One of the key definitions of artistic research is that an artist conducts research from their own artist’s perspective, and that the artist’s own artistic practise is a key element of the research. In this text, I reflect on the artist’s subjectivity from the perspective of both autobiography and autoethnography.

Artistic research always engages in a relationship with practice, the practical making of art, regardless of how theoretically the author ends up reflecting on their work. Artistic work practices are always “the first person’s practices: they are my practices”, as stated by Juha Varto (2017, 37). Varto sees the intertwining of the author with their practice also as a challenge for artistic research; reflecting on one’s own work or accepting criticism is not always simple.

The researcher’s own experiences and making the researcher’s position visible are also made use of in fields besides artistic research, such as feminist research, anthropology or autoethnography.

Autobiography refers to activities drawn on one’s own history, life story or everyday life. In other words, how the author uses their life story as part of the artistic process. The concept is based on literature, and consequently it has a narrative emphasis, even though autobiography has become more common in art-making, and narrativity can be understood in many ways, depending on the field of art. Autobiography in art is therefore not a uniform form of art, or a way of doing things, but rather how a personal history is thought to be expressed in a work, or how it is considered to be part of the process of producing art as depending not only on the author but also on the specific form of art; for musicians, dancers or play writes, storytelling itself means different things.

Autobiography can be considered a “…cultural practice whose limits, interests and modes of presentation differ with the historical moment (…) and medium or media employed” (Smith & Watson 2002, 8; see also Porkola 2014). In the feminist art tradition, autobiography has played an important role, as experiences of both women and groups of people otherwise defined as marginalised have been made visible through it. In the background is the line of thought that began in the 1960s of the political as personal.

Deirdre Heddon, who has researched autobiography and performance, stated that, in its early days, performance art in particular offered an opportunity to bring forth the stories of minorities and questions about who is speaking, who is allowed to tell the stories and whose stories are being told (Heddon 2008). Autobiographical working methods make reflecting on identity possible (see also Hall 2005). The relationship between autobiography and what happened is not always so clearly defined – Heddon emphasises the constructedness of autobiographic performances. The fragments, perspectives and styles presented in artistic work are always selected by the author, and the performances are therefore constructed. It is often not so much a question of relevance in relation to what has happened as of how one’s own identity and sense of belonging to certain groups can be strengthened through performance.

Autobiography is often understood in narrative terms – it always involves the context where both the scope and the perspective are introduced. The aim of an autobiographic performance is not so much to tell a story about oneself as to use details of one’s own life to explore something more universal (Heddon 2008, 5). The stories people tell have often already been told. For example, in LHBTIQ+[1] communities, certain identity narrative models already exist. The purpose of telling the stories is not so much to present or produce an individual subject, but to strengthen one’s identity by strengthening their sense of belonging to the community (Heddon 2008, 33–34). Thus, the question of identity narrative is not only about individualism, but often also about community and communality.

Autobiography, then, involves various kinds of self-performance and performance practices, despite the fact that it is often viewed narrowly from biographical storytelling or as a retrospective narrative of the lives of famous people. Autobiography is discussion about the past and dialogue with history. In this context, the past is not a permanent reservoir of experiences, let alone a consistent story, but rather a collection of fragments that are utilised in the art-making process. Thus, autobiographical works build and rewrite the past rather than repeat what has already been. Using one’s own life story is often not the story of an individual, but the subject is always inevitably in dialogue with culturally defined differences that define identity and modes of representing one’s own life (Smith & Watson 2002). It is thereby not only reflecting on self, but also on shared identities, cultural norms and narratives (Porkola 2014).

In my work, autobiography has become a natural part of artistic research, as a large proportion of my performances are based on working with autobiography, and I have taught the subject for several years. In my performances, I have often used my own experiences as material and “performed myself”[2]. As an artist, it has been meaningful for me to think that I am not “seeking” a topic or a theme, but working with things that “I already have”. I have been interested in the personal and intimacy as a style and mode of performing, in bringing everyday life to the stage, and in different variations of the intermingling everyday life and art. Through autobiography, I have reflected on, for example, personal relationships with institutions, working life, everyday materiality, and cultural traditions and their performativity. In other words, autobiography as a method does not necessarily mean that the subject of the performance is the author or their personal history.

When writing artistic research, I have also found it meaningful to write in the first person. This makes it possible to make one’s own experiential and practical observations as part of a more theoretical reflection. Writing in the first person also highlights the situated knowledge, as knowledge is never created in a vacuum but is always situated.

I think that autobiographical methods appear differently at different periods of times and that their political nature is in relation to the social issues of each period. Today, under autobiography, it is possible to examine, for example, broader questions about how people present themselves on social media, how media approaches that often highlight personal narratives affect culture and art, and what kind of personal issues, such as identity issues, are political today, and how.

Autoethnography is a form of ethnographic research. While a researcher within traditional ethnography focuses on the things and people they are investigating, within autoethnography a researcher openly incorporates their own experiences and observations into their research. Autoethnography is therefore a research method combining the author’s personal experiences and observations with their social and cultural context (Uotinen 2010; Ellis et al. 2011, Spry 2011).

Johanna Uotinen, who used autoethnographic methods, stated that autoethnography provides tools for research on subjects that would be difficult to study with other methods. Autoethnography is well suited to research on everyday life, and on cultural practices whose very ordinariness has made them invisible. (Uotinen 2010.)

Two things help in building the generalisability and cogency of knowledge based on personal experience: contextualisation and storytelling. The knowledge produced is placed in its cultural and societal contexts, by describing the more general cultural and societal conditions that have influenced the experience, to the extent that it is possible. At the same time, the research context is opened by including theoretical-methodological reflection along a description of the experience (Uotinen 2014, 231–232).

While the roots of autobiography lie in literature and, consequently, art and art research, autoethnography as a method has been developed specifically as a tool for humanistic research., There has also been a lot of discussion recently about the concept of autofiction, which also comes from literature and means combining autobiographical experiences with fiction. It also refers to the literary tradition in which fiction has traditionally been separated from non-fiction. In various fields, autotheory is also discussed, which draws from the history of art, taking personal experiences and corporeality into account as part of a theoretical, often philosophical approach (Vaneycken 2020; Wiegman 2020; Fournier 2021). In artistic research, subjectivity has already been written into the artistic research method to start with (Borgdorff 2006; Hannula, Suoranta & Vadén 2003; Varto 2017), and so artistic research does not necessarily need the concept of autoethnography, for example, to justify the personal stance related to research. Concepts and methods related to subjectivity are thus varied depending on the field.


1 LHBTIQ+ is the abbreviation used for sexual and gender minorities, which comes from the words “lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer/questioning”.

2 By “presentation of self” I am referring to Erwin Goffman’s view of everyday roles and contextual communication. I have written more extensively on this in my doctoral research Esitys tutkimuksena Näkökulmia poliittiseen dokumentaariseen ja henkilökohtaiseen esitystaiteessa (Taideyliopisto 2014).


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Pilvi Porkola

Pilvi Porkola is Doctor of Arts, performance artist, researcher, and teacher.