Claire Bishop: Research-Based Art Lecture

Modern art can be tough to define since it comes with a wide variety of mediums and styles that fill so many microgenres. However, one microgenre exists which includes modern art is essentially research of the artist’s choice. The power of the piece comes in its interpretation and its arrangement. Art historian Claire Bishop presented a lecture regarding this form of art on Friday, Nov. 9 at Lecture Center 102.

Bishop’s lecture, “Information Overload: Research-Based Art and the Politics of Attention,” delved deep into the world of research-based art. She became interested in this genre after noticing a distinct lack of coverage regarding the art form. 

“Most of my research comes out of looking at lots of exhibitions and realizing there is a tendency afoot that hasn’t been adequately discussed or critiqued,” Bishop said. “Research-based art is one example.” 

Bishop began the lecture by explaining its humble beginnings, using the work of Lewis Hine as an initial example. Hine was a prolific photographer in the early 20th century who took photographs of underprivileged groups in the United States in order to prompt positive change. 

“[He] was one of the first to make extensive use of text in his photo essays documenting immigrants, workers and child laborers,” Bishop said. “He even had witnesses countersign these long descriptive captions, which included measurements and statistics.” 

These pieces of text would usually be printed with the photo and would include these measurements and statistics. 

Bishop also traced the genealogy of this artform, detailing three distinct phases in which research based art radically changed. The first genealogy was exemplified by Hine’s work with captioning. The next genealogy was the film essay, when Bishop invoked German artist Hans Richter and his description of the film essay. Richter claimed that film essays made abstract ideas like markets and freedom physical. Finally, the third phase incorporated conceptual art, which is defined as “art in which the idea presented by the artist is considered more important than the finished product, if there is one.”

Bishop also analyzed the internet’s role in research-based art. She noted that during the nineties, when creators made this type of artwork, they would take themselves out of the equation and let patrons sift through their data and reach their own conclusions. Now because of the abundance of information at our fingertips that we can access at high speeds, this leaves viewers feeling alienated.

“I’m asking how research-based art in the current decade needs to rethink strategies that were important to introduce in the 1990s —a fragmented authorial voice, a refusal of mastery,” Bishop said. “But which now no longer work because of our dispersed attention spans and the extent of digital information overload.”

“I argue that storytelling strategies might assume greater importance now – because they provide the viewer with a path through the material, rather than leaving us adrift in data,” Bishop said.

Bishop not only wanted a general audience to understand the art form, but she particularly wants art students to walk away from this lecture with a healthy dose of caution when doing research. 

“I’d like them to be more skeptical of certain gestures that have become very acceptable within contemporary art practice,” she said. “I.e, showing ‘search,’ Googling, rather than ‘research,’ which involves an original proposition.” 

The Student Art Association is responsible for hosting this guest lecturer series. Amanda Heidel, treasurer and lecture organizer for the Student Art Association, cited the importance of letting these artists come to campus. The organization selects artists and art historians for the lecture series through a PowerPoint document where students could suggest artists for the lecture and vote on them. Bishop was one of the artists chosen.

“By having these professionals come here and interact with students is really important,” Heidel said, “It can always lead to something and it’s important to see what they have to hear and say.”

The next lecture in this series will be presented by Chris Wu, the co-creator behind Wrkshps, which is a New York City-based “multidisciplinary design workshop that seeds and shapes identities.” This lecture will be in Lecture Center 102 on Wednesday, Dec. 5 at 11 a.m.