Art as research, research as art?

Two stories in the past two weeks have got me thinking more about what is an ongoing and fascinating debate between those in the research ethics world and the art world. When is art research? And when is research art? I certainly don’t claim to have a definitive answer nor, arguably, do the Canadian federal guidelines. Many people engaged in the review of human participant research across Canada are thinking and talking about this. The discussions usually revolve around the difficulty of defining just what is research and what is art and trying to draw what is often an artificial line between the two.

Many artists, obviously, are deeply concerned with the way that the public reacts to their work, whether it’s visual, auditory or highly interactive, like Cildo Meireles’ work, as described below in The New York Times and pictured above. This amounts to a kind of research as in essence, visual artists want to know why someone is compelled to gaze at a particular painting or photograph or why a specific image compels someone more than another. For many artists, the visceral, emotional or lasting emotional reactions of others is a deeply important component of the evolution of their work and their development as an artist. But is the exploration of how people experience art research? Some would say, yes.

Institutions like the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto have newly formed research ethics boards to review research projects. But one of the most important first — and likely, ongoing — challenges will be to decide what’s art and what’s research.

The point of having an ethics review board is to protect human participants and to ensure a fair balance between risk and benefit in research.

Sometimes, art too, involves risk.

Here are two stories that highlight, at least to some degree, that there may be risks involved in art and the experience of appreciating art.

From CBC News: Artist fined over inflatable artwork that killed 2

A British artist whose inflatable artwork blew away killing two women who were inside has been fined the equivalent of $17,800 after being convicted of offences under the Health and Safety Act…In July 2006, a sculpture the size of a football field that was anchored in a County Durham park broke free from its moorings, carrying several people with it. Two women died and 13 people were injured, including a three-year-old who fell from the sculpture and was saved by a passing doctor.

From The New York Times: In Barcelona, Conceptual Art by Cildo Meireles

After all, how many contemporary art exhibitions require visitors to sign not one but two waivers releasing the museum from any responsibility for personal injury? Several of the artist’s installations, which fall into the broad category of conceptual art, call on the visitor to participate in the artistic experience. In the end, there is likely little risk of harm but considerable likelihood for enjoyment and perhaps even a bit of revelation. Assuming one is properly shod, walking on a sea of broken glass produces a crackling concert of sounds as the seemingly endless layers of glass bits crunch and snap under foot. It is equally unsettling to walk into a darkened room and instantly recognize the distinct odor of natural gas permeating the air, as in the work “Volatile” (1980-1994). The fake gas smell however fails to stop virtually anyone from continuing further into the room, where those who are willing can have some fun trying to move around in a separate chamber that has been packed ankle deep with talcum powder (rubber boots and masks are provided).

Having risk involved in viewing or experiencing art doesn’t make it research or in need of a research ethics review. Certainly not. But it changes the way we think about the experience of taking in an exhibit if we are asked to sign a consent form outlining risk. It does raise issues of oversight — who has ensured that there is enough glass on the floor to make the exhibit engaging versus cutting through a canvas running shoe? In some ways, many complain that we live in a far too insulated and regulated world and that risk — or what is left of risk — is exaggerated and overemphasized. In many cases, I’d agree. (Furthermore, the notion of risk is seen very differently by those in different worlds. In the art world, ‘risk-taking’ may be seen as innovative and encouraged but that’s something far different than exposing people to physical harm). However, in the first case above, the safety of the exhibit and potential physical risk to visitors was clearly much more than what anyone assessed.

Arugably, how we experience the world is what most social science researchers, regardless of their discipline, want to observe and better understand. How we experience art is one way of how we interact with, experience and interpret the world around us. Does the examination or study of such reactions turn artists into researchers? Does it make a difference if there is some kind of potential risk or possible harm involved? I think the only way we’ll move forward here is not by seeking definitive “one size fits all” kind of answers but rather by openly sharing experiences and subsequent decisions (ethics review boards and artists together) and building, in essence, a shared and iterative body of cases based on real-life decisions to which those seeking some guidance can refer.

Here is a link to the SSWHC document, prepared for the <a href="
” target=”_blank”>Canadian Panel on Research Ethics (PRE) entitled: Research Involving Creative Practices: A Chapter for Inclusion in the TCPS

~ by Nancy Walton on March 31, 2009.

2 Responses to “Art as research, research as art?”

  1. The PRE working group document you refer was not included in the Draft 2nd edition of the TCPS – so this discussion has largely (and thankfully) become moot. And the examples cited are problems involving institutional risk, not research ethics.

  2. Thanks for your comment. Yes, the SSHWC working group document was not included in the draft 2nd edition – but I’m not sure I agree that the discussion has, thankfully, been left behind to some degree. I think that there are some contexts in which the discussion is, rightfully, still quite active. And should be. The examples cited, as I noted, are unique. I also noted that the involvement of risk doesn’t necessarily mean something is, therefore, research or necessitating research ethics review. I did note that “oversight” or lack thereof, was the issue in one of the cases -in which 2 persons died. (In the other case, the Cildo Meireles exhibits, the exhibitors provide waivers/consent forms to all visitors and clearly address the notion of risk.) I’m also not stating that these are “research ethics” issues, simply issues that are part of a worthwhile larger discussion.

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