Creativity, thinking and activism

Multidimensional thinking and a new conception of expertise are necessary if we want to see change in the world. An artist researcher seeks to move in the gaps between different worlds and challenge the prevailing ways of seeing things.

Tuoleja ringissä ja silta Venetsiassa

Fifteen people are sitting in a circle. Everyone is holding the same text in their hands. One reads it aloud until someone says “stop”, “slower” or “repeat”. Then a small discussion may ensue. If the discussion begins to get sidetracked, anyone has the right to say “continue”. When the reader stops reading, the next person in the circle picks up where they left off. No one knows in advance how far the reader will read. 

The circle includes both artistic researchers and philosophers, or more specifically, phenomenologists, who study the production of meaning based on human experience.

The people in the circle are part of the Through Phenomena Themselves research cell, which will be seen at the Research Pavillion in the context of the Venice Biennale. In the cell, 15 artist researchers and phenomenologists get together and share their own way of doing research with the others. The reading circle is one example of sharing experimental research practices. The idea is to bring two different approaches into the same space and see what happens.

“The meaning that a text can acquire depends on the ways in which the reader interacts with the text”, says Alex Arteaga, the group’s leader and one of its artist researchers.

Though the text in the reading circle is related to phenomenology, the main focus of the reading circle is not only the content of the text, but the exchange that happens when reading. The participants can discuss the content of the text with regard to their own research practices. Also, interruptions, repetition, the reader’s voice and the collective reading situation turn the event into an aesthetic experience in itself. This reading practice will be performed in Venice, alongside with other artistic research practices performed by the different participants in this cell.

Equality is key to collaboration

Researchers from two different disciplines participate in the same research situation, although they have their own diverse backgrounds.

According to Arteaga, being on the same level is of the essence. “The problem with collaboration between artistic research and other disciplines is that artist researchers are often not really acknowledged as researchers. Genuine collaboration is always based on equality.”

The work of an artist researcher differs from more traditional modes of research at least in the respect that it engages with the boundaries between art and research both thematically and methodically. It is capable of highlighting creative solutions inherent to both artistic and scientific work.

“Artistic research is a combination of creativity, thinking and activism”, says Dutch Professor Henk Slager from MaHKU Utrecht, who is one of the conveners of Uniarts Helsinki’s Research Pavilion in Venice.

Though artistic research is a fairly established field in Finland, Slager knows that this is not the case everywhere. Artistic research is still not completely understood for what it is. That is why he believes artistic research methods should be made visible and understandable. Like other researchers, artist researchers also have to be able to describe the work they have done and justify how they reached their conclusion. At the same time, however, one must be careful not to overly academicise artistic research.

“The day artistic research becomes a research field formatted like sciences, it will lose its true essence”, Slager adds.

Alex Arteaga does not want to talk about research methods in the context of artistic research. He prefers to use the word practice. While I interview him, he points out that as I make notes of what he is saying, I am engaging in a certain kind of practice myself, the practice of interviewing. So, practices exist everywhere.

We need new ways of producing information

Henk Slager reminds us that the role of an artist researcher in society cannot be defined in the same way as the role of other academic researchers. An artist researcher is not an expert in a narrow discipline, but rather seeks to move in the gaps between different worlds and challenge the prevailing ways of seeing things.

On the other hand, the artist researcher is not a philosopher either, whose work is based on thinking and reading. Slager prefers to refer to the artist researcher as a public intellectual, that is, an intellectual who participates in public discussion and is also able to use artistic means to attract attention to urgent issues. 

According to Slager, multidimensional thinking and a new conception of expertise are necessary if we want to see change in the world. “If we produce information in the same manner as before, we will come to the same solutions. We must also be able to challenge the current ways of producing information.”

Arteaga agrees. At its best, the openness of artistic research and its interest in the nuances of research could enrich the entire research world.

“We all participate in the same research ecosystem and bring our own expertise to it. When we open up our work in detail to outsiders, we also give other researchers the opportunity to challenge their ways of researching and thinking. “


Many words for collaboration

  • Multidisciplinarity = In multidisciplinary collaboration, two or more disciplines are involved in studying a phenomenon or solving a problem. One example is a research group that includes representatives of several disciplines, but each of them studies the subject from their own starting point. 
  • Interdisciplinarity = The same problem or phenomenon is examined from the perspective of different disciplines and various points of view are brought forth. The aim is to gain a common understanding of the issue. One example is a conference where a large number of representatives from various disciplines get together around a shared issue to gain a common understanding of the solution or phenomena.
  • Transdisciplinarity = The phenomenon or problem itself is so multidimensional that a new, applied strand of research is created to solve it, where two or more disciplines or strands of research are merged together. This kind of collaboration can also include non-academic partners. Research on sustainable lifestyles is an example of transdisciplinarity.

Read the whole series of articles

Artists digging up contaminated soil

Seekers of potential worlds

Creativity, thinking and activism

Facing unpleasant truths

Sensory expertise

For more information on Uniarts Helsinki’s Research Pavilion in Venice and all its research cells, see here.