Re-posted from INCCA-NA May 23, 2013
As conservators of contemporary art expand their practice to include artist interviews, they have a lot to learn from allied professions with years of experience in qualitative research. Oral historians, anthropologists, and sociologists know the advantages but also the risks involved with the use of interview research. In this brief essay, we formulate some lessons that may inform the relatively new interview practice in conservation. We present them to stimulate critical thinking about this valuable research tool.
Conservation interviews are unique in many ways. Unlike most scholarly disciplines, their aim is not simply to produce knowledge, but to produce practical knowledge, that is, knowledge that can be operationalized in practice. Conservators, therefore, are more concerned with life trajectories of artworks than life trajectories of the artists who produced them. They are less concerned with social circumstances of production and more concerned with materials and technologies of fabrication.
Interviews can be very useful tools to produce this kind of practical knowledge. Through them, conservators can gain a more direct knowledge about the artist’s intentions and potentially establish clear parameters to decide how to clean and repair an object, how to design an exhibition, or how to display their work to enhance public experience. Yet, as sociologists, anthropologists and historians tell us, interviews are research tools with potentially problematic assumptions and unintended consequences.
A fundamental recognition in humanities and social science textbooks is that interviewing is not a neutral method of information collection. It is a subjective process that is dependent on many variables. One variable is the questions themselves. The questions we ask, and the ones we don’t, as well as how we ask them, shapes the kind of responses and information we obtain. It is for this reason that interviews are better understood as guided conservations. The knowledge we obtain through the interview is always co-produced in the exchange between interviewer and interviewee.
As social scientists and historians remind us, the knowledge produced through the interview process must be analyzed through a critical lens, always taking into account the dialogical nature of this process. Interviewees and interviewers have preset notions and personal agendas when they come to an interview. Conservators’ preset notions include knowledge gained during prior research and experience of the artist’s work. Artists’ preset notions include memories of producing the work and prior experience with conservators and museums. Interviewees are aware that interviews will be used to represent them, so they can deliberately shape their comments to conform to how they want to be perceived. Sociologists describe this as the staging of the self. Interviewers must establish trust in order to move beyond this staging to permit honest discussion about the artwork.