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Searching for Depth

in the Flat World

Art, Research, and Institutions
Esa Kirkkopelto
University of the Arts Helsinki

According to the main argument of this article, artistic research—that is,

research done by artists in, through, or by means of their artistic practice—
opens a new chapter in the institutional critique in the arts by (a) creating
research-based critical practices, and (b) establishing academic research in
the arts as institutionally creative action. The article proceeds in two parts.
The first part considers artistic research as an institutional practice. It analyses
the risks related to this position and suggests ways to deal with them: a new
kind of institutionalisation and instrumentalisation of the arts can be avoided
only if academic artistic research, from the very start, understands itself as an
auto-critical practice, which takes its own institutional conditions into account
and considers them as its object of research. The quest for innovation, motiv­
ated by the creative economy, should be replaced by inventive practice, which
tends to change given institutional settings instead of only reproducing them
by producing something “new” within them. In the second part, I will first
consider how the suggested argumentative model answers the critique Dieter
Mersch has recently addressed to artistic research in its various modes. Second,
I will discuss with Pascal Gielen the precarious role of art institutions in the
neo-liberal world.

Part 1: Artistic research as institutional practice

The discussion in this first part builds on an argument I presented in 2015
(Kirkkopelto 2015), in order to sustain an argumentative model for making
artistic research in the academic setting. The model was meant to serve criteria
for composition, supervision, and evaluation of individual research projects.
Its aim was to explain why artistic research is at home in academia and how
artist-researchers could use it to re-establish their existence. The argument
was based on the definition of artistic research that I had suggested much ear-
lier, now almost eight years ago (Kirkkopelto 2008), and that I have defended
ever since on several occasions. According to this definition, artistic research
is research conducted in an art institution, for instance in an art university.


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Despite its appearance, this definition was not merely pragmatic or oppor-
tunistic, even if at the moment I presented it there were clear pragmatic rea-
sons for it;1 neither is it (only) “institutional”—that is to say, it did not solely
conform to the “institutional theory” of art (in the sense of Arthur Danto or
George Dickie, for example). Rather, it has a more substantial content that I
have tried to explain ever since.
As my starting point, I made a general observation concerning the way artists
today are used to conducting their research in academic contexts. Usually
this research takes place within the framework of doctoral training and post-
doctoral research, but this does not need to be the rule. Irrespective of the
particular institutional framework, these projects tend to conduct a certain
change, a transformation, in the prevailing and common state of things and
in reality and our relation to it. At the first stage, this change concerns the
medium of making and action itself: an artist changes her or his artistic medium
into a medium of research. The outcome of the research, no matter what its final
mode of composition, consists of a medium of research, which can be publicly
discussed and reasonably assessed. In addition, the project gives birth to a new
kind of artistic agent, an artist-researcher, the primary expert of the medium that
she or he has created. To clarify this idea, I first explain what I understand by
“medium” and what consequences it has for the understanding of our topic.

Artistic medium as research medium

As one might notice, the term “medium” remains the same as we move from
one domain to another, from art to research. When an artistic medium changes
into a medium of research, it not only changes its function but also brings forth
its medial nature in a new and problematic way. Conceptually, this problem-
atisation begins by distancing ourselves from the common use of the term
“medium,” to mean a mere instrument of communication, and by returning to
its original philosophical sense, simultaneously as “interval” and as “transmis-
sion” (Aristotle: to metaxou; Thomas Aquinas: medium). A medium is not only
a path, a “method,” a spatio-temporal transition from one place and time to
another, but also a material and technical ground on which that path is traced,
a place for placing, happening, transition, and translation.2 A medium not only

1 In 2007, when I was called to take charge of reorganising doctoral education at the Theatre Academy
Helsinki, doctorates were spread across different departments and methodological approaches varied
widely. The challenge was to gather them all into one research unit, which entailed that the idea of
artistic research had to be left methodologically as open as possible. What was agreed was that artistic
research would be conducted by experienced practitioners of art and the degree would contain
evalu­ated practical and theoretical parts. This definition let in pedagogical research but excluded art
research and history in the traditional sense.
2 My understanding of an artwork as a “medium of translation” is indebted to Mika Elo’s respective
developments. Here is a quotation from his Research Catalogue exposition: “In my view, this
‘philosophical’ aspect of translation is particularly important for the artist-researcher. I think that one
essential task of the artist-researcher is to provide well-articulated passages between different media,
languages or modes of articulation. . . . I think of this task of the artist-researcher in terms of translation
following the lines of thought that Benjamin has developed in his writings on language and translation.
Against this background, the task of the artist-researcher has to be seen as an undertaking that involves
heightened sensitivity to the mediality of language. This implies that the medium of research should be
attuned to accord with the artistic impetus inherent to the research” (Elo 2013).


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enables a change, it also makes it happen in a certain way, according to the

conditions set by the mediating material or technique. By the same token,
the medium inscribes itself into the change by defining the mode of its
In an artistic medium the change concerns the way things appear, the sensi-
ble, affective, and material tissue of the world, the aisthesis, and on it is based
the fundamental expressivity of the artwork, which is independent of its belong-
ing to any particular artistic genre. By “expressivity,” I refer to the following
schema, which can easily be understood on the basis of post-Kantian conti-
nental aesthetics: the receptivity and thereby the experience of a being is based
on its ability to translate the singular impressions it receives into communic­
able expressions. The freedom of expression, and the autonomy of art in this
respect, is not so much a matter of expressing one’s already existing subjec-
tive feelings or opinions: it rather concerns the right and the ability to express
one’s genuine way or style of translating impressions into expressions. In the
arts this style, which can only be shown, takes place in the most original and
unexpected, inhabitual manner. To use a worn-out expression, in the arts we
sense and encounter the world “as if for the first time.” Once accomplished, the
artwork keeps on producing these novel expressions, manifesting its original
way of presenting the world to us.
As an artistic medium changes into a medium of research, as I suggested,
the very way the medium articulates the change it operates changes. Now,
the mediating transmission no longer takes place between impressions and
expressions but between known and established levels of perception and dis-
course and new kinds of levels, which through this process are becoming per-
ceptible and articulable. Since the point of departure for the change is estab-
lished, and thereby to some extent stable and permanent, the change remains
conditional or “propositional,” as Bruno Latour uses the term.3 Insofar as the
medium can carry out the shift from the former discourse to the next and show
its operation, it cannot ever fully accomplish the transition it communicates; it
remains suspended between two stages and can only suggest the transition by
repeating it endlessly but always anew. This relative weakness of the medium
is compensated by its capacity to produce knowledge (instead of mere expres-
sions) concerning the very way knowledge is or can be produced, the practices
of knowledge production. The particular view it opens is based on the compar-
ison between established forms of knowing (or knowledge production) and the
new one as suggested by the medium.

3 “Working in the vicinity of Isabelle Stengers’s Whitehead, I have acquired the habit of using the word
propositions to describe what is articulated. The word ‘proposition’ conjugates three crucial elements: (a)
it denotes obstinacy (position), that (b) has no definitive authority (it is a pro-position only) and (c) it
may accept negotiating itself into a com-position without losing its solidity” (Latour 2004, 212).


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This artistic research medium is therefore always “techno-logical” in a broad

sense. It makes us aware of techniques used in the production of certain kinds
of observations and actions, whether the new medium consists of some new
technical device, an instrument, or a mere conceptual rearrangement concern-
ing the ways we perceive, produce, or act. In the latter case, this new technology
may reach the level of our psychophysical constitution, our “body-minds.” It
may reorganise our modes of moving, feeling, emitting voices, perceiving, and
encountering other beings like or unlike us, and communicating with them.
It may concentrate on the habitual techniques of artistic production, the ways
art-making is practised, but it is not delimited to them. It nevertheless has to be
artistic by itself, otherwise its investigation does not carry deep enough, it does
not reach the level of aesthesis as the fundamental level of reception.
So far, as I have maintained, change is the major criterion of any artistic
research project. At the first stage, a project accomplishes and displays a cer-
tain change in relation to an artistic practice and its practitioner and, in this
way, sets a scene for further changes in the practices, communities, and con-
texts with which the research deals. What ways does it have, do we have, for
considering the nature of that change itself, and for criticising it? What actually
changes and how? And how can artistic research, like academic research, legit-
imate itself as self-critical practice?
Since the artistic research medium works in relation to the practices of pro-
duction—that is, to established modes of knowing and making—its results can
be verified empirically by comparing them with the previous state of affairs.
Artistic research produces something new, unseen, unheard of, but not in the
way an artwork usually does; it suggests new ways of perceiving, talking, and
acting or of existing—that is, new media, new practice, and new kinds of dis-
courses. And if the result also contains artistic productions, they are assessed as
examples demonstrating these new ways.
Unlike an artwork, the result of an artistic research project therefore has to
explain its existence; that is, it has to establish itself discursively, in relation to
other, already existing (artistic) practices (for instance the practices of other
artists) and the discourses supporting them. That is why our critical attention
shall now be focused on the manner in which it changes the state of affairs in
relation to a given institutional setting—that is, on the quality of its novelty.

Innovation and invention

If we ask for the possibility of critique, we generally need at least three factors:
two classes that are compared with each other, and a common denominator in
relation to which the comparison takes place. In the suggested model, these
three factors are “innovation,” “invention,” and “institution.”
“Innovation,” one of the key terms of the creative economy, is a concept
introduced in the modern economic sense by Gabriel Tarde and further devel-
oped by Joseph Schumpeter. By “innovation” I understand here production,
development, and the introduction of new kinds of products and applications,
where the degree of novelty is dependent on the expectations of a certain group


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Esa Kirkkopelto

of practitioners, users, or consumers (innovare, “to make new”).4 An innovation

is a new kind of device, an instrument. Now, if an innovation is considered to be
one possible outcome of an artistic research project (as it is widely considered)
its alternative cannot anymore be a “pure” work of art. Instead, the whole argu-
mentative milieu has changed. As the gates for the instrumentalisation of the
arts are opened through innovation, no institution of art can any longer base its
values on the opposition between “pure” and “applied” arts: in the given logic,
the domain of purity is constantly shrinking, whereas the domain of applica-
tion does not cease to enlarge. Why is this so? Since, from the point of view of
instrumental or functional reasoning, any art can become applicable, even the
purest, which can always be turned into an investment. At every level and at
the last resort art turns into an expression of the power of capital. I come back
to this point more precisely in the second part of the article. The point to be
noticed here is that the power, which above was considered to belong to indi-
vidual or collective experience (for instance to the “bourgeois” or “proletarian
class”), has now been seized and removed outside that experience. Here, let us
call this power—the one of translating impressions into expressions—simply
“imagination.” If there is a need to argue in favour of the inappropriable, inde-
pendent, or common status of artistic imagination against the instrumental
and pragmatic interests of the creative economy, one has to exercise critique at
the level of the imagination itself and oppose one kind of imagination against
another.5 To lay a basis for this kind of critique in the case of artistic research
projects, I propose to use another term to name their end product or outcome.
I suggest here a term that is almost synonymous with innovation, but crucially
more ambivalent, namely “invention” (invenire: in+venire, “come into”).6
Inventions are not necessarily recognised at first as something “new,” but
they may seem strange and surprising. Their novelty can evoke opposition or
it can be barely recognised at all. What conceals them is the prevailing institu-
tional setting they secretly undermine. Their usefulness, not to mention prof-
itability, is secondary to the hidden, invisible, or silent surprise, the event, the
interruption, to which they give rise in our habitual ways of perceiving, acting,
thinking, and discussing. No matter how soon or late the invention is regis-
tered, what counts is that after their arrival within the given field, nothing is the
same as before. A part of our common, practical, and discursive world, namely
the one touched upon by that particular artistic-researcher, is widened and/or

4 “The action of innovating; the introduction of novelties; the alteration of what is established by the
introduction of new elements or forms” (Oxford English Dictionary 1989); “The process by which an idea
or invention is translated into a good or service for which people will pay, or something that results
from this process” (BusinessDictionary 2016).
5 This kind of critique was inaugurated by Kant, who opposed “the free play” of imagination proper to
the poetry and aesthetic reflection to the “schematic” or reproductive imagination at the service of
understanding (see Kant, Critique of Judgment, §9, 1987, 62).
6 “The action of coming upon or finding; the action of finding out; discovery” (Oxford English Dictionary


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True artistic inventions, historical changes in ways of artistic perception,

representation, or action, are of this kind. They concern not only the way of
art-making but also our conceptions of the world, the way it becomes experi-
enced by us. And these changes can be considered as research results regardless
whether their makers considered themselves “artist-researchers.” On the other
hand, real paradigm changes are rare and they are hard to make. How do we
assess the inventive potential of an artistic research project? Is it even possible
to set a horizon for invention? As I would suggest, the best way to consider an
invention is precisely to juxtapose and confront it with innovation. This com-
parison can only take place in relation to institutions.

Insofar as every institution is established and sustained by human beings, each
one of them has once been a genuine human invention (Derrida 1987, 38, 58).
There are no natural institutions. “Nature” is rather a name for the state out-
side institutions. Even though this is a simple fact to note, it is always difficult
to prove and indicate its validity in the specific cases, regarding existing his-
torical institutions, since it seems that institutions always tend to legitimate
and reinforce themselves and turn into “facts.” Institutions are born to subsist
and resist, they are self-productive, and the historical change they undergo is
conditioned by this very inertia (See Mahoney and Thelen 2010, 4–5). Insofar as
institutions actively care about their self-production, they are aware of them-
selves as finite, timely, and local constructions and therefore also more or less
explicitly exposed to critique. Correlatively, any discourse about art or science
as a means for developing and reforming society implies that invention can
turn into institution in the active and affirmative sense of the term, as institut-
ing.7 The founding of a new institution implies that inventing and inventions
are always potential institutions. An invention as soon as it appears—that is, as
it is recognised as an invention—paradoxically loses its originality, its droit d’au-
teur, and opens up as a disposable means to everybody (Derrida 1987, 15, 39, 50).
Since inventions tend to become institutional, since they have an institutional
potentiality, they should be considered as more fundamental than innovations.
Innovations, as fruits of instrumental imagination, do not have this kind of
institutionally creative power. Their way of coming forth is embedded in the
given institutional landscape and its expectations, which of course does not
exclude surprise either. Innovations are replaced by other innovations: they are
part of acknowledged modes of production, whereas those modes are funda-
mentally different kinds of historical institutions. Innovations are always insti-
tutional, whereas inventions never are.

7 The idea of institution as a creative collective political activity has been developed most extensively
by Cornelius Castoriadis (1975). Maurice Merleau-Ponty ([1954–55] 2003) has developed the idea of
instituting on the basis of Husserlian phenomenology. For Merleau-Ponty, institutions are primarily
pre-conscious and sedimented forms of experience according to which the production of sense as the
creative reactivation of the past takes place. See also Read, Foster, and Heighes (2015), who connect
Merleau-Ponty’s theory of institution with Bill Reading’s analysis of the decline of modern academic
institutions. On the various aspects of instituting, see Husemann (2015).


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If an artistic research project is now considered in this kind of critical setting,

we have a clear and applicable criterion for its novelty. The artistic research
medium negotiates with our given modes of perception and behaviour that,
insofar as they are given, are governed by and consist of many perceptual and
behavioural institutions. The medium opens a space of (re-)institution and shows
what kind of changes can be carried out within its limits. Research makes up
inventions, which, insofar as they are of public interest, are also (at least poten-
tially) new institutions and thus suggest critical changes to the institutional sta-
tus quo. The inventiveness of an invention is therefore linked to institutions,
as their future.
The corresponding criterion for evaluation would consist of considering to
what extent artist-researchers are able to present their inventions as potential
new institutions. If they manage to do that, their research has significance for
everyone and we have reasons to claim that it produces knowledge. This know­
ledge concerns not only the novelty of the invention but also the technology of
knowledge production within the researched practice or institutional arrange-
ment. And even if researchers do not present their research in these terms, it
should still be possible to consider, and criticise, their results from this per-
spective: to what extent can the outcome take into account and reclaim its own
instituting aspects and responsibility for them? If it cannot do that, this may
mean that it consists of mere institutionalised or “academic” art, which is not
necessarily desirable.

Institutional research
Both terms, “innovation” and “invention,” can still be used synonymously, or
they can be replaced by terms that are more fitting for the purpose. My aim here
is not so much to require a terminological change than to articulate a critical
tension, according to which artistic research could be considered as a self-criti-
cal practice. Whatever we do with institutions within institutions, it is clear that
we remain in a double bind with them and face the same types of problems
that “the institutional critique” in the arts has traditionally done (Alberro and
Stimson 2009; Möntmann 2006). For instance, whatever we do under the head-
ing of artistic research, no matter whether we make it or criticise it, our activity
is suspended between two extremes, innovation and invention, and contami-
nated by them. In the case of artist-researchers, however, this double bind does
not need to paralyse us. The reason for this is the institutionally inventive nature
of artistic research practice itself.
On this basis I can now return to my earlier argument concerning artistic
research as institutional research: artistic research not only takes place in insti-
tutions, but also should conduct research on them, should take institutions as
its object. By this, I mean not only the particular institution where the research
happens to take place but also institutions in a broader sense: from the aes-
thetic institutions of perception and affectivity to current political institutions,
through showing how the latter are connected to the former or even based on
them. Hence, an invention’s inventiveness is to be assessed in relation to the
institutions that surround and sustain it: we should ask to what extent an inven-


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tion has the potential to change these institutions and, finally, why they should
be changed.
The model presented here does not necessarily confine artistic research to
academia alone. However, it seems to me that artistic research performed by an
artist outside publicly or privately subsidised institutions is worthy of the name
only if it has institutional consequences and if it can articulate itself in relation
to institutions, if only in order to resist them. Since artistic research of this kind
is happening in the arts field all the time, and since the idea of “institution”
elaborated here is much wider than what we usually conceive of by this term,
art universities should not close their gates to initiatives and influences stem-
ming directly from the arts field, but should show a constant interest in these
initiatives, support them, and serve as a forum where different kinds of artists
and practitioners can bring their ideas to critical discussion. Also the status
and the modes of postdoctoral artistic research should be considered from a
broader perspective than the merely academic.
Another benefit of this kind of reasoning is that it liberates the evaluation
of artistic research from epistemic or philosophical speculations concerning
the particular nature of “artistic knowledge.” Artistic research outcomes may
be non-discursive or use media other than language, but the evaluation (i.e.,
examination and critique) takes place discursively anyway and the exposition
of the work should take this into account: it should make itself evaluable in this
sense. An artistic research outcome can consist of a fiction, of a thought experi­
ment, if only its institutional consequences—its transformative potential in
relation to prevailing institutions—are detectable and somehow significant.
An artistic research outcome can be a relatively independent artwork, if it is
produced by new means and/or if it simultaneously suggests a change in the
position of artworks in relation to the institutionalised forms of displaying and
receiving art. These changes can be ethical, political, or pedagogical. Finally,
artistic research can reclaim its status as academic research equal to scientific
research—art universities alongside science universities according to the same
logic—if we realise that the artistic research of institutions is not limited to
mere artistic institutions but that it can observe all kinds of institutions, includ-
ing scientific ones. Just as art can be studied scientifically, scientific practice
can be subjected to an artistic analysis concerning the medial and institutional
aspects of that practice.8

Part 2: Artistic research in the neo-liberal world

Artistic research and aesthetic knowledge

In Epistemologies of Aesthetics Dieter Mersch (2015) sustains an idea of “aesthetic”
or “artistic knowledge” that “cannot be reduced to any other form of know­
ledge” (20). Mersch bases his defence of the autonomy of the arts on a simple

8 At this point, artistic research comes close to science studies and can also apply the results of the latter
for developing its own methodology (see Schwab 2013).


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premise, according to which “knowledge is based on thought” (44). It would be

absurd to state that artists or their artworks do not think. But it seems equally
as obvious that artists think otherwise. What is the proper mode of artistic
thinking? The work of Mersch constitutes an attempt to answer this question.
The starting point of his argument consists of the supposition, according to
which artistic thinking is “non-discursive” by its nature. This said, he opposes
the tendency of Western philosophy to equate “thought and concepts” and
to appropriate “thought by language”—the tendency that extends from Kant
via Frege to the “linguistic turn” of the past century (8): “From the beginning
the medium of discourse has been outlined in this manner, so that thought
in other media, for example pictures, musical compositions, installations or
poems needed to be either declared impossible and excluded or devalued
and assigned to a pre-linguistic and therefore ‘primitive’ level” (8). This is to
mistake the nature of artistic thought, which, as Mersch underlines, acts “with
material, in materials, or through materials . . . or with media, in media or through
media” (9).
The opposition between discursiveness of philosophical and scientific
knowledge and the non-discursiveness of artistic knowledge—“artistic knowl-
edge is unsayable” (Mersch 2015, 42)—also informs Mersch’s statements on
artistic research. His analysis focuses on the arguments sustaining the idea of
artistic research, which he divides into four subgroups:

In the first, art is and always has been a research practice. In the second, “artistic
research” is a new kind of art that stands alone in the post-avant-garde era.
According to the third, science itself is a kind of art that is not aware of its immanent
nature. And those who adhere to the fourth believe that the demand that art should
conduct research professionalizes the arts which, in post-modern times, have
both converged with a new understanding of science and are simultaneously in
competition with science. (24)

Mersch himself seems to be closest to the first category, according to which “art
is basic research in aesthetics” (25). However, as it seems to me, the matter here
cannot merely be of choosing and defending the most appropriate line of argu-
mentation. Even though, regarding each category, Mersch designates authors
and arguments sustaining them, it is questionable whether at the practical level
any artistic research project subscribes to any of these prospects alone. The
same holds with the model I have discussed above, which tends to correspond
to the factual ways artist-researchers think and accomplish their projects. The
critical “four-quadrant coordinate grid” Mersch suspends over the diversified
field of artistic research is helpful for recognising the differences between
arguments, but the dispositive in which the research actually takes place has to
deal with all these views at the same time. The politics of the action is readable
not necessarily in the “strategies” or “vision statements” of the establishments,
but in the actual way they build the link between research and art in relation
to different kinds of political tendencies, economic pressures, and disciplinary


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Regarding the first category, I agree with Mersch that all art has always had a
more or less explicit epistemic potential. But defending this perennial position
seems today insufficient, since this position, which all artists may share on a
personal level, is not dependent on artists’ or their critics’ convictions or views.
The arts have lost their independent and superior symbolic cultural status and
the corresponding appreciation in our societies. Today, on both political and
economic levels, the arts are largely considered as a cultural activity among oth-
ers and have to compete for visibility, significance, and glory with other activ-
ities (Kunst 2015). What is historically new, however, is that the arts are con-
ferred a new kind of institutional position, a right to produce knowledge (no
matter how this “knowledge” is defined), which like any academic knowledge
production is supposed to have social, political, pedagogical, and scientific sig-
nificance. It is no wonder that in the given situation artists themselves seize
this opportunity to reconquer their lost social and political position and signif-
icance. Whether this is a “trap,” as Mersch later argues, is a thing to be debated.
If we nevertheless hold on to this possibility, as I have suggested, in my mind
it leads automatically to the second category, which according to Mersch (2015)
distinguishes between art and artistic research: “Art has been catapulted away
from its traditional framework, an aesthetics of autonomy and the artworks
themselves, into a sphere of social and political or public meaningfulness” (28).
This kind of artistic research, which Mersch characterises as “neo-avant-gard-
ist” or “postmodern,”9 “aims to go beyond modernity by tearing down the bor-
ders . . . between art and science” (29). This does not lead, however, to a meth-
odological anarchy à la Feyerabend. Instead it makes of artistic research a kind
of meta-science akin to science studies, “a necessary corrective” of sciences as
Mersch calls it, which focuses on the aesthetic and technological aspects of
scientific research: “of practices of invention, narratives, white noise, and the
uncontrollability of objects and their insubordinate repercussions” (30).
Mersch’s observation is pertinent. Today, much of this kind of research is
done under the heading of artistic research. Instead of claiming recognition of
its epistemic autonomy, this kind of research gains its legitimacy by parasiting
the acknowledged modes of scientific discourses, for instance by indicating the
areas of not-knowing constitutive to them. No one can deny the importance
of this kind of research today, and Mersch is not criticising it as such either.
What he cannot accept is the subordinate position the model reserves for
artistic thinking. However, as I have suggested, in artistic research the thinking
Mersch speaks about and discursive research practices do not need to oppose
each other. Unlike in the case of an artist, artist-researchers’ point of departure
is not in the translation of impressions, in the process that as Mersch under-
lines is always medial and material, but in the discursive institutional contexts,
where a particular artistic practice is situated and according to which it is

9 Unlike what Mersch would have us understand by emphasising the “postmodern” nature of his second
category, its basic tendency is not without historical precedent. It is rather a matter of reading the
his­tory of modernism differently. If instead of Kant and Hegel we returned to early Romanticism, to
Novalis, Hölderlin, and Friedrich Schlegel, the idea of the marriage of science and art would appear in
a quite different light.


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Esa Kirkkopelto

valued and governed. The existence of aesthetic experience and art is a given,
but its historical and social position never is. And the future of our culture, let
alone our planet, may depend on our ability to bring about crucial changes in
these fundamental configurations. Artist-researchers are in this respect a new
kind of expert who are not just criticising and deconstructing the institutional
state of affairs but who are also able to come up with new solutions. Therefore,
their outcomes do not consist of mere aesthetic thinking but of repositioning
this thinking and saving its possibility also in the future. This too is the way to
contribute to the reinstitutioning of societies.
The third category in Mersch’s (2015) table of arguments “propagates an end
to the hierarchization of epistèmai and the return to the union of art and sci-
ence” (31). Historically, this way of thinking may find inspiration in da Vinci,
but today it primarily leans on “the development of technoscience” (32).
Among artists, technological progress may evoke dreams of “a third space
between technoscience and technoart,” but in practice it leads to the logic of
“innovation,” “creative industries,” and “design,” of which Mersch always seems
to speak with a certain disregard (33, 37). Once again, he is right in observing
how this type of rationale often dominates talk on artistic research, especially
at the strategic and administrative level. However, as I have remarked above,
it is not sufficient to object to this kind of talk by invoking the autonomous
nature of arts and aisthesis. The argumentative basis simply has to change with
an interlocutor who is ready to replace human beings with robotics! The mere
defence of the autonomy of the experience fails in the situation where even
experiences, perceptions, and emotions are on sale and manipulated by the
cognitive industry. It would therefore be more efficient and more honest to
try to understand better the relation between design and art, and the nature
of the dialogue that they have maintained throughout industrial modernism.
Above, I have pointed to the possibility of this kind of analysis by suggesting a
critical double bind between innovation and invention, where artist-research-
ers unavoidably find themselves today. In artistic research a “pure invention” is
impossible, or it turns into a work of art.
Mersch’s (2015) biggest doubts and reservations seem finally to be related to
his fourth category, where art is considered and measured by standards set by
scientific knowledge (38). Even though this is “an error of judgment” (38), “the
most usual and widespread art research discourse” is based on it. The reasons
for this widespread error are ideological and political: “the Bologna Process”
and the standards it sets for the “professionalization” of artists, especially
through “the creation of a PhD specifically for the arts” (39). The people in
new art universities have been captivated by “a dual trap”: “On the one hand,
there is an attempt to determine the indeterminate and, on the other hand, to
subsume the arts under science’s disposition of legitimation, turning artistic
‘research’ into nothing more than a servant of technical and scientific stand-
ards and their directives” (39). Following that nightmarish logic artists become
increasingly “enslaved to the ruthless dynamics of a relentless capitalist econ-
omy” (39). As a person in charge of artistic doctoral training and research in
a multidisciplinary art university, I know what Mersch is speaking about, and


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what I have said above constitutes my discursive reaction to this situation. It

is an attempt to argue in favour of academic artistic research as institutionally
deconstructive practice and as a new, affirmative mode of institutional critique.
From my perspective, and with my background as a former anti-institutional
artist and freelancer, a certain retreat to institutions has nevertheless turned
out to be the most progressive alternative, even though the refuge and the “sov-
ereignty” (39) they serve were temporary and conditional. If we think about
the “ruthless dynamics of relentless capitalist economy” that Mersch warns us
about, arts universities’ role is to offer professional artists a chance to reflect
what is to be done and by which means, instead of just reacting to the changes
of the market.

Artistic research in the neo-liberal world

In “Institutional Imagination,” Pascal Gielen (2013) suggests a move that in
many respects parallels what has been said above. Namely, he attempts to legit-
imise the existence of art institutions by means of institutional critique. Let
me quote a passage, which summarises the point of departure of his argument:

This failure of institutional critique is also caused by the very ambivalent attitude
of artists towards their own institutions. As noted earlier, institutions are vertical,
tightly organized hierarchical value regimes that guard their boundaries with other
value regimes such as that of religion, the market or politics precisely because they
are so inflexible. Critique of the institution is only possible thanks to the shelter of
that same institution and the values it represents. At the same time, such critique
always also threatens to erode institutional boundaries, making it increasingly
difficult for the institution to provide this collective shelter. With its call for more
democracy and less hierarchy, institutional critique has in the meantime opened
the door to a flat world in the art world as well. The breaches it has made in the
institutional walls of the modern era have let in other value regimes that have eroded
not only its own hierarchy but also its own dignity. This was possible because the
critique was mainly of negative nature, an attack that offered few alternatives or new
strategies. If there were to be a third wave of institutional critique nowadays, it could
only succeed by making the time-honored modern values of the art institution its
ally. (Gielen 2013, 15–16)

The basic problem that the rise of neo-liberalism sets for institutional critique
is the fundamentally anti-institutional nature of the movement (ibid., 18). It may
be that the “flatness” and equivalence that neo-liberalism propagates is false—
that is, neither flat nor equal enough and based on “the formal authoritarian
neo-management model,” where the actions of individuals only become more
governable. But how can the falseness of this stance be proved? Where can one
base one’s argument in the “flat world”? The problem is very much the same as
that detected earlier by Mersch, who in his critique of artistic research notices
how, in the postmodern world, we have moved “from the legitimation to the per-
formativity of knowledge” (Mersch 2015, 34). Following this logic, “art should
become more professional and latently serve the so-called creative industries”
(ibid.). Of course the crises touch not only the arts but also academic culture
in general, whose institutional status has more or less latently built upon the


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Esa Kirkkopelto

hierarchical ideas of truth. In his analysis, Gielen (2013, 14) pays much atten-
tion to the “vertical” metaphors related to institutions. The organisation and
function of the institutions are understood and discussed on the basis of tropes
like “depth,” “height,” “climbing,” and “pillar.” It may be that the weakness of
institutional critique has been to subscribe latently to this same type of idea,
nowadays ruined by the pragmatism of performative capitalism.
So that institutional critique can find its way out of its current deadlock, it
should according to Gielen (2013, 30) “first and foremost imagine its own val-
ues according to its own logic.” The way institutional critique can turn insti-
tutionally affirmative is to reunderstand art institutions, even in their most
traditional forms, as places where imagination is exercised, appreciated, and
fostered: “Because we can distinguish between the real world and imagined,
or fictional ‘reality,’ change and innovation are within the realm of human pos-
sibility. Regardless of whether such change means progression or regression,
our ability to oscillate between non-fiction and fiction is crucial in imagining
other worlds, in being creative, in presenting different models of society or in
addressing ecological issues” (ibid., 12).
Gielen does not mention Cornelius Castoriadis (1975) among his references,
but he could have. He could also have spoken about artistic research, but he
did not, at least in this context. Essentially, Gielen understands art institu-
tions as places and occasions where society reflects, criticises, and develops its
own institutional creativity. Above, I have argued that the possibility of artistic
research constituting an auto-critical academic practice is dependent on its
possibility of exercising critique at the level of the institutional imagination.
Gielen comes to this same point at the conclusion of his essay. The idea of imag-
ination that he defends opposes the idea of “contemporariness” as the tempo-
ral aspect of the flat neo-liberal world: “Contemporary art has exiled itself to
a safe island within the white walls of the purely imaginary, where anything is
possible as long as it makes no claim to reality” (Gielen 2013, 31). When “there
is no alternative,” the only modality left for art is novelty. At the same time, “the
route from fiction to non-fiction,” “the utopian plan” of the historical avant-
garde to “really intervene in the world” and “to be ahead of its time,” is barred
(ibid.). Gielen is not speaking for any kind of imagination except the artistic
one, which always deals with the real, the aisthesis it reconfigures thoroughly
and thoughtfully, as Mersch describes it. By cutting and isolating the creative
imagination apart from its productive (i.e., material and medial) conditions,
the neo-liberal management of time and space makes of a work of art either an
investment or an instrument. Where then is the “alternative”?
For Gielen (2013, 31), it implies the radicalisation of the avant-gardist posi-
tion: “A third wave of institutional critique can only succeed if it uses its imag-
ination to be critical from a really distant future perspective.” But in practice
does not this imply research and theorisation, the taking of an analytical and
critical distance, in order to better “intervene in the world”? If Gielen’s thesis
on the institutional imagination is taken seriously, as I would like to do, does it
not imply that research should be acknowledged and understood as an intrin-
sic factor of institutional transformation processes and therefore always as an


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at least potentially instituting activity? We could conceive of it as a search for a

foothold on ground that constantly gives way. In the present world, this is not
only a metaphor, if we think about the climatic catastrophe, the rise of sea lev-
els, and the loss of habitable and cultivable land it causes. Our common ground,
both in a material and in a metaphysical sense, is giving way, and the only way
to safeguard the continuation of our planetary existence is to enter into a
more sensitive, more continuous, and more contextual negotiation with our
surroundings. This is what we should understand by “research” in the world,
which is no longer governed by the spirit of the “contemporary” but by that of
“emergency” (Gielen 2013, 32). If we accept that this search is endless and if it
does not ever reach any “firm”—that is, “metaphysical”—ground, it opens a
new dimension within our reality, a new kind of depth that any politico-eco-
nomical manoeuvre cannot level.10 Each science opens this dimension differ-
ently, and it often has to struggle to keep it open. Artistic research, which in this
respect is fully comparable to other sciences, conceives its task aesthetically,
which entails becoming aware of the medial, material, and sensorial aspects
of all basic research and its institutional implications. It builds new connec-
tions between factors Mersch considers to be irreconcilable: the fundamental
“indeterminateness” of the aesthetic and the discursive “dispositions of legiti-
mation” proper to the sciences and to societies. This is instituting. The mode
of thinking of artistic research is not only artistic but also discursive, since it
worries about the significance and position of art and aesthetic experience in
the discursively instituted world. Unlike art critics who can only express their
worry about the prevailing situation, artist-researchers can also do something
about it.

Whereas the neo-liberal market economy destroys institutions, or, rather,
maintains them only in order to exploit them, the people in charge of the
development of higher education institutions in the arts should defend insti-
tutions by deconstructing them. To make their struggle more active and put an
end to the constant withdrawing, to the disputes over diminishing resources,
they could adopt a wider, more affirmative, and active idea of what “institution”
and “instituting” may mean. Institutions define the fundamental forms of our
experience and action. Instituting always implies reinstitution, the changing of
those fundamental forms. Particularly in the case of artistic research practice,
we should take into account its simultaneously inventive and institutional
nature and consider its results as media of invention with significant institu-
tional consequences.

10 Karin Knorr Cetina (2001) has at this point spoken about the “unfolding ontology” of “epistemic prac-
tices” (see also, Borgdorff 2013, 117­­–18).


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