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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.