processes and documents

On Sunday I participated in a discussion about practice-as-research as part of the Classical music hyper-production project at the University of West London. The discussion was chaired by UWL’s Simon Zagorski-Thomas, and included Ian Pace, Kristen Kreider and me.

The practice-as-research component seemed tacked on to the main part of the conference (we were definitely the graveyard shift), as if it remains something that is up for grabs – or in need of debate – in any project that has an element of artistic practice. It was also clear from the discussion and questions that practice-as-research remains a source of tension, confusion and perhaps even anxiety.

As part of the main project there is an online conference with practice-as-research relevant panels here:

My understanding is that a video of the practice-as-research discussion will be online in the next couple of days [1].

There are three things from the discussion that I’d like to comment on:

  1. Is all practice research?
  2. What does process have to do with anything?
  3. Researching and documenting

Is all practice research?

This question still surprises me. The short answer is no.

Yes, all artistic processes involve elements of research. That is, finding things out in order to inform the development of the artistic work. What we call research and development phases always exist when humans go about making things (whether we call these phases research and development or not). But I don’t understand this to be research in the sense of building on – and questioning – the nature of how and what we understand or experience as human beings. This latter kind of research involves being explicitly in relation to – or dialogue with – the circulation of ideas and practices in the community or field within which one is working. With students I’ve talked about this – as has Anna Pakes – as the difference between little r and capital R research. Not all practice explicitly engages with communities of ideas and understandings, although of course there are many many examples of practice outside of the academy that knowingly do this kind of capital-R research (Deborah Hay, William Forsythe, Tehching Hsieh spring to mind).

 What does process have to do with anything?

There’s no doubt that practice-as-research seems to emphasise process at the expense of other aspects of the work we do. The trap here is in assuming that just because one has been through a process that artistic-scholarly research has occurred. Processes are only important when there is something explicitly distinctive about them that contributes to how we understand and discuss making particular things. In other words, if the subject of one’s research is a particular aspect of artistic process, then process is important. In such cases (and they are rare, certainly in dance), the critical – and often difficult – aspect of practice-as-research is figuring out how best to give the community access to these processes that reveal the understandings and developments.

Artistic outcomes – that is what is performed or presented – do not necessarily have a direct relationship to the processes that made them possible. I understand the relationship between process and outcome to be slightly paradoxical, but it is (another) trap to believe that certain processes lead to certain kinds of outcomes (or that if we see the outcomes we know anything about the processes).

 Researching and documenting

During the discussion I heard how often these two words – researching and documenting – are placed together when people talk about practice-as-research. It is as if one is able to replace the other: “I document, therefore I research”. In practice-as-research we are obsessed with modes of documentation (I know this in part because my PhD was one big crash of documentation [2]). With documentation, it’s as if we as practice-as-researchers think, “If less is more, think how much more more will be”. The key consideration – in my opinion – is when particular aspects of a practice-as-research project demand some form of documentation because that documentation is able to reveal the specifics of those experiences or understandings (or potential for understanding). Less really is more.

Thanks to Simon, Kristen and Ian for the invitation and conversation. I hope these comments might serve to continue the discussion.

  1. I’ll add this to the post when it turns up.  ↩
  2. A key argument of my doctoral research was that documentation is not the right word for what happens as part of practice-as-research. Instead I talked about rememberings (and the possibilities of slippage, error and fallability associated with memory), but since then I understand the various aspects – or modes – of a practice-as-research project as being akin to the various surfaces of a diamond. I’ve adopted/adapted the term surface from Laurel Richardson’s seminal article (book chapter) called Writing: A Method of Inquiry. The basic premise is that practice-as-research involves creating a single research project that might be thought of – or “three-dimensionalised” – as a crystal. This crystal is singular, but it has many surfaces that are part of its suchness. The crystal looks and feels different to others depending on which perspective or surface they see or feel. The term surface might also be thought of as the various modalities and re/presentational possibilities of a practice-as-research project.  ↩

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