dressing it up as research: categories of practice-as-research

I’ve been thinking about when artistic projects become practice-as-research[1], and the sense that there’s a type of fiction going on with how artists working in the academy develop practice-as-research. And by fiction, I mean “something made, not something false”[2].

I like to propose two broad categories that could encompass how – or perhaps when – all practice-as-research projects are developed[3]:

  1. Ab ovo (pronounced ahb-owo): literally, “from the egg” or from the beginning
  2. Ad hoc: makeshift, emergency, improvised, impromptu, expedient, “fashioned from whatever is immediately available”[4], stopgap, jury-rigged. (Jury-rigged!)

An ab ovo[5] project would be one that starts off as practice-as-research. Its participants understand it to be PaR from the get-go. Quintessential examples of ab ovo PaR projects would be nearly all PaR PhDs (certainly since about 2003/2004).

An ad hoc project would start as an art project and then get framed as practice-as-research at some stage (often after it has premièred or first been presented). This is akin to making an artistic work and then (later) calling it – or dressing it up as – research.

I’m going to suggest – and I wonder if this admission is a little dangerous – that as much as 90% of the work I do as an artist working in the academy would fall into the ad hoc PaR category.

I think though that there are quite distinct types of ad hoc-ness, and they each have important implications for artists working in the academy.

Types of ad hoc-ness

  • experienced-aware: artist is aware that ad hoc process of re-framing the art project as research will happen. It’s a middle ground between ab ovo and ad hoc, but the experienced part means that the artist has experience of ab ovo PaR: they understand its pitfalls, contexts, framings, principles, maybe even the codes. It’s the been-there-done-that version of ad hoc PaR.
  • experienced-unaware: project or art work is developed (and completed) without any awareness or sense that it will become research; or that there will be future work to do with its framing or reframing as practice-as-research. However, the person steering the project is aware of background (etc) of practice-as-research. Surprisingly common. Important too, because there’s an argument that perhaps knowing something is research (or that it will be reframed as such) might get in the way of the art-making. Very dependent on individuals.
  • naïve-aware: artist knows it will be framed as research ad hoc, but is not aware of PaR from the inside-out. I suspect this is very common indeed and I’ve noticed it in institutions all over the UK. You have an artist in the University who is asked to “do research”. The artist is told, “you’re an artist, you can submit practice as a research output for the Research Excellence Framework”, or “Your artistic work is REFable”. The danger here is that it can lead to confusion: “But I was told I could do practice”. In effect, institutions are wanting artists to understand an entire history (recent as it is), practices, and methods of PaR in order to frame their artistic practices as research. The success or failure of this scenario is often dependent on the type of practice the artist has.
  • naïve-unaware: the artist is naïve about practice-as-research and not aware that the project will later be framed as research. Difficult at best, an utter mess at worst.

For both naïve scenarios (aware or unaware that the project will be research), the general problem is the same: if the artist doesn’t have a background or experiential understanding of the problems and possibilities of practice-as-research then how do they recognise what is going on in those terms?

 PhDs by portfolio or prior publication

I suspect that the rise of PhDs by portfolio or prior publication will grow or perhaps exacerbate the situations I’ve described as naïve-unaware and naïve-aware in PaR. A PhD by portfolio suits everyone, at least on the surface: student (who is usually/probably a staff member) gets the award, University gets the staff member with the PhD, but very little (if any) of the learning/development/apprenticeship and experiential understanding of — in this case — PaR principles, methods and methodologies occurs. I think it’s different in the sciences when the principles (and terms and conditions) of the scientific method are deeply embedded in the school system (for example, I remember learning about null hypotheses as a 14yo). But I also understand the value of doing a PhD by prior publication, and also the pressure on academics working in higher education to be awarded a PhD (by any means possible).

In the next post, I’ll give some examples of different projects I’ve been involved in that would fit into each of these five categories.

  1. This post is based on a research seminar I gave at Leeds Beckett University in October 2016 called After the fiction: practice-as-research and the professional community.  ↩
  2. Martin, W. (1986). Recent theories of narrative. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p.22.  ↩
  3. The categorisation I’m playing with in this blog post is not a thing. It’s made up. Although perhaps by writing about it I am – at least in part – trying to make it a thing. Perhaps it’s more of a proposition than a thing. Whatever.  ↩
  4. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ad%20hoc  ↩
  5. Apart from being hard to say, I don’t really like the term ab-ovo. It feels dressed up, and it’s certainly not idiomatic. But it’s more accurate than, for example, “planned”. A PaR project can start from the beginning as PaR without necessarily being planned (indeed, I’d argue this lack of knowing — or uncertainty — is key to the principles and approach of PaR).  ↩