What are the types of knowledge produced through artistic research? What are the fields of knowledge production in the art museum? Is ‘knowledge’ an adequate term to describe what emerges from artistic enquiry or is there something beyond and outside of knowledge that needs to be accounted for? These are some of the questions that were raised at an afternoon seminar at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius, Lithuania that I was part of last week.
The discussion that took place revisited some arguments that have been present within practice based research in art and design for some time, but also sparked, at least for me, some fresh thinking. In particular I have been thinking pragmatically about the differences between practice based research in the university and museum context. And I have been reflecting more abstractly on how we might negotiate existing definitions of knowledge in relation to artistic, but also museological practice based research.
In his presentation at the seminar, Professor Tom Corby, Associate Dean of Research at Central St Martins, University of the Arts London referenced Christopher Frayling’s influential 1994 conceptualisation of research in art and design. In this text three categorisations of art and design research are described. The first of these, Research into art and design covers historical, theoretical and aesthetic research. The second, Research through art and design is the enquiry that happens through practice, that is through the doing of art making and which produces knowledge that is communicable in written forms that go beyond the artefact. This might include action research where the findings are shared through a research journal, for example. The third category, Research for art and design is the process of questioning and discovery that culminates and is expressed solely in the art object. What emerges from this type of research does not find form in verbal or written communication necessarily. Instead it is expressed, in the author’s words, in ‘visual, iconic or imaginistic communication.’
Since Christopher Frayling’s paper was published there has been a huge amount of debate around how Research for art and design sits within the academic structures of a university, which to my knowledge has not been resolved. Instead research degrees in art and design conform more to the Research through art and design model in that there is a requirement for a written thesis to accompany the making of any art works. Indeed Tom Corby ran through the quite specific requirements that are part of any PhD submission at Central St Martins in order for the new knowledge generated through the research to be made explicit to examiners and anyone else. For some artists, including some present at the seminar in Vilnius, this formulation is problematic, in part because of the implicit framing of what constitutes new knowledge.
Put another way, how does an art and design PhD account for the new knowledge that cannot be expressed through words? Does practice based research always have to be explained through writing, when in fact much of the value comes in the development of experiential knowledge held by the practitioner or the ‘imaginistic’ knowledge held within the object? How far do the frameworks of university-based research help or hinder artistic enquiry? We grappled with each of these questions and more during the seminar.
I have drawn on Christopher Frayling’s framework in thinking about how practitioners undertake practice based research in the art museum. Research on, Research through and Research for takes place in curatorial, collection care and education practice for example. Yet what I have become aware of is that the museum is a relatively liberal space in which to do practice based research. Rather than needing to conform to the formalised procedures and assessment criteria of the academy, the art museum can potentially test alternative understandings of practice based research and explore how various knowledges are manifest in the doing of programming for instance. This is something we have been trying to do in Tate Learning with an overall focus on practice as research and specifically in the Practice as Research programme. We hope to do more of this the future.
At the same time I have become interested in how we can complicate existing definitions of knowledge. In particular I am intrigued by the possibilities afforded by the idea of poetic knowledge as a way of understanding what emerges through practice and through engagement with art. I am very early in my investigations but am taken by James S Taylor’s articulation of poetic knowledge as that which comes intuitively through the senses as opposed to that which is acquired through engagement with the intellect alone. He uses the example of how we can know and trust in another’s love as one example of poetic knowledge. I am keen to explore how thinking about the poetic can broaden our understanding of what constitutes practice based research findings and will report on this further when I’ve done more reading, talking with others and thinking.
One thought on “Practice based research – revisiting some key questions”