Blogging as reflective practice

You are reading a blog that started off about art practice-based research charting
the journey of doing a phd. It explores alternative ways of using hand held devices
to create print-based interactive artworks using graphical tagging such as QR-codes.
Art, design, technology and craft were the main themes in writing. But life gets in the
way, and over this journey the story takes unexpected happy twists along the paths
of having a baby, going on a UK Digital Economy Sandpit, meeting fanstastic people,
and subsequent group success in funding for a large multidisciplinary research
project called TOTeM.

Entries in art practice based research (6)

Positioning my Phd Research

Have been writing the 1st draft of my thesis and am at 50,000 words so doing quite well (as long as they’re not rubbish), considering an art practice PhD is usually a minimum of 25 – 30,000 words. Still to go is tidying up my contextual review chapters; actually working out what it is that I am saying is my new contribution to knowledge is – getting this right is hard!!! ; and writing up clearly exactly what my findings, conclusion & future work are. I’ve just lost 2 weeks due to a horror ear infection, so am in the process of clawing them back. In that process, I’ve mapped out the context of my Phd research in terms of areas, and thought it might be good to post it up here.

Each of the rings in the illustration shows themes and how important they are to my PhD with the outer ring of less importance than the inner. The outer knowledge areas, not contained in the rings are boundary areas where my Phd research crosses over into, but are not actually areas central to its aims and objectives. They are, however areas, which other research projects in which I am involved in, are more central to.

Its about good research, not good art 

This is what my supervisors keep saying to me, that a phd in art practice is still about research first and not art. I can’t bring myself to agree. What would be the point of doing it art-based then? I think it has to be both. My supervisors also say that after 5 years most phd research is out of date anyway, and a phd is really just a space to learn about research. Yes, that makes sense, but some art doesn't lose its point after 5 years, 50 years or even 500 years. So the products of a phd in art practice, the dissemination objects, the artworks themselves surely have the potential to remain powerful even when the research is old and out of date.

Not to mention art is slightly different to research, only today I was talking to someone about art from the 1970’s and how people like John Cage are still relevant today in a range of media, art and technologies practices. This point about not needing to make good art for a practice based phd really bothers me. I take pride in the work I produce and want at least one person out there to think that it is good, whether its part of a body of research or not. This thinking has bothered me so much, a few weeks ago I went and spoke to another member of staff here at DJCAD in Fine Art for a different viewpoint. 

It was such a breath of fresh air and I felt very enthused and invigorated by our discussions. In terms of finding like-minded thinkers, my phd’s been a bit of a struggle because the department I registered to do my phd in, Media Arts & Imaging, which fitted perfectly with my thinking was disbanded in 2008, and quite a few people left. Even now I am not even sure what departments my supervisors are actually in, as the names keep changing. My phd is the last one to go through under the old Media Arts & Imaging banner, which hardly anyone dares speak of, so I am department-less in terms of creative discipline, and this also means I have little in the way of community close at hand. In my TOTeM work life I have been kindly adopted by Product Design, for which I am eternally grateful, but, love them as I do, I’m not a product designer and I think differently. Sometimes I do feel a bit like that proverbial square peg trying to fit in a round hole

When I met up with a staff member from Fine Arts I was so happy to hear her say that the art IS as important as the research. Its good to hear someone else at this institution advocating the value of the final artwork in research, and to know that not everyone here thinks the same way. She also went on to say (a little frustrated) how annoying it was that the academy is so geared towards the value of research over the value of art and how this can be counterproductive. Anyway, it gives me the confidence to challenge any notions that perhaps its ok to hide crap art by calling it research and in doing so, do injustice to both art and research. I’m in the process of starting to collect a body of evidence to support the thinking that in art practice based research it is just as important to create “good art” as well as “good research”. This will be part of my discussion of my phd thesis contextualising my methodology and dissemination of research, because in 5 years time, this research may not be very important or valuable to anyone, but the resultant artworks may be.

Posted on Tuesday, April 5, 2011 at 08:12PM by Registered CommenterSimone O'Callaghan in | CommentsPost a Comment

A mind of its own 

When I started on my phd I was fairly critical of works which use graphical tags but which don’t really utilise the potentials of the interactive medium. Now I am really seeing the value of doing a practice based phd. I can espouse and theorise as much as I like, but until I actually get on and do it,  how valid is what I am saying? (Its actually the same problem I've had with media theorists who don't get their hands dirty and prefer sitting in their ivory towers, making up things that may or may not be true, but they don't actually have the skills to test through making)

I had all these grand plans to work on creating an app as part of my Coded Moments body of work. One that was not only part of the artwork but collects user data as well. But the more I work on the interactive side of this series, the more it demands otherwise. I find myself having arguments with my own artworks. The simple ideas I started off with, and have then embellished have gotten so lost in the tech that they cease to exist as part of the artwork.

If I have someone in a gallery interacting with my artworks hanging on the wall; before they scan the work they are wholly within the gallery space, but once they scan the works, although they are physically still in the gallery space, they have also (mentally/ virtually/ ?) been sucked down into that virtual/ augmented itty bitty screen world mediated by a mobile phone. If I create an app that draws the user in they can tippy tap to their heart’s content in the world of the mobile device, but the physical world of the gallery runs the risk of being largely ignored. Almost as if the only difference between a desktop computer and a mobile screen is that for one, in most cases you sit down.

When I’m tippy tapping away on my iphone, I can’t really interact with my physical world around me – I bump into things, I trip over my baby’s toys and I become a traffic hazard in the pedestrian form. Maybe other people are more adept at this, but me, I’m hopeless. So, this leads me to reconsider my grand plans of technical prowess.  For me there’s absolutely no point in creating works with codes embedded into them if all they do is act as a gateway into a more engaging virtual world, while the work on the wall is ignored.

 One of the crucial points to this investigation was to determine how augmenting works on the wall with digital content could facilitate a greater awareness of their materiality and physicality of the work, not go the other way and lose them altogether. If one becomes sucked into the mirco-vortex of an iphone app then the battle has been lost! So, my simple ideas are not just a way of avoiding doing difficult tech and programming, which is what I originally feared, but rather a proper articulation of what the artworks require. For this to the balance between ephemeral tech and material artwork is delicate. Utlimately for me as an artist, the works on the wall are more important than the tech, which I see more as a tool which artist can use to heighten the material aspects of a work.

I feel a little bit like I am being guided by the work as I produce it, rather than me totally having control. Sometimes it won't bend to the way I want it to, and I ask myself why? I know its all inanimate, but I still have to listen to what is right for the work.

Back into the swing of things 

The end of last year was a bit of a stressful time, trying to get those three conference papers in, and at the same time we moved house, two days before Christmas (what were we thinking?), in the middle of blizzards and in the worst snow conditions our area has seen since records began. Trying to write whilst moving house is impossible – it was a nightmare trying to keep track of my papers, books and references, not to mention I was doing all this with a 17 month old baby in tow. Not surprisingly my desk at home, now it is finally set up, has critical papers about the Artist as Researcher, Paul Coldwell’s Contemporary Printmaking, The State of the Real; Aesthetics in the Digital Age edited by Damian Sutton, sketchbooks, paintbrushes, hacked mobile phones and zinc plates all competing for space with swim nappies, a broken pirate mobile and a Tommie Tippie cup with cold tea in it… and we have no internet at home until the 28th thanx to the whole snow drama in December

But I did it! I wrote all three papers and they’re in! The European Academy of Desigh paper was a real challenge to upload because their “platform” for uploading wasn’t ready the week before the papers were due and I had to go to meetings and a network conference thingy for TOTeM for the 3 days before the deadline. So I actually had my papers done with 4 days to spare. As it was I was stuck at a DeVere’s Country House with the world’s worst wifi trying to upload the EAD paper whilst being powerpointed at. Still it got sorted out in the end.

I’m looking forward to just getting on with things again, because I kind of feel like I had to drop everything to get those papers in (and move house). Now I can actually start to distill my research concepts a bit further and reflect upon how my art practice has been informing my criitcal writing and vice versa.

Research Norms

Lately I’ve been busy with a whole lot of TOTeM stuff, going to the All Hands meeting down in Nottingham, where people from a range of EPSRC projects, hubs and networks presented what they had been up to in papers, posters and workshops. Working on TOTeM gives me far more insight into research that just doing a straight phd would, and the All Hands meeting was invaluable from both TOTeM and my phd levels. Though many of the presentations were actually quite dull, it did show me the norms expected from researchers and the ways in which UK research council projects progress.

Academic research is different from working in industry in that the goalposts are always moving and there is no client breathing down your neck. Yes, we are answerable to the research funding body, but the pressure, from my point of view at this particular point in time is far less than in industry. I keep having to ask myself if I am doing enough work because I am just used to much more pressure and many more demands in industry. That’s not to say that academic researchers have it easy, the pressures are more long term and sustained – knowing one has to publish and always be planning 2 – 3 years down the track for money to come in, projects to start and work to actually be published.  There’s less immediate release from the pressures. At least in industry in design anyway, although racing to meet client deadlines is stressful usually there is an end point and you hand the project over the client. The endpoints for research are much more fluid.

It is tricky to find that balance between giving yourself enough freedom to facilitate creative thought for truly innovative research and making sure there is some structure that drives the research forward in a way that achieves all the project aims. I think in science this is slightly easier to define, but in areas like art and design this can be much harder, but the research is no less important for being so. In fact, talking to people at the All Hands meeting reminded me of how moulded we are by our disciplines in the ways that we think.  It also become clear,  how little representation artists have in such projects, where the different approaches, thought processes and ideas that artists come up with could provide so much value to a larger team as a whole. 

Posted on Monday, November 1, 2010 at 04:12PM by Registered CommenterSimone O'Callaghan in , , , | CommentsPost a Comment

The studio becomes "the field"

Many people have a vision of “the artist” working in a studio, solitary and absorbed. They have an idea that a studio is a very alone kind of place. It can be and that is lovely when you really need to get on and really think about things – others interrupting can be the worst thing in the world, but that is not always that way. The DCA print studio is an open access space for many artists to come and work together and that is a real strength and joy. If I want time alone I work in my space at the university, but when I am physically making things, its nice to have others around…oddly enough, particularly when things go wrong, because then they can either help you make them right, or they can laugh with you at the disasters.

Sometimes anecdotal feedback is actually more important that something that I may have actually gone searching for. In terms of my research, this brings up interesting debates. As far as I know there doesn’t seem to be very much out there, captured in a more formal way, about art practice as research in an open access studio, where one could say (to use a sociological term) the artist turns into participant-observer.

There are people out there who think that art should be strong enough not to have to beg borrow or steal terms from the social sciences, but we still need to communicate, and if I contextualise myself within terms that (at the moment) a wider range people understand it means that then I can communicate with those who are not artists, and this is very important too. (In fact more important; sometimes I think some artists can be really elitist and narrow minded about trying to reach out to others not in the arts). In terms of research methods, as a participant-observer in the print studio I then have points of reference and established precedents, that I can then extrapolate from to further develop my own methodologies, which are based in art practice. This also then gives me a framework in which I can possibly turn anecdotes and uninhibited conversations into meaningful and rigorous data from my research. So the studio becomes “the field” and while I am making artworks in the studio, I am also making observations in the field.