crystals and documentation

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*:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. tends to foreground the idea of what is lost when we document performance
  4. 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[1], but rather rethinking the way we imagine the scope and shape of our research projects[2]. 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.[3]

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.[4]

  1. This was one of the key aspects of my PhD in which I suggest that remembering is a more apt term because it invites suggestions of loss, contexts, fallibility, construction, etc.  ↩
  2. At some point I’d like to write a few thoughts about how distinguishing between workds and projects might be useful. Bojana Kunst has written this about the word project:  ↩
  3. I didn’t have easy access to Richardson’s chapter in Denzin and Lincoln’s Handbook of Qualitative Research but this quote is all over the net. In this case the quote is cited in  ↩
  4. Thanks to Teoma Jackson Naccarato for this reference. I haven’t had a good look through it yet but it seems like a good place to start.  ↩

6 Replies to “crystals and documentation”

  1. Or is it also like stained glass? We all look through different colours somewhere further than the immediate pane? Language is something I keep coming back to. In relation to perception and intersections and Like ‘ disability’ I’d change that right away… A word like ‘difference’ is human and opens up the imagination for new ( better?) territory, and is not reductive or lacking… Words are charged with energy eh. They do get through! Like sound, the words we volley, change us. Like psychological concepts that history has plumped up and repeated and made norm. Freud? Time to turn some things on their heads with a feminist lens and new metaphors.( again, ‘cos it never happens in one go) Practice as research is a state of being and thinking isn’t it. From that alive habit, the possibilities are cast. It comes back to fragments. Lots of diverse takes on a given topic. Lots of lived bodies whose singular perspectives we know will create yet more, in the timeless collective. It matters – life and love, dance/art and culture, only if we make it matter. And consciously let people in discerningly at particular ‘pip stops’ on the adventure. Share the load! Acknowledge fully each personal political creative contribution.

    Thelma and Louise ( how long it’s been) primarily at the wheel:)

    Collaboration as an ethos and a way is the best start. Equal distinct ingredients in the research. Food for the whole family…!

    Sent from maxines iPad


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Simon.
    I’ve been referring to and using Richardson’s concept of crystallisation for some years now. It’s a very useful metaphor, but it also signifies a profound shift in the theoretical and methodological paradigms within which we place our work and research. It challenges the dominant positivist-rational-scientific paradigm in which (as Richardson states in the sentences preceding that quote) the triangle, with its limitations of being only 3-sided and 2-dimensional, is the dominant metaphor, along with the corresponding language e.g validity, reliability, generalisability, methodological rigour, data, etc. It’s a paradigm in which there is an ‘objective truth’ that can be captured and understood.

    “Triangulation carries with it the image of a mathematical procedure adding discipline and rigour in one sense, but in another sense restricting the research to one of scientific method and a positivist framework where variables are few and csn be controlled and manipulated. (Chien, 2004)

    The multi-faceted crystal (if you imagine starting with a ‘rough’ unformed shape) requires a whole set of different ‘tools’ in order to cut (still with great rigour) the many different surfaces to create the facets that, in turn, reveal the ‘light’ i.e. the ‘truth’. But in this case that ‘truth is matter of consensus between informed and sophisticated constructors’ (Guba and Lincoln), not of correspondence with an objective reality.The language also changes: validity, for example is replaced with words such as credibility, coherence, consistency, authenticity, trustworthiness.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Paul for the trouble you’ve taken to write, and your insights.

    Of course the crystal metaphor is not at all some kind of epistemological panacea for practice-as-research, and in many respects I’ve used it as a way of helping students visualise how the materials and experiences of their practices might be *contained* (in itself a spatial metaphor with all sorts of issues for performance studies/dance). But, any metaphor has its limitations and the *objectness* of the crystal (and related metaphors about something able to be held as *justified, true, belief*) is a serious problem.

    Nevertheless, Richardson’s crystal might help those of us working with practice-as-research methods and principles to continue to challenge the assumptions of the positivist paradigm (and its associated language) then that seems valuable indeed. Perhaps it might help us recognise the kinds of traps we inadvertently fall into when we start to use language like validity, knowledge, truth, findings, data, etc.


  4. Hi Simon,
    We’ve been wrestling with the idea of documenting comedy and how to reconcile the issues of performance/records/what constitutes artefacts. We had a symposium on documenting comedy here at Salford last year and some of the proceedings were published in the latest edition of the journal Comedy Studies –

    I didn’t hear anything of the crystal theory raised at the symposium but it certainly is a helpful way of thinking about it.


  5. I have documented my practise research on intermedial performance and improvisation by creating a wordpress website and blog. This has enabled the production of a mulifaceted, multimodal time based record of the research process and a contextualisation of the research.

    If a crystal analogy is used, I would suggest that the crystal changes over time, it evolves, it is not static but is informe and mutates through the practice research process. I also see that planes of inquiry through the crystal structure might also be a useful idea as a means of taking different slices throgh the research content. One of the interesting challenges I have found is enabling different forms of access to the research documentation – via a narrative, a table of contents, menus, tag cloud, diary. WordPress has enabled me to try some of these access structures out as can be seen on my research website:

    There are alternative access structures on the net, the marcell network website uses a 3D crystal like structure called a ‘navihendron’, which can be rotated and expanded as a means of accessing content:


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