Criticised Artistic Research, Didn’t Pass the Viva

‘A farcical act of revenge’, according to Bogdan Szyber, who was unanimously rejected by a degree committee. For the first time in Sweden, a thesis in artistic research did not pass the public defence.

Bogdan Szyber (right) and Carina Reich have been working together with performance- and stage productions since 1983. Photo: Max Bäcker.

For the first time in Sweden, a doctoral thesis in artistic research did not pass the public defence. This happened when the stage and performance artist Bogdan Szyber was unanimously rejected by the examination committee at Stockholm University of the Arts on 15 May. Artistic research was first introduced in Sweden twenty years ago and is now part of all the country’s arts academies, including Stockholm University of the Arts, which was founded in 2014 through a merger of the University of Dance and Circus, the University College of Opera, and the Swedish National Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Szyber’s thesis, Fauxthentication: Art Academia and Authorship (or the site-specifics of the Academic Artist), describes through a number of theoretical chapters and practical projects (including an exhibition at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm) an increasing financialisation and academicisation of artistic education. The argument is presented using a discursive rhetoric and “aesthetic and theoretical manoeuvres” that, according to Szyber, are performed in order to uphold the very system which his dissertation claims to expose – one which he regards as vacuous and false. Nevertheless, that the thesis did not pass the viva came as a shock to those involved, as the examination committee broke the practice of notifying the supervisor in advance of the defence date if they intend not to pass the dissertation.

Bogdan Szyber himself believes that his thesis is obviously controversial, as he criticises and exposes the institutional mechanisms that form the foundations of art and higher education.

“I am telling them that the emperor has no clothes. What I am saying is that artistic research produces its very own genre of art – ‘Edu-art’ – which appears to have a little or no impact in the in the field of art in general. I described to the three committee members that their entire careers are fake, and they just couldn’t take that,” according to Szyber, who has been working together with Carina Reich as part of the performance duo Reich + Szyber since 1983.

When Kunstkritikk asked the three members of the examination committee – Michelle Teran, Kai Johnsen, and Julian Klein – for a more detailed explanation, they referred to a five-page written evaluation based on the Stockholm University of the Arts’s learning objectives. Characteristic of the evaluation is that Szyber’s thesis was considered unsuccessful in general terms, but no more detailed points are specified. In addition, the committee believed that Szyber demonstrated “an inability to perform artistic analysis and synthesis,” and was not “able to review and assess new and complex phenomena, issues or situations.” Therefore, they could not “find enough arguments that could support a positive assessment of the candidate’s knowledge of artistic research methodology in general, nor the methods for the specific field of performative research in particular.”

When asked to respond to the committee’s criticisms, Szyber responded: “That the examination committee decided to fail me I see as a form of punishment; a farcical act of revenge. Addressing their sweeping assessments, wrapped up in an academic lingo, is as meaningful as confronting an inquisition court. My alleged ignorance of ‘general artistic methodology’ and ‘specific methodologies in performative research’ are horrifying examples of how far the standardisation and “quality assurance” of us academic artists has gone. That an examination committee rejects a thesis based on one question each at the end of a public defence is unheard of. I am unique in that sense, and the result of the viva is interesting in itself.”

Image from Bogdan Szyber’s thesis Fauxthentication – Konst, Akademi & Upphovsrätt (eller den akademiska konstnärens platsspecifika omständigheter). Illustration: Niklas Alriksson.

Szyber argues that it is completely off-limits to discuss academic hierarchies and the incentives that exist to even complete a doctoral education in Sweden today. “It is absurd to think you would become a better artist after completing a PhD or Master’s degree in art,” he said. “Artistic higher education institutions are definitely afflicted by an accreditation illness that has affected hiring and positions at universities and other institutions. Of course I see the value in expression through image, music, dance, and text-based theory. But today the artistic precariat is larger than ever. Just look at The Swedish Arts Grants Committee’s report Artists in Sweden: Demographics, Earnings and Social Status from 2016. Which artist would turn down a doctoral candidate salary of SEK 30,000 (EUR 2,850) a month and a 400,000 (EUR 38,000) project stipend? Financial incentives are what drive the passion for research,” Szyber continued.

The committee’s decision not to approve the thesis cannot be appealed according to Swedish praxis. However, the thesis can be presented at a later date for consideration by a new committee. Szyber says this isn’t likely at the moment, but he is open to it sometime in the future. He describes what he has been through since the public thesis defence as an “emotional rollercoaster.”

According to Szyber: “The absurd thing about this whole situation is that the entire Stockholm University of the Arts has by extension been failed, as everyone at the school supported the presentation of the thesis, including Vice-Rector of Research Cecilia Roos, Head of Subject area for the Research Education Ellen Røed, final seminar opponent Karin Hansson and principal supervisor André Lin.”

On its website, the university claims it is looking into the matter to see how the process can move forward. Cecilia Roos said via email that the university is waiting to hear from Szyber and his supervisor about how they wish to proceed. “We have a meeting scheduled next Thursday after which I hope to have more information to publish on our website. I really hope the thesis will be defended again, as we feel it is a very strong PhD project,” Roos wrote Kunstkritikk. 

Reich + Szyber, Beautiful Sadness, 1998. Foto: Anders Thessing.