Interview with Mira Kallio-Tavin
Dr. Mira Kallio-Tavin is Associate Professor of Arts-based Research and Pedagogy and the Head of Research in the Department of Art at Aalto University, Finland. Kallio-Tavin has developed arts-based research methodology within social context and in relation to the questions of dialogue, community, ethics and philosophy of contemporary art and its education. Her research area focuses on questions of diversity, disability studies, social justice, critical animal studies, embodiment, and art education beyond anthropocentricism, including perspectives from “more than human” and critical issues from the perspectives of “less than human”.
Abdullah Qureshi is a Pakistani-born artist, curator, and educator. Within his practice, he is interested in using painting, filmmaking and methodologies of collaboration and organization to address personal histories, traumatic pasts, and sexuality. Through his on-going doctoral project, Mythological Migrations: Imagining Queer Muslim Utopias, he examines formations of queer identity and resistance in Muslim migratory contexts. He is currently a Doctoral Candidate, supported by Kone Foundation, at Aalto University, Finland.
Abdullah Qureshi: I would like to begin by defining and situating the fields of artistic research, arts-based research, art education, and contemporary art. What is the history of these modes of working and thinking in the Finnish context?
Mira Kallio-Tavin: These are all relatively young fields. Really, development began in the early 2000s at the Academy of Fine Arts, where the first dissertations with artistic components came from (then known as KUVA in the University of the Arts Helsinki). At Aalto University, the first dissertations also came around that time, predominantly in photography and in art education - which were both independent departments at the time. A lot of early writings on artistic research were informed by philosophy, without the researcher having their own artistic practice. There was also a comparison with the natural sciences. What could artistic research do differently? It took a long time for hands-on practicing artists to take a leading position of artistic research knowledge production. More recently designers have also started to develop research knowledge based on artistic practices. Many of them use practice-led research, which is another term to address very similar research strategies - but doesn’t necessarily mean exactly the same as artistic research or arts-based research, coming from a slightly different discourse and context. Instead, what we see here is more potential for the research to be interdisciplinary. The idea that we have a standardized definition of what artistic research means, isn’t possible - it depends on who we are asking. There are so many ways to approach this research practice. In an exercise conducted recently, various professors who identify their work in the fields of artistic / arts-based / practice-led research were asked this question, and everyone had different understandings. Even in the recently concluded Art of Research conference at Aalto University (December 2020), people had different understandings. Every research project is singular. It is very difficult to say anything universal about singular processes. I would say that as it is an emerging field and it isn’t possible to give one definition, and that perhaps is the beauty of it.
Over the last 20 years, from it’s beginning, artistic research has changed a lot. In the beginning it was only a handful of people who were doing it, by introducing subjective knowledge, produced through their own practices. And this was met with a lot of suspicion. One of the first dissertations (by Riitta Nelimarkka) produced in this manner, was rejected during the defence, which was a scandal as it is not possible to do so in Finland given that dissertations move to deference upon being already examined and approved here. At that time - and to some extent still - there was the expectation for research to be objective and it was absurd for many to think of artistic research as research.
Jumping to the current situation, as we are living in interesting times, it has become imperative to re-think artistic research from a critical perspective. It is very much in our hands to do it. The current doctoral students, with their professors, direct the future of these fields and lines of research. For example, our research group, Cluster for Critical Artistic Research (CCARe) has the potentiality to make a serious impact. Historically, since so much of what has been written about artistic research, arts-based research as well as practice-led research has emerged from the West - and more often than not, written by white people. What we have with CCARe is the forum for diverse voices and perspectives within these fields to be amplified.
AQ: Thinking about this evolving nature of artistic research then, I am curious how much it has shifted how we think about research in Finnish academia?
MKT: A professor from Media (seriously) asked a year ago, “are we still talking about artistic research?” Thinking that somehow it would have gone away by now. At present, there are three universities in Finland that confer a Doctor of Arts degree or allow artistic components as research outputs. In Europe, Portugal is the leader, as there in 8 universities students can do so. The UK - as we know - also has a long history of PhD Art degrees. However, in other parts, for instance, in Sweden a practice-led PhD is just being developed. So, the field is growing, but slowly. We are still talking about it as a small movement. But 20 years is also not a lot of time for a research field to develop.
AQ: What is interesting about artistic research is that it sits between many fields. Not only is it challenged rigorously from the perspective of traditional approaches to research, it remains equally contested from a Fine Art perspective. For instance, what is the boundary between an artist and an artistic researcher? On some level, are all artists not conducting research or at the very least engaging with disciplinary histories?
MKT: Yes - there are people who say, artists have always been researchers. For example, as a prominent example, when we think of Leonardo Da Vincci, or as well most contemporary artists. There is reasoning behind making a work of art. So many artists are doing research and background work before the act of producing. Much of how we think about artistic research is a consequence of it being brought into the university as a degree - as a result, having to regulate it or standardize it. There are folks who are strong advocates for artistic research, and at the same time insist, that we shouldn’t be too worried about academic/institutional expectations when producing artistic research outputs. In this sense, a fascinating idea is that when we think of a degree, we assume there is/will be a hypothesis, following the traditional model of doing research. However, it is not alway clear what art is/where it is going. Or, what are the outcomes? What is the process? What does the research aim to achieve? What will happen? And, eventually, do we even know and would it even be important to know? Some people are brave like that, where they admit to these aspects of doing artistic research - that really, we are dealing with a lot of unknown here.
AQ: Coming toward your role as an art educator, in your writing, you make an important case for a stronger relationship between art education and contemporary art practices. Considering recent global events, such as the on-going pandemic and the Black Lives Movement, we are also seeing conversations and the purpose of contemporary art shift from within; where artists are increasingly turning toward social justice issues. How do you think this impacts art education?
MKT: Professionals working with educational and pedagogical processes, regardless if they take place in museums, as community projects, or within formal educational contexts, are oftentimes interested in similar societal issues as contemporary artists. Traditional fine arts processes might not always be as interested in current, topical, political and societal issues. This is not to say that they wouldn't ever be - this is more connected to the artistic research done in the universities in Finland. People and their struggles, as well as issues beyond human perspectives, are similarly interesting to many contemporary artists as they are to many contemporary art educators. This is not to claim as a rule, as there are many other emphasis areas in both fields as well.
Social justice issues have been the main focus area in art education for at least the last ten years. These are equally important issues and art educators around the world are strongly reacting to contemporary issues, such as BLM and the pandemic.
AQ: Nordic countries often play a leading role in the field of art education. What is the history of this conversation in the region? And, how is this changing in light of recent politically charged conversations on decoloniality, systemic racism, and identity?
MKT: There are many researchers who are pushing strongly for these issues. However, traditionally the educational realm in the Nordic countries, and I could emphasise here Finland, which has often been described as one of the global educational leaders, has not been critical enough, in my opinion. The discourse has too often focused on celebrating the excellency in the Nordic education, without recognising critical aspects, such as cultural diversity. As I have stated elsewhere, Finland and other Nordic countries are often idealized as progressive welfare and democratic nations. Nordic countries never lived through an event of self-criticism in terms of colonialism, as did many other European countries in the aftermath of dismantling of the empires, and thus have a particular relationship to whiteness and to the ignorance of racism. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind Finland’s geographical situation as a periphery and its size as a small country in terms of its population, actually as similar or smaller size to many cities. Solving issues and creating constructive solutions is clearly quite different keeping this scale in mind. My hope is that critical artistic researchers will direct their work towards societal and political issues within contemporary artistic research, such as decolonialism and challenging whiteness in Northern Europe.