The DCA: Sensorial and intellectual

Jo-Anne Duggan

Jo-Anne Duggan, Impossible Gaze #15 2002

Jo-Anne Duggan, Impossible Gaze #15 2002

Having recently encountered the amorphous nature of a creative doctorate (graduating in 2004) I look back on the experience as enlightening—even with its trials and tribulations—in more ways than I anticipated. My Doctor of Creative Arts project, Beyond the Surface: The Contemporary Experience of the Italian Renaissance, investigated the nature of engagement in museums. More specifically, it examined the experience of Italian museums and the multitude of histories—the art’s, the museums’ and the viewers’—that collide in the context of viewing Renaissance art. The nature of my thesis demanded a multi-disciplinary approach that spanned visual art, art history and theory, museology, historiography and cultural tourism, as well as combining both academic research and image-making, which resulted in 2 major exhibitions shown here and in Italy. I worked with both the visual and the textual to most appropriately and effectively express my concerns regarding museum viewing. In a peculiar act of doubling, I was making art about the experience of viewing it.

Motives

A key point in the discussion on creative doctorates is the question of why an artist would undertake one. That this question looms so large puzzles me. Is it so perverse for an artist to want to grapple with academic rigour? Greater employment prospects are often cited as a driving force, but it would be delusional to think a doctoral degree would guarantee employment in the arts and humanities faculties of universities today. Given the number of applicants competing for an ever-diminishing pool of teaching positions one shouldn’t undertake this gargantuan battle for immediate job security. On a more mercenary level, further academic studies can be a major consideration in terms of funding opportunities. Artists wanting to launch substantial, long-term projects often need to rely on the support of either the arts or academic sectors. The art-based project that I had been working on prior to my DCA tended to slip between too academic and not academic enough as far as funding bodies were concerned. I believed that pursuing higher degree research would provide me with a resolution for this dilemma.

Of far greater significance, the DCA was an opportunity to be involved in research that took me outside of my own professional sphere and academic discipline. Having been a photomedia practitioner for more than 20 years and sustaining a long association with the arts through photomedia departments in art faculties and varying professional positions, I commenced studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), not necessarily as a path of re-invention but to expand the knowledge base from which my art could draw. I wanted to explore the concerns and theories that guide other disciplines and to engage with people outside of my existing circle. Fortunately to this end, my work in Italian museums has been enriched by all manner of scholars, curators, historians, museologists, conservators, art handlers, guides and guards as they expressed their views on topics as diverse as politics and dust.

I applied to do a DCA because I hoped that more profound historical and contemporary cultural studies would further develop my ideas and understanding of museums and their visitors, and that my art would evolve accordingly. I also wanted to better articulate, especially through writing, my concerns as an artist. On a professional level, undertaking a doctorate with the backing of a university leant an air of legitimacy to my project (and a degree of accountability) when negotiating with bureaucracies, especially in Italy. It gained me privileges and access to photograph and research in often restricted areas of museums.

Between word & image

A DCA does present its own particular set of challenges (and I stress here that each project and its creative medium carries its own idiosyncratic load). The difficulties that I encountered, though personal, are I believe not unique. Maintaining fluidity between writing and image-making was a constant battle, while the problem of designing an exacting structure on which to hang both creative and theoretical components was the toughest nut to crack. With no models of methodology or guidelines, and during my time too few relevant examples, it was difficult defining the parameters of the project or even understanding what form it could possibly take.

Eventually, with intuitive and astute supervision, I embraced the less conventional structure of a DCA. This liberated me to shift positions alternately between viewer, artist and scholar in order to raise the questions and concerns relevant to contemporary museum viewing. This mode of writing with different voices provided an essential conduit between photographing and theoretical reflection. By combining the practices of writing and image-making I was able to both explore more profoundly and comment more decisively on Italian Renaissance museums and the ideas that surround the act of viewing. The visual component enabled me to focus my concerns and more lucidly follow lines of enquiry that had previously left me tongue-tied. My photographs, clawing at the essence of the museum experience, enabled me to depict the underpinning philosophical issues in a rich and explicit way. They stimulated and inspired the theoretical, historical and cultural reflections in the thesis and contributed a sensorial experience to the intellectual one, enabling the viewer/reader to sense the issues as well as read them.

As an artist, I was painfully aware that I had little grounding in the language and arguments of the numerous disciplines that I was investigating. To acquire a critical overview of the relevant debates I needed to wade through vast amounts of existing scholarship, all the while recognising that it would be impossible within the time constraint of the degree to become expert in each field. As someone working ‘outside’ these disciplines I acknowledge that I only briefly addressed the magnitude of studies that surface in the artwork that I created for this project. While the minutiae of dates and facts are rarely evident in my images, the knowledge of exchanges, influences, changes and developments that have occurred, do contribute to the cognitive construction and intentions of my exhibition themes and image content. The broad fields that I traversed allowed me to see my own work within the context of other artists and scholars and to better understand the scope and positioning of their work. At the same time—although self-reflection is not necessarily relevant to doctoral research—the process enabled me to thoroughly analyse the drive behind my own art-making.

Evaluation

When it comes to assessment a number of issues arise. With no concrete models of what a theorised practice should look like—for either the candidate or the examiner—analysis and assessment of the process and outcomes proves somewhat elusive. While image-making is a natural process for artists to express ideas that flow from research, the open-endedness of images makes the nature of the knowledge they produce difficult to qualify. Furthermore, exhibition work (or other forms of creative output) can prove problematic, as examiners, for reasons of distance or timing, don’t always see the outcomes. Other than providing documentation of the artworks, examiners have no tangible evidence of what was achieved. The scale, context and physical presence that an exhibition produces are lost and under these circumstances the thesis is assessed not only independently but also often without a comprehensive understanding of what the artwork has contributed. In this case, the manner in which the thesis needs to be read must be fully addressed for examiners, especially when artists write across several disciplines (in my case, later identified as art criticism, history and philosophy). James Elkins points out that examiners need to know the “theory of reading that should guide [their] participation” as readers from different disciplines “will not have access to the whole project.” (The issue of ‘reading’ a thesis is discussed by James Elkins both in my doctoral examination report and Printed Project, James Elkins ed, Sculptor’s Society of Ireland, UK, issue 04, April 2005.)

Paradoxes

Daily doctoral life is fraught with the curly issues of isolation, limited resources and appropriate supervision, all of which seem unfathomable at the time. I can only in retrospect confess my delight in the process and the challenges that it presented. I had the privilege and pleasure of engaging with the ideas and critical thinking of numerous and varied specialists and scholars, an invaluable experience that ultimately nourished my work (and my soul). At the same time, I learnt to better craft both my research and writing and further develop the indispensable skills of project management and administration that were necessary to undertake this colossal task.

Beyond a great deal of personal satisfaction however, the long term outcomes and benefits of this degree remain undecided. I am yet to be convinced, even with the current push for multi-disciplinarity, that creativity is readily and widely accepted as a valid form of research—regardless of how liberal universities may proclaim to be, they themselves are unclear in relation to the government and funding about how to ‘count’ and think about creative research. In many respects, having an exhibition practice instead of the traditional form of publication, I am confronted with the same quandary I began with—is it considered academic enough?

Having been through the doctoral mill, I would suggest there is a need to continue the search for greater clarity of expectations and requirements, despite the murky situation of creative research in the Australian academic context, so that both candidates and their supervisors can confidently work within a formally recognised framework. This is a paradox indeed given the very nature and contribution of a creative higher degree is in fact its originality and individuality. I would also suggest that with too few places in academia to accommodate an increasing number of creative doctoral graduates, one lives in hope that other types of cultural institutions and knowledge-based organisations will embrace the diversity and innovation that artists can offer. I for one look forward to grander and more challenging projects and fruitful cultural and scholarly collaborations.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 4,

© Jo-Anne Duggan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2005
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