The Physicality of Research

What does the ‘physicality of research’ mean? How can materials disrupt, change or unite the role of theory in relation to practice? And what is gained or lost through research that positions a material engagement at its centre? These are three of the questions posed at an all-day seminar I co-facilitated at Tate Modern on June 7th.  The event was devised and led in collaboration with artist and researcher Kimberley Foster, artist and Tate Learning Research Assistant Curator Helena Hunter and artist and Tate Learning Research Administrator Rita Evans, with assistance from Beckie Leach-Macdonald, artist and Learning Research Convenor.

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We invited everyone to bring something that weighed 500g, related to their research or not.  People arrived with objects ranging from bread dough to antique spoons, cous cous to wool.  These were displayed and their significance discussed.

The seminar looked specifically at materiality, or more simply at stuff, and the relationship between this and research. Our aim was for the form and content of the day to embody the values and ideas that we were exploring.  So we exchanged objects we had brought, we made things, we drew, we talked and we listened.  Together we interrogated how physical objects and material processes operate in the creation of new insights and knowledge. And we thought about stuff and ideas – not just as one (stuff) that manifests or develops the other (ideas), but as messy, disruptive but also essentially productive partners in the research enterprise.

We used metaphor and analogy to explore how research develops.  Specifically, Kimberley and her partner Karl Foster took the metaphor of the jug as a mind and each button as a thought, filling and emptying and demonstrating the negotiation between control and disorder that is necessary in any generative epistemological process.

20180607_142307 (2)Meanwhile I invited everyone to map their research processes as animals, food or architecture via the game of ‘Consequences.’ I watched as people embraced the to and fro of research, the giving and accepting of ideas as they passed their drawings across to each other.

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Later in the day Rita took us through a creative process prompted by a quote from Brian Massumi that talked of ‘wriggle room’ and reaching beyond. We read, spoke, enacted the words, drew and finally made a three dimensional object.  We experienced the translations that take place between word and thought and thought and materials.

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To enable reflection on the day’s activities at the end of the afternoon, Helena invited us to first lie and think and then represent our thoughts using everyday materials.  To explore documentation as a mode of production and invite materials to speak for us.

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Looking back on the day almost a week later, I am struck by the possibilities offered by thinking about research materially.  How my ideas and preconceptions were disrupted by encountering objects and stuff that at times rendered me speechless.  Others spoke of the articulacy of materials and how objects behave actively, determining meaning and dislodging or undoing established ways of thinking.  There was talk of being productively silenced and also mobilised by materials.

I was aware on the day and believe this more strongly having experienced the seminar that there is nowhere more appropriate to think about research and materiality than an art museum, packed full of objects that are themselves packed full of ideas.   I talked then about how the museum of the 21st century is not only preoccupied with the preservation and building of the collection – in other words the material objects in and of themselves – but is necessarily concerned with processes of knowledge production that inform and emerge from those objects. Exhibitions research, pre-acquisition research, conservation studies, learning, art historical research, audience engagement and outreach. We could even expand this list to include marketing and public relations. Each of these processes engage in some way with the materiality that sits at the heart of the organisation.

So in my mind, the more we can understand about not only what objects and materials are, but also what they do and how they function epistemologically, arguably the more explicit and transparent the museum can become. This seminar did not provide me with definitive conclusions or explanations.  Rather it revealed the value of letting go and allowing ideas and new insights to emerge through engagement with matter and in discussion with others.  It reminded me how important people and stuff are in shaping how I think.

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