Art, Fieldwork and the Academy

Who says I’m not a writer or an architect or anything? Who has the authority to decide these things? […] Honestly, I am a fraud, I’m an outsider in all these fields, but this gives me the liberty to work subjectively. Truth and accuracy are not my concerns. If an academic would work with fiction in this way, it would be dishonest, wrong even, whereas you’d be a fool to trust an artist in the first place. (Simon Fujiwara (2009) quoted in Rachel Wetzler (2012) “The Art of Fieldwork”, rhizome.org)

This mention of fraud leads me to rethink my understanding of the contemporary artistic concern with fieldwork.

It occurs to me that I have got everything wrong, that I have been taken in by the slogans and hoardings, accepting that contemporary fieldwork is all about representing relations beyond art and beyond conventional artistic disciplines when actually precisely the opposite is at stake.

Fieldwork is quite possibly less about opening up experimental relations to an expansive field than about securing a very focused relation to a specific institution – the academy. It is a means of demonstrating that artists engage in some order of faintly reputable research. They have a method. This method, like the scientific method involves two attitudes – one that is scholarly, reflective and withdrawn (occurring in library, laboratory or studio) and one that is outward looking and methodical (fieldwork).

I did a quick Google search to see if I could find anything written about the artistic method of the Impressionists, expecting that somebody would describe their plein air method as a form of fieldwork, but found next to nothing written on the topic. At least initially it would seem that the notion of fieldwork is tied much more to traditions of natural and social scientific research than to traditions of artistic research. Arguably, fieldwork appears now as one among a number of ways of rationalising the relatively recent paradigm of art as research (and art as researcher), which is significantly more about pursuing new forms of artistic patronage than it is about establishing any essential link between artistic practice and scholarly scientific research. Not that parallels can’t be drawn between art and science, not that the two are not and can’t ever be intimately related, simply that the motivation for pushing so strongly for this research based conception of artistic practice is indicative of fundamental dilemmas affecting the position of art in contemporary society. In order to take residence within its new academic institutional home art must find means of adhering roughly to the rules – and that means demonstrating some proper capacity for research.

Yet this produces all kinds of tensions and paradoxes. In the quote above, for instance, Fujiwara at once signals this broader orientation of art – the contemporary tendency to pursue fieldwork under all manner of non-artistic disciplinary guises – but at the same time distinguishes it from properly academic approaches, which he suggests have a dedicated concern with truth. Art, on the contrary, has an irresponsible relation to discourses of disciplinary authority; it plays with them, it wears them as masks, it tells all manner of lies. The artistic fieldworker is an outsider who cannot be trusted, who can be trusted only within the realm of subjective fiction.

So what is it that artistic fieldwork represents? Is there a mode of fieldwork that is properly artistic? Is it linked to representational traditions that involve aspects of observation, sampling and note-taking? Or is it linked to the tradition of art and everyday life experimentation? Possibly, but something else is evident as well – less a native conception of ‘artistic fieldwork’ than a deliberate effort to seek out models from elsewhere, in this case social scientific models of fieldwork. The notion of fieldwork gains prominence as art reconsiders its ontology and epistemology in a new institutional context.

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