Art as Research

Art as Research

posted in: Mission and Methodology | 0

Following last week’s post, I wanted to touch on another type of research that is sometimes difficult to explain: artmaking. The “art world”, where artmaking tends to happen, generally includes commercial galleries, museums, industry, academia and independent artists. Within these contexts, from what I can tell, there is also valuable research-oriented artistic work being done that is both difficult to explain to outsiders and to disentangle from interest-driven funding models. Since artmaking is something that eleVR is involved in, I thought I would share some thoughts on what I’ve come to understand is valuable in accepting art as research.

The word “art” can be tricky to define, but for the purposes here I consider any reorgainzation of media (paint, words, environments, etc) and perspectives (cultural norms, political agendas, historical narratives) into something new to be communicated to be art. In addition to being for entertainment or hobby, a serious art endeavor can involve questioning established norms, playing with and responding to materials and environments and synthesizing experiences to communicate new ideas. I’ll try to share some of my personal experiences after having spent a few years making art and treating it seriously as part of my work.


Art as Questioning

Just as other research fields involve testing hypotheses, artmaking can also involve testing ideas, either from society or from personal experience, in order to gain new perspectives. I went to art school because I had some questions I hadn’t yet been able to answer, or even articulate, at that point in my life. One question that fueled me for a while was simply “Why do I feel unsatisfied?“. At school, I also witnessed the importance of questioning objects and media, through endless critique sessions about student work. These sessions taught me how to ask “How and why was this work created?” and “Is it communicating its intentions effectively?“.

After some time, these questions started coming more naturally, and became part of my process: “How and why am I making this work?” and “Is my work communicating anything?“. Eventually, these answers led to even newer and deeper questions such as “What if my childhood had been different?” and “What was the political climate of Medellin in the 1960’s?“, important questions spanning everything from psychology to geopolitics that have become part of my artistic agenda. At eleVR, some of the questions that have sparked our work have been questions like “What happens when a camera can see in every direction?” and “What does it feel like to travel in 4 dimensions?” and “Can spatial reasoning be enhanced and utilized in a new way?“. In our work we’ve seen that by allowing for open ended questions as part of artmaking, new lines of questioning can start to emerge.

Some of our more technical research is instigated by artistic questions. The Relaxatron was sparked by wondering what it would be like to watch a video lying back and looking up but necessitated designing and building a spherical camera with stitch seams that did not preference the horizon. We then had to make the eleVR player as we needed a way to play back the video.


Art as Play

Another important aspect of research-oriented work is the ability to playfully “think outside the box”. Some sciences struggle with this, as their empirical and technical methods necessarily train for repeatability and control. However, it is generally understood that the ability to rethink assumptions is a useful skill that sometimes leads to breakthroughs. This article, published in the New York Times, describes how a painter was brought into a lab to help the scientists literally look at their data from different angles. Because of this potential for discovery, I have learned that the ability to play is integral to artmaking.

In addition to being playful, I’ve seen that it’s also valuable to be open-minded as the materials and environments themselves push back with their own limitations. Recently, I was exploring some imagery of birthday cakes from my memories, so I baked a cake, frosted it, and intended to 3D scan it. The 3D scan did not work properly, and it created a flattened, distorted view of it. It was a surprising result, and not what I intended, but I welcomed the fact that it felt disgusting, and I now hope to use this mistaken image in new ways. M’s Year of Dailies project was an explicit way to set themselves up for play, by forcing themselves to make many spherical videos. They were able to create, make mistakes, learn, react and push the boundaries of what is possible with spherical videos in exciting directions that they hadn’t envisioned at the beginning of that year.


Emily's "Year of Dailies"
M’s “Year of Dailies”


Art can also make spaces of play. Play/Room was a project that linked every physical object in a room to a spherical video. But the space only worked as an art experience when someone came in an played around with the objects: moving them, arranging them, wearing them. Watching how people played in the space and how they used the linked objects differently than they would have with a non-augmented objects was the research going on in that piece. The way people played naturally inspired subsequent virtual and augmented reality interfaces.


Art as Communication

In traditional research disciplines, the ability to share results in journals is an important part of the process. In artmaking, a critical and playful process can create new ideas and forms of expression that hopefully contain valuable meaning for the artist or their peers. An equivalent to a journal result here would be artwork that is shared with a wider audience: a museum gallery, on a blog on the internet, in a public space or in other venues.  At eleVR, common publishing venues include video sharing sites like YouTube, code-sharing communities like GitHub, blogs, and various social media sites.

Throughout my experimental artmaking, I have created some works that I have shared with different types of audiences. In doing so, I have been able to see if my ideas communicate themselves effectively, or not. Although I may not always agree with people’s reaction to my work, the exchange becomes an interesting metric to understand how my ideas have evolved. Earlier this year, I shot a series of photos of myself with burlap sacks attached to my body in various compositions. Sometimes, other people react to those photos with thoughtfulness and sadness, and at other times, with confusion, all of which has been useful for me in understanding some of the psychologies I am exploring. As my next step, I am hoping to figure out how to turn people’s reactions into potential icebreakers for discussions about difficult topics.


Taking Art Further

Because of the potential for questioning and reframing important cultural ideas and for opening discussions about them, research-oriented artmaking seems very worthwhile to me. Unfortunately, funding models keep being a limiting factor to promoting exploratory artistic work. However, there are some places are emerging that value artmaking as a research endeavor on its own, including various academic PhD programs, art residency programs funded directly by industry, or groups like eleVR. Even though it’s a rare brand of research that is difficult to explain and to justify financially, I hope artistic research can continue to be accepted more widely moving forward!

Below are a few books, articles and videos that have helped me learn more about the artmaking process:
– Liz Lerman’s critical response process: A method for getting useful feedback on anything you make, from dance to dessert by Liz Lerman and John Borstel
Art as Experience by John Dewey
The Pragmatism in the History of Art by Molly Nesbit
Mapping the Intelligence of Artistic Work by Anne West
The Art of Critical Making: Rhode Island School of Design on Creative Practice by Roseanne Somerson and Mara Hermano
Daybook: The Journal of an Artist by Anne Truitt
Learning to See Data by Benedict Carey
Man’s Rage for Chaos: Biology, Behavior and the Arts by Morse Peckham
– “Reaching the Limit: When Art Becomes Science” by Beatriz de Costa
The Show with Ze Frank: July 14 2006 by Ze Frank