes to technical or other skills. Such skills must become part of oneself, an instinctive way of acting that takes no more attention than it does to walk or breathe. Then, it becomes possible to focus all one’s energy on creative expression. However, the same knowledge and skills that enable the creation of art, also impose limits on it. If we do not know how to do something, it does not get done. This is something that is easily overlooked. We are often not aware of the existence of skills until we need some form of expertise that we lack. We also fail to recognise the boundaries of our skills, and we do not know how to push them if they serve their purpose adequately.

Every artist has acquired the skills and techniques they need in their work within the framework of some tradition. Self-taught practitioners have also been influenced and inspired by other artists. No one is innately skilful. When certain practices and working methods are proved effective, a tradition of doing things emerge and is learned from more experienced artists by working together, practising, following their example, or studying at an art school. Without tradition, skills would not develop. Tradition guides the understanding of what is acceptable, respected and suitable. Many traditional practices could, however, also have turned out differently.

When an artist begins to consciously explore and understand how their skills are being structured, they can also look for new alternatives and expand the boundaries of their activities. The boundaries caused by techniques and skills cannot be completely eliminated, as the skills and techniques themselves would thus also disappear. Like any medium, part of the nature of skills is that they simultaneously enable and prevent the expression. All human expression and communications are dependent on the mediums, materials and channels through which they happen. If we open up new options in one direction, we often unknowingly build new boundaries elsewhere. We would not be able to speak without language, but we can only discuss things for which the language has words. We have, however, the capacity to coin new and combine existing ones in an infinite number of ways.

The renewal of arts is also based on tradition, as the new is only new in relation to the old. The most essential skills of a contemporary artist include the ability to create something new that is not inherited in earlier skills. It is here that an artist differs from a craftsperson, even though it is difficult to draw a line between arts and crafts. The work of art, as understood in modern Western culture, expresses something new and unique that escapes perception through any other means. It generates something that does not yet exist within the tradition, at least not precisely as it is. You could perhaps say that the tradition of modern art is a skill of constant renewal and reform, an ability to go beyond the prevailing traditions, and examine them critically. This happens also in artistic research.

In relation to the world and other people, we are always dependent on some inter-mediating technique that it is mostly so ordinary and self-evident, so close to ourselves, that we do not recognise its existence. As the boundaries of artistic skills, mediums and materials shift, new and different possibilities for communication and encountering the world are revealed. Exploring even the simplest skills can thus generate big questions about how we are, how we act and how we communicate. Through this, artistic research can open up new perspectives on all human life.

Artist’s knowledge

Only part of human knowledge is propositional, i.e. it can be formulated as coherent declarative statements, which are usual in scientific discussion. Pirkko Anttila, Professor Emerita of Craft Science, identifies wisdom, knowledge, data, information, perception, empirical knowledge, intuition, memory, knowing how, know-how, tacit knowledge, and instrumental knowledge as different types of knowledge (Anttila 2006, 50–53). The kind of knowledge that is considered relevant at any given time depends on what is being researched, and what the knowledge is needed for. In most cases, different modes of knowing mix up, and we are not always able to explain which kind of process through we have acquired knowledge about something.

Most artists’ skills cannot be learned by reading books or attending lectures, but rather through activities and corporeal experience: by practising, repeating and experimenting with different approaches. A dancer can leap as instructed without knowing the theory of gravity. A sculptor’s hands instinctively find the right shape. Knowledge associated with physical activity is often called tacit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge

The concept of tacit knowledge was introduced by Hungarian researcher Michael Polanyi in the latter half of the 1960s. It means experience-based, intuitive practical knowledge that cannot be expressed in words. The maker knows how something is done, even though they may not necessarily know how to explain it. They are able to realise the work but do not know what their skill is based on. Almost all areas of everyday life involve tacit knowledge, which we do not normally think about. A typical example is riding a bicycle. If we try to consciously think about every move we make, we may even lose our skill for a moment. We will forget how to stay up if we keep wondering how it is possible. Skills are located in muscles and physical feelings which guide our movements before any conscious decisions are made. You could think that the body “knows” an enormous number of things about the mechanics of joints, maintaining balance, and the transmission of energy, even though the conscious mind has no idea about such things.

Among others, Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies Hannele Koivunen has written with expertise on the subject in Finnish (Koivunen 1997).

Tacit knowledge is a key factor in understanding artistic activity. The problem is that it works precisely because it is implicit, and it kind of evaporates into verbal explanations. One of the aims of artistic research is to find new ways of presenting phenomena that are normally unseen. This is important not only for storing and teaching but also for renewing the skills. If we fail to recognise the existence of knowledge preserved in the skills, we will easily take it for granted, as something that could not be otherwise.

Another form of knowledge that is characteristic of creative activities is intuition, an instinctive certainty about something without knowing how one has come up to it. While tacit knowledge describes internalised skills, an intuitive insight is like a lightning bolt, suddenly revealing something as if by magic, whether it is a mathematical equation, a technical invention, or a composition of a painting. Scientists have been sceptical about knowledge gained through intuition, as one cannot see how it has emerged, and its validity thus cannot be assessed. However, humans have an evident ability to connect things and draw conclusions without conscious reasoning. Intuition plays an important role in creative thinking, and it is not diminished by a critical attitude towards claims as results of it. Sudden insight can also prove to be correct when examined more closely, but relying blindly on instinctive sensations may, for example, reinforce prejudices towards people looking different.

Intuition

In the Helsinki Term Bank for the Arts and Sciences (HTB), intuition is defined as “the ability to experience reality without being able to explain or justify their experience”. In the philosophical traditions, intuition has also referred to sensorial perceptions about the external world that have not yet taken a conceptual form. Because intuition has been seen as a purely experiential phenomenon, it has been difficult to explore it by scientific means. In recent years, the subject has been discussed, from art research perspectives, by e.g. Asta Raami (2015, 2016 and 2020).

For many artist-researchers, a sensorial perception or activity is not an empirical research tool (a means of obtaining information about the world), but rather a form of philosophical thinking that can be used to discuss the mode of being of the world and the humans. Seppo Kumpulainen’s in-depth article discusses the meaning of activity as knowing within the framework of pragmatism. Mikko Bredenberg’s article “Acting as a Medium for Artistic research” is an example of artistic research based on phenomenological philosophy. Annette Arlander has dealt with non-human agency and the relationship with humans by performing with plants. “Artistic Research beyond Doctoral Studies – Plants, Trees, and Recording the Process

Sometimes artistic research produces entirely new kinds of works of art and working methods that are no longer related to the author’s original practise in the field of art, even if they had originated from it. For example, exercises can take on a life of their own and produce new research questions that are explored in new exercises. In this way, research can also produce entirely new forms of art-making, which emerge from research inquiry.

Even though an artistic research arrangement can be compared to a scientific laboratory, the artistic work, performance or process rarely provides clear answers to specific questions. As the artistic work is affected by so many unpredictable factors, experimental arrangements can seldom be repeated as exactly similar, and the outcomes cannot be generalised in the same way as scientific theories. Many unpredictable phenomena which the authors themselves do not fully understand and cannot explain verbally also emerge in artistic processes. They can only be described with new artistic work.

When the research subject and the medium are the same, the outcome always gets out of hand, because research constantly changes the subject and the artist-researcher is part of the phenomenon they are researching. Although the task is in a way impossible, even the attempt can produce understanding of both artistic work and the attempt itself. You could think that artistic research ultimately never reaches its target, but pursuing it is a kind of specific knowing in itself. That is why the artistic research process never ends, but always produces new phenomenon to wonder about. The artist reflecting on their work resembles a philosopher trying to think about thinking through their own thinking. The artist thinks about art by art-making.

Sources

Anttila, Pirkko. 2006. Tutkiva Toiminta Ja Ilmaisu, Teos, Tekeminen. Hamina: Akatiimi.

Borgdorff, Henk. 2012. The Conflict of the Faculties. Perspectives on Artistic Research and Academia. Leiden: Leiden University Press. https://library.oapen.org/handle/20.500.12657/32887 Retrieved 4 October 2022.

Borgdorff, Henk. 2009. Artistic Research within the Fields of Science. Bergen: Kunsthøgskolen.

Elo, Mika and Denise Ziegler. 2021. Yhä Osuvammin. Helsinki: Taideyliopiston Kuvataideakatemia. URN:ISBN:978-952-353-414-8.

Koivunen, Hannele. 1997. Hiljainen tieto. Helsinki: Otava.

Raami, Asta. 2020. Intuitio3: #intuitio3, #kolmeintuitiota, #superintuitio, #yhteys. Helsinki: Otava.

Raami, Asta. 2016. Älykäs intuitio. Helsinki: S&S.

Raami, Asta. 2015 Intuition unleashed: on the application and development of intuition in the creative process. Espoo: Aalto University. URN:ISBN:978-952-60-6108-5.

Contributor

Laura Gröndahl

Laura Gröndahl has worked as set designer, researcher and teacher. She defended her doctoral dissertation at the University of Industrial Arts in 2004, worked as Professor of Stage Design from 2006 to 2013, held teaching positions in several universities, and holds the title of Docent in Theatre Research at the University of Helsinki. At present, she works as University Lecturer at the Performing Arts Research Centre at the Theatre Academy of Uniarts Helsinki, with special interests in practices within the arts and theatre, scenography, and documentary theatre. orcid.org/0000-0001-9727-3977