Art in an international learning space

Sidsel Nelund is the first Head of the Schools of Visual Arts’ newly opened Institute for Research and Interdisciplinary Studies. Nelund will be instrumental in shaping and defining the institute, which will offer courses on art history and art theory across the various Schools of Visual Arts and serve as a centre for artistic research

Sidsel Nelund is passionate about art, research and education – and especially about combining all three. This is evident in her own art history research and in the many projects she has taken part in over the course the last decade, for example in Beirut and Santiago.

Nelund’s interest in the learning spaces that art can create was first sparked by a master’s degree from the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmith College in London, which has a well-established tradition for working across the fields of art, research and education.

Goldsmith College was also where Nelund was introduced to the Lebanese art scene, which is known for exploring areas where fiction and reality intersect, often in a research-oriented format. Nelund has followed that particular scene for nine years now, engaging in several collaborations on artistic research along the way.

Indeed, taking an international perspective is a quite distinctive trait of Nelund’s work; while preparing her PhD she interviewed key figures responsible for setting up institutes for artistic research and self-organised art schools at e.g. MIT in Cambridge, in Buenos Aires, Malmö, London and Vienna.

How do you intend to define and mould artistic research (KUV) at the new Institute for Research and Interdisciplinary Studies?

In 2012, the Danish Ministry of Culture defined artistic research (kunstnerisk udviklingsvirksomhed – KUV) as a reflection on one’s own practice, including the processes as well as the outcome, which must be accessible to the general public.

This means that the official definition of artistic research in Denmark is primarily concerned with examining one’s own artistic practice.

While this is a good definition, it has its limitations. I have seen many practices and artistic research schools use an expanded definition where artistic research can also include investigating an issue through your practice. This is particularly relevant where the actual artistic practice is indispensable in order to understand the issue you are investigating.

Many artists relate to the visual culture of their day. Just look at artists such as Hito Steyerl or Rabih Mroué, who both take a critical approach to image technologies and themes such as war, resistance and memory – and do so in a process where theory and practice go hand in hand. I think that the definition of artistic research should include this aspect.  

Developing the field of artistic research is a long-term process for the institute. If you look around the scene today, you will not find two identical artistic research programmes anywhere. There is no fixed model for you to simply take and implement.

To me it is important that artistic research should grow out of the institution – out of the academy – and out of the local art scene. I have been reaffirmed in my belief that this is the way to go by my research and my visits to artistic research study programmes around the world.

While we engage in the long-term process of testing out different formats, the institute also has two other main priorities right now: to decide on a format for the institute’s interdisciplinary study programmes and to settle the question of accreditation.

These three areas will have a mutual impact on each other, and I believe that they are best considered as part of an integrated whole.

What kind of teaching environment are you aiming to create at the new institute?

In my experience you get the best results by creating a learning space that is intimate and based on trust. I prefer an approach that’s based on dialogue: where are the students at right now? And how can you help them get to be where they want to be?

In this regard an art academy is a very privileged place to teach: it focuses on the students’ own practice concurrently with external learning objectives. The institute will build on the foundations that are already there: Jan Bäcklund’s work with the Laboratory for Art and Cultural History and Carsten Juhl’s many years of experience form the School of Art, Theory and Learning (Skolen for Billedkunst, Teori og Formidling).

I would also like to help create a more clearly defined framework for PhD fellows at the academy; up until this point they have hovered somewhat uncertainly between the academy and their respective institutions. It would be great if we could create more seminars aimed at researchers who base their research on practice.

This would help develop the practice-based PhD projects further – they are a new format, after all – and it would also help create a space where like-minded PhD fellows can present and discuss their research.

We currently have three PhD fellows – Tamar Guimarães, Jane Jin Kaisen and Katarina Stenbeck – who are all working on very exciting projects. I am confident that the students would benefit greatly from being exposed to that kind of research. Research and teaching will have a mutual impact on each other, and I would like to facilitate and support that exchange.

How should the institute help establish a stronger tradition for artistic research in Denmark?

When we look at the Danish art scene, artistic research has in fact been cultivated in a number of different settings, but as yet it has not had its own institutional setting.

We see increasing interest in artistic research among a wide variety of stakeholders – political and academic – and among sponsors; specific examples include the Ministry of Culture, the Novo Nordisk Foundation and the universities of Copenhagen and Aarhus. One of the leading figures in this context is the former rector of the academy, Mikkel Bogh.

In 2012 I launched the idea to host a seminar about artistic research at Overgaden – Institute of Contemporary Art under the auspices of UKK (Young Artists and Art Critics) and BKF (Danish Visual Artists). I wanted to move the discussion out into the practising art scene. The idea underpinning it all was the fact that artistic research changes the face of fine art education, which means that everyone needs to be involved in the discussion.

Perhaps some might even want to actively affect and shape the field; they have excellent opportunities for doing so right now, when the field is still in its infancy in Denmark. Almost 100 people turned up for the seminar, and the lively discussion demonstrated that there is also great interest in the subject among those who practice art.

Up until now, Denmark has not had an institutional framework that specifically supports and nourishes research-oriented artistic practices. A setting that can regularly and continually expand and add more nuances to general insights into the subject, introduce new practices and offer relevant and useful critique of specific projects.

That is why it is so marvellous that the Schools of Visual Arts have picked up the mantle and set up an institute devoted to the field. This makes it possible to continue the lively discussion we saw at the 2012 seminar, to co-ordinate interest from policymakers, universities and sponsors – and to have a voice and real impact on the international art research scene.

In this respect it would be ideal if we could establish a public, international lecture series focusing on artistic research. Or to have a range of short-term residencies, for example in the form of visiting scholars, so that we can host some of the serious artistic research practices that may not fit neatly into a PhD format. There are so many interesting artists out there that would be a real gift to the institute.

Such a lecture series would be of great benefit to the students at the Schools of Visual Arts and to the entire field of artistic research. Of course activities of that kind can only be realized if we can find foundations and other sponsors who are willing to support them!

What future do you envision for the Institute for Research of Interdisciplinary Studies ten years from now?

Ten years from now the Institute for Research and Interdisciplinary Studies will have developed artistic research in Denmark and made its impact felt – within the field of educational policymaking, too.

It will have been noticed on the international art education scene, seen a regular flow of inspiring teachers and speakers, be well known for its pioneering approach to teaching and attract students from partner institutions abroad.

At the same time the institute will have given the students at the Schools of Visual Arts a firm basis for understanding art history and art theory, and it will have established itself as a nexus where students, professors and artists exchange thoughts and ideas across different fields and disciplines.

I envision all this as a long-term, sustainable process where the institute, the study programmes and the international art research scene feed into each other.

Ultimately, however, the most important thing here is the students and their artistic practice: they should explore, test and consider a wide range of different approaches and perspectives – and evolve as artists during their time at the institute.


Sidsel Nelund holds a PhD and an MA in Modern Culture from the University of Copenhagen, as well as an MA in Aural and Visual Cultures from Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Nelund’s PhD project, Acts of Research: Knowledge Production in Contemporary Arts Between Knowledge Economy and Critical Practice, focuses on the concept of knowledge production in relation to contemporary art: where does the concept come from? Why is it important in contemporary art? And what form does it take?

Nelund’s research considers economic, educational and art history trends of the twentieth century as the backdrop for investigating international, knowledge-producing artistic practices: what is typical of artistic research and knowledge production, and what vocabulary can we use to describe it?
Nelund’s research-related articles have appeared in journals such as Critical Arts: South-North Cultural and Media Studies and View: Theories and Practices of Visual Culture as well as in the book Curating Research.

Over the course of the last decade Nelund has worked with contemporary art in connection with curatorial projects and art criticism, for example at Danmarks Radio (the Danish broadcasting corporation), and has entered into collaboration with artists to carry out artistic research; particularly with the artist-run 98weeks Research Space in Beirut.