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Four perspectives in defining, renewing, and developing artistic research

Art has the potential to play a significant role in aiding our transition to a more responsible relationship with the Earth. To substantiate this claim, we must conduct research, specifically artistic research, to define how art can drive this essential transformation, writes Associate Professor Raisa Foster as a part of a blog series where experts in artistic research delve into the essence of artistic research.

Photo of Raisa Foster
Photo: Antti Yrjönen

Our mission in every sector of society is clear: the world is facing multiple social and ecological problems, and it is our collective responsibility to try to address them. This task requires a vast array of knowledge. The natural sciences help us understand the ecological foundations of the world, while the social sciences provide insights into societal injustices and offer solutions for fostering inclusivity and justice globally. Philosophy helps us comprehend humanity’s role within this complex world, and wisdom traditions enlighten life’s purpose.

Each of these diverse knowledge domains plays a crucial role in tackling complex ecosocial issues. However, beyond knowledge and problem-solving, we must also imagine a world that is not fractured and damaged. This is where art comes into play. Art has a potential to help us envision a world that is not broken and serve as an essential part in the quest for global transformation and reconstruction.

Art for transformation

Art has a profound ability to reshape our understanding of reality. However, contemporary art can often be met with resistance in a society that values logic, language, and quantifiable data. Many people prefer to stick to their familiar and secure perspectives, avoiding the ambiguities of art and the unknown paths it may lead us.

Yet, as we navigate through an era marked by intricate social and ecological crises, it is clear that our once secure world is under siege. We, the over-consuming people living in postindustrial societies, are slowly recognizing our role in creating this chaos: wars, forest fires, droughts, floods, and mass-extinctions of species all point towards the unsettling truth that our so-called “rational,” “efficient,” and “well-organized” modern lifestyle is actually fostering uncertainty and disorder.

To continue human life on this planet, we need to make significant changes in our culture. Art has the potential to play a significant role in aiding our transition to a more responsible relationship with the Earth. To substantiate this claim, we must conduct research, specifically artistic research, to define how art can drive this essential transformation.

Defining artistic research collectively

The term “artistic research” may be confusing for those who are not familiar with it. While it is self-explanatory for those who work in art universities, others may require further explanation. I am an associate professor (dosentti) of dance pedagogy at the University of the Arts Helsinki. However, I have also studied and worked in science universities, focusing on education and social sciences; this has required me to explain my artistic research in contexts outside of the traditional art university setting.

Although it is possible for an independent scholar to conduct artistic research without being affiliated with an arts university, it is essential that this field is collectively defined and developed within the community of artist-researchers. At the same time, it is vital to maintain a strong relationship with other sectors in academia and more broadly in society too to avoid isolating this field. Failure to do so can particularly undermine the third goal of universities, which is to achieve societal impact through research.

Artistic research can be both understood a doctrine of artistic knowledge and specific research practice. In essence, an artist-researcher is an individual who, equipped with artistic and research training from higher education, employs distinct methods to gain insights into the world that are otherwise unattainable. For institutions like the University of the Arts Helsinki, which is committed to conducting artistic research and using it as a foundation for artists’ training while promoting art and artistic research in society at large, it is crucial to have a unified understanding of what artistic research entails.

Four approaches to define artistic research

I suggest that we identify four approaches to defining artistic research and then develop the field from there: First, we should perceive it as a self-understanding theory. Second, we should view it as a framework theory. Third, we must approach it as a methods theory, and finally, we must consider it as social movement. This comprehensive approach in defining artistic research will establish the necessary groundwork for effective development of the field and its educational practices.

Self-understanding theory

Artistic research, when viewed as self-understanding theory, is deliberately cultivated as a distinct research field and discipline. Mapping self-awareness in artistic research involves understanding its historical origins and various developmental phases. It is vital to acknowledge that art universities have evolved through a dualistic model; meaning that they are often perceived in contrast to science universities. Establishing one’s identity necessitates identifying common characteristics within a group while concurrently differentiating oneself from others. However, establishing a distinct boundary between science and arts universities is impossible. For example, Finnish law places the University of the Arts Helsinki on par with science universities in terms of its obligations for research, education, and societal impact.

It is important to acknowledge the lack of recognition for artistic research, especially in platforms like the Publication Forum (Julkaisufoorumi). However, it is crucial to remember that the Publication Forum is a product of the Finnish research community. As artist-researchers, we have the right and responsibility to participate in shaping the understanding of what research and its publications are and can be, as well as developing their quality assessment. It is up to us to take on this task, as no one else will do it for us.

I want to clarify that I am not advocating for artistic research to morph into something more “scientific”. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is necessary that we possess a robust comprehension of our own research. Without true equality across various research fields, it becomes imperative to fortify the identity of a specific area of study. This can be achieved through making distinctions, thereby underscoring the uniqueness of artistic research within the broader research community. These distinctions frequently tie back to epistemological questions, which forms my second viewpoint on defining artistic research.

Framework theory

Secondly, when artistic research is viewed as a framework theory, the focus shifts to its epistemology. We must delve into defining the unique ways of knowing that art brings forth. In this context, artistic research is seen as a distinct approach to understanding reality and its complex phenomena.

The necessity of incorporating artistic perspectives into our understanding of various forms of knowledge cannot be overstated. It is important to recognize the insights that artistic ways of knowing provide as they offer a unique perspective on reality that may be overlooked otherwise. For example, should we rely solely on medical sciences to understand the human body? Are psychologists and theologians the only authorities on matters related to the mind and spirit? Or should we perhaps recognize that it is the artist-researchers, who could accurately articulate the holistic experiences of a performer’s body-mind-spirit, investigating, capturing, and expressing embodied sensations, emotions, and memories. Who else could communicate the profound awe felt on top of a mountain or the intricate connections experienced during contact improvisation?

The significance of art lies in its ability to exist in between – in relationships that transcend subjects and objects, the qualities of artwork and the psyche of an artwork’s recipient. Without artist-researchers who delve deep into these complexities and interdependences, the understanding of reality would remain partial and fragmented.

It is important for artist-researchers to lead the definitions and development of artistic research, rather than having them dictated by external perspectives like philosophers or neuroscientists. However, this task necessitates a substantial community of artistic researchers. The evolution of any research field hinges on rigorous peer-review processes. Therefore, as artistic researchers, we must have peers for critical discussions and evaluations of our work in artistic research.

The University of the Arts Helsinki Research Institute has recently been formed to support research conducted at both the Institute and the university’s three Academies. It is crucial for the individual Academies to demonstrate readiness to collaborate across various disciplines. This will not only expand but also strengthen the artistic research community. Due to Finland’s small size, international collaboration is, of course, also required for an accurate evaluation of our research.

Methods theory

How do we reach this unique, artistic knowledge? The key lies in adopting a third perspective, which defines and revitalizes artistic research as a methods theory. This entails nurturing diverse artistic practices as research methods and mediums for generating knowledge. The objective of method development is to encourage a deep, critical comprehension of reality. This frequently involves dismantling established norms, a process that is particularly accomplished through the practice of art.

In artistic research, the methods employed extend beyond mere data collection or analysis. The heart of the research is art itself, serving as both the beginning point and ongoing process. Furthermore, art is also used to communicate the research findings. If removing the art practice from the research project does not alter the findings, then it is not genuine artistic research.

The issue frequently raised about academic research is its confinement within the academia. This challenge can be equally applicable to artistic research. The surge in popularity of arts-based methods in educational and social sciences is largely due to art’s ability to communicate findings with a wider audience. This potential of art could also be further studied within the field of artistic research.

In one of my research projects, I employed poetic inquiry to delve into the experiences of people with disabilities. This led to the publication of a collection of research poems and the creation of an immersive 360-degree VR video based on these poems. Subsequently, these poems were featured and discussed on a radio program by journalists with disabilities. The VR work has also been incorporated into training programs for social services bachelor’s degree students.

Then following these artistic processes, I authored an academic journal article, which enabled me to engage in further discussions about my findings with a new audience, including researchers and professionals in adult education. The research poems in the article served as the primary medium for presenting my findings, sparking lively debates among the journal’s editorial team. Ultimately, my manuscript was accepted, signifying that my artistic approach was recognized as valid research. This brings me to the fourth and final point of defining and developing artistic research.

Social movement

Fourthly, it is crucial to recognize artistic research as social movement too. The necessity of expanding artistic research beyond the confines of art universities cannot be overstated. The power of art lies in its capacity to challenge preconceived ideas and beliefs, and to foster comprehensive interpretations of reality, creativity, and systems thinking within society.

Artistic research is not merely a blend of theory and practice, but it also encompasses crucial political and ethical aspects. Like all forms of research, it is inherently tied to certain values and philosophical perspectives. Therefore, as a community of researchers, we are obliged to introspectively analyze our principles. We must question the nature of our concept of art. Is it an exclusive domain accessible only to those with specific training or class status? Or does it promote inclusivity by welcoming everyone?

Do professional artists and organizations grasp the advantages that artistic research brings to cultural industries? And what about its impact on other societal sectors? To amplify the societal influence of artistic research, we must identify our stakeholders. A stakeholder is an entity that interacts with the organization, is impacted by its operations, and reciprocally influences the organization. Without stakeholders, an organization ceases to function. It disappears due to lack of connections because meanings and significance always exist in relations.

The University of the Arts Helsinki is a hub of diverse stakeholders, both internal – including professors, students, visiting researchers, and support services – and external – such as professional artists, cultural institutions, audiences, art schools, and funders. The more-than-human world too plays a significant role in influencing the goals and operations of any organization. Conversely, the attitudes and actions of organizations also impact the Earth. Thus, each organization must recognize their position and purpose within society and globally. This awareness is instrumental in shaping its objectives and actions proactively rather than merely reacting to external motivations like market demands or regulatory mandates. Renewing the field cannot simply be a mechanical evaluation of its strengths or weaknesses nor just about marketing or communication strategies; rather it must be an ongoing dynamic interaction among all stakeholders involved.

The cornerstone of successful artistic research development is the acknowledgment of shared value creation. In the realm of stakeholder collaboration, an organization actively engages in idea exchange and solution-seeking with both its internal and external stakeholders. Despite potential differences in viewpoints, all parties involved consistently strive to surpass individual visions, pushing the boundaries of what is imaginable and attainable.

Concluding thoughts

The renewal and development of artistic research necessitates the incorporation of all four perspectives: self-understanding theory, framework theory, methods theory, and social movement. All these views are intricately linked. Therefore, it is unnecessary to rank them in a hierarchical order. While individual researchers may gravitate towards one perspective more than others, as an institution, the University of the Arts Helsinki must assertively comprehend and value the advancing of each approach collectively.

Our research is well-understood by us artist-researchers, but it is vital to ensure others comprehend it too. The significance of art may seem impossible to measure with traditional tools, yet that does not negate its profound impact on individuals, communities, societies, and the whole planet. Contemporary art pieces might come across as absurd or the overall artistic endeavor pointless. However, this is exactly where the priceless value of art resides: by positioning itself beyond rational and instrumental thinking, art establishes itself as a counterforce against modernist culture that produces social and ecological instability.

There is an urgent need for a bold reimagining of our understanding of humanity, reality, and knowledge formation. Unfortunately, due to prevailing biases and lack of awareness, the unique aspects of art and artistic research may not receive the recognition they deserve in society. At the University of the Arts Helsinki, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that this recognition is properly given, and that the transformative potential of the arts is unleashed during this time of ecosocial crisis.

About the author

Raisa Foster holds the title of Associate Professor (Dosentti) in Dance Pedagogy at the Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki. She works as an artist-researcher in an independent research project titled “Just and Unjust Environmental Wars” (2023–2027), funded by the Kone Foundation.

Other articles in the blog series

Artistic Research

Artistic research is one of Uniarts Helsinki’s specialities. In this blog you can read about latest activities in the field from our community and guest writers. The blog is currently updated by Uniarts Helsinki’s Research Pavilion, the Performing Arts Research Centre Tutke and the Centre for Artistic Research (CfAR).

What is artistic research?

Taiteellinen tutkimus on yksi yliopistomme erityispiirre. Lue blogista yliopistoyhteisömme ja vierailijoiden kirjoituksia ja ajatuksia taiteellisen tutkimuksen ajankohtaisista ilmiöistä ja tapahtumista. Blogia päivittää tällä hetkellä Taideyliopiston Tutkimuspaviljonki, Esittävien taiteiden tutkimuskeskus Tutke ja Taiteellisen tutkimuksen tutkimuskeskus (CfAR).

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