tacit and reflexive

The Artistic Doctorates in Europe project published a resource collection last year. In the introduction, Vida Midgelow (who also happens to be a very dear friend) wrote the following:

Artistic researchers might be said to pursue ‘hybrid enquiries combining creative doing with reflexive being’ (Kershaw 2011, 64), deeply informed by ‘expert practitioner knowledge’ (see Melrose 2005). So, whilst many approaches to research have sought to place a distance between the researcher and the researched, artistic researchers tend toward tacit approaches, wherein the researcher is very much caught up in the particularities of the/their situation and their own agency.

— Vida Midgelow nivel.teak.fi/adie/introduction

I understand the profoundly first-person nature of artistic research although I’d suggest this hardly makes it unique. But what caught my eye was the way Vida seems to fold in tacit approaches with reflexivity. It’s not clear to me what this relationship between tacit approaches and reflexivity might be. Is there something peculiar about reflexive first-person research processes artistic research that pulls the researcher towards that which can’t be seen or felt?

If you happen to be reading this Vida I’d love to hear your thoughts.

precision

One of the things I must enjoy about artistic research is the space it provides for ambiguity and uncertainty. I’d see both of these words as being fundamental to artistic research experiences. We cannot know with certainty, and the ideas, materials and sensations we are involved in are ambiguous.

But there is also a time for precision and my sense is that such a time is most obvious or pointed in the writing we sometimes create as part of articulating reflections on practice.

Here’s a benign example from Andrea Davidson’s Introduction to the Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices’ special volume on technology (Volume 5):

As de Lima notes, ‘experience, consciousness and perception are not abstract concepts, but are active embodied practices resulting from a continuous and recursive inter- action with the environment’

– Davidson, 2013: 12

But if you go to de Lima’s article (in the same issue) she writes:

Furthermore, Damásio’s theory emphasizes that notions like experience, consciousness and perception are not abstract concepts, but are active embodied practices resulting from a continuous, recursive interaction with the environment.

– de Lima, 2013: 24

These ideas regarding embodied practices are not de Lima’s at all, they belong to Damásio and that places them in an entirely different context, legacy and indeed way of thinking about the body.

Of course, this isn’t a problem peculiar to practice-research, except to say that because we are constantly shifting registers as artist-scholars — between the poetic, the scholarly, the deeply researched, the profoundly intuitive — perhaps it’s a little easier for us to fall into the trap of lacking precision when precision is possible?

References

Davidson, A., 2013. Somatics: An orchid in the land of technology. Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices 5, 3–15. https://doi.org/10.1386/jdsp.5.1.3_7

de Lima, C., 2013. Trans-meaning – Dance as an embodied technology of perception. journal of dance and somatic practices 5, 17–30. https://doi.org/10.1386/jdsp.5.1.17_1

practice and research

On the same trip to Malta I also got to spend a couple of afternoons with the undergraduate dance cohort at University of Malta. One of the sesssions was about practice and research. Tough sell.

The session was an experiment really and throughout the session I started working on a whiteboard as they were working with tasks, feeding back, etc. This is what the board looked like at the end.

articulating process

I read this statement the other day:

In the spirit of practice-led research the artworks in this article articulate process.

— Anne Scott Wilson, 2016. Technology as collaborator in somatic photographic practice. Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices 8, 11–19. https://doi.org/10.1386/jdsp.8.1.11_1

I’m curious about the extent to which ‘articulating process’ is merely a truism of practice-research. Who said that this is the spirit of practice-led research? Or is it simply an unquestioned convention?

In part I worry that we end up reifying process in the way that Barthes warns us about method:

Some people speak of method greedily, demandingly; what they want in work is method; to them it never seems rigorous enough, formal enough. Method becomes a Law …. The invariable fact is that a work which constantly proclaims its will-to-method is ultimately sterile: everything has been put into the method, nothing remains for the writing; the researcher insists that his text will be methodological, but this text never comes: no surer way to kill a piece of research and send it to join the great scrap heap of abandoned projects than Method.

— Roland Barthes, (1986). The Rustle of Language (R. Howard, Trans.). New York: Hill and Wang, p.318.

talking or not

I happened across these two gems the other day:

"It is better to practice a little than talk a lot."

– A Zen saying, attributed to Muso Soseki

"’But my nose is running!’ What do you have hands for, idiot, if not to wipe it? ‘But how is it right that there be running noses in the first place?’ Instead of thinking up protests, wouldn’t it be easier just to wipe your nose?"

– Epictetus

Both reminded me of the value and power of just getting on with one’s practice, and that talking about what you are doing is often not as important as it might seem. In other words, if in doubt, do the practice.

Image courtesy of Bob Whalley

PS. Of course, perhaps your practice is centred around conversations (or talking) and that would be a different kettle of fish altogether.

messiness, unruly sentences and grammar

This is a slightly circuitous route from practice-as-research into grammar. Bear with me.

In practice-as-research we often write about abstract, complex experiences, actions or practices that are difficult to describe. Bob Whalley and Lee Miller suggest our practices are messy:

The peculiarity of an individual’s practice-as-research is not usually described as a steady process. Artistic research does not, and cannot, aim for equilibrium, being contracted and imbedded in the commitment to seek out new knowledges and/or substantial new insights. And yet, these are messy practices, and ones which have the capability to mess you up, and mess you around.[1]

We use language in different modes to attempt to do our writing work; for example analytical, poetic or descriptive.

It struck me recently[2] — while reading some PaR work — that we also often introduce complexity (or obfuscation) unnecessarily into our artistic-scholarly writing. We inadvertently create work for the reader and make simple concepts complex or impossible to parse.

One of the ways we create such obstacles is by writing long complex compound sentences that disrupt the reader’s momentum. If our writing is at all choreographic or compositional in how it generates experiences and ideas for the reader, then such disruptions are a problem.

There are three useful grammar concepts that I think could help those of you interested[3] in helping readers understand your thinking:

  1. Keep subjects and verbs close

e.g The cat (subject) sat (verb) on the mat.

Sentences where you have to wait a very long time between subject and verb, or where you’re having to fight through a thicket of modifying clauses before you even reach the subject, tax the working memory.[4]

More on this in number 3 below.

  1. Concrete nouns and vivid verbs

employ plenty of concrete nouns and vivid verbs, especially when discussing abstract concepts.[5]

  1. Right branching sentences

Right-branching sentences give you the subject and verb up front and are easier on the reader’s brain. Sam Leith writes that “Once you have subject and verb established, you know where you’re going with the sentence.” (p.74). He then describes two main ways that sentences get unruly (and I’m going to be quoting at length here from pp.125-126):[6]

a) Parataxis:

“A paratactic sentence is built like a string of sausages”:

The cat, but not the pig and the duck or the chicken, came into the room and looked around to see what would be the best place to sit, then circled it three times, kneaded the mat in the middle with its paws, and sat down on the mat.

Parataxis makes a mouthful, but it’s fairly easily dealt with: You just cut the sentence up into different sentences. In the above, for instance, the subject (“cat”) has five verbs to get through—“came,” “looked,” “circled,” “kneaded,” and only then finally “sat.”

The cat came into the room. The pig, duck, and chicken stayed outside. The cat looked for a good spot. It circled the mat three times, kneaded it with its paws, and sat down.

b) Hypotaxis:

Hypotaxis is a hierarchical construction. Your main clause becomes the kernel of a sort of Russian doll, and the central meaning gets swamped by subordinate clauses.

The cat, which is to say an individual of the species—originally descended from Felis silvestris—Felis catus, in this case a blue-furred Persian four years of age whose eyes gleamed red gold in the light from the lamp in the corner, sat, being by this stage tired of standing up, on the mat which was in the middle of the floor of the room.

These can be trickier to unpack. You need to decide, when you split the sentence up, what comes first. So you could do it like this:

The cat sat on the mat in the middle of the room. Cats are of the species Felis catus. They are descended from Felis silvestris. This one was a four-year-old Persian with blue fur. Its eyes gleamed red gold in the light from the lamp in the corner.

My guess is that hypotaxis in particular is rife in academia. I see it all the time, and in PaR it makes the description or analysis of abstract and complex experiences nigh impossible to understand. Sometimes sentences are so messy that I start to imagine that the person who has written them is not clear about what has been going on (and does not feel comfortable owning that lack of clarity).

And just in case you’ve got to this point and you are wondering why this matters, here’s Helen Sword:

We want writing to be taken seriously, as powerful and evocative performance, able to change people’s experiences of the world, rather than as a shriven, cowed and cowering path towards routinized, professionalized “publication”.[7]

[1]: Whalley, Bob. and Lee Miller, 2019. Moving Thoughts on Intersubjectivity. https://nivel.teak.fi/adie/somatics-intersubjectivity/

[2]: Although PhD students who have worked with me will know all too painfully (I expect) that this concern is not really a new thing of mine.

[3]: I say “those of you” because I also recognise that some of us in the Academy are interested in creating work (often playfully) for our readers. What I’m suggesting are not hard and fast rules, more like principles that might come in handy.

[4]: Leith, Sam. 2018. Write to the Point: A Master Class on the Fundamentals of Writing for Any Purpose, p.74

[5]: Sword, Helen. 2012. Stylish Academic Writing. Harvard University Press, p.49.

[6]: Sam Leith, pp.125-126.

[7]: Helen Sword, p.160.