Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 8, 2007
Stephen Melville "What Is Research in the Visual Arts? Obsession, Archive, Encounter"
Symposium. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.
April 27–28, 2007
College Art Association.

The ninth Clark Art Institute spring conference was organized by Marq Smith, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Visual Culture, along with Michael Ann Holly and Mark Ledbury, director and associate director, respectively, of the Clark’s Research and Academic Programs. In her opening remarks, Holly noted that a handful of those initially invited to speak declined on the grounds that research was simply what they did and there was really nothing much more they could imagine saying about it. Something of this sense is reflected as well in remarks by the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai cited by both Smith and Holly: Appadurai notes in particular that research “has the inevitability of the obvious” and that “it is especially hard to use research to understand research.”1

While this does not seem to me entirely right—Appadurai himself goes on to note the possibility of writing a history of the “huge transformation of our fundamental protocols about the production of reliable new knowledge” before continuing with his argument—it does, I think, usefully indicate how far the conference was inevitably an effort to figure out what it might be to ask a question of “research” and how to ask such a question in ways specific to the visual arts. (A minor but striking instance of the distance between the social-scientific shaping of the question and its shape in art history or visual culture is caught by noting that for Appadurai it is obvious that “there can be no such thing as individual research,” while for the Clark conferees research’s “solitude” at least initially appeared to be one of its leading features.) It was notable that Mieke Bal’s closing commentary picked up the anthropologist’s emphasis on “imagination,” a term that did not otherwise figure strongly in the weekend’s discussions.

Smith and Holly offered what amounted to a double introduction that yielded somewhat different views on what it might mean to ask about research. Smith located his interest at the intersection of published comments by Holly about her yearning for something “in excess of research” and more deeply responsive to the particularity of encounter; his own grapplings with the issue—more prominent, it would seem, in the UK than here—of the possible terms of a practice-based or studio PhD; and an ongoing concern with the play of formality and informality in research (and thus with its openings onto such other terms as “curiosity,” “fascination,” and “conjecture”). His version of the conference’s presiding question was, “What practice is yours?” Holly’s opening, in keeping with much of her recent work, focused on the place of mood and feeling in art-historical research and writing, and on the various ways in which certain conceptions of research might constitute barriers to the adequate acknowledgment of our deepest motives for engaging in it.

Inevitably these questions met various fates as the conference unfolded. Smith’s suggestion of a desirable shift from thinking in terms of research and its protocols to thinking in terms of practices—whether of art-making or, as some of Holly’s remarks suggested, art-historical writing—was interestingly extended by Sina Najafi’s presentation of the editorial projects and policies of Cabinet, a magazine that can, at the very least, remind us of how much of what we now call “theory” is also an inheritance of Surrealism. Arguably Chrissie Ile’s survey of the taxonomic or archival impulse in much recent art and Alex Neromov’s attempt to turn the governess in Henry James’s Turn of the Screw into an exemplary researcher, even as he also used that story to construct a speculative reading or showing of Winslow Homer’s 1901 Searchlight on Harbor Entrance, Santiago de Cuba, both also worked in this direction. Joanne Morra’s comparative exploration of a Georges Perec memoir, an exhibition curated by Tacita Dean, and T.J. Clark’s recent The Sight of Death was more directly predicated on a disciplinarily extended notion of research, arguing for a shared psychoanalytic work binding together practices otherwise institutionally discrete. In each of these instances, it seems to me we found ourselves at the edge of a territory in which one did not do research on objects so much as attempt to acknowledge a singularity.

Some interesting remarks by Holly about how contemporaneous understandings of research have historically gone hand-in-hand with fundamental transformations in the discipline’s notion of its object and core questions (so that, for example, when “style” lay at the center of art-historical inquiry, the discipline could not be ordered to research in its modern sense) also pointed toward ways of reconceiving our sense of current practice. But overall the conference papers and discussion did not turn particularly strongly on the airing of alternative configurations of our knowledge and activity. My own questions about research tend to arise just here, and so my own context for the conference included, for example, Martin Heidegger’s scathing remarks about “research” in “The Age of the World Picture,” a text that came up only in Akira Lippit’s somewhat muddled exploration of the rhetoric of picturing in Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The absence of some such broadly Foucauldian line of historical and institutional reflection was a striking fact of the conference.

Other opening questions gained much more direct response. Particularly notable here was a cluster of papers that took up the question of the researcher’s desire, satisfactions, and frustrations. This was perhaps most explicit in Morra’s paper and in Celeste Olalquiaga’s attempt to derive from Lacan’s seminars a model of a movement beyond “the lost object,” but it was also strongly taken up in Marc Gottlieb’s tour of “outsider art history” from Dan Cameron through the peculiar subgenre of doctors’ writings on art (those of you who do not have to live with the image of the Sistine Chapel’s God as a kidney hurled through space at high velocity should be grateful), and ending in something like “art history itself.” For Gottlieb, this alternative history serves as the discipline’s “monstrous double,” at once alien and rejected and the exorbitant satisfaction of its heart’s desire.

Holly had posed research as importantly stretched between the seminar and the archive, but the seminar vanished immediately until briefly resurrected in Bal’s summary insistence on the inseparability of teaching and research. That the seminar became so quickly invisible may well have to do with the particular shape “research” has assumed in the modern university, as well with an older tension between European and American practices. But it seemed also a consequence of the overwhelming visibility of “the archive,” which dominated the conference as a whole, and which is, on the evidence, an object of at once obscure and obsessive interest to the field: for Ernst van Alphen the archive is tinged with authoritarianism, while for Serge Guilbault it is the primary means of destabilizing existing orders (so he interestingly worries at how to translate the slow time of the archive into the fast time of the museum exhibition); Reva Wolf teased at the differences between the scholar’s archive and the fan’s website; and W. J. T. Mitchell detailed the complex play of publicity and secrecy in the Abu Ghraib archive. The term “archive” itself had a certain slipperiness, sometimes meaning particular deposits of more or less organized material, and sometimes used in a broader sense vaguely recalling Foucault. The archive’s image seemed oddly divided between somewhere dark and dusty and solitary and something given new life or presence on the Internet. It is perhaps interesting that for Appadurai neither the archive nor, contrary to what one might imagine, data play into the definition of research—what occupies this place for him, and had little or no presence at the Clark, is “a prior citational world.”

The obsession with the archive remains, I admit, somewhat opaque to me, and Alex Pott’s paper, beginning as an examination of some of Kaprow’s Happenings and the various forms of their archivization and then surprisingly opening to take in the Cnidian Venus and a wide range of recent art, seemed to me to offer the most consequential proposal here—that the standard distinction of object and archive blocks the actual constitution of the work and so pledges us to a certain obsessive frustration (my paraphrase is perhaps stronger than he would wish). Potts also offered, during one of the many sustained discussions that punctuate the Clark’s conferences, the useful phrase “research Imaginary” to characterize something the conference found itself repeatedly at grips with one way or another.

Bal’s closing remarks aimed sharply away from both archive and obsession and toward the terms of a specifically visual encounter, placing “imagination” firmly, if surprisingly, at the center of this engagement—as if in what we do the actual task is that of imagining the real (as if it’s the real and not the irreal that stands in need of imagining). I have perhaps slightly overstated what seems to me a good, tough point, worth lingering with, and certainly fully responsive both to the opening questions and the two days of substantial papers and rich discussion.

Stephen Melville
Professor, Department of the History of Art, The Ohio State University

1 Arjun Appadurai, “Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination.” Public Culture 12, no. 1 (2000): 1–19.