Art-based research and drama as a way of knowing


Building a house in no-man's land

Bjørn Rasmussen, NTNU

The notion of 'art-based' research covers a broad range of research where arts practices are focussed, varying from traditional empirical analyses of an artwork to research in the more radical meaning of art production. The latter tradition of 'artistic' research has recently gained renewed interest, following the way arts training is increasingly situated and reorganized in higher education and how this fact reopens demands for research and investigations into the epistemological nature of all art forms: What can be known in the arts? How can arts making produce knowledge, even research knowledge? In Norway , Bergen National Academy of the Arts is responsible for a new doctoral education for artists, and has launched a new research journal (Sensuous Knowing). In the Nordic community, Finland seems to be leading, for example by the work done at the Theatre Academy in Helsinki or Academy of Fine Arts. Mika Hannula e.o. ask 'why is not the art work in itself sufficient to count as research? Why do we accept the hegemony of the word? (Hannula, Suoranta, and Vadén 2005 p. 119). This is a timely question in late modern media society. However, the same Finnish authors state later in the same publication: 'For something to be counted as artistic research, it must include a linguistic part, that is, a verbal account of what has been done, thought, invented and developed'(Hannula, Suoranta, and Vadén 2005 p. 165). Both statements read together reveal a paradox and a present tension between art and research, which internationally, for example at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, has lead to three optional doctoral programs: Doctor of Creative Arts Industries (artistic), Doctor of Philosophy, and Doctor of Philosophy with a choice of 'practice-led research' (both artistic production and academic writing). In other cases, attempts of producing both art pieces and academic writing only seem to give double work for candidates at master or doctorate level. That is, only the artwork or the academic writing is valued, and not the combined effort. Furthermore, many labels are associated to art as ('medium-specific') research. For example, drama teacher and researcher Brad Haseman (QUT) suggests 'performative research' as one of three main research paradigms, distinct from qualitative and quantitative research in the ways the research is 'expressed in 'forms of symbolic data other than words. These include forms of practice, of still and moving images, of music and sound, of action and digital code'(Haseman 2006 p. 104). More radically, Haseman suggests a more precise label of 'practice-led' research, inspired by the following quote:

'...firstly research which is initiated in practice, where questions, problems, challenges are identified and formed by the needs of practice and practitioners; and secondly, that the research strategy is carried out through practice, using predominantly methodologies and specific methods familiar to us as practitioners'. (Gray 1996 p. 3)

This implies a research design similar to the way artists and drama teachers apply conventions, exercises and forms to construct meaning in complex ways, and where a research 'problematics' is not given 'a priori', rather delimited during the mediated process.

Needles to say, the historical distinctions between research and arts are not overcome in a short move, even if the pragmatic need of re-associating art with research and knowledge seems to boost the development far better than drama education has ever managed by its teaching and its research advocacies. On the other hand, since the seventies there are noticeable contributions in cultural theory, aesthetics, humanities and social sciences that deal with 'practice as research', 'knowledge through/in action' or 'symbolic medium and meaning making',- through specific research in for example speech act theories, constructivism, action research, post-structuralism, performativity theories. Even in education, influential researchers such as Eliot Eisner accept other forms of representations 'beyond the literal use of text', and enlighten arts and the epistemological 'power of form' that informs, reveals and conceals'. (Eisner 2008 p. 26). Nevertheless, there is a job to be done in our schools and drama research institutions before we have a sound rationale for knowing in arts, including research knowledge. No doubt, drama teachers and artists will still for many years bang their heads against the walls of traditional, educational and scientific hegemony, offering practices that hold a different epistemology, still poorly understood and performed as an alternative theoretical rationale for arts, research and education.

Overcoming the dichotomy between theory and practice

Seen from both the perspectives of arts education and artistic research, it seems urgent to overcome the strict dichotomies between art and research, art and education. Limited comprehensions of art and research seem to prevent the conceptual bridge that allows our institutions and societies to recognize, appreciate and defend art as research, art as education. The dichotomy of theory and practice is one of particular interest, and quite familiar to drama teaching since the days of progressive education and the slogan of 'learning by doing'. Following this path, we need to see 'theorizing', not distinct from art, but attached to art. Any researcher or other practician is influenced not only by many theories (bodies of knowledge), but also by certain comprehensions of theory, a theory of theory. My claim is that both artists and scholars are basically still supposed to follow and reinforce a predominantly classical conception of theory. What this means is that theory is understood as pre-given, objective, and neutral knowledge, a heightened level of knowledge seemingly purified of human affect and desires, practical interests and needs,- except the main interest; that theory should be free of interest. By means of critical theory and its discourse of suspicion (for instance (Bell 2008 p. 5)Bell 2008:5) we recognize that all descriptions and knowledge are value-laden, political, historical, -even the knowledge about theory and research. We furthermore recognize that language and its concepts embody and express power and ideologies and certain truths that are privileged (Mumby 1997). An early and well-known contribution of such a critique is delivered by Jürgen Habermas in his work: Knowledge and Human Interest(Habermas 1978). In this work he argues that there is no theory, no knowledge without interest and by this he reveals two important assumptions; 1) There are different understandings and practices of theory and research according to different interests, 2) In spite of this relativism and contextualization, a dominant understanding of theory repeats itself in science and philosophy beyond the seemingly different interests. What we see as different structures on the surface actually reinforce a common deep-structure belief system. In addition, one should add the important classical implication that theory is tied to one specific symbol system, the verbal/written language. The tradition includes not least a hierarchical belief of reflection from lower, subjective and intentional thinking to higher pure, objective philosophy. In other words, in our daily humanistic research context, the more (verbal) meta-reflection and 'philosophy' we make the stronger quality of the research work. Research students are only too familiar with the game of 'name-dropping' associated with this custom. This ambition of objective truth basically reflects an old cultural and religious belief in pre-given truth and knowledge as separated from human interest, removed from the human 'cult', literally speaking. If art then has become the modern substitute for a pre-modern cultic celebrations and mimetic practice, many artists evidently may see themselves as guardians of a 'cultic' behaviour of our time, and not gatekeepers of theory. In this indirect way, artists are also influenced by 'the theory of theories', preventing artists from becoming theoretically interested, obstructing the recognition of arts processes as both intuitive-affective, as well as highly reflective, investigative, analytic and detached.

The 'theoros' was once a personal representative sent by Greek leadership to attend public celebrations, to watch and to distance himself from the cultic events. 'Theoria' then became, following Schelling and later Habermas, the exercise of contemplation of the given cosmos, the Being, and in this way this tradition signifies historically the demarcation between Being and Time. This demarcation line has become unquestioned and secured in Western culture by our institutional distinctions between philosophy, theory and research (Being) and temporal and sensuous behaviour such as play and arts (Time). This classical belief also forms our scientific deductive system, which is still the basic paradigm for all researchers including drama researchers. By adopting this paradigm we also adapt the view that art or aesthetic practice is paradigmatically different from theorizing and research (science). Actually, art and science reinforce each other mutually within a common agreement of theory and "other" non-theoretical knowledge. The value of art, underlined in aesthetic philosophy, is hence founded on a rationale different from science; by terms and dualisms like presence versus cool detachment, feeling versus reason and subjective perspective versus objective truth/theory. This has become a main obstruction to drama education and other humanistic research and needs to be challenged.

Judith Butler, a late modern feminist researcher, states that theory is not just housed in universities or in books; theory "is an activity that takes place every time a possibility is imagined, a collective self-reflection takes place, a dispute over values, priorities, and language emerges" (Butler 2004 p. 176). Such activities truly take place in the arts and lead to many art productions. We are hence increasingly faced with a notion of theory that includes artistic practices. Aslaug Nyrnes (2008) claims, from a rhetorical perspective, that theory is inscribed in the production of arts, arts production may be a way of thinking (Nyrnes 2008 p. 22). Often, the production of art means in this context a production of insight, not of theory. Clearly this distinction depends on an understanding of theory different from the open position Butler provides. Even if one acknowledges distinctions between theoretical and sensuous knowledge, one should also acknowledge arenas for the connection within the same cultural event so to speak. Karl Weick, in his rather orthodox discussion of the nature of theory, admits this: 'Perhaps the ultimate trade-off is the one between process and product, between theorizing and theory, between doing it and freezing it (Weick 1995 p. 390)

Artists, arts teachers, craftsmen and children have the potential to know within their own cultural action, within their practices. If we believe that all practices are potentially reflexive we may say that in all playing, human actions and drama, there is always a potential implicit onlooker, there is a potential discussion, thought and debriefing. In all 'writing', no matter in which media, there is always a potential reader that may be a necessity for the art product. The 'theoros' exists within the ensemble, within the actor, and we should remind ourselves that even mimetic practice is a forming, reflective exercise.(Habermas 1978 p. 302). This is an important epistemological credo not least for drama education. Moreover, seen from a perspective of for example child psychiatrist and sociologist Winnicott (1991), the mimetic exercise is not only reflective, but shapes the abstract thinking ability and the capacity of becoming both a timely player and a 'theoros'.

In research, theorizing might need a stranger like the old 'theoros', but not necessarily. The theoretical paradigm we need to establish, is the paradigm that holds that the cult is not blind, not more than everyday practice may be blind, also the practice of reading books and writing dissertations. Playful practice in all forms was never only blind, hedonistic and narcissistic. We are just taught to believe so, probably for the sake of human hierarchy and power relations. Theory as formed knowledge is possibly generated intentionally in any symbol system. What I am proposing is that any media is potentially discursive. Theory should therefore not be set and limited to one specific discursive media, neither to a hierarchy of high or low reflection.

Is then any practice 'theoretical'? Of course not. The lack of relational understanding, lack of perspectives and detachment make practice blind and 'non-theoretical' to both artists as well as other researchers. Beyond the institutionalized dualism, we should direct our attention to important distinctions within stages of cultural media practice. For example, Allern (2002) directs us to the 'chaotic' or 'orgiastic' dimension of existence through another classical concept, which is familiar to theatre and drama education through the works of Boal and Bolton. 'Methexis' is comprehended as the existential condition of confusion, chaos and multi-perspectives from where we strive to understand and conceptualize through selections and durable forms. What this means is that a dynamic, playful "chaos" as well as 'theorizing' may exist within the same media process, within the same producer or community. This is the dynamic link we conceal by the institutionalized separation of sensuous life and academic reflection. The contemporary educated, ethical man does not emerge from schooling, but from the changing practical media experiences of both particular 'play' and detached reflections. People are (or rather could be) educated in the shift between playing and play reflection, even if we know that our current drama practices tend to favour the one to the detriment of the other.

Some possible consequences for research training in arts disciplines

My attempt to comprehend theory differently may have some implications for research training in arts disciplines. First, I think we need to limit the scope of research theory to new research students. By trying to cover the whole research chronology, all designs and possible methods, we tend to be exhausted by the time we reach logical positivism, without ever dealing with the highly relevant late modern conceptions of research, theory, meaning and knowledge. Secondly, we may build specific research production designs where reflection, interpretation and knowledge are shown on different levels of the playful work. This means that the artwork is not the only or final 'theoretical' product to consider, furthermore that documented reflections within the arts practice have no lesser value than the literary interpretation of the practice. Instead of defending the classical hierarchy of higher and lower quality of understanding, we may encourage an epistemological paradigm that bridges the bodily, sensuous participation and the detached contemplation. This bridge is not well provided in any case of western education, research training included, and this is also why we need to develop a renewed conception of theory for all 'cultic' dancers of today, who both read, feel and think in words, sounds and movements.


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