Artistic practice as a starting point

An understanding based on the researcher’s artistic practice and deepened through artistic processes is considered the guideline for artistic research. The tools and form of research depend on both the nature of the practise and the questions set by the researcher.

A scientific researcher is supported by the data repository and methodology of their own field, which in many cases has been collected for centuries, compiled in textbooks, reviewed, specified and improved systematically. There is no single generally accepted and ready-made theoretical and methodological toolkit in artistic research on which, for example, an artistic research project should be based. Compared to their scientific counterpart, it requires a lot of work for an artistic researcher to identify and verbalise knowledge specific to their own practice. This can be difficult because the artist’s knowledge is carried with people, passes from one author to another, and again and again adapts to different situations. When practices are updated, outdated knowledge and skills are forgotten and disappear. No one necessarily writes anything down, nor is there always an interest to share all knowledge with others. It is partly a question of tacit knowledge, partly of self-evident routines and habits. (See Artist’s skill and knowledge) These can be accessed by reflecting on one’s own practice, interviewing artists in the same field, or studying traditions and history. It is a good idea for starting researchers to familiarise themselves with previous publications of artistic research, with significant numbers, depending on the field, having already been published in in recent years.

Communication skills

There are no clear-cut right or wrong answers to questions related to art. It is a matter of interpretations, perspectives, even opinions. The thoughts and artistic outcomes presented in the research cannot be assessed on the basis of prescribed rules, but only through diverse discussion where final answers are perhaps never found but a comprehensive understanding of the problematics field might increase.

This is why the most important skill of a researcher is the ability to convey their thoughts to other people. If the aim is to increase knowledge, skills and understanding, the researcher must pose a clear question, and present an answer to it, so that others can understand how the outcomes of the research have been achieved. Only then will it be possible to assess the credibility and significance of the solutions and the understanding emerged from them. This does not have to happen verbally only. Artist-researchers make much use of, for example, images, audio and video recordings, performances and other events. The main thing is that the recipient of the research is able to follow the researcher’s way of thinking: What are they asking? How do they address their question? What kind of observations are made? How do they answer the questions?

A good advice for the artist-researcher is to keep in mind that knowledge and understanding are communicated in different ways, depending on their nature. Something can be recorded in books, images or objects. Even though their content ultimately depends on the interpretation of the recipient, the physical form does not change much over time. Skills and tacit knowledge, however, can only be learned by watching and repeating other people’s actions, which makes them subject to change easily according to the situation. If this direct transfer of information from one person to another is somehow interrupted, its contents may be completely lost. This is why it has been difficult to do research practice-based knowledge retrospectively. Theatre historians have traditionally focused on phenomena with concrete documents, such as playscripts, theatre buildings or photographs left behind. Much less is known about performances and the related practical activities. Forms of knowledge which cannot be preserved and passed down have often been forgotten in traditional academic research, due to lack of understanding of how to process such knowledge.

Artistic processes may perhaps never be completely understood by others than the agents themselves. It is therefore challenging to explain the knowledge contained in these processes to an outside recipient with no personal experience of the practise of the artist-researcher. How can, for example, acting be described to a person who does not act? One possibility is to provide scores for easy exercises that can be done when reading research. An example of this is provided by Esa Kirkkopelto in his exposition ”Virtuaalisen materiaalin jäljillä” (Finnish only), Ruukku 3, 2015.

On the other hand, it must perhaps be accepted that artistic research will inevitably be left with gaps, ambiguities and enigmas which also make artistic research interesting as they invite the reader to continue exploring.

Theoretical framework

A theoretical framework refers to the publications of other researchers that a researcher knowingly uses as a starting point and an aid in the analysis or interpretation. The researcher does not need to agree with their sources. They may attempt to prove earlier views wrong, but even then they will establish a conscious relationship with them. The reader of the research should know with which tradition the author is engaging in discussion, and with which tradition they align themselves. This is why the researcher must demonstrate and justify their own framework, make its core content explicit, and use references.

It is also worth remembering that conceptual and conscious thinking is largely based on cultural models that have been adopted as self-evident postulates. Hanna Järvinen’s in-depth article reminds us of the unilateral and colonising attitude of Western research traditions.

Even if an artist-researcher bases their work on their personal experience and artistic research components, they usually benefit from being familiar with the theoretical literature in their own field, and related fields. In addition, they can use works done by other artists as frame of reference. Which historic or modern artists have dealt with similar phenomena that they are now approaching? In what context? By what means? What kind of artworks or performances have they done? What were they thinking? What can a researcher learn from them? What can be agreed or disagreed with? How could they be developed further? Other works of art can also be discussed with in their own language, by art-making. A picture can be answered with a picture, dance with dance, a picture with dance, dance with a picture.

Artist-researchers may also need source literature from non-artistic fields of knowledge, as through art it is possible, in principle, to explore any area of human life. It is worthwhile for an artist-researcher to consider, on a case-by-case basis, how thoroughly these sources should be familiarised with, in order to benefit their own research. In most cases, the researcher should focus on their own field of expertise, as that is where they themselves are likely to have interesting things to discuss.

Methods of artistic research

Methods are practical approaches that can be made use of in seeking to answer research questions. In various sciences and philosophy, there may be very clearly defined methods that have been developed to answer specific questions. However, there are no such methods in artistic research, as each artistic process has its own principles of knowing. (See ”Research with art – what does it mean?”) The choice of the research method depends on what kind of knowing or understanding the researcher aims to achieve. This is not just a practical question. Each method is based on a methodology, i.e. some kind of understanding of what knowledge is like and how it can be obtained. This, on the other hand, leads to an epistemological discussion on the fundamental nature of knowledge.

Method – methodology

A method is a concrete way of performing a specific task. In science and philosophy, a method refers to a systematic and conscious procedure aimed at achieving reliable outcomes. The researcher must be able to record each stage of the process so that another researcher will be able to follow and assess the conclusions. Each discipline has its own methods, the choice of which depends on the type of phenomenon being studied.

Methodology is a meta-level reflection on how methods work and produce results. ‘Meta-level’ refers to examining an activity from another level, which enables an alienating perspective. Metatext, for example, deals with the properties of the text itself, provides reading instructions, or comments on the mode of writing. Methodology is thus kind of a theory of methods, which involves philosophical reflection on the nature of knowledge and how a researcher can gain access to knowledge.

When choosing a method, the artist-researcher is always faced with methodological questions, and needs to consider the theory behind the methods that are used in the study. In some cases, they can borrow methods from other disciplines, such as participatory observation, introspection, qualitative research interview practices or various art philosophy approaches. Here, it is important to ask how these methods are suitable for exploring artistic phenomena: what kind of knowledge do they produce, and how does it relate to the actual research being done?

However, an artist-researcher often has to develop their own research method based on their artistic competence. It is then worth asking what kind of research tools could be found in artistic processes. Research does not have to take place through reading and writing, but by making, experimenting, perceiving and documenting different materials. Explaining what is being done and why, in as clear and concrete a manner as possible, is worthwhile, so that a reader outside the field will also be able to understand it.

A method can often change along the way. This should not raise concerns because it can be a sign of increased understanding. When a researcher progresses in their work, they not only know more about their subject, but also begin to understand the concept of knowing in a new way. Keeping a research diary of their own research process is a good idea for any researcher, or reflecting in some other form on the development of their own thinking.

Research community

Every researcher needs to be surrounded by a community of specialists in the field and other researchers. The members of a research community engage in discussion about each other’s work, assess research outcomes, review artistic research projects or theses, teach, edit and write research publications. In other words, they maintain the standard of the discipline and ensure that it meets the general criteria for research activities. This means, for example, that the sources of information used are reliable, and that the arguments presented are consistently justified.

A good research community is diverse, open to new ideas and constructively critical of both prevailing theories and concepts that challenge them. It must continuously update and renew its expertise with emerging research. Disagreements between members, contradictory theories and disputes about them are an integral part of a research community. After all, the scientific community consists of people who are not infallible. This is why their activities must be transparent, justified, and also always subject to critical inquiry.

Making research visible

Once the research has been conducted, it should be shared with the research community so that it can be discussed. The artist-researcher can write a conventional article that resembles publications in the humanities or social sciences. They may also use experimental or performative writing styles to reflect the artistic quality of their research. It is often possible to make use of options offered by digital technology online platforms, and completely new forms of publishing. They call for an extensive use of image, audio and video files. For example, the Research Catalogue (RC) offers an online publication platform where material can be structured and arranged creatively. In RC, the reader can be instructed to look for different paths to the material in the exposition. Written text does not need to be the only or even the primary means of communication. Annette Arlander’s in-depth article ”Artistic Research beyond Doctoral Studies – Plants, Trees and Recording the Process”.

However, the main thing is not the technical format of the publication, but rather that the research unfolds as interesting and understandable for the recipient. This does not mean that the research should provide exhaustive answers or, by means of explaining, eliminate the confusion and contradictions associated with artistic processes. It is a question of the reader being able to follow the researcher’s thinking, even when it wanders on unexpected and strange paths. The language and other modes of expression of the publication also determine who will be interested in it in general. The more a researcher relies on the internal discussion in their own field, the fewer people will understand their publication. A researcher should always consider who they are doing research for. Highly specialised research always has a small audience, which is not necessarily a problem. In-depth discussion may require expertise that few possess. On the other hand, all fields need popularised publications to promote research projects and attract public interest in the field.

When a researcher intends to publish their work, they should choose the appropriate platform according to the expected audience. Is the target audience of the publication artists, other artist-researchers, all art/theatre researchers, amateurs in the field, or the general public? It is worth remembering that an artist-researcher can also present their work in non-academic forums, such as theatres, galleries and free productions. Ongoing research is often presented at various conferences and seminars. Ideally, they offer an excellent opportunity for constructive feedback and establishing contacts. In the artistic research conferences, in particular, it is often possible to organise diverse presentations, performances, workshops, lecture performances or other artistic activities.

Many research publications are artistic doctoral research projects or doctoral theses, which have their own academy-specific rules. In addition, an artist-researcher can offer an independent article or exposition to different research publications. Peer-reviewed journals focusing entirely on artistic research include JAR and RUUKKU, which publish multimedia expositions. The term “exposition” refers to an act of exposing on display, and multisensory communication. Unlike a written article, an exposition can consist of diverse material that can be freely arranged on a publication platform.

Peer review

Peer review involves two specialists of the field evaluating an article or exposition offered for publication, before a decision to publish is made. The specialists may propose or require that corrections and changes be made. The publication in evaluation is usually placed on a five-point scale: Accepted and no revision needed – Accepted but minor revision needed – Accepted but major revision needed – Returned for major revision and resubmission – Rejected.

Peer review is traditionally done anonymously, either in such a way that neither person will know the identity of the other person (double blind), or so that only the reviewer remains anonymous (single blind). Nowadays, other options are increasingly offered, such as open peer review and collaborative peer review.

In most cases, authors have to make minor or major revisions, so feedback from a peer reviewer should not be taken as discouraging. A good reviewer should always provide instructions on how to improve a text or an exposition. However, one must be prepared for a slow publishing process of the journal, since the peer review of all articles and their revisions can take up to two years, from the call for submissions to the time of publication.

Documentation of artistic processes

Today’s researcher has access to several high-quality storage media, such as videos. Using these is worthwhile. However, documenting a performance, a collective process, or a workshop is challenging because the event is tied to a specific moment in time and can never be fully recorded. A performance documented on video is not the same as the live event, since the artwork is transferred to another medium that alters the way it is received. Even if the researcher reflects on their own actions immediately afterwards, there is no way to return to the actions precisely as they happened. Experiencing a work of art is holistic, especially in performing arts. The recipient not only sees, hears and reads a performance, but feels it with all their senses that cannot be clearly distinguished from each other. There are no precise words for such experiences. Perception is never pure, but always directed and already interpreted in advance. We see or hear what we expect to see or hear.

No media records authentic reality as it is. When a researcher documents artistic work, they make a vast number of choices about what to include in the documentation, and by what means. These choices have an impact on the understanding that is formed about the performance afterwards. The documentation itself does not represent anything either, until the researcher gives meanings to it within their own interpretation. Therefore, the researcher must openly consider how and on what grounds they have documented their work, how the documentation technologies have affected the research and, due to them, what has been excluded.

In practice, lack of material or knowledge is usually not the problem for an artist-researcher, but rather the large amount. When there are too many documentations, it is difficult for the researcher to see what is important to the research, and why. In principle, the researcher should proactively limit their documentation by deciding what kind of things they want to perceive, and with which means it is best done. However, in artistic processes, no one necessarily knows what will later prove important. Therefore, more materials usually accumulate than necessary. In order for the researcher to avoid getting permanently bogged down in their materials, it is a good idea to at an early stage draw up a systematic plan for storing, managing and using their documentation. Assistance and instructions can be obtained for instance from the university libraries.

Source references

Academic research practice involves that the researcher indicates where they have obtained their knowledge and understanding, and with which previous researchers they want to engage in discussion through their work. For this purpose, source references are included in the text, giving the title, author and publication information about the source publication. There are several generally accepted practices for the citation of references. Editors or publishers of research publications often provide detailed instructions. If the author can choose their own reference system, the only principle that must be followed is consistency: all references must be marked uniformly. Libraries also provide assistance with citation.

Accurate recording of references may seem frustrating, but the references are vital in the evaluation of research. They indicate the theoretical or artistic framework within which the research is situated, and to which previous discussions it should relate. This is particularly important when assessing theses. The criteria are very different if the work is being examined, for example, from the perspective of general theatre history or from the author’s own artistic process. References are also used to ensure that research is based on reliable sources, and the author has not come up with their own facts.

Research ethics and data protection

Research ethics concern both the reliability and integrity of information gathering methods and the treatment of any subjects possibly participating in the research. An ethical review is necessary, particularly when underaged children or youths are involved in artistic or pedagogical research arrangements. Furthermore, it must be ensured that their personal data are processed appropriately.

Critical attitude of the researcher

Art and research are both critical practices that examine past traditions from new perspectives, question conventionally self-evident conceptions, and seek alternatives to generally accepted assumptions and norms. Pilvi Porkola and Hanna Järvinen’s in-depth articles on feminism and decolonisation present two critical research traditions, which have also been central to artistic research in recent years.

In this context, critical thinking does not unequivocally mean that a researcher would assess the quality of their subject by asking whether it is good or bad in itself, and how it should be made better. Such an outcome is of course also possible, and it can be very useful. Critical thinking means, above all, that the researcher constantly questions the basis of their assumptions and claims, and whether things could be explored from other perspectives as well. It does not mean automatic rejection of prevailing understandings either, but rather a diverse examination and consideration of alternatives. Even new solutions are, however, always linked to prevailing cultural and social conventions.

A critical researcher should therefore doubt their own preconceptions, as well as that what feels utmost right and important. This can be difficult, especially in art-making, because critical thinking quickly extinguishes creative intuition, and there is often no justification for artistic solutions other than a subjective feeling. Critical thinking presupposes that the researcher is able to stand out from their own creation process for a moment, and examine it from a distance. (The word “criticism” stems from the Ancient Greek krinein [κρίνω], one of the meanings of which being separation.) The work of an artist-researcher often involves continuous movement between spontaneous internal processes and distanced reflection.

The concept of source criticism is mainly linked to historical research or journalism. It means that the data and theories used in the research are viewed critically by taking into account their origin, purpose, practical limitations and other factors that have influenced the content. The information is verified using several mutually independent sources, and it is acknowledged that no source directly provides the truth on any given matter, only the perspective of the author. Both works of art and non-fiction have their own objectives, and they are aimed at certain types of recipients. Historical sources may originate from an era with different writing standards, values and practices than today. A source-critical researcher inquires about the conditions under which the data or theory they are using has emerged, and how reliable it can be considered. Who produced it, where, when, why and for whom? What can you ultimately know based on the material? It should also be kept in mind that researchers themselves interpret the material on the basis of their own assumptions and values.

A source-critical attitude is also important for an artist-researcher. No understanding is neutral and no one is able to observe the world as it is in “reality”. Every researcher, regardless of their field, will inevitably have some idea of their subject, already when starting their work. It can be based on, for example, textbooks, personal experiences, rumours, prejudices or prevailing attitudes in the field of art. It is good to understand what this conception is, how it has come to be and how it affects the choice of research problems and tools, the processing of information and conclusions. Otherwise, the researcher might unknowingly select their perceptions in a way that only reinforces their own views, thus preventing any new understanding from emerging. You could say that research is successful only if it somehow changes the researcher’s previous thinking.

Perhaps the best way to reveal one’s own mindset is to talk to people who see things differently. They can, for example, come from different backgrounds, representing different disciplines, trends and traditions. In any case, the researcher does not have to abandon their own opinions, but they should be able to see how these opinions affect the knowledge emerging in the research. This is might not be entirely possible. What we therefore need is a wide range of researchers who constructively question what they themselves, and what other researchers do.


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.