Art as Question Generator
by Anna Friz — University of California, Santa Cruz
March 14, 2017 – 01:51
I am interested to add a feedback loop to the question at hand, and ask, how do the digital humanities and the arts transform and respond to one another? This question is important to both my work as a scholar and artist, as well as to my supervisory role working with doctoral students in a department which explicitly offers a practice-based Ph.D., in which students are positioned at the fulcrum between critical practice and critical studies. Therefore my thoughts here are methodological, or more precisely, I'm thinking about how the digital humanities can contribute to a process which is already underway among researcher-practitioners in rethinking the role of art epistemologically and methodologically.
Over the last century, artists have often endeavored to release the process of art from the persistent notion of the art object, such that 'art' might also be defined by performative approaches to research as process, as likely to leave scores, impressions, traces or documentation behind as to result in definitive aesthetic objects. Creative work may function to gather and reveal knowledge through material practice, where the resulting artworks are not the end point of the process but constitute performative research. This allows art making to do something other/more than create an object, and for art to hold more possibilities than to be the deliverable or end point in a research process. The humanities in turn, by treating art as epistemologically generative, contribute to an expanded notion of what art might be and how it can function. Finally, the digital humanities often engage art as more than representation to be unpacked but as embodying processes through which transformations may take place.
The strength of practice-based research is the potential for the processes of creation and presentation to generate knowledge in the form of questions. Practice may yield work which demonstrates a conclusion, but the arts need not be primarily employed as a proof-of-concept or a final outcome resulting from other research method(s). I find myself most interested in art-making as question generator, which is to say, entering into a process of creation and presentation in order to clarify questions and generate further avenues of exploration which also include writing among possible forms of dissemination. In other words, creation as research, not necessarily creation to demonstrate or present the results of research. The digital humanities may also take this methodological approach from the arts and consider how to extend qualitative inquiry through practices which are themselves generative of questions rather than designed to answer questions.
As an example, in my own work with radio and transmission systems, I am constantly implicated in the construction, endurance, and collapse of unstable systems, which are prone to metamorphosis rather than functioning as representation. I engage in a hybrid, iterative research process. As a radio and transmission artist, I work with narrowcast and broadcast of multi-channel radio in studio, public space, and as installations; also working with live speculative radio theatre, and 'performed installations' to explore and think through operations of transception, embodiment, empathy, and resonance in wireless communications. In such works, often the creative action retains the status of experiment—in the sense of trying something out without knowing the outcome—rather than production.
My work takes place in an interdisciplinary conversation arising from the activities of a growing community of artists and media theorists committed to rethinking transmission (communications over distance), wirelessness, theories of media technology, and relations of power in the electro-magnetic spectrum. Contemporary transmission art critically engages with the social and material circumstances of wireless transmission and seeks to subvert the standardized or institutional approaches to broadcasting and ownership (state or corporate) of the airwaves. Such works demonstrate that transmission and communication operate in complex transmission ecologies as always already many-to-many fields of relationship.
The arts and digital humanities may methodologically influence one another, expanding the rubrics of questioning in the arts, while encouraging the digital humanities to exceed the logic of databases in favour of reflexive qualitative methods; mixing disciplines while remaining focused on actions rather than objects, outcomes, or genres of production.