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Artists and Interdisciplinary Research

IMG_0100Earlier this month I presented a new paper, “Making Interdisciplinary Inquiry Visible: The Role of Artist-Researchers in a Ten-Year Community-University Research Alliance,” at The Sixth International Conference on the Arts in Society (May 9 – 11, 2011, Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities). In the paper Rachel Nash and I reported on ten years of research on forms of artistic inquiry and how the presence of artist-researchers is changing the methods used, the questions asked, and the results achieved by interdisciplinary research teams. We also positioned university-based artistic research in relation to the public art models of community engagement that gained currency in the 1980s – 1990s (for example, what Suzanne Lacy dubbed “new genre public art,” with its emphasis on community engagement, on social and political action).

Our paper concludes with the following:

We are struck by how ubiquitous and entrenched is the notion that “art speaks for itself”; this belief, likely informed by artists’ adherence to unstated contributions, continues to characterize and configure image/text relations among those working and researching in the visual arts community. Such a belief should be acknowledged and considered by those of us wishing to engage communities in collaborative and interdisciplinary work involving artists. We need to consider what’s at stake in including visual strategies, conventions, and elements—for we can do so casually, emphasizing the visual as mere illustration; or we can do so carefully, respectfully, creating space in writing where the visual might indeed speak for itself. Our recent work suggests the importance of respecting the integrity of modes of communication, both the visual and the verbal, their irreducibility as well as their complementarity, as we acknowledge too that the verbal is not replaceable by the visual. The modes can speak with and to, but not for each other.

Whereas conspicuous citation plays a central role in the creation of new knowledge in other (academic) disciplines, it is downplayed in artistic inquiry. We need to explore whether different expectations about the treatment of sources in turn create a source of positive or negative tension in interdisciplinary teams, teams often including community partners. Are artist-researchers, for example, punished for this disciplinary feature when working with those outside of the discipline (e.g., when judged by granting agencies)? Is the artistic practice more subtle and truly more accurate in that the influences on all forms of scholarship cannot all be documented—calling out, that is, the supposed practice of exhaustive documentation as more of an illusion than a truly full picture. To what extent might citation in the visual arts be regarded as more idiosyncratic, and therefore “mean” differently when it occurs? In terms of audience, does the artist-researcher assume a more sophisticated audience than the traditional scholar does, therefore eschewing the need for documentation? Or is the audience assumed to be interested in other aspects of the work rather than its provenance, with influence or stated contributions being less important? Finally, for now, we want to worry the issue of originality: is originality less important among artist-researchers, leaving a list of contributions assumed? Or is originality seen to be more important, a motivation for leaving contributions and influences downplayed, unstated, or at least understated?

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