Encounters Between Artistic Research And Processes Of Musealization

Anna Laine


MoAR, Museum of Artistic Research, is an attempt to accommodate the recently established field Artistic Research at the Swedish History Museum. Research through and with art performed within academia meets processes of curating and musealization directed towards the general public. By collecting and displaying artworks and texts that have been main actors in generating doctoral degrees, Bogdan Szyber moves closer to his own doctorate in artistic research. The MoAR project is an experimental endeavor that addresses the epistemic potential of art, and engages in what is commonly referred to as the third task among scholars; to disseminate research-based knowledge beyond academia. This essay reflects on how knowledge can emerge within and around artistic research and what might take place when it is re-situated at a museum. How will the temporary existence of MoAR, during the autumn 2018, intervene in historicity and heritage making and potentially effect relations between artists, artworks, visitors, academia and museum? Speaking from the intersection of art and anthropology, the issues at hand will be addressed as phenomena constituted in relation to socio-cultural and historical environments yet aware of certain claims of art as an autonomous field.

Museum contexts

Contemporary museums, irrespective of their particular subject matter, are potential sites of transformation (Witcomb and Message 2015). Their curating of objects, words, light, sound and space can provoke unexpected thoughts and emotions and enable visitors to imagine things and relations differently. However, this is a radical change since most museums were first established at the end of the nineteenth century. The new museology, which developed as a research framework in the late 1980s as part of postmodernist, postcolonial and feminist critiques, demonstrated that museums have functioned as normative institutions of Western modernity and authoritarian forms of knowledge production (Hooper-Greenhill 1992; Karp et al 1992; Vergo 1989). Scholars as well as members of the groups that had been represented as subordinate beings according to evolutionism and racial biology demanded democratization and decolonization. The critique focused on the social and cultural roles of museums, and it turned the historical institutions into sites of contested terrain and representational crisis (Karp and Lavine 1990: MacDonald and Fyfe 1996). As more nuanced discourses and alternatives developed, James Clifford argued that museums can be understood as contact zones, as porous sites where people of various belongings can interact and new hybrid identities develop (1996).

Museum practices depend on cultural and political economics, and the postindustrial context has posed new demands on profitability. Curators’ aim to educate sometimes has to step back in favour of entertainment activities believed to increase the number of visitors, and many museums align with the tourist and heritage industries (Kratz and Karp 1993; Harrison 2005). Along with a reduction of researching curators and substitution of object displays into technological interactions, the epistemic capacities of museums have shifted, and the following critique within museum studies conceptualized the economic-driven phenomena as edutainment (Henning 2003). The various attentions, critiques and alterations of museums have simultaneously expanded their numbers and kinds, and collections’ source communities are finally recognized as important knowledge contributors and with rights to reclaim objects gathered through illegitimate procedures (Peers and Brown 2003; Gustafsson Reinius 2017).

Meeting ground

The Swedish History Museum, henceforth SHM, stands in the midst of recent critiques and debates as MoAR is welcomed into its Baroque Hall. Like the other public cultural museums in Sweden, SHM is directed towards contemporary society where developments of more inclusive representational strategies and reinvestigations of and additions to archives and collections have brought forth new knowledge (Arnberg et al 2017; Grundberg et al 2015; Svanberg 2015). Representations of Swedish history and Swedishness as fixed truths have been deconstructed through historiographic approaches, and problematized by insights of how knowledge of the past is made and used in the present (Aronsson 2010). However, extreme nationalists outside the museum claim that new research findings, such as established relations between Nordic and Islamic regions during the Viking period, are based on politics rather than evidence, and they accuse the museum of fabricating conspiracy theories (Hyltén-Cavallius and Svanberg 2016).

Museums are one of the institutional types where artists have been invited to expand internal critique through residencies, commonly providing opportunities for archival research and exhibition space. The SHM belongs to the Swedish museums that have explored this artist-in-residence method. The recent exhibition History Unfolds engaged ten artists working with historical matters, and five of them presented new works which related to the specific practices within SHM (Larsson Pousette 2017). Some artists worked in close collaboration with local museologists, for example the piece Unfolding Nordic Race Science where Minna L. Henriksson and Fredrik Svanberg illuminated how scholarly institutions of race biology influenced the wider society. Placed among existing displays of selected heritage, the contemporary artworks instigated their own musealization process and re-curated the conventional forms and understandings into new questions and possibilities of whom and what has the right to belong in this museum.

While artists-in-residence need to negotiate with museum staffs to various degrees, the artists’ critique of museum institutions was initiated from the outside. This critique evolved in the late 1980s, when Fred Wilson made site-specific ‘mock museum’ installations that visualized the gap between museum curation structured through colonial racist perspectives and the actual lives of people sharing his Afro-American and Native American background. When the new World Culture Museum opened in Gothenburg in 2004, Wilson was engaged as an artist-in-residence and presented the exhibition Site Unseen: Dwellings of the Demons. His work questioned to what extent the power relations through which the collections had been assembled lived on in contemporary representations, and can be interpreted as engaged with the lingering demons these practices had brought forth and whom the current staff aimed to incapacitate. These artistic interventions contribute to the understanding of museums as sites that not only make claims, but where the claimed also can be confronted (Karp and Wilson 1996).

The MoAR project brings new challenges to how art and museum practices can interact, and it remains to be seen if the presented artists will be understood as insiders or outsiders, or perhaps as entities completely beyond such dichotomies. Considering the self-critical expanding practices taking place at SHM, MoAR is likely to encounter museum visitors who have developed an awareness of what dominant narratives of history and heritage can hide, and that artworks can play a role in the process of disclosure. At the same time, there will be visitors who expect information and facts of objects presented in conventional ways and who are in search of confirmation rather than transformation. Some of them will relate to artistic research as a hitherto unknown form of knowledge making, while others might consider themselves experts in the field. As with any museum curating, Szyber and his collaborating curator Erik Berg are confronted with notions of what, how and with whom they wish to communicate. Will MoAR direct itself to the already included and reproduce artistic research as the isolated site Szyber has suggested within his own inquiry (2017), or will it create an inclusive space where the uninitiated can dwell and learn?

The main body of work at MoAR consists of objects, and the texts they have been constituted through to enable a doctoral degree at the respective artist’s/author’s institution. What happens with these objects when they are taken from their familiar environments and displayed at a museum? Following the new museology critique, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has pointed out how museum and curatorial practices change objects and how they are understood. She coined the term musealization to describe how collecting, categorizing, preserving and exhibiting cause detachment and fragmentation from everyday relations and contexts (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998:3, see also Hyltén-Cavallius and Svanberg 2016: 81; Silvén 2018: 120). When taken out of circulation and framed in cases through processes of musealization, the objects gain new value as cultural heritage and enter into new relations with museum staff and visitors. Freed from earlier representational frameworks, museum objects have been re-conceptualized as actors central to relation building between people and places over time and space (Gosden et al 2006), an understanding related to anthropological research beyond the Enlightenment tradition (Mauss 1925; Strathern 1988; Marriott 1990; Viveiros de Castro 1998). The artworks presented at MoAR are created for curating and display, albeit in gallery spaces focused exclusively on contemporary art and at the academic environment of artistic research. In their new context, they meet current museum practices at SHM concerned with societal developments and public participation. The continuation of the artworks’ becoming and affecting, while temporarily taken out of circulation in the Baroque Hall, might create unexpected combinations where transformative exchange can emerge between objects, visitors and space. The juxtaposition of two institutions producing knowledge on cultural phenomena, as artistic and museum/ curatorial research, further offers possibilities to rethink their relations and respective epistemic potentials within their wider shared social and historical context.

Epistemic Potentials

The knowledge production within artistic research is differentiated from art criticism and art history by its focus on studying through and with art rather than about. The through and with is shared with anthropological research, where immersive interactions during fieldwork rather than a pre-set hypothesis constitute the foundation of conceptual frameworks and epistemic developments. The museum, and the ethnographic museum in particular, is one site of such fieldwork-based research with findings that has been vital within the aforementioned new museology critique. In addition, degrees within visual anthropology and often anthropologies of arts combine conventional academic discourse with audiovisual contributions and both submissions have equal weight. Much like artistic research, this way of working requires careful considerations of how to link ideas with matter, and reflection with sensorial response (Grimshaw and Ravetz 2015; Laine 2018; MacDougall 2006; Schneider and Wright 2013). Perhaps artists and anthropologists could be argued to move along parallel lines, as the latter usually have skills in writing and search for what the making of things can do to theory, while the former are more skilled in making art and search for what theory can do to artworks. Yet, they are both engaged in how to make sense of relations between image and text, as well as proximity and distance.

André Lepecki has suggested that artistic research functions as conceptual art – where materials, performances and artworks are subordinated to an authoritative discourse (cited by Szyber 2017). Following Grant Kester, the art world has since the 1990s been dominated by a discourse relying on poststructuralism, a framework ‘in which the act of critique must be insulated from the exigencies of practice or direct action’ (Kester 2011: 13). While this perspective might be suitable among artists and artistic researchers who have turned away from technical skills and material crafting, it could be paradoxical for those who make things or want to conceptualize how relations with an environment evolve through their artworks. The dominance of poststructuralist discourse excludes engagements with multisensoriality and experience-based knowledge, and could consequently be understood as reproducing the Western hierarchy of sense perception and assumed location of knowing in a separated mind.

Henk Borgdorff holds that the epistemic efficacy of artworks, be they objects, events or situations, is located in their vagueness and embodiment of tentative facts which in turn offer possibilities for further questions and understandings (2012). In Tim Ingold’s alignment of art, anthropology, archaeology and architecture, knowledge is firmly grounded in making as an ongoing process of growth. He suggests that we learn in movement with materials, in correspondence with the world, rather than by attention to the already made that we can learn about. We engage in processes of thinking through making, where reflection and crafting is one, and which generates a way of knowing from the inside (Ingold 2013). Ingold engages with intimate relations with beings, things and their environment, further linked to Karen Barad who argues: ‘We do not obtain knowledge by standing outside the world; we know because “we” are of the world. We are part of the world in its differential becoming.’ (2007: 185, cited by Ingold 2013: 5). Rather than separating between image and text, these perspectives propose connections with Jean-François Lyotard’s separation between figure and discourse. He defines the first concept as sensory experience of plastic art as well as textual forms like poetry, and the second designates meaning firmly anchored through philosophical closure (1971).

A plural understanding of discourse which embraces the sensorial, material and relational turns and the recognition of experiential knowledge within the humanities and social sciences offers an alternative to anxieties about academization as bringing closure to art practice. The contemporary art world is also global and it is necessary to pay larger attention to ontologies and concepts beyond the Euro-American framework. Practitioners within artistic research have a unique opportunity to fine-tune suitable concepts and develop their own canon of exemplary projects and literature where ideas, skills and reflections build on the epistemic potentials of artworks and their becoming in the world. With such tools, based on knowing from the inside, new questions can be posed about art practice as well as academic research. Reading their abstracts, many of the artists presented at MoAR seem to have taken on such an approach, and instead of collaborating in transdisciplinary settings, they aim to establish methodologies and concepts specific to artistic research. At the Baroque Hall within SHM, artistic research explores a further trajectory by musealizing itself through detachment from the safe space of its own institutions, re-contextualization within the museum scene, and openness to public as well as scholarly critique.



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