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Artistic Practice Under Contemporary Conditions is a research project at Aarhus University made possible by a grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation (NNF21OC0068539), and runs from 2022 to 2026

Project description

Purpose and hypothesis 
The past twenty–thirty years have seen thoroughgoing changes within art that have made it difficult to recognize its works as works of art in modern terms. Art can no longer be placed in specific genres and categories belonging to particular art forms, often it is no longer expressed in a delimited work, and it is hard to distinguish from its surroundings and what is not art. Modernist ideas about delimited works, a shared project and a shared progressive history are no longer valid, or at least they no longer hold a monopoly on the conceptual framework for the work of art. The concepts and categories developed to describe and analyse modern art seem to have lost their explanatory force in relation to the art that concerns and speaks to our contemporary times, which is why we, to a large extent, have replaced the term “modern art” with “contemporary art” in designating the art of current times. The emergence of contemporary art thus necessitates a paradigm shift within the study of art in which the very notion of art is at stake (Lund 2019 and 2020a). 
The project is a theoretical and analytical investigation of the relationship between artistic practice and meaning-making and the sociopolitical reality in which art takes place and by which it is nourished. It is guided by the hypothesis that this relationship has undergone substantial changes during the transition from modern art to contemporary art, and that the study of art needs to revise traditional notions of its historicity and the categories of work and artistic autonomy, among others, in order to catch up with the phenomenon of contemporary art. Rather than defining what contemporary art is (Foster; Osborne; Smith; Ross; Cox and Lund), the purpose is to explore how contemporary artistic practices create meaning in relation to the non-artistic societal reality in which they operate. The focus is on exploring and describing how the very diverse practices and works we designate as “contemporary art” function as art, and on what qualifies them as artistic. 

Globality is a historical condition and a state of affairs in which we now live following many years of globalisation, due not least to developments in communication technologies. Our historical present is characterised by the intensification of mutual global interconnections and exchanges between all the cultures and regions in the world, generating a global or even planetary sense of contemporaneity which has also been underlined by the effects of climate change on our existence as a species (Smith et al.; Cox and Lund; Latour). Awareness of the globalised conditions of the present situation has helped to divide the modern attitude to art history into several related art histories, and to expand our understanding of the practices which can be said to participate in what we call art. Contemporary works of art no longer participate in a single progressive form of history with each art historical period replacing, developing or challenging the previous period (Bourriaud; Danto; Belting; Michaud; Didi-Huberman; Ross; Lund 2019). Contemporary art has abandoned (or is at least trying to challenge) the kind of Euro-American centralism which characterised modern art; and is far more international, transnational, global and cosmopolitan in its outlook (often with a distinctly local point of departure) (Papastergiadis). To a large extent, contemporary art seeks to go beyond the idea that the human being is a privileged, self-sufficient actor who is the centre of the world, cf. Anselm Franke’s exhibition projects entitled Animism (Franke 2010) and The Anthropocene at HKW in Berlin. 
In line with this development, in recent years a significant body of artistic practice has focused on critical social questions relating to some of the consequences of modernity, including climate change, migration, human rights, decolonisation, racism (Black Lives Matter) and sexism (MeToo). This makes it seem more inclusive, activistic and politically committed than previous artistic practices. But what is it that enables us to regard it as art? What is that still makes it artistic?  

Theoretical foundation, analytical approach and points of focus 
A great deal of influential criticism and research literature relating to contemporary art focuses on themes of contemporary art such as climate change, identity and decolonisation, but this project wishes to examine the way in which these themes are presented in a process of artistic sense-making. In other words, in contrast to a classical avant-garde understanding, the project does not assume that the aesthetic is political through an art that lets itself integrate and dissolve into everyday life. It assumes that the aesthetic is political precisely because of its ability to differentiate itself from the normally inconspicuous organisation of our everyday lifeworld, and, through such differentiation, provoke critical reflection on this organisation (Rebentisch; Rancière 2000). In the attempt to take its analysis beyond the themes of contemporary art, the project will, on the other hand, try to refrain from resorting uncritically to traditional concepts and categories of art analysis, which often (more or less implicitly) presume that works of art see themselves as participants in the development of a modern, progressive art historical narrative, which is no longer relevant in contemporary conditions. Consequently, based on the study of artistic meaning-making, one important part of the project will involve revising existing and developing new analytical concepts and distinctions which can help to improve our understanding of the ways in which contemporary art functions. This conceptual task will be inspired by Mieke Bal’s understanding of “travelling concepts” and her efforts to allow the object being analysed to “speak back” to the analytical concepts and modify them (Bal 2002 and 2003). 
From the perspective of modern aesthetic theory, it is difficult to recognise works of contemporary art as art because on a formal, objective level they cannot be categorised according to the traditions of a specific art form or be limited to the traditional artistic media. Instead, they incorporate new technologies and industrial production methods in their artistic practice, for instance the works of Hito Steyerl and Trevor Paglen. When they not only evade comparison with the art of the past, but also seem boundless in relation to their non-artistic outside and the non-aesthetic lifeworld, it often becomes unclear what forms part of the work and what does not, for instance in a number of socially engaged art practices. As pointed out by Juliane Rebentisch and others, these boundless works, which began, in particular, to appear in the 1960s in performance, Fluxus, Minimalism, Conceptual art, etc., do not enroll in the developmental history of traditional art forms and they are no longer given as something defined objectively. For instance, when Tino Sehgal appoints local residents as guides who conduct long, personal conversations with museum visitors while following them around in empty exhibition rooms. 
Given that the open, boundless works have made it impossible to connect artistic autonomy to the category of work, we need to revise our notion of artistic autonomy if such an idea is to maintain any usefulness in a critical understanding of contemporary art (cf. Lütticken). One potential answer lies, as suggested by Rebentisch, in the coupling of the boundless form with the effects of art. This means that the study of art must shift its focus away from the work as an organic, distinct unity to the ways in which it interacts with its surroundings and the subjectivities that experience it, regarding the specificity of the aesthetic as being characterised by a particular relation between sense-making subjects and sense-receptive objects that mutually affect each other. Contemporary artworks depend on the subjects who take part in them – so they only become full artworks when this participation occurs. and it is, so to speak, not until in and through this participation that it is realized as work. The spectators thereby entangle their contemporary social realities in the structure of the work (Rancière 2008). Artist Tania Bruguera’s political-timing-specific art could be an example of how the work of art is linked to the specificity of the political moment of its realization. (Bishop 2019).  
One of the central theses of the project is that the autonomy of art, therefore, has to be understood as something experiential, not to abandon the category of work but to redefine it as a dynamic process in which the aesthetic is no longer separated from the non-aesthetic as something objectifiably different, but where the aesthetic consists in a reflexive transformation of the non-aesthetic (Rebentisch; Rancière 2000). The work of art consists not only of its physical presence, but also of its senses and the values in which it is inscribed and which are inscribed in it. As politically time specific, it takes part in the unfolding of the present.  
Consequently, in the analytical approach to contemporary artistic practices there is also a need to revise our understanding of the formal aspects of the work of art. The formal aspects do not only relate to the compositional manipulation of a range of abstract visual or physical properties within a closed and entirely self-referential system. Many of contemporary artistic practices, not least socially engaged art, operate through and within a highly complex formal system which is structured via a somatic, social, physical and verbal interaction which is intersubjective and targeted at specific institutional and discursive structures (Kester 2017). Works of contemporary art not only integrate or include thematic areas of the non-artistic social lifeworld, but also formally open themselves up to these areas – for instance Jakob Jakobsen’s Hospital for Self Medication – thereby raising the question of the relationship between art and non-art in a new way. Contemporary artistic practices generate a special experience which relates reflexively to the experiences and perceptions of the different areas of our lifeworld in which they intervene or to which they relate (cf. Rebentisch). 
The project will revise and expand on this theoretical aesthetic point of departure by analysing a wide range of contemporary artistic material consisting of works, projects, institutions and exhibitions. The project also wishes to contribute to the development of a more critical concept regarding what we understand by the term contemporary artistic practice. Consequently, one of the basic criteria for selecting material for analysis will be whether it can be regarded as a break with traditional modern understandings of history, delimited works and object-based autonomy. 
The boundless structure of contemporary works of art invites us to think with the work of art and artistic practice (cf. Meskimmon) rather than only looking at the work (enunciation, formal and medial conditions in a traditional sense) and/or through the work (their utterance, content, topic, motif). When exploring and trying to come to terms with artistic sense-making and the artistic nature of contemporary artistic practices, the project will take its specific point of departure in the way in which such practices intervene in the lifeworld and can be said to produce what Jacques Rancière calls images pensives (pensive images) (2008). A pensive image invites its observers to be attentive to the image and take part in unfolding a reflection: How does this image come into being? How does it work? What does it make visible, and might it render invisible? The concept of the pensive image refers to a zone of indeterminacy between the passive and the active, between the image as depiction of a thing, i.e. as a representation of the world, and the image as an artistic operation or creative agent; but it also refers to a zone of indeterminacy between non-art and art, between the image as an integral part of the circulation of images in society or as a frictionless representation, and the image as a source of resistance and space for alternative imaginings. 
One of the other main analytical focal points will be the appearance and exhibition of the work of art as decisive for its ability to create a reflexive transformation of the non-aesthetic and non-artistic areas of the lifeworld in which they are embedded or to which they connect themselves. The act of exhibition makes something/the work present but it simultaneously creates a distance exactly because the appearance of the work is arranged and addressed to someone/us (cf. Garcia; Bal 2007 and 2020; Voorhies). This becomes apparent for example in various forms of reenactment in which real space or rather the lifeworld is turned into a model of itself – for instance in the work of Forensic Architecture, who investigates violations of human rights and uses art forums as one of their venues for exhibiting these violations. The project will investigate various strategies and forms of this kind of exhibition and making-perceptible in contemporary art practices, both inside and outside predefined spaces for art. These investigations will also be linked to the question of making-public (cf. Franke 2019; Steeds; Clark; Hantelmann) as a shared precondition for both modern art and contemporary art. 
As the overall goal of the project is theoretical, focusing on the development of concepts, it is not possible at present to provide further details of the entire body of material with which the project intends to engage and in dialogue with which the theoretical and conceptual development will unfold. Some of the material will only be added while the project is being carried out (new individual works, exhibitions and projects). Based on the above-mentioned selection criteria, the material will consist of contemporary artistic practices and projects including: Raqs Media Collective, Heba Y. Amin, Tino Sehgal, Trevor Paglen, Camille Henrot, Kader Attia, Mark Leckey, Tania Bruguera, Forensic Architecture, The Otolith Group, Jakob Jakobsen, Jeanette Ehlers, Thomas Hirschhorn, Renzo Martens et al. and collective exhibitions and projects such as CAMP/Center for Art on Migration Politics, internet-based exhibitions, biennials, art projects outside the walls of art institutions, etc. 

Associate Professor, PhD, Jacob Lund is responsible for the theoretical and analytical carrying out of the overall project and associated concepts, with particular focus on contemporary artistic sense-making processes and forms of exhibition. The project will also include two sub-projects performed by two postdocs who will be appointed on the basis of open international advertisements. The two postdocs will take part in answering the project’s overall research questions, but with different points of focus and areas of study. 

Postdoc A: The concept of knowledge in relation to artistic practice 
When we talk about thinking with contemporary art, this endeavour is also connected to an increased focus on the knowledge that artistic practices are capable of generating (cf. Macleod and Holdridge; Schwab and Borgdorff; Jones and Galison), for instance through archival and documentary work. Knowledge, along with research, has become a central area of competence within contemporary art that seemingly overshadows more traditional aesthetic categories like beauty, style and genre, which have previously organised and filtered the production and understanding of art (Holert). To a much larger extent than before, contemporary art claims an active epistemic function and takes an active part in determining what can be understood as knowledge; which forms it can take; and whom and what this knowledge is made for. Postdoc A will carry out a sub-project that is related to the following research questions: How is knowledge generated through artistic practice? What kind of knowledge is involved? How does this knowledge differ from traditional scientific knowledge? How can it challenge and/or cooperate with existing knowledge and ways of generating knowledge? How is it made communicable? What forms, infrastructures and relations does it enter into or form part of? 

Postdoc. Nicolas Malevé: Artistic practice in a digitalised lifeworld 
Synchronously with the emergence of contemporary art, large parts of our existence have been revolutionised due to developments in communication technologies. These technologies intervene in practically all aspects of our everyday lives, have been a decisive factor in producing a global contemporaneity in which all parts of the globe in principle are interconnected, and help to constitute what we understand by presence and the present (cf. Crary; Blom; Easterling; Bratton; Lund 2020b). How do artistic practices not only employ digital technologies but explore what it means to think, see and sense through the digital? Postdoc B will carry out a sub-project, which may be based on artistic or curatorial practice, and which will focus on research questions such as: How do artistic practices generate reflexive transformations (cf. Rebentisch) of the digitalisation of our everyday lives? How are the consequences of digitalisation and the internet for the ways in which we perceive and experience the world articulated artistically? Which media and technological questions, aspects and strategies are involved in aesthetic reflexive transformations of a digitalised lifeworld and our changed relation to perception, history, language and social relations? What does the work of art do when, for instance, online platforms not only function as documentation or representation but as the place where the work of art appears and meets its recipients and participants, as the place of its exhibition? 

Relevance of the project for the research field 
In general, the project wishes to contribute to greater understanding of the ways in which art functions in contemporary society, and to a clarification of the epistemic and medial aspects of these functions. It will contribute to art theory and the theoretical and analytical approaches of art history to contemporary art by revising existing concepts and categories and introducing new ones. The project will also contribute to art criticism in the form of this theoretical and analytical foundation for discussing the artistic nature of contemporary artistic practices. 

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