There’s research and there’s research

RealTime-Performance Space Forum: art practice as research (full transcript)

Performance Space, July 31, 2006

This informal forum was facilitated by Caitlin Newton-Broad and Keith Gallasch, with invited speakers George Khut, Kate Richards, Tess De Quincey and Garry Lester in the presence of a wide range of practising Sydney artists and scholars. Except for several passages that proved inaudible on tape the following is an otherwise complete transcript of the forum.

 

introduction

In recent years the notion of art practice as a form of research has gained prominence, not least in the form of creative doctorates and other postgraduate, practice-based degrees where the creation of a work of art is accompanied by a self-analytical exegesis. The Spin website (accessible on the features page of our website) was a 2006 conference focused on such work as was the RealTime arts education edition of August-September 2005 (Postgrad [R]evolution: the artwork as thesis, RT 68; see our online archive) ranging from performance to film and media arts.

The reasons for this academic extension of art practice are varied. More artists in recent decades than ever before have completed university degrees and are capable of and attracted to the prospect of reflecting on and further exploring their areas of practice. In this period the argument was put and won, to widely varying degrees, that practice is research, hence the appearance of creative doctorates. The added appeal to artists was that the emergence of practice-based degrees coincided with an epic period of a reduction in arts funding in real terms — limited funds distributed less frequently to a growing number of artists, eroding continuity, degrading bodies of work. When survival is the issue, a creative doctorate offers short-term hope in a society in which the prospect of a life-long career is a diminishing prospect. To achieve continuity, to survive, to find time to reflect and re-fuel, the artist has to find new opportunities, new niches for nourishment, physical, practical and intellectual. No wonder practice-based degrees are attractive, offering income, refuge and reasonably resourced development of new work.

That said, such work is problematic in quite fundamental terms when it comes to saying what constitutes research. Garry Lester discusses it in terms of the expectations of a scientific model of research that might not fit artistic practice; Ian Maxwell, from an arts perspective himself, cannot see creative doctorates as research and sees the need for a sociological analysis of the trend; George Khut, working in interactive media art can see a research dimension to practice, because he is measuring non-passive audience responses to works they trigger; and Kate Richards details some of the ways in which creating a work entails classic elements of research. Alison Richards drew encouraging parallels between scientific and artistic practices once the debate had gotten past being perceived as equating the arts with imagination and the sciences with something else. Jeff Stein was concerned that here, in these practice-based degrees, was yet another example (think business plans, performance indicators etc) of artists having to toe a line to achieve legitimacy. And, although not discussed at any length, the pertinent issue of just how you go about assessing such research was briefly raised. As Richards put it, artists know they have learnt and discovered things through making. Critics and scholars sometimes recognise this in their own ways, but how you make that quantifiable is another matter.

For a detailed response to this very issue see Richard Vella’s “Keeping the degree creative” in our archive:

“A creative work is full of sensations, signs, ruptures, phenomena, ambiguities and contradictions. Their combination produces ‘meaningfulness.’ The task of the creative research candidate is to formulate an exegetical perspective, a lens that provides discovery and coherent understanding, yet at the same time embraces the creative work’s contradictions, anomalies and ambiguities. It is important to remember that the ‘making’ and the ‘writing about the making’ are not the same. They are separate. The supervisor’s role is to ensure the exegetical perspective is in dynamic relationship with the creative work and that experience, explanation and interpretation can also be included in the research reporting.”

The word ‘research’ has become a double-edged sword when it comes to the issue of outcomes. It’s a blade which can be deployed sometimes intuitively but nonetheless incisively as art, if perhaps never quite the same way twice, and the other side wielded expertly in acts of sheer, repeatable scientific calculation. But just as there is a poetics of science, of its eureka moments, there can a be a hard-edged formulaism to art, the predictable, the tried and the true. Good art research, like science, should be speculative, but whether or not art can or should ever fit scientific and (disputable) social science research models is another matter. There’s research and there’s research. KG

 

the forum

Keith Gallasch
Before we go into detail, I’ll ask each of guests to sketch out the role of research in their work as artists.

George Khut
I use biofeedback in my work, so it’s quite an unusual experience [for people participating]. I wouldn’t really call it performance but people from performance perspectives do find it a very interesting way of exploring the body and body experience.

KG
In your work the audience becomes the subject of the performance, their breathing, and their pulse rate…

GK
I find that whole process of audience enquiry really interesting and I create a situation where people can experience things and ask questions of themselves. So this idea of research is really at the heart of what I do. Maybe some people would say I take it way too literally. I kind of enjoy that quite literal application of the idea of questioning.

Kate Richards
I’m a media artist working across lots of different media. I’ve been working in interactive media for about 10 years through my Masters degree, so there’s some interesting tie-ins there to talk about like research within the tertiary education-driven production environment. Recent projects of mine are mainly collaborative. I’ve had a six-year collaborative relationship with Ross Gibson. We’ve produced a body of work around crime scene images in five or six different projects. Another collaboration with Sarah Waterson, a software project, has been shown at ISEA and at ACMI. And I’ve recently done a residency here at Performance Space with a performance artist from Melbourne, Martyn Coutts. That project is called Wayfarer and it’s a locative media project with a strong performance component.

Tess De Quincey
I’m a dancer who explores things from the basis of the body, trying to make sense or “not-sense” of the body, constantly trying to negotiate things, to wrestle with things through the body. In coming to Australia, because I didn’t have a body of people that I worked with who were trained in the same ways I was, I found myself trying to work up an environment and create that training for other people. This in-between-ness is something that I’m constantly folding in and out of. I think that works to the method by which I create performances but also the stages of work. These could be called performances. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.

KG
What environments have been important for you? Performance Space has obviously been vital. What about the university environment?

TQ
Absolutely. I think the reason I came to Australia partly was because of Performance Space and the community of artists that I felt embraced by but also, in the last 10 years, I’ve had a massive relationship with the Centre for Performance Studies at University of Sydney. And that, again, is to do with folding in and out of things. It’s structural processes that work to draw audiences in and out … like a breathing in terms of what we do. I guess I think of it as a multiplicity of things. Even though I didn’t set out to direct, I had to do it because I was informing people about the nature of the training, my training.

KG
And Garry?

Garry Lester
I’m negotiating to be the barrel girl down at Crown Casino.

KG
Is that research?

GL
It’s performance as research. I’m also in the final stages of creating a monograph which is about honouring the dead and one of the greats of Australian dance, Margaret Barr, who had a career of over 60 years—a quite extraordinary person. What I’ve found in the process of doing this is, any chance you get in this life to be honoured, take it because you will not have it later! That’s been one of the great lessons of this monograph.

KG
What’s research for you?

GL
I think you’re right, there is research and research and I think there’s a great confusion at times. One of the dangerous things that happened in the Australian tertiary education sector was that there was a great jump. Everybody wanted to say that everything we did as practitioners was research. And we got to the first hurdle and we were told quite rightly that it is not research because there is this thing that we do which is unquantifiable and immeasurable—we use our imagination.

And once you start to bring imagination into the equation then the Australian Research Council, all the research quantums and all the measurability go out the window. Now my argument is not that that isn’t right and proper. What I’m saying is that that is one of the hurdles that you’re up against.

Keith, you mentioned earlier that people are doing performance-based higher degrees, yes that’s true but the trade off that had to happen in that process was the exegetical model which was that you had to be logocentric and to give an articulation and an explication of what the fuck it was that you were doing there that those people who were assessing you did not understand. So we fall back always into that very difficult terrain. We know what we’re on about but the powers that be—the institutions that authorize and that have money—are not going to be swayed by that alone.

So the arts has done something which is really interesting as some kind of rapprochement, to try and keep itself within the game, so it’s seen as a serious contender. At least in the discipline of dance that I come from, which I would now call the discipline of performance, we’ve actually got ourselves out of the rut of saying that—and it’s a back alley and it’s nowheresville and it got us nowhere for so long—that the body is a “special” place and the knowledge that is within my body is something I’m not able to talk about. Well, hello! For 500 years, philosophy said, right, there you go. It is the body. The body is base, the body has no meaning and the dancers are saying that to us. It’s this special esoteric knowledge. So we do have to find these ways of engaging and finding our way into the main agenda.

KG
George, how does your work fit with the notion of research.

George Khut
Coming from this idea of interaction there’s a whole set of design issues that you can study in a way that aligns a lot closer to conventional notions of research in terms of testing and uncovering details. What I’ve been working on with Lizzie Muller, who’s a researcher at UTS, is audience experience. It’s a really exciting area to be working in. When we say an artwork asks or invites certain questions, does certain things, it’s what can we learn from actually studying the details of that audience’s experience, interviewing people and recording people in the work and saying, “Look, rather than a notional appreciation — audiences do this or that—let’s really spend time and see what emerges from that.” You do learn a lot very interesting things about what’s “working” in your work at a kind of practical and an ergonomic level. But also you start to get a sense of how meanings and those kinds of questions and processes do emerge from very real things you do as a designer of the interaction.

I’m interested in this idea of cultural practice in general as a kind of way that we evolve new understandings and interests. So this idea of looking at that process of how audiences experience things is for me a way of trying to research what’s happening there. If culture really is a way of evolving our understanding and our relationship to the world around us, how is this happening in these particular things?

KG
How do you assess such things? Do you interview people?

GK
Lizzie is working in the Creativity and Cognition Studios at UTS. So, coming from a human/computer interaction perspective we’ve been using things like a process called Video Cued Analysis where we video people interacting with the work and then play them back the recording of themselves in the work, and then we ask them to speak to that recording as their experiences unfolded. So rather than reflect on things and say, “I thought it was cool, or not so cool”, it’s like: at this moment I was thinking this; at this moment, I did this; at this moment, someone interrupted me; this happened. From these details, you can start to see a lot of interesting things.

KG
What kind of things are you discovering?

GK
There’s an ergonomic dimension. You realize there are a whole lot of things blocking people’s entry to and immersion in the work. There’s an area where you see the richness of people’s reflections and experiences come out as a result of specific things you do. So one of the findings was that there’s this tension between the total zoned-out absorption you can have in some of these interactive artworks and then where you start to introduce a sense of ambiguity so people start not knowing quite where they are… In that space, you start to generate a lot more reflections and thinking processes.

KG
So it’s more than user testing, more than the out of town try out?

GK
Yes. The other aspect is that I’m also interested in using research in a very literal sense, just people’s everyday (well, not everyday) experience of the work. So I do introduce some opportunities for people to test out and conduct little experiments with how they can change their body patterns by thinking of different things. Again, I feel quite committed to that approach — even though it’s kind of clunky in a fine arts setting — because it does enable people to differentiate really important things about body experience that I’m trying to communicate. If I didn’t introduce that level of research or exercise, they just wouldn’t cover the ground necessary to make those sorts of discoveries.

Kate Richards
Within the production process there are different types of research one does and I think most people would understand them. You know, production or technical research, exhibition research — those sorts of things. In terms of conceptual research, there are a couple of things I’d like to throw in. I had a really censorious secondary education at the University of Technology. In that era of very ideological soundness and rigour, we were expected to create work out of an intellectual environment of deconstruction and deep analysis. And that for me always created a very bizarre dynamic. So I just wanted to make the point that intellectual rigour, creative rigour and academic and scientific rigour are all very different forms of rigour. It’s a bit of a bugbear of mine.

Historically, they have, as Garry pointed out, been hierarchised. I don’t think that the types of research should be hierarchised. What’s happened with the ARC is that they’ve made an automatic standpoint, which goes: scientific rigour, intellectual rigour and academic rigour up here. Creative rigour—because it uses imagination and has been for hundreds of years categorized as having to do with hysteria, anxiety, the spiritual, the loner, that kind of thing—has been sidelined. I think it’s really important that we identify the difference between creative rigour and the research processes that we might undertake. Definitely a problem with something like the ARC is that it’s based on ideas of scientific research.

Just this afternoon, out of interest I thought I’d do a Wikipedia search on R&D. We throw the term around a lot. One of the questions that Keith presented us with is: Are creative development and R and D the same things? Now, for me Creative Development is an umbrella process and Research and Development is a very specific task that you do within that. R&D, by definition, is “scientific research and technological development” and the notion of scientific research is that you don’t have an answer, that it’s very speculative. This is clearly the ground where creative and scientific rigour could find some common ground but there’s such a schism in terms of hundreds of years of difference.

So, I think R&D really is quite a specific research process that takes place within creative development, and it does tend to involve speculative research and then technological outcomes. Interestingly enough, in Wikipedia it’s very tied in with commercial industry, separate units identified and it’s normally got a very specific budget element, which is between 11% and 14% of a budget (which might be of interest to the Australia Council).

I just want to take up one thing that George said. Interactivity means that a work has to be very functional on a practical level. It has to function technologically, in terms of usability, possibly more than a work where the audience is more passive. People might want to argue with that but in my experience of making both kinds of work it’s the case. With interactivity, as George has cited, there’s a lot of discourse which has come up through human/computer interface studies which gives us a lot of interesting handles on how to do research in development often and quickly.

So we have this idea of iterative processes where you make a part of the working unit, you make a part of the software and you test it. And then you come back and you change it. So you’re building the work in a much more modular way. You’re not standing back and saying, “It looks like this”, and building it from the top down. You work from the bottom up. So there’s a natural way to involve audience and to have this audience research. So you’ve got ideas of iterative process, you’ve got notions of meta-design, which is part of the same body of knowledge that George has cited.

Meta-design is how do we design tools for people who are making things. I recently finished a large art project, ARC funded, which uses meta-design process and the software is a tool for the artists as well as finally for the audience. So meta-design looks at how we create design processes for the designers. And participatory design helps us understand how we create design processes that audience can feed back into. So interactivity working with human/computer interfaces has opened up a whole bunch of audience research. And as George has cited, there’s a lot of tools around that.

KG
Tess, as someone working with the body—the magic, ineffable body—what is it you’re researching that has taken you to Lake Mungo, to Alice Springs? It’s involved a lot of people, a lot of very different kinds of artists as well as the Body Weather discipline that you bring to it.

Tess de Quincey
Body Weather I see as being an open exploration. So I see my job as posing questions and applying parameters to test that out. And I guess I see that all the way through almost every single aspect of what I do. So again, just as it’s research within research, it’s also about multiple viewpoints. And I was actually going to refer back to 3 different things. One of the first big events that I did was with Stuart Lynch in 1996 was called Compression 100. That was about taking one month, 31 days, and relating this to a city and the artistic expression coming from this. Could we create meetings in the space of that duration that could make sense of or draw into some kind of definition the artistic points of the city so you got some sense of a drawing of what is this city artistically? I think about the duration now as I get older, that 31 days and the impact—actually I’m probably still unwinding from it. And I think when you start to see people’s work within longer term spans—the work of Pina Bausch, 40 years of work, and then you start looking back into hundreds of years of development. To me duration becomes extremely interesting in terms of what it is exactly that one’s researching? It has a holographic effect.

We went to Lake Mungo because it seemed like the most natural thing to do, to take the practice into the outback. Then there was suddenly 5 years work and I hadn’t intended it like that. I thought Australia, I thought, yes, Lake Mungo and then to the Centre! I was dying to go to the Centre. And of course, 10 years later I get to Alice for the first time. And then comes the fascination: what is this continent? And building three laboratories over three years — some funded and some not. And then pulling performances and events out of that into different places and ongoing streams and flows. I found myself understanding things as environment and as streams and as flows. Where does something start and where does it stop and what are those portals? One of the latest incarnations of that was called Dictionary of Atmospheres out of the Triple Alice project and working in the Central Desert —which we prepared at Performance Studies at University of Sydney. And one of the magic things around that preparation process was that the students came in and suddenly we felt, we’ve got a captive audience, let’s go for it and suddenly we were working in and out of them and they became the performers Then some of them came to Alice. The audiences there were extremely different and the whole process changed and so on. What I’m now considering is making a 72-hour event to make sense of some of the other stuff. But then, where does one go with all of this? These constant questionings and setting of parameters seem to me to be endless.

KG
What form does the research take beyond the events and the performances?
Is it the way it’s documented, the life it has afterwards? Is it a body of knowledge, a body of bodies, or …

TQ
I guess it’s all of those things and again, that’s part of the environment and the reflective structures, the mirrors that one creates in relation to other people. The relationship is the constant issue at stake and the question mark around the relationship because we’re all negotiating change all the time. It’s a never-ending process.

KG
Caitlin, what did the Time_Place_Space Laboratory have to do with research?

Caitlin Newton-Broad
I have to say that I’m a recent participant in TPS and wasn’t here at its inception so I’ll talk generally and I might ask Andy Donovan to talk about that first kernel. TPS has been a 5-year laboratory space or research place perhaps. It’s very short term. It’s two weeks and it’s held on a location perhaps in collaboration with a university. Twenty Australian artists from different disciplines come together guided by a set of facilitators who might be Australian artists — for example Clare Grant who’s been a facilitator twice — and a selection of international facilitators who have really specific disciplines or sets of interests that get established before the participants apply to come. People come together with a sense of intensive exchange across disciplines and perhaps with a set of provocations in the first week that get people started. And then the second week is an extremely open space in which connections occur. People fuse or they get attracted to one another’s practice or they see something that they want to elaborate on and some of those relationships have endured and some haven’t.

For most participants that I’ve spoken to, and certainly from my own experience, it’s a really great short-term trigger to reconsider your practice and also to look at the Australian landscape and find out more about resources, ideas, people’s lineage or history. It’s kind of like a book club or something…

LAUGHTER

Basically the project was initially a bid by Performance Space in collaboration with PICA (Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts) and ANAT (Australian Network for Art and Technology). Together they made a bid for an amount of money that was available to run an interdisciplinary ‘book club.’ So people thought well, what structures have been around, looking at things like BANFF in Canada, for example, or short-term residencies at ZKM or other international models for really charged encounters among people. Then they developed a model. In 2003 Teresa Crea who’d been with Parallelo in Adelaide and then stepped out as an independent creative director, joined the curatorial team. ANAT has actually stepped aside and done its own thing. It runs a two-week lab specifically in connectivity and locative media stuff now. But this doesn’t mean necessarily that artists who attend an ANAT Lab wouldn’t also attend TPS. There’ve been a number of long-term friendships or coalitions or groups that have emerged out of that project. There’s the possibility of documenting TPS and passing the model on in a coalition with Asialink to extend the project regionally.

Andrew Donovan
I was trying to remember the original documentation and whether research was actually a key element of the impetus to do it. Deborah, you were on the New Media Arts Board at the time.

Deborah Pollard
It appeared that the technology artists had their act far more together in terms of creating symposiums and research and development activities. And the three performance representatives on the Board of New Media Arts at the time, myself being one, had no language to talk about what performance needed in the same frameworks. And then some strategic initiative money came up and Josephine Wilson looked me in the eye and we both went, “We want that for the performance sector!” And then we got in a series of artists to do a roundtable discussion about potentials based on what was missing in the field of performance and R&D came up in a big way.

AD
My impression of TPS has always been as a “trigger” — I think that’s the right word. It’s an intense experience for two weeks for a group of artists to come together and I guess what you’re looking for in terms of outcomes is that the experience triggers collaborations and ideas that emerge further down the track. So what you’re looking for as an outcome from the workshop is “nothing”, in a sense. But what you’re hoping for in the years after the workshop is that that experience has triggered a whole range of relationships and networks. What’s been really pleasing about TPS is that it’s triggered networks across states.

KG
But people are not there to research as such. You’re not there to workshop your project.

CNB
I think these things happen in parallel. People put out quite clearly what their research interests are but they happen in parallel alongside the set of provocations set by the facilitators. It’s like one says as a mathematician I’m interested in x formula and then someone says let’s do this set of equations for a while and then see where your formula fits.

KG
Clare, what do you do to people at TPS?

Clare Grant
It’s shifted a little bit and I wasn’t there for the first couple where I believe people brought their own projects, which would be almost unworkable I’d imagine.

The task becomes to create a task: what happens if I put this with this? It’s an investigative thing. But the questions you’re asking are about the kind of people—as much as you know about the participants that are coming—and in my case, what I’d done before, the previous TPS, how that influenced what you tried to set up or expected to happen. And then of course if it doesn’t, how do you work with that? It’s very much like a chemistry test that might go really wrong. There’s no certainty about where it’s going. That’s what it feels like to me. We create a task, we’ll see how it goes and then we have other possibilities in mind—much the same way as you might make a work.

KG
So it’s asking an artist to say what they’re doing, what they’re thinking and then speculating with other people about what might happen.

CG
You put them into a situation where, at speed, they’re making work with complete strangers. So, they have to have rapid-fire dialogues with each other—really rapid-fire. There’s not much time to sit down and think about your philosophy on how an arm might move to create a certain state of mind. I haven’t been in one of these groups but I suppose it’s responding to each other’s philosophies, as they meet other philosophies.

Michelle Outram
And in that sense it’s like research into collaboration as well. How do I collaborate? How do I collaborate across form?

CG
Research into your own process, observing your own process.

George Khut
And you have about 5 opportunities for these random collaborations in the space of one to one and a half weeks to compare. Why was this experience different from that one? The sorts of lessons you simply don’t have access to in such an intense basis in the real world. You can’t afford to take those kinds of risks.

Kate Richards
It’s no coincidence, of course, that new media has worked with that model of the lab, again going back to scientific definitions, where you can experiment without pre-determining the outcomes, which is the pure idea of scientific method. I guess as artists, as Garry says, we have imagination. Often for artists we might have the problem and the solution occur at the same time. Not the whole problem or the whole solution, but the germ of an idea and a germ of a way to realize or treat that idea. Whereas the idea with pure science is that you’re not supposed to speculate on the outcome at all. As Michelle pointed out, I think what’s interesting at TPS, which I did a few years ago, is that idea of throwing people together in a collaborative environment.

You brought a project to TPS in order to give you some common ground to share with people. But the soloists in my year did not do so well as the people who really embraced the group imperative. I think in healthy collaboration you do try to hold back on your own possibly rigid or ego vision in order to find out about what can take place. I’ve just finished an online collaborative project called Act with seven other artists, which was an interesting experience with that kind of thing. So I think there are connections between collaborative process and open-ended research so, that was well spotted Michelle, because that’s a hard one to pin down.

KG
Where does the imagination sit in all this, to go back to Garry’s question? The terms are interesting. We’re metaphor-using animals, so “laboratory” is very convenient and has been around for a while in the arts but seems to have a special value now. Now we have “user-testing” and of course, “discipline” has always been an interesting one. We think about places like BANFF and ZKM who seem to have it all together and isn’t it terrific and we’ve got places like Critical Path in Sydney. Julie-Anne, is Critical Path a research organization?

Julie-Anne Long
Solely. It’s still a very young organization; it’s two years in terms of its programming but it’s been a few more years in the making. There are probably other people in this room who can talk better about the background. One of the challenges for the organisation in relation to the independent dance sector in NSW which it serves is this: Critical Path is a research and development organization for dance in NSW and there’s a really bold line drawn in the sand between research and development and creative development and production. One of the challenges is people getting their heads around that. What that means in terms of how they’ve been working up to now and how they might work in the future and just starting to recognize that what they do already. I liked it, Kate, when you talked about the creative development being the umbrella and the research being the very particular. That’s something we’re really trying to clarify in relation to dance practice and this idea of research.

Emma Saunders
I was going to say it’s true that the research is in the body. It can be quite ideas-based but to be able to quantify an imaginative or a body-based something, the research is still to a large degree in what actually happens. So Keith, when you asked Tess, outside of the events that occur how is the research happening, to a large extent it’s actually in it, it’s in those events. This is not to say that dancers aren’t writing or conserving themselves with all sorts of other ways of researching.

Garry Lester
Picking up on that point, the really fascinating thing in terms of the arguments that have happened over the last 25 years in the tertiary sector and the ARC and us winning this battle about performance research and exegesis—that there is an equivalency and they’ll buy that issue—there’s this really interesting point. Where the money has actually gone in terms of research into practice has actually been from researchers looking from the outside in to the people who are doing the practice. The 3 examples: Unspoken Knowledges, 1999-2002, ARC funded $180,000, addresses the methodology and practice of the art of choreography.

The second one—and this might be interesting for you, George—is called Conceiving Connections (2002-2005): increasing industry viability through analysis of audience responses to dance performance ($432,000). The third one, Intention and Serendipity, investigates improvisation, symbolism and memory in the creation of Australian contemporary dance ($305,000).

Now I’m perhaps labouring the point about the money involved but when you add it up it’s actually over $900,000, which for artists is an extraordinary amount of money.
The principal investigators are traditional researchers, Professor Shirley McKecknie, Dr Robin Grove and Dr Kate Stevens. The industry partners are the VCA and Ausdance National. The investigation associates are a Who’s Who of practitioners. So the practitioners, Emma, who are doing the investigation through the practice and with their bodies, are being observed and the research is being done by these outside people. So the battle is not won by any means. And I’m not trying to pooh-pooh these 3 projects. In fact it’s primary and foundation research. Its spin-offs are going to be quite extraordinary. One of the first for any practitioner is that you will have the armament there, and the articulation to go, “Well, Conceiving Connections’ conclusions were … “ It makes you look holy-moly. It gives you all that stuff, puts you in the discourses for the main game. But the point that I’m trying to make is that at the moment, the practice is not the main game. It’s traditional researchers and that not hard science model but the humanities and social sciences model of research that is getting the bucks to fund the practice. Whereas anybody here will be really grateful if they get 10,000 nicker from Critical Path to slog away for 5 weeks!

Alison Richards
Except, Garry, I don’t think you’re being entirely fair about Shirley McKecknie’s position.

GL
It’s from my paper called “Mystery and Mastery: a provocation in the area of performance and research.”

AR
If I could just come in there because I think a lot of what people have been talking about is part of the problematics of moving from one culture to another. And there are a lot of different cultures—subcultures—of practice and discourse, with dollars attached. I suppose if you start off by saying knowledge is a tool, knowledge is power then all of these issues and perspectives from which research might be undertaken, are going to be contested at some point.

But I was provoked because I suppose if you look at the career of someone like Shirley McKecknie who has now managed to get a coalition of researchers and a track record. Don’t forget the track record. A lot of what the ARC’s politics are about are that once you’ve got that first grant, once you get your foot in the door, then you’re up to the next level. It becomes much easier. But Shirley struggled away for 30 years to get to this point. She started out as a humble dance teacher and then set up the first dance program in tertiary education in Australia. She was not within a bull’s roar of being considered a researcher. And Shirley’s being thumping tubs for all of those 30 years, saying, “There is knowledge in the body. This is knowledge.” So even to get that point conceded has taken a huge amount of effort but also compromise. So I think what you’re seeing in those projects is also the realpolitik of Shirley’s conclusion that in order to get the money for what she is hoping down the track is going to require a little invasion — you know, we’re going to get a beachhead, to be able to start talking about body-based knowledges as if they were real knowledges, as if there actually is knowledge there—and she has formed a coalition of researchers. I mean, Robin Grove has been doing the music and he’s a “proper” critic and has a track record in that sort of thing. You also get into psychology. So there are all kinds of little battles and fronts and the question of where you put your energy and work out which war you’re going to fight and where you’re going to position yourself as a result, that shapes work—just as it does in practice.

Of course there are constraints. What we’ve just been talking about with Time_Place _Space, to get anywhere with a practice-based enquiry, you’re going to make some constraints and that becomes the frame in which your ongoing enquiry is shaped and eventually, the product of that is shaped. And each set of constraints allows you to ask some questions and cuts off others.

GL
I’m in total agreement with you. Obviously the message didn’t come through that I thought I did say I wasn’t pooh-poohing the endeavour…

AR
No, but you described Shirley McKecknie as a traditional researcher and I actually don’t think that’s accurate.

GL
Shirley is a traditional researcher within the framework of these three projects.

AR
She has adopted that position. I don’t think that means she is one.

GL
Okay, that is absolutely the case and I agree with what you’re saying. Shirley McKecknie is a tribal elder and a living legend in this country. She is an amazing politician — I may lose the battles but I’ll win the war. She always manages to find a way through the miasma that the rest of us see until she can find what is actually central to the argument. And she goes for it. I feel that Shirley, for the last 30 years of my career, has actually been my mentor in my own journey. So, in no way, am I being negative about Shirley. It is a realpolitik way of looking at the world at the moment. But my point is still the same. It’s the practitioners within the main game who are not getting the money and the support. But I have to reiterate, there are amazing spin-offs from this primary and foundation research. People can be much more articulate with the conclusions that have come out of these projects.

KG
Universities seem to have come into the discussion now. Perhaps Ian, you could talk about where the university sits with this kind of thing? Is it the outsider looking in and using artists?

Ian Maxwell
The thing I most want to say about all this is that there is no such thing as “the university” any more than there’s such a thing as “the body.” There is no such thing as “the ARC.” And what I’m a bit disturbed by is the kind of parody of what traditional research is. We’ve got no positivists in the room to defend their position here. I’m probably the closest to it. I’m probably the only person in the room who has no artistic —I was going to say “pretensions”, that’s the wrong word —aspirations. I really want to argue against the proposition that I don’t use imagination in my work, just as I believe a nuclear physicist would.

Kate Richards
Of course.

IM
Well, we sort of let that one go through to the keeper in a sense because we’ve managed to set up almost as the grounds on which we’re going to argue here: imagination versus —

Kate Richards
That was one of the things that Garry said but I don’t think we were setting parameters.

IM
Well, it was sort of out there for a while. And I don’t think we’re ever going to escape the realpolitik. People are struggling for scarce resources in every field. And I think what we actually need is a sociology of these processes rather than a kind of ontology. And that’s the struggle that keeps going. Anyone who believes that universities are monolithic, hyper-funded—is crazy. Endeavours like Performance Studies at University of Sydney are so tiny compared to huge, monstrous, crushing English departments.

KG
So how does a department like yours engage with the artist as researcher, as opposed to your staff as researchers? What’s the dialectic there?

IM
I don’t think there’s any one pattern for it. We certainly invite some practitioners to become the ‘objects’ of research, from the outside in. That’s definitely a paradigm that works. We also invite practitioners to reflect upon their own processes. So, that’s the exegetical model. What we don’t do is to suggest that we can offer credit for performance work as an assessable part of a degree. And this is the issue we always wrestle with. I don’t necessarily see it as a question of quantification. It’s a matter of qualification as well. I mean this is something we’re agnostic about as well. We’re trying to work out ways to get things recognized as species of capital in the field in which we work. Us standing up saying, “This is good work that must be recognized!” is simply not going to work in a meeting in which I’m one person against 40 other people in a Faculty of Arts. That’s the realpolitik in which we’re engaged all the time.

Of course, at the same time, bodies are sites of knowledge and we’ve always used that capacity in teaching. That makes us radical in the context of the University of Sydney. I came here not with a solid position but to actually find out what other people are thinking about. I guess the other thing I should say is that I’ve been asked to examine several Doctorates of Creative Arts and I’ve found those quite troubling experiences, not least because the exegetical model which seems to reinstate the authorial intention as that which is being tested, which I’m very uncomfortable with. But I see a lot of stuff in which there’s—and maybe this shows my own hand about what I think—lack of evidence, lack of a kind of testable set of hypotheses. In other words, I’ve yet to be successfully engaged by one of those projects, actually put in a position where my expertise was being brought to bear upon something. And I think that’s a real problem for figuring those kinds of projects. Other academics have had similar experiences. But I really want to say; it’s not rosy from where I sit either despite being in the heart of the belly of the beast of an academic institution

Clare Grant
Same here—in a way. I’m preparing for a meeting tomorrow where the school is trying to find a terminology to incorporate practice into a PhD, not to change the PhD but to incorporate the possibility of practice-led research into a PhD. It’s quite exciting to feel that there’s an awareness and an interest. And it’s all happened very quickly. I can’t quite pin down how it’s happened. Neil Brown from COFA has done a lot of work in articulating precisely the work that an artist does in the same language as is used in articulating the task of writing a traditional PhD. At the moment I’m feeling a little bit schizophrenic and sometimes a little bit anxious. I can see that something like that is possible because I think an artist is asking questions all the time.

Sometimes I say to an Honours student, you’re sitting and talking to me and I look up and see the door behind you and I look up when somebody moves past. I’ve got about 17 questions that might be rushing through my head in that one gesture of looking up at the door. Am I safe? Is my student safe? Is someone about to interrupt me? Is it someone I know? All these questions lie under every movement we make in the studio. The problem, as the academic Susan Melrose has said, is those decisions are made so quickly that we don’t stop to ask those questions because to stop is going to impede the process of the exploration, particularly if it’s happening in Creative Development, and not R&D. If you’re in a position where you can do some R&D you can actually start to ask: what are those questions or what might all those questions underneath what I did have been when I performed that action three minutes ago? Are any of them worth exploring? My goodness, I asked that question five times last week. I think this is quite unformed but it’s the way I’ve been operating. And I’m trying to find a way to name those questions in the same way.

IM
I’m interested to hear that UNSW is going down that track. The sociological question I’d want to ask is what legitimacies are being sought by artists seeking to claim their work as research. That’s a really important question. Is it just to get their hands on these “buckets of riches”?

Jeff Stein
It’s interesting this idea of legitimacy because as a practitioner I often feel a degree of irresponsibility when it comes to creating work.

If you look at this forum and the (previous) one that was around artist-led spaces and the artists who were there, how “illegitimate” they were. And how “legitimate” the people here are. Looking at those two worlds and the juxtaposition between them and the different language that’s being used, and the struggle around legitimacy and power (and basically, what that means is money) and how it forms two classes of artists. The struggle is really a class struggle. And this is really interesting to me now, particularly around this whole new space that’s going to be the new Performance Space at the CarriageWorks. And who’s on the in and who’s on the out. That’s what it comes down to: language is power; power is money; who’s got the cash and what do we have to do to get “responsible” and how does it affect our practice?

GL
I love all of this left wing rhetoric. This is extraordinary. I see Ian nodding while this is happening and other people getting totally involved in this. It’s not just about language or power. I’m totally unemployed. I’m doing this project at the moment on this old dead sheila who ought to be acknowledged. I have had to leave everything in my life to do that. Just because I have an understanding of the issues involved and alternative perspectives. Sorry, I ain’t got the buckets of money. I think there’s an incredible contradiction in the old left/right divide.

IM
I don’t think legitimation or struggle is all about money at all.

JS
It’s not just about being disaffected. For me, it’s about the actual practice. There are certain forces that I’m involved in that are both academic and non-academic. But what it comes down to is, how much do I then have to formulate my practice around existing paradigms, whether they be academic or for a grant or I have to go into a certain space or not. There’s the practice of creating work and for me there’s a type of “irresponsibility” there.

Clare Grant
I’m sure you could find some really good language to articulate that sense of irresponsibility.

Jeff Stein
Sure, and that’s not a new idea. It’s well documented.

KG
So there’s the research that just seems to happen when you’re making work. And then there’s the research that suddenly assumes extra credibility because an academic chooses to write about it or you yourself write about it. Or you become a PhD candidate and you do a creative doctorate and produce the work and maybe you write about it as well if the university requires you to do an exegesis. Jeff, are you afraid that this kind of legitimising is going to swamp everything else?

Jeff Stein
No.

KG
Because surely the artist can choose whether they want to go into this niche in a university.

George Khut
Well, that’s what you’d hope. You’d hope it’s not going to be mono-cultural. And that’s why it’s so important that we have these state and federal funding agencies supporting alternative R&D models. The academic model that’s been appropriate for me over the past 5 years is certainly not going to be appropriate forever.

Kate Richards
And the problem of having to define a work before it’s made has always existed with organizations like the AFC and the Australia Council before research became a catch phrase. That’s always been a bit of a problem for working in particular ways. And I would imagine that a lot of science and social science would also have that kind of problem. Like, they’re not quite sure where it has to lead but they have to identify … I think that’s slightly separate to talking about why research has become a particular catch phrase in the arts, which is a slightly different phenomenon from having to articulate a project, even though everyone within the organizations who fund it understands that it’s hard to work that way, they’ve got to assess it. That seems to me to be a practical constraint. It’s an interesting broader question as to how this idea of a form of rigour —and this is anectodal — but I think it’s partially come from an inversion where society and economics and commerce have embraced the creative in the last seven or eight years. It’s a whole new creative industry and it’s not just the Keating thing but intellectual property … There’ve been lots of articles in magazines like New Scientist and TIME about the new “creatives” … It’s a push from a kind of “industry.” It’s a bit amorphous but it’s also about moving away from over-thinking and getting more in touch with spirituality, imagination and creativity. That’s the big groundswell thing that’s happening across the Western world, regardless of what we think we’re doing with our funding bodies. There was a cover of TIME 18 months ago directed to industry: “Stop your staff over-thinking. Get into creatives.” All of that stuff (bonding and so on) is huge and very successful.

I was in North America in June to attend an arts science conference and there was a presentation from an American academic working in pure chemistry. They’re doing polymers, all that kind of stuff. She was talking about how they brought poets and painters in to work with their science students to look at what they could learn from artists. We were talking about this at the Australia Council the other week. There’s still a lot of this inversion stuff, this expectation that artists are going to learn from scientists from other disciplines. This was a refreshing thing: a specific program with postgraduate chemists working with poets and painters to try and find different ways to reinvigorate their own creative scientific process.

Alison Richards
I was brought up by scientists, which is why I determined I was never going to be one. I would be an artist because it was the furthest thing from science. But we used to subscribe to Scientific American and every issue there’d be some totally naff article by some bunch of PhDs from some obscure American university who’d be over the moon about how their particular really abstract scientific enquiry was “so creative”. You’d get the fractal pictures or this “amazing” chess game that these PhDs techno-nerds made out of holograms. The main problem was that none of it was very good art. But certainly, the links between those kinds of enquiries are a lot closer than we think. We can get ourselves tied up in all kinds of knots by treating these field boundaries, which are essentially simply cultural artifacts. They are claims about knowledge. They don’t actually exist. There is no such thing as science or art. What we’ve got are practices located in particular kinds of cultural contexts, using particularly technologies and devoted to particular kinds of ends.

I think we’re in an interesting historical moment. While we’re being metaphorical, I think we’re living in a cultural “minestrone” in which we keep bumping up against floating objects which once were highly founded and very fine pieces of culture but which have got detached from their historical base but we still encounter them.

We haven’t had art for very long. We’ve had science maybe a little bit longer. But we’ve had different kinds of relationships. An awful lot of artists for an awful lot of history were either making canoes or pots or something, or they were in someone else’s employ and forced to turn out what somebody else wanted. It’s been quite a short historical period in which artists have been able to stand up on their hind legs and say, I demand the right to do X or Y or Z. Now we’re arguing about research which has also become a cultural artefact. And each these areas of discourse and practice has some areas which have managed to put down roots and have some legitimation and process, as Ian has pointed out. Now, the questions for each of us as enquiring practitioners are: what are we doing it for? What is it that we really want to know? And who cares? In the end, successful research or successful anything in culture depends on somebody else going, “Yeh!” Someone else has got to say, “That makes sense to me, that’s really interesting.” At that point, you get the impetus to try to defend it, or to set up a centre or a project or join an institution and battle with whatever they thought they were and where they were going to try to get it to happen. I’m really interested in what is it that is driving your curiosity and, out of that, is it obsession or is it a real question? I think the difference between a practice-based research process and a more intellectually abstract one is often that you don’t know until you’re into it what the question was. I advise many PhD students, “Don’t stress about it. You’ve got this curiosity driving you. It’s not until you’ve got through the forest, or through the marsh that you can stand back and go, oh, that’s it!”

Caitlin Newton-Broad
To reflect in a practical way on what Jeff was talking about and putting this issue alongside the discussion about artist-run spaces, a group of 30 artists with certain curiosities and practices have set up metal-work and woodworking workshops and have a kind of ecology operating in Tempe with hundreds of people visiting the space and so on. But they’re sort of “illegitimate” in the sense that they’re a bunch of people in a rented space and they get an eviction notice.

Jeff Stein
They’re a collective of artists. Ironically, to survive, they engage in commercial activity.

Caitlin Newton-Broad
For the film industry.

JS
So they’re just taking an alternative route. The question of legitimacy or illegitimacy isn’t as distinct as a political right/left. It’s a decision these people make and they just know that they would never go for arts funding.

Kate Richards
Some of it is generational too.

George Khut
At another level you could think about research as simply nurturing risk-taking. You need to create a space where people can take risks and it’s not just about where they’re going to get their next commercial show.

Alison Richards
Absolutely. And the irony is, of course, it is fundamental research that’s most at risk in an era when we’re supposed to be in the knowledge economy. So all of these “machines” that are exerting pressure on cultural production want outcomes. They want products. They want something that can be applied now.

KR
Going back to that Wikipedia definition, it’s all about quantifiable outcomes being patents. And certainly with the Australian Research Council — I’ve done three or four funded projects through them — one of their Imperatives is to take “ivory tower” IP [intellectual property] and connect it with manifesters. To actually get this IP into quantifiable, commodifiable outcomes, being copyrighted, patented and trademarked. That’s the imperative behind it.

GK
Is it working, though? Is it coming to a head, where it’s like “Show us the money!”

LAUGHTER

KR
It would be interesting to know how many patents have come out of the ARC in the last ten years. As a producer I’ve had to do legals on ARC projects and this is one of the sticking points. It’s legally defined that you have background Intellectual Property coming from the different stakeholders but you produce project property within that process and out of that comes something commodifiable. That’s the way the whole thing is structured.

Deb Pollard
And it’s really sad when artists have to do that, when you see artists respond to funding initiatives like Critical Path but without a real desire for research for a project but because we’re so used to the Pavlov’s Dog response: there’s a new funding initiative and not enough money to go around …

KR
For me the creative process has always involved periods of expansion and then periods of contraction. Lock this off, whether it’s the application, locking off the one-page description, the team. Expand, contract. Expand, contract. And it’s in those expansive phases that you get your research and let’s be a bit practical and go down to a micro level. I just made a note, when we did this residency at Performance Space in April, the kinds of research we did were:

1. R&D (though I wouldn’t call it R&D but you could) into finding a choreographic language for the performers so they could use the body-mounted cameras and at the same time play with autonomy and audience control.
2. We did conceptual research into what urban choreography is. That’s when you read books and say, yeh, I’m kind of doing this and who’s doing that.
3. Because this project has game-play in it, you’ve got research into actually finding game rules which involved, on the kitchen table, mocking up the space and playing with little models.
4. Technical research and development into the actual software which was a series of iterative processes, which has been touched on.
5. Then research with the audience where we didn’t know really, until the final day, what specific parts of this environment we were actually going to get audiences to test because we didn’t know what was going to be needed until that time.

So that’s just a little catalogue and I’m sure everyone in the room has a similar list of specific types of research that happen at different parts of the production process. And then you have to toss it. You have to say, I’ve made that decision, and that’s a lock-off and then you move on and there’s another expansive period.

We struggle to find where research takes place and managing the scope of it. I know I can get terribly lost if I start reading theory: oh my God, it’s all been so beautifully articulated and so comprehensively covered and I start to feel like I can’t move. I can’t actually act. So, I have to be careful with that period of research. Other types of research, I know I have to be more thorough because I can be cavalier. All of us probably have similar experiences with our production processes.

Clare Grant
It’s like what Neil Brown is trying to do, to allow for the wildness of process and try to find the language for the different processes involved. It’s awful when you constrain what you’re doing to fit a pattern. But it’s exhilarating to be able to find a pattern that supports what you’re already doing, especially if you can get some money for it—I haven’t got to that stage yet.

Caitlin Newton-Broad
I sense that underlying this is the anxiety about or the struggle for longevity in this country, rather than legitimacy. Research and development is sitting underneath this. Tess was talking about an artist like Pina Bausch and her 40-year career. I heard Meg Stuart talk about her practice as a young choreographer of 33 years of age or whatever talking about how she goes into the studio daily and she looks at the ankle, and then she looks at the neck. This is the kind of open research that she undertook in Brussels in order to continue the work of her company, Damaged Goods. I think it has to be said that the maintenance of ensemble, the maintenance of ongoing body research in Australia is a real challenge. There are some really extraordinary companies that maintain it for periods of time and sustain it or not.

KG
Artists should furiously appropriate the terms—“research”, “laboratory.”

CNB
Exactly. The whole linking of research to money is a very practical linking around a desire for longevity and people seeking ways to see themselves continuing to make work 10 years hence—starting something that has a depth or a lineage to it that you can actually name. It’s not like Phhht! and it’s gone. A PhD is not really an answer to that for practitioners because it finishes after 3 or 4 to 5 years.

Alison Richards
One of the ideals behind scientific culture research is this idea of cumulative knowledge—the idea that you can actually build on something.

CNB
And that is what we crave and that is what saturates your senses when you see something really beautiful that an artist has created in their 70s or 80s. But that sense of longevity here in this country I sense as being difficult.

KG
When basic arts funding has not increased therefore initiatives like Time_Place_Space, Critical Path and creative doctorates become very important. As jobs have dropped away for musicians for the ABC or part-time teaching, people will look for those niches. And if they can pursue creative activity in that area, they will. They’ll adopt the language. They may compromise themselves if necessary for survival and continuity of some kind.

AR
I think the real challenge, and I suppose what has driven me in my movement from practice into the academy and out of it at various points, is this sense that there really is something in the creative process about knowledge creation. And there are things that we know about what it is and how we create, how we come to understandings about what it is that we do that are worth articulating and that the culture as a whole. And this is where I have empathy, Garry, with what you’re saying because it’s true that the established university (and I think Ian was saying this too) isn’t necessarily the place where body-based knowledges have had legitimacy. This is an interesting time in that some of those other knowledge-makers are becoming aware that there’s more to it.

KG
We should wrap up now but I would like to ask each of our special guests this evening how they feel about research now, after this discussion, and where it’s taking them. George, where is your research going to take you in future.

George Khut
I think it’s a pretty deep part of my practice as an artist, at least the idea of research. But I really hope that there’s going to be an economy that can support research in a kind of diversity, and not just within universities because I think we’re at a bit of a turning point within that university system. Artists’ grip and position in that economy is very precarious.

Kate Richards
I know personally I’m feeling a lot more comfortable with research as I get older and feeling I’m able to sort of enjoy it and contain it without being overwhelmed and without it being an anti-creative thing. I think one very important thing that’s come up tonight is that for artistic practice there are lots of different forms of research that someone will do across a single piece of work or, as Caitlin has pointed out, a body of work. That’s something we need to work at articulating and pushing as legitimation. As Jeff pointed out, the need for legitimation is always there.

Tess de Quincey
I was actually thinking that I might try for one of those PhDs for a while. And I was terrified. 50,000 words! You have to be kidding me. It’s the most frightening thing I’ve ever … What’s interesting for me is that I do find words difficult. I think on my feet and I find my way through doing, through being. It’s intrigued me. I’m going to research the word.

Garry Lester
Look, I still think the whole area of creative exploration and the sometimes research component within that is still a highly problematic area. There is basically a linear way of looking at research project design in the hard sciences and in the humanities and the social sciences. What becomes a stumbling block for people from the outside—and for some of us as well—is that we’re operating, particularly with the collapse of the different disciplines into the area of performance. We’re dealing with multiple modes of enquiry and of representation. We’re jumping throughout the whole investigation and we don’t have that linearity of being able to clearly articulate and understand what that research is about because there are these multivalent presences throughout the creation of the work. If you look at the work of someone like New Zealand choreographer Douglas Wright you see that immediately. And it’s emblematic. There are all these different rhythms that are trying to find a way of having an imminance or an in-dwellingness about them. We’re not at the point of being able to articulate and understand all of those incredibly diverse inter-weavings that are happening at the same time in creative explorations that are not happening in those more scientific-based research investigations. They are designed in a certain way so that there’s a logic to them. They have a certain order of logic. We’re dealing with different kinds of logic throughout the whole project.

KG
I think we’ll title this forum “Imminance and Minestrone” and I’d like you to thank yourselves and our speakers. Please join us for some drinks and food and thanks for a great conversation.

31 July 2006