The End of Year-symposium of the research centre this year was dedicated to artistic research ethics. Research ethics deals with the practical question of how a researcher should (not) act. It also deals with topics such as quality, attitude and character. What makes an artistic research practice good? What characterizes a good artistic researcher? During the symposium, we worked on these issues and shared our own experiences with challenging situations in (teaching) artistic research. We also worked on an instrument for evaluating artistic research practices.
In the following we present a summary of the symposium on artistic research ethics, held at the (virtual) research centre AOK in June 2020. It also includes ideas and requirements for developing an instrument for stimulating ethical reflexivity in ‘Maastricht style’ artistic research projects. This document is based on notes written by session leaders Ulrike Scholtes, Martine de Rooij, Marlies Vermeulen, and Ties van de Werff.
The theme of AOK’s End of Year-Symposium 2020 was artistic research ethics. Research ethics deals with the practical question of how a researcher should (not) act. It also deals with topics such as quality, attitude and desirable research practices. What makes an artistic research project good? What characterizes a good artistic research practice? What do we need to flourish as artistic researchers? Established disciplines (such as the sciences, or art disciplines) often have a shared tradition of exemplary practices (both good and bad), (implicit) methodological rules and mores, and a code of conduct that together constitute what counts as a proper and desirable academic research or art practice. As artistic research is a young and emerging field, positioned on the borders of academia and the arts, artistic researchers cannot fall back on such shared norms, conventions and traditions. That is partly due to the specific character of artistic research that we aim for: an artistic research project ideally comes with its own context and criteria by which it can be evaluated – they emerge throughout process. The absence of generic and stringent norms is therefore a blessing.
In the context of higher arts education however, especially regarding research integrity policies and quality assessments of curricula and institutions, there is a growing formalization of generic, practice-transcending notions of what counts as good or proper research. In the symposium we took this dual situation as a starting point for trying to articulate ourselves what doing good artistic research could be – to both protect and celebrate what we find important about artistic research. The program consisted of five working sessions that each addressed a specific issue surrounding artistic research ethics: 1) virtues of integrity in artistic research (lead by Ulrike Scholtes); 2) cultivating a research culture (lead by Martine de Rooij); 3) ethical challenges specific for artistic researchers (lead by Marlies Vermeulen); 4) an instrument for assessing artistic research quality (lead by Ruth Benschop & Ties van de Werff); and 5) Prototyping an instrument for stimulating ethical reflexivity. The following gives a short summary on these themes of the symposium.
Virtues of integrity in artistic research practices
We explored what the five virtues and accompanied norms of the integrity code could mean to our practices of artistic research. We approached these virtues not as necessary conditions for proper research (needed to legitimize ourselves), but rather as integral part of our method of gaining knowledge: as either methodologies or objects of our research. By discussing and redefining these virtues, we realised that they are not only very much part of our daily activities, but that we also engage with them already in a diligent way.
For example, the virtue of honesty is connected in the code to norms of truthfulness (i.e. refraining from making unfounded claims, or not fabricating data). In artistic research however, facts and fictions are often entangled; we may produce fictions in order to elicit something “in reality” (for example through theatre or drawing). The focus then shifts towards reflecting on what these “inventions” allow us to do, and how they result from being situated and part of a practice. Honesty in artistic research then refers to being clear about the ways in which we act and are enacted in practice.
When discussing scrupulousness, we noticed that the description in the code lacks a connotation that is important in our practices, namely care. The carefulness in our artistic research practices is not about making decisions based on certainty, but rather refers to staying open and attentive to the ways the worlds surrounding our research practices present themselves and relate to us, confront us, and allow us to do learn. Scrupulousness is an important virtue in our artistic research, as it refers to our position of openness and not knowing. Being precise and deliberate are not opposed to openness: we are being precise and deliberate in being open. Reflecting on decisions is important, but when to do that, is often part of artistic research-as-learning. Moreover, we wondered whether taking decisions as such is an appropriate way to describe ways of being scrupulous in our artistic research practices. Being or becoming attentive, for instance, may be very important but cannot be called a “decision” based on degrees of certainty. Scrupulousness for us thus refers to carefulness that comes with taking and retaining an open and agnostic position.
The virtue of transparency resonated strongly with the participants. Whereas the norms in the code stress replicability, verification and traceability of steps taken in the process, we focused on the purpose and intention of these norms: to facilitate a relevant and interesting conversation or critical debate about the outcome of work. Transparency in that sense is central to our artistic research, for multiple reasons. In artistic research, the process is often part of the outcome. In established scientific disciplines (i.e. such as psychology), making every step explicit is no longer necessary as they are engraved in methodological traditions (even replication is hardly practiced). In our artistic research practices, in contrast, communication about the process becomes extra important: because we operate often interdisciplinary, and because we need it in order to transport our outcomes. This communication is important and problematic: How to communicate our work to different audiences? Precisely that which is difficult to communicate, is often the object of study for (Maastricht-style) artistic researchers. Trying to make something transparent that likes to remain hidden (“giving away the magic trick”). This asks for attention to embodied, non-explicit processes of communication. For us, transparency refers to making the process, outcome and way of communication of artistic research explicit and shareable.
Regarding independence, we noticed that non-scientific considerations are often part of the artistic process (and therefore artistic research): concerns of stakeholders, people, animals, or materials. Impartiality to such concerns is undesirable, as we are more dependent than independent. So we have to attend to the ways that we are dependent, and what it allows and disallows in practice. Moreover, the description of independence (like other virtues in the code) is based on the idea of a linear research process (i.e. making impartial decisions before executing the research). The way of working in artistic research practices is more iterative and interactive, acting and reacting in practice, also with regard to stakeholders and others involved. In our artistic research, we therefore redefine independence towards dependence, referring to making explicit the ways and how we shape and are being shaped by the others around us.
As we are not just part of a community of researchers, but also part of a community of practitioners, we feel we have various responsibilities. Practices come with their own norms and virtues. Intervening and disturbing them to make them explicit or object of reflection for others, may create a certain kind of messiness (which is not exclusive for artistic research, think about anthropological research or methods in STS). As we are entangled in various practices, where one practice begins and ends may not always be distinguishable. The question “when are we doing research and when not?” is seen as particularly challenging for an artistic researcher. Rather than hiding these struggles, we aim to make them explicit. We therefore take the way in which we position ourselves in our practices as researchers, and how we design the relationships with the people and things around us, as part of our responsibility as artistic researcher. Responsibility then refers to actively take a position when shaping the relationships around us.
We finally discussed whether there is an additional virtue that we hold dear in artistic research, Maastricht-style. The virtue or attitude of “not-knowing” was frequently mentioned. The not-knowing as an approach, a way for eliciting reflections, for trying to communicate what resist communication, as a way to disturb or to annoy. The question was raised how we can preserve this attitude, when developing and establishing our field of artistic research. How to retain the reflexivity facilitated through fresh eyes? What (and when) are disturbances relevant? While we cannot remain not-knowledgeable as we develop, it can be our task to show what labour goes into being or returning to a state of not-knowing. The ideal of the substantive detour addresses this back-and-forth between not-knowing and learning in and through practices.
Throughout the symposium (in the other sessions), other virtues specific to a Maastricht-style artistic research were mentioned as well. The key virtue seems to be agnosticism, what we often describe as not-knowing or openness: entering a practice without a pre-fixed idea of what to do and why. To become fruitfully agnostic, requires other virtues: courage (to dare and retain the agnostic position), generosity (to the practices and stakeholders), attentiveness and sensitivity (to your process and that of others), modesty (about the impact you can have), and performativity (allowing to act and be enacted). These virtues for Maastricht-style artistic research can be further developed and described.
How to cultivate and organize a research culture?
We discussed the issue of working in an institutional environment where artistic research is not a structural part of daily work and understandings. In the different art curricula we work in, but also in other collaborations, artistic research is often not yet included as a structural part in curricula, nor is it a shared approach among teachers. Part of our work as artistic researchers is to engage with this practical unease. How to stimulate a research culture where a designer/teacher brings in her own research into the teaching practice? We discussed challenges and obstacles that emerge when teaching or supervising artistic research, and we reflected on the specific ways we all developed to respond to such situations. The practice of tactics is one of them.
A challenge that most participants experienced, is the assumption among students (and sometimes other teachers) that reflection or thinking would impede the artistic process or their creative intuition while making. We then try to explain that thinking, naming, referring, explicating is part and parcel of making, of being creative. Another challenge shared among participants, is the openness of artistic research. Exposing and explicating existing routines can be a frightening and sensitive subject: in an educational institution, but also in other collaboratory situations where lots of power-relations exist, there is resistance towards rules about quality. And this resistance is proper and should be attended to. People are often afraid of a devaluation of their practices. We understand this power-worry (e.g. “I as an artist should be allow to decide what to do”), and therefore we oppose an idea of artistic research as an academisation of the arts. Instead we aim to work bottom-up, exploring together with students and teachers what artistic research for them could be. But this agnostic move makes us to some extent complicit to this debate on autonomy of the artist: our stance requires a verbal and reflexive ability that is not necessarily shared among teachers and students.
The attitude of openness and not-knowing, and the lack of proposing fixed criteria and definitions of artistic research from the onset, often results in unclarity and insecurity in practice. Unclarity and confusion for students about the aim and criteria of artistic research, and insecurity among teachers about how to retain an openness while also pushing the process forward. How to start from a position of not-knowing and take along people who don’t have this sensitivity yet? Or don’t have the verbal practice of communicating their sensitivity? What to do as the process falters? We shared some tactics to deal with this challenge: 1) developing a (disruptive) method that gives something to hold on to; 2) making it empirical, by addressing it explicitly (making the not-moving forward an object of discussion); 3) turning the question around (asking: “if this doesn’t work for you, how do you want to do it instead?”); 4) negating or sidestepping the issue by proposing an alternative way of working that does not force the issue (“let’s just try this”).
Often, we feel pushed towards giving up our agnostic or ambiguous position, in favour of an explicit and concrete definition of what artistic research is and what teachers or students should do. We feel hesitant to do this, and prefer to “stay with the trouble” as Haraway puts it, because there are already reflexive skills and a practice present in the work of teachers, as well as elsewhere: there is no empty starting point, there is already potentiality present. The method of the “substantive detour” is aimed at working with this. The substantive detour starts with a concern for specific uses, issues for which we don’t know the right way to address it, and for which there are multiple and different ways to address it. Through working on issues and concerns, the initial vagueness becomes more specific, detailed and rich. The position of the idiot (as developed by Stengers, and also by Veerle, Denise and Ruth at the moment) can also be a fruitful way of learning from situations where the process stops. And we should realise that our not-knowing comes also with some modesty about the impact: sometimes small steps for us can have a big impact on teachers or students. So if we want to articulate a methodology for our artistic research, that includes tactics for coping with challenges in practice, it should be a meta-methodology that allows teachers and students, as well as other collaborators, to enter a disruptive situation (i.e. the substantive detour).
Dilemmas of border-crossers
Maastricht-style artistic research is interdisciplinary: it is located at the borders of and in-between different fields, disciplines, and genres. As such, artistic researchers cross many borders in their research. What are specific challenges and dilemma’s that we face as interdisciplinary artistic researchers? What do we need to flourish as border-crossers? How can we imagine the research centre as a safe haven for border-crossers? We discussed the borders of our own research practices. Some defined them in terms of disciplines and fields of knowledge, others in terms of methods. Drawing a map with countries, places or islands, was a fruitful way to discuss our border-crossings.
By discussing a comparison between artistic research and its accompanied fields of academic research, the practices of research, and arts practices, we reflected on the kinds of borders that are important: they can be disciplinary, institutional, non-institutional, based on methodologies, etc. While we often compare artistic research to academic research in order to articulate what it is not, it was noticed that we hardly compare artistic research to art practices. Recognising the risk of essentialising and stereotyping fields and practices, such an exercise could be helpful for understanding how we cross different practices and borders. An example is the outcome of artistic research. Most outcome consists of a reflection of the process. But how does the artistic outcome relate to this process-outcome? The combination of the two, and how we link them, is characteristic for artistic research. Whether you could consider it art or artistic research, is not so much about criteria, as it is about performativity: what it allows us and others to do in practice. Output should always been seen in the context in which it is created, and where it could function. For us, part of the outcome is also showing how we crossed borders in our work, and the kinds of care and sensitivity it takes to do that.
We felt that the research centre, given our diversity, provides a safe haven. Part of that safe haven are all the practical and physical things that together create the research centre. We discussed some practical improvements of the physical space: having a separate producing space where we can experiment; an overview of projects we are engaged in; a more clear division of tasks; combination of informal and formal ways to meet; a work place to meet and to be alone; a white board to share ‘gifts’, links, and inspiring ideas; a reading group; structural exchange of skills and vignettes; a physical cabinet-like pigeon hole where we can exchange drafts. The research centre as shared mental space involves a shared way of working. We also seem to share a concern that “we are never there”, that we need additional training or skills in order to be able to cross a bridge or border, to be ‘a real artistic researcher’. Our reflexivity and starting position of not-knowing also comes with a hesitance and vulnerability: of trying, of being careful, of being modest, of feeling unsure about the very things we are doing. At the same time, this ambiguity requires a shared responsibility and work-ethos: we try to listen to others, we aim to be reflexive and think, and the very expectation that we at least try.
Through our activities, we create the research centre. But the research centre is also created by its neighbours. The ‘outside’ borders of the research centre – such as management, the different faculties, team leaders, artists, academics – can produce the research centre as a different, safe space. That can also be problematic, when we get stuck into this image of the small centre in a different and alternative world. The research centre can be different things at different times. Instead of ‘what is the research centre’ we could ask ‘where and when’ is the research centre, and for whom? The idea of the research centre as travelling circus addresses the flexibility and fluidity of our activities, to manifest itself in different places. This idea raises questions: “Being a nomadic, what do you leave behind? What is the impact when you come? How many times do you go back and forth?
An instrument for stimulating ethical sensitivity: ideas and requirements
Throughout the sessions, and especially in the fourth and final session, we discussed ideas, aims, requirements, and formats for a possible instrument for addressing the issues of research ethics and stimulating an ethical sensitivity. We aim to develop an instrument, prototype or format, that we can use when conducting, supervising or evaluating artistic research projects in practice. An instrument that is situated in-between (and sensitizes both) supervisor and (PhD-)student, and researcher and (external) partners. An instrument that is open enough to account for the immanent and situational specificity of artistic research projects, yet generic and compelling enough to matter in our work at the research centre.
When discussing the virtues, but also the challenge of cultivating a shared research culture and challenges of doing / teaching artistic research, we reflected on the ways we can train ourselves to address these issues in a structured way. Many of our suggestions are formats that deal with artistic research on a procedural or methodological level: finding some (meta-)generic qualities that we share in our open, situational and receptive practices. A risk of such an approach is that we lose the content and the specificity of our experiences and learnings (i.e. the substantive detour).
One particular idea and format resonated among the participants: the creation of a map or navigation system in which we position ourselves and show our journey of artistic research, including challenges and successes, and borders we cross. Creating the map (together) should be the practice or ritual, revisiting it too. The drawn map can have layers (accessible to different audiences), can be accompanied with a card game, table or magazine. The map and the making of it, are both a process and a performative situation; it should be versatile enough to allow for different layers of input, depth and explanations, by which it could cater to different stakeholders (from researchers to students and other collaboratories), in different stages of the process. By re-articulating our journeys in artistic research through the map, we enter a substantive detour, by which we become more reflexive and sensitive towards the (ethical) concerns, ideals and choices we made and can make.
We came up with the following requirements and formats:
- Something that does not confine or prescribe, but rather stimulates, invites, facilitates, represents or guides dialogues about specific projects and artistic research
- Something that is performative, like instruction or exercises that make participants do things
- Something that is relevant and useful for our research practices but also beyond (e.g. in our teaching practices and for our students).
- Something that allows for safety/trust to emerge and the sharing and checking of norms and practices and terms.
- Something that evokes care, attention, a slowing down, pleasure, like a work of art
- Something that can be repeated structurally, or is sequential in another way
- Something that lives, moves and grows.
- Something that is not only a thing, but also comes with a practice that we can engage in
- For and sharing and stimulating sensitivity together (intervisie)
- A yearly magazine that makes visible what projects are going on, and facilitates dialogues on sensitive issues
- A structural vignette-exchange
- A board game, an enchanted maze as meta-instrument for bottom-up calibrating ourselves (intervisie)
- A card-game with colour-coding that allows for different degrees of reflection
- Some kind of matrix or grid on or in which one can position oneself and relate to different aspects of artistic research. Dependent on where your project is situated, specific norms become more important/relevant.
- A map of the borderlands that you can create and compare together
- A structure dialogue in which we share tactics of working/teaching artistic research
- A portable table with drawers that invites us to make something and with a flipside
- For stimulating individual sensitivity
- A checklist for tracing sensitivity within a research project (when beginning and where you can return to in order to question and reflect)
- Some kind of spatial/3D checklist with crossings and intersections.
- A (interactive) manual, form of instruction, with exercises that makes people do things
- A ‘notenkraker’ with five disruptive questions
- A map or conversation that identifies artistic research as a field in the making, showing the positioning and negotiation-work that goes into that
- A border crossers map that can become a practice with a ritual of positioning ourselves on it in specific stages of research/teaching
- A handbook of methods of artistic research
In the final session, we further discussed the requirements and possibilities of this idea of map-making as practice, and next steps to take for prototyping this format. The instrument should not only be used to trace our research journeys, but should also include an argumentation on how and why we aim to do it like that. We discussed the possible contents of the map, and we noticed that it shouldn’t be confined to institutions or disciplines, but that the map should reflect our journey: that countries and places can change, extend, get smaller or bigger, because of our journey. We also considered how such a practice of map-making could look like. And what should the output be (reflexive conversations mixed with visual and metaphorical outcomes)? The map-making practice should include exercises or interventions (possibly based on our meanings of the five virtues) that encourage users to position themselves on the map and trace their steps of their research journey. An (online) magazine could help making documentation of that process more meaningful and shareable (and multimedia content allows for non-linguistic forms of documentation or expressions).
How to prototype and test it? An important part of prototyping should be explicating the ways we can or should use the map-practice: who should we test it with, what is a good testing situation? Who are primary users of the map (us at the centre, students, teachers, external partners)? Why should one want or need this practice? How and when does the map-practice become meaningful for whom? How to avoid that the map-making practice is seen as again an extra add-on, or something that disappears to the borders or margins of an artistic research project? We discussed two strategies for developing and testing this map-practice. A bottom-up approach, working from our own research practices, and using our own skills for little exercises and interventions, or a game (titled ‘doing artistic research at the research centre’) where participants could take on the roles and practice skills present with the team of the research centre. This should be combined with a more top-down perspective, where we work from our definitions / meanings of the five virtues of research integrity. The exchange between the specificity of artistic research practices and the skills (of us at the research centre) with the more abstract virtues, encourages users to translate them and question them in relation to their own research practices. This zooming in and out, using different scales of the map and the virtues as a possible legenda, can stimulate ethical reflection.
As next steps, we decided to dedicate next year’s opening symposium to the prototyping and testing of the map-practice, including possible exercises and interventions. By working in small groups of two or three on one specific case of one of the participants, we can work on fruitful interventions and how they would result in a map-practice. At the symposium, the groups will share their work, the process and their experiences of how the interventions and the amp worked (or not). We also decide that we will formulate a framework and an exercise for the groups to work with, and explore possible tools for creating a shared ‘table’ to work, both physically and online. At the symposium, we will also explore whether and how other existing sharing practices that the research centre already developed (i.e. De Ontmoeting by Laagland, and Het Voorstel by Rita Hoofwijk), could be part of our toolbox for stimulating ethical reflexivity.