Artistic research! Where are we today?
Professor of Artistic Research in Music Performance, Sibelius Academy, Uniarts Helsinki. (Photo: Eeva Anundi).
Question 1: What is artistic research? What characterizes good artistic research? Can you give one example of excellent artistic research?
Question 2: How far have we come in establishing a relevant practice for artistic research regarding criteria for admission, (methodic) approach and assessment?
Question 3: The following quotation is from Manifesto of Artistic Research: A Defense Against Its Advocates (Henke et al.):
Since its beginnings in the 1990s, artistic research has been driven by politics. Without the strict academicization of courses of study in art and design as furthered by the Bologna Reform, the entity we call ‘artistic research’ could hardly have come into existence.
How would you judge the nature and consequences of the politically driven institutionalization of artistic research? Was there a thing called artistic research before the Bologna Reform, or is it simply a bureaucratic invention? In fact, is artistic research the last step in the steadily growing academization and institutionalization of the art field?
Question 4: What is research in artistic research and how does it differ from what groundbreaking artists have always been doing?
Question 5: For whom is artistic research? Who is expected to benefit from the projects and their outcomes? How should the outcomes ideally be communicated or disseminated?
Question 6: What kind of shared knowledge does artistic research produce and (how) is it falsifiable?
Question 7: In his book Artistic Research Methodologies, Mika Hannula writes that the artistic researcher must ‘develop and perfect her own artistic skills, vision and conceptual thinking … contribute to academia … by proposing an argument in the form of a thesis … and communicate with practicing artists and the larger public, performing what one could call “audience education.”’ Are the expectations to the artistic researcher both too high and hazy?
Question 8: Should artistic research be critical, or even subversive? And if yes, how and why?
Question 9: What are the challenges for the development of artistic research? Considering the development of the field so far – do you see specific areas in need of change or strengthening? Where would you like artistic research to be in 10 years?
Question 10: What can platforms such as Music & Practice do in order to help the development of artistic research?
by Mieko Kanno
Music & Practice, Volume 10
Perhaps it may be useful to preface my answers by saying that I am responding to the questions from my personal point of view. I am not representing my expert field nor my institution. Hence, I use phrases such as ‘I think’ and ‘it seems’. But in so doing, I hope to articulate the particular aspects of my person, my position, and the present time of 2022.
I’m comfortable with the definition that artistic research is research carried out in and through practice. I’m also comfortable with the fact that the definition varies from one field to another, and even from one person to another. It shows that artistic research is developing and changing, and I like to think of the variety as a positive factor.
As for the question of character, good artistic research seems to share the same qualities as any good research in any field: high degrees of originality, significance and rigour. These three terms are borrowed from the UK’s research assessment, with which I lived and worked a long time. I still think these three terms are good criteria in any research, though their interpretations vary from one field to another, and from one decade to another.
Good examples are many, and they inspire me. I would like to give the most recent example. Hanna Chorell, who is an experienced professional opera singer and a doctoral candidate at my institution, Sibelius Academy, introduced her project at an event at the ELA conference earlier this week. Her project is about signification and singing subject. She gave a concert of Schubert’s Winterreise last year as part of her doctoral project. Because she is a high soprano, the shift in register results in a very different interaction with the piano part, particularly in terms of acoustic resonance, and reveals a very different articulation of the counterpoint. What I admire about her work is that she is not only interested in what kind of sound-world this creates but also in the idea of ‘giving a voice’ to things or people who are normally silenced or without it. In this case, she proposes that a woman singing Winterreise produces a different reading from a man singing it, and that both are equally valuable in two different aesthetic value systems. There is a societal dimension to her project, which comes naturally from her sense of responsibility as a professional stakeholder in the opera industry.
May I reference an example from my institution (Sibelius Academy)? We are revising many aspects of the curriculum, assessment and admission in the doctoral schools in recent years. We have realized that the criteria we use for artistic research are not drastically different from those we use for other types of research in music. Using the three terms I quoted earlier, artistic skill can be considered part of achieving rigour. But you can also say that any research skill contributes to the rigour in research.
In my work as professor of artistic research in music performance, I often ask students ‘in which ways is playing useful for your project?’. I like to promote performance as one of the research methods they can use. In a way, I would like every music researcher to consider music performance as a research method, regardless of the performance skill level, because playing is a vital channel towards understanding music.
When I started my university career at the University of Durham (UK) more than 20 years ago, I said to my music colleagues that performance is one way of thinking about music among many other ways of doing so. This perspective, and the manner in which we developed music as a discipline there and then (under the leadership of Max Paddison) stays with me and informs my philosophy as a music academic. The term ‘thinking’ may nowadays be translated as ‘producing knowledge’ in contemporary academic parlance!
At the same time, I am fully aware that each discipline or field also needs criteria for evaluating whether something is research that fits the discipline and whether it is good research that fits the discipline. In artistic research in music performance, I think the contribution that performance skill makes and the manner in which it does so, for example, often define this field and the character of its research. The extent to which performance skill contributes to the originality or significance of the findings is often considered as an indication of the quality (good or less so) of the research project in question. But these are observations rather than criteria.
I think the said development is in parallel to the transition of music conservatoires becoming music universities some 30 years ago. It is also related to the structural relations between culture on the one hand and education and research on the other hand in each national government. While I am not an expert on the subject matter, I am informed by my experience as an academic or a musician who has lived through this change in countries such as the UK, Finland, and the Netherlands.
On the institutional level, one could also add that the impact of research rating (publications, competitive funding, etc.) and the need for all academics including performers to demonstrate that they are doing research have had a profound effect on the conceptualization and abstraction of artistic research.
Despite these conscious aspects of the genesis, artistic research has always existed but under different guises. I think the desire to be creative or inventive is very close to the basic human instinct of wanting to do something that one is interested in well, comprehensively, beautifully, appropriately, expressively, truthfully, or pleasurably. The acknowledgement of its pre-existence – that research is fundamental to the development of artistic practice – is critical for artistic research.
Yes, I’m inclined to agree that artistic research is the latest step in the gradual institutionalization of the art field, but it may not be the last step. I don’t necessarily see it as a negative thing – I see how uncertain the future looks, for example, for musical instrument builders whose profession is often remote from this strand of development.
The insight that Nicholas Till presented back in 2013 remains so apt and powerful that I would like to quote it again. Here ‘practice as research’ is the equivalent of artistic research.
With artistic practice as research, emphasis is placed on the aptness of the research questions, the rigour of the methodology, the thoroughness of the contextual research and the acumen of the theoretical conclusions that are adduced. Process rather than product; generalisable knowledge rather than specific aesthetic experience. While these are essential to the definition and evaluation of practice as research, they may be less relevant to creative practice that is not defined as research. On the other hand, the question of aesthetic quality is often deliberately evaded in the evaluation of practice as research. Indeed, practice as research can lead to some dull artistic outcomes. But perhaps this doesn’t matter: Peri’s opera Euridice (Florence, 1600) is groundbreaking as a technical demonstration of the possibilities of sung drama, but it is dry and, dare I say it, “academic” in comparison with Monteverdi’s Orfeo (Mantua, 1607), a passionate masterpiece that showed the true artistic potential of Peri’s more cautious first steps. But Orfeo, which is based on the same fable as Euridice, almost certainly wouldn’t have happened without Peri’s earlier experiments.
I think every groundbreaking artist has done some research (not limited to artistic research) to varying degrees. But their research is not called research because the artist has no intention of sharing it as research. In other words, my view is that it depends on the intentions of the person who carries out the researching tasks. I see many colleagues at Sibelius Academy who teach instruments, voice, conducting, or composition, who are not considered research-active but carry out fantastic research in my opinion.
Artistic research is no different from any other field of research in this respect: research is to make tomorrow a better place. We have the culture sector and industry as additional openings for communication and dissemination. I don’t think every research outcome has to follow the same communication and dissemination pathway. Finding a bespoke pathway for each outcome or project is part of the ingenuity we expect of researchers these days.
I address the question of beneficiaries, particularly the ‘I’ as a prominent beneficiary, in Question 9 below.
This question seems to assume that the shared knowledge produced by artistic research is different from those by all the other research. It is true that it is less often expressed in words on paper (if we are talking about music performance), and that if it is written it uses a language style, or an author standpoint that does not necessarily conform to academic conventions. But I don’t know if the knowledge itself is very different from that of the other research disciplines. That is why the criteria of originality, significance, and rigour can stand in artistic research too, in my opinion.
I don’t think every research insight, claim, or finding has to be falsifiable. The issue of falsifiability assumes that all research needs to have a scientific experimental model. While this may be true of the sciences and perhaps the social sciences it becomes close to meaningless in relation to the arts and humanities. But this does not mean that anything can pass as knowledge in the arts and humanities. There is some artistic research whose produced knowledge is not well shared. Or it is received with lukewarm indifference. If the knowledge is not falsifiable, one needs to take good care of how to share it, and how to make it understood, because artistic research cannot often use the most direct tool – the binary expression (true/false) – in sharing the knowledge. I find it helpful when a project articulates its own success criteria.
Every research discipline has at some point had ideologies (if you change a few words in Hannula’s sentence, you can formulate an equivalent for political philosophy, theology, and others). While I acknowledge its importance, I’m not sure if ideology is the most helpful thing for the community of artistic researchers at the moment. Meanwhile, I agree with the opinion that the field could do with clearer policies.
It can be critical and even subversive, but not necessarily so. Also it has to be said that whether something is critical or subversive is often a matter of perspective – or how it is perceived. Again, the question seems relevant to all research, not only to artistic research. Research does not have to be ‘artistic’ to be critical or subversive.
Regarding the challenges, may I describe one topic that has been on my mind recently? I am encouraged by the focus and determination with which many artistic researchers carry out their projects. At the same time, I am a little concerned about the self-centredness – sometimes too much of it – in some artistic research projects. The ‘I’ is a feature I encounter more often in artistic research than in any other research. These observed features – focus and self-centredness – are two sides of the same coin. I find the discussion about the ‘I’ in research by Erlend Hovland in the last issue of this journal very interesting in this regard. How can the community or institutions develop the strength while steering away from the pitfalls of first-person research? What kind of environment is needed for such a development?
In 10 years, I would like to see: (a) artistic research become a self-explanatory discipline, and (b) research (as well as artistic research) become a real, viable option for many musicians. I am not suggesting that every musician should do research. I am suggesting that research (and artistic research) becomes more accessible to all professional musicians, many of whom, as I described earlier, are already carrying out some research-equivalent tasks in their work. This second ambition may take 20 years, but I am optimistic.
What do you, the editors think? I am very curious.
 Nicholas Till, ‘Opus Versus Output’. Times Higher Education, 7 March 2013.
 Erlend Hovland, ‘The ‘I’ in Research: On Subjectivity and Objectivity in Practice and Performance’. Music and Practice, 9 (2021), www.musicandpractice.org/the-i-in-research-on-subjectivity-and-objectivity-in-practice-and-performance/.