Still a Boundary Rider: The Artist Academic Working Elsewhere in Space and Time

By Dr Sean Lowry

The challenges facing artist academics working outside traditional exhibition environments are varied and complex. As artists, it is already notoriously difficult to exceed arbitrariness once a work is exhibited outside of the institutional framework of the gallery and museum context. Meanwhile, as researchers, it also remains notoriously difficult to conform to the institutional expectations demanded by traditional university research culture. Artists have been affiliated with universities for decades but the prospect of institutionally validating research undertaken by artists remains frustratingly unresolved. Although research undertaken by artists is in many respects comparable with any definition of research, the key component of the process that remains unresolved is the transferability of understandings. Here, art’s inherent discursiveness typically dictates that the task of meaningfully translating knowledge production emanating from creative processes into formats commensurate with the journal based paradigm is bound to be a mixed enterprise. Moreover, given that research proposals are typically evaluated in terms of their potential to produce new understandings, the figure of the curator—understood in a broader sense as functioning as an idiosyncratically selective filter at the gateway to exhibition culture—is not necessarily suitably equipped to evaluate quality in a more academic context.

Established in 2012, Project Anywhere[1] was conceived as one possible response to these distinct yet interrelated challenges. Project Anywhere is a global exhibition model in which the role of curator is replaced with the type of peer review model typically endorsed by a refereed journal. Although web-based, it is important to stress that Project Anywhere is not an online gallery. It instead assumes the role of pointing toward works to be apprehended elsewhere in space and time. In promoting art and research undertaken outside museums and galleries, Project Anywhere is perhaps best understood as a hybrid of a gallery (albeit one that encompasses the entire globe) and a refereed publication. Significantly, all proposals submitted to Project Anywhere are reviewed by at least 4 artist academics of international standing. With only a handful of projects hosted each year, selection is extremely competitive.

...does art necessarily need “mediation by a museum, gallery or a curator?” Project Anywhere’s response to this question is resoundingly in the negative—instead insisting that the task of exhibiting and disseminating research that results from an artistic process or exhibition can only be meaningfully analogised with refereed academic publishing if the figure of curator is substituted for a more democratising peer evaluation model.

Central to Project Anywhere’s raison d'etre is the problem of the contemporary art curator operating as an undemocratic cultural gate-keeper. Today, curators not only select artworks for exhibition but play a substantial role in shaping how works are disseminated and interpreted through the production of paratextual materials such as catalogues, wall texts, and press releases. As noted by Paul O'Neill in his 2012 book The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s), the role of curator has shifted during the last 25 years from that of a “behind-the-scenes” caretaker of collections to a highly “visible, centrally important cultural producer” and critically significant “auteur”[2]. Meanwhile, despite the ongoing blurring of the distinction between artist and curator, a key distinction from the perspective of many artists and academics is that of disproportionate power. For Brad Buckley and John Conomos. advanced art is often effectively “laminated by cultural, museological and tertiary educational structures, agendas and self-interest groups all vying to produce normative ideas, contexts and values for the making, exhibiting and manifestation of art.”[3] Accordingly, they ask: does art necessarily need “mediation by a museum, gallery or a curator?”[4] Project Anywhere’s response to this question is resoundingly in the negative—instead insisting that the task of exhibiting and disseminating research that results from an artistic process or exhibition can only be meaningfully analogised with refereed academic publishing if the figure of curator is substituted for a more democratising peer evaluation model. 

Another other key challenge facing the artist researcher is that of validating art within the research culture of the modern university. Here, the problem of language (and its attendant implications in terms of power) soon becomes apparent.

Another other key challenge facing the artist researcher is that of validating art within the research culture of the modern university. Here, the problem of language (and its attendant implications in terms of power) soon becomes apparent. This is also an issue that is also front of mind for Project Anywhere. Following a robust discussion between Project Anywhere Editorial and Advisory Committee members over several days in early December 2014, it was agreed that the potentially “apologetic ‘practice-based’ prefix” should be officially dropped by Project Anywhere.  As Editorial Committee Member Professor Brad Buckley succinctly put it, in this context “to name is to indicate something that is less.”[5] Although, as Member Steve Dutton suggested, the term “artistic research” is preferable to “practice-based research,”[6] the semantic thread of the discussion finally added up to a reasonable argument for accepting Buckley’s charge that we should be “mature enough to accept what we do [is] research […] especially in a project of such global reach”.[7] Consequently, Project Anywhere has endorsed the use of the term “research” in all promotional materials from late 2014.

Given the substantial challenges facing artist academics in their task of establishing relatively stable conditions for the evaluation and dissemination for artistic research whilst maintaining an accountable level of scholarly rigor, the evaluation criteria established by Project Anywhere was carefully shaped to balance a radical openness to the unknowable nature and future possibilities of art with a commitment to conform to definitions and expectations of rigor and clarity institutionally expected in university research culture. For Project Anywhere, this journey has really only just begun. It is however one that the artist academic should probably regard as central to survival at the intersection of a commercially beholden art world and research metrics obsessed university culture. 


[1] Project Anywhere: art at the outermost limits of location-specificity, http://www.projectanywhere.net

[2] O’NEILL, P. The culture of curating and the curating of culture(s) Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2012.

[3] BUCKLEY, B. and CONOMOS, J. “The delinquent curator: or how curators shafted Australian art” Broadsheet: contemporary visual art + culture, Vol. 41.1, 2012, p. 46.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Email conversation between Project Anywhere Editorial and Advisory Committee Members (10/12/2014 -13/12/2014).

[6] Ibid.

[7] DUTTON, S. Email addressed to Project Anywhere Committee (13/12/2014).

Dr Sean Lowry is a Melbourne-based visual artist, musician and writer. He holds a PhD in Visual Arts from the University of Sydney, and is currently Head of Critical and Theoretical Studies at Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Lowry has exhibited, performed and published extensively both nationally and internationally. Lowry’s conceptually driven artistic practice employs strategies of concealment, subliminal quotation, erasure, remediation and intermedial expansion to explore the outermost limits of the world of a work of art. He is also Founder and Executive Director of Project Anywhere (www.projectanywhere.net). For more information, please visit www.seanlowry.com