MEDIA REVIEW | Practices of Experimentation: Research and Teaching in the Arts Today

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Jones, H. (2013). Practices of Experimentation: Research and Teaching in the Arts Today. [Review of the book Practices of Experimentation: Research and Teaching in the Arts Today, by Department of Art & Media (DKM) at the Zurich University of the Arts, ZHdK (Ed.)]. Studies in Art Education, 54(4), 381-383.

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Department of Art & Media(DKM) at the Zurich University of the Arts, ZHdK, (Ed.). (2012). Practices of Experimentation: Research and Teaching in the Arts Today. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 500 pages, 80 color plates. (paperback). ISBN 9783858812599.

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Practices of Experimentation (2012) is the fourth in a series of “yearbooks” edited and compiled by the Department of Art and Media (DKM) at the Zurich University of the Arts. The book’s organizing theme focuses on conceptualizing art practices as forms of experimentation. The edited collection of seventeen contributions is derived from a wide-ranging scope of authors from inside and outside the school, including invitational works from international guests. Presenting a mixture of theoretical content and practical examples, scholars in theory, aesthetics, media arts, and cultural studies are situated alongside contributions from students, alumni, and artists. The project both documents the practices of the Department of Art and Media and explores contemporary problems concerning research and teaching in the arts. This paperback combines both English and German editions, visually separated by a series of color plates located at the heart of the book. Readers with particular interests in the epistemologies of art, philosophies or methodologies of artistic research, and the application of related contemporary theoretical inquiry to teaching artistic practices will likely find the conceptual offerings of this project to be academically enticing.

Theoretical contributions from various positions of professional practice and knowledge discourses converge, providing the reader with a complicated impression of the school’s intellectual climate. Examples of formal art teaching practices at a university of the arts are presented in many formats to illustrate the alignment of theory to practice. As a collection, the essays provide fragmented entry points that seem only to scratch the surface of portraying the complexity of the school’s ethos and curricular program as one that is guided by intensive theoretical inquiry into research, teaching, and practices in the arts. Areas of study and the structural organization of the post-secondary institution are briefly outlined in the forward by Schiesser and Brunner.

Presented as an international model for arts education and research that pushes the boundaries of contemporary practices, the University houses two dedicated research centers (The Institute for Contemporary Art Research and The Institute for Critical Theory), which contribute to a cross-pollination of transdisciplinary discourses underpinning the school’s creative and academic activities. In form, the book is an artful project. Rather than presenting a reductive narrative to describe specific qualities and methodologies of the school, the creative format positions the reader within an interpretive space to draw connections where theoretical experimentation and experimental practices overlap. Contributions include traditional scholarly articles, free-form theoretical brainstorming, reflective narratives, visual artifacts, and project descriptions.

In “Slow Practices – 11 Theses”, Christopher Brunner explores the “epistemic surplus value of artistic research” utilizing a phenomenological approach (p. 57). Focusing on the concept of being in the present moment of engagement in artistic practice, Brunner offers a set of theoretical propositions as “tendencies of acting and thinking” by slowing down, feeling and participating in an event (p. 57). Brunner outlines his individual theses separately, developing his initial thoughts on how “slow practices” problematize, produce subjectivity and objectivity, refer to collective processes, and are relational, heterochronic, political, creative and not just productive transversal practices or techniques of existence based on intensity and duration that transform the concept of knowledge. The product of Brunner’s inquiry is a dense theoretical essay resultant of placing oneself in profoundly intimate relation to artistic practice in an attempt to reflexively grasp the potentialities and qualities of the present moment. Those interested in the philosophy of artistic research and epistemologies of art may find Brunner’s ideas compelling.

Additional essays on artistic research include Schiesser’s “A Certain Frustration – Paradoxes, Voids, Perspectives in Artistic Research Today” and Schenker and Rickli’s “Experimentation”. Schiesser’s essay presents a discussion of current paradigms and trends in European scholarship on artistic research, highlighting the absence of epistemology as a problem that practice-based doctoral programs in the arts are failing to address. Offering a brief history, Schiesser contextualizes and critically analyzes past and current influences on the field. The author identifies a number of issues he perceives as problems, such as the failure of international conferences to be productive, pressure for artistic research to continually legitimize itself, competing intellectual influences from an array of academic disciplines, and a lack of cohesion across the discipline itself in attempts to provide critical meta-analysis of the field. Concluding his piece, Schiesser offers an eight-point strategy for “comprehensive sustainability”, arguing its necessity if artistic research might realize its “extraordinarily explosive power for society” to develop an “aesthetics of existence” (p. 97, 103-104).

Throughout the book, various essays reference the “two cultures” debate [1] concerning distinctions and overlaps between art and science. In “Experimentation”, theoretical researcher Christopher Schenker and artist/media theorist Hannes Rickli explore how science works through experimental research to create the potential for innovation, extending the discussion to art practices. The authors contextualize science and art as practices overlapping in a shared domain of experiment and experimentation. They argue the necessity of distinguishing the differences of each system as a gateway to developing insights regarding the manners in which experimental systems relate to art practices. Drawing on Rheinberger’s [2] “concept of the production of material differences” which combines Derrida’s notion of the “trace” with Kubler’s[3] artifact analysis, the authors illustrate the genealogy of Rheinberger’s theoretical process as one that borrows from philosophical and art historical traditions to conjoin concepts in the form of a scientific apparatus for the observation of experimental systems. They offer Rheinberger’s theoretical process as an example of the difference between art and science, wherein the critical distinction lies in the arts’ ability to conceptualize a view toward Rheinberger’s theoretical scientific process as an experimental process itself. The compelling ideas presented are reminiscent of post-positivist debates concerning the philosophical underpinnings of the qualitative and quantitative research traditions in the social sciences over the last three decades[4].

Drawing on the broad concept of “materials”, the book is organized according to five thematic categories: Laboratory-Experiment; Interfaces; Art-Theory-Science; Teaching-Research; and Carte blanche. Those interested in the political economics of higher education may find two particular contributions of interest. First, Gerald Raunig’s essay “23 Theses Against the Modulating University” conceptualizes the university as a site for productive and reproductive mental and social forms. Raunig outlines a series of critical propositions to discuss the impact of the neoliberal political economy on higher education, including the measurement of knowledge production, how debt operates as a system, antidemocratic trends in institutional governance, how academic journals censor creativity and reduce academic expression, universities’ use of real estate to gentrify neighborhoods, and how worst practices are spreading from Europe to the United States.

In a similar vein, an article by M.I.T. faculty member Ute Meta Bauer explores the influence of the political economy and art market on art schools in her essay “Under Pressure”. Acknowledging how a globalized art market increases an artist’s chances for success, Bauer follows by outlining its consequences, referring to the market as “a neo-colonialist approach that takes advantage of postcolonial ambitions” (p. 218-219). She criticizes practices that have become normalized in higher art education, such as open studio visits where collectors and dealers have displaced curators and critics and how “art events” have become a cultural lifestyle current that continually demands fresh talent. Bauer laments the process of market influences on the art historical cannon, arguing a pressing need for debate at biennials and for art fairs to emerge as sites of artistic intervention.

This book is a challenging read that would prove difficult for many artists, graduate-level readers, and scholars without a strong foundation in the philosophy of research, inquiry methodology, political economy, cultural studies, media theory, and critical theory. However, there is something to be appreciated about the creation of an unencumbered academic space that makes transparent the development of nascent theoretical projects and contemporary practices. Triangulation between the Department of Art and Media, The Institute for Contemporary Art Research, and The Institute for Critical Theory at the Zurich University of the Arts results in new ideas that support the advancement of knowledge production in the arts. Readers interested in the development of artistic research as a formal scholarly discipline at the level of higher education will likely appreciate the content and timeliness of this publication.

Reviewed by Hallie DeCatherine Jones, Indiana University

Correspondence regarding this review can be addressed to the author at halljone@indiana.edu.


 

[1] Snow, C. P. (1959). The two cultures and the scientific revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Hans-Jorg Rheinberger is a philosopher of the history of science. He has made substantial contributions to the discourse on epistemological inquiry into the philosophy of research and coined the term “epistemic things”.

[3] For more information on George Kubler, American art historian, see also the Dictionary of Art Historians (http://www.dictionaryofarthistorians.org/kublerg.htm).

[4] For additional sources on this discussion, see also: Eisner, E. (April 01, 1992). Objectivity in Educational Research. Curriculum Inquiry, 22, 1, 9-15.; Usher, R. (1996). A critique of the neglected epistemological assumptions of educational research. In D. Scott & R. Usher (Eds.), Understanding educational research (pp. 11-32). New York: Routledge.