Last week I posted a(n incomplete) list of the reasons why artists (and also artists in academia) might document their work. Part of the complexity of the issue of documentation is that the word documentation itself reveals a number of assumptions about practice-as-research as a method in the academy.
The word *documentation*:
- sets up a simplistic otherness between the art work and the documents that somehow trace aspects of that work. In other words, the term documentation forces the art work to contain the heart and soul of the research because everything else is pointing at it. For some artist-researchers this might seem like a positive thing.
- traps us into a way of thinking in which what is understood/experienced/felt/apprehended differently as a consequence of our research – its epistemological value – resides somewhere between an event that has past, and some materials that are present and (relatively or vaguely) permanent, but exist primarily in relation to that event. William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
- tends to foreground the idea of what is lost when we document performance
- can corral us into absorbing – or buying into – economies of knowledge in which the (persisting) value of our work is located in recognisable and traditional objects of knowledge (that in certain circumstances can be bought and sold).
I suspect that we have defaulted to the word documentation due to its availability and accessibility (both very good reasons), and also because in the early days of practice-as-research there was a tendency for projects to involve making an (art)work, documenting it, then writing about it. It was all rather tidy, at least on the surface.
I don’t think the solution involves finding a more appropriate word, but rather rethinking the way we imagine the scope and shape of our research projects. The metaphor I’ve found most useful in this regard is the crystal, which I first encountered in writing by the sociologist Laurel Richardson:
[Crystallization] combines symmetry and substance with an infinite variety of shapes, substances, transmutations, multidimensionalities, and angles of approach. … Crystallization provides us with a deepened, complex, thoroughly partial, understanding of the topic. Paradoxically, we know more and doubt what we know.
The implications for practice-as-research are clear. Each research project is a singular entity with many surfaces. These surfaces – or materials, experiences, activities, events, etc. – enable the reader-viewer-audience to access and apprehend different perspectives or understandings of the same singular entity. In such a model, documentation is no longer other to performance, and writing is not simply a description of a performance that happened in the past. They are enfolded into the same experience and understanding.
In many respects, this crystal model or metaphor demands that artist-researchers step back enough from their practices so that it is visible (or able to be conceived of) as singular. At the same time, it makes multiplicity possible – even essential – in our practices and work.
Some further reading:
- Jones, A., & Heathfield, A. (2012). Perform, Repeat, Record. London: Intellect Books.
- Ledger, A., Ellis, S., & Wright, F. (2011). The Question of Documentation: Creative Strategies in Performance Research. In B. Kershaw & H. Nicholson (Eds.), Research methods in theatre and performance (pp. 162–184). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
- Richardson, L. (1994). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N.K. Denzin & Y.S. Lincoln (Eds.) Handbook of qualitative research (pp.516–529). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
- Ellingson, Laura L. (2009). Engaging Crystallization in Qualitative Research: An Introduction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.