Talking about Practice – Reflections from The House @ Plymouth University
9am Saturday morning. 6th February. A night of wild dreams, followed by a morning of wild rain, and turning up at the wrong place at the right time. However irritating, my arrival at the wrong venue provided a relevant preamble of the physical kind to following discussions around the function and impact of failing within research, and what is considered failure.
Before discussing the failure I had embodied, the first session of the Practice as Research (PaR) weekend provided an introduction to a seemingly far-reaching debate, that I now realise is a central backdrop to my decision to even venture into doing practice as research. That is the debate of waves and equivalents within the discipline and methodology of PaR. However, to be able to survive and even succeed in the seas of PaR I don’t think it is vital to be able to navigate definitions of waves and equivalents. Being able to swim in this way has benefits, and dipping a toe or more like the whole body, provides academic, institutional and political context, and helps to tell the story of how PaR in the arts came about. It needs to be noted though, that for me, it is the backdrop and needs only acknowledgment, not in depth study, as i’m more interested in making the work as part of the research, than debating what constitutes research.
Before I talk about waves and research equivalents, you like me may be new to the academic definition of PaR. What does it mean?
Historically, the relationship between practice and theory has been seen as a dichotomy (Edel, 1988). At odds to this preference for theoretical knowledge to act as the central tenant of academic rigour, are disciplines arguing that practical and experiential skills contain knowledge worthy of consideration and acknowledgement at every level of learning. For example, within the field of clinical medical research there is the practice based research network, where research is led by practical outputs as well as theoretical discussion.
Within the arts and humanities, the field that is the habitat for my work and research, are on-going debates about how to define the PaR phenomenon. Such conversations have been taking place since the 1990’s and some argue that this shift was in part facilitated by the Bologna Process, which informed the 1999 Bologna Declaration. This document was signed by ministers in charge of higher education from 29 countries. Today it represents an agreement between 49 countries. Basically, it outlines three main aspirations for a synchronised model of higher education.
- Adoption of a system of easily readable and comparable degrees, also through the implementation of the Diploma Supplement, in order to promote European citizens employability and the international competitiveness of the European higher education system.
- Adoption of a system essentially based on two main cycles, undergraduate and graduate. Access to the second cycle shall require successful completion of first cycle studies, lasting a minimum of three years.
- Establishment of a system of credits – such as in the ECTS system – as a proper means of promoting the most widespread student mobility.
This movement is often associated with international debates around art as research. It has also driven further debates and standardization of higher education process and terms. Switzerland is a good example of this; in parallel with the implementation of the Bologna process, a number of art schools have been merging since 2005 onwards (Biggs, Karlsson, 2010).
So the link here is that art schools, through the introduction of the Bologna process have been under pressure to conform to the provision of comparable and transferable undergraduate degrees, masters and doctoral level research, as well as demonstrating how arts based research outputs are comparable and equivalent to other academic fields. Across disciplines, research informs the higher education cycle, and there has been ongoing debate about what the equivalent model is in the art, and how experiential knowing can contribute to academic knowledge (Niedderer & Reilly 2010).
Bruce Archer’s statement in 1995 shows the growing recognition of arts practice as research at this time, “There are circumstances where the best or only way to shed light on a proposition, a principle, a material, a process or a function is to attempt to construct something, or to enact something, calculated to explore, embody or test it” (Archer, 1995). The provision of such thinking, led to the (still contested) acceptance of PaR within the arts to be reviewed alongside traditional research disciplines in the sphere of Higher Education. This shift was a process that took place over a period of about ten years, and was a debate supported by the work of Michael Biggs, John Freeman, Kristina Niedderer, Katy Macleod, Darren Newbury and others.
Subsequently, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) set up a steering committee devoted to practice led research. In 2007 a report reviewing practice led research in Art, Design and Architecture was published (Rust, Mottram, Till, 2007). This report was key in providing information and context for discussion taking place within the
Council for Higher Education in Art & Design (CHEAD) and the AHRC, and contributed to the institutional acceptance and recognition in the UK of ways in which creative departments make valid contributions to research culture.
But this, this is all history, and by the sounds of Saturdays session on PaR, very much part of the nostalgic view of the hard fought first wave of practitioner / researcher artists, some of whom were presenting. In the morning session, some interesting terms for chronologically tracking the shift of incorporating practice research into the academy were expressed. These are the terms that bring me back to waves and equivalents.
In this context, waves refer to the era of PaR one situates oneself within. This is important it seems, as it defines which battles of proving the validity and academic worth of such a methodology, and how much alongside answering your research question one was required to fight for the right to err, PaR(ty). Rachel Hann who presented her definition of first and second wave practice research definitions at the Performance Experience Presence symposium presented the following phases of practice as research.
First wave practice as research took place in the 1990’s. It was concerned with arguing for the right to conduct research through practice, and researchers and supervisors focused on convincing university management and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to accept knowledge through practice. This first phase was directed towards the interests of artists working within the academy.
Second wave happened in the 2000’s. Key concerns with this wave of practice as research were accessibility and quality of research outputs. Knowledge assessment it was argued needed to be redirected towards the discipline at large. Questions of legacy have been discussed including where to situate lasting PaR knowledge. Peer review communities are vital, as are clear narratives of evidencing the value and knowledge contribution of practice as research doctoral contributions. Noted.
This is an important idea, as it lies at the heart of debates around the academic merit and rigour of practice as research approaches and methods. At the centre of the Bologna process is the desire to standardise a three-tier system of higher education, and design methods of study and research that cultivate comparable skills, demonstrations of theoretical aptitude, and make evidenced contributions to knowledge. The problem is, that the traditional academies have historically been separated from the arts institutions. Some argue that the arts cannot be comparable to other academic disciplines as it is impossible to reduce and standardise creative thinking, and associated research. (Biggs, Karlsson, 2010). However, this puts into question quality assurance practices, and efforts of the Bologna Process which sought to present how practice as research provides an equivalent research method for the arts, comparable to the quality of much more established research practices and methodologies.
In many respects, a practice based doctoral scheme can be seen as an academic exercise designed to instantiate a given theory and practice of arts (and design) research (Scrivener, 2004). A familiar research pursuit yet the artistic practice, as research method is not standardized and has a range of practical and theoretical outputs. It seems that it has been historically difficult to institutionalize the critical reading of research outputs that go beyond the verbal presentation of theory and enter into the symbolic, aesthetic and poetic. In light of the need to argue that PaR is an equivalent research methodology to be acknowledged by the academy, Professor Robin Nelson has made important and persuasive contributions to the institutional debate on the role of PaR as a means of knowledge generation. For example, in the Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts he states
“The arts have historically been somewhat marginalized in the academy, seen as secondary even in their place as one of the four faculties of the founding medieval universities. But “know-how”, and its practical application, should not be under-valued and “knowledge” should not be constricted to any single paradigm.”
Robin Nelson, 2010
More recently Nelson has edited Practice as Research in the Arts; Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances where he and many others argue that old prejudices should be abandoned and a PaR methodology fully accepted in the academy, as the evidence basis for the research value in research as praxis (Nelson, 2009) have been proven.
It within the frameworks of the Bologna Process, first and second wave practice as researchers, and the progress made by UK and international institutions and administrators of higher education academies such as HEFCE and REF that practice as research needs to be considered. A research methodology in itself but also a discipline, it is a now a teenager with its own growing pains, and identity issues. The Practice as Research weekend was really my introduction to the history of PaR approaches, debates and methods, so I’m only attempting to sketch a topography of definitions and debates; informed by many of the speakers and academic / artists presenting at this event.
A key take away for me, is the importance of understanding how my personal choices to pursue a practice as research project fits into the broader political and institutional debates that underpin the history of incorporating practice as a means of knowledge generation and instantiating theoretical propositions within the arts.
Archer, B. (1995) The nature of research. Co-design, 2, 6-13.
Nelson, R. (2009) Modes of Practice-as-Research Knowledge and their Place in the Academy. In: Practice-as-research in performance and screen. Basingstoke. Palgrave Macmillian.
Nelson, R. (2013) Practice as Research in the Arts. Basingstoke. Palgrave Macmillian,
Niedderer, K., & Reilly, L. (2010) Research practice in art and design: Experiential knowledge and organised inquiry. Journal of Research Practice, 6(2), Article E2. Retrieved [7 Feb. 16], from http://jrp.icaap.org/index.php/jrp/article/view/247.
Rust, Prof Mottram, C, Prof Till, J. (2007) AHRC Research Review: Practice-Led Research in Art, Design and Architecture.
Scrivener, S. (2004) The practical implications of applying a theory of practice based research: a case study. Working Papers in Art and Design. Coventry University: Coventry.