What on Earth is Critical Reflection?

Elina Akselrud’s response to the aforenamed article by Eirik Vassenden
Doctoral Program in Artistic Research
University of Music and Performing Arts Graz

The Article by Eirik Vassenden presents analysis and feedback on 14 critical reflections written by graduates of the Norwegian Artistic Research Program (NARP) as part of their final assessment.  The author was supposed to provide his opinion on the formats and reflection practices used by the artists, and to assess the clarity of the reflections that were based on the artistic practice.  He is elaborating on the term “critical reflection”, since it is essential to the relatively new direction of Artistic Research in Academia and needs not only its own definition, but also an endorsement whether it can be regarded as a path of producing new forms of reflection and knowledge.

First of all, there is the question of what should this critical reflection look like?  And what is it supposed to do, how do these texts work? This is the main problem addressed in the article.  Since first of all, the field of artistic research itself is recent, plus there is no actual written requirement at NARP, as we confirmed last week, the interpretation of the assignment is very free, however, since it still IS academia, it cannot be a purely artistic work, another performance/installation or whatnot.  What type of knowledge and insight into the artistic practice shall be derived from such a reflection?

We do know that every single graduate of the program has chosen to submit a written work, at least in part.  (A short footnote: this, in fact, brings us to the question of describing artistic research non-verbally, and whether it is even possible?…)

Vassenden points out to the two aspects that are present for all the texts he analyzed:

  1. the requirement: institutional rules and frameworks – without which the works would not have existed With regard to the artistic result of the work, the candidate must submit

          – Personal artistic position/work in relation to chosen subject area nationally and internationally;
          – How the project contributes to professional development of the subject area; – Critical reflection on the process (artistic choices and turning points, theory applied, dialogue with various networks and the professional environment etc.);
          – Critical reflection on results (self-evaluation in perspective of the revised project description). (Regulations for the Research Fellowship Programme, 2009: 4)  (p.3)

     The last two points naturally lead us to the second aspect/problem:
  2. the articulation issue of how to verbally embody the experience of producing artistic work?

Here the author discusses the difficulty of expressing research outcomes via a standard written language form, and implementing the idea of inventing a new language instead, that would be specific to the artistic work of a certain fellow, thus, optimizing the communication with the readers.

When writing about my own art, I often get the sense that words and work don’t quite match. Like equal magnet poles, they repel one another; as if moved by an invisible force they slide apart. Only by the utmost coercion, and only for short moments at a time, do I ever manage to bring text and work together, surface to surface. And yet, it is right here, in the quest for satisfactory verbal counterparts to the artistic process, that I want to linger. I have sought a voice that truly says what I mean, a voice whose inner timbre I can recognise, the voice of my unarticulated ideas. This has captivated me to the degree that it became one of my central areas of exploration during my time as a research fellow.” (from the Reflection by Caroline Slotte, p.6)

Language

Vassenden follows with a remark that since the end of the 20th C., artists developed their own “art jargon” and it was even jokingly characterized as International Art English: a language that acquired so many terms and movements relevant to the contemporary art forms, that it could no longer exist as a Standard English.

Article Text Structure: Chapters

  • First Premise: The Rules
  • Second Premise: Articulation
  • The Material, p.8
  • Format and Forms, p.13
  • Science, research or something completely different?, p.17
  • Reflection as – and in – practice, p.23
  • Critical reflection – on what and for whom?, p.25
  • Critical reflection as productive work?, p.29
  • What – on earth – is critical reflection? A possible conclusion, p.31

Classification

Vassenden classifies the 14 written texts he worked on as the following subcategories:
(Some of the texts can fit into more than one category)

  • 3 dissertations
  • 3 collections of philosophical/theoretical essays
  • 2 short articles or collections of articles
  • 1 set of presentation texts, catalogues
  • 3 autobiographical / anecdotal presentations
  • 3 answer papers, conclusions / summaries, reports (all the texts have these elements)
  • 1 extended project description and policy input
  • 2 video essays as part of critical reflections, documentaries in both cases
  • 1 website that blends critical reflection and project presentation + a record production

Knowledge Expression Issues

The author discusses that musicians are generally closer to the traditional scientific genres, while everyone else from the Academy of Art and Design have chosen a more open form, which also gives them an opportunity to reflect on the chosen format itself.

This statistics gave him a solid ground to speculate that the articulation issue has thus been especially important for musicians, traditionally.  The language to communicate the experience of music is conventionalized, however it leaves a lot of room for interpretation, since it often uses supporting narratives by using means of analogies or allegories.  Some musicians did regard the reflection work as ‘non-academic’, in fact, due to the traditional habit of internalizing and processing the thought related to the artistic practice without the need to structure it verbally in most of the cases: the knowledge of a musician can be viewed as tacit.  And the critical reflections of these people appeared only because of the institutional requirements.

“The personal process of practising is the most difficult thing to document in an appropriate manner. Very many days have been devoted to working on elements at such a highly detailed level that it is impossible to see the work as a whole. This has been absolutely essential. As a performer, you simply cannot concern yourself with trivialities, and when you are in the moment, that is what it is about. That is why, if you were to calculate the number of hours spent on the project, the biggest category would be the hours spent practising at a detailed level.” (from the Reflection by Geir Davidsen, p.11)

Another important aspect to note is that not all the fellows equally expressed their willingness to engage in this reflection.  Needless to say it is not a habit of most of the artists in general to make narratives about one’s own work.  One of the writers even developed a format/genre that is closely linked to the artistic work that she calls ‘close writing’.  She regards it as a possibility to open up an entirely new source of knowledge, a channel into the creative process, with its own linguistic space.

Format/Forms

Vassenden brings it to our attention that the genre of a narrative is present in the majority of the texts: that includes elements of a biographical nature, as well as instrument history when it concerns musicians. He breaks the narrative into three subcategories: a staged form, a diary form, and a report.  These are all linear forms, which unfold along a single temporal axis.  However in most of the cases the examples are followed by a commentary that provides explanation or interpretation, which is typical for a research in humanities.  The main difference is that in Artistic Research, the researcher and the research object is usually the same thing, since the artist researches him/herself and their own practice.  It means that the researcher does not have (V. writes “loses”) the distance between the subject and researcher, since it is, in fact, one thing (person).  There are both advantages (i.e. a form of insight into the artistic process and the nature of artistic production, a first hand experience per se) and disadvantages (this lack of distance that aids in categorizing and understanding what really stands out). This approach remains the same for every fellow, despite the differences in organization and presentation discussed above.

Expectations

“Do we expect the critical reflection to probe the artistic practice and put its core experiences into words, and, so to speak, develop a special new language?” writes Vassenden and follows analyzing the styles and vocabulary choices of the texts: there is a technical vocabulary, the terminology of the practical work with a musical instrument, mapping and documenting a practice, describing work with a software in order to digitally manipulate sounds, and such.  He emphasizes that most of the texts, in fact, do not meet the criteria for an ‘academic text’, but they have a different orientation.  A few texts, however, do comply with the generally accepted norms of source citation.  

Another problem is the use of different theoretical perspectives and the idea that theory should not have a secondary function, but must be taken from the artistic work itself.  Because practice also contains theory – and I would add, a new theory hypothetically, could be derived from practice.

Research VS Science

Next, Vassenden discusses a fundamental difference between Science and Research.  He quotes a literary scholar Erling Aadland in stating that “research is a non private, open activity of a methodical nature” and that “research, unlike, science, does not depend on an objectifying orientation”.  The author states that “science registers, while research is productive and creative”.  Swedish poet and critic Magnus William-Olsson introduces the term ‘performative criticism’.  According to him, the artistic work also encompasses evaluation and reflection in itself:

“the relationship between doing and interpreting is essential to all artistic creation. You try something out and then try with all your mental faculties, ability and knowledge to decide whether it is worth keeping and building on or whether it must be discarded. You oscillate between reading and writing, between playing and listening, between intention, performance and evaluation in order to find an answer in the form of a way, a relevant perspective, an example. The ability to answer, to train your sensibility to what has been done is primarily the artist’s art, an art that can be refined and changed, sometimes in completely different directions, but always and in all variations without end.” (by Magnus William-Olsson, p.22)

The question of how the knowledge acquired through this effort is to be understood and articulated is key.  The author argues that this form of knowledge, derived from artistic work, shall take over forms other than the conventional knowledge genres – perhaps more open and less bound to certain guidelines and restrictions?

Another question is whether a reflection could and should be part of the practice?  Vassenden brings out a case when a writer worked on his text much later after the completion of his practical work.  This brought both positive and negative consequences.  While it did relax the relationship to the different activities and made possible to see new aspects of the work, it nevertheless made it more difficult in a way to position as performative, since the temporal distance has obscured the direct relationship between the artist and his practice.  Vassenden doesn’t really answer the question here: he provides both sides of the coin available to interpret.  In my opinion, in order to not lose the ‘freshness’ of the process, some type of journaling/documentation is needed, even if the written part itself would be done and edited later than the practical experiments. 

Vassenden’s evaluation of the texts’ quality is in a way related to the biographical elements: he states that the more autobiographical information there was, the less interesting the text came out.  I consider this comment very helpful as a reference for any future artistic reflections to be written. 

Clarity in meaning

According to one of the reflections, there are several ways and many nuances to express meaning.  In fact, it is not always the case that the verbal means of communication is the most clear and convincing.  One could indeed argue that non-verbal but easily recognizable sounds or expressions referring to concrete emotions or phenomena could provide the listener with equally meaningful information as words do.  This brings the next question into the frame: whether a verbal presentation IS  always necessary for expressing a critical reflection?

There is no simple answer for it.  One shall always keep in mind who one is writing for.  This may serve as a guidance in structuring the reflection, to a certain extent.  Another way to introduce a potential audience to understanding a reflection better is creating a user manual for the critical reflection text, as did one of the fellows.  As a complementary element, it can aid the audience in processing the artistic project.

Vassenden claims that the reflection texts communicate insight into the authors’ artistic practice in two ways: by presenting it in a report form, and by showing practice and its place in a critical discourse, which opens up the process behind the work.

He also argues that a critical reflection could be regarded as productive work in itself: structuring a reflection may open new understandings of the genre and field an artist relates to, his/her style of work and practice, and the artistic landscape.

One of the last issues he discusses is that in several cases, especially those where the work is conducted by interacting with a physical material, there can be a concept of ‘negotiation’ introduced: for instance, when the artist and the old used porcelain objects ‘exchange experiences and share memories’.  My response/question here is: whether such type of a reflection could potentially lead into unexplored meditation paths [for artists]?

He continues with a question whether this sort of an insight would have actually emerged without the requirement of a critical reflection? The same person has concluded her writing with explaining that she has, in fact, ‘looked for verbal alternatives to the detached, academic voice when writing about her work’.  Vassenden seems to be convinced that the critical reflection generated this new impulse of conversation with herself and her material and whether it is the reflection that took center stage, or have the two practices melted together?  

Conclusion

The author argues that the reflection text can be regarded as practical answers to the  following three questions:

  1. the relationship between their own artistic practice and the surrounding field
  2. the relationship between their own artistic practice and the problem of articulation
  3. the relationship between their own artistic practice and their personal experience of theoretical work and reflection work.

He states that all the texts display new and unorthodox ways of reflecting, to a varying degree.  He claims, however, that it may not be possible to definitely agree that the NARP has succeeded in producing new forms of reflection and knowledge, since many of the research fellows, in fact, fall back on well-known available forms. Vassenden argues that some concepts and theoretical perspectives are what is lacking in the majority of the texts and it could actually serve as a link between the concrete personal experiences and a bigger artistic discourse.  He suggests that the NARP could contribute more to introducing theory and concepts, as well as the work of arriving at a mandate and a form for the critical reflection.

In addition to the topical comments I have provided before, I can say that being a performing artist myself, I can definitely relate to Vassenden’s suggestions here, since it is not enough to merely introduce guidelines and requirements and then to expect a pure academic work as the core of such critical reflections from practicing performing and visual artists.  The reason is that the majority of visual and performing artists come from the background of art schools and conservatories.  We are not taught to think and analyze in the same way as graduates of humanity departments of universities are, for example.  This is why a theoretical coursework is needed in order to first of all enrich one’s background on the history, legacy of what has already been written and how it has been written, and the set of devices that would help in academic writing.  Without at least these aspects any texts that we produce as artists, most likely would not correspond to the norms of academia, even though they can be highly informative, complementary to our practical work, and even enlightening.  I do agree with the author on his concluding suggestions and, in fact, I have already had similar notions after exploring the guidelines of the NARP program, which was in fact before reading this text.