»I think artistic research exists.« James McAllister
In the last two decades, arts-based research – also known as artistic research or arts research – has been a project discussed at ontological, epistemological and methodological levels. The basic proposition of this paper is that projects like our own Public Space 2.0 shall be valuable not only in terms of what has been discovered about a particular topic, but also in providing an interpretation of what the nature of arts-based research may be, what kinds of knowledge it may produce, and what methods it may appropriate. To that extent, it is my intention to unravel our investigation, particularly the prototypical investigation in which we developed a wearable artifact, in relation and as a contribution to the ongoing debate.
The role of the artifact
In related literature, we regularly come across three ways of relating arts and research, namely research on the arts, for the arts and in (and through) the arts. In the first one, the artifact is the object of the research, something to look at, to be placed in a setting, interpreted and evaluated. In the second one, the artifact is the goal, so the research outcome presents the technical and material means discovered on the
way to reach this goal. As it stands today, researchers seem to favor these first two ways. Both research on and for the arts allow for processes that are reproducible, repeatable, and suitable for systematic documentation. These qualities are shared by some legitimate research methods in other academic disciplines in the scopes of natural, social and applied sciences
and humanities. Hence, these two ways suggest a relative comfort in fulfilling existing academic evaluation criteria. However, art and design practices have not traditionally been seen as a stage for »systematic investigation aimed at contributing to knowledge of a theory.« This specific definition of the word ›research‹ appeared in English language for the first time only in the beginning of the 17th Century. The meaning of the word, moreover, has been loaded and continuously transformed by dominant scientific traditions over the last 400 years. Methods within the sciences also vary tremendously, thus assuming a unified notion of scientific research would be an error. Nevertheless, as it is generally agreed upon, what the word »research« habitually brings to mind are objective and empirical processes. Sticking to this particular connotation of ›research‹ initiates a mere adoption of scientific principles in arts-based research methods. Professedly, this tendency engenders a cultivation of art practices by evaluating them according to scientific criteria, in other words, a »scientification« of the arts. At this point, one should step back and ask if we even want such a transformative objective. Why should art-based research alter art practices for the sake of fulfilling inapplicable evaluation criteria? If anything good is expected to come out of arts-based research, should it not be found inherently embedded in the particular ways of those practices? To me, the third way – research in (and through) the arts – seems to have a greater potential in revealing the essential nature of arts-based research. As distinct to some of the allied accounts however, I would insist that this way does not necessarily have to exclude the above mentioned. Yet, projects should dare to question the deep-seated definitions of terms such as ›research‹ and ›knowledge‹ and rather explore what ›artistic ways of knowing‹ might be embedded in the ›artistic ways of doing‹ from various possible angles. Research in (and through) the arts, as described by Henk Borgdorff seeks to eliminate the distance between the researcher and the very creation of the artifact, hence requires the creators themselves to play immanent roles in the research process from a »performative« perspective. Only in this way, it is implied, arts-based research can distinguish
itself from the already well-grounded »interpretative« approaches that study art from a theoretical distance as in art history, literary criticism and musicology, or from the »instrumental« approaches in applied disciplines that seek to improve production processes as in hardware engineering, software development and materials research. As James McAllister puts it, »the research exists in the works of art themselves. The artworks are the things that embody distinctive knowledge about the world.« One of the issues at stake in our particular case, then, is to explore and expose what »knowledge« our wearable artifact embodies from a performative perspective.
The wearable artifact
To briefly recapitulate, the final prototype that we developed rests on the wearer’s shoulders and equips the wearer with environmental sensors and subtle body-stimulating actuators. The relationship between sensors and actuators is operated by a custom software inspired by the human psyche. Thereby, the artifact is capable of detecting and interpreting the recurring environmental patterns, translating them into a variety
of sound and tactile vibration combinations and augmenting the wearer’s intimate space during daily strolls through public places. As we stated elsewhere, we felt confronted with the underlying political frameworks reflected in merely top-down planning procedures as we studied architectural competition briefs and -applied design decisions concerning urban public places, both physical and electronic. Furthermore, we questioned whether these over-objectified constraints in fact corresponded to the subjective perception and experience of individuals that were increasingly geared with pervasive communication and media technologies. Thus, we started looking into ways of critically including the subjective view in our investigation. The initiation of the prototyping process was profoundly inspired by the Situationists’ approach at this point. In the late
1950s and in 1960s, the group Situationist International simultaneously worked in practical and theoretical domains and developed various techniques of intervention that made room for the often-overlooked subjective view. Referring to the Situationist dérive and psychogeography, the first prototype was conceptualized rather as a mapping tool that accompanied a researcher and augmented public space research. In brief, a shoulder bag contained the necessary hardware and software to gather immediate ›environmental data‹ (such as audio noise level, brightness, temperature, and wireless networks) whereas a smart-phone stored ›personal data‹ concerning all activities carried on by the wearer in information space (such as phone calls, SMS, and visited websites). Moreover, the gathered data could be accompanied with the wearer’s notes in the form of digital photographs and texts, allowing for the inclusion of personal understandings of circumstances. The wearer of this first prototype, who continuously logs various sorts of data retrieved from both the physical and virtual environments, is referred to as ›the agent‹. The agency originates in the very act of mapping. Maps are often taken to be true, objective and unbiased projections of reality. However, as James Turner asserts in The Agency of Mapping, all maps are in fact »fiction« by means of »selection,« »omission,« »isolation,« and »codification,« of factual observations. Consequently, »mapping is never neutral, passive or without consequence; on the contrary, mapping is perhaps the most formative and creative act of any design process, first disclosing and then staging the conditions for the emergence of new realities.« In other words, the first prototype, seemingly a mere practical instrument for empirical data collection, is in fact conceptualized as a subversive means for discovery and mindful articulation of hidden and tacit dimensions of daily public life. Going back to the discussion regarding possible roles of the artifact in arts-based research, one may specify diverse positions to approach this prototypical investigation. In one interpretative attempt for instance, the maps that were created by means of the first prototype may provide a valuable resource to demonstrate how subversive mapping might contribute to voicing theoretical criticism. But such attempts usually transform into scientific research, in which the artifact is treated like a mere piece of equipment for empirical data collection. From a performative perspective however, the very development process becomes valuable due to the enormous transformation that the artifact has undergone over a year period – and by this I do not refer to technical and material sophistication. The first prototype merely stored data to be interpreted by the wearer ›in retrospect‹ without giving the slightest hint in real-time. Gradually, it turned into a device that provided the wearer with nothing else than real-time feedback through embedded actuators. The final prototype has no facility of logging data whatsoever, a state that rendered the initial name of the artifact, »Data Logger,« utterly obsolete. Giving his well-known example of the child becoming a man, Bergson referred to a similar »absurdity« that was masked in the sentence »The child becomes a man.« He argued for bringing the transition in the front instead, as this transition was »the reality itself« which typically »has slipped between our fingers.« Likewise, the above mentioned two prototypes shall be considered as two possible stops in the research, whereas the research co-notes a continuous transition that corresponds to »becoming« in Bergsonian terms.
From knowledge to knowing
The evolution of our artifact, first and foremost, reflects a particular transformation of our research ideologies from a quest for ›propositional knowledge‹ to a quest for »embodied knowing«, borrowing the term from Mark Johnson. The first prototype suggests the researcher to articulate the collected data through consequent mapping with the hope for discovering facts that have not been considered before. According to Bachelard, in empirical thought reality is always »what we ought to have thought,« hence »we know against previous knowledge, when we destroy knowledge that was badly made.« To that extent, the first prototype illustrates our former objectives for achieving empirical thought, which in Bachelard’s view is only »clear in retrospect, when the apparatus of reason has been developed.« Looking at the final prototype however, it is evident how we gradually let go of paying attention to knowledge as a static collection of objective facts, but started favoring knowing as a continuous transformation in the individual. Arguing for an Embodied Knowing Through Art, the philosopher Mark Johnson puts forward a substantial argument by largely dwelling on John Dewey’s philosophy. In the Art as Experience, Dewey, first of all, sees experience as a result of continuous interactions of an organism and its environment. »The first great consideration is that life goes on in an environment; not merely in it but because of it, through interaction with it.« This interaction is stabilized most of the times, because of habits developed in the past. But, as Johnson rephrases Dewey, sometimes »…we fall out of harmony with our surroundings, and we feel this falling out as frustration, blockage, indeterminacy, and -inability to move forward fluidly. The problematic situation we find ourselves in can then be an occasion for inquiry, in which we must reconfigure our habitual patterns of behavior, in search of more constructive, expansive, and harmonious modes of action. In other words, we need to engage in forms of inquiry geared to the reduction of indeterminacy in our situation and geared to the achievement of a more constructive relation to our physical, social, and cultural surroundings.« Based on Dewey’s work Mark Johnson describes »knowing« as »a matter of cultivating appropriate habits of intelligent inquiry that allow us to more or less satisfactorily reconfigure our experience in the face of problematic situations.« Johnson asserts that art’s focus may be »the qualitative unity of the experience« whereas science deals with »casual relations and connections.« He states that gathering empirical facts might be incorporated in arts research, however it is not the primary objective. Such a clear distinction is in fact questionable considering contemporary transitive borders of art and science practices. Many artists provide examples contradictory to this assertion, even placing mere gathering of information central to the work. Yet, Johnson’s conclusive argument remains comprise such work. In his view, artistic exploration is research in the sense that it is an »ongoing inquiry aiming at the transformation of a problematic situation into one that is more harmonious, fluid, expansive and rich in meaning.«
The artist as ecologist
This prototypical investigation, furthermore, required the abandoning two fundamental stereotypes. The first one is the image of ›the researcher‹ as loaded by diverse scientific traditions, which I discussed above and will revisit through this text. The second one is the highly romanticized image of ›the artist‹ as a self-ruling genius that externalizes his or her internal world, expresses inner thoughts, feelings, values rashly through a medium. The mere expression of »not objective reality but rather the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse within a person,« is indeed an artistic style, however certainly not the only one. Interestingly enough, in debates concerning the incorporation of arts and research we tend to go back to this particular image of the artist and art making, which naturally transforms the question into a further puzzling one. It was already in the beginning of the 20th Century when art practices started to challenge this stereotypical image. First of all, far from being the withdrawn geniuses, artists gradually became more attentive to positioning their works ›within the world‹ reflexively in reference to their own work and to the art-world to begin with, but also in reference to the not art, to the everyday and mundane, to the social and the political, to world economics, to media technology and society, to public attitudes and cultural values, to concrete innovations and inventions in other fields, and so forth. Moreover, they started to let go of the idea of an ultimate art object as the only materialization of art practices. In many works, the ›process‹ superseded the ›outcome‹ and temporal notions such as observation and experimentation, as well as pre-programming of events, experiences, generative processes, actions and interactions became well-recognized strategies in art making. In Expanded Cinema (1970), Gene Youngblood observed a shift of positions of his contemporary artists from inventors to ecologists: »For some years now the activity of the artist in our society has been trending more toward the function of the ecologist: one who deals with environmental relationships. Ecology is defined as the totality or pattern of relations between organisms and their environment. Thus the act of creation for the new artist is not so much the invention of new objects as the revelation of previously unrecognized relationships between existing phenomena, both physical and metaphysical. So we find that ecology is art in the most fundamental and pragmatic sense, expanding our apprehension of reality.« The analogy of the ecologist brings about an alternative view to artistic practice. »In their broadest implications,« according to Youngblood, »art and science are the same.« Referring to Eddington’s famous definition of science, he argues that not only science but also art is an »attempt to set in order the facts of experience.« However, Youngblood differentiates, the artist does this by rather creating new languages for new and more complete understandings of old facts, instead of pointing at new facts. This is indeed an argument that has been outdated by artistic strategies of the last fifty years. Yet in the broadest sense, one is able to submit to the view that art practice is research, when there exists a precise inquiry into designing and perfecting experiences that would transform and expand our understanding of the world.
Wandering and wondering
The idea of the artist as ecologist is highly reminiscent of a particular type of art practice that emerged in the 1960s and 70s. In these attempts relevant to our work, the artist became an urban wanderer, whereas the artwork identified with the very act of engaging with the city in bodily ways. In works such as Kusama’s Walking Piece (1966), Acconci’s Following Piece (1969), and -Piper’s Catalysis series (1972–73) for instance, the artifact was not much the invention of a physical object but the precise designation of an ›unpredictable journey‹ through different design strategies. This specific position of the artist, interestingly enough, recalls the etymologic relation of the term ›research‹ to the Latin circare, meaning »to go about, to wander.« Wandering, lexically defined as »walking in a leisurely, casual, or aimless way,« has taken over additional conceptually significant meanings in cultural theories long before the politically charged milieu of 1960s and 70s. In the Ancient Greek for instance, wandering was a part of the practice of theôria undertaken by the theôros. Andrea W. Nightingale suggests that in theôria »wandering is translated into wondering.« Thinkers travelled abroad as researchers or tourists, for the purpose of detaching from their homeland for seeing the world. In the first and typical practice of theôria, the theôros was an official ambassador sent by his city on pilgrimages to festivals and specific events, in order to witness the spectacles. He was then required to return home with a report on what he has seen. But then, theôria was also practiced in private capacities. In this case, the theôros was merely a ›curious individual‹, eager to attain knowledge through wandering away from home and seeing the world. Both the private and civic theôria implied journeys that involve the detachment from home, wandering and witnessing, and finally returning to one’s own city. It was about getting out of the boundaries, seeing something foreign for oneself, and by the end, reaching a state that is different than of ones who stayed home. The practice of theôria therefore, emphasized some sort of transformation in the individual. The theôros »returns as a sort of stranger to his own kind« who eventually »possesses a divine perspective that is foreign to the ordinary man.« In the context of theôria, then, lingering within the boundaries of one’s home is inadequate for gaining knowledge, whereas wandering away is instrumental for progress. For the theôros, particularly for the Platonic philosopher, the spectacles that are seen during the wander are not completely something divine and different from him, but things that are also related to him in an intimate way. Yet, one gets to set free from the finitude of the pure familiar with each and every step, and initiates a progressive transformation of the environment as well as of the self.
Shaping wearable ecologies
The design of the final wearable prototype precisely corresponds to planning of a theôria. However, in this particular case the ›researcher‹ does not wander into unknown lands, but rather strolls in familiar places equipped with a wearable interface. The interface subtly reconfigures the wearer’s relationship with qualities of those places. It takes objective ambient data,
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digests it in its own ways, and then gives it back to the wearer in the form of intimate sensations. In doing this, the artifact is there in no manner to solve any problems as in conventional design approaches towards electronic gadgetry. On the contrary, it creates the problematic situations that might engender the process of knowing. This quality of the artifact recalls Jakob von Uexküll’s concept of the Umwelt, by positing the environment as a notion relative to the equipped individual. In the paper entitled A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men (1934), Uexküll introduces the Umwelt as the phenomenal world (the self-world) of an animal that encapsulates it like a soap bubble. Arguing that »every
animal, no matter how free in its movements, is bound to a certain dwelling-world, and it is one task of ecologists to research its limits,« he strongly contradicts the mainstream biological thought of his time. According to the biologist, investigators that explore animals with a mechanistic point of view commonly assume that all animals in the ecosystem share the same environment. However, he argues, the existence of a single shared world is simply a delusion and it makes us overlook the ›subject‹ as an element in our research. On the contrary, there is a necessity of making ›subjectivity‹ the main object of scientific method, since each animal in fact resides in a unique Umwelt »filled with the perceptions which it (the animal) alone knows.« The Umwelt is interpreted as »a lattice and network of ontological relations between organism and environment.« It is this network that brings the environment »to the level of the animal’s awareness, organizing it according to the animals need and desires, even hopes.« Uexküll’s Umwelt is rather fixed for each species, based on the assumption that some biological capacities of organisms hardly change over a lifetime. This subject-centered approach has been explored in adapted flexible manners in sociology of human-nature relationships, environmental psychology, anthropology, environmental ethics, the study of artificial life, and autonomous systems research. Uexküll seems to be negligent about the place of ›tools‹ in the human Umwelt in his writings, however perhaps unintentionally he has provided a philosophical stance that can be instrumentalized to seize upon them.
Public space as affordance
»There is no forest as a firmly objectively determined environment, but rather, there is only a forester-, hunter-, botanist-, stroller-, nature-lover-, lumberjack-, berry-collector-, and a fairy-tale-forest, in which Hansel and Gretel get lost.« Influenced by rooted traditions of scientific and philosophical realism, it is only natural that one habitually seeks for spatial phenomena such as ›public space‹ as pigeonholed in a shared objective world. Other contrasting views have adequately discussed the notion as linked to the phenomenological understanding of space, or to the assertion of space as a social product. Resonating Werner Sombart’s illustration of the forest however (which was quoted by Uexküll), our prototypical investigation has brought us to an alternative take concerning the notion of public space. Public space may be accounted as an »affordance« that precisely lies on the convergence of subjective interests, needs and desires of individuals and objective qualities of the environment. Coined by the ecological psychologist James Gibson in the 1970s, the term affordance connotes environmental properties with reference to the observer. Thus, public space as an affordance is neither physical nor phenomenal, but ecological, residing in the continuous human-environment contact. In the last two decades, professedly, there have been some apparent alterations in the nature of this contact. Mobile and wearable artifacts found their fundamental niche around the human body, accompanying that body even when on the move, assigning it constantly with private computing and communication capacities. Sociologists studied implications of such technologies in daily social practice. On the one hand, they are seen as positively liberating since individuals carry their network of connections to wherever they go, which arguably »frees people from spatial fixity.« On the other hand, they are taken as threats to chances of social interaction, observing that people in public places use their mobile devices to interact with people they already know (»chosen socialness«) rather than interacting with strangers that are in physical proximity (»chance socialness«). Such accounts, which either celebrate technological artifacts as means for potential improvements of public interactions or encounter them with some sort of nostalgia for former significances of public space, seem to miss an essential point from an ecological perspective. From this view, it may not be possible to capture public space ›in isolation‹. Hence, neither can it be ›improved‹ nor ›lost‹ without the slightest transformation in its essence. Artifacts like ours as well as quotidian mobile technologies are then not mere ›extensions‹ inserted in a predetermined public space. They intervene and efficiently transform what being in public space means. In stating this, my intention is by no means arguing for a theoretical stance that is ideally more appropriate than others. It is rather meant to be a constructive proposition that might make larger room for art and design perspectives to explore the notion of public space in their own fashion. Affordance as a concept clearly suggests that environments constrain what individuals can do. But at the same time it implies that these constraints can be altered to certain extents. Hence, this view makes it more possible for critical thoughts concerning ›how things are‹ and ›why they are like that‹ to be accompanied with more speculative dialogues on ›how else they could be‹ and ›how they should or may become‹. But more importantly, regarding public space as an affordance would allow us to generate alternative paths to conventional design thinking. John Thackara once stated that »things may seem
out of control – but they are not out of our hands.« This transformative and constructive drive has always been central to art and design practices. As designers and artists we know (and hope) that things can change. However, at the face of problematic situations we often choose to cultivate what we assume as being the environment. By placing public space as an affordance within the complementary relationship of the human and the environment, we may as well place emphasis on designing exploratory artifacts with the intention to transform ourselves. To conclude, arts-based research may show that bringing new perspectives and critical stances to ideologies does not necessarily have to be under the sway of pure theory. Instead of being taken as a complication that puts researchers in a quandary, the current lack of predefined criteria may as well be celebrated as an opportunity to question what is usually considered as legitimate research, credible experiment or valuable knowledge. Should new projects continue to be granted with the chance to devise new perspectives, arts-based research might become another reflexive practice that allows unpredicted ways of self-understanding.
(Accessed on 01 February 2012) (Accessed on: 01 February 2012)  Youngblood, Gene, Expanded Cinema. New York: P. Dutton & Co. 1970. p. 346  Expanded Cinema, 1970. p. 70  Eddington quoted in Youngblood 1970. p. 70  »Search.« Online Etymology Dictionary. Available at: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=search (Accessed on: 01 February 2012)  Nightingale, Andrea W., Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy: Theoria in Its Cultural Context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. 2004, p. 12  Nightingale, Andrea W., »On Wandering and Wondering: ›Theôria‹ in Greek Philosophy and Culture, Arion, Third Series 9:2. Fall, 2001. pp. 23–58  Spectacles of Truth, 2004. p. 5  Greek Philosophy, 2001. p. 47  Uexküll, Jakob von, »A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds«, in Semiotica 89:4. 1992 pp. 319–91 (Originally published in Instinctive Behaviour. Madison: International Universities Press. 1957. pp. 5–80.)  Uexküll, Jakob von, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans: With A Theory of Meaning. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. 2010. p. 139  A Foray into the Worlds, 1992. p. 319  Deely, John. »Semiotics and Jakob von Uexküll’s concept of Umwelt«, in Sign Systems Studies 32: ½, 2004. p. 29  Sign Systems Studies 32, 2004, p. 29  Werner Sombart, On the Human Being, 1938, quoted in von Uexküll 2010. p. 142  Gibson, James, »The Theory of Affordances«, in The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 1986. pp. 127–146  Urry, John, Mobilities. Cambridge: Polity Press. 2007. pp. 174–75  Fortunati, Leopoldina, »The Mobile Phone: Towards New Categories and Social Relations«, in Information, Communication & Society 5:4. 2002. p. 516  Thackara, John, In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2006. p. 1