Artistic Research: In Conversation with Henk Borgdorff

By Dr Jenny Wilson.

The term artistic research is gaining popularity in Australia, particularly in music, where a number of conferences and symposia focused around this terminology including DDCA’s own 2015 symposium: The Outstanding Field: Artistic Research Emerging from the Academy.

But what does artistic research encompass? Is it any different from other terminologies used to describe research in and by creative arts disciplines?

The term is perhaps most closely associated with the work of Professor Henk Borgdorff, President of the Society of Artistic Research, who has published widely on the theoretical and political rationale of research in the arts.  His key works are captured in his book, ‘The Conflict of the Faculties: Perspectives on Artistic Research and Academia’ published by Leiden University Press. 

DDCA’s Research officer Jenny Wilson caught up with him in Amsterdam in April 2016,  hot on the heels of his recent speaking tour of European and UK universities, art and music schools, to find out more about artistic research and European experiences of the politics of art and higher education.


Jenny Wilson: What is your background?

Henk Borgdorff:  I did a vocational training program in music theory designed to train teachers for the Conservatoire, and taught music theory for many years in different conservatoires in the Netherlands. I had also studied sociology and philosophy at Leiden University and while working at the Amsterdam School of the Arts, I had the opportunity to combine those traditions of music theory, arts and humanities disciplines with a focus on research.

When did you first realise that there was a question around the arts and research?

Around 2000 or so in the wake of the Bologna process. Prior to this there was no ‘research’ at all at art schools or conservatoires in the Netherlands but with the changes in politics around higher education and the Bologna process, research was suddenly put on the agenda. Together with colleagues from Flanders, we created a doctoral research program for musicians (later the DocArtes program).  It was in the wake of the Bologna process that research made its entrance into higher art education. Before 2000, we did not have any bachelors/masters structures in place. There was just one program - you studied for 5 or 6 years at a Conservatoire depending upon how good you were. Suddenly - top down - we had to introduce the bachelors/masters structure which implied that also research had made its entry at masters level. That was the start of the whole debate in The Netherlands.

In Australia, the issue of research was perhaps driven by funding, was that the same driver in The Netherlands?

No, not at all. Direct funding for art education isn’t dependent upon research outputs and there is no funding mechanism in place in arts yet in The Netherlands that makes direct funding for arts education dependent upon research outputs. Things are slowly changing now with the introduction of a ‘Research Validation’ exercise, which also might affect research performance in art education. There is a modest indirect funding scheme for ‘Universities of Applied Sciences’, including art schools.

Is artistic research really ‘research’ or just arts practice playing the research game?

I often encounter people who have a caricature of what research is, mostly this is the natural science picture of what research should be. Of course what artists are doing is, most of the time, far away from this picture of research but artists are articulate about their work. If you ask them: “What are you doing?” “What is your project all about?” “How does it relate to what others have done and how do you envision that you will do your project?” - when you add it up, you have research.  It is so inclusive in what people already do, only they don't want to frame it as research because they think that research is something ‘not from us’ but from ‘those people there’. It is a kind of ‘cold water fear’, you could say: ‘We don't want to be associated with that’,  but when you look to what they do, it can often be understood and described as research.

What falls into the definition of artistic research?

In Artistic research. . . practice is the ‘object’ of research, the method of research, the context of research and it is the outcome of research.

There is a whole debate about the ontology of artistic research, but basically if I had to explain what artistic research is and how it differs from other kinds of research, I focus on four elements and practice plays a role at all levels:

  • Firstly, it aims at knowledge and understanding embodied and enacted in practice. It is about forms of knowledge and understanding about who we are and how we relate to the world and other people, which are embodied in practice;
  •  Secondly the method of research. It is not done only by reading and writing. Its distinctive feature is that it is studio based - playing and performing and composing in the case of music, or ‘making stuff’ is central to the research in a methodological sense. Reading, writing and research methods and techniques from the sciences, social sciences or the humanities might play a role in the research, but central to the research is practice, the practice of making and playing;
  • Thirdly, it has to do with the context, the relevance of that research is assessed in the context of art practice; and
  • Fourthly,  it has to do with the outcome. The outcome of research is not, in the first place a book or an article or report, it is practice: art works and art practices

So, practice is the ‘object’  of research, the method of research, the context of research and it is the outcome of research.

Are there any forms of art practice which would not count as artistic research?

Yes.  We have to protect art practice from research as well. If an art practitioner or artist does not want his or her work to be labelled as research, that is ok. For instance, if someone doesn't want to contextualise their work, then it is not research but it is still art practice. It doesn't say anything about the quality of the art practice, it says something about the intention. Once you intend it as research, you inscribe it in discursive ‘playing fields’ where you have to deal with questions about context, method, relevance etc.

What about the issue of novelty? Can artistic practice that, for example, focuses on the performance of a classic repertoire be considered artistic research?

I think so yes. If you take the context of novelty or newness or originality and rephrase it in the sense that there is a new contribution to what we didn't know or understand or experience before. It is not just knowledge in the narrow sense, it is also the experiential part of what we are doing.  You might ask from research that it adds to what we know or understand or experience.  I cannot imagine that a performer just tries to replicate what is there.  Everybody tries to do something in his or her performance, whether dance or music, to add something to what we didn't hear, see or experience before.

What I am getting from you is that in research there is a consciousness about what you are doing as an artist?

It is not research when you just stumble across something, it has to be intended as research. You claim it as research and once you do that you inscribe yourself in a discursive field where other people can ask questions.  Openness is important here.  This also makes it more distinct from the art world where there is more ‘closedness’, so we don't know how assessment is done. But in the case of research,  there is an openness and willingness to lay your cards on the table and to be open to criticism.

There are different terms being used: practice-led; practice-based; studio research; and artistic research.  What would you see as a distinguishing feature of artistic research compared to those?  Are they just different terms for the same thing?

I know that for English speaking people the term artistic research seems a little bit strange.  On the European continent,  it is now used so widely in different languages - in German and Scandinavian languages and also in Dutch.  I prefer myself on some occasions to label it research in and through the arts, thereby foregrounding the methodological importance of practice during the research process which is a distinctive feature compared to other forms of research that deal with the arts.  I use also the term practice-infused research which foregrounds that practice plays a central role on all four levels I mentioned. In Europe it is common practice to use the term ‘artistic research’ in different languages. The benefit of this term is that it foregrounds the artistic element. It is not just practice-based research where it may be research in which practice plays a role but it is really traditional research.  No,  this is about artistic research.

There is a political issue with the notion of research because in some areas, for instance in Germany, people are hesitant to label it as research and they use other terms. In Austria you have a program called ‘Programm zur Entwicklung und Erschliessung der Künste’ (PEEK) - which translates to something like ‘program for the development and dissemination of the arts’. In Norway they have a program for artistic development work and avoid the term research in Norwegian because there are other people who say ‘we ‘own’ the term research’. They say: ‘What you do is artistic development. It is important, but don't call it research’

It is interesting that they go on the ‘development’ side of R & D rather than the research side? In the Frascati Manual R & D is an important term while in Australia, it is very much ‘research’, the ‘D’ is not mentioned. 

The whole Frascati Manual distinction between basic research, applied research and experimental development has been overhauled due to recent developments in science policies. It doesn't make sense anymore to make sharp distinctions between those different research types. Basic research has features of application and good applied research also has features of basic research.

Is there any country that has been more successful in having artistic research accepted by their government?

. . . they foregrounded what is important for the arts. They didn't change position in order to be aligned with university politics, they have their own standing: ‘This is who we are. We claim a position within academia and we claim funding on our own terms’

I know that in some Scandinavian countries they have been successful. In Norway, with the Norwegian Artistic Research Program and in Finland also. One feature is that they foregrounded what is important for the arts.  They didn't change position in order to be aligned with university politics,  they have their own standing; ‘This is who we are.  We claim a position within academia and we claim funding on our own terms’. That notion of ‘on our own terms’ has been successful in Scandinavian countries. We have to make the case for what artists do as opposed to creative industries and the daily strains of production and in opposition to the arts market.  There has to be free space for ‘material thinking’  (to use Paul Carter’s term) that is recognised by the government and funding agencies with dedicated program for artists to do projects that are not a function of making money, creative industries or the market. If you make that case, I think people understand.  People from the sciences (maybe less so in The Humanities) understand.  They do the same thing. They have their own criteria and quality assurance mechanisms based on their own terms.

Some Australian universities have claimed that there is a problem understanding the standards that the arts use to assess quality in artistic research. Has Europe got standardised or commonly understood criteria that are agreed by artists to assess the quality of artistic research?

It is an important question.  The quality assessment issue is high on the agenda and should be,  but I don’t think there is an overall European consensus in that regard.  May be there shouldn't be one either because the idea that something is fixed in assessment criteria doesn't do justice to a field which is always changing (as science is).  As Bruno Latour says it is ‘in action’. Maybe it is good that there is no fixed set of criteria for the assessment of artistic research because then we can keep the discussion open. The discursivity or inter-subjective judgement framework should be in place.  So, you should endorse or strengthen the debate but I don't think there are any definitive criteria to assess whether this is good or not. It is always debatable.  If one group assesses it at one point as a perfect artistic research outcome, ten years later someone will say ‘no, that is wrong’  - and that’s good.

The more trust that you put in the formal criteria, the less trust that you have in your people.  It is about a conversation. For example,  the assessment criteria that peer reviewers use for the Journal of Artistic Research.  Of course they have criteria: it should be contextualised and so on, but there is a disclaimer that should you want to deviate and not take into account these criteria, and should the research ask for that,  please feel free to do so.  It creates an openness and an invitation to keep on discussing and that is more important than fixed criteria.

So you are inviting the artist or artistic researcher to ‘say these are the criteria which I wish to be judged by’?

Yes and on a meta-level, he or she may be asked to put forward reasons why he or she has chosen these. I am in favour of that but always there should be a process of justification, albeit without fixed criteria.

The term artistic research is getting good traction in Australia but there are concerns that by adding a descriptor of ‘artistic’ it makes it ‘abnormal’ or outside that which is known as ‘research’. Eventually they hope that we should not need to justify using the term artistic - we should be able to say ‘this is research’ .

I think so too, in the end. Meanwhile it does not harm to label it artistic research.

You don't say of biochemistry research that it is equivalent to academic research, it IS research. We are not there yet, but that is where we want to be.

If it is the case that by using that term we separate ourselves from the rest of the research world, then we should stop using the term because it is about research. It has different features from other kinds research, just as sociology research is different from theology research or chemistry or pharmacy research but there is a place for everybody. So, if it is an obstacle to being included in academia then we should get rid of the term, but I don't think that is the case now.

This is also related to the critique of the notion of equivalence, the idea that artistic research is not equivalent to academic research.  I like that critique very much because it is not equivalent.  You don't say of biochemistry research that it is equivalent to academic research,  it IS research.  We are not there yet, but that is where we want to be.

One of the problems in Australia, I believe, is the term ‘non traditional research output’ where the arts are classified in this ‘nether’ category.

Is it still there? It is not in the REF in the UK any more. It says ‘the underpinning principle. . .is that all types of research and all forms of research output across all disciplines shall be assessed on a fair and equal basis including interdisciplinary and collaborative research. . . . in addition research outputs may include new materials, devices, images, artefacts, products and buildings; confidential or technical reports; intellectual property, whether in patents or other forms; performances, exhibits or events; work published in non-print media. An underpinning principle of the REF is that all forms of research output will be assessed on a fair and equal basis. Sub-panels will not regard any particular form of output as of greater or lesser quality than another per se.’  ( see footnote[1])

They still need to say it though, still ‘equivalence’ is there in the background, but it is very squarely dumped that you cannot to put one form of research higher than another.

Do you think that the arts do better in terms of their recognition of equality in a comprehensive multi-disciplinary university or in a university for the arts?

In the UK at the so-called ‘new universities’, they have often huge facilities, major halls and wonderful equipment but I am not sure if that environment alone is enough to enhance quality. On the other hand I hear complaints about relatively independent art schools or universities, so I don't know. 

There are very prestigious colleges of the arts, in for instance in Malmö or Goldsmiths, which have a reputation going back for years and of course they can uphold this reputation because they get the best staff and the best students, so there are always other mechanisms at play. The Conservatoire at Amsterdam and The Hague are considered the best because they attract the best students. What you should measure are the entrance levels of the students and the level when they leave. It is no problem to have a very prestigious art school if you get the best students.

I have colleagues who feel strongly that art schools have a different ecology to the university and that being in the university changes the ecology of the art school.  Yet I know others who say that speaking with other disciplines is where they get some of their inspiration. Do you think it is better for the artist, whether student or staff, to be exposed to only others within their artistic genre or the arts,  or to be located within a broader spectrum of disciplinary interests in a more comprehensive university?

It might be different for disciplines.  I can imagine that a high profile performing artist in the field of early music might benefit from an environment which is dedicated to early music because it is very intra-disciplinary, about being the best in your field, but it depends upon the individual artist. 

I would not say that disciplines differ here per se. We know that generally fine art and part of theatre engage more with the outside world, more than music which is more focused on music itself generally speaking. There is a difference, but I am not sure that this means that arts departments will prosper better in a polytechnic setting with departments of nursing and education.

We don't have this situation in The Netherlands. Here art schools are either independent schools (and most of the prestigious schools are independent schools) or are part of larger conglomerates but these are not research universities, they are polytechnics. It is not a comparable situation.  If the university encourages the art school environment, culturally and also financially, I think there is nothing wrong with being part of a larger university.  It also counteracts some of the isolationism of the arts.

A very productive form in my country is the collaboration of the autonomous art schools with a traditional research university. It enables collaboration on different levels (including doctoral programmes) with respect for the different institutional cultures.

If artistic research becomes more accepted by the practicing art world inside the university, do you think that may be seen as a threat to those practising outside the university?

Difficult question. When I think about the field of music, major steps in enriching musical life in The Netherlands have been taken from the Conservatoire. So, for example, we have the whole early music movement which started at the Conservatoire of the Hague and Amsterdam in the 60s;  we have the contemporary ensemble culture with the Asko|Schönberg Ensemble which was an initiative of staff and students at the Conservatoire. They have a major impact on musical life. Changes in musical life started at the Conservatoire.

Does that mean that the understanding of research within the arts could also have an impact upon musical life outside?

I think so yes.  But that is not the only story. I want to counter the idea that it is a bad thing, that research in the conservatoire or the university always has a negative effect upon the art world. It doesn't have to be.  I don't believe in those oppositions.  If an artist feels invited to be part of that discursive field then they are welcome to do that but it is not necessary. You can also stay within your art practice and there is nothing wrong with that.  There is a place for both.

Is there anything else that Australia can learn from artistic research in Europe?

It is the other way round, I learn a lot from Australia, the Strand Report in 1998 for example. In Holland and Switzerland we are just starting, through infrastructure and funding, to make space for research in the arts, while you already have an established tradition. So I learn from the mistakes you made, you might say, the things you rub up against -  rather than anything that we can teach Australia.


[1] HEFCE (2014) Assessment framework and guidance on submissions (updated to include addendum published in January 2012) REF 2014 accessed at on 20 April 2016


Professor Henk Borgdorff is President of the Society for Artistic Research, an international association which promotes the practices of artistic research both inside and outside academia.  Henk is also professor at the Royal Conservatoire / University of the Arts, The Hague and at the Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, Leiden University. He was professor in Art Theory and Research at the Amsterdam School of the Arts until 2010, visiting professor in Aesthetics at the Faculty of Fine, Applied and Performing Arts at the University of Gothenburg until 2013 and editor of the Journal for Artistic Research until 2015

Dr Jenny Wilson is DDCA’s Research Officer and Editor of NiTRO.  She is an independent consultant to universities and academic bodies and an Honorary Fellow of the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses upon higher education policy and its relationship to academic ‘tribes and territories’, particularly creative arts disciplines. Her book ‘Artists in the University: Positioning Artistic Research in Higher Education’  will be published by Springer in 2017.