"Artist As Researcher"

Jon Ippolito

Presented at the 2006 CAA panel New Media Futures: The Artist as Researcher and Research as Art in the 21st Century

Friday, February 24, 5:30 PM–7:00 PM
Hynes Convention Center, Second Level, Room 202
Chair: Dr. Timothy Allen Jackson, Savannah College of Art and Design; speakers: Shawn Brixey, James Coupe, Nina Czegledy, and R. Bruce Elder.
A special session of the Leonardo Education Forum (LEF), an affiliate organization of the College Art Association (CAA)

Drawn from At the Edge of Art by Joline Blais and Jon Ippolito.

If treating art as research has thrown our panelists into terrain unfamiliar to most artists, it has also led them to some exciting places in that terra incognita.

Curb-jumping institutions

Budapest's NextLab.

DIY software

v. Relying on what Bruce calls the "aesthetically conservative bias" of Photoshop, Flash, and Final Cut.

Emulation instead of simulation

Shawn and James' no longer simulating a snowflake on a canvas or screen, but to view a snowflake itself as an interface, processor, and display in and of itself is evocative and inspiring.

But as inspiring as these paths have been, young artist-researchers beware! The road to research for the artist is boobytrapped.

1st road: Quasi-scientific research by artists working alone.

Artist can call the shots, and bask in a borrowed sense of legitimacy derived from

Scientific techniques
Fourier transforms and matrix algebra.
Scientific rhetoric
Logarithmic, scalar, epitaxy.

Unfortunately, the path of the scientist is often too narrow to accommodate the concerns of artists.

Scientific research must reflect the latest discoveries.
I asked a scientist, Ari Epstein, to help me understand the physics behind Alchymeia.
"Coax nature to synthesize our physical presence"

Steroids are all equivalent--every Olympic skater's testosterone, unlike their DNA, is identical.

"Impurities are blueprints for snowflakes"

The shape of the impurity does influence how easily snowflakes form (closer to ice the better).

But, according to Caltech professor Ken Libbrecht, the unique shape of snowflakes is determined by moment-by-moment variations in temperature and water density (supersaturation).

Scientific research must not repeat the findings of the past.
No scientist is going to win a Nobel prize for repeating Newton's experiments to show gravity makes apples fall. So a scientist who knows that Ukichiro Nakaya grew artificial snowflakes with rabbit hair in the 1950s is likely to pooh-pooh Alchymeia.
Scientific research must model the observable world.
What if a cosmologist one day was intrigued by the helical universe and devoted a lifetime to exploring its unfamiliar intricacies? What if a biologist discovered some non-natural model of the brain that made neurons dance and twist and sing? Surely, the best reaction they could expect from their fellow scientists would be puzzlement. And yet such 'useless' experiments, thanks to their extreme originality, may offer a window onto some future puzzle whose solution provides an essential stepping stone in the evolution of human awareness. What Bruce calls "nonpurpose."

Bottom line: If you're going to borrow the scientific norms, you have to live by their norms.

2nd road: Collaborative research by artists working with scientists

To walk alongside scientists has advantages.

Access to

But given the reality of university and industry priorities

An artist collaborating with a scientist is like a ballerina dancing with an 800-pound gorilla. It's real hard to make the collaboration symmetric. As a result, art can easily devolve into what Diane Willow last night called an "aesthetic interface"--ie, window dressing for science or engineering.

3rd path: Artistic research

The only other choice for artists is to blaze a new road through the terra incognita of research--a road that is sometimes parallel, and sometimes divergent, to the path taken by scientists.

Advantage: Art permits a more expansive definition of originality than science.

Rarely does the jury for a scientific grant bestow awards on research that pretends neither to model the real world nor to engineer an improvement to it. Science cannot always reward curiosity for its own sake--but perhaps art can.
If the National Endowment for the Arts were to recognize artistic research, artists would have a fighting chance in a grant competition that isn't stacked in favor of military and genomics researchers.

But the art world currently imposes a more limiting frame than science, which has been more tolerant of continuous rather than discrete research.

A researcher's contribution to science can't be reduced to a series of self-contained experiments or publications that can be viewed out of context; rather it may be defined by a lifelong devotion to testing and refining hypotheses in a cumulative fashion.
I think this is a natural way for artists, especially new media ones, to work as well.
Bruce speaks of "artists can hardly bring themselves to package a work up and send it around."
Diane Willow spoke at the Art Interactive panel yesterday about people from art departments asking why new media student works never seemed "finished."
Worse, galleries and museums don't know how to sell artworks that are dispersed, collaborative, or ongoing.
Once museums got hold of him, Josef Beuys turned from performance artist to creator of scribbled blackboards and corners of fat in vitrines.
Nam June Paik turned from avant-garde musician to video-installation artist.
This is a travesty. To recognize art that is pure research, rather than the static frames promoted by galleries and museums, is to admit the possibility of a practice that is continuously gradated, where it is impossible or misleading to draw a line to separate one artwork from another.


To make room for such a path, my recent book with Joline Blais, At the Edge of Art, proposes a spectrum of art practice ranging from individual moments of awe to culturally sanctioned cases of recognition.

*Artistry* occurs during fleeting moments of individual perception, and thus cannot be accountable to any larger social group.
*Research*, an intuitive and original investigation at the boundary of intelligibility, is accountable to a limited community with specialized knowledge.
*Genre*, creative work within an established set of expectations, is accountable to the art-viewing public that has internalized those expectations.

Only by accepting and supporting the full range of art practice can we engage and learn from the rich variety of research going on in our society today.