How can art practice be “Research”?

If in doubt, return to blogging! Since the question posed in the title of this blog entry is unfathomable to me, and I am struggling to sort it out in my academic word documents, here I am, back online, where things don’t have to be “right”, just interesting…

Unfortunately, I fear that this question shouldn’t be unfathomable to me, by this stage. I am due to hand in my thesis on 12 June, my scholarship has run out, I’ve been on this boat for over 3 years now… I should, by rights, know WTF “art practice as research” means!

But I don’t.

I’ve always thought of art as a sort of whimsy. It’s something silly to pursue that makes people realise how silly the whole world is, so we might as well relax and not all take ourselves too seriously.

And then, fool that I am, I go and enrol in a PhD programme which proposes that art practice is not only a very serious business, it is a form of RESEARCH that stands up as an equivalent to the research produced by, say, my ole buddy Chris-o, the pharmacologist, who has done an intensive study of withdrawal symptoms of methamphetamine addicts. He will hand his thesis in about the same time as me. Mine will be about blogging as a form of art. Assuming all goes well, we will both end up with PhD degrees. How the hell can they be equivalent?

One of the frustrating things about the job my university requires of me, is that I have to submit an academic research paper. My argument (as best I can muster it) is about how blogging allows knowledge to emerge in a fragmentary, collaborative way. It’s about allowing us to see the process of doing stuff, experiencing life, and turning it over through dialogue, as a thing that is constantly emerging – not a tidy finished product.

And yet, what is the written thesis supposed to be? A watertight product with complete footnotes and all contingencies taken care of. Talk about square peg in round hole, eh?

In various chats with friends who are also trying to shoehorn their unwieldy creative projects into the format for “submission” (think about the meaning underlying that word!), I have mused on other possibilities. How great would it be, I have asked myself, if I could hand in my PhD as a series of blog entries? That way, I could merge means and ends. Method and product would utilise the same system – the thing would actually DO what it said, not just be a way of drily saying something about a process that happens somewhere else.

Here’s how it would work. Each blog entry would have to be relatively concise. Each would pose a question, or state some observations, related to the practice of blogging-as-art (the two projects presented as part of this thesis are Bilateral Kellerberrin and Bilateral Petersham). Just like an academic paper, the entries would refer also to other thinkers and artists, considering ways that others have done this stuff, and suggesting the possible benefits of doing and thinking in the way I have carried out.

But, unlike an academic paper, these entries would then be open to enquiry, suggestion and response from others (and from myself) through the comments form at the end of each blog entry. This would be a strictly ADDITIVE process. Unlike academic writing, blogging creates a sort of knowledge through querying what has been already written, and then responding to the queries, as a dialogical process. (OK, so academic writing does that too, but it’s an interminably long-winded way of doing things, publishing in refereed journals then responding in kind, takes years…).

My point is, the whole process of dialogical exchange (and knowledge production) is laid bare in the blogging format. Furthermore, these blog entries (ie “thesis chapters”) would be published one by one, as they are written. There would thus be the chance that comments and dialogue generated by an early blog entry could affect what happens in the ensuing chapters. The whole process would be emergent – and visibly so – as opposed to the standard academic model of hiding away in the study, burning the midnight oil to get this essay perfect BEFORE making it public. If the academics really required it, I could do a summing-up entry which ran through what I thought I had learned from the process.

All of which is to say, I would like to perform upon academia the same opening-out as I like to perform on the art world. In my way of doing things, art is shown to be a set of emergent processes rather than a magical product that seems to come from some mysterious other planet. Bilateral Kellerberrin and Bilateral Petersham are clear examples of this emergent-process-as-art, where interactions between me and local residents who I bump into, written up on the blog, then lead to further interactions and suggestions for future adventures. My recent goat project Gruffling is this whole method in a nutshell.

Would / could my university accept such a thesis?

7 thoughts on “How can art practice be “Research”?

  1. mayhem

    Argh! Lucazoid – such a thoughtful way of going through the standard ARGGGHHHHH SHIT of writing. I’d like to recommend your supervisor’s book “practice as Research” but maybe you don’t want to read her stuff right now (though I did force my research students to read “the exegesis as meme”)…. I’ve found in my own immense research project – something akin to scientific experimentation – but far closer to my experience of painting. I’d still insist on a clear difference between the research phase and the writing phase of any investigative practice. Research is an immersive experience of encounter and discovery – whereas the writing… is not actually some sort of predetermined knuckling down report – but actually is a very intense, pretty open ended type of…. how would I call it – a composition? I’ve had to enter into the imaginative space of thesis writing with the same level of trust and good faith as I have with all of the experiential practice and ethnographic research that informed it… and I hate to sound like such a formalist – but to a certain extend the refractory space of writing – of having no other expressive means – but this rather contrived format of an authored thesis has enabled a whole heap of other connections and possibilities to emerge… so good luck, and drop me a line if you want to bounce of any ideas or angst…. Love your work!

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  2. mayhem

    Hmmmm – I was thinking “monstrous knowledges: doing PhD’s in the new humanities” by Bob Hodge – it might be worth a look. I think the thing is with a practice-based dissertation – is that most practitioners do treat it as a type of report – separate from their praxis…. and – from what I can tell – art colleges seem to be more hardcore or rigid about the types of documentation that they accept as credible dissertations – than some university departments which encourage open ended types of written enquiry. Hell! I reckon you should go for the blog posting idea – is it will fuse theory and practice- just attach a bloody good lit review and some nice arguments about why you’re doing it this way, and cross fingers that you have some nice markers…

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  3. lauren

    as much as i would totally love to see your thesis with a bunch of hyperlinks, html formatting tags, “600px width, 400px height” pics and the date at the top of every page, accessible only with capcha, something mayhem mentioned struck me about this whole research/practice ‘divide.

    your mate chris wouldn’t hand to his supervisors a halitosis-breathing, twitching, screaming ice head as his thesis – as much time as he’s spent with the likes of them (and as excellent example as she/he would be of the symptoms of withdrawl). he hands in a 80,000-word break-down of the whole process, findings etc, etc, etc.

    and maybe it’s the same for bilateral – while blogging appears to take the form of the thesis (in its use of words/language/text/etc) and would make an excellent example, the point of a thesis (she says, currently thesis-less) seems to be to detach from the research (practice) and discuss it, in written form. not an easy job.

    plus – given that, on your mission which you have chosen to accept, you have to simultaneously blog, as an element of art practice, in one form of writing AND remove yourself from that process/style/rhythm of writing and develop an exegesis critiquing that process/style/rhythm in another form of writing. all while keeping your head in some kind of order. or not.

    i’d say your PhD is much more difficult than Chris’. He just has to be a pharmacologist and a writer. You, however, have to be a writer A AND a writer B and NOT a writer B when you’re being a writer A (and of course vice versa). infinitely more difficult.

    having said all that, of course you’re going to kick arse and please keep posting your ‘notes’ on here – they’re awesome.

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  4. Lucas Post author

    Hi Lauren
    thanks for your encouraging words. You’re right of course. To an extent, I have really enjoyed this “hoop” I’ve had to jump through, learning to write in another language (the academic).

    the image of my mate Chris handing in the stinking head of a withdrawing addict as his thesis made me crack up. It reminded me of an essay I read by Bruno Latour called “visualisation and cognition – thinking with eyes and hands” or something to that effect. He writes about Darwin’s amazing voyages. Apparently Darwin returned from his travels with shedloads of botanical and animal specimens. These specimens alone were not enough to prove to the world his theory of evolution. He had to create a pathway through them, pointing to this one and that one, weaving them together so a convincing story was told which led to the idea of evolution. He did this through writing.

    Mayhem, thanks for laying out two sides of the argument, each equally convinciongly, in two separate comments. Reminds me of your keen participation in the “great escape” scenario in The Sham (your classic phrase “fam or sham” which I have laughed over so many times).

    I agree that academic writing is a kind of composition. Thanks for reminding me of that. It’s mainly this idea of thinking of art as “research” and the drive for the generation of “knowledge” that are stumping me… How much is sufficient to present as a contribution to knowledge?

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  5. chris

    Lucas. It can become easy to doubt in the wilderness of the academy. But I don’t see a problem with your work in that framework, clearly the blog is the expression of the work and acts as that and the thesis at the same time, because that is the point of your whole research question I would have thought. Love the pennant.

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  6. mayhem

    Hee hee – the great sham escape… As I used to say as a way f calming my nerves in week 1 lectures – “what is research?”…. then after extensive student based participation exercises I’d start playing with etymology and give ’em a rant. I’t filled the 3 hours quite nicely… but…err… re – search involves a repetition, a movement back, a refinding – and something refractory. If art is an experiential becoming – an intensely imminent maping or discovery – then art as research allow a communication/translation of that discovery in terms where it may be replicated. Maybe my science training is still haunting me…

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  7. Beth

    This is a great thread… for me, one of the questions at the bottom of things what mayhem poses to early researchers – its not such a simple question… how we conceptualize research, and whether we can reconfigure and reconcile what it means to approach knowledge within academic parameters with what it means to approach knowledge in other experiential domains… It seems to me that another question could be what it means to revisit understanding, and how to (as you said re. Darwin) provide a path through things to understanding – not of an ultimate truth but rather of a subjective perspective on it… and another one has to do with who decides what kind of knowledge is valuable and whether people trust that… Simple questions that are tough to figure out. Even if you can’t hand in an experiential thesis, you could write other pieces using the form you talked about… and help open up new paths toward different understandings of research and experience…

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