Jan Svenungsson

"Alternative Knowledge", in: Futures of Artistic Research, ed. Jan Kaila, Anita Seppä, Henk Slager, Academy of Fine Arts Helsinki 2017

We have an increasing problem with lying in our societies. The internet and the changing labor market are pushing us all to continually broadcast enhanced versions of ourselves in order to gain strategic advantage. As a result, projection and illusion have become more valuable tools and talents than reflection and truthfulness.

Agreement on what constitutes fact-based reality is lost when the distribution of news shifts to social networks, where algorithms deliver alternative versions of events based on each user's existing prejudices. False facts won't be challenged when they validate what you already think. Lying seems to have no cost.

Art and research have not gone untouched by this development.

Indeed, it used to be a privilege of artists: to be able to create imaginary reality and promote alternative facts, to be admired for lies that work – on a poetic level!

Artists have used all imaginable means to convince audiences and themselves of the value and possibilities of other realities: crazy, ironic, beautiful, provocative and challenging alternative realities.  In order to do so, all sorts of tools have come into play, including faking and hiding your real motives.

But what about now? When the new reality allows amoral politicians not only to show complete disregard for truth and facts and get away with it, but also to be admired for their transgressions by large swaths of populations who feel alienated in their own societies? When imagination becomes a tool for domination and subjugation instead of being an instrument of liberation and exploration? What can artists do? React, retreat – or join the crowd?

I believe it has become necessary for artists to reflect anew on their strategies and the role they seek for art. The world is changing. The way people behave is changing. Science is being sabotaged. The efforts of climate scientists to spell out in clear words what has been factually proven are challenged by adversaries using doublespeak as a weapon and alternative facts as bombs. And religious extremists of varying persuasions wield real weapons and bombs, killing for the sake of twisted words.

Yes, indeed: words count. Lies count. Facts count. Our future depends on how we use language. The invitation to participate in this publication came with seven questions regarding the current status of Artistic Research and its future prospects. Authors were asked to consider one or several, and write from there.

I appreciate starting from a given question. For me writing is an instrument of knowledge extraction, the writing process a generator of associations. Ideas and references appear and impose themselves on the text. My job is to say yes or no, to develop and refine. I write in order to understand things better – and I start because there are questions. Ultimately, I wish to make sense and not non-sense. 

The first question was titled "The Situation of the Field":
"When the debate about Artistic Research commenced twenty years ago, it was primarily viewed as an unarticulated, undefined field; not so much a discipline as a place where the political, the philosophical and the creative meet in a way that allows people to produce a new set of relations between one another. How can Artistic Research – as a methodological trajectory – continue to facilitate non-regulated relations between these three domains? And in connection with this: How can Artistic Research keep answering urgent questions in a different way?"

Something jars. The first sentence is relatively straightforward: we learn that in the beginning Artistic Research was undefined and allowed people from different disciplines to interact with one another. The sense of the second sentence is warped: Artistic Research has now become a method (a "methodological trajectory"), but still it works in a "non-regulated" way. Hmm... Finally, in the third sentence, Artistic Research has evolved into having a history of "answering urgent questions".

As if!

In my view, the number-one problem afflicting this new-built institution is that "urgent questions" have been sorely lacking.

I apologize for focusing my attention on the phrasing of a question, but this circular misuse of words disturbs me and is far too common. A lack of real questions cannot be compensated for by employing fuzzy language. Just because there's a need to account for research funding, there's no defense for self-referential arguments.

I don't see art "answering" any questions. When art is good it continually provokes questions. Yet these questions cannot be instrumentalized, or even really be shared, because they are internal and intimately tied to the person (the viewer, the beholder, the artist) in which they occur. Research, on the other hand, if taken seriously, is an activity where people (researchers) must attempt to answer questions with an independent external existence. Thus work by one person can be continued by another. This is not the case in art, where the illusion of linear progress has been discredited time and time again. Attempting to marry these two conceptions is anything but easy, and it will lead to contortions.

I know examples of Artistic Research where the marriage has produced works of thought and invention that I admire. But frankly, these are rare. I think the mainstreaming and continuous expansion of this institution is a serious mistake. The current moment calls for a sharp focus on substance and for transparency in every endeavor that involves critical thinking, politics, science or art. It's no game. We simply cannot afford to let newspeak take over.

Art happens between people, between the maker and the beholder. Why do I make art? Who do I want to address? Myself, the global market, the social media hall of mirrors, a self-validating academic discipline – or other individuals? Can my art have political impact, beyond preaching to the converted? Can it be of use? What use?

To practice art today is contradictory. The market generates unprecedented dividends for success, but these are divided up by a few at the top, while the vast majority of artists are struggling with huge identity problems and questions of relevance. As counterpoint, the intellectual apparatus built up over several decades of professionalized theory production has achieved a granular finesse and specialization which makes it self-sustaining. Apart from the lying and the ongoing brutalization of public discourse in democratic societies, the galloping narcissism of social media, the war on science, and indiscriminate killing motivated by words in old texts, one issue that also concerns me as an artist and a thinking person is:

– Whose interests do we actually serve when we strive to bring art practice and the paradigm of Artistic Research ever more closely into alignment?

The future will be determined by the words we use in the present.
Jan Svenungsson