WTF is Practice Based Research

Date : 2nd October 2019

It seemed apropriate, as I embark on this practice-based PhD, to pause and question in more detail what practice based means. I know what a big deal it was for me, while I was writing the research proposal, to realise that this is possible – academia is not just books, literature reviews and theories that function as pillars (but are really the meat and bones of all work), academia is also practice – doing things and figuring out new trajectories while doing them. In all honesty, I think the realisation was something more like: life is not just books and academic articles – you know, the good life, the elite life, the one in which you love who you’ve become because you’re an endless overachiever – but life can bring new insight through experiences – be it of a job, of a city one lives in or of a routine. It seems maybe self evident but for me it was a game changer – experience can bring about new knowledge – pow pow pow!

I thought about my love for theory a lot. It was almost something sapiosexual attached to it. Now that I make this distinction it feels like it might be connected to the fetishisation of theory in the Romanian education system that I am still feeling the ripples of. And some sort of typology of the femme fatalle in arts that is both a rock’n’roll chick and an intellectual ooze of, if not knowledge, at least intelligent informed opinions. And the BSc of course. In a bachelor of science, there are practical methods that you can use to gather your data but ultimately you must write and you must do it in a pretty formalised way. I always give myself a kind warm emotional hug when I think back to the time of the bachelor – I was such a sweet summer child, voluntarily erected in a complex academic world that determined my worldview and also its borders. Borders that were there because my maximum processing capacity was reached, overwhelmed with all the novelty of the language, city, country, etc. So, high five, motherfucker – you have travelled a long way (as I’m sure everybody else has). 

So, in this quest to untangle practice-based research, I came across JAR – Journal of Artistic Research (a pretty evident google search for that one) that then led me to SAR – Society for Artistic Research and their call for contributions for their upcoming conference that then led me to a 352 page handbook for Artistic Research Education. Three hours later, I emerged from the depths of it with two quotes that stayed with me. One is from an article in e-flux written by Tom Holert: 

The problem is, once you enter the academic power-knowledge system of accountability checks and evaluative supervision, you have either explicitly or implicitly accepted the parameters of this system. Though acceptance does not necessarily imply submission or surrender to these parameters, a fundamental acknowledgment of the ideological principles inscribed in them remains a prerequisite for any form of access, even if one copes with them, contests them, negotiates them, and revises them. Admittedly, it is somewhat contradictory to claim a critical stance with regard to the transformation of art education through an artistic research paradigm while simultaneously operating at the heart of that same system.

Which counts both as a reminder/confirmation to continuously question and challenge the established routes and as a warning of what is about to come – four years of being inside it all, perspective that is somehow cocooning me within it, on a calm sea with warm winds.  The second quote is perhaps an over-simplified but satisfying answer to the initial question: what is practice based ( in this case, as) research:

Making the decision that something is practice as research imposes on the practitioner-researcher a set of protocols that fall into: 1) the  point that the practitioner-researcher must necessarily have a set of separable, demonstrable, research findings that are abstractable, not simply locked into the experience of performing it; and 2) it has to be such an abstract, which is supplied with the piece of practice, which would set out the originality of the piece, set it in an appropriate context, and make it useful to the wider research community.

I like the phare ‘locked into the experience’ because I’ve learnt the truth of it the hard way. It’s what happens when you are submerged in your very niche topic and worldview and forget the bigger picture. And sometimes it’s even hard to notice that it has happened because it’s become second nature. I’ve fallen into this trap when I was preparing performances with the Visual Object – carying on my backside months of nit-picking nuances from dense theories to then expect everyone to just get them if they put in the intellectual effort. It’s one of those mistakes that I’m happy I made because it led me to a practical understanding of how important it is to know thy audience (which is basically not oneself). 

The second way I understand the phrase is in relation to the performative experience – which is generally different from what an audience might feel. It’s the experience of the performer, poiesis. I have been interested in the interchange between aesthesis and poiesis for a while – expanding the formative to the experiential and vice-versa, giving the audience an even more voyeuristic perspective than in a intimate performance – a look from within. Meh, not sure if it’s really working or gonna work but it’s there, in my list of research interests. I find it particularly interesting when looking at ways of sharing these research findings – which can also be in an experiential way. Fuck theorising it, make the assesor experience it. And this can be by breaking it down as a set of instructions that can guide a reader through a set of actions, a result of which a part of the research can be understood better. 

At this point I paused for dinner, made some tzatziki,quinoa, roasted kale,  and haloumi (I shit you not, I am this hipster, yolo!) and watched a bit of Dirk Gently (check it out, it’s on Netflix and it’s pretty good). When I came back I did a few more clicks to retrace the steps from earlier and as I got back to JAR I came accross this ethereal image that said “Play the Score | Find out more”. I mean, it had the word score in it so I had to click. A confusing 10 minutes later, I figured out how to navigate it and what it is – a really smart way of sharing practice based research, including a set of instructions for the reader to act out and experience these group workshops that a bunch of artist-researchers were doing. One of them was so close to the piece Breathe I made that it made me feel particularly close to these guys. Check it out here, it’s really really nice: