I’m slowly starting become more confident in my new academic role, but as the weeks progress, I’m finding it incrementally more confusing. The more I read, the wider my research question becomes, and given that I’m looking at theoretical and practical modes of enquiry, the list of related interests is increasing exponentially.

A major element within the scope of my thesis is exploring the agency of an object within ritual, in other words, what does the ‘work of art’ do? So far, this has led to me researching medieval manuscripts, the history of science, calligraphy and masks, to name but a few topics.

2nd supervision meeting
So began the theme of my 2nd supervision meeting, where, although I’d been working almost constantly, and collected lots of relevant information, I had very little practical work to show for it. Thankfully my supervisors were still happy with my progress and we agreed that I should shift my focus towards making for a while.

I still think juggling all these separate but related tasks is going to be the trickiest part of the process. Although, as I filled in my monthly report on the PDR, I have to admit I felt a perverse satisfaction at being able to complete the part where it asks if there was anything I’d struggled with this month. I’m not sure what that says about me.

Dialogical thinking
I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of art and how people interpret and understand objects. This came out of reading about how artists in the past used images from encyclopedias of allegory to represent ideas within their work, which clearly expressed to the audience how they should read the painting.

As such practice is now no longer commonplace, we rely on dialogic, or intertextuality to deduce implied meanings with artworks. This allows for greater freedom of expression on the part of the artist and audience, but also frustration, due to the meaning never being fully articulated in concrete terms. I had considered reading more about ontologies of art, but after some cursory searches realised that this might take me further away from my research proposal.

Colour communication
No sooner had I decided that, than I was invited to a colour communication lecture by a friend and colleague studying a Practice-led PhD in the School of Design. The lecture was actually pitched at textile design students so was a lot more technical in relation to colour swatches and the like, but I enjoyed it anyway, and learned some interesting things about colour and language.

For example, it seems there is a pattern to the way that developing languages name colour. According to Berlin and Kay’s 1969 study of 20 languages, the first colours to be named in any language are black and white, followed by red, then yellow, green, and so on. Although the methodology was somewhat flawed, it paved the way for further study on universal patterns of colour naming, and is of interest to me in the way that humans create visual understanding.

In the studio
None of this helps me, however, with my initial dilemma of spending more time making work, and in fact the more reading I do, the more difficult I’m finding it to create without seeing the problematics within the work. So I decided to switch off my analytical brain for a bit and try to make things without worrying too much about ‘getting it wrong’. Thankfully, one of my regular visits to Brain Pickings yielded support for this hypothesis with Wired founder, Kevin Kelly’s ideas about ‘failing forward’


Pedagogy is the word of the week. It’s also reading week, or (un)reading week as it’s colloquially known here in the fine art department. This means that there is no formal teaching, which doesn’t really affect me, but did give me an excuse to get stuck into my reading list. Unfortunately, things don’t always work out as planned, so by the end of the week the only things I’d achieved were finishing Artists with PhDs and acquiring a small library fine.

Artists with PhDs

Undeterred, I decided to focus on quality over quantity and set about applying the text to my research and practice. Although at first, it could be assumed that the book is just a dry account of educational frameworks (as if there’s such a thing!), it actually sheds a lot of light on critical and reflexive practice for artists in general.

I’d eschewed more specific reading relating to my research as I wanted to begin with a firm foundation of a contextual understanding of my situation, namely the contradictions of visual art practice in academia. Some of the issues are summarised by Mick Wilson in his essay in Artists with PhDs, ‘Four Theses Attempting to Revise the Terms of a Debate’:

‘[H]ow do you assess or examine a PhD?… Should the artwork be assessed in relation to contemporary art practice or be viewed as a thesis in images? Does the theoretical or intellectual investigation take place in relation to practice or through the accompanying text? Does the artwork, like academic research, put forward a hypothesis and demonstrate a mastery of a canon or should the emphasis be placed on technical ability, and if so, how is technical ability judged?’

New knowledge
So far in this blog, I’ve been discussing the ins and outs of making the most of academic research, including the necessary training, but receiving a PhD really comes down to being able to demonstrate three things: 1. a clear understanding of your field, 2. the ability to produce publishable work, and 3. an original contribution to knowledge.

However, the idea of an original contribution to knowledge (or new knowledge) also highlights the difficulties of visual art practice in an academic framework. This is due to the fact that doctoral theses are assessed within the context of the academy, and, as a relatively new course, the PhD in studio art does not yet have the same amount of relevant literature at doctoral level as other subjects. For this reason, it would seem to make sense for any studio practice to be assessed in relation to the contemporary art scene and the theoretical aspect to be judged within the context of art history.

Archival encounters
At the end of the week I’d been invited to a lecture called Archival Encounters II: This Time It’s Pedagogic! The talk was held in a room in the Marks & Spencer archive and focused on the use of archives in research-led teaching. As my previous experience includes gallery interpretation workshops, and I’m a sucker for bad puns, I decided it was perfect for me.

The lecture included speakers from various disciplines including English, History and Linguistics and it was interesting to learn how they’d incorporated archives into their lesson and encouraged students to access them independently. For example, Ruth Payne discussed her work with groups on linguistics projects, specifically using the M&S archive as a case study to examine the language of gender in the work environment.

Despite my interest and enthusiasm, up until that point I was struggling to see how I might engage art students with a resource like the M&S archive. However, after the lecture I started to think about the links between British society as reflected in commerce and the art created at that time. I discussed it with the head archivist at the collection and she also seemed keen to pursue it, so it looks like I might have another thing to do soon.


When embarking on a PhD, there are undoubtedly lots of admin procedures and working methodologies to get your head round. Luckily, the university has specialist training and professionalisation courses for people working in academia. As I noted earlier, the course is a juggling act of practice, theory, teaching, and admin, not to mention finding time for a social life and maybe some sleep.

Starting your research degree
That’s where the Starting Your Research Degree seminar comes in. The day-long session covers general aspects of managing the doctoral degree and gives attendees an opportunity to meet their peers from across the different departments. There was a good mix of participants at my session, with a wide variety of interests from the history of technology, through to theology in communities. We were able to discuss our projects in small groups and it was useful to listen to the way that different people approached their research question.

Training opportunities
After the initial ‘getting to know you session’, we found out a bit more about the specific protocols of our faculties and the opportunities that were available to us through the leap hub. As I’m in receipt of a scholarship to be on this course, I’m approaching it very much like a full time job, so it was also reassuring to hear from the talks that we should view ourselves as ‘early career researchers’ within the institution, rather than simply students.

However, this also means that we have to think about the requirements of what makes a good researcher, and to take responsibility for our own development needs. This information had been set out by research councils in the form of the Researcher Development Framework. Much like the TDNA tool, this is a chart with which to assess your research capabilities, but with a much broader scope (see image). This allows each researcher to address their training needs on an individual basis, and highlights considerations to be taken into account when conducting research.

Ethics training
One such consideration when undertaking research is the ethical review process. In other words, any instance of interacting with people, or even with research materials, might require additional permissions to ensure professional conduct. This could mean anything from respecting copyright and data protection, to how to write agreements for conducting interviews. When you make artwork in a studio, it’s difficult to see at first how this might apply, but an initial discussion using possible scenarios, showed how important this knowledge and training can be.

Special Collections
Being back in an academic environment really makes you appreciate the resources that you have at your disposal. In particular, I’ve become increasing interested in the idea of the archive, so it’s an amazing opportunity to have access to the rare and limited edition books up in Special Collections.

I’ve been getting to grips with my new surroundings and commitments and hadn’t yet been to visit the archive, so it was with some trepidation that I went upstairs in the Brotherton Library and pressed the buzzer. I’m often overwhelmed by libraries and archives, because absolutely everything seems interesting. This can sometimes have an almost stultifying effect, as I can’t imagine ever being able to process all that information. However, I decided to confront this feeling and started to search through the system for relevant material.

Following recent thoughts about the medieval in art, I decided to use that as a focus. This turned up some interesting finds, including ‘Styrr Itt Well’ [sic], a book of medieval recipes and potions with a foreword by Delia Smith. My thinking went off on a tangent however, when I came across a vanity press book of illustrated allegories. I started to consider the ontology of art, how meaning is ascribed to objects and images, and whether it would be possible, or even preferable to have more of a universal understanding of meanings within art. This means that my task now is to find yet more reading on that subject. Luckily, next week is reading week.


The week began with an interesting round table discussion about the recent exhibition ‘Milky Way You Will Hear Me Call’ by Emma Bolland, Judit Bodor and Tom Rodgers. As the project is still in its R&D phase, it was interesting to see how the artists had displayed their initial findings, and to hear some of the thoughts behind the work.

The project is a visual reworking of David Peace’s fictional narrative of the Yorkshire Ripper. As the exhibition focused on sites from the book where bodies had been found, the artists found themselves entrenched in their own sensitivity to the memories of the women involved. As their work progressed, it became clear that the work had a psychogeographical element to it, and exposed the nature of how site absorbs and reflects history. In this way, I felt that it became an homage to the act of mourning itself.

One of the thoughts that came out of this discussion and other conversations around this topic was ‘the act of mourning as a process, rather than a goal’. This helped me to reconcile the old adage of time being a healer, with the idea of public memorials, which is something that I’d always found contradictory. I was also impressed by what had become one of the signature images of the project, that of a makeshift crown of hay, picked at one of the sites. For me, the image reflected a multitude of visual references, including Victorian memorial lockets and scenes from the Stations of the Cross. Emma also told us how she planned to continue the project by including workshops and possible opportunities to take the exhibition to Chicago in the near future.

Another day, another lecture, and this time it was the turn of Head of Visual Culture at Edinburgh College of Art, and one member of the Confraternity of Neoflagellents, Neil Mulholland. It was especially enlightening for me, as although I was previously unaware of his work, the concepts he was discussing seemed to be tailor-made for the work I was trying to create.

Neomedievalism as a concept, expresses methods of production and interaction in the pre-modern era as a basis for contemporary geopolitical, economic and aesthetic development. It was useful for me to be able to put a name my thoughts and I decided to write up the information with additional links on my professional practice blog.

New drawings
It’s becoming apparent that these next few years are going to require a large element of project management and, while I’m enjoying going to lectures and discussing ideas, a major part of the PhD requires me to create my own artwork. It was this thought that enabled me to switch focus and begin to apply the information I’d collected to some new drawings. The images (drawn from Gray’s anatomy) have become the first stage in a dialogue between my practice, theories of ritual, belief and science, and the work of other artists working in similar fields.

Museum as memory
The week ended with a seminar, hosted the Henry Moore Institute, to welcome new researchers to Leeds. The keynote speech was made by Kaspar König, Director of the Museum Ludwig, as he prepared to curate his final museum installation, ‘One wish is always left unfulfilled‘. His keen interest in sculpture within public contexts, and his involvement with Skulptur Projekte Münster for the last four decades, also introduced new viewpoints to discourses around the museum.

Many instances of contemporary practice find the museum context problematic. Often hierarchical, bureaucratic and opaque, it can be seen as a dead space, which no longer allows art to function in the way in which it was originally intended. However, listening to Kasper describe new dialogues between contemporary and historical artworks depending on how he placed them in relation to each other, highlighted the role of the museum in the critical enquiry of artwork over time. This seemed to emphasise the theme of the week; that of the museum (and artwork) as cultural memory, and the need for museums, curators and artists to continuously endeavor to work with, and challenge this received knowledge.


People have been asking if things are going as I expected. To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew that I’d be focusing on a specific research topic, which was a welcome opportunity as I now have the time and support to produce a significant body of work, and am working towards the qualifications to pursue an academic career afterwards.

However, it doesn’t stop there, as although there are no set modules, Post Graduate Researchers are expected to complete regular study reports, as well as participating and attending events, exhibitions, conferences and seminars to build up their academic cv. As a practicing artist, I am used to presenting, promoting and cataloguing my practice through blogging, which has been really useful for the transition into research and something I would recommend as a matter of course for all artists.

How is creative practice assessed?
The thing I am particularly interested in however, is the way in which the research degree is documented and assessed. When applying for the course, I had been asked to supply additional information to support my application, including my educational transcripts. Anyone who hasn’t experienced an education in fine art might be mistaken for thinking that it is one that allows more creative freedom without imposing the restriction of academic outcomes, but of course, grades are never awarded arbitrarily. Even having been through the process, it was interesting for me to see the outcomes that my work had been assessed against, and I wondered whether it would have affected the work that I produced if I’d had access to that information.

The personal development record
This brings me back to the research assessment process, which is documented using an online personal development record or PDR. This consists of a database which provides space for the numerous things needed to assess your PhD, such as supervision notes, meetings, reflections, and training. However, there is an additional tool, called a TDNA, which is used for outlining the stages of development for doctoral candidates.

Each outcome is listed under one of four headings; knowledge, effectiveness, organisation and impact, and lists everything from personal integrity to web presence, in order to understand the strengths of each post graduate researcher. Having access to, and knowledge of, these outcomes helped me to feel more comfortable with understanding the expectations of my supervisors and the course in general, and I wondered how I could apply those things to my own teaching practice to develop autonomous learners at all levels.

Pedagogy as practice
As someone with a keen interest in structural systems (especially from a data visualisation perspective), this also brought me back to thinking about my research collages and other artists using similar techniques to discuss social hierarchies, namely Hans Haake and Stephen Willats. Both these artists have created work addressing socio-economic policies, usually in relation to the international art market, and are especially interesting in the way they incorporate interaction into their work. In the context of the PDR it also made me think about pedagogy as practice, a term which related to some earlier work I’d produced as part of a group called the University of Incidental Knowledge.

International networks
Another area that I’m expected to develop is my international profile as a researcher. As part of this, the arts and humanities faculties have teamed up with universities in Sheffield and York to create the White Rose Skills Development Network. This allows researchers from different countries to connect specifically in the context of sharing knowledge of different academic cultures within an arts framework. There are also opportunities for peer language learning through partnerships between individuals with shared interests.

Through searching online I also discovered www.academia.edu, an online repository of papers, books and academic interests, all of which are linked to researcher profiles. These developments have undoubtedly come about because of the social media revolution, and will, I hope, encourage more of a creative commons mindset within the academic community.