Week 22: 11th – 17th February
I often enjoy looking at the bigger picture and the different factors that connect things, so it was with this in mind that I set about contemplating this week’s blog post: the structures of education and academic culture and my position within it.

Universities are made up of so many different faculties, schools and centres that it’s quite difficult to get your head round even when you’re in the middle of it. So how do we discover and encourage ways of engagement with existing and potential students?

Widening participation
One such development I’ve noticed is an increase in widening participation activities from colleges and universities. What this means, broadly speaking, is the delivery of activities which aim to promote further study to primary and secondary schools, especially in areas where there is a perceived lack of engagement in education.

I find this interesting as a strategy as it’s useful to put earlier learning into a wider context, and also relates to the focus on research-led teaching in universities, basically linking up the different levels of the academy to develop awareness of possible career progressions.

These kind of activities (I hope) also aim to encourage an increased interest in learning for its own sake, to develop autonomous learners. This is something that is not just of use to a career in research, but in any entrepreneurial pursuit.

Research culture
The shift towards connecting undergraduate and postgraduate courses is also beneficial, and was something that I had little knowledge or awareness of when I was at undergraduate level. Thankfully a degree in art practice is very research focused and naturally autonomous anyway, so the step up towards researching wasn’t insurmountable.

It wasn’t until embarking on the PhD that I discovered the existence of research networks and centres, which generally are made up of researchers from different faculties, but who have a common interest.

Centre CHoP
For instance, one of my supervisors has recently been involved with setting up The Centre for Comparative Histories of Print or Centre CHoP for short. The centre is made up of researchers across the university and aims to bring together research expertise in history, literature, languages and cultures, visual arts, communication studies, computing, law, social sciences, and library studies.

The most obvious outcomes for this kind of centre and research fit within an academic context. However, research groups can also facilitate impact studies and policy development outside of the academy and there are specific schemes in place to connect researchers and stakeholders from other fields, such as the AHRC Research Networking Fund.

This links back to the idea of impact and what the benefit of the research is to the wider body of knowledge. Thankfully, this isn’t something I have to worry about as yet, but it’s definitely something I’ll be discussing later.

So thinking back to my original question of engaging learners of all levels in the process of learning for it’s own sake, makes me wonder about the possibilities of a research group culture at all levels of education. Could this be used to encourage learners to resolve particular questions autonomously, and could it also lead to benefits in the field of audience interpretation in galleries?


Week 21: 4th – 10th February
The further I delve into ideas of agency and art objects, especially in a global context, the more challenging I find my question (and art practice) to be. Recently I’ve been considering the nature of the images/objects that artists create, and the subjects that they aim to address through their practice.

Given that my (and countless other art practices) are often predicated on their relationship with objects and/or events in the ‘real’ world, the question of appropriation seems pertinent. Aesthetic objects are often used as transferers of meaning within culture in general, and in this sense are part of a complex social system of exchange, be that ritualised, monetary or ideological.

This also calls into question the structures that enable certain images/objects to become more important in a society, and indeed, which of these are in turn appropriated by other societies in line with their perceptions of the ‘other’. In this case, the ‘other’ may also refer to subsections of a society such as women, children or people in asylums.

The role of the artist

This is not to say that artists don’t have a particular specialised role in the creation of aesthetic objects, but that the (often invisible) structures surrounding the production and consumption of these objects play a large part in the construction of their meaning within society.

Unless the work of art is entirely self-referential it will always index something outside of itself, that is, it appropriates an object from the ‘real world’ in order to confirm or question a ‘truth’ about this. However, this relationship between the work of art and its subject (or index and prototype) is also problematic, as the provenance of the prototype is itself subject to hierarchical structures.

Deborah Root discusses the nature of cultural appropriation: ‘…the term signifies not only the taking up of something and making it one’s own but also the ability to do so. People have always shared ideas and borrowed from one another, but appropriation is entirely different from borrowing or sharing because it involves the taking up and commodification of aesthetic, cultural, and, more recently, spiritual forms of a society.’
(Root, p.70)

Appropriation as investigation
Take for example, the work of Marina Abramovic, who revised and condensed her own past performance works, as a way to understand how the work of art might become a text to be read and reframed by others, in the same way that an actor might perform a script. This investigation into the concept of originality culminated in her work Seven Easy Pieces, which consisted of re-enacted canonical performances by other artists, including Bruce Nauman and Joseph Beuys, and was performed over a series of events at the Guggenheim in 2005. (Richards, pp.35-36)

The artist’s intention was effectively to open up the art market to the production of new cultural hybrids where the meaning of a work of art is questioned and reframed with each subsequent performance. This in turn, led to the creation of a set of guidelines when undertaking this practice. Abramovic states: “Ask the artist for permission. Pay the artist for copyright. Perform a new interpretation of the piece. Exhibit the original material: photographs, videos, relics. Exhibit a new interpretation of the piece.” (Richards, pp.35-36)

Art in a global context
However, although this acknowledges the use of the work of previous artists, it frames this exchange purely within the context of a Western art market. Given that these performances commodify elements of a participatory nature, as well as borrowed ritual aesthetics such as Shamanic imagery, any claims to circumvent the restrictions of the market are problematic.

Of course, the idea that any society is culturally homogenous is disingenous, as cultures are known to borrow from each other, ‘be it from a position of dominance or subordination’ and often to the effect of challenging the hegemony of traditional cultural appropriation. (Welchman, p.1). However, the challenge now seems to be how these processes of creation, appropriation and interpretation are made transparent within the act of consumption of the work of art itself.

Further reading
‘Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation and the Commodification of Difference’, Deborah Root, 1996
‘Marina Abramovic’, Mary Richards, 2010
‘Art After Appropriation: Essays on Art in the 1990s’, John Welchman, 2001


Week 20: 28th January – 3rd February
This week was all about intercultural exchange. I’d previously been on a training day about developing my international profile as a researcher (in Week 4) and from that, joined up to the White Rose Skills Development Network, a collaboration between universities in Leeds, Sheffield and York to share knowledge of academic cultures in other countries.

The network was specifically aimed at researchers within the arts and humanities, and encouraged interaction between members to facilitate academic language learning in their subjects. To this end, the organisation runs a series of training sessons and seminars throughout the year on different aspects of intercultural engagement.

Tandem learning
This week’s session was all about tandem learning, which is something I’ve been particularly looking forward to. Tandem learning is when two (or more) native speakers of different languages work together to learn each others language, usually over a predermined set of sessions.

There are generally three key concepts in this style of learning:

1. Autonomy: Each learner is responsible for asking what they need from the session. This includes doing the necessary preparation beforehand and collating relevant information from the session.

2. Reciprocity: As well as being responsible for your own learning, it is important that you help your tandem partner to get the most out of their session. This is where setting expectations can come in handy, especially around how to deal with correcting mistakes. There should be equal time spent on each language, even if there is a difference in language ability.

3. Intercultural learning: The third aspect of speaking to people from different countries is the element of cultural or idiomatic differences, which are essential to understanding, especially when planning to visit. This also is a good tip for things to talk about, for example, daily routines or specific holidays.

Tandem learning sessions can be conducted face to face, or by skype or email, and should have specific outcomes in mind. As my preferred second language is currently Spanish, I was lucky to find a Spanish Research Fellow at the training session and could arrange a tandem learning session for the following week.

Artist as explorer
This has also been quite fortuitous in terms of my art projects, as I enjoy organising international collaborations with artists. Despite this, I have never felt confident in working in different languages, until a recent conversation with a printmaker from Medillin, Colombia.

We had been discussing the prospect of organising a print exchange between the UK and Colombia, or perhaps collaborating on the creation of an exhibition which we could tour to different places. However, I’m a big fan in showing the work behind the work, so we decided that it would be interesting to bring together a select group of artists and discuss the art as it was being created on a bilingual blog called The Artist as Explorer.

Although this project is not specific to my work as part of the PhD, at the same time as we were discussing the project, my supervisor forwarded an opportunity to submit to a printmaking conference in Dundee, so I am now waiting to hear if I will present the project at the Impact 8 International Printmaking Conference.

I have also related my element of the printmaking to thoughts around cultural symbols in signage, which again feeds into wider questions in my research. Most of all, I’m looking forward to opportunities to translate my work into Spanish and present it to a wider audience and I think the tandem learning alongside the collaborative project will be a great motivator towards making that happen.


Week 19: 21st – 27th January
In many ways practice-led PhDs can be quite different to their theoretical counterparts; the structure of which can generally be separated into 3 sections. Assuming the PhD is full time, each section will coincide with the corresponding year.

The structure of the PhD
For example, the first year will be spent undertaking an extensive survey and literature review of your area of interest. This will probably include elements of determining methodologies used and deciding which of these are appropriate to your research. This also relates to the first condition for achieving doctoral status, that of having a clear understanding of your field.

After completing the survey, you should now have an understanding of the issues, and more importantly the gaps, surrounding your chosen topic. This brings us to the second stage, focusing on the actual research, fieldwork and methodologies involved in answering your question. Again, identifying the gaps in your field and addressing them within the context of your work, constitutes an original contribution to knowledge, which is another condition of academic research.

The third year is generally the write up year, and focuses on bringing together the process and results of your research along with reference to earlier findings from the literature review. Assuming you successfully defend your thesis in a viva, you will now have achieved doctoral status.

Practice-led PhDs
Of course, although this all looks very straightforward, there are lots of ways of undertaking this process, especially as with Practice-led PhDs, there is not only a written element to the work, but a practical one as well. This is mitigated to some extent by the written thesis being shorter than that of a purely theoretical PhD (50,000 words max as opposed to 100,000).

However, as the relationship between writing and making is naturally reflexive, this can create exponentially more problems within the research process. Therefore I find it can be helpful to separate these from time to time.

In my experience, the above research structure is one which my colleagues in art history and cultural studies seem to be well versed in, but which I was blithely unaware of. Presumably this is because the practice of making doesn’t necessarily follow the same logical structure. However, having discussed* the ways in which researchers typically structure their time, I found it a useful guide to keeping myself on track, regardless of whether I adhere strictly to the specific timeframes.

3rd supervision meeting
After one such discussion on dissertation chapter outlines, I went for my 3rd supervision meeting to talk about how I might undertake my transfer paper. The transfer (or upgrade) stage of a PhD typically happens around the end of the first academic year and relies on the submission of an essay outlining your research so far, to ensure successful continuation on the course. PGR students are not classed as full PhD candidates until after this stage is completed, so it can be quite daunting.

Some of my colleagues in the school had suggested possible ways to approach this, either through focusing on a specific chapter of the work (with additional brief information about the other chapters), or alternatively, writing an overview of the research in general. My preference would be to focus on one chapter, which would be a contribution to the final dissertation.

Research methodologies
I was still a little unsure about what to write about specifically but looking back through my notes I found that the research I’d done into other art objects that expressed my concerns (in week 15) was a large element of my research methodology. This could also contribute towards the literature review of my thesis. Thankfully, my supervisor agreed, and was especially interested in how the blogging process had contributed to the formation of my ideas.

So, despite the Practice-led PhD seeming to be somewhat less structured than other disciplines in the school, it is good to have the freedom to be able to develop new ways of working within these structures and I’m looking forward to presenting my initial findings at the end of the first year.

*This is another positive benefit of being in an academic environment, especially with researchers from other disciplines, or with more experience.