Moving, Making, Thinking – Considering Artistic Research

This is a short version of a keynote given at the Symposium on Artistic Research hosted by the Swedish Research Council, Malmö, 1 December 2010

Artistic research is an important and controversial topic in academic and professional artistic communities in Scandinavia, Europe, England, North America and Australia. But what is artistic research? Who funds it? What does it mean for an artist to get a PhD? There is much wariness – concern for standards and autonomy from all sides – as well as much excitement at what may develop from the convergence between the theorising and rigour of the Academy combined with the creativity and, yes, rigour of the studio.

I was asked to be one of two keynote speakers at a symposium on Artistic Research hosted by the Swedish Research Council in Malmö on 1 December 2010 called Samtalets konst – symposium om konstnärlig forskning. This blog-post contains a brief version of the paper I presented, the full version will be published by the Swedish Research Council as proceedings from the event.

An ‘inside-out’ approach of art and research as a duet
Preparing for this keynote over the few weeks I considered, and then abandoned, several approaches. I considered adopting a more formal approach to methodologies, comparing and contrasting scientific methods with more qualitative or subjective methodologies frequently used by artists; I considered discussing the nuances that distinguish artistic research from artistic practice that is not framed or intended to be research; I also thought that I might discuss the implications of performance as content and method within a research context.

Reflecting further upon the nature of this event – a symposium with working groups actively discussing projects – these approaches, while valid, seemed to be too dry or ‘outside-in’ in as much as they take as a starting point formal concerns relating to the broad terrain of research. Instead I decided to take an ‘inside-out’ approach, inviting you into the details of two projects to see how the art and the research unfold as a sort of duet. In a sense I decided to choose an inductive approach (from the specific to the general) rather than a deductive approach (from generalisations to specifics).

The sensible and the intelligible
The larger questions will nevertheless become present, for what will be emphasised through these projects is content and methodologies, theories and practices, concepts and materials. I have been reading Jacques Rancière’s writings on aesthetics and am fond of his suggestion that the study of aesthetics reveals many attempts to reconcile “the sensible and the intelligible,” he suggests that instead of denouncing aesthetics as a “confused type of thinking confounding pure thought, sensible affects and artistic practices” we should instead embrace this “knot” of thought, practices and affects. (Rancière, Aesthetics and its Discontents, 2009). He calls this aesthetics. With a subtle reframing I see this knot as being the incredible richness of artistic research, but artistic research adds a few more strands to the tangle because it is frequently interdisciplinary and collaborative.

Today I would like to present to you two knots. The first one, the IntuiTweet project (2009-2010) in dance improvisation and social media yields a new research methodology; the second one, the site specific performance called The Yellow Memory (2009) transitions from improvised dance performance to philosophical reflections upon voice, electronic music, and memory. Both projects demonstrate their own way of reconciling the sensible and the intelligible; and both exist at a point of convergence between the worlds of professional art practice and academia.

The IntuiTweet Project (2010)

The IntuiTweet project confronts the problem of disembodiment and superficiality in social networking by experimenting with movement improvisation and various forms of social media including Twitter, TwitPic, YouTube, Facebook, SMS (short message service) and group wikis. (This project was also discussed at a MEDEA talk on 29 October 2010)

IntuiTweet is situated at the convergence between the practices of design and dance and is embedded in a broader initiative which aims to explore intuition as it emerges in the dance studio and may be applicable to design methodologies. This initiative is called “Intuition in Creative Processes” and is a Helsinki based collaboration between dance researchers associated with the Theatre Academy and designers from the Media Lab of the University of Arts and Design. My collaborators from the Theatre Academy are Leena Rouhiainen and Mia Keinänen, the designers are Asta Raami and Samu Mielonen. IntuiTweet developed as a research strand within this larger project with the specific aim of accessing movement intuition in daily life through mobile networked media devices, and then extrapolating this into choreography.

This project addresses the spaces between bodies and digital media, between one body and another, in the kinaesthetic and ambiguous space of mobile media. (A longer version of this discussion of IntuiTweet and methodology is about to be published on the Studia Philosophia website)

One premise is that, prior to their use and frequently re-purposing by artists, digital media are designed. Media does not enter our world fully formed; it has to be brought into being: as such, there is here a deliberate attempt to speak from terrain shared by artistic creation and design innovation.

This is not to conflate the fields of art and design but to speak from a point of shared territory, the delicate domain of experimentation where the methods and process of art and design are more fluid despite often having different vocabularies. Dancers will be familiar with the studio practices of improvising, devising and rehearsing (note that these are verbs with direct connection to the body), while designers are more comfortable with the synchronous activities of experimentation, construction and iteration (note that these are nouns referring to objects or processes). Dancers and artists freely use the term creation, while designers may be more at home with the term innovation.

There are converging methods at the heart of this project: the artistic method of dance improvisation and the philosophical methodology of phenomenology (or a variation of phenomenology). One of the reasons why phenomenology is an increasingly compelling alternative to existing methods for production is because it does not inhabit one side of the dichotomy between art and design; hence it appeals to a newer generation of designers and artists, those less interested in preserving unhelpful dualities who look to other disciplines for inspiration.

Intuitive Improvisation
The method that emerged from this project is called Intuitive Improvisation, and it is drawn from the philosophical methodology of phenomenology, in particular, readings of the late writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. It stems from a recognition that the multi-layered world of design is increasingly concerned with dynamic, embodied, or experiential methods, at the same time as artistic research is expanding rapidly with important methodological crossover from other disciplines.

Practically speaking, how does one perform this method? There are primary and secondary instructions.

Primary Instructions
The step by step procedure for implementing this method is as follows:

a) take a moment to listen to your body and notice a movement intuition or sensation
b) code it into a Tweet of 140 characters or less
c) send it to other participants via Twitter or SMS
d) when a Tweet is received, improvise it immediately or with a time lag (hours or days)
e) notice how it has morphed in your own body over time and through space
f) re-code it into a fresh Tweet and re-send it to be received and improvised once more

Secondary Instructions
If you choose, you may use the camera on your mobile phone to generate a VideoTweet, either an image or a video that imbues a kinaesthetic quality. This can be sent via MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) or posted to TwitPic or YouTube. View images/videos posted by others and improvise the kinaesthetic quality received, re-image and re-post this movement.

The IntuiTweet project is currently at the stage of launching a wider socially networked community of improvisers and devising a participatory installation/performance to take place in Helsinki in September 2011.

The Yellow Memory Project (2009)

Yellow Memory was a site specific piece at the Ukrainian Institute in New York City, this performance explored the notion of architectural, personal, and collective memory.

I refer to this project as the second knot in this paper (recalling Rancière’s suggestion that aesthetics is a knot of thought, sensible affect and practices) because it is an example of a performance and artistic research – but the performance could have stood alone as simply an artistic event. Each of the participants is a researcher and an artist, and each has chosen to pursue different aspects as individual research projects emerging from a collaborative artistic project. This happens frequently: the extrapolation of personal research interests within a collaborative art piece. It is not always easy to navigate, but that is a separate discussion.

I have examined the use of voice in this performance as a way to contribute to a consideration of electronic music. There are two deliberate cross mappings at work here: dance is used to reflect upon music, and that most analogue of instruments – voice – is used to reflect upon electronic music. (This discussion is an extract from a chapter called “Embodying the Sonic Invisible” forthcoming in Bodily Expression in Electronic Music, ed. Deniz Peters & Andreas Dorschel, Routledge 2011.)

Director and dramaturge Svitlana Matviyenko recorded voices of audience members as they recalled the previous year’s performance, simply called The Yellow, and integrated these words into the sound score for the following year’s The Yellow Memory. Sound was digital and electronic, and I argue that it was also interactive and generative, but not as a function of hardware and software. The dancers provided the interactive and generative dimensions to this system according to the improvisatory structures set in place by choreographer Inka Juslin.

The electronic score had a lot of breath in it; not digitized sounds of breath as were prevalent in the 1990s, but rather pauses and gaps like a Feldman score. The instrumental components combined hanging piano notes, offering a suspended or airy quality, with harsh or dissonant pulls from a violin that felt like ragged breaths: as if ease and unease repeatedly gave way to one another. The recordings of people describing their recollections from the previous year were layered so that one could listen to one narrative before it dissolved into another.

The voices had a reflective texture of people uncertainly plumbing their memories; this sense of finding the right word to express a now fading recollection prompted a movement improvisation about finding a suitable gesture or quality of movement to inhabit the moment, before letting it fall away and be replaced with another.

The dancers (Juslin and I) repeated phrases from the sound recording, explicitly lifting words from several of the audience members. We integrated these into our improvisation by speaking or muttering them aloud while we danced. We dancers were listeners: listening to the words as they came out of our mouths and listening to our movement to see where it wanted to take us. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty has written, we were sonorous beings hearing our own vibrations from within and without at the same time. (From The Visible and the Invisible written first published in 1961). Reflecting on voice in performance helped me to understand the way bodies interact with electronic music: responding to multiple vibrations, and always on the edge of meaning.

The specific gaze as an argument for reflexivity
Closing with another thought, or perhaps a provocation, from Rancière: “If art is to exist it is not enough that there be painters or musicians, dancers or actors .. for art to exist what is required is a specific gaze and form of thought to identify it.” (Rancière 2009, p6) This, for him, is aesthetics. This specific gaze, for me, is an argument for reflexivity, for the ability to contexualise and deeply think about what you are doing while you are doing it. This opens two important parts of a research process: the decision to see what we are doing as research and the adoption of a research methodology which sets in motion critical reflection at the same time as artistic production. To these two parts of the research process I would add a deep awareness of others researching in the field, both past and current, which is not just a nod to cultural and historical context but the acknowledgement that we function within a community of reflexive practitioners.

Read more
Rancière, Aesthetics and its Discontents, 2009
Susan Kozel’s MEDEA Talk on Social Choreographies
Texts by Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Photo credits: Knitted video frame from The Yellow Memory (2009). Photo: Svitlana Matviyenko, Dancer: Inka Juslin, open source software for translating images into knitting patterns: KnitPro by Cat Mazza