Skip to content
Main menu hidden.

Methods of engagement

Research project A project about the epistemological relation between social science and art.

Contemporary art increasingly works with the same, or adjacent, methods, concepts and theories as social science. At the same time, social science is incorporating methods and concepts borrowed from cultural disciplines, such as semiology and linguistics. Both art and social science engage themselves with issues such as gender analysis, justice, welfare, democracy etc but from different disciplinary standpoints and environments. The project aims to research, develop and bridge this epistemological separation Because art could gain from the structure and epistemological clarity that (ideally) guides social science, which in turn would gain from the artistic experience and professional methods for establishing constructions and representations of/in the social.

Project overview

Project period:

2006-01-01 2008-12-31


Finansår , 2006, 2007, 2008

huvudman: Elin Wikström, finansiar: Vetenskapsrådet, y2006: 675, y2007: 695, y2008: 715,

Project description

Contemporary art increasingly works with the same, or adjacent, methods, concepts and theories as social science. At the same time, social science is incorporating methods and concepts borrowed from cultural disciplines, such as semiology and linguistics. Both art and social science engage themselves with issues such as gender analysis, justice, welfare, democracy etc but from different disciplinary standpoints and environments. Although both disciplines engage in, and use, collaborative meaning and knowledge production when they engage in the social fabric, these engagements has so far been performed in epistemological separation. Their separate histories within the academy today makes both disciplines largely unconcerned with, or unaware of, this affinity to one another.

The project herein aims to research, develop and bridge this epistemological separation, which is unhappy. Because art could gain from the structure and epistemological clarity that (ideally) guides social science, which in turn would gain from the artistic experience and professional methods for establishing constructions and representations of/in the social. For it is with the social that both disciplines engage, and the production of both disciplines provide important material for society's own understanding and (re)evaluation of itself. Charting the common epistemological ground of social science and artistic research in their current state, as well as the necessary and logical differences, therefore is an urgent matter.

The didactic gain from the project will be an important impetus to the teaching of methods at the booming postgraduate art programs. It will also be a decisive contribution to the increasing prevalence of representation analysis which social science must undertake, as part of the constructivist turn, which it is currently undergoing. The theoretical gain will be an epistemological chart, development and situating of how and where artistic research and social science share common conceptual, motivational and ontological foundations for their work.

Theoretical points of departure
In the terms of Stuart Hall (1997) the project is best described as an inquiry into what happens scientifically when two different relations to, and positions in, "the circuit of culture" develops in a way that makes them overlap and merge. The result of the inquiry subsequently leads to methods for relating to, and working with, the social over which this overlap and merge is taking place. Chiapello (2004) writes that “it has become very difficult to talk about any spiritual superiority in the name of which critique could be put forward”, and relates this difficulty to the changing role of the artist in post-modern commercial life. The privileged position from which artists could talk about and engage in society has disappeared; and as a corollary the special role that artist critique had in bourgeois society.

Chiapello regrets this change because she holds that “artworks remain vested with the mission to manifest the desire for an enchanted and enchanting world, ultimately defying all analysis.” We argue that she misses the vital point. The changing role of the artist in post-modern, globalized, commercial, neo-liberal, etc. society is not something that rips the artist of a privileged position from which to criticize society. On the contrary it positions the artist in middle of society, and the critical artist engages in it on the very basis of a general human “desire for an enchanted world”. So Chiapellos longing for a resurrected position of the artist as the critical external interpreter au dehout is misguided. Apart from being elitist and undemocratic, it also neglects the new possibilities and qualities that present themselves to the artist in post-modern society. But the new role/position for art practices, that this means, demands from the artist that s/he can manoeuvre in the dense networks of meaning that increasingly makes up the material for the artistic work. This is especially pressing for the so called “littoral” art (Kester 2000, Nicolas Bourriaud 2002) which works with the very conventions and discourses the guides the social fabric that the artist moves in, at the same time as s/he uses it – including its inhabitants – as material/audience.

The term dialogical aesthetics (Kester 2000) is used for recent art practices based on performative, collaborative interactions with participants inside and outside of normative art contexts. The term and the practice together require research and development. Dialogical aesthetics is in its methods and means interdisciplinary. It produces multiple records of meaning and interacts with other discursive systems. The works knowledge production changes in different locations and times. It is concerned with investigating the complexities of discursive inter-relationship and the specific effects produced by these exchanges in a given context.

Collaboration is where labour embodied in the artwork (manual skill, cognition, art specific
competences of all kinds) is exposes to scrutiny, therefore one needs to talk about collaborative art practises as the value form of politics and representation. Examples of artist artists who address these questions and propose progressive practice are for example Brian Holmes (collaboration as post-object political intervention), Gene Ray (collaboration as “catalytic” extension of art into everyday practice, Charles Green (collaboration as cross-cultural dialogue)” (Roberts & Wright 2004).

The globalized state of the social positions the engaged researcher, and his/her subject in a culturally diverse, discursively complex, and fluid environment. Issues such as gender relations (Butler 1989, 2000), power structures (Foucault 1976, Laclau 2000), representations (Hall 1997, 2002), meaning (Merlau-Ponty 1962, Andersson 2003), and what not, can never be taken for granted. The local and the global are intermeshed in a way that Hall (2002) calls “vernacular cosmopolitanism”, which leads to new forms of identification and power construction that can not be handled within the same binary frameworks as that in which traditional art and science has been performed. “Identity” becomes more of a verb than a noun, and hence always carries potential for change (Butler 2000). There has been quite a lot written on the aesthetics of littoral and other forms of socially inscribed artwork (Lacy 1995, Kwon 2002, Foster 199?). That is, the work(s) as final products, stagings and objects has been thoroughly discussed in terms of how they relate to, function with, influence, irritates, etc. the social realm in which they are set (Kester 2000). But very little research has been done on how the artist(s) work to achieve a desired relation to the social. The actual process that leads up to a work that achieves those aesthetic qualities. In the new globalized environment art and social science research on/within power and meaning becomes a vital resource for understanding how “floating signifiers (Laclau 2000)” get contested, fixed and/or dislocated.

Social science has a host of different methods (critical ones such as Alvesson & Deets 2000 or Hay 2002, and conventional ones as Holme & Solvang 1996, Esaiasson et al. 2004) for relating to the world it operates in. Art has (not least as a consequence of its elevated and secluded position) very few obvious and intersubjectively valid methods. Which is not to say that art is without methods, it just does not have a clear and widespread conception of the methods artists use, and this is especially true for artists working in the “littoral” (Kester 2000) or “relational” (Bouriaud, 2002) format. The world is in no way “ultimately defying all analysis”, artists and scientists analyse it successfully every day. But artists and social scientists have only vague notions of each others’ methods for doing this; and although the littoral and relational artist would be very much helped by working with methods from social science, the abyss between the two disciplines deprives her/him of these tools. At the same time social scientists are increasingly engaging in analysis of things like discourse, representation, grand narratives, imagined communities, and such; entities that would have no meaning whatsoever if the aesthetic dimension of them weren’t there to give them their specific, individual forms. The aesthetic form of the social fabric most often passes unnoticed by social science.2 This is not primarily by negligence, but rather a consequence of social science’s lack of fruitful methods for incorporating this dimension in its analysis.

Aesthetic analysis and research is primarily done ex post when the actual work – traditionally some kind of object - already is completed. So aesthetic research has become research about art, and sometimes also about its presence in the social. There are less research done in art, i.e. research about/in/over the social construction, with artistic methods; aiming at producing artwork that contribute to social constructions as such (Kester 2004). As Wikström’s work clearly shows, such art contributes directly to contingent configurations of power and meaning, without necessarily resulting in objects, which traditional art produced to be treated as products on the market, or stored in museums (Brown in Wikström 2000). Littoral and relational art, hence, are the formats most in need of serious engagement with the methods and epistemology of social science. These formats cannot be read/interpreted with standardized aesthetical methods, because of their inscription into the social realm that constitutes their material. It is in the social engagement of littoral and relational formats that art can claim its critical role, that Chiapello says is lost. But to be able to make this claim it needs a critical, contemporary theoretical framework for its methods of communication. Methods that would clarify its role in the social. And above all: methods to elaborate artwork that has the intended relation to the social. The critique is achieved as a collaborative communication with the social.

This project will primarily work with art of this format. We have no ambition to speak for,
research or theorize art history (not in the conventional sense, at least). Neither do we have any ambition to save art critique that fails to relate to contemporary formats. We will be concerned with how the actual producers of art and social science can develop their methods for engagement with contemporary society, and how meaning and knowledge production is conveyed to society through art’s and science’s formal and informal institutions of (public) valuation, education and mediation.

Epistemology of the project
As would be clear by now. The theoretical perspective that guides this project is constructivist (or constructionist, if you prefer). Its critical perspective stems from post-structuralists Michel Foucault, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, from whom the view of power and knowledge as two dimensions of the same social power constructions is borrowed. The materialisations and social manifestations of these relations take on forms that are very usefully scrutinised, analysed and criticised with artistic work. As a general theoretical guide as to how these materialisations work and what meanings they convey, Stuart Hall’s writings (1997, 2002) on representations (the equivalence chain from “thing” to concept to sign) can be used. But the project aims specifically at carving out methods for the artistic process that leads up to a representation. Apart from a general operational level (enhancing methods for artists and social scientists) the project also aims at enriching and developing constructivist theory. Which will also cut into the theories on power and knowledge.

Methods and outline of the project.
The research approach will in the first phase be fairly inductive, consisting of a dialogical interpretation of each others disciplines. The artist (Wikström) will follow a social scientist (Andersson) and interpret his work3 in artistic methodological terms, and the social scientist will follow the artist and interpret her work4 in methodological terms of social science. The analysis of the empirical findings will be written in the form of one single article to be presented and discussed at seminars at the introduction of the second phase of the project. In the second phase we will use experiences from artists (of relevance for the project) and graduate social science students to try out the methods of the other discipline. Andersson teaches methods in International Relations and Development Studies at PADRIGU in Gothenburg, and Wikström teaches methods at the art school in Umeå. This gives us a good opportunity to engage our students and collegues in trying out the methods of the other discipline, and then evaluate and explain the result with methods from their home-discipline.

A vital part of this second phase will be a workshop stretched out over three months.
During this workshop scientists and artists will follow each others project-centred research, investigating each others fields and their methods, theories and concepts. The starting point will be a seminar in which Andersson and Wikström present their experience to establish common points of reference in practice and theory. Both scientists and artists will work creatively with new or running projects; i.e. the workshop will be relate to and assess artistic and scientific production while it is undertaken. A common internet blogg will be set up for the participants to report to regularly. In the concluding workshop participants will discuss each others and their own work. This will produce data on the congruencies, overlaps and divisions between the two disciplines, but will also make us able to discuss methods of art and science in a very “hands on” way. The workshop will produce a critical mass of experiences/data, from which to draw valid conclusions. After the workshop in this second phase we will have enough data to write the first social science articles from the project, which will be presented at ISA or BISA conferences in 2007. In the same year it will also result in site and subject-specific group exhibitions/reactivations of work relating to or resulting from the workshop. Most probably the workshop will produce interesting theoretical material strong enough to be published on its own merits. The results will make up a foundation for experiences that allows us to enter the third phase of the research.

The third phase of the project will consist in writing a combined methods book for art
students and social science students. Since we aren’t sure about the exact theoretical complexity and sophistication of our results, we cannot say whether it will be a graduate or introductory methods book, but in either case it will fill a void.

The results of all three phases will be made public and available to the academy and the public. In line with the project’s view on the collaborative meaning and knowledge production, the project’s aim is also to develop new formats for valuation and mediation of itself.

Preliminary didactic results
- Methods for art research will gain substantially in stability, clarity and critical, analytical edge from the project, which will be a vital contribution to the building of postgraduate artistic research program at the fine arts academy in Umeå.
Preliminary theoretical results
- Common epistemological grounds, as well as divides, will be clarified and gain an empirical validity, hitherto not established. Tentatively, some results will be:
• Reproducibility will be different. The demands on the results of social science that they shall be able to reproduce by other scientists cannot be the same for artists.
• The intersubjectivity criterion will be isomorphic between the two disciplines. Here we will find many interesting connections, translations, etc between different artistic formats and different strands of social sciences and their methods. This might have consequences for the reproducibility of research in the two disciplines, but we don’t know as yet.
• A better control over science and scientists’ symbolic role in its/their engagement with the social reality they work with.