Week 27: 18th – 24th March
I’ve been considering the possibilities of interviewing artists about their practice as part of my research methods. This has opened up a whole new element of ‘social research’, which is a way of working that I’m not yet familiar with. Given that this would mean yet more research into designing and implementing these new methods, I was unsure whether to proceed with this plan. However, after working on the Artists Book Fair, my supervisor asked me to help design a feedback questionnaire to help with evaluating and planning, so I realised that this would be a useful addition to my skillset in general.

Online surveys
I’d previously noticed the use of online surveys shared through social media so I decided to look into these as an option by asking my network which were best value according to price vs functionality. Top of the list were Survey Monkey and AYTM, and asking on Twitter even alerted other providers to contact me from eSurveyCreator and Fluid Surveys.

All of these looked interesting and offered different solutions, however in the meantime, my supervisor had been making enquiries of his own and found that the university had a subscription to Bristol Online Surveys (BOS) that we could use free of charge, so we decided on that option. As I have no previous experience in creating surveys, I decided to create a summary of the pdf provided by BOS about designing surveys to get the best results:

Creating surveys
Keep surveys as short as possible – the shorter the survey, the more likely you are to hold the respondent’s attention and hence have the survey completed. When creating your survey, consider the following:

* What is the purpose of the survey?
* What kinds of questions does the survey need to ask?
* What sorts of actions are being considered based on the results of the survey?
* Who is the intended audience?
* Are the questions relevant to the respondents?

Question types
There are six different types of questions that can be created in a BOS survey: Selection list, multiple choice, multiple answer, single line (free text), multiple line (free text) and date selection. With regard to these question types, take note of the following issues when designing your survey:

* Should a question be mandatory or optional? If you wish to make a question mandatory, then be sure to provide options such as “Not Applicable” or “Don’t know” in case a respondent cannot answer the question.
* Try to avoid an odd number of possible responses to a question as respondents tend to pick the middle one.
* Ensure that question responses use consistent wording.
* Ensure consistency of case (i.e. small or capital letters) in question responses.

Survey pages
All surveys should have the minimum of three pages; containing an opening or welcome page, at least one page which contains questions and then a final thank you page with no questions on it. The welcome page should contain approximate time taken to complete the survey (and the number of pages), an introduction to the survey and basic instructions to help the respondent to navigate through the survey.

Using your survey results
When launching the survey, enter the highest number of respondents that you expect. This number is used to calculate a response rate when viewing survey results and can be modified after a survey has been launched. All results are totalled within each question by scrolling down the page, but there is also the option to:

* Cross reference questions to see the correlation of their answers
* Export results in CSV format
* Filter results by answers to specific questions
* Compare surveys
* Step through individual responses

I’ve yet to launch my first survey but I’m hoping this info helps me to get the results I need.


Week 26: 11th – 17th March
Given that my interests have been focused on ritual and esoteric practices within art and theory, I have become increasingly aware of the use of alchemical symbolism as a methodology for interpreting art. Scholars such as Madelaine Bergman, and Laurinda Dixon have used these methods since the 1970s, in order to understand particular iconographies of art and culture from the pre-modern world to the present day (Wamberg, p.11).

The relationship between alchemy and art can be categorised in a number of ways, including, but not limited to; images by or of alchemists and their environments, religious or mythological motifs and symbolism, or images which use principles of alchemy as a metaphor for other processes (Wamberg, p.13).

Alchemical methodologies
From the 16th century, artists began to reappropriate alchemical references through material, concept and process. In this way, alchemical symbolism can be used as a methodology by which to interpret both historical and contemporary art practice (Wamberg, p.13). The accepted definition of alchemical practice within art stretches to include the general transmutation of materials, as with the movement Arte Povera, where ‘base’ materials were transformed to create new works.

The art historian James Elkins, although sceptical about alchemy as a method of interpretation, has nevertheless likened it to the creative process, with particular reference to the act of painting. Furthermore, the history of photography, as developed from the daguerreotype process, has sparked interest with some experimental photographers such as Sigmar Polke, Susan Derges and Anne Hammond, who have explored the notion of spiritual transformation through chemical reactions (Wamberg, p.97). However, although these practices have been interpreted as alchemical, I feel these interpretations are too general to categorise them as such in relation to my enquiry, which focuses on a combination of material and conceptual methods.

Symbolic communication
Specifically, my interest in alchemical readings of art explores how alchemy can be used as a metaphor for relational exchanges within a community. This can be realised in a number of ways, for example, through the use and artistic interpretation of esoteric symbols written as a coded language (or treatise), the meaning of which is only available to those familiar with it. This process then mirrors the discrete visual and gestural communication of cultures throughout history, and highlights the relationship of signs to objects, ideas, materials and emotons, through the use of allegory and metaphor (Wamberg, p.85).

Particular artists who reflect alchemical concerns and readings in their work, either specified or interpreted, include Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys, Andre Breton, Rebecca Horn, Georges Bataille, and Marcel Duchamp, to name a few. Alchemical readings are multifarious, incorporating philosophies of nature, religious analogies and gender reversal. Such inspiration is derived from medieval treatises which place alchemy within the pre-modern worldview of a closed universal system, whereby nature’s tendency towards perfection is aided by the alchemist.

C.G.Jung also described the discovery of the unconscious human psyche in alchemical terms, interpreting its symbolism as being representative of the process of self-individuation. These theories, and their subsequent commodification into populist psychology, were of great influence to the artists of the early to mid-twentieth century (Wamberg, p.174).

Perhaps the most notorious artistic interpretation of Jungian alchemical psychology was by Joseph Beuys, who assumed the role of shamanistic healer of society akin to that of the Paracelsian magus. Born in Germany, just after the First World War, Beuys hoped ‘he could redeem his entire culture by means of an artistic ritual in which debris was changed into an object of such significant spiritual elevation that it triggered a sympathetic response in the surrounding environment, transmuting it to a higher level of consciousness’ (Wamberg, p.179).

Unfortunately, this ‘act of atonement’ was viewed as ambiguous at best, and Beuys was accused of having fascist tendencies. However, although the Paracelsian text is problematic to say the least, it seems that alchemy as a material and conceptual metaphor may hold some interesting possibilities in the development of a body of work which addresses the nature of the sign in communication and ritual.

Further reading:
Art and Alchemy, edited by Jacob Wamberg, Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2006
Alchemy in Contemporary Art by Urszula Szulakowska: Ashgate, Surrey, UK & Burlington, USA, 2011


Week 25: 4th – 10th March
After all the planning and preparation, the time was finally here for the 16th International Contemporary Artist Book Fair. I’d spent a long time and a lot of effort on online promotion developing the website and social media, as well as guest blogs for the Culture Vulture about how and why I got involved with the fair. The artists’ book fair is an element of PAGES, a research project developed by Chris Taylor and John McDowall. My role was to increase online visibility and engagement, both of the fair and the research project as a whole.

All in all, it was an amazing (if exhausting) experience, and a brilliant way to get more involved with my supervisor’s project. One thing I’ve noticed about the fine art department here at Leeds, is that there is a big drive towards getting postgraduates involved in live projects within the school, which allows students the opportunity not only to build their skills and showcase their talents within academia, but also the opportunity to bring something new to the project.

Not content with getting involved with the promotion of the fair, I also decided to take the opportunity to produce another exhibition under the umbrella of PAGES. As I’ve recently been working a lot with archives, I’ve become increasingly interested in how to address accessibility and engagement with collections, without the risk to conservation. Online and digital archives can go someway to addressing this, however, they are still not a replacement for the tactility and sculptural qualities of the object (nor should they be).

This is how the concept for Filter developed, as an opportunity to showcase existing collections within non-traditional art environments, such as coffee shops, with a view to developing audiences and increasing accessibility and knowledge of independent publishing practice in the arts. Collections ranged from independent zine production through to responses to the 200th anniversary of the Luddite uprising.

The archive of the Artist Book Collective
Another aspect of the fair was showcasing artists’ working practices through a range of presentations. My supervisor was keen for me to get involved with this, as he was interested in hearing more about my curatorial practice, as well as helping me to develop my presentation skills. The focus of the presentations were around curating and collecting so it was a perfect opportunity for me to showcase my work with Artist Book Collective, and highlight the strands of enquiry running through it.

In particular it was interesting to note that the nature of the exhibitions developed as a response or set of responses to a proposed question or problem, but through the staging of the exhibition, or as a result of audience response, that this process could produce more questions. The exhibition archive then becomes a narrative thread which continually experiments with the curatorial process in order to generate discussion, rather than as an end in itself.

The paradox of categorisation
There were also three other presentations during the two days of the fair and each presentation responded to the question of collections in very different ways, through the creation of personal taxonomies, responses to curatorial briefs, or gallery interpretation.

Patrick Wildgust, curator of Shandy Hall, Coxwold, developed new ways of engaging with the collection through artist and writer interventions within the collections of the Laurence Sterne Trust. Selected artists from AMBruno discussed their approach to producing new works for exhibitions and book fairs around a given theme. Finally, Dr Sharon Kivland, addressed her own personal collections of ephemera through the production of new books which attempted to organise these objects into meaningful categories.

The interesting thing about all these practices was that, although the main focus was collecting, each exhibition resulted in the production of new works, highlighting the fact that any attempts to organise or categorise objects, will often produce infinitely more connections and questions to be answered.


Week 24: 25th February – 3rd March
It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about making stuff, but the fact is that the first year definitely seems to involve a lot more reading and writing (at least in my case). However, I also seem to have got myself involved in a number of various projects and exhibitions, which I’m using as milestones to contribute to my final thesis.

I’ve been considering how to document the full journey of the art making process as, although I often blog about my work, it’s usually from the relative safety of an exhibition already produced or an artwork already made. Even writing about the conception of an idea, fails to convey the sheer frustration of developing the work to fruition, so I felt it necessary to be more explicit about these processes to try to capture the essence of what it means to be an artist.

Alfred Gell discusses a state of captivation when observing an artwork, where the observer is unable to imagine themselves taking the same journey as the artist through the mere act of looking at the finished object. The state, which he refers to as ‘enchantment’, may contribute to the lack of understanding of the artistic process and perhaps undermine artistic interpretation, if the observer is unable to quantify this journey in concrete terms. Through documenting this process I believe it is possible to break this enchantment to benefit understanding, without this being of detriment to the finished work.

Adventures in bookbinding
So back to my own artistic struggles, my book art submission had been accepted to be shown on the AMBruno stall at the Leeds International Contemporary Artist Book Fair (in week 18). As much as I love making objects, I have to say there is nothing like that initial enthusiasm when an idea is first conceived. The rest is very hard and frustrating work. In fact, often the enthusiasm only returns after the work has been created.

Having decided to create a cylical flexagon, I set about measuring, cutting and folding my books and covers with the idea that I would print the images onto the finished bound objects using lino print. It took a number of days to work out the correct measurements and to do them in a way that my perfectionist nature found acceptable, but I finally worked out my process and had 20 finished books and covers to show for it. Unfortunately at this stage they were still blank, and not only did I not have any images created, but I wasn’t even exactly sure what the images would be.

Alchemical symbolism
I’d been thinking a lot about alchemical symbolism, so it didn’t take too long to work out a series of symbols based on the various elements attributed to alchemical production. I duly transferred these to the lino and set about carving the tiles. Before I’d finished them all, I decided it would probably be a good idea to test them out in the print room, and it’s a good job I did, because after trying with various different types of ink, I still wasn’t happy with how they looked and retired to a nearby cafe to rethink my strategy.

I realised I would have to produce the work digitally to get the kind of effect that I wanted, but this would have the added bonus that the work wouldn’t need time to dry. However, this also meant redrawing all the symbols in Photoshop, setting them up in the correct order and then hoping that it worked when folded.

Thankfully, it seemed to go a lot easier this time round. The folds and measurements were all in the right place and the mechanism of the book was a lot smoother than my previous attempts. I wondered why I hadn’t done it this way in the first place, before realising that it was only this ‘easy’ due to my previous ‘mistakes’. Often an artwork develops as the result of many of these ‘wrong’ decisions, and it’s worth remembering that, not only as an observer, but also when I’m struggling with my next piece of art.


Week 23: 18th – 24th February
I’ve been thinking a lot about impact and sharing my research outside of the university, so I decided to join a number of online groups to find out about others in a similar situation. Perhaps the term ‘joined’ is a bit of misnomer, as many networks exist in a way that people can dip in and out of them as and when the topic is relevant and/or useful.

Although there is an argument to be made for online privacy, I believe that this kind of open sharing format is beneficial for growing a conversation outside of expected boundaries, and is probably a reason why Twitter is so popoular.

Social media
The useful thing about participating in these kinds of groups is being able to share your work with a like minded audience who can offer advice. Particular favourites of mine are the facebook group PostgRAD Study Gang: School Of Hard Thinkin’ and the twitter account @PhDforum. Recently, the latter retweeted a request from a researcher in Manchester (Eljee Javier) who was looking for PhD candidates who blogged about their practice and process. This was an ideal opportunity for me to reflect on what I hoped to gain from sharing my process on a blog.

The question was why and how do you choose to document your research in the form of a blog? and the answers were to be used in a slide presentation about the benefits of blogging and social networks as part of the PhD process. After the presentation, Eljee emailed the handouts and slides over to me, which also made me aware of the Slideshare facility for sharing presentations online.

Why blog?
My personal reasons for documenting my work in this way related to the benefits I’d seen in blogging my practice over a number of years and the artistic relationships and opportunities I’d built up through the use of social media. I was a bit wary at first about talking about my research online but my supervisors were very supportive and felt that it was a boost to the school for prospective students to be able to see the process of someone undertaking a Practice-led PhD.

This has been evidenced by the number of people asking for information about applying and about doing research in general, so I feel that I can shed a bit of light onto the subject, even if it is just through my own experience.

Online profiles
Managing online profiles seems to be a hot topic at the moment, especially in relation to personal and professional identities. One of the threads on the aforementioned Facebook group turned up this: http://earlyamericanists.com/2013/03/05/with-malice-toward-none-an-academic-blogging-manifesto, a kind of how-to guide on blogging etiquette, which attempts to get people over the fear of posting their research in a ‘less-than-scholarly’ format.

In particular, it warns against judging an online post in the same way that one would a peer reviewed article, or in only valuing a particular kind of publishing. Personally, I feel that a blog is a good way to exorcise those writing demons by grouping thoughts / references / quotes together in a way that makes sense, but that also leaves room for conversation and development. Of course, there’s more than one way to write a blog, but that helps me get over my own perfectionist streak.

Through participating in online groups, I not only feel that I’ve been able to share an insight into my work, but I’ve also learned a lot about others too. I also have a big list of research blogs to get stuck into!

Other research blogs
http://inexplicablevoices.wordpress.com: Racial Liminality in American Lit and Culture
http://mgreenphd.wordpress.com: The Fat Body in the Cultural Imagination
http://predominantlymisc.wordpress.com: Blow by blow accounts of things other people get on with without complaining
http://potteringabouttaipei.wordpress.com: Enjoying the big city while attempting to learn Chinese properly