Critical Reflection on Major Research Project
The following text constitutes a critical reflection on the work I have done towards the Major Research Project component of the MA Contemporary Art Theory course. In the first chapters I outline my Thesis and describe my Research Methods, and give a brief overview of my research outcomes; in the following three chapters I describe in more detail my Literature Review, WORKSITE Case Studies, Research Development and Research Outcomes, and in the final section I offer some Conclusions on the project. Additional materials – including links to all of my Research Outcomes – can be found in the Reference List and Appendices.
During this Research Project, I have been attempting to explore various issues pertaining to the nature of work and site as they relate to contemporary art practice, with a particular focus on the notion of “the studio” and role that it plays in artistic production. This is in part an extension of the work that I did as part of last semester’s Curating course, and in particular the final outcome for that project – the website / blog WORKSITE – which has proven to be a valuable resource and inspiration for my current work.
The central proposition of this current project is that site can be seen to represent not just a mere “space” within which work takes place; but rather, can be reinterpreted as a kind of nonhuman “actor” which directly influences the work produced there. It is my view that this influence is enacted by means of enabling constraints which determine what is possible within a given environment, and which constitute one half of a productive dialogue between artist and site.
I believe that this is a valuable research topic, as the notion of site as an “actor” has received little attention in contemporary art literature, while paradoxically theories of “the studio” are abundant. Therefore my thesis is located at the site of a gap in knowledge, and by taking steps toward filling this gap I hope that I will be able to propose a novel way of approaching artistic practice – one that foregrounds the dialogue between artist and site and which reframes limitations as “enabling constraints”.
My intention is that this research will broaden the scope for more sensitive and diverse ways of working, and I feel that my findings may be of particular benefit to those artists who make work outside of conventional “studio” spaces, or who otherwise feel overly “constrained” by their own circumstances.
I have approached my research through three main methods – which are outlined briefly below, and are each described in more detail in the following three chapters.
Firstly, I conducted a literature review which gave me a broad overview of the themes of work and site, as well as other relevant topics including the studio and artistic practice. As my project developed – and my reading became more specific – I began to look at more specialised topics such as site-specificity and the notion of enabling constraints. I chose to use this research method as I believed that – given the wealth of resources available in both the university library and online – a period of focused reading would allow me to quickly discern the relationships and gaps between different topics, in effect mapping the context of my research theme and therefore allowing me to begin developing ideas for further work.
Following the literature review, the second research method I chose involved conducting a detailed review of the work produced for last semester’s Curating course. I chose this method partly because my Curating project explored similar themes to that of this Major Research Project, and can be seen as something of a precursor to my current work. The main outcome of my Curating project was a publicly accessible website / blog which invited a small number of artists to fill out a short questionnaire on their own work and work sites, and to contribute images or other documentation of work they had produced and which they felt was relevant to the theme. By revisiting this content – armed with new insights gleaned from my literature review – I was able to further develop my central thesis.
The third and final research method I chose was a practice-based development of my research, which culminated in the “outcome” of my research process. I chose a practice-based method because as I developed my thesis – informed by both my literature review and the case studies outlined above – I began to consider how I might articulate my ideas in an accessible and useful format. Ultimately I concluded that the best way to do this would be through practice, so I decided to produce a hybrid “manifesto” / “workbook” which reframed the thesis as a series of questions which the reader could use to better discern – and leverage – the “enabling constraints” of their own particular “work site”. The content of this small publication is illustrated throughout with the work of the original WORKSITE contributors, and is now available as both an online (or “print-at-home”) resource as well as a hard-copy “artists booklet”.
Prior to starting my literature review, I began my project by generating a series of questions pertaining to the broad themes I was interested in. Examples of these initial prompts include “what is understood as ‘conventional’ and ‘unconventional’ in regards to artistic work and/or site?”; “what constitutes a studio or work site?”; “how do practical limitations both positively and negatively impact artistic work?”; and “in what ways can constraint be employed as an artistic strategy?” Making this list allowed me to both focus my ideas and identify key words and concepts which I could then use to find relevant resources. (Coatham 2022).
The first text I approached for my literature review was Daniel Buren’s 1971 essay The Function of the Studio. In this influential text, Buren argues the “primary importance” of the artist’s studio as “the unique space of production”, before describing in detail two specific types of studio (the “European type”, and the “American type”). Buren goes on to describe the “unspeakable compromise” of the studio as being that:
when the work is in place [that is, in the studio], it does not take place (for the public), while it takes place (for the public) only when not in place, that is, in the museum. (Buren 1971).
For Buren, the artwork is only “in place” while it remains in the studio, meaning that when it leaves the studio, it is removed from its context and thus “lost”. I found this idea interesting, especially in relation to practices such as installation and site-specific art, which would each appear to require removal from the studio in order to function – quite the opposite of Buren’s thesis. I was also interested in how Buren’s argument would apply to forms of practice which are less object-based – such as performance – or that leverage multiplication, versioning or redistribution as part of their functioning as works. (Buren 1971).
Further reading allowed me to consider the implications of these ideas in more depth. For example, in her 2015 essay The Need for Space in Art Practice, Ruth Solomons argues that a painting “when relocated to a different site […] communicates something about the space of the studio” in which it was made, thereby “indexing” the process and site of its making. This is an interesting counter to Buren’s thesis, as it proposes a possible (even necessary) connection between the conditions of the studio and the nature of the outcomes that are made there – without suggesting that this is a self-defeating or otherwise negative association . (Solomons 2015).
Solomons goes on to suggest that constraints such as a “lack of space” in which to work “may lead to a situation where the artist becomes increasingly resourceful and adaptive”. This led me to think more about the potential positive effects of constraint, and I also began to consider the more complex relationships between the artist, the conditions of their work site, and the ways in which each might be “indexed” in any resulting work. (Solomons 2015).
Further reading on “the studio” highlighted the disparities between historical expectations of the studio environment and the realities that face the contemporary artist. In the essay Studio Unbound (2010), Lane Relyea describes the transition of the studio away from “an ideological frame that mystifies production” and toward a mere node in a network which “privileges itinerancy and circulation over fixity” and “diminishes hierarchies and boundaries in favour of mobility and flexibility across a more open, extensive environment”. (Relyea 2010).
Katy Siegel’s essay Live/Work (2010) was similarly critical of the current state of the studio, suggesting that this site was once a place “closer to the original meaning of the studio apartment” – a “single room for a single person” where “the occupant does everything in the same room – sleeping, eating and ‘living’”. Siegel argues that the architecture of this small space freed the occupant from “the rigid social divisions that usually order daily life”. In comparison, the contemporary studio is more of a cross between the sweatshop and the office cubicle, where “work is split from living” and where making art “takes on many of the attendant pressures of ‘real’ professional or wage labour work”. (Siegel 2010).
As well as researching “the studio” as both a concept and a space of production, I also began to look at artists who had in some way attempted to bridge the gap between the studio and the domestic space, or between work and life. The work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles was particularly relevant in this regard, and her 1969 Manifesto for Maintenance Art caused me to consider the impact – and potential value – in material constraints:
clean your desk, wash the dishes, clean the floor, wash your clothes, wash your toes, change the baby’s diaper, finish the report, correct the typos, mend the fence, keep the customer happy, throw out the stinking garbage, watch out don’t put things in your nose, what shall I wear, I have no sox, pay your bills, don’t litter, save string, wash your hair, change the sheets, go to the store, I’m out of perfume, say it again–he doesn’t understand, seal It again–it leaks, go to work, this art is dusty, clear the table, call him again, flush the toilet, stay young. (Ukeles 1969).
With Ukeles’ assertion that “Everything I say is Art is Art. Everything I do is Art is Art”, the boundaries between art and non-art, and between work and life are blurred, with art becoming a matter of perception. The daily tasks listed in the above quotation would be seen by many as constraints, or obstacles that stand in the way of making work. However, after Ukeles’ theory of Maintenance Art, we might reframe these constraints as enabling; as the very stuff that allows us to make work in the first place. (Ukeles 1969).
At this point in my project, I began to consider how I might find out more about the impact of constraints on artistic practice, and I ultimately decided that the WORKSITE blog I started during last semester’s Curating course would be an interesting source of research material. My experience of re-reading the WORKSITE content is described in detail in the following section.
WORKSITE Case Studies
The WORKSITE blog I started during last semester was at its core “a blog about work” that aimed to explore “the ways in which we work, and the spaces in which work is performed” and “to function as a resource for all those interested in the particulars of WORK and/or SITE”. The site’s content consisted primarily of artists’ responses to a short Q&A which I had asked them to fill out, and most posts also included images and other documentation of the artists’ work. The Q&A asked questions such as “what is your definition of the term ‘work’?” and “what are the limitations or parameters of your work?”, and I received a diverse range of responses from the ten individuals who agreed to take part. (WORKSITE 2022, a & b).
Some respondents – such as sculptor Joel Davidson – alluded to the complications of working within a domestic space, alongside pets and other family members. I began to think about the potential value that could be found in “highlighting” the “enabling constraints” of the domestic space, and perhaps finding a way of incorporating these aspects more explicitly as
part of the work produced. Indeed, some artists – like Priya Peña – chose to more explicitly highlight the constraints of the domestic setting, through focusing their work on a specific space within their home (in Peña’s case, the bathroom). (WORKSITE 2022. c & d).
James Shannon’s responses to the Q&A noted the “subconscious” influence of his environment on his work, an idea echoed in Sam Dybeck’s suggestion that working a day job at a bakery might “enrich” his studio practice by providing “insights that other artists wouldn’t have because they are not in the position to have to work a 9 to 5 in order to make ends meet.”. To me these insights suggested that a “site” could in fact be an “actor”, and that art practice could constitute a relationship of exchange – a kind of “dialogue” or “collaboration” – between artist and site. (WORKSITE 2022, e & f).
Contributor Aimée McCallum argues that “the site’s connotations can inform, inspire and change the concept of the work” though adds that “not all artists will choose to use the site to inform the work”. However, while not all artists would choose to have a site explicitly “inform” their work, some certainly do – as in the case of James Shannon, who – in his second contribution to the site – describes how he made drawings on scraps of paper using coffee while working in a cafe. This example – and the “enabling constraints” it implies – provides further evidence for the potential positive impact of constraints on creative practice. (WORKSITE 2022, g & h).
Julian Smith writes that for him, site “has a direct correlation with the size, shape and often the frequency of what I make” adding that “the space, and the materials already in it or brought in have a direct effect on the finished product”. Smith goes on to suggest that the relationship between work and site “feels like sometimes It’s similar to water taking the shape of whatever it is contained in”. This to me implies that the activities of the artist are – to some extent – determined by the site in which they work, and the resources available there. Again, this idea has a clear relevance to the notion of “enabling constraints”. (WORKSITE 2022, i)
Another interesting contribution to the site was that of Andrew Gannon, who wrote of his work occupying a kind of “perceived site” generated by the social expectations of – and reaction to – limb difference. In his own words:
As someone with a congenital limb difference the perceived absence of a limb which never existed is often present in the mind of others. […] Arguably, the whole prosthetics industry is built on the idea of fixing broken soldiers, replacing lost parts, and this is mapped onto people born differently. (WORKSITE 2022, h).
He adds that “for better or worse, the site that my prosthesis occupies is a social projection”, suggesting that the constraints of a “site” might be as much socially constructed – or conceptual – as they are the physical attributes or functions of the immediate environment. (WORKSITE 2022, j).
Following both my Literature Review and WORKSITE Case Studies, I decided that I should produce a Research Outcome which reflected the findings of my research in a way that would be useful and accessible to others. I initially thought of writing a kind of “manifesto” or essay which would articulate my thesis; however after some deliberation I decided that a better approach would be to produce some kind of “workbook” that others could use to “diagnose” the “enabling constraints” of their own artistic practice.
In order to better understand my options for how to approach this task, I began to research the work of artists who had in the past produced publications similar to that which I had in mind. The first such publication I looked at was Seth Price’s 2002 work Dispersion, which is “an artwork in the form of an art historical essay” which “was released in various formats and versions over many years” and “was deeply engaged with the net” though “specifically addressed the contemporary art system”. Published versions of Dispersion include “pages on Price’s website, widely circulated PDFs, print publications, and sculptural objects”. (NET ART ANTHOLOGY: Dispersion (n.d.).
In (the 2007 PDF version of) Dispersion, Price likens “production” to “the excretory phase in a process of appropriation”. I began to consider the ways in which my own research product might constitute an “excretion” of that which I have “appropriated” throughout this project – including the work and words of the original WORKSITE contributors. As the WORKSITE content had played such a large part in my research process, it felt appropriate that I should “appropriate” some of that content for use in my Research Outcome. (Price 2007).
The second artists’ publication I looked at was Lawrence Weiner’s short booklet Statements (1968). In Statements, Weiner articulates sculptural forms by means of pithy, typewritten sentences which are more suggestive of instructions for works rather than of works in and of themselves; examples include “one sheet of plywood secured to the floor or wall” and “one standard dye marker thrown into the sea”. (Weiner 1968).
A Statement of Intent Weiner wrote in the same year asserted that:
(1) The artist may construct the piece. (2) The piece may be fabricated. (3) The piece may not be built. [Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.]. (The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation 2022).
I began to wonder if I could borrow Wiener’s approach, by addressing my audience directly and in a similarly direct and to-the-point manner. I was also attracted to the design of Weiner’s publication, and wondered if this too could be something I could use in my own work.
Another publication which informed the development of my Research Outcome was Sol LeWitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art (1968), Originally published as “felt-tip pen on fifteen sheets of paper (one with pencil and ballpoint pen)” and well as “felt-tip pen on three postcards” and “felt-tip pen on letterpress card”, Sol LeWitt’s Sentences are a hand-written document that outline the artist’s thoughts on the making of art during the era of “conceptual art”. (MoMA.org 2022).
LeWitt’s text opens with the assertions that “conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists”, and that “they leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach”. In this way LeWitt begins with a statement that is almost counterintuitive – likening the seemingly dry intellectualism of conceptual art to that which is “illogical” and even “mystical”. I found this contrast to be interesting, and again began to wonder how I might use this strategy in my Research Outcome. (LeWitt 1968).
Following the additional research into artists’ publications described above, I began a process of generating potential content for use in the publication I wanted to produce as a Research Outcome. I knew that I wanted the content to consist primarily of questions that would prompt the reader to consider their “enabling constraints”, though I also wanted to include images and other references to the WORKSITE project that had been my main source of inspiration for this work.
The end products of this process of development – the WORKSITE WORKBOOKS and WORKSHEET – are reproduced in their entirety in the appendices to this document. The 24-page, full-colour, illustrated WORKBOOK (Appendix 1) is the main outcome of my project, and represents what I think is the most “complete” version of the WORKBOOK.This document is illustrated throughout with images and text sourced from the original WORKSITE blog, and is intended to be used as a “working document” in which the reader/user can make lists, write notes and otherwise reflect on the prompts in the text. I have tried to structure the questions of the text in a manner which gradually encourages the reader to reframe the “constraints” of their practice as “enabling” – and in this way my approach is not unlike that of a self-help or cognitive-behavioural-therapy coach who tries to change the “mindset” of their audience from “negative” to “positive” through a process of careful direction.
As well as this most “complete” version of the WORKBOOK I have also produced two alternative versions. The 12-page, grayscale, text-only version (Appendix 2) is intended to be cheaper and easier to print – though it still retains the “workbook” format with space to take notes – while the WORKSHEET version (Appendix 3) is more convenient still, having all of the questions formatted onto a single page.I feel like the publication of these two additional versions serve to make the project more accessible, and thus more likely to be of value to a range of different people.
Finally, I have made all three versions of the WORKBOOK available to freely download and print-at-home via both my University Portfolio and the original WORKSITE blog. By making this resource freely available, there is more chance of it becoming a useful resource to others, and perhaps even to me – should I be lucky enough to get any feedback from those who have used or accessed it.
Overall, I am happy with my performance during this project, and I feel that I have learned a lot during the research process and that I have produced a quality research outcome in the end. I have really enjoyed the process, over the last couple of weeks, of developing my Research Outcomes – and have found the last couple of days particularly rewarding, as the “enabling constraints” of time pressure and limited resources have combined to result in a real-world “testing ground” for my thesis.
In regards to the thesis, I feel like my research and development has provided clear evidence for the positive value – at least to some artists – of a wide range of “enabling constraints”. It is also suggested by the research that constraints could have an impact – that is, could “enable” – even those artists who experience them only “subconsciously”. This to me suggests that a sensitivity to the constraints of one’s working practices could result in new insights into the ways in which we both shape – and are shaped by – our work.
Should I continue to conduct research on this topic (which is likely), I think that I will concentrate on formulating some real-world tests of my thesis – either through use of the WORKBOOK, or by some other means. I regret that I have not had time to do this during the project, though this at least gives me a clear starting point for further research.
Buren, D. (1971). The Function of the Studio. In Hoffmann, J. (2012). The Studio / edited by Jens Hoffmann. London, Whitechapel Gallery. Available online at: https://eleco.unam.mx/en/the-function-of-the-studio/. [Accessed 20/06/22].
Coatham, C (2022). Mapping the Research Theme. Available online at: https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/s1648283_contemporary-artistic-research-project-2021-2022sb5/2022/06/11/mapping-the-research-theme/. [Accessed 09/08/22].
LeWitt, S. (1968). Sentences on Conceptual Art. Available online at: http://radicalart.info/concept/LeWitt/sentences.html. [Accessed 05/08/22].
MoMA.org. (2022). MoMA: Sol LeWitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art” (1968). Available online at: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/146945. [Accessed 05/08/22].
NET ART ANTHOLOGY: Dispersion. (n.d.). NET ART ANTHOLOGY: Dispersion. Rhizome.org. Available online at: https://anthology.rhizome.org/dispersion. [Accessed 05/08/22].
Price, S., (2007). Dispersion. DistributedHistory.com. Available online at: http://www.distributedhistory.com/Dispersion2007.comp.pdf. [Accessed 05/08/22].
Relyea, L. (n.d.). Studio Unbound. In Jacob, M. J. and M. Grabner (2010). The studio reader : on the space of artists / edited by Mary Jane Jacob and Michelle Grabner. Chicago, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Siegel, K. (n.d). Live/Work. In Jacob, M. J. and M. Grabner (2010). The studio reader : on the space of artists / edited by Mary Jane Jacob and Michelle Grabner. Chicago, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Solomons, R. (2015). The need for space in art practice. Journal of Arts Writing by Students 1(2): 141-147.
The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation. (2022). Artist: Lawrence Weiner. Guggenheim.org. Available online at: https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/lawrence-weiner. [Accessed 05/08/22].
Ukeles, M. L. (2018). Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969! Proposal for an exhibition “CARE”. Journal of contemporary painting 4(2): 233-237.
Weiner, L. (1968). Statements. Available online at: https://monoskop.org/images/4/4b/Weiner_Lawrence_Statements_1968.pdf. [Accessed 05/08/22].
WORKSITE (2022) a. ABOUT. WORKSITE. Available online at: https://wwworksite.wordpress.com/about/. [Accessed 09/08/22].
WORKSITE (2022) b. RESOURCES. WORKSITE. Available online at: https://wwworksite.wordpress.com/work/resources/. [Accessed 09/08/22].
WORKSITE (2022) c. Q&A: Joel Davidson. WORKSITE. Available online at: https://wwworksite.wordpress.com/2022/04/26/joel-davidson/. [Accessed 09/08/22].
WORKSITE (2022) d. Q&A: Priya Peña. WORKSITE. Available online at: https://wwworksite.wordpress.com/2022/04/27/priya-pena/. [Accessed 09/08/22].
WORKSITE (2022) e. Q&A: James Shannon. WORKSITE. Available online at: https://wwworksite.wordpress.com/2022/04/28/james-shannon/. [Accessed 09/08/22].
WORKSITE (2022) f. Q&A: Sam Dybeck. WORKSITE. Available online at: https://wwworksite.wordpress.com/2022/04/29/sam-dybeck/. [Accessed 09/08/22].
WORKSITE (2022) g. Q&A: Aimée McCallum. WORKSITE. Available online at: https://wwworksite.wordpress.com/2022/04/30/aimee-mccallum/. [Accessed 09/08/22].
WORKSITE (2022) h. More from James Shannon. WORKSITE. Available online at: https://wwworksite.wordpress.com/2022/05/01/more-from-james-shannon/. [Accessed 09/08/22].
WORKSITE (2022) i. Q&A: Julian Smith. WORKSITE. Available online at: https://wwworksite.wordpress.com/2022/05/03/julian-smith/. [Accessed 09/08/22].
WORKSITE (2022) j. Q&A: Andrew Gannon. WORKSITE. Available online at: https://wwworksite.wordpress.com/2022/05/14/andrew-gannon/. [Accessed 09/08/22].
WORKSITE WORKBOOK (24-page, full-colour, illustrated version): https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/s1648283_contemporary-artistic-research-project-2021-2022sb5/wp-content/uploads/sites/6745/2022/08/WORKSITE-WORKBOOK-min.pdf.
WORKSITE WORKBOOK (12-page, grayscale, text-only version): https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/s1648283_contemporary-artistic-research-project-2021-2022sb5/wp-content/uploads/sites/6745/2022/08/WORKSITE-WORKBOOK-TEXT-ONLY.pdf.
WORKSITE WORKSHEET (single-page, grayscale, text-only version): https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/s1648283_contemporary-artistic-research-project-2021-2022sb5/wp-content/uploads/sites/6745/2022/08/WORKSITE-WORKSHEET.pdf.