Over the last 20 years artistic research programmes have emerged in art universities and academies around the world. Finland has an internationally long tradition of artistic research, and the University of the Arts Theatre Academy can be considered one of the pioneers of artistic research in the performing arts.
Artistic research is multidisciplinary in nature. It can be understood as a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary field between arts, whose processes generate hybrids that do not necessarily fit into traditional artistic disciplines or existing academic frameworks, but create new connections between disciplines with their multiple boundaries. Also,the interaction between an art form, such as dance, and artistic research and academic dance research is interesting because both research modes have their own research orientation and history.
In my article, I reflect on what it means to be an artist-researcher and the tensions that may exist between artistic work and writing about research processes. I have had to reflect on questions of writing at different stages of my career, but I will focus here on the questions raised in the artistic work that I went through in the doctoral programme in artistic research at the Performing Arts Research Centre of the Theatre Academy from 2013 to 2019
On Artistic Research
There are many reasons to apply for a doctorate in artistic research. Often, the motivation to pursue postgraduate study is the opportunity to focus long-term on issues related to art-making and academic critical theory. I applied for doctoral studies with a fairly thin understanding of what artistic research is. I was motivated to look at the changes in my artistic work and the issues that arose from them. I wanted to explore why those changes were so significant and what possibilities the changes opened up for choreographic art-making. I was looking for a space and a platform in which to reflect through art-making in a long-term, sustainable way. My understanding of the nature of artistic research changed rapidly in the early stages of my studies. I realised the value for artists of having opportunities to pursue further education in which practical questions could be explored by making art outside the pressures of art production. I was excited about the long-term opportunity to work on embryonic practical ideas in a structure where I could find interlocutors among colleagues and sources of critical theory. In the postgraduate programme, I found a space for experimental choreography. In finding space for my practical reflections, I encountered many new challenges, such as how to verbalise what ideas had germinated.
In Finland, artistic research leading to a doctorate in the performing arts can be carried out at the Performing Arts Research Centre of the Theatre Academy. Conducting research requires patience, perseverance, a sense of purpose, a long-term tolerance of uncertainty, the maturity to receive critical feedback and to give feedback to colleagues, and the ability to perceive, articulate and deal with the broad complexities in which art-making and the research project are interwoven. Artistic research is by nature independent work, but may involve exploring research questions with a project-based or multi-year research team.
Here it is important to state that art research and artistic research are two different things, but they can engage in a dialogue during the research processes. In artistic research, the practice of the artist serves as the research method, while the material of the research process is the artistic work done and its process. An essential part of the doctoral studies in artistic research at the Theatre Academy are the artistic components, which must pass peer review by external examiners. In other words, what makes artistic research special is that it is research conducted by an artist through the means of art-making. In short, in artistic research the artist processes the questions that arise from their artistic practice, thereby producing knowledge and understanding where traditional academic research leaves gaps. At the same time, research through art-making often challenges the prevailing practices of art-making, and thus research projects often contribute to the field of art to artistic directions and future visions of arts universities. By its very nature, artistic research often interacts in constructive friction with other academic and artistic fields.
The Challenge of Writing
Often, in the context of art, research-based academic work is seen as writing about art. Early in my postgraduate studies, I quickly realised that this perception of the relationship between writing and the work of an artistic researcher was, in my case, incorrect. I had to stop and think about the kind of writing that my artistic work constituted and provoked. The relationship between artistic work and writing is the subject of a lively critical debate among artistic researchers. One of the core issues of this debate is how, in the processes and outcomes of artistic research, writing is understood as something other than the production of a linear academic text. During my process, I found how the conceptual clarifications offered by critical theory helped me to go deeper into my art-making. I also became sensitive to how art-making can create its own conceptual framework. Finding a word and a written text that fit with the artistic work was a laborious process. My process was refreshed by rewarding moments when practical sensibility merged with linguistic articulation. Through a challenging and inspiring process, I felt that as an artist I could make my work’s voice heard through words.
It is fruitful to consider the relationship between the written text and the material artistic practice as a reciprocal process, rather than as an opposition. According to artist and researcher Annette Arlander, ‘The juxtaposition of artistic work and (research) writing easily leads to all kinds of dead ends, such as the idea that first you make a work of art, and then, when you reflectively write about it, the work becomes research.’ I take Arlander’s point to be relevant to the insight (mentioned at the beginning of this section) that as an artistic researcher I do not write about art, but with art and artistic practice. Arlander’s point is particularly important from the perspective that conceptual clarifications refine artistic work, and often conceptual clarification can emerge from artistic practice. As a result, as Arlander notes, artistic research writing can blend theory and practice, image, sound and text across different boundaries, and new insights and openings may well sprout from the experimental ground created. The relationship between written text and dance has sometimes been seen as challenging, perhaps because of the very nature of the art form, where written language is not the primary means of expression. This debate has been going on for a long time in dance and choreography, for example in the context of dance studies.
Two Examples of Searching for Words
In my research project, I worked on issues related to writing and artistic practice with two projects, Planetary Movements and Seasons as Choreographers: Where Over the World is Astronaut Scott Kelly? In both of these projects, Twitter played a significant role in the articulation of my artistic work.
For Planetary Movements, I used the limited number of characters (140) permitted in a post on Twitter as a filter through which I filtered English words and phrases that could capture my experiential and, compared to my previous work, new choreographic practice. The project was based on documenting and tweeting everyday moments of movement and choreography. I chose three English words to filter the text through: cue, response and action. The brevity of the tweets meant that my reflection on different linguistic choices and words was very frequent. In this project, my writing did not need to be comprehensible, but I was looking for individual words that would apply to my practice. I also paid a lot of attention to what happens when I write a hashtag (#).
What I found particularly challenging throughout the research process was translating the non-linear practice and the skills and sensitivities that operate within it into a linear text. ‘How does non-linear practice translate into a linear text?’ was one of the challenging questions throughout my doctoral studies. By non-linear in this context, I mean a bodily orientation to a space in which the sensory and kinaesthetic sensitivities that locate the body are simultaneously activated in multiple directions. By linear, I refer to a form of writing in which text is structured to be read left to right and line by line, as in this text. In Planetary Movements, the hashtag acted as a kind of teleporter for me, simultaneously flinging my writing – and my reading of it – in many directions.
During my research project, I also solved the challenges of writing by incorporating the written text into my artistic work in my project Seasons as Choreographers: Where Over the World is Astronaut Scott Kelly? During the project, I walked my chosen route around the Theatre Academy for one year and documented observations from my walks about how different seasons are choreographic actors. I tweeted about these observations, and used this to communicate in my project with NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who was simultaneously completing his year-long mission on the International Space Station. I compiled the tweets I made into a video, which became a natural part of the installation work in my studio. I found that the linearity of the text dissolved into the spatial, simultaneously multi-directional experience of the installation. Using writing as part of an artistic practice in this way worked well for me and gave me space as an artist. The solution also eased the pressure of producing an academic text and describing my practice. Instead, the experience of the installation can be understood in terms of my research project as a whole as a kind of experiential text and as a constructive component of an analytical, reflective text.
Towards the end of my research process, I decided to write my commentary on Research Catalogue, an international database for artistic research, which offered more tools for writing than just linear text. My final writing and the textuality of my project emerged as a combination of photo, video and text, and as a kind of visualisation of the research space, in which I invite the reader to participate. In my commentary, the reader can slide anywhere and start reading from any point in the space of the platform. I felt that this solution better captured something essential about my artistic practice and research process than, for example, a commentary printed in book form.
Artistic Research, Diverse Audiences and the Art World
PhD students in artistic research are often under intense pressure on two fronts: to make art that opens up new perspectives in the field of art, and to produce new knowledge or understanding in the world of academic knowledge production. The challenge, therefore, is that an artist doing artistic research in an academic context through their artwork has to cross the peer review bar in two directions simultaneously. On the one hand, the history of artistic research is becoming long enough and the number of researchers is now so great that artistic research expertise and art form their own ecology and territory, which can be assessed through the specific quality of artistic research. What is important to remember here is that artistic researchers can simultaneously work on different artistic platforms and produce academic knowledge. The contextualisation of works of art, i.e. how the work is presented in different contexts, is also a question of the written text, which the artist resolves when working in different contexts. For example, my project Planetary Movements is available on Twitter for anyone to read as such. In my commentary, it is accompanied by an artistic research essay, and in autumn 2020 I made a short presentation video for the project, to present the work at Stockholm University of the Arts in its Art Research Online Conference. So the actual work has remained the same, but its presentation with the written text has varied depending on where it is placed. This work has many similarities with context- and site-specific art-making, whose practices take into account the site where the artwork is made and how the chosen context sets the conditions for making art.
The relationship between artistic research and the art world in Finland is gradually becoming more porous. The number of artists engaged in artistic research is growing, if only because of the large number of training programmes that have been set up in recent years, for example in Europe. Another reason for the widening audience for artistic research in Finland is that at the University of the Arts, undergraduate students are already being introduced to the field of academic artistic research. Through the development of various forms of institutional cooperation, the art, questions and results of research processes can be disseminated to a wider audience. However, work with the wider public is still in its infancy, and academic artistic research may share similar questions with many other disciplines about how it can be disseminated to a wider audience.
Making research accessible to a wider audience is challenging for a number of reasons. Perhaps the very word ‘research’ is perceived in the art world as distancing the public and difficult to market. Or perhaps there is a conflict between the experimental nature of artistic research and the established productive practices and economic pressures of some institutional artistic platforms.
When something does not fit into the given mould, it can cause friction. As artistic research is subject to prevailing institutional artistic and curatorial practices, ecologies and economies, art institutions need more curious dialogue and insight into the constructive nature of artistic research. However, the new generation of artists are familiar with artistic research and see it as a potential working platform. From this point of view, too, it is possible for an artist who conducts artistic research to work simultaneously, domestically and internationally, in the two fields of art and academic research.
1 Arlander 2017, 169.
2 Arlander 2017, 170.
3 Rouhiainen, Anttila & Järvinen 2014.
Arlander, Annette. 2017. “Taiteellinen tutkimus ja monimuotoistuvat tekstit.” In Emilia Karjula and Tiina Mahlamäki (eds.). Kurinalaisuutta ja kuvitelmia: Näkökulmia luovaan tietokirjoittamiseen. Turku: Tarke kustantamo, 164–183.
Kellokumpu, Simo. 2019. Choreography as Reading Practice. Väitöstutkimus. Acta Scenica 56. Helsinki: Taideyliopiston Teatterikorkeakoulu. https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/437088/438771. Accessed 20.10.2020.
Rouhiainen, Leena & Anttila, Eeva & Järvinen, Hanna. 2014. “Taiteellinen tutkimus yhtenä tanssintutkimuksen juonteena.” Nivel 03. Helsinki: Taideyliopiston Teatterikorkeakoulu, https://nivel.teak.fi/tanssiva-tutkimus/taiteellinen-tutkimus-yhtena-tanssintutkimuksen-juonteena/ Accessed 16.10.2020.
Simo Kellokumpu is achoreographer and researcher based in Helsinki. From 2013 to 2019, he conducted the artistic research project Choreography as Reading Practice at the Performing Arts Research Centre, University of the Arts Helsinki. From 2020 to 2022, as a visiting researcher there, he carried out the post-doctoral artistic research project xeno/exo/astro – choreadings. Kellokumpu’s artistic work explores the choreographic relations between embodiment and materiality in the intertwining of space culture, speculative fiction and spatiality. Kellokumpu’s choreographic multidisciplinary artistic works are realised through installation, performance and video.