OCA tutor Michele Whiting on Practice as Research: Thinking through research in Art and Design
Michele is an excellent lecturer with a great deal of enthusiasm for her subject. I had never before considered that the research process itself could be interesting! We started out by jotting down some ideas on why we night do research, such as
- Finding a starting point
- Broadening knowledge around a subject or theme
- Thinking about where work sits within a canon
- Finding out what is already available and who are the ‘not-to-be-missed’ authors and practitioners
She then asked us to think about where we might go to find people who are talking about your subject – the research spaces, journals, etc. She suggested some other possible areas that we might not have considered, such as examining out tacit as well as the explicit knowledge e.g.
- Tacit knowledge – that which we take for granted – cultural beliefs, generally understood concepts, unquestioned assumptions
- Explicit knowledge – that which has been unpacked and understood. Generally the data and other data repositories.
We need to be aware that some of our tacit knowledge might need explaining and examining for relevance. And we can examine this for our subjectivity and the position that we take in the doing of the research. Where are we in it? We also need to think about what we are doing from the point of view of
- Epistemology – the study of knowledge and how we can approach it
- Ontology – the study of the nature of reality and existence
- Axiology – the study of values and ethics
We often forget about these when thinking about our work, but they greatly enrich the research experience. It’s about taking a 360 degree approach to our practice to examine it and how it relates to the world now- so as to establish its currency in terms of dialogue (amongst other things). Each brings a different viewpoint and questions to the table.
Methodology or Method?
Methodology is the vehicle we use to get from A to B. Method is how we go about getting there. There are a variety of methodological frameworks which we can use and which have been drawn from both science and humanities. But it is really important that we frame and articulate our own methodologies- as artists we are entitled to and should have our own voices, and we often take a multiple method approach as this allows for the idiosyncratic nature of practice. The concept of arts research only really took off in the 1990s when Frayling published his paper on doctorates in the arts. (Dudovskiy, 2019, Frayling, 1994). Until then, arts research had not been viewed as rigorous and authoritative. The methodology used can be an integral part of the end result, as in the result can be whatever comes out of the research process, rather than an initial aim.
Methods are the gears and levers, including notebooks, visualisations, reading, videos, interviews, peer discussions, audio, archive, case studies, experimental processes, observational photography and reflection. Think about which of these you don’t use, which could be incorporated in your research process, and just for clarity research is practice: that is material knowledge, subject knowledge, theoretical knowledge and contextual knowledge, it is the world the work sits in and how it relates and interrelates with it- and so other questions of ethics and values come into play (like sustainability for instance).
To think about how we research both materially and textually we can use this seemingly simple poem- which forms the basis for a 360 degree approach. ‘I have six honest serving me. They taught me all I knew. I call them What and Where and When and How and Why and Who.’ (Kipling) Use this, as all of the elements are important.
Articulate your methodology – it will help people to understand where you are coming from, including the assumptions you have built into the work. Above all remember that research is both practice and theory together- this is where synthesis happens. Research is our individual practice and information canon. Building robust systems for learning is important and very idiosyncratic. We all do it differently.
Output versus outcome
Output is the work you make along the way to an outcome. The outcome might be a piece of art, or your documentation of the process in your blog, Un-pack your thinking and make sure you know and can explain exactly what the outcome is in relation to the output.
Michele then talked about her own current work. She has three projects on the go at present. The most interesting for me was her solo one, title landandmybody in which she uses durational walking, observation, saturation, memory, mark making, material knowledge through testing and drawing to assess residual memory after a saturative experience. In real terms, this means she goes on long walks (20-30 miles in a day. Phew!) where she observes her environment closely and then comes back to her studio and makes drawing/paintings of her impressions. She doesn’t take photos taken during the day, but she does photograph the process of making afterwards. The understanding of her thinking through and after her day’s walking is more important than the end result (which is a series of abstract pieces). She is very clear about what themes and methodology she will include and who have influenced her starting point.
Dudovskiy, J. (2019). ‘Constructivist Research Philosophy’. In: research-methodology.net. Available at https://research-methodology.net/research-philosophy/epistomology/constructivism/ (Accessed on 14 April 2019)
Frayling, C. (1994). ‘Monograph. Research in Art and Design ‘ In: Royal College of Art Research Papers, 1 (1) pp.
Solnit, R. (2002). Wanderlust. London, Verso.
Gros Frédéric, (2014) A Philosophy of Walking. London, Verso.