Common Research

Irit Rogoff

Irit Rogoff is one of the initiators of the transdisciplinary field of Visual Culture and founder of the department at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is also concerned with geography, counter cartography and questions of globalization. Rogoff is co-founder of the freethought collective and the European Forum for Advanced Practices.

Freethought, Museum of Burning Questions, Curated by Nora Sternfeld. Bergen Assembly, 2016

“Common” is a slippery term—its connotations, both laudatory and shameful, go in every which direction: it implies sharing and mutuality and freedom of access at one end (as in elaborations of the Commons) and equally implies socially snobbish insinuations of inferiority and exclusion that serve as gatekeepers, at the other. And somewhere between these two poles there is also the notion that “common” is frequent and omnipresent, easily located, not distinguished by either origins or characteristics but by its sheer presence, like certain birds or plants that are barely noticed in their humble ubiquity.

“Common Research” for me is a recognition of an appetite to know what is pervasive and yet critically situated. More importantly, it is a drive to research what we can locate in those places and guises that we would not have thought to look for in research-based knowledge. Research not dignified by institutional authorities or long lines of distinguished inherited knowledges, but by its insistent presence as a texture, atmosphere, or a manifestation of something demanding attention and investigation. It is an important designation in moments such as ours—of pandemic, economic recession, overall volatility, and war, in addition to the ongoing crisis of neoliberal capitalism—that we look away from those old and clear trajectories of research and rethink what the drive to know is and how it intersects with the heterotopian crisis landscapes in which we are situated.

“Common Research” is then a term aimed at the democratization of the notion of research at a moment when research is being recognized as part of the fabric of daily life as well as of watershed moments, existential crises, and enduring momentous instabilities.[1] It intimates not simply greater accesses but also greater recognition for who is considered a knowledge producer and what is considered knowledge. I am drawn to the term “Common Research” as for some time now I have been trying to think around two issues: first, how to characterize work that is not designated as part of the research structures of higher education as significant research, by which I mean research that can be circulated, passed on, elaborated upon, and recognized as “epistemic invention”; and second, how to think about research methodology emanating from unstable conditions as agitated forms of knowing. Here, the question is one of how to develop research methods that reflect instability, precarity, and insecurity rather than translate these conditions into stable and unwavering logics that deny the affective dimensions of what is being looked at.

In this I have often come back to Gregory Bateson’s idea of a malfunctioning relation to knowledge.[2] What does this malfunctioning relation to knowledge consist of? How does it get performed? Does it require legitimation and, if so, from whom or what? And most importantly, is it indexical of the conditions that have necessitated it in the first place and is it able to produce affective registers that convey these in the form of research, that is, relational knowledge that is tested, elaborated upon, and passed on. There are playful intimations about this proposition for malfunctioning knowledge, as there always are with Bateson, introducing a sly wedge between research platform and its utilization and instrumentalization as applied knowledge in business, creative industries, data collation, criminal investigation, or in the smooth build-up of a classroom syllabus. But there is also a hopeful opening—for me at least it instantiates a disruption of methods and protocols on the one hand and of the applied instrumentalization of research on the other. The appeal is that our work be able to perform its glitches, misunderstandings, misrepresentations, good and bad intentions, and the incomprehensions in which it is embedded. That this performance is not simply a set of individual crisis, but the genesis of actual methodologies. Thus, Liberty Russell’s manifesto, Glitch Feminism argues that the cyber world is indelibly embedded within the physical world and that its glitches are not technical malfunctions but “structures of feeling” which span both worlds and dictate scores for functioning within them.[3] Equally, there is a dismissal of the authority of knowledge, for what can authority malfunction perform? It is precarity itself, hopefully, eternally open to disappointment.

For several decades now, we in curatorial studies have been speaking about the importance of “unlearning” and “unknowing” as a way to shed the yoke of unconscious biases and the long histories of colonialism and imperialism. But the promise of Bateson’s idea is that this is not simply a necessary step toward getting us to a better place in which we can know in a less biased way—it’s a permanent affective state that reshapes “knowing” rather than what we know. Bateson’s desire for a “malfunctioning knowledge” is not so much a desire for knowledge that doesn’t work, but rather a desire for knowledge that cannot be absorbed into smooth function within dominant logic. Bateson was a master of what I would call “epistemic improbability”—entertaining improbable occurrences not in order to provide them with a smooth interpretation, but to turn them against an intuitive logic, to interrogate what one might be seeing and the narrative one might be imposing on it. And as such, Bateson pursues a polyphonic form of research in which languages are mismatched, misunderstood, and don’t stand a chance of translation.

I have a great number of artistic interlocuters in pursuing this line of thought—Walid Raad and Theaster Gates, Rabih Mroué and Bouchra Khalili, Isaac Julien and Sonia Boyce, Naeem Mohaiemen and Akram Zaatari, John Akomfrah and Trinh T. Minh-ha, and the curatorial legacy of Okwui Enwezor which redefined what the horizons of the exhibition could be, as well as that of David A. Bailey and Vali Mahlouji both of whom have literally conjured up archives. This work has produced a shift in the demands put on viewers and the understanding of exposition and public manifestation it puts forward. My list of interlocuters is long and includes many others, but I don’t want to exemplify or illustrate these thoughts through their work as the relation here is reversed, their work has spurred these thoughts, moved goalposts, and set up challenges. It makes little sense then to document it as a form of material confirmation that this shift I am speaking of really is taking place. It is part of a much larger transformation in the ability of creative practices to summon up new realities, that both reference what we know and invent other scenarios for knowledge.

The context framing this proposition for “Common Research” is the sea change affected by contemporary practice-driven research emanating from creative practices and impacting the forms, protocols, and evaluation of research across the arts, humanities, and social sciences. This shift is not simply an expansion of the subjects of research, but is about new research drives propelled just as much by lived conditions as by inherited formal knowledges. Our conditions are impacted daily by precarity, scarcity, sustainability, legal uncertainty, security, and financialization—these necessarily shape subjects, methodologies, and audiences of research.

The humanities, arts, and social sciences are currently situated on the cusp of a paradigm shift in the ways that knowledge is conceptualized, articulated, assembled, and disseminated. Following from the traditional models of archival, data-driven, and analytical research, a series of material and affective modes have entered the arena introducing questions of the sonic, the performative, the embodied, the spatialized, the narrated, the displayed, the fictionalized, the digitalized, the participatory, and the organizational among many others. Equally, research questions are emanating from a set of conditions, such as the environment or the economy, migration and globalization, or the fluidity of gendered identities. My aim is not simply to focus on and describe such conditions, but to recognize how they shape an entry point and a methodology. The arts have been a defining force within this paradigm shift, allowing for a renewed notion of “research” to emerge as a practice in and of itself rather than as a preparatory activity taking place in advance of a body of work.

Within scholarship, the question of affective as opposed to purely cognitive knowledge formations has become central, while in practice-based work, the invention of new temporalities, new knowledge languages, and an emphasis on “doing” as an investigative process have shifted both the protocols of learning and researching as well as of delivering outcomes. Collaboration, conversation, gathering, exchange, and the occupation of certain sites have emerged as modes of research in and of themselves, while museums, galleries, NGOs, and protest movements have all also become sites of knowledge production requiring these be understood as research findings, independent of whatever displays they might be connected to. The transdisciplinary breadth of this shift to practice-based research has also impacted anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, architecture and spatial studies, and the creative industries among many others. One of the things that compels me about all the different activity I see around me and take part in is the range of knowledges at work: high theoretical ones, philosophical, economical, logistical, and organizational ones, technical ones, scientific ones, pedagogical and communal ones—all married to exceptional levels of imaginative invention and creative vision. The migration of terms such as “fieldwork” from anthropology to both artistic and performative practices, or the “curatorial” as an instance of assembling, or “performativity” as a modality of manifestation, point to shared ground around practice. A good example of this could be the way in which engagements with crop agriculture can be conceptualized as fields of convergence between climactic conditions and food resource capabilities while simultaneously dealing with regional and community histories whose narration capacities and relation to species shape the field as much as the supply calculations.


Equally, the concept of “research” is being stretched through many practices and is no longer the remit of research institutions or environments. As such, an entry point into a creative investigation can be a known event, situation, or set of conditions. The knowledges that come together in the instance of “research” may emanate from several unrelated fields and the process can result in often new relations between these knowledges. The mode of recounting or making manifest such an inquiry can be its fictionalization or its casting into an unconventional dramatic narrative told through an invented voice. Forms of personification, animate and inanimate, allow sidestepping the conventional narratives of military conflict, environmental crisis, identity exhaustion, institutional collapse, or technological saturation, in order to find new points of entry into problematics weighed down by predictable representations. Previously, artistic practices were only seen as paradigm shifters in terms of the radical aesthetics they proposed. Currently, we understand that they provide new modes of engaging with the world on their own terms. This is characterized by Jacques Rancière’s notion of the artwork as a “distribution of the sensible,”[4] that is, through organization of the way in which reality is being made accessible to the senses. Such an extensive set of shifts in both creative methods and expectations from participators as conceptual stakeholders, necessitates a far more complex set of terms to make it legible across the institutional and cultural landscape.

Throughout the last decade, we have seen an increasing interest in artistic and practice-based research formats. Foundational to this development is the hypothesis that sociocultural practices contribute to the production of knowledge, and that knowledge stemming from these sources should be made accessible to (and enter into dialogue with) more traditional forms of academic or scientific knowledge.

In order for us to be able to work with and be guided by such an altered understanding of research, we need to recognize the energetic vectors traversing it and constituting the work in the field. We need a new language for new modes of practice research because we need to enact it, not just describe it. We need this new language to not just be descriptive but also declarative, to enfold within it the taking up of stands, of riding the crest of intentions, of marking the unthinkable and the unarchivable. To pursue work in this area I have become wedded to the concept of “Advanced Practices”—not in the sense of more excellent practices, but practices that open up and propel forward. This becomes necessary as our neoliberalized institutions of education and research have become instruments of logistical management and our endlessly monitored and evaluated work has been hijacked by vacant notions of “value,” as in “impactful” within commodified markets of social change quantitively assessed.

We now need these updated terms for understanding the value of new research sensibilities so that every research grant, book proposal, or course outline can be interrogated as to whether it achieves these non-logistical ambitions, instead of fulfilling vague notions of societal good: does it invent new relations between knowledges? Does it shift paradigms? Does it exceed expectations? Instead of being asked to fulfill vague notions of societal good that not even with the best intentions in the world could it fulfill, because knowledge cannot be inventive and instrumentalized in the same breath. Here, Brian Massumi offers some guidance to address these questions. He argues that the regime of “evaluation” (which is a regime of judgement) will always adhere to a set of normative “worths” and, secondly, that “To uncouple value from quantification in a way that affirms an ecology of qualitatively different powers means engaging head-on with the economic logic of the market. Value is too valuable to be left to capital.”[5]


So here are some of the terms that have proved necessary for shaping the terrain, which have so far been shaped by normative knowledges and market interests. Terms that help us to see how research is emerging in the present moment and how value might be attributed to it.

Permission—How artistic and creative practices have reshaped the understanding of “permission” for knowledge to both invent methods and protocols and to claim forms of legitimation. The understanding is that we are never “granted” permission but rather need to struggle for it, substituting legitimacy and authorization for forms of inevitability. Permission, thus, is the state of finding one’s self compelled within a force field. Not externally authorized but compelled to make a move in relation to all the conditions one is aware of, which is very different from having the right position or doing the right thing. It is what Kathleen Stewart has called “atmospheric attunements”:

An atmosphere is not an inert context but a force field in which people find themselves. It is not an effect of other forces but a lived affect. A capacity to affect and to be affected that pushes a present into a composition, an expressivity, the sense of potentiality and event. It is an attunement of the senses, of labors, and imaginaries to potential ways of living in or living through things. A living through that shows up in the generative precarity of ordinary sensibilities of not knowing what compels.[6]

The research that is its outcome is then multipositional, multivalent, and immersive. When a broad and eclectic range of knowledges converges within an inventive investigation, forms and languages are developed to redress the relations between those knowledges. Equally, atmospheres and states of mind that aid in countering dominant logics are invoked. “Radical Black Study” has been a driving force here, as has the emergence of the term “choreographic,” to link social knowledge to embodiment. Kathleen Stewart again: “In the expressivity of something coming into existence, bodies labor to literally fall into step with the pacing, the habits, the lines of attachment, the responsibilities shouldered, the sentience, of a worlding.”[7]

Fictioning and Docu-dramatizing—Recasting a set of facts and realities through the invention of fictional contexts, imagined archives, and imagined narratives within them. Establishing an understanding of the gap between what we have access to and what we wish for—wish, not as academically sanctioned, verified, and provable knowledge, but as “common knowledge” that elicits different forms of belief, sustained by enactment rather than discursive repetition. Performance art (Rabih Mroué, Adrian Heathfield), theoretical works of “fictioning” (David Burrows and Simon O’Sullivan), and science fiction and Afrofuturism’s essential narrative forms have all been driving this strand of the investigation.

In his persuasive book, Singularities, André Lepecki attributes an important testimonial role to an audience who has been enthralled to believe and imaginatively invest through experience:

The audience then becomes itself, not at the moment it witnesses the event, but when it gives to an other its testimony of the event. The audience becomes one only as long as it opts to become an actor-storyteller in the future (near or far). This option is the initiative that defines a political act. In this sense, the audience also fulfills its true aesthetic function. The fundamentally affective-political task of storytelling, its relation to both historicity and futurity, is crucial in the age of selfies.[8]

We enter the narrative, we establish a connection with it, which has to do with how we want to know, and this in turn becomes an important “value” of how to know.

Epistemic Invention—Practices that propagate new, propositional realities, not epistemologically but through their collective and multidimensional enactment. The invention is the possibility of not reporting on existing conditions but propagating new realities. To my mind, this is not identical with “fictioning” as it deals with a stretching of concepts to a point that they can neither any longer contain the arena of the activity nor the horizon of how far they might reach. Exhibition works such as Making Things Public by Bruno Latour and The Short Century by Okwui Enwezor have posited arenas as sites of “worldmaking,” both exceeding the scope of what is shown in the exhibition and of grasping the terrain of the world with which it is affiliated.[9] In Jean-Luc Nancy’s oppositional stance to globalization, worldmaking is “a set of relations between people, places, conditions, heritages and hopes driven by the need to both envisage and inhabit.”[10]For Nancy, worldmaking, therefore, is a process in expansion in reference to the world of humans, of culture, and of nations in a differentiated set, as opposed to a process of globalization which operates as a world system based on flows and circulation within their own logic of profit and efficiency. It is seductive to think of cultural projects as forms of “worldmaking” so that we can begin to take such projects to distant places and set up links with other formally unrelated knowledges.

Infrastructures of Feeling—Thinking of “infrastructure” as a condition rather than as a set of regulated resources, invoking Raymond Williams’ famous dictum of “structures of feeling.” It is an opportunity to expand Bateson’s “malfunction” within practice.

Largely held captive by planning discourses, infrastructure is seen as the ultimate mode of technical, organizational support delivery. Sewage, energy, capital flow, traffic, transportation, food, information technology, and transglobal services are seemingly the building blocks of contemporary geodemographic organization. Given that infrastructures are the building blocks of capitalism’s modus operandi, is there a potential to think about this model of efficient delivery critically? To introduce both subjectivity and incoherence into its workings?

Recognizing the levels of logistical management in which we exist, it is no wonder that we have become “infrastructural beings.” Our conditions today are infrastructural, providing the hidden rules for structuring the spaces and actions all around us. Creative practices have the capacity to locate and constitute new understandings of infrastructure. Immaterial and affective infrastructures that are propelled and animated by the “ghost in the machine” rather than by satisfying the need for efficient delivery of goods, capital, energy, transport, and waste.[11] Thus, to the vocabulary of “Common Research,” I would like to add the notion of “Infrastructures of Feeling,” in order to exit the burden of having to set up a historical or material context for the things we are examining, experiencing, and setting up. Instead of contextualizing, we can envisage ourselves as halting our capture by the mechanisms of delivery, supply, and resourcing, which do not operate as a context, therefore, are not historically fixed, and thus can be changed, as we intervene in the horizon of possibility.


This very brief vocabulary that might allow working with practice-based research as an enactment and expansion, as “Common Research,” is hardly definitive. It calls forth a surge of conjured-up vocabularies that are ephemeral and unstable. We don’t really need another canon—a canon of practice research—this time around, though we do need to know the practices. However, we do need a means by which we can stretch these practices to their full potential, charting realms of encouragement, granting ourselves permission, freeing ourselves from dependence, stalking the boundary lines that divide our realms of knowledge, until these are worn to dust.

In her moving and inspiring work In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, about the afterlives of slavery, genocide, and elision, Christina Sharpe says “I am interested in how we imagine ways of knowing that past, in excess of the fictions of the archive, but not only that. I am interested, too, in the ways we recognize the many manifestations of that fiction and that excess, that past, not yet past, in the present.”[12] Located as we are within a set of current internal and external crises ranging from the necessity to decolonize and to withstand health, economic, and political violence, I can locate in the research practices ways to both know and live out our present.

For a long time, I thought that the only potent weapon I had to counter the ever-increasing stranglehold of neoliberal technocracy was seriousness. To be serious, to go into things in depth, to resist instant calculation of benefit, to elaborate arguments that don’t rush to the bottom line, to resist the fake ethics of “social good,” to risk not being instantly legible, to take up slightly obscure preoccupations—all of these seemed to me to enact a form of resistance. Now I have “research” as well, seeing that in its very impulses it is a denial of hegemonic knowledge as well as regulation of capital accumulation.

For sure, we need to be brave and to be hardy, we need to vehemently resist the logics foisted upon us, but we also don’t need to just get past these crises and weather the storm—we need to make the storms count. And count for all.

[1] The charter of the European Form for Advanced Practices (advancedpractices.net/charter) states that one of the ambitions of Advanced Practices is: “Advanced Practices insist on a democratization of knowledge, with more persons having access to it and being recognized as knowledge producers.”

[2] See Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. Northdale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc, 1972/1987.

[3] Liberty Russell, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto. London: Verso, 2019. See review by Jesse Damiani, “On Embodying The Ecstatic And Catastrophic Error Of Glitch Feminism: Book Review,” Forbes (October 15, 2020), https://www.forbes.com/sites/jessedamiani/2020/10/15/on-embodying-the-ecstatic-and-catastrophic-error-of-glitch-feminism-book-review/, accessed May 19, 2022.

[4] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. and ed. Gabriel Rockhill. New York: Continuum, 2006.

[5] Brian Massumi, 99 Theses on The Revaluation of Value: A Postcapitalist Manifesto, https://manifold.umn.edu/read/99-theses-on-the-revaluation-of-value/section/7a105a04-8cb5-4b6f-8818-2ca4cd070862, accessed May 20, 2022. Massumi argues that “value” has been hijacked by neoliberal modes of quantitative and computational evaluation and that we need to counter these with substantive notions of “value” that address what is significant for who and under what circumstances.

[6] Kathleen Stewart, “Atmospheric Attunements,” in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 29, no. 3 (2011), pp. 445–53, here p. 452.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Andre Lepecki, Singularities: Dance in the Age of Performance. London: Routledge, 2016, p. 177.

[9] Principal curators Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, ZKM, Karlsruhe, March 19–August 7, 2005. Okwui Enwezor, Survey Exhibition: The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994, MCA Chicago, IL, touring February 15, 2001–May 5, 2002.

[10] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Creation of the World or Globalisation, trans. with Introduction by François Raffoul and David Pettigrew. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press. Quotes amalgamated from the Preface.

[11] The freethought-collective has been dealing with trying to understand and stretch working notions of “Infrastructure” and take these to less expected places. See freethought-collective.net, where there is extensive documentation of the various projects that made up the freethought-collectives’ “Infrastructure” project at the Bergen Assembly 2016. Currently this is being developed to its next phase as “Spectral Infrastructures” hosted by the discursive space BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht, https://www.bakonline.org/long-term-project/spectral-infrastructure/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CSpectral%20Infrastructure%E2%80%9D%20is%20a%20long,%2C%20research%2C%20and%20public%20programs, both sites accessed May 22, 2022.

[12] Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016, p. 17.