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Washington, DC

by Adriene Jenik

"Los Altos Story Tree, California" by Wonderlane via Flickr

Organizers of the recent National Endowment for the Arts and National Science Foundation summit asked participants to identify in advance and then share with the group their BIG challenges. One challenge that surfaced early on is the lack of shared frameworks for understanding what it means to be critical of one?s practice. Biases embedded in the processes and methodologies of science encourage the perception of a lack of critical reflection by artists while a mirrored set of biases give the perception of a lack of critical reflection by scientists. From the perspective of those performing cultural research, the scientific research field does not acknowledge or accept responsibility for the potentially damaging or even destructive potential of their research, and is heavily invested in the much-touted benefits of scientific and technological progress. Meanwhile, artists (who historically lack externally articulated and standardized methodologies of assessment, evaluation, and claims testing) appear resistant to criticism.

Questions continued into the evening. How can we appropriately ?measure? artistic impact without reducing or diminishing the power of individual interpretation? Taking a recent installation at the venerable art and technology festival Ars Electronica as a case study, we discussed evaluative matrices that might ?easily? produce ?data? that could be used in part to assess an artwork?s impact. Logging time spent with the piece, counting the number of viewers, and valuing return visits at exponential rates, are obvious quantitative measures that could be employed. But reporting ethnographic observations and narrative stories of encounters, and considering other ?residues? that offer evidence of audience interest and transformation are also necessary to present the full picture of an artwork?s impact. Since whichever critical or evaluative frameworks we might offer ultimately reflect (and re-inscribe) what we value, can we create indices of the messy, the unknown, the ambiguous, and the accidental?

Artists in alt-art.sci culture cannot permanently elude the discussion of evaluation (just as our partner scientists cannot continue to ignore the larger context and implications of their research). As collaborators we have a responsibility to explain our practices, instincts, and analytics so they can be understood (and valued) within the research context. As educators, we need to improve our understanding of what ?Making as Thinking? means for our students. If we, as a culture, can acknowledge that what we don?t and can?t know is equal in importance to what we do and can know, we may be able to work together to interpret, appreciate, and learn from the songs of the trees.

Adriene Jenik is the Director of the School of Art at Arizona State University in Tempe. You can read the first post in this series by Roger Malina here.

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