Caitlin Magda Shepherd

"Art belongs not to the active life but to the contemplative life—not to the vita activa but to the vita contemplativa." Nicholas Wolterstorff

Month: November, 2016

When the Unremarkable Becomes Remarkable

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Unknown Artist. Nightbox.

Urban ambiance. Poetics of Space. The sense of tone. Emotional cartography. Do you feel that wind. The metaphor not the element. How my memory is fogged, and then the street gives way to an open hill and I remember something quite young. As if the world is seen momentarily through pink eyelids of a newborn foal. The moment the road became remarkable.

Urban ambiance is a term popularised over the past twenty years to help describe  and analyze the affect of the sensory landscape on the urban landscape and the people that occupy it (Amphoux, Thibaud, and Chelkoff 2004). As much as we are encouraged to simplify and reduce concepts into neat and separate compartments described by precise linguistic terms, urban ambiance makes no apologies for stating that it is distinctly different from  concepts like environment, comfort and landscape, and instead has everything to do with ecological interconnection, subjectivity, and intermingling (Thibaud, 2o11).

If the term must be set into a succinct definition, urban ambiance is a lens to feel through. To re-engage with our senses, and permit them to co-exist, fire, dwindle, surge, retreat, collide and contradict. It is concerned with subtlety and nuance, and the tones and shadows of the urban environment. Sociologist John Thibaud sums it up as “an ambiance can be provisionally defined as a space-time qualified from a sensory perspective. It emerges as an alternative way to bridge the sensate, spatial, and social domains” (Thibaud, 2011, p.204).

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Image sourced from the Telegraph. Photographer unknown.

The playground wall represented a thousand good-byes. It worked well, keeping the children in and the dogs out, but for me it was as sad as the parting between the living and the dead.

To delve deeper into this theoretical framework, Thibaud posits that there are four main characteristics that distinguish this research field.

Firstly, urban ambiance is holistic and belongs to the body more than the mind. It is built on the assumption that we are perceiving the world through a unified sensory encounter. We are not perceiving and responding to the world based on reductive analysis of isolated sensory variables. An encounter with ambiance involves embodying all the senses at once.

Secondly, ambiance expresses an “affective tonality” (Thibaud, 2011, p.204). It gives space for the moods and emotional tones of material urban life to emerge and to be observed. This helps to understand how spaces and urban environment is perceived in terms of subtlety, association, memory and poetics.

Thirdly, urban ambiance is a research method and critical approach that dismisses a normative approach. One that aims to name phenomena and give it an emotional attribute or name. Urban ambiance allows us to describe the whole experience of a sensory moment, without needing to underline it with an evaluative judgement. We can focus on the description and be liberated from constructing a value judgement. When engaging with urban ambiance, space is opened up for in depth, bracketed observation, as advocated by Hussurl in his development of phenomenology.

Lastly, ambiance privileges the activity between the urban environment and the activity of its residents. It stresses importance on how social activity shapes the meaning and form of the built urban environment. In this sense, urban ambiance is closely related to the commitment to description and analysis of subjective meaning, that is central to ethnographic and phenomenological research methods. Both are concerned with accessing the experiences of the individual as a means of understanding how and why meaning has been constructed, and in turn, how such meaning shapes social behaviour.

Now we have had a brief introduction to the theory, I will address the question; why is urban ambiance relevant to Sonorous States? It is an emerging discipline that is relevant to artists, designers, urban planners, cultural geographers, ethnographers and those engaged with sensory studies. It provides a space to research, analyse and organise methods of inquiry that focus on examining how urban spaces hold subtle emotional tones, how social behaviour shapes environment, and how the body perceives place, as well as the eye and the mind. Through my PhD research project Sonorous States, I’m particularly interested to study what relational affect site-specific sound installations have on individual experience of place, and how such interventions affect social behaviour. Additionally, I am interested in measuring if engagement with such urban interventions are shaped by economic class, and want to further understand the relationship between wealth and perceived permission to engage with public sound art.

Three main ideas running through the theory of urban ambiance that connect to established philosophical thought about embodied cognition, experience and perception are those of ambiance as action, ambiance as experience and ambiance as progress. Ambiance gives us space to feel more completely, to understand that perception is not just the activity observed in the mind and seen through the eyes. The body is a site of knowledge and, the way it knows is distinctly different from the way we use language and thought to give a name to knowledge.

I ran my hands over the edge of the door. I knew what happened here and how. I opened the door as easily as breathing, and slowly walked inside. 


Gregory Crewdson (2011) Photograph. Available Pintrest.

Through the framework urban ambiance, we are presented with the idea that thought, research, interpretation and analysis are not only residents in the hotel of the mind, but belongs also, to the intelligence of the body.  The body as the site of knowing (Merleau-Ponty, 1968). In the aforementioned article, Thibaud refers to Merleau-ponty as a philosopher who paved the way in terms of arguing that the body is the primary site of knowledge. For Merleau Ponty, perception was not a channel that names and filters information, but a more holistic process that is interpreted by interaction between the body a environment. Merleau-Ponty coined the term “primacy of perception.” What he refers to here, is the idea that we are first perceiving the world, then we construct language to help us identify and interpret the experience.

I can feel you when you breathe. I can feel you when you breathe. Breathe. 

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Christian Boltanski (Date Unknown). Apres.

We perceive the world through our bodies; we are embodied subjects, involved in existence. Sensations for Merleau-Ponty are the unit of experience. Through his work, he sets out to explore the pre-objective realm of our lived experience. We cannot understand the objective world without lived experience of the world. The senses in perceiving the objects in the world are not separate, but overlap and transgress each other’s boundaries (Moran, 2000).

Moving onto the idea of urban ambiance as a more detailed means of describing and analysing experience. John Thibaud further clarifies the thinking behind urban ambiance in the essay  The Sensory Fabric of Urban Ambiances. He statesan ambiance-centric approach places the perceiver at the heart of the world he or she perceives and puts the emphasis on its all-encompassing nature, rather than any direct face-to-face relationship.” (Thibaud, 2011, p. 204). What is significant here, is the importance given to the individual experiencing a whole; this links nicely back to the premise that urban ambiance is best hooked onto an ecological philosophy of perception; one that considers perception as enmeshed with the environment and sensory stimuli within which something is identified, named and responded to. And so with the importance of individual, context specific perception in hand, we can turn our heads to the notion of experience.

At this point I will introduce the work on experience furthered by philosopher and psychologist Jon Dewey. According to Dewey, situations form the basic units of all types of experience and can be defined as the “environing experienced world.” “What is designated by the word ‘situation’ is not a single object or event or set of events. It is argued thus, as we never experience nor form judgments about objects and events in isolation, but only in connection with a contextual whole. This latter is what is called a ‘situation’(Dewey 1938: 66). A situation, therefore, cannot be reduced to a series of isolated or separable elements. It necessarily involves a unity that gives meaning to the whole and its parts. At this point, we can see that a way to comprehend experience, is to look at the units of a situation. These must be considered as moments or units of relationship, in time based, location specific interaction with one another. We are looking at a system not a relationship. In his theory of pervasive qualities (Dewey 1931), Dewey stresses the importance of unity in an experience, and sets forth the idea of “tertiary quality”. Empirical philosophy makes a distinction between primary (form, number, movement, solidity) and secondary qualities o (color, sound, smell, taste) that describe and give shape to an experience. But Dewey goes beyond this, by preferring to use tertiary quality as a means of describing a coherent qualities that help give shape to experience. By this term he means to interpret and read an experience as whole. Thibaud refers frequently to Dewey’s work and thinking on the identification and definition of experience. What links urban ambiance to the idea of experience is that it provides space for the individual to describe a holistic account of a primal perception, and it also emphasises the affect of the invisible and felt of perception, behaviour and relation within space. As Thibaud describes “ambiance cannot be reduced to a sum of isolated objects, discrete signals, successive sensations, or individual behavior patterns. It unifies the situation and colours the environs.” (Thibaud, 2015, p. 206).

When I introduced the idea of ambiance as progress, it is in attempt to communicate the real world application of urban ambiance, and outline it’s practical applications. Urban ambiance is more than a lens to look through in pursuit of a more nuanced, multi sensory and embodied world. One where design processes at local authority level incorporates the significance of factors such as lighting, texture, spatiality, sonics and other interfaces that influence the realm of bodily perception. Taking a phenomenological approach to perception, one that recognises the complexity of perception, and challenges the idea that perception is always about perceiving objects, urban ambiance can drive forwards conversations and debates about how to incorporate corporeal and sensual sensitivity into the day to day landscape and experience of the city. Furthermore, the idea of perception of place being dependent on relationships between form.

To conclude, I want to take a moment to link the the field of urban ambiance back to my research question, and summarise how it is relevant to my research. Sonorous States is a project that sets out to examine the affect of sound installations on individual behaviour within public space. The leading question is “What behavioural affects are produced by public sound art installations, situated in urban environments?”  In order to answer this question I need to refer to theories and methods that examine affect, behaviour and sensorality, specifically auditory sensorality, specifically within public spaces. I am also in the process of reviewing a tonne of literature across the fields of urban studies, sound studies and socially engaged art. But relating the ideas of urban ambiance back to my research question, there are three relevant themes that present themselves. A focus on embodied perception as a pose to ocularcentricity. A inquiry into the psychology of perception, and what affect materiality, spatiality and movement has on perception. An interest in the affective tonality of environment, and how subtle, backgrounded aspects of environment play a key role in perception and feeling of a place.

Using the notion of ambiance, it is possible to introduce research methods, and indeed terminology to assist various professions involved in the conception, design and fabrication of space to make space to think about the sensory, affective and material dimensions of our built environment. This material and embodied lens to help understand how and why people behave the way they do in certain environments recognises the complexity of relationships between people and their surroundings. Hence, a comprehensive approach is required that acknowledges the variety of ways in which city dwellers deal with and handle urban situations. In order to grasp one of the main epistemological implications of the notion of ambiance, it is necessary to bear in mind that it relies on a modal rather than a causal logic. The key question lingers on how and in what conditions do people perceive the way they do. Here we can see links between ambiance and ethnography, and an interest in understanding perception and psychology behind behaviour and action. It is clear to me that urban ambiance is a field of study and research that is relevant bed, in which to lay my question and research interests. Additionally many of the ideas to do with perception, embodiment, tonal affect and environmental nuances will aid my own exploration into prior research relevant to Sonorous States, as well as present new questions that will inform the development of the project.


Amphoux, P., J.P. Thibaud, and G. Chelkoff (eds) (2004) Ambiances en Débats. Grenoble: Editions A la Croisée.

Dewey, J. (1931) Qualitative Thought In Philosophy and Civilization, pp. 93–116. New York: Minton, Balch & Co.

Dewey, J. (1934) Art as Experience. New York: Minton, Balch & Co.

Dewey, J. ( 1938) Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Moran, D. (2000) Introduction to Phenomenology. London: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968) The Visible and the Invisible. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M.  (1970) Themes from the Lectures at the Collège de France, 1952–1960. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Thibaud, J.P. (2004) De la qualité diffuse aux ambiances urbaines. In B. Karsenti and L. Quéré (eds) Raisons Pratiques. La croyance et l’enquête, pp. 227–53. Paris: Editions de l’EHESS.

Thibaud J.P. (2011) The Sensory Fabric of Urban Ambiances. In The Senses and Society, 6:2, 203-215, DOI: 10.2752/174589311X12961584845846


Something certain by the side of your hand


David Hamilton (1971) Dreams of a Young Girl


Bela Tarr (2011) The Turin Horse. Film


Krzysztof Kieslowski (1991) The Double Life of Veronique. Film

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Derek Jarman. Jubilee


Updating the Academy: Is Practice as Research (PaR) modernising academic tradition?


Practice as Research; Building the Discord Installation. Somerset House, August 2016

In this essay I will be discussing how Practice as Research (PaR) is challenging academic research conventions within the Western academy. I will outline the pedagogical and academic context of PaR in the arts, introduce basic definitions, and outline the history and critiques of PaR. I mostly refer to the work of academic Robin Nelson and Philosopher and music theorist Henk Borgdorff, both of who have written extensively on the development and validity of PaR as a research methodology.


Practice as research is distinctly different to the traditions of the more well-known and accepted qualitative and quantitative research methodologies. And so, unsurprisingly, PaR has many sceptics who argue that material knowledge and knowing through doing is no equivalent to theoretical knowledge attained through the traditions of the scientific method. A long-term institutional separation of the epistemology of theory and practice lies behind a lot of the doubts surrounding the PaR methodology. As Nelson points out in Practice as research in the arts: principles, protocols, pedagogies, resistances (2013), the schism in the history of arts led higher education in the UK, “reflects an entrenched binary between theory and practice” (Nelson, 2013, p. 11). The problem broadly, is that praxis, or knowing through doing has not been incorporated into epistemological philosophy within Western academic thought. The prevailing epistemology has been constructed around the scientific method. What is exciting about the emergence of PaR, is that it has already started to effect and challenge dominant forms of academic knowledge, which in the longer term could well transform what is widely accepted as research, and subsequent new knowledge (Hann, 2016). Philosopher and music theorist Henk Borgdorff acknowledges that through dialogue with scholars on methods and definitions of academic research and knowledge, that “a new definition of academic research may emerge” (Borgdorff, 2006, p. 11). He also reminds us that there is nothing new about this. Throughout the history of science, there have been discoveries that have undermined and modernised previous standards, and ascendant knowledge has tempered and transformed academic scholarship.

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Robin Nelson (2010). Dynamic Model for Practice as Research. 


PaR is of relevance to my studies, as it is the methodology I’m employing as the cornerstone of my PhD research project Sonorous States. A relatively new concept, it is useful to dedicate time to examining the terms, history and development of the methodology. Like many emerging ideas, PaR is a contested term. Broadly speaking, it is research that contributes new knowledge to the discipline of the arts, through theory and practice. More simply put, as Nelson outlines in his theory of Praxis, PaR is theory imbricated with practice (Nelson, 2013). In this essay I shall be referring to this definition when using the term.

As we enter the watery world of terminology, it is important to note that there are different variations of the same idea going by slightly different names. The most commonly referred to are; Practice as Research, Practice led Research, and Research on the Arts. Before we move into the differences between terms, it is useful to note, that practice-based research is a collective notion that may cover any form of practice oriented research in the arts (Borgdorff 2006). When I use this term I will be using it to refer to the field of practice based research at large. Below, I will take a moment to discuss the differences between the commonly used terms.

Practice led Research is widely used in arts research in Australia, and was coined by the seminal work of Carole Gray (1996). This definition has been well used over the past twenty years. Professor Brad Haseman summarises practice led research as a research method that “asserts the primacy of practice and insists that because creative practice is on going and persistent; practitioner-researchers do not merely “think” their way through or out of a problem, they practice their way to resolution.” (Nelson, 2013, p. 10)

Practice on the Arts is a definition presented in Henk Borgdorff’s paper The Debate on Research in the Arts (2006). It is defined as “research that has art practice in the broadest sense of the word as its object. It refers to research projects that aim to draw valid conclusions about art practice from a theoretical distance (Borgdorff, 2006). Practice as Research is described by Henk Borgdorff as “the direct intertwinement of research and practice” (Borgdorff, 2006, p. 7). Meanwhile, Robin Nelson describes practice as research as theory imbricated with practice. Although language differs, the cementing concept remains the same. In this sort of artistic research, equal importance is given to practical and theoretical inquiry.

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Discord (2016). Caitlin Shepherd.  Sound Installation. Somerset House. Photograph. Theory Imbricated with Practice

There are nuanced distinctions between the terms Practice led Research, Practice on the Arts and Practice as Research. It is important to tease out the different meanings, as it helps us better understand the difference between terms, and exercise a more critical examination into practice based research. So let us examine the differences. Nelson, proffers that Practice led Research “may bear a residual sense, that knowledge follows after, is secondary to the practice” (Nelson, 2013 P. 10). Thus he prefers the term PaR, that gives equal weighting to theoretical and practical knowledge. Meanwhile, Borgdorff asserts that Practice on the Arts is an already well-established research discipline within university faculties, particularly within musicology, art history, theatre studies, media studies and literature (Borgdorff, 2006). Practice on the Arts is an academic study into the effect, history and value of the arts at large, and often excludes practice and practical inquiry from the research methodology. With the intention of generating a terminology specific to PaR, Nelson presents the idea of praxis as a key component and method of practice as research. Praxis is the name given to the research process that includes the implementation of know what, know that, know how. Uniting these processes within a theoretical and practical inquiry, as stated by Nelson is theory imbricated within practice. With these brief summaries in mind, it is possible to make distinctions between research terms that are problematically, often used interchangeably. To be clear, I will be employing Nelson’s term PaR throughout this essay, and indeed my own practice led PhD. Specifically I use this term to refer to research that is based on the process of imbricating practice with theory, and acknowledging that artistic practice as means of generating new knowledge within both arts institutes and the academy.

The history of practice based research within the arts is a short one. Now middle aged, but still emerging, PaR is a relatively new methodology. The university reforms that took place in UK and Scandinavia contributed significantly to education and policy debates around the validity of PaR. In the UK, the reforms involved giving the polytechnics (higher professional schools) equal status to universities, thus enabling art schools to secure direct and indirect public funding for research (Candlin, 2001). Similar reforms occurred in Australia (Strand, 1998). A second impetus, mostly relevant to the European continent is the Bologna process. This central European policy aims to create a single framework for higher education, containing it within three transferable cycles; bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees. The overarching purpose of such an initiative is to generate a transferable knowledge economy for members of the EU (EHEA, 2016). However, given the post Brexit climate, the Bologna process and how it will be rolled out through the UK is currently in question. Although the UK and Scandinavia have paved the way for many other countries to engage with PaR, Nelson notes that there has been significant engagement with the methodology in Australia and South Africa (Nelson, 2013, p.11). At the same time as international developments in PaR, there have been institutional and vocal challenges made to the validity of the methodology. I will discuss some of these criticisms below.

In existing literature PaR is represented as a burgeoning practice, spreading through institutions on a global scale, with established doctoral researcher cohorts generating a range of PaR case studies (Nelson, 2013). However, its rise in popularity does not exclude it from significant criticism. Due to its multiple and fluid forms, methods and the complexity and diversity of artistic, design and media led practices, there is not a one method fits all approach to PaR. Some scholars take issue with the diverse methods utilised to carry out PaR, and argue that the approach risks tarnishing the rigour and systematic research methodologies conventionally used in scholarly doctoral research. Other critiques include that argument that there is a lack of pedagogical theory and examples to ground PaR as an established discipline (Nelson, 2013, p. 4). Specifically, there is a deficit of archiving and systematic analysis of the emerging research methodology. Key critics include James Elkins, who in his critique of PaR in the UK describes the developments of PaR methodology as “threadbare” (Nelson, 2013 p. 13). Nelson challenges Elkins critique by arguing that his assessment of the methodology is coming from a very singular view with regard to what constitutes a research methodology. Nelson argues that Elkin repeatedly looks back to an archaic and arguably exclusive methodology taken from the traditions of scholarly research that has a history of excluding artistic and material practices from the process of knowledge generation. If the major criticisms can be grouped into a theme, the issue culminates in the question of whether research in which the creation of art and creative output is intermeshed with the research process, is indeed serious scholarly research equivalent, and whether it is PhD-worthy (Candlin, 2000).

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Racheal Hann (2016) Presentation at Thinking about Practice conference. Plymouth University

Dr Rachael Hann, lecturer and associate dean at the University of Surrey recognises that such criticisms have been around for long enough for debates surrounding PaR to have moved through distinct historical waves (Hann, 2016). The 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. The second wave happened in the 2000’s. Key concerns with this wave of practice as research were accessibility and quality of research outputs. Questions of legacy have been discussed including where to situate lasting PaR knowledge, which relates to the criticism of a lack of archiving and analysis of PaR. To help mitigate such valid concerns, peer review communities are vital, as are clear narratives of evidencing the value and knowledge contribution of practice as research doctoral contributions. As we move out of the first and second wave, we enter the third. Sitting on uncertain waters it seems that there are emerging methods for assessing PaR and the equivalent research outputs that come with the methodology. Artistic expression has always straddled multiple worlds, including linguistics, hermeneutics, semiotics, psychology, sociology, politics, science, theology and numerous other disciplines. Thus it needs a method of research that accommodates and incorporates its complexity and materiality.

In conclusion, let us look back to the original question. Has Practice as Research (PaR) modernised academic tradition? Although there are on-going debates about the credibility of PaR, it seems that many research councils organised around doctoral research and research at large have accepted the turn within the arts universe, and identified that the PaR methodology is one that suits the complex materiality and theoretical inquiry exercised through the process of artistic making. There are some countries such as the US, where uptake has been slow and a dominant scepticism resounds (Nelson, 2013). Within the UK as Hann, Nelson, Borgdstorff and others argue, the turn has already happened, and we have entered the third wave of PaR. Artist- Researchers must embrace their research question as they progress through doctoral research, but also a baton to alight, making the case for PaR within the arts as a rigorous and valid equivalent to traditional scholarly research.

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Bitter Suite (2016) Multi Sensory show Tapestries. Open to the public May 2017

For better or worse, philosophies surrounding definitions of knowing have derived from a tradition, extending back to Greek antiquity. As early as Aristotle, the concept of episteme, intellectual knowledge, was contrasted with techne, practical knowledge required for making (poiesis) and doing (praxis). It is time to shine light in on thinking that has for hundreds of years, privileged the theoretical over the practical, and challenge the towers of authority that have for too long excluded knowing through embodied process, intrinsic to the arts as a second class citizen of the intellectual tradition. Throughout its recent history, Practice as Research has broken dominant notions of intellectual knowledge that historically, have given more importance to episteme than techne knowledge. Through the complex, and at times hard to define form, PaR, is actively challenging the philosophical and pedagogic limits, catalysing discourse across disciplines on the matter of definitions and characteristics of knowing. Through the praxis of practice based research, the methodology is generating new modes and definitions of knowledge, while simultaneously demanding that traditional notions of epistemology are reconsidered through entering into discourse with the material and processual knowing embodied by those involved with artistic creation.


Borgdorff, H. (2006) The debate on research in the arts. Amsterdam School of the Arts. Available at (Accessed 13th November 2016)

Candlin, F. (2000). Practice-Based Doctorates and Questions of Academic Legitimacy. The International Journal of Art and Design Education (JADE) 19(1), 96-1001.

European Higher Education Area (EHEA) European Higher Education Area and Bologna Process. Available (Accessed 13th November 2016).

Elkins, J (2001) Why Art Cannot be Taught; A Handbook for Art Students. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Elkins, J (2009) Artists with PhDs: On the New Doctoral Degree in Studio Art. Washtington, DC: New Academia Publishing.

Gray, C. (1996) Inquiry Through Practice: Developing Appropriate Research Strategies. Available at (Accessed 14th November 2016)

Hann, R. (2016) Talking about Practice. [Presentation]. Plymouth University. 6th February 2016

Haseman, B,C. (2006) A Manifesto for Performative Research. Media International Australia Incorporating Culture and Policy. Quarterly Journal of Media Research and Resources. 118, 98 –p 106.

Nelson. R. (2013) Practice as research in the artsprinciplesprotocolspedagogiesresistances. London: Palgrave Macmillan.