artistic research is difficult

I have brief meetings twice a week with the PhD students I am supervising — all of whom are working through and with practices of some kind. One of the things that came up recently was their growing awareness of how difficult artistic-research is. We haven’t yet got into why it seems difficult to them, and I imagine it is enough for now to simply register that difficulty.

But it did remind me of conversations in the early days of practice-research in which people voiced concerns about artist-scholars ending up doing closer to two PhDs — one through the artistic component, the other through the more traditional written form. I had a quick scan for some references that discuss this issue but didn’t have any luck (and nor could I remember any specific publications). Perhaps if you are reading this and any come to mind drop them in the comments.

I suspect part of the difficulty is about recognising how to delimit a research project. In the arts this is particularly difficult not least because the culture or habit of arts practices is to seek influence from diverse and disparate ideas, images, practices and understanding to inform the practice.

For example, one of the students at C-DaRE is working beautifully through simple physical practices of falling and spinning. What practices come to mind for you when you read those two words: falling and spinning? For me, falling conjures up some of the artistic work of Bas Jan Ader and spinning the Whirling Dervishes. But if I just stick with falling for now …

The student could go to the physics of gravity, or movement practices like contact improvisation that explicitly deal with the body as it is falling, or even simple human gait (a series of falls and catches); or they might turn towards the Bible and falls from grace. This is all before dealing with metaphors of falling (let along turning towards spinning): falling away, falling apart, falling together, falling in love, fallen soldiers, the fallen …

These simple, direct and clear physical practices spawn an unfathomable range and number of ideas, influences, reflections, histories, cultures, assumptions and understandings (and all of the research fields that accompany those ideas).

Yes, artistic-research is difficult. It’s difficult because tuning ourselves to recognise the edges or boundaries of a particular artistic practice is difficult. That it is this, but not that. It is here, not there. It speaks to these ideas, but not those.

My thought here is for those of us working in practice-research to attempt to stay as local and partial as possible; to tend towards depth rather than breadth. I suspect that it will help an artistic-research student to practice saying, “Yes, I see that connection or that influence or that idea, but it is not for this project.” This will take a certain amount of courage, and perhaps even will feel like a risk. By coming to terms with what your artistic-research is not (or even just quietly and temporarily shelving those things which you might label as ‘not’), makes it more and more possible to gently hold onto what the research is becoming.

The research will not and can not be everything you want it to be. I think I am referring here to a certain amount of scholarly humility: this project is partial, it only speaks to these things in this moment.

Perhaps it is not as difficult as we think it is?

moving and being moved

On 27 May 2021 C-DaRE hosted a conference called Dance Research Matters. I was on a panel chaired by Susanne Foellmer, with panellists Jonathan Burrows, Funmi Adewole, and Efrosini Protopapa. We each gave a small provocation before a conversation and questions. The subject of the panel was:

Why practice matters – if practice is part of dance research, then what needs to change to reflect the value of practice as an epistemic system?

What follows is a written version of my 5-minute talk.


In the (southern) winter of 1999 I was watching a dance company perform in a nightclub in Melbourne. Shirley McKechnie was there and she mentioned that the University of Melbourne had recently changed its regulations such that artists could submit creative work towards a PhD.

In January 2000 I started a PhD at the Victorian College of the Arts through the University of Melbourne. I was the first practice-led PhD student at VCA (even though I’d never heard the term practice-led). The University was a haven of sorts, a place for me to have some financial support to keep developing my choreographic practice free from the funding and production lottery of public funding.

To a certain extent, that sense of the University being a haven — a place for artists to practice — still exists, although the conditions are radically different.

It was naïve for me to imagine that my practice would not be changed by that interface with the academy, as it would be naïve for artists now to imagine the same thing.

Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For example, when I land on the earth from a jump, the force I apply to the earth is equal to the force the earth applies to me. You might say the earth moves me as I move it. It’s just a question of scale, or more accurately, mass.

Perhaps it is like this for artists in the Academy. The Academy is a large collection of institutions that are different by degree; apparently immovable or solid relative to the peculiar, specific and small instances of artistic practice. My practice is likely to feel the effects of that interface or impact more than the Academy.

I’d like to suggest that up to now the work of practice-research has mostly been about establishing itself or gaining a foothold; finding a way to be in the Academy. This has occurred at two levels: through individual artistic-research projects that exist as mostly insulated cells of understanding and experience; and at the level of policy whereby practice-research is perhaps a grudgingly accepted — but poorly understood — part of the entire scholarly research family. Both levels have been integral to the academy as some kind of haven for artists.

I think though there is a third level. It’s the way in which practice-research might reach beyond its own boundaries and be in dialogue with long-standing and entrenched ideas of how knowledge is gathered, developed, understood and communicated. I don’t mean in some self-serving way, but rather to actively and proactively extend practice-research beyond the margins of its own small community.

On the one hand practice-research must sustain the way it serves “to protect the obscure, the ineffable, the unmarketable, the unmanageable, the local, the poetic, and the eccentric”[1] — a vital and pivotal role to remind us we are considering epistemic things that are not convenient to express; the articulation of “unfinished thinking”.[2]

On the other hand, how might these hard to grasp methods, alternate epistemologies and corporeal understandings — inconvenient things to express — move the extraordinarily large mass of the Academy such that the Academy is able to understand that and how it is being moved?

This is why practice matters in the academy.

[1]: Solnit, R. (2016) Hope in the dark: untold histories, wild possibilities. Third edition. Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, p.96

[2]: Borgdorff, H. (2013) ‘Artistic Practice and Epistemic Things’, in Experimental Systems: Future Knowledge in Artistic Research. Leuven: Leuven University Press (Orpheus Institute series), p.117.

two definitions of research in practice-research

I’ve previously published a simple effort (originally from 2013) to define practice-research. At the heart of that definition is the back and forth between one’s artistic practice and the work and ideas of a community of practice.

In Henk Borgdorff’s 2006 article on The Debate on Research in the Arts he describes the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) (now Research Excellence Framework or REF) and Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) definitions of artistic research.

The RAE version from the 2005 regulations is summarised by Borgdorff as:

We can hence speak of research in the arts only when the practice of art delivers an intended, original contribution to what we know and understand (Borgdorff, 2006: 9).

The AHRC definition from 2003 focuses on research questions, context, methods, documentation and dissemination, and Borgdorff notes that the criteria are different from the RAE criteria because the assessment occurs at different times — RAE after the work is complete, and the AHRC before the research has begun.

What strikes me about the part of the RAE definition that Borgdorff quotes is just how well it holds up 16 years later. It also does what Borgdorff was looking for — to distinguish art practice-as-research from “art practice-in-itself” (Borgdorff, 2006: 10).

Borgdorff, H., 2006. The Debate on Research in the Arts. Presented at the Sensuous Knowledge 02, KHiB, https://www.ahk.nl/fileadmin/download/ahk/Lectoraten/Borgdorff_publicaties/The_debate_on_research_in_the_arts.pdf.

many possible futures

I had a conversation this morning with some practice-research PhD at C-DaRE and the tension between outcomes and processes came up in passing. I thought I’d have a go at discussing a process of ‘many possible futures’ while pursuing artistic research.

One after-thought is that it would be entirely possible to follow the second ‘many futures’ process without arriving at a particular outcome. Rather, you could ‘assay’ your practice at difference stages to develop a series of research outputs or documents through time. This series would plausibly reveal the development of your understanding and why that development matters to your community of practice.

the different ages of an artwork

Paolo Garbolino has a chapter in Art as a Thinking Process: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production (Eds: Ambrožič and Vettese) called What the Scientist’s Eye Tells the Artist’s Brain. The chapter compares scientific and artistic practices and does so beautifully.

Garbolino cites George Kubler’s The Shape of Time to help describe the ways in which artworks and experiments are progressions through time. Kubler writes that every work of art is:

A complex having not only traits, each with a different systematic age, but having also clusters of traits, or aspects, each with its own age, like any other organization of matter, such as a mammal, of which the blood and the nerves are of different biological antiquity, and the eye and the skin are of different systematic age.[Kubler, in @garbolino_what_2013 p.83]

This sense that different parts of an artwork have different ages (and different relationships with the past) is captivating. Garbolino writes:

Artistic artefacts encode relationships among physical objects, people, and particular settings. These relational properties as well as physical objects are things of the world, and they contribute to shaping the forms in the sequences of artistic phenomena.[@garbolino_what_2013 p.84]

What I register in Garbolino’s thinking is that we are beholden to attempt to understand and communicate the different times, ages, people and histories in the practices we are sharing. That part of our responsibility is to acknowledge how these things are variously part of different communities, traditions, ideas and practices. There is so little that is able to be owned when we share practice.

reference: Garbolino, P. (2013) ‘What the Scientist’s Eye Tells the Artist’s Brain’. in Art as a Thinking Process: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production. ed. by Ambrožič, M. and Vettese, A. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 74–86.

not justifying the practice

Paul Hughes is an artist and PhD student (through practice) at Roehampton Dance. He has been writing public letters to his supervisors over on Substack: paulhughes.substack.com/

In the latest edition Paul writes:

If I were to give any advice to recently-graduating artists I would tell them to develop practice that does not rely on institutional resources. That doesn’t require expensive materials, for example, or access to a dance studio; and doesn’t need major platforms (galleries, stages, publishing houses, etc.) to reach and encounter an audience. That does not require them to justify their practice to institutions before it can take place.

My sense that this is critical for any artist (regardless of the institutions they are working in, around, under, beside, over). To find ways to do the work and to build from that place of deep understanding that emerges from doing the work.