At the uncertain edge of interdisciplinary, arts-based research.
When I visited the Skaill Farm dig on Rousay, Orkney in July 2018 one of the archaeologists excavating a midden (discarded rubbish) explained to me how the layered mound consisted mainly of limpet shells, the inhabitants of which were thought to be used as bait for fishing. She gave me three of the limpets as a ‘souvenir’ which as many of us do with shells, I put in my jacket pocket. I re-found them some days later amongst the tissues and sherbet lemons and as I turned them over in my hand some spark of curiosity ignited within me. Little did I know that the archaeologist’s small act of generosity would lead to an enduring fascination with these familiar but often overlooked marine molluscs.
Fascination led to investigation which started simply enough with sorting, organising and then drawing the many limpet shells I collected during the remainder of that summer.
Wondering what it might be like to be a limpet I secured a place on a local artists development day and used it as an opportunity to make a model limpet big enough to get inside. I lay quietly within the dark, protective space at the edge of the room whilst the other artists got on with doing their thing. This prompted a drift of thoughts, sensations and multiple questions: I felt secure, so might this lead to a project about shelter, safe havens and home? I thought about the use of limpets as fishing bait but also imagined foraging for them as food and what it might be like living on a subsistence diet? I asked myself what connections there might be between limpets and the current environmental issues we face?
Should I choose one particular aspect to focus on or could all of these possibilities be included in my arts-based research? Where do I go with all of this?
Contemplating inside the cardboard limpet.
In trying to find answers to these questions I read a paper by Dianne Carp, (2017) a researcher with Amsterdam University of Arts. She argues that arts-research can have several definitions both within and outside of academia. Artists use ‘artistic research’ to describe the creative processes involved in the development of new work. They also ‘perform research’ when they are making art. A ‘discovery-led’ starting point might be described as ‘a hunch, intuition or a question’ that has been generated by the artist’s own practice. Unexpected issues or surprising questions are stumbled upon and then take on significance and seem important to pursue. An artist’s own curiosity about something or experimentation with materials can lead to the formulation and framing of a specific question.
This helped me think about and analyse my own process of art-as-research but then raised another set of questions: What if the art-based research involves multiple, entangled lines of inquiry?What if it includes the participation of and contribution from a wide range of people including archaeologists, anthropologists, marine biologists and other artists as well as members of the public who could help find and convey limpet knowledge and stories?
What if the research intentionally seeks to be interdisciplinary?
Interdisciplinarity within academia
The process of working through these questions led me to apply for the Masters in Research at the University of The Highlands and Islands (UHI). (There is a back story of first applying to undertake a PhD but that is too long to tell here). I enjoy academic research. I find the in-depth study engaging, the process of defining the research boundaries stimulating and the structure of a timetable with milestones and deadlines motivating. In formulating and submitting The Human Limpet Project proposal and discussing it with UHI tutors I realised however that my emerging research style is not conventional in academic terms, indeed my approach has been described as pioneering more than once!
I wanted to include three disciplines, contemporary art, archaeology and social practice but, within the University of the Highlands and Islands two of these are centred in separate schools; archaeology at The Archaeology Institute, Orkney College and social practice at The Centre for Rural Creativity, Shetland College. Art and creative practice, luckily is incorporated into both.
So how does one traverse traditional research boundaries, bringing together and synthesising the disciplines of contemporary visual art, archaeology and social practice across two schools to create a work of art that demonstrates an original contribution and new knowledge?
This where I find myself, at the uncertain edge of interdisciplinary, art-based research.
An out-of-place limpet, North Yorkshire Moors, 2019
Stepping off the edge to realise the idea.
In theory I have the project aims, objectives and methodology mapped out. The Human Limpet Project seeks to illuminate the multiple, entangled relationships between humans and limpets over a wide time span from the Mesolithic to present day; to investigate the history of the cabinet of curiosity and reinvent a contemporary wunderkammer or Limpetarium; and engage artists, archaeologists, scientists and others in creatively exchanging limpet related dialogue and artefacts.
Visual research map.
Why a cabinet of curiosity?
I have a preoccupation with finding, collecting, sorting, assembling and encasing a range of objects within boxes, drawers and compartments. Sometimes this includes naturalia, objects from the natural world, sometimes artificialia, human made things, sometimes a combination of both. Through my initial reading about the history of collecting I have found that cabinets of curiosity or wunderkammer (wonder-rooms) were seen as places of study and learning, a kind of early museum. As well as a setting to display the ‘marvels and miracles’ of the world, they also provided a stimulus for enquiry in themselves. According to Patrick Mauriès (2002) in his beautiful book Cabinets of Curiosities, some of the first collectors set out to
‘… overturn accepted norms…challenge accepted systems… bring together hybrid or liminal objects…’ Based on this initial exploration, the creation of the Limpetarium seems like a perfect medium through which to visualise the multiple lines of human/limpet inquiry and as a place to embrace the challenges posed by interdisciplinary research.
Socially engaged art
Historically, cabinets of curiosity came about through the display of rare objects and artworks collected almost entirely by wealthy men of high status who wished to show off to their finds. I want to counter this history by engaging a wide range of people in the creation of the Limpetarium making it more of an inclusive, democratic process. Participants will be invited to engage through a range of means including written correspondence, exchange of objects and the formation of a Limpet Ting, an assembly of interested individuals who will influence and contribute to the content and development of the Limpetarium.
The more I get into the detail of how to realise the project, the more questions arise. What skills, qualities and sensitivities will I need to make this work? How will I manage the discomfort and messiness that might ensue? How will I navigate the academic environment? What unforeseen challenges might I encounter and how can I overcome these?
On reflection I realise there are a number of resources and sources of support I can drawn on:
Undertaking the MA in Art and Social Practice between 2017 and 2020 has equipped me with a whole range of tools which will inform the development of the socially engaged aspect of the research. The ability to attract, recruit and maintain the engagement of participants will be vital together with effective communication of the project aims and agreeing boundaries and expectations of those involved. Social artists are often seen as facilitators so empathy, the development of trusting relationships, active listening, enabling contribution from others, flexibility and providing encouragement are all skills necessary for the project to flourish.
I am very pleased to have been awarded a scholarship to attend the Navigating Research Boundaries: disciplines, methodologies, environments, identities summer school at the University of Groningen in May 2021. This intensive course offers space to explore what negotiating research boundaries really means and aims to equip us with the skills necessary to confidently embark on an interdisciplinary research journey.
Finally but certainly not least is the support and encouragement I am receiving from my research supervisors and advisory group. I am hugely thankful to have the help and guidance of Professor Roxane Permar (Centre for Rural Creativity, Shetland College) and Dr. Antonia Thomas (Archaeology Institute, Orkney College) as supervisors. A group of highly experienced advisors have also come together to support me including Professor Mark Edmonds (Department of Archaeology, University of York), Anne Bevan (Department of Art and Design, Orkney College), Dr Louise Firth (School of Biological and Marine Sciences, University of Plymouth) and Dr Siún Carden (Research Fellow at The Centre for Rural Creativity, Shetland College).
Carp, D. (2017) Teaching Interdisciplinary Artistic Research, Master of Education in Arts & Research Group Arts Education at the Amsterdam University of the Arts.
Mauriès, P. (2002) Cabinets of Curiosities, Thames and Hudson.