Art Research and Food Technology

From Historical Reflections to Creative Speculations

Abstract

This article is an introduction to three contributions about research related to food and technology. The text introduces the reader to different forms of research from historical reflections, applied action research based on new technologies, and artistic speculations. The author places these different research approaches in the context of the Dutch scientific and higher vocational education, focussing particularly on art academies.


This edition of APRIA considers to what extent art research can contribute to our relationship with food. This immediately raises the question of the defining nature of art research. For some time now, Dutch arts education has been pondering how art or artistic research relates to academic research in universities. The desire of Dutch art academies to present themselves as fully fledged research institutes, preferably with a third level of graduate research, is closely related to their status within the higher professional education sector and to their own history. Owing to their orientation towards professional education, Dutch higher vocational education institutes have focussed on practice-based research since the introduction of research groups[1] in 2002. In most cases, that means that these institutions utilise existing scientific and technological know-how for innovations intended to have an economic or societal impact in close collaboration with businesses and public agencies. So-called ‘fundamental knowledge development’ is seen as the exclusive preserve of universities.

However, arts education in the form of an institute where students learn how to produce art has no counterpart within university education in the Netherlands. Moreover, the history of visual arts education reveals that its origins and rationale reside in large part in theorising about and reflecting on artistic production that occurs inside and outside the walls of the academy.[2] Fundamental knowledge development relating to artistic production should, therefore, logically take place within arts education. Thus, in the Netherlands, the answer to the question as to the precise nature of art research is strongly influenced by institutional, political, and, as a result, financial interests. In my opinion and based on practical experiences, the academies of art have more in common with the curious and critical driven nature of academic education, and less with the strong focus on a specific field of a métier that still dominate the higher vocational education profile.

Research Into, for and Through Art

As far back as 1993, Christopher Frayling, then Vice-Chancellor of the Royal College of Art in London, felt the need to define research within his arts college more explicitly. In an influential article, he distinguished three kinds of art and design research: research into, through and for art and design.[3] Research into art and design entails studying artefacts from the perspective of existing academic disciplines—chiefly, but not exclusively, the humanities. Research through and for art and design is directly related to the creative process and the knowledge embodied by the results of that research, which are often impossible to convey in words. In 2015, at the Research Through Design conference,[4] Frayling expressed his regret for the confusion he had sown with these concepts, which had since been interpreted in widely differing and antithetical ways

Fig 1. Provocations at RTD 2015 by Christopher Frayling (https://vimeo.com/129775325)

According to Frayling, there are ultimately only three forms of research: pure, applied, and action. In conducting such research, you can avail yourself of a large number of methods, both in laboratories and in everyday practice, borrowed from the technical, social, behavioural and human sciences, as well as from the creative disciplines of art and design. All other designations for research (artistic research, practice-led research, practice-based research,art-based research, research by design, design-led research, etc.) are, in his view, the product of institutional interests or theoretical hair-splitting that contribute very little to our knowledge about the world.

Exploring the World

In his television series Kijken in de Ziel (Soul Search), in which he dissected various professional groups with surgical precision, the Dutch journalist and interviewer Coen Verbraak asked several top researchers what science is. There was an almost unanimous response: a systematic and transparent search by inquiring professionals for answers to questions about how human beings and the world function. Both Frayling and Louise Fresco—one of the academics who participated in Verbaak’s series of interviews—concluded that the word ‘research’ implies two kinds of questions.[5] Re-search—searching for something again—assumes an exploration of existing phenomena. It concerns researchers’ questions about how the world functions or functioned based on existing knowledge and artefacts. But there are also researchers who pose questions about how our world might function differently or better. It is primarily the creative disciplines, such as art, design and architecture, that concern themselves with these types of questions. Questions that can rarely be answered in a laboratory, they concern problems and challenges arising from complex, everyday reality, which are difficult to capture in abstract, theoretical models or controlled laboratory tests. Frayling consequently sees a leading and unifying role reserved for design in interdisciplinary research projects aimed at improving everyday reality.

Key Enabling Methodologies

The Dutch top sector for the creative industry—one of the eight sectors that the national government supports because of the worldwide reputation and growth opportunities of their business and research—is now trying to lay claim to that role by profiling professionals in terms of specific research methods, the so-called ‘Key Enabling Methodologies’ (KEMs).[6] According to the top sector’s new Knowledge and Innovation Agenda 2020-2023, these KEMs are strategies, methods and models that structure the creative process in which the creative professional focusses on human beings, imagining new worlds and scenarios for them and bringing together technologies and actors from different fields.[7] The imagining and realisation of new future worlds is in the DNA of every designer.

That the future is not just an unpredictable black hole is evidenced by the ‘Futures Cone’ modelling tool, familiar to futurologists and speculative designers, which is a diagram that visualises different versions of the future in which everything is potentially possible.

Fig. 2. Futures Cone

But based on what we currently know, are capable of and want, one future is more likely than the other. What is possible may not be what we want, and what we want sometimes seems impossible. The first Futures Cone was criticised because it viewed the future from only one present-day perspective. In reality, we view the world from a variety of perspectives that ultimately influence what is preferable, probable, possible or plausible. In the current discussion about the Anthropocene and humanity’s destructive impact on the Earth’s ecosystem, the first version with the optimistic form of an ever-expanding cone pointing towards a promising future has since been adapted to show a future with—for humanity, at least—a potential end point.

The Future of Food

It seems to me that if we look at the future of food from a design perspective, all research methods are permissible, whether they are called into, for or through art and design, and whether they are characterised as fundamental, applied or action research. More important in my view is whether interesting questions about the future are posed and what impact the research might have for people in their daily living environment. Food, like clothes and housing, is a vital basic need for human beings. However, our relationship with eating, living and clothing is not purely functional. On the contrary, these activities are intimately connected with sacred and secular rituals, customs, behaviour, status—in short, with the (often implicit) cultural codes of a community or society. The link between functional basic needs and the semiotic and embodied aspects of food, clothes and houses make this an interesting but highly complex field of research. It is, above all, here that different forms of research should be able to contribute to a desirable future for our food, one in which there is not only sufficient food for the entire world population in the physiological sense, but in which food also contributes to the resilience, inclusivity and cultural cohesiveness of communities.

The question posed by the Product Design & Interior Architecture research group is what current technological developments—dominated by digital data, algorithmic systems and artificial intelligence—mean for our relationship with food. Will they lead us to store, prepare and consume our food in a fundamentally different way? And what does this mean for human beings as biological and semiotic creatures?

Historical Research

We are not, of course, going to answer these questions in this edition. The sole purpose here is to explore the questions with reference to three different types of research. As an art historian, I will be conducting that exploration from a historical perspective. Historical research can be both critical and speculative. Critical historiography investigates the relation between the description of the historical process and the historical process itself. It is an attempt to reconstruct history as factually as possible so as to be able to make valid or plausible statements about it. Speculative historiography is far more focussed on discovering rules and underlying structures capable of explaining the historical process. For example, what are the rules underlying the function, form and acceptance of utensils in a society?

Fig 3. Futures Cone with a past cone

Speculative historiography often arises out of topical issues where historical knowledge might be able to offer a glimpse into the future. Speculative historians are far more selective in their choice of sources than critical historians in order to lend more weight to their argument about a specific historical development and its significance for the present day and the future. It is my experience as a teacher of design history that speculative historians in particular can prove very inspirational for artists and designers. Accordingly, in my role as professor, I always strive to place the research and innovation projects in a historical context in order to inspire and stimulate designers and artists who carry out their research in aid of a creative production. And, in addition, because the present is constantly rewriting the past with new knowledge that was previously invisible from the perspective of the prevailing paradigms and ideologies. Historians should follow the example of futurologists and have a shot at making a ‘Histories Cone’ depicting possible, probable, plausible and preferable pasts.

In this contribution, my historical research focusses on the history of the kitchen as the domain where technology is directly related to the storage, preparation and consumption of food. In short, the type of research that Frayling would characterise as into design, in which design is the object of study for existing academic disciplines. It is, above all, an attempt to show that our relationship with food is determined by many factors and that technology can never be seen in isolation from its social context. Or as one of my former teachers put it: there is no technological innovation without cultural innovation.

Technological Futures

Miguel Bruns takes a very different approach in his article about how new technologies are going to change our food consumption. Bruns is Associate Professor of the Future Everyday research group at Eindhoven University of Technology. Writing from a technological perspective, he describes what the fourth industrial revolution,[8] characterised by robotisation, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence, might mean for our food. It is a typical example of applied research in which future possibilities are investigated from a design perspective, with the aim of connecting existing technological knowledge with social needs and challenges. Bruns shows that the probable future will focus primarily on a strong personalisation of our food as ‘material’ with the expectation that it will make us personally healthier and society more sustainable. Whether this is a desirable outcome from a social and cultural perspective remains an open question in Bruns’ article.

Speculative Statement

By contrast, interaction designers Klasien van de Zandschulp and Emilie Baltz’s contribution focusses on the question of what new technology means for humans as social-cultural beings. For this they deploy a method that was developed within the arts: the performance. In the speculative setting of a futuristic kitchen, these designers ponder what new rituals technology might bring us. Inspired by the celebrated 1932 cookbook by the Italian Futurists, La Cucina Futurista (The Futurist Cookbook), van de Zandschulp and Baltz set out ‘to provoke people into a new state of being by creating absurd behaviours around (and with) our technology.’ Once again, the kitchen proves to be an excellent laboratory for research into the relationship between human beings and food.

The artistic research methods employed by van de Zandschulp and Baltz are in tune with the tradition of art education and are far removed from what is generally understood by the practice-oriented research of higher professional educational institutions. As such, the performances staged by artists will not always be recognised as research because they scarcely satisfy the generally accepted criteria for knowledge development, such as the rigour of the method and the validity of the results. Another disadvantage is that the artists present their research in the contemporary circuit of museums, galleries and art biennales. But I am convinced that these speculative explorations of what the world might look like in the future are an especially valuable addition to existing research in Dutch universities.


Bibliography

Frayling, Christopher, ‘Research in Art and Design.’ Royal College of Art Research Papers 1, No. 1 (1993/1994): 1-5.

Fresco, Louise, Kruisbestuiving. Over Kennis, Kunst en het Leven. Amsterdam: Prometheus/Bert Bakker, 2014.

Rindertsma, Linda (ed.), Veerkracht. Kennis- en Innovatieagenda voor de Creatieve Industrie. Eindhoven: TKI CKICKNL, 2019.


Footnotes

[1] Strictly speaking, these are called ‘professorships’ (lectoraten in Dutch), but in practical terms, they are research groups.

[2] The first Academy of the Arts—the Accademia del Disegno, founded in Florence in 1563—was meant to be a place for the theoretical studies of the arts, beside the practical teaching in workshops outside the art schools. In the late 1960s in the Netherlands, there was still a discussion in the context of the national education reforms about the position of art schools as part of academic or vocational higher education.

[3] Christopher Frayling, ‘Research in Art and Design,’ Royal College of Art Research Papers 1, No. 1 (1993/1994): 1-5.

[5] See Louise Fresco, Kruisbestuiving. Over Kennis, Kunst en het Leven (Amsterdam, Prometheus/Bert Bakker, 2014).

[6] The other top sectors are: Agriculture & Food, Life Sciences & Health, Chemistry, Logistics, Hightech Systems & Materials, Water, and Horticulture.

[7] Linda Rindertsma (ed.), Veerkracht. Kennis- en Innovatieagenda voor de Creatieve Industrie (Eindhoven: TKI CKICKNL, 2019), p. 4.

[8] The previous three industrial revolutions are mechanisation through steam; mass production; and the introduction of electricity, digitalisation and the arrival of the internet.

Jeroen van den Eijnde

Dr. Jeroen van den Eijnde was trained as product designer at ArtEZ University of the Arts and as a design historian at Leiden University. He holds a PhD on theory and ideology in Dutch design education. He has published articles and books related to the historical and current aspects of design education. Since 2016, he has been responsible for the professorship Product Design & Interior Architecture at ArtEZ. In cooperation with the ArtEZ Fashion Professorship, he runs the expertise centre ArtEZ Future Makers, which initiates design-driven innovation and research projects that contribute to a sustainable society.

Bibliography

Frayling, Christopher, ‘Research in Art and Design.’ Royal College of Art Research Papers 1, No. 1 (1993/1994): 1-5.

Fresco, Louise, Kruisbestuiving. Over Kennis, Kunst en het Leven. Amsterdam: Prometheus/Bert Bakker, 2014.

Rindertsma, Linda (ed.), Veerkracht. Kennis- en Innovatieagenda voor de Creatieve Industrie. Eindhoven: TKI CKICKNL, 2019.


Footnotes

[1] Strictly speaking, these are called ‘professorships’ (lectoraten in Dutch), but in practical terms, they are research groups.

[2] The first Academy of the Arts—the Accademia del Disegno, founded in Florence in 1563—was meant to be a place for the theoretical studies of the arts, beside the practical teaching in workshops outside the art schools. In the late 1960s in the Netherlands, there was still a discussion in the context of the national education reforms about the position of art schools as part of academic or vocational higher education.

[3] Christopher Frayling, ‘Research in Art and Design,’ Royal College of Art Research Papers 1, No. 1 (1993/1994): 1-5.

[5] See Louise Fresco, Kruisbestuiving. Over Kennis, Kunst en het Leven (Amsterdam, Prometheus/Bert Bakker, 2014).

[6] The other top sectors are: Agriculture & Food, Life Sciences & Health, Chemistry, Logistics, Hightech Systems & Materials, Water, and Horticulture.

[7] Linda Rindertsma (ed.), Veerkracht. Kennis- en Innovatieagenda voor de Creatieve Industrie (Eindhoven: TKI CKICKNL, 2019), p. 4.

[8] The previous three industrial revolutions are mechanisation through steam; mass production; and the introduction of electricity, digitalisation and the arrival of the internet.