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Artistic Research Statement by Thomas Locher

In 1980, everything that was different, everything that was somehow “modern”, came from France. Everything was set in motion: subjects and objects, identities and differences. New concepts became important: desire, wish, the unconscious, intensities, representation, the public, the political. A different mode of thinking was required, one that conceptually fused things that hitherto did not belong together. A thought of dissent, a thought seeking multitudes instead of unity. A thought that should not come to an end, and occasionally didn’t find an end. At issue was the development of an art that wanted to be free but not irresponsible, making an effort to be exact and equally poetic, tentative and presumptuous, absorbing everything, devouring everything, at times ridiculous, and above all boundless. But also an art of discourse: communicative and emancipative. Created without secret knowledge, showing what it shows, and nothing more … with means that are potentially at everyone’s disposal, with methods to which all have access.

This formed the background against which it was and still is necessary for me to consult other disciplines. Quite unscientifically, quite undisciplined. When the times demand it, when the theme being addressed requires it, when my artistic vocabulary is not sufficient to formulate what I would like to formulate. Artistic research can start from very different perspectives; in my practice it is connected to casting a view to other fields. And I find precisely those disciplines important that observe society: philosophy, linguistics, sociology, cultural studies, psychoanalysis, and the field of political theories. There was enjoyment in (self-)explanation. The synthesis of theory and practice became important again, for I placed hopes in gaining new possibilities of formulation from this conciliatory alliance. The question of legitimacy was significant, and that required placing one’s own artistic decisions in the context of arguments that can be conveyed. Particularly neo-Conceptual or institution-critical considerations are never pure empowerments, quite to the contrary: they have to make sense beyond an aesthetic assertion, they must question this sense and justify their own grounds, they must contain the world if they want to say something about the world.

Research is a necessary prerequisite of an artistic practice, albeit with smooth transitions between thought and knowledge, for thought is not knowledge. The artwork is an abstract condensation composed of considerations that cannot directly take on a form, the sheer non-visibility of which can indeed have a homoeopathic effect. Knowledge, on the other hand, is form and thus exposed on a general platform on which it vacillates between commodity and free insight. What was once a lonesome, minor or also collective decision is now an offer of a teaching position. What was specific is now general, artistic research is in danger of becoming a common and constricting method and possibly suffering the same fate as Conceptualism, to which anyone can noncommittally refer. As a teacher at an art academy, I find myself increasingly subjected to an imperative of description. The dilemma is that I like to describe, but that in the future I will have to deal more and more with formulating goals. Contents can be described, but it is impossible to formulate an art class in view of an effect. That what makes up the teaching of art is its “purposelessness”, the impossibility of describing a final “product” and the impossibility of defining the insights gained. Of course, we do want something to be created. We describe the classes, we believe in their necessity and relevance. But we can’t say to which results they ought to lead. Everything else would be a kind of conditioning and a rupture in the relationship between students and teachers that aims at sovereignty … One of the truths of our profession (as teachers) lies not in conditioning budding artists but precisely in discussing the existing forms of conditioning.

In 1982 the German translation of Jean-François Lyotard’s “The Postmodern Condition” was published, a study on the state of knowledge in – from a Western perspective – the most advanced societies. Lyotard raised the question as to the legitimacy of assertions, of laws, and ascertained the de-legitimisation of modernity’s meta-narratives. And he established that knowledge, when it is to be generated to an informational commodity, when it is to be valorized, becomes highly profitable, a means for decisions and control. “Knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorized in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange. Knowledge ceases to be an end in itself, it loses its ‘use-value’.” [1]

Lyotard’s foresight has become a reality. Everyday experience tells us that we are right in the middle of it, not as ideological collaborators of neoliberalism, but we do share with it quite a few concepts and that’s what makes it so hard to distance oneself from it. In his essay, “Spaces for Thinking”, [2] Simon Sheikh states that we are on the threshold of a society of control. My experience is that the contents themselves are not controlled, because the concept of artistic research is an open field and does not contribute to a content, here, but to an input-output system. The issue isn’t themes, questions or ideas, but efficiency, making the “apparatuses” lean, formulating goals in a jargon developed specifically for this purpose. In short: The issue is the thorough economization and governing of culture. In the process, neoliberal governing – in its contempt for anything having to do with institutions – takes on forms of a planned economy; after the social fields, it is now the turn of the inefficient and expensive institutions of higher education, which have long been put under the general suspicion of wasting money: places where one can have a good time, where nothing has to necessarily be produced. Academies and universities, that produce only a small percentage of economically self-employed artists, with the rest disappearing in the culture industry.

To formulate it polemically: Isn’t artistic research yet another category in the system of funding that seeks to do away with institutional independence once and for all? At least categorization plays a crucial role in fragmenting educational formats: they can be attributed new places more easily, they can be changed, abolished and re-established elsewhere much quicker. It is at the transitions where one must endlessly submit texts, descriptions, points, applications. This is actually a Kafkaesque situation. Why aren’t the institutions financed adequately in the first place? We could spare ourselves the madness of applications, and the institutions could be autonomously in charge of their financial means. But that’s exactly the point: independence is absolutely undesirable. Can we imagine Marcel Duchamp ever having formulated an application? Hardly.

(Translation: Karl Hoffmann)


[1]J.-F. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Minneapolis, 1984, pp. 4–5.
[2]Simon Sheikh, “Spaces for Thinking”, in: Texte zur Kunst, No. 62, June 2006, p. 191.