The impact of failure

By Dr Ian Haig

I can’t help thinking contemporary art is an endangered species in the contemporary university. Within the institution’s overly-prescribed research mandates, researchers (who ten years ago used to be called artists) need to align themselves with research clusters and groups and the strategic plan of the corporate university - contemporary art is a difficult fit for university metrics. And perhaps that’s the point. Art should be a difficult fit, it should be hard to pin down and categorise. The fact that art sometimes can’t slot easily into measurable outputs, and quantification is a good thing, it probably means it is interesting art.

... the impact of failure is possibly of more value than actual real-world impact and outputs. The impact of failure moves the experiment/research forwards, without it there would be no ‘outputs’. Failure is the engine that makes one consider new possibilities and new approaches.

Increasingly within the university, the understanding of research is of the applied variety - making the world a better place, identifying and solving problems. The idea of applied research and instrumentality flows right through from universities to the Australia Research Council and society more generally. But let’s face it,  any contemporary art that seeks to solve a problem really is probably not very interesting as art ...

The language of contemporary university metrics is always grounded in the positive when it comes to understanding and measuring research outputs: Impact, engagement, Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA). It’s increasingly odd when artists (I mean researchers) are self-identifying as excellent and as having impact. And for artists, even the term ‘Excellence’ is disturbingly reminiscent of George Brandis-speak from a few years ago when the Australia Council cuts occurred.

Instead of all this positivity, of art that ticks boxes and wants to make the world a better place,  while fulfilling university metrics, maybe it would be more interesting to consider art that has had a negative impact? What could that mean? How could that be measured? If at all; or art that in no way is ‘excellent’ - non-excellent art. To be honest, and all humour aside, such a sensibility would probably result in more interesting art - really it would.

What of all those failed science experiments in the department of chemistry, things that didn’t work out, and experiments that blew up - aren’t they interesting? And of critical value and importance to understand what not to do in the next experiment? In a way, the impact of failure is possibly of more value than actual real-world impact and outputs. The impact of failure moves the experiment/research forwards, without it there would be no ‘outputs’. Failure is the engine that makes one consider new possibilities and new approaches. 

The notion of impact in regards to experimentalism in art is deeply flawed. Experimentalism often means tiny audiences, no funding, no institutional outputs - so, sorry, not much impact there.

Impact is a weird one for artists (I mean researchers). Often one can’t measure impact of something for five, maybe ten or even twenty years. The impact comes later. Contemporary art isn’t engineering, where there is an immediate and direct cause and effect in terms of impact. The notion of impact in regards to experimentalism in art is deeply flawed. Experimentalism often means tiny audiences, no funding, no institutional outputs - so, sorry, not much impact there.

Take net art as an example, that mid 90s micro art movement which has all but receded into the background. Net art is interesting in the context of the research, impact, ERA landscape. Net art really resulted in no gallery, no institution, no curator, no funding, and at times no critical framework - all markers for measuring impact. But it did have an audience of sorts. Although I am not sure how you measure the audience of a net artwork, which could potentially be in the thousands. Do audience numbers really mean impact anyway? Are YouTube views impact? Are likes on Facebook impact? Doesn’t it just mean people saw it? Maybe they hated it! How is that actually impact?

Increasingly contemporary art has taken on the role of affirmative culture, affirming what its audience already knows and often agrees with. It’s a weird and slightly sad form of theatre being played out. Nowhere was this more apparent than at last year’s Documenta in Kasel, which saw artists highlighting various themes. Take your pick: globalisation is bad, global warming is bad, capitalism is bad. Much of this was mind-numbingly obvious and a perfect example of affirmative culture. It was contemporary art as an echo chamber. It also felt alarmingly more like a high school social studies class in the guise of an international art event. While not all of Documenta was like this, a great deal of it was.

Even more disturbing is that an event like Documenta, would no doubt be ranked very high in terms of impact, i.e., large international audiences, prestigious curated art event, etc, even though the content of much of Documenta was so depressingly didactic, educative and obvious. So much for impact being a measure of outputs that are in any way interesting. It really was the impact of failure, but not in a good way.


Ian Haig's practice refuses to accept that the low and the base level are devoid of value and cultural meaning. He is a senior Lecturer in the School of Art at RMIT University.