Understanding experimentation as improvisation in arts research

Anne Douglas (Gray’s School of Art, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, UK)
Melehat Nil Gulari (Gray’s School of Art, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, UK)

Qualitative Research Journal

ISSN: 1443-9883

Publication date: 9 November 2015



The purpose of this paper is to address the following questions: in what sense does experimentation as improvisation lead to methodological innovation? What are the implications of artistic experimentation as improvisation for education and learning?


The paper tracks the known concept within research of “experimentation” with a view to revealing how practice-led research in art works distinctively with experimentation. It proposes experimentation as improvisation drawing on a research project Sounding Drawing 2012 as an example. The paper situates art experimentation as improvisation in art (Cage, 1995) anthropology (Hallam and Ingold, 2007; Bateson, 1989) and the theoretical work of Arnheim (1986) on forms of cognition.


Arts research as improvisation is participatory, relational and performative retaining the research subject in its life context. The artist as researcher starts with open-ended critical questions for which there are no known methods or immediate answer. By setting up boundary conditions from the outset and understanding the situatedness and contingencies of those conditions, the artist as improviser seeks ways of not only avoiding chaos and the arbitrary but also being trapped by what is already known.


This approach is important within and beyond the arts because it consciously draws together different forms of cognition – intuition and relational knowledge and also sequential knowledge. It is also significant because it offers a different epistemology in which new knowledge emerges in the relationship between participants in the research taking form in co-creation. These qualities all position improvisation as a research paradigm and a counterpoint to positivism.



Douglas, A. and Gulari, M. (2015), "Understanding experimentation as improvisation in arts research", Qualitative Research Journal, Vol. 15 No. 4, pp. 392-403. https://doi.org/10.1108/QRJ-06-2015-0035

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