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

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  • 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).  ↩
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4 Replies to “dressing it up as research: categories of practice-as-research”

  1. Thanks for sharing this Simon.
    I’ve been thinking a bit about this recently. I think I’m a reverse of your experience in that ALL my practice is research ‘Ab ovov’ since I began my PhD in 2013 (Leeds Uni), and indeed prior to that in terms of practice to support my original proposal in 2012.

    My pro practice prior to 2012 was within other companies, my personal practice is the research since, I’ve not retro fitted any of the pro work into research but it all informs the participative rationale behind the thesis.

    What I currently produce is research and ALSO practice – I realised one of my supervisors (I’ve recently acquired a new one due to ill-health/personal unavailability) didn’t consider the PLR as practice in its own right, whilst for years I’ve had previous supervisors asking “Is this THE research?”. As a practitioner, first and foremost, I’ve struggled to answer this in academy terms because I didn’t have the academic language/knowledge to be able to say that they are one and the same thing – both exploring aspects of my thesis enquiry AND also standing as accessible arts events for participants to play with/in and adding to my professional (if unpaid) output – my work goes up in platforms that are organised and run by others – primarily public.

    I play with ethics (including, but not exclusively, events with children and with learning disabled practitioners/colleagues – I aim for wide-ranging accessibility) so the work has gone through full ethics committee as potentially operating with the ethically dubious/contentious/manipulative. It is structured (where appropriate to the work/event) with permissions, documentation etc – where it doesn’t have this it is because of the nature of both the project and the research – e.g. street practice or most recently work taking place in my house in my absence. Working ‘ab ovo’ clearly has enabled this structuring to be in place, and in some cases had informed the practice directly in terms of deliberately structuring auto-poietic feedback loops within the event itself (with mixed success!). That said I think prior to a research focus my practice had robust systems of structure (I’m a structure nut) and appropriate systems of management, output capture, permission management (blah blah blah) due to funding requirements, to stand up to research scrutiny. Perhaps research has differently nuanced intent but bottom line is this practice fit for purpose requires an a priori approach to its intent – it could be very challenging, experimental, left-field etc etc but in order to be so you need to know what you are challenging, what centre-field is and what the experiment is for … is that just good practice? I’m not suggesting we mitigate failure – I’m a big advocate of failure – but failure also implies a knowledge of success. Also I realise I sound too scientific now – that the work is testing a hypothesis – often, in fact usually, I’m not – I’m seeing what happens if …. (some work still to do on academic articulation here, I suspect!)

    I’m lucky, however, I only have myself and my thesis to please – I’m not employed by the academy and therefore do not have to comply with or fulfil REF requirements of research for a department/school/faculty. Nor am I aiming to make practice that requires funding and/or is ticketed. (Nor do I make a living!).

    The other debate that has also been connected is the notion of PAR – which Leeds Uni doesn’t accept – and PLR which is the term we are required to adopt and operate by. I suspect operating ad hoc in PLR terms would be even more difficult to retro fit.

    Well that was interesting to ponder ‘out loud’.
    E

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  2. Hey Simon,

    Thanks for the candidness of your writing – it’s refreshing! This might not be directly relevant to the propositions you’re making, but the post made me think about the different ways I hear artists using the term ‘research’:

    – The aesthetics of research: The work borrows from the look/feel/tone of traditional forms of research or investigation, and makes direct use of these kinds of materials (long texts, archival imagery, interviews, etc.). Close to documentary and collage, it cuts between text, found footage, and video that the artist might have taken in the site of their research. The artist situates a (pseudo-?) sociological, scientific or historical enquiry within an arts context – although this is undertaken with a sensitivity to the art-historical developments in filming/video/photography/text etc. While this is empitomized for me in screencapture videos (flicking between windows, texts, youtue videos, etc.), I can also think of performance lectures that might fit into this, or other media which might present the artist themself (more or less consciously) as researcher/investigator/detective.

    – The research ‘period’: The artist undertakes a period of research for the work, before getting on with making it. This might include non-artistic materials/information/histories – or might be to do with production techniques or into the backgrounds of particular institutions, etc. This ‘research’ is then more or less put aside for the making of the ‘final’ work – but might have some kind of public showing, perhaps alongside the resulting artwork.

    – What I understand ‘practice-as-research’ to be: An artist inquires into a particular topic through the production and presentation of numerous artworks which articulate a diverse set of questions/strategies/understandings around the field of enquiry. Each individual work no doubt invites a number of questions/readings – but through the production of a number of works, they reveal a (set of) concept(s) the artist seems to be concerned with.

    I don’t think this is exhaustive, but just what comes to mind in terms of expectations I have of how artists situate/frame their work as ‘research’ (without necessarily identifying it as ‘practice-as-research’). I guess what might be of interest is how particular works morph through different forms, and different frames, as an ‘ad hoc’ research project opportunistically restages the same materials – what do the artists do to the work, to acquire the convincing ‘look’, or ‘feel’, or research?

    Looking forward to reading more!

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  3. I think this is very interesting. It brings to mind the book ‘Freakonomics’, which reveals the ways in which people are incentivised to play the systems they inhabit. What counts as research through Artistic Practice has changed and will no doubt continue to change, and people will play by the rules of the validating authority at the time (and place) in order to glean the financial / career benefits. I’m also struck by the different motives and functions of art-making. I have friends who are very successful artists in that their work is experienced and appreciated by a great many people and influential in the history of art practices (if that counts as success), but they have little or no knowledge of PaR methods or issues. I also have friends who are academics creating work that rigorously observes PaR frameworks and is highly REF-able but isn’t apparently much appreciated by non-academic humans. One can imagine an academic creating very academically rigorous comedy that makes no one laugh. Presumably this is not the case with mathematicians or physicists because in those domains there is no separation between theory and practice. I am also reminded of a story Ken Robinson. When he was a professor he recommended for promotion a colleague who was a very successful creative writer, whose work was regularly on national television. The promotion was declined, however, because although the board recognised his ability and influence as a writer, they felt he wasn’t an active enough researcher. Someone studying his work might well be promoted, but not the writer himself.

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