The Carnival, decor for Aleko

Solway Walk – The Epistemic Object

Art object as source of knowledge

After doing my Solway Walk I went back to some academic and practice material, reconnecting with Augusto Boal on performance as a dichotomous, and thus creative, process. This connected with my experience of art making as performance as a journey of uncertain outcome. But some of my art making ended up with art objects. However the Boal stuff reminded me of other materials I had read.

In a book called ‘Using Art as Research in Learning an Teaching; Multidisciplinary Approaches Across the Arts’ by Ross W. Prior, there is a chapter that reiterated some of what Boal had to say about the ambiguity of the art making process. In Chapter 8 ‘The ‘Epistemic Object’ in the Creative Process of Doctoral Inquiry’, Carole Gray, Julian Malins and Maxine Bristow the authors, develop ideas about the art object which reinforces Boal’s ideas about aesthetic space but in relation to visual art and the arts object as part of an experiential process. It also talk about ways of viewing art that moves us away from the fine art exhibition, and towards ways of showing art product and process much more conducive to experiential learning. It is about art as research at postgrad level but we can think of art as experiential learning as a form of research or as a source of knowledge at many levels.

The Epistemic Object

Whilst Augusto Boal’s idea of performance containing the aesthetic space as a dichotomous space in which a person acts, witnesses and learns through their own actions, thoughts and feelings, the act of performance is highly experiential, and produces no object in the way visual art does.

In the article the epistemic object is understood as an object which, through engagement and experience, acts as a source of knowledge. In this sense the object could be a painting or an architectural model or the Large Hadron Collider or a diagram of a particle accelerator or the Sistine Chapel. The epistemic object or epistemic art contains ambiguity or uncertainty and thus can be a vehicle for inquiry and thus learning. So whilst ideas about what we we can learn form art is not without contention, as a perspective on art as experiential learning the idea may be useful.

It struck me that when I worked at Outward Bound two classic experiential learning, or ‘problem solving’ activities that could be understood as epistemic objects were ‘The Wall’ and ‘Barrels and Planks’ . Both used creative experiential activities as a source of knowledge. Both could also be understood as performance in the way Boal suggested.

Aberdovey Outward Bound, my old stomping ground.

Viewing and more importantly doing art, making art objects could, I suggest, be understood as epistemic objects. What interests me is the way this idea, adopted and hybridised by art based researchers could bring together ways of thinking about and engaging in experiential learning that could encompass science, the arts, outdoor adventure and the arts therapies.

In the article a number of ideas are presented about the epistemic object being ambiguous or dichotomous and open to interpretation and as such, through interaction, open to creative development or re-viewing. With the article the devil is in the detail. To paraphrase of quote parts of the article would loose a lot of the explanation. So a copy of the article is available for download on my blog under this post or can be downloaded here.

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s term ‘epistemic things’ is used as a starting point. Rheinberger is quoted thus. ‘An experiment […] is an exploratory movement, a game in which one plays with possible positions, an open arrangement’. The article continues ‘For an epistemic object to have the potential to develop scientific research, it must embody a degree of uncertainty to be useful’. He asserts that epistemic things ‘are by nature made to be surpassed’’

In the article the things that pass as epistemic objects include Crick and Watson’s model of DNA, made with lab equipment. Things used by architects to design buildings including sketches, drawings, plans, charts; photographs; project management tools – timelines, schedules, tables; virtual prototypes, scale models, and even machines and parts are epistemic objects. A design consultancy process in cited, where individual employees select ‘core value’ cards – a given set of random images – to visually express particular values that they each associate with their company.

Finally there is a wonderful description of how Antonio Gaudi designed the Crypt of the Church of Colonia Güell. ‘Gaudi’s stereostatic model.. brought together a set of inquiring materials – a wooden board, cords, cloth, pellets, photographs. From each catenaric arch (formed by hanging the cords from the board) small sacks of pellets were suspended. The structure was photographed. The final shape of the church’s future architecture was revealed by turning one of the photographs upside-down– indeed a productive thing.’ Read about it here.

To me an ‘experiment’ as described above by Rheinberger, could be an expedition, or a painting, or canoe trip, or a walk on a beach, or a drawing of an idea of experiential learning, or making a movie about a walk on a beach, or a map. All, like a petri dish or a painting, can be an epistemic object.

These are all things that could be understood as ‘thinking by doing’, ‘embodied cognition’ or ‘material thinking’. These could things used by artists, physicists, architects, musicians, geologists, sports coaches. The ‘epistemological object’ differs from the ‘model’ in how it is used and by virtue of it being incomplete, ambiguous, dichotomous, open or emergent. The interaction of the maker of the object with the object is what makes it a source of knowledge or creativity. The model tells us what we already know.

The article describes the role of epistemic objects ‘ not to represent what is already known, but on the contrary, to come to terms with what is not yet known. The epistemic object is defined by what it is not (or not yet) as much by what it is’, and says artworks are ‘‘generators of that which we do not yet know’ inviting us to think and thereby are epistemic agents’.

My proposal throughout is that if we understand art making as experiential learning then the outcomes of learning are determined by the interaction of a person doing something in which, as Rheinberger notes above, they think ‘a degree of uncertainty to be useful’. This is endemic to art making, to the art object, to the epistemic object. So as a source of knowledge, a mode of discourse and exploration of experience, art making, in all it’s myriad and contested forms treats, like with like. It’s uncertainty matches the uncertainty of experience.


But in making art, how do we show what we have learned, in and of experience, if it is uncertain. The article goes on to link the epistemic object to the act of exposition. Exposition can be understood as being characterised by an exposure, a showing of all and an explanation.

The word exposition is now a noun, the name of a thing. Etymologically it is from exponere which is a verb, a describer of a doing. In the context of art as experiential learning, as part of a research discourse, the writers of the article think of exposition as more of an exposure of doing, thinking, of materials and process.

The article goes further and suggest it is ‘…the sharing of thinking processes and the revealing of methodology; and perhaps most importantly it invites participation in order to enrich and expand understandings from the inquiry,’ and ‘There is a didactic element to the notion of exposition, as far as it teaches how, and as what something may be seen without determining outcomes.’

Visual examples can be found in the article of recent PhD art as research doctoral expositions. Here.

In showing art in the fine art context, the exhibition could have the quality of a museum, with lots of explanations, or it could seek to rely on the capacity of the artworks to speak for themselves. The explanatory method can tend to give a fixed account of the art made. The art speaks for itself is fine, if you speak art in the same way as the artist. Grayson Perry suggested in the BBC Reith lectures that all galleries should have a big sign at the entrance that says ‘YOU DON’T HAVE TO LIKE IT ALL’. He did and exhibition of work by renowned artist and rank amateurs. He said he liked the idea that when people first walked in nobody knew who made what. They just found stuff they liked.

A big part of what I want to get as is art not ART. The making art rather than the viewing of ‘Fine Art’. Art as doing not viewing. We cannot all be artists but we can all make art. We can make art as a way to learn something about your experience, of art making, of what your art is about.

When I was at school I got a grade ‘A’ in Art and Physics. It took me 50 years to get back to the art thing. But the thought of me showing my art in an exhibition is horrific. At school you had to be wary of being good at art ‘cos if your art was good it got put on the wall. In my school that meant you had sold out. ‘Teachers Pet!’.

But my exposition is here, in my showing and sharing. I want to show you what I made and my thinking about my making. The trick that I am working on is to find a balance between being too rigidly didactic and teacherish and too vaguely arty and obscure. My goal is to show so that you may find some thing you like that resonates for yourself. But like Grayson Perry says, you don’t have to like it all. In this sharing, I am sharing my finding my own way.

With a bit of time we can work out for ourselves what is going on.

In the article there is a quote from an arts researcher, Schwab who says ‘One may even say that there is something inherently gentle to exposition considered as introduction, a relief, perhaps, from the obligation of being a ‘work of art’, in the serious sense of the word.’

Art as experiential learning begs you to take notice of the art you make and what happens when you make it. Exposition could be seen as an antidote to feeling compelled to make a ‘work of art’, and show it like a sellout, and instead make some art and tell us what you did and what it was like, what you learned and then share with us what you made. We can work out what it means for ourselves.

Published by

Chris Reed

Group Worker Art Maker

One thought on “Solway Walk – The Epistemic Object”

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