Corkscrew Conversations, June 2017, School of Arts, Birbeck, Keynes Library
A Report by Bruno Roubicek. Edited by Gerrie van Noord
Dr Sophie Hope and I ran a series of four conversations in June 2017. We asked Research Students at Birkbeck’s School of Arts who are interested in practice as research (PaR) in some shape or form to invite a practice-based researcher in their field whose work they find interesting. Each talk focused on a discrete discipline:
1. Visual Art
6 June – Ruth Solomons (Birkbeck) and Katrine Hjelde (Chelsea College of Arts).
2. Medical Humanities
13 June – Jan Nawrocki (Birkbeck) and Dr Muna Al Jawad, (Consultant Physician, Brighton and Sussex Hospitals)
3. Art Publishing/Curating
20 June – Gerrie van Noord (Birkbeck) and Dr Stuart Bertolotti-Bailey (Liverpool)
4. Creative writing
27 June – Keith Jarrett (Birkbeck/SOAS) and Malika Booker (Leeds)
The conversations were unified by the aim to engage with three key questions that provided a frame for discussion of diverse forms of practical research.
1. How can PaR be made evident?
2. What might PaR degrees look like?
3. How are theory and practice entwined?
1. How can PaR be made evident?
Keith Jarrett (KJ) made the point that all research is a kind of practice. PhDs (at Birkbeck at least) must involve the practice of writing a dissertation to make research and findings evident to examiners. With research in publishing/art/graphic design, as Stuart Bailey (SB) and Gerrie van Noord (GvN) revealed, it is possible to experiment with the form and presentation of text in the body of the written dissertation. From the perspective of creative writing, as in KJ’s project, research can be evidenced in the form of a novel. For Dr Muna Al Jawad (MAJ) the writing of text and drawing of images in strip cartoons negotiates the working practices of geriatric care (or ‘old people whispering’ as she called it) and she posed the question: can a strip cartoon be submitted as a research article or even PhD dissertation? The jury is out.
PaR degrees involve more than the practices of scholarship and the writing up of findings. It is more difficult, for instance, to evidence embodied practices such as the surgical procedures of Dr Jan Nawrocki (JN) and the internal narratives of pride and vanity that can impact on a surgeon’s practice. Ruth Solomons (RS) engages with the processes of art production by creating three-dimensional paintings that are designed to be hung on a wall, not ‘displayed’ in a written thesis.
Appropriately, a common feature of the participants in the Conversations, (including myself as chair) is the important part that ‘conversations’ play in the generation of research methods and the shapes practices can take. The importance of informal discussion with collaborators, audiences, scholars and subjects is symptomatic of the performative nature of the practical research under discussion. Ephemeral actions, especially conversations and the performance of tasks necessary to generate practical outputs can impact on the direction of research and illuminate new findings, yet they are less likely to result in outputs that are readily evidenced on the page. MAJ’s research is publicly performed as her cartoon-self, ‘old people whispering’ with speech bubbles as she engages with the working practices of geriatric care. For KH practice has to be publicly performed or displayed in order to critically engage with it, reflect and move the practice forward.
For many of the participants, performance is an important part of their research and their professional practice. Malika Booker (MB) performs on radio (hear BBC Radio 4 24th October 2017 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05ktc3x ) and in theatres the texts she develops during interviews and conversations among the UK’s Caribbean communities and her professional practice includes diverse collaborations with theatre makers. KJ identified a certain conflict between the written dissertation (in his case a novel) and his professional performance practice that has helped him move his research forward but that might not be evidenced in the examined dissertation. Creative practitioners’ written accounts of their own ephemeral practices are inevitably subjective while digital evidence in the form of video and photos can only offer partial views of the researcher’s practice. In contrast, as KH pointed out, documentation can reveal things that didn’t seem important at the time, so it is very difficult to set up a process of documentation that fully reflects and encompasses every angle of the research process.
For GvN the notion of ‘the curatorial’ is the conscious performing, the making public, of art and GvN’s interest is in the performative aspects of the curatorial and how authorship works. When we make art public it is translated or mediated from the ‘raw material’ of the artwork or exhibition into the book. It is the complexity of translation or mediation that is interesting. What kinds of interactions took place and what were the mechanisms leading to the finished publication? In the act of doing, things happen intuitively and reflection allows for the tracing of decision-making. Conversation as a method and tool to crystallise thinking was very useful.
In order to evidence his research process and develop strands in his novel, KJ recorded many hours of interviews with people involved in the Jesus Name Pentecostal Church and he painstakingly transposed them onto the page. Recording every spoken word onto the page became a frustrating process, consuming time that might have been more productively spent in actually writing the novel. MB never transposes her interviews, but is more interested in capturing ephemeral tones, nuance and the feelings that emerge in snatches of dialogue.
While some PaR can be made evident on the pages of the written dissertation, the viva voce examination is an opportunity to share practices like visual art and performance through other means with the examiners. Practice is perhaps examined according to different criteria than the written dissertation but can also be failed. At the time of KH’s viva voce exam, practice could not be failed, but she found the infallibility of the practice a bit of a ‘cop out’ and she thinks this has now changed. Her supervisors tried to temper her desire to make the thesis an artwork, though the examiners wished she had gone further.
2. What might PaR degrees look like?
The Conversations revealed a diversity of forms utilised by PaR students in arts and humanities. What united the participants was an interest in the labours and working methods of practical research.
Katrine Hjelde (KH) described a complex collaborative practice for her PhD that encompassed large-scale public displays of her artwork and a pedagogic practice. Making Knowledge/Teaching Knowledge is a Fine Art practice-based research project examining the relationship between art practice and teaching. It seeks to investigate the ways this relationship can be critical and transparent. She established three web pages to help her show and share her research: one for art practice, one for teaching practice and a ‘praxis’ or ‘intersection’ site (http://www.katrinehjelde.net/about). Through an examination of this intersection, there is a possibility of mapping out, observing and extending the relationship between creative practice and teaching.
RS is positioning herself as an artist and as someone who speaks about processes of making art. All artists apply a certain amount of reflection as a way of moving the art forward. Showing how you work and how you tell as a way of thinking and making art is a convincing frame in which to situate contemporary practice. RS showed images of objects that relate to her work including the image of an old, unloved painting wrapped in bubble wrap. Tools and materials are part of the structure of the studio. Tins, boxes, pencil holders etc. are an important part of how she works and digital images of these objects are evidence of the processes of art production as well as research. RS described a messy context in which paid work that supports a creative practice can become an important part of the research process. (eg a fishmonger who makes the creative arrangement of fish displays the heart of his creative research). The revealing of process as a way of making and reflecting on work might also be what KH called ‘action research’. Reflection on praxis helps it move forward.
When thinking through form, both GvN and SB found guidance in Eco’s The Open Work. ‘Form must not be a vehicle for thought it must be a way of thinking’ (Chapter 6). It’s not about activist art or casting around for a form to express an idea. It is about making form to think through an idea. Eco’s open work allows space for the free flow of creative production among collaborators and with audiences, and these are often given form in either the conversations between participants or internal narratives that are only made apparent if they are written, performed or represented in visual form. In the narratives that make up surgical practice the physician makes decisions under the influence of many external and internal determinants. The focus of JN’s research concerns a missing language and narrative relating to some of the internal determinants. Narratives of medicine, surgery and medical education are interwoven with pride and vanity that are explored in relationship to other professions. What form these narratives take provides a central concern of the thesis.
MAJ is a consultant physician working in geriatric medicine. Her practical research concerns the comic book as a form of knowledge-making. In particular in the potentials of the form for how we construct, analyse and use academic knowledge. What happens when the comic as form is integrated into the research process itself? What might comics offer academic researchers in both methodological and analytical terms?
3. How are theory and practice entwined?
These conversations were designed to assist PaR students, so theory often seems to come low down on the agenda in favour of form and content. For KH theory and practice are combined in similar ways through pedagogical research as they are through creative research. The complexity of how they interact becomes a key question in itself.
SB described early anxiety while doing his PhD. Eco’s openness (see above) offered him a way of putting life and energy into the work, especially the chapter titled ‘Form as Social Commitment’ where he justifies his examples of open practice as politically authentic. Eco calls for a social responsibility and again an interrogation of working practices and methods. According to Eco, the political writer must question the medium in order to be political. A key moment in SB’s practice-based PhD was the accommodation of the work he did with David Reinfurt over a period of 13 years. He then found the form of the PhD: theory – practice – theory – practice, presented very emphatically. Finding the form of the dissertation was a key which gave him a structure for the content. He chose five examples of his practice and re-assembled them while working out what theory bit would help him connect with what practice. In essence he put a way of thinking around the practice.
GvN was also interested in the quote from Eco: ‘Form must not be a vehicle for thought it must be a way of thinking. The openness prescribed by Eco allows for the diverse inputs and collaborations that go into publishing the (art) book. Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory (ANT) in Reassembling the Social also allows for engagement with a collaborative and social practice. Latour’s approach accommodates lines of iterative activity between people and other entities. GvN’s blog encourages her to think about what she has done as well as helping her disseminate her professional practice. It helps her reflect and work through instinctive and reflective decisions she makes.
If I can draw one unifying line running through the Corkscrew Conversations, it is the way that conversations, in a variety of forms, run through the practice and scholarship of PaR students. From formal interviews, to casual conversation and workplace discussion, the verbal, written or internal correspondences between artists, collaborators and audiences become defining activities that help shape the direction of the research. Listening to the ‘other’ becomes an important process that elides with the open work of Eco. Openness allows for the constant questioning of methodology and working practices and for those questions to also shape the form of practical ‘experiments’. Openness also allows for the establishment of lines of action connecting people and things in Latour’s Network, or as Tim Ingold would have it, the establishment of activities that are enmeshed in knots of constant emergence and degeneration.
From my perspective, as a practice-based researcher interested in performance and nearing the end of my PhD research, it was illuminating to learn about the ways that practical research is embodied in the performance of many different tasks and actions. From reconstructing an old painting to cutting open a patient or redesigning the interior of a banqueting hall, how a task is performed in order to answer a research question is a question in itself. The answer depends on the researcher, their field of interest and on the countless others they encounter during their research. Only a few of the correspondences I had during my research project made it into the final dissertation, but it is fair to say that they represented pivotal moments in the development of my own practical research.
Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social, An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)
Umberto Eco, The Open Work, Trans. Anna Cancogni (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989). Open on-line access here: https://monoskop.org/images/6/6b/Eco_Umberto_The_Open_Work.pdf