Non-Scientific Science and Non-Artistic Art

This is an abridged version of a research article written in 2021 which appeared in Art & the Public Sphere in 2023.

Art is the ultimate hustler: it will sidle up to anything which promises it access to experience, knowledge, or power. For evidence, one need only look at pairings between art and law, art and the environment, or art and business. These have become so commonplace that one could naively assume a degree of parity between the underlying disciplines, such as is promoted by the language of interdisciplinarity that dominates the 21st century university. 

This equivalence, however, is but an illusion. Since C.P. Snow’s 1959 declaration of war between disciplines,[1]C P Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Rede Lecture (Cambridge University Press, 1959) art has been a partisan in the debate on the merits of positivist and socially constructed knowledges. How does the law politically affect art practice and vice versa? Does the environmental artist work truly ‘in tandem’ with the climate scientist? Does an artwork critiquing global capitalism epistemically influence, rather than merely illustrate, the findings of economics? As I have argued elsewhere, disciplines that fail in epistemic exchange forego the ability to influence one another politically on equal terms. And this has a significant bearing on the political potential of art.

To a point, art has avoided such considerations, occupying a space governed more by the aesthetic than the epistemic, even if critics like Claire Bishop[2]Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012) pointed to the erosion of broadly-defined aesthetic qualities in politicised art practices. The wholesale absorption of art education into the structures of the university since the 1970s and the resulting pressure on art to compete with the logics of the sciences[3]Arthur D Efland, ‘Studies in Art Education: Fourth Invited Lecture How Art Became a Discipline: Looking at Our Recent History’, Studies in Art Education 29, no. 3 (1 April 1988): 262–74, has made such escape effectively impossible. Tom Holert[4]Tom Holert, Knowledge Beside Itself: Contemporary Art’s Epistemic Politics (Sternberg Press, 2020) describes the ongoing ‘epistemization’ of contemporary art as it becomes integrated into the knowledge economies. Contemporary art practices routinely make recourse to narratives of embodied or indigenous knowledges, to name just a couple.[5]Gerald McMaster, ‘Contemporary Art Practice and Indigenous Knowledge’, Zeitschrift Für Anglistik Und Amerikanistik 68, no. 2 (2020): 111–28, The practice-based art PhD has a sui generis logic of knowledge and discipline.[6]Hazel Smith and Roger T. Dean, Practice-Led Research, Research-Led Practice in the Creative Arts (Edinburgh University Press, 2009) How might we evaluate the limits of art’s claims to knowledge and the political potential of its interaction with knowledges beyond?

The question is at best moot. Charles Esche suggested that art’s ‘a-disciplinarity’ is a strength, meaning that political art practices can be impactful precisely because they remain ignorant of disciplinary and knowledge limits.[7]‘Include Me Out : Preparing Artists to Undo the Art World’, in Art School : Propositions for the 21st Century, ed. Steven Henry Madoff (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009), 101–13 The strikers at the Royal College of Art in 2020, for example, proclaimed that “Art is not a discipline in a conventional sense. It does not have distinct objects of study or singular methodologies or recognised research techniques”.[8]RCA UCU members, ‘Letter: Reflection on Education from the Frontlines’, Art Monthly, April 2020, 17 Brian Holmes pointed to a problem in such an approach to disciplinary relationships: the anti-authoritarian ‘in-discipline’ of art inevitably falls prey to market demands.[9]‘Extradisciplinary Investigations: Towards a New Critique of Institutions’, in Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique, ed. Gerald Raunig and Gene Ray (London: MayFlyBooks, 2009), 53–62 Art’s ‘free play’, he suggested, adds value to other disciplines, often at its own cost, for example, when artists are employed as ‘facilitators’ in corporate settings.[10]Henrik Stenberg, ‘How Is the Artist Role Affected When Artists Are Participating in Projects in Work Life?’,International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-Being 11, no. 1 (1 January 2016): 30549, … see more Other forms of art’s ‘disciplined’ play with other knowledges, likewise, have not found universal approval: Jacques Rancière warned against the fetishization of interdisciplinarity as radical in and of itself,[11]Jacques Rancière, Andrew McNamara, and Toni Ross, ‘On Medium Specificity And Discipline Crossovers In Modern Art’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 8, no. 1 (1 January 2007): 98–107, echoing Holmes’ concern about interdisciplinary academic ‘productivism’.

Everything is art. Or is it?

Art intervenes into the domains of a multitude of other disciplines. Nato Thompson identified a vast array of issues that drive artist and their practices: “sustainability, the environment, education, housing, labor [sic], gender, race, colonialism, gentrification, […] and on and on.”[12]Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012), 22 He does not, however, reserve any special place for art in the pursuit of these interests, seeing them as ‘forms of life’. In such a framing, art and politics can fuse in just about any shape: art is social work, it sways elections, it fights homelessness, it redefines gender relations.

However, this rhetorical device that allows art to absorb anything and everything as its own deflects attention from the questions of art’s knowledge limits and their inevitable effects on what art and artists can achieve politically. When Thompson claims that artists “use a broad range of bureaucratic and administrative skills that typically lie in the domain of larger institutions, such as marketing, fundraising, grant writing, […] city-planning, and educational programming”,[13]27 he neglects to ask whether artists do, in fact, have such adequate skills at their disposal. Little in the art school curriculum suggests that they might and this has practical implications: Gregory Sholette observed the artist Theaster Gates’ “genuine surprise that while working on his Dorchester housing restoration projects in Chicago”, he had to learn about zoning laws. “To anyone other than an artist trained to deal with the representations of things, but not things themselves, [the need for] gaining practical knowledge about zoning laws would have been self-evident.”[14]‘Delirium and Resistance after the Social Turn’, Field: A Journal of Socially-Engaged Art Criticism 1 (2015): 95–138

Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Projects, Grand Crossing, Chicago

Gates did learn zoning laws, but not all artists have access to such facilitative, or even limiting, knowledges. Unless the boundaries of artistic knowledge are precisely defined, artists may fail to notice when they have transgressed them without due preparation. Mick Wilson suggested that while artists’ lack of knowledge of, say, economics is not surprising, it is often a matter of convention rather than reasoned choice: “We may be less ready to recognise the potential for reductive misreadings of other disciplines and professions by artists and assume special exemption from these risks”.[15]Mick Wilson, ‘Discipline Problems and the Ethos of Research’, in SHARE Handbook for Artistic Research Education, ed. Mick Wilson and Schelte van Ruiten (Amsterdam: ELIA European League of Institutes of the Arts, 2013), 211

If the notion of disciplinary knowledge remains a point of contention, whose understandings of knowledge limits does art rely on? When artists try to overcome the disciplinary boundaries of art, as in the investigative agency Forensic Architecture’s attempts to present artistic works as evidence in court, they face the challenge of arguing for art’s epistemic and disciplinary validity in a framework over which they have scant control. In the words of artist Alana Jelinek, relying on art’s reputation to drive political change places the artist Between Discipline and a Hard Place.[16]Between Discipline and a Hard Place: The Value of Contemporary Art (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020) Art’s involvement in the clash of the disciplines that Snow hinted at now seems inevitable, if not politically desirable. If epistemic and disciplinary exchange can be understood as a way of enacting politics, how could art strategically play its cards?

Playing the enemy

One approach could be recasting artists’ attitudes to the variety of dominant knowledge positions with which political art practice contends and situating political art as a practice of epistemic ‘piracy’. Theaster Gates has been widely lauded for deploying the tools of extractive capitalism for the good of the community. Could political art find a scalable way to apply, and possibly rewrite, the knowledges and skills of city planning, business, or the sciences without declaring allegiance to their dominant disciplinary narratives? In an era in which politics is synonymous with epistemic conflict, could this be the way to enact political change?

The Turner Prize-nominated Forensic Architecture (FA) was established by Eyal Weizmann in 2010. The agency’s practice consisting of some 80 ‘investigations’ typically involves the examination of alleged breaches of human rights in high-profile contexts such as the attacks by the Israeli military on the Palestinian territory.[17]Forensic Architecture, ed., Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth (Sternberg Press, 2014) FA uses a bewildering array of knowledges and skills: it employs multiple disciplines (investigative journalism, forensic archaeology, legal scholarship, human rights activism, etc.) and mediates evidence in legal, media, and artistic forums. The practice relies on the application of a variety of ‘forensic’ methods (building surveying, 3D modelling, machine learning, medicine, acoustic science) combined with artistic and aesthetic processes to create evidentiary narratives. While personnel changes suggest that the influence of artists (individuals who so identify or trained in art schools) over the group’s work has waned over time, FA is almost universally praised as a marker in the ambition of art’s political impact and social relevance.[18]for example, Stephanie Bailey, ‘Art as Evidence as Art’, Art Monthly (London, February 2021)

It is then useful to examine how FA performs and justifies its relationship to knowledges such as forensic science, bearing in mind these their disciplines can produce radically different political outcomes in the hands of FA’s opponents. In its investigation into the 2011 killing of Mark Duggan by the Metropolitan Police, for example, FA accessed the very same testimonies and reports and made use of the same skills as had led to the exoneration of the Police in earlier proceedings.[19]Forensic Architecture, ‘The Killing of Mark Duggan’ (London, 2020) FA’s work presented as reports, video animation, 3D virtual reality modelling, and exhibitions, in contrast, pointed to grave omissions in the earlier investigations and implied the possibility of Police wrongdoing as the most likely cause of Duggan’s death.

Forensic Architecture, The Killing of Mark Duggan, 2020, video still

It should be no surprise that a political inclination may sway ‘impartial’ investigation and testimony. But to participate in legal processes, FA needs to abide by the same standards of evidence and truth as its adversaries: it needs to appear ‘neutral’. The challenge for the artists is then to engage their politics in what is an unavoidably biased process, without being caught doing so. However, Weizman outright denied that FA’s science has anything to do with “the authoritarian, objective, and neutral scientist inherited from Victorian-era state-funded science”,[20]Forensic Architecture, Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth, 13 proposing FA’s work as an alternative. If FA’s investigations yield different outcomes to those of state actors, it must be because FA’s scientific knowledge is somehow fundamentally different. Indeed, Weizman almost argued ‘traditional’ science out of existence: “Our notion of truth is not positivistic, but one that is pragmatically constructed with all the difficulties of representation”.[21]Eyal Weizman et al., ‘On Forensic Architecture: A Conversation with Eyal Weizman’, October, no. 156 (1 May 2016): 120,

I see these statements as a justification for Forensic Architecture tactically inserting socially constructed modes of evidence in a setting that demands positivist attitudes – a form of high-seas piracy. The forensic knowledge that FA deploys in its investigations is unlikely to be a wholly novel form of epistemic practice. Was the biomechanics expert commissioned by Mark Duggan’s family and whose 2019 testimony contributed to the FA investigation a somehow better/more neutral/less positivist witness than the forensic pathologist commissioned in 2011 by the IPCC? I propose that FA’s investigations are an example of artistic engagement with a knowledge that is a priori antagonistic to the artists’ political aims, rather than an application of artistic knowledges per se. To put it clearly: in this scenario, FA are activists performing bona fide science, reaching scientifically-rooted conclusions, but interpreting and presenting them as art, except for when it is more productive to present them as science. What is the disciplinary relationship between art and the forensic sciences here? It is not evident from FA’s statements or the work that art and science participate jointly in the creation of knowledge at any stage. Might it be then that FA’s proposals for an anti-hegemonic science are, in fact, a smokescreen behind which the group engages with traditionally understood practice of forensic science while posing as art and therefore wholly unthreatening to the keepers of this disciplinary knowledge? This, in effect, could have the potential to liberate the dominant knowledge (in this example, forensic science) from the hegemonic power setting where it usually operates (the service of the state).

Forensic Architecture’s diverse practice illustrates that while political art justifiably considers some forms of knowledge with suspicion, those knowledges could, under certain circumstances, be politically mobilised to ends that are not necessarily politically pre-determined. The condition for such activation is the artist’s command over the arcana of the epistemic field and their ability to use, abuse, borrow, steal, or corrupt it.Should art schools then be providing artists with access to verifiable knowledges and skills (in marketing, city-planning, or investment, as Thompson suggested), becoming pick-and-mix knowledge shops? While such a proposal may seem grotesque, the fact that many artists involved in political action lack access to professional development opportunities does bear dwelling on,[22]Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, ‘Mapping Artists’ Professional Development Programmes in the UK: Knowledge and Skills’ (London: Chisenhale Gallery, 2015) given that autodidactism tends to lead to overconfidence that risks elevating fallacies to the status of dogma.[23]Nathan Ballantyne, Knowing Our Limits (Oxford University Press, 2019)

One way out of the stalemate could be to break from the idea of artistic exceptionalism hinted at by Wilson. Eric Hayot observes that while humanists (and artists) espouse a lofty politics that in principle shapes the fundamental epistemic features of their discipline (foregrounding the particular over the general, attention to ethics, etc.), this manifests more in defensive metadiscourse than in practice.[24]Humanist Reason: A History. an Argument. a Plan (Columbia University Press, 2021) The humanities’ default has been to retreat into the realm of unquestioning absolutes, previously reserved only for the aesthetic, for art. By pointing out that such dogmatic beliefs have no primacy in practice, Hayot proposes a set of principles of ‘humanist reason’ that could help to facilitate the epistemic exchange between politically antagonistic disciplines and calls for a pragmatic, even opportunist negotiation of the same disciplinary and epistemic boundaries that I have highlighted as potentially limiting political art.

In tandem with Hayot, mine is not a call for the wholesale instrumentalisation of political artistic practices using evidence-based solutionism under the mere guise of aesthetics. In other to be politically efficacious, the negotiation between art’s aesthetic considerations and the epistemes of other disciplines must be bilateral, although by no means transparent. For a practice as complex and costly as Forensic Architecture’s, this is no easy task. Weizman has recently attempted to redefine aesthetics as the practice of enhanced human sensing using non-human agents such as the built environment as proxies.[25]Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman, Investigative Aesthetics: Conflicts and Commons in the Politics of Truth (Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2021) This proposal comes close to denying that a human, artistic sensibility may be at play in the formulation of the evidence in the group’s work, a claim fundamental to the success of FA’s work in legal realms. 

One might conclude that indeed, FA’s work is no longer ‘artistic’. FA’s trade-off of effectively prioritising the scientific over the artistic, paradoxically the converse of the problem of most political art practices, risks forcing the group to maintain the fictions of non-scientific science in the museum and non-artistic art in the courtroom, a compromise that in the end pleases no one.

If there is a lesson here, it could take the form of a call for rephrasing the questions of political art so that they are not answered with self-serving tautologies: not all epistemic questions can be answered with the universal principles of aesthetic judgment. Conversely, not-art knowledges, particularly when only half-possessed, do not compensate for the dilution of art’s former aesthetic strengths. So perhaps the political artist, in the end, become an adept lawyer/scientist/manager to use law, science, or management as materials and media, but they must also train become, as a matter of priority, a competent artist. When Stephanie Bailey suggests that the once-inevitable “question of ‘is this art?’ shifted to ‘what can art do?’”, I propose that abandoning the former consideration compromises the understanding of the latter.[26]Bailey, ‘Art as Evidence as Art’, 10 Given the complexity of the epistemic power structures with which political art contends, better still ask “what is it?”, “how do I use it?” and, most importantly, “how do I make art of it?”

Main image: Forensic Architecture, The Killing of Mark Duggan, 2020, video still

Suggested citation for the original text: d’Alancaisez, Pierre. ‘Non-Scientific Science and Non-Artisitc Art: “other” Knowledges in the Political Practice of Forensic Architecture’. Art & the Public Sphere 11, no. 1 (7 February 2023): 115–22.