Artistic Research

Published on by Catherine Toulsaly

Let’s be clear: creative artistic thinking is neither a creative technique nor about painting pictures or making sculptures. This is a preconception we must get rid of. Creativity is not a prisoner of art. Rather, artistic thinking can take place anywhere, in any mind, in any discipline, and any area of life. It’s an attitude of turning towards an open, fluid matrix of possibilities.

Ursula Bertram

Detail from Lacaille's 1756 Planisphere

Detail from Lacaille's 1756 Planisphere

We occupy the surface of a tiny speck in the Virgo Supercluster, an appendage of the Laniakea Supercluster, where birds’ whistles cover the faint hum of gravitational waves and the ground tremors of volcanoes, all increasing our sense of connection with the Universe.  From this vantage point, Nicolas Louis de Lacaille saw in the Southern Sky what he named the Sculptor’s studio that he drew on his planisphere like a carved head on a tripod table, and a mallet and two chisels on the side. Within the constellation lies the Sculptor Galaxy — NGC 253 — discovered by the German-British astronomer Caroline Herschel in 1783. In the same part of the celestial sky, there’s the Sculptor Void next to the South Pole Wall. 


The sculptor void is filled with the artist’s doubts. Research takes multiple forms: art, science, philosophy, language. Arts, including poetry which is an art form, started as terrain of research, but creativity has spilled over the arts’ domain. Each discovery pushes away our self-imposed constraints. Scientists, artists, and philosophers alike are searchers, “best at asking questions than at answering them”,  poised to pause and reflect in the face of the unknown as if their simmering brain could slowly soften the toughest puzzles that the Universe has to give. 


Research requires an insatiable urge of knowing. It implies the need to keep going and proceed from one item to the next. One theme ceases and another begins, all parts of the same assemblage, and so creating a body of work. Such a “territorial assemblage” requires the dismantling of frontiers, the deterritorializing of space that engulfs a series of items, thoughts, ideas, concepts all meant to support and articulate the unspoken narrative inside the researcher’s head. The method that is being used is what I would call (for lack of a better word) the presentification of an anteriority while the goal, for the artist-researcher in particular, isn’t appropriation but the peripatetic assemblage of a space of feelings.

The artist as researcher will have to find an equilibrium between context and discourse, between theory and practice, between personal expression and the rigorous nature of research, and between operating on the margins of artistic practice and appropriating the tools and criteria that already exist in science.

Kathleen Coessens, Darla Crispin, Dr. Anne Douglas, The Artistic Turn: A Manifesto

While artists feel the presence of the indicible, science only considers that which can be expressed. Through arts we feel the connections outside and inside of us. Intuition is what helps us navigate within those terrestrial and cosmic influences. To create requires “some intimation of what it is that will be created; this intimation springs in part from collective, prior experience but also requires some personal, intuitive spark to prime the act of stepping beyond that prior knowledge.” (1). It isn’t just something within ourselves seeking outward manifestation, it is a two-way mirror, a flow inward and outward. 


Research starts small, then expands its reach. It provides a resonance box to one’s inner voice. It calls for mingling with ideas, concepts and putting them together, and seeing how they fit. Artistic research is, even more, an experimental process. The contours and content may be termed as rhizomatic as the artist-researcher goes down the rabbit trail, making endless connections because the act of creation is intrinsically an act of “testing out the intimations and speculations”. In the process, some preliminary thoughts will run their course naturally while others will enter a dormant stage.


In the end, the lines between the state of not yet knowing and knowing are blurred as if our senses are closed off, brushing off the indicible feeling. As much as we wish to gain more knowledge, we remain clueless about how much is left for us to learn, the extent of our ignorance. Research becomes a cave in which the mind crawls on its knees and digs deeper with its bare hands. We feel time pressure, but time only whispers in our ears: “You are not alone. I keep you company.”


An artist-researcher is not different from a child in the dark who “orients himself with his little song as best he can” in the heart of what may be considered a disorganized system of thoughts, an improvisation. Such an improvisation, however, could lead to the “threshold of a territorial assemblage”. Research guides us in narrowing down “the right questions to ask and the right order to ask them in” (2). It allows the researcher to know what is known and what is unknown and figure out what can be known or what is still needed to be known.


Sometimes such a disorganized system of thoughts may revolve around “an immense black hole in which one endeavors to fix a fragile point as a center. Sometimes one organizes around that point a calm and stable pace (rather than a form): the black hole has become a home. Sometimes one grafts onto that pace a breakaway from the black hole” (3). But for an artist-researcher, it is not only being at home in a black hole. It is trying to find out how it feels like to be a black hole, to be nothingness


Behind what drives an artist-researcher is the inescapable urge to experience, to identify oneself with the subject at hand and see how it feels. The routes to that which is not there bring me to the tale of the true horizon and the illusory horizon of a black hole. The illusory horizon is said to be the holographic screen of the black hole for both outsiders and insiders, encoding for each observer the states hidden behind their illusory horizon.

Artistic Research

When an observer free-falls through the horizon of the black hole, they fall through the true horizon, not the illusory horizon. The true horizon becomes visible to the observer only after the observer has passed through it. The illusory horizon continues to appear ahead of the observer even after they have passed through the true horizon.

Andrew J. S. Hamilton

If I were a scow or a barge
At the end of a creaking rope,
Beautiful slow river,
I would go down to your provinces.

If I were a quiet drowned,
I would go between two waters,
Looking for some island
Where to fall asleep in the reeds.

Carolina poplar,
I would spread with a gentle gesture
My thin shadow
On the flat and smooth waves.

Moonbeam or dead leaf,
I would like, light and dancing,
That you take me away
See other countries in passing.

But what am I, if not a poet
(Suffice to say a heart full of boredom),
my cigarette
Lighting me alone in the night?

Jean de La Ville de Mirmont, L'horizon chimérique

The loss of objectivity threatens us all and the lure of an illusory horizon poses a risk to the researcher’s endeavors. As the reference points of a theory of everything appear to move and displace themselves over time, how will I know that I pass through the true horizon? “Is there a compass from which” I could deduce the ‘True North’ of my quest? Am I chasing the illusory horizon? 


Research resembles a free fall, a plunge into deep waters, an act of direct carving not of stone but of a bundle of ideas and concepts. ’The breath of the Void’ describes the trajectory of the creative act during stone carving when the space occupied by the stone merges past, present, and future: what it was, what it is, and what it will be. Researchers are like carvers who struggle to see forms breaking out of the mass of knowledge. Tomorrow highlights yesterday’s steps. Another mile marker on the itinerary map… 

In those days, though, I never analysed
Myself even. All analysis comes late.
You catch a sight of Nature, earliest,
In full front sun-face, and your eyelids wink
And drop before the wonder of ‘t; you miss
The form, through seeing the light. I lived, those days,
And wrote because I lived–unlicensed else:
My heart beat in my brain. 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, First Book

(1) Kathleen CoessensDarla CrispinDr. Anne Douglas, The Artistic Turn: A Manifesto

(2) Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell

(3) Gilles DeleuzeFélix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus


The Fragility Within (Inner fragility is specific to stone. It is also a common trait of people and nations.)

The Fragility Within (Inner fragility is specific to stone. It is also a common trait of people and nations.)

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