Could an “Exhibition Proposal” be an artistic research paper?

How do visual artists usually start making a new work? Over the years I have realised that my process is unique – many of my peers and students work visually – by producing sketches, paintings and jumping straight into producing visuals in a raw form. As for myself, my process of making a new work has always involved writing. Probably every single work that I’ve made has first started as a piece of writing.

I recently went to dig up the proposal from my first solo show at The Substation at 2010 and to give it a proper assessement. My journey as an artist started with a ridiculous, delusionally long, 17-page proposal. But I mean, who has the time to read 17 pages??? The Substation staff in 2010, I have to salute you for reading my entire rambling proposal and taking me seriously and giving me the opportunity to produce that exhibition for the 2010 open call.

My proposal for “The Singapore River as a Psychogeographical Faultline” in 2010

I have to confess that since I was quite a big Philip K Dick fan back in the day, so I had also rather, ahem, grandiloquently fancied that writing a proposal for an artwork was like penning the exegesis in the book V.A.L.I.S, where the obviously pseudonymously autobiographical Horselover Fat writes an exegesis to explain his world view – and to serve as a roadmap in his quest for the divine.

I have never been sure how exactly to write the “the artwork proposal”. There has never been a template or guide for it. If it were supposed to be an essay, my proposals perhaps involved too many pictures. But if it were supposed to be a visual proposal, then one might also say that it perhaps involved far too many words. For example, in my 2010 proposal, I had a whole page explaning why I had chosen \\ as the title of the exhibition, because to me it was like drawing a little map of the SIngapore River inline within the page, but I also went as far as to talk about how I imagined it being rendered in different fonts on different people’s computers over different browsers – and then I also illustrated it inline within the proposal with different fonts like this:

So whilst the artwork proposal can be considered a text (it is after all only a text document!), it already begins to try to illustrate the point through artistic practice. But since so much writing is also involved, including stating the artwork’s position and references to other text and historical documents, I suppose this is why for many years people referred to the art I made as “artistic research”, and I also quite merrily accepted the label.

But is this simply the easy ‘tactical move’ that an artist takes since it helps justify and promote the work? From the perspective of an artist, it would be advantageous for myself to embrace of the term “practice-led research”, since it obviously explains and justifies why what I do is situated within “research”. So the question is: can art practice be research?

I suppose my hesitation in equating artistic research to “creating knowledge” points to the philosophical quandrary of what constitutes knowledge. What are the formats that knowledge can take? Can an artwork produce knowledge? Generalisable knowledge? What then if it does not contain absolutes? What if the work itself is unstable or is open to range of ambigious readings? You could say that certainly an artwork is not going to have the laser-sharp precision that a scientific proof or mathematical proof might have. (Actually, what is scientific proof anyway??). I want to say that in this day and age (eg: with a post structuralist reading, in this a post internet age, etc) that of course many will not need to have it explained to them that that knowledge is not monolithic, but I am still concerned that it nonetheless remains open to misinterpretation.

So… do you think an “Exhibition Proposal” could also be a document of artistic research?

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