Learning how to make films changed the way I practiced cultural history. Initially, I used film to record lectures and make simple documentaries as a supplement to my PhD scholarship. Over the next few years, I grew a company called Smart Docs that worked (and still works) with institutions like Imperial College, London, the V&A, and Nature. The business produced legacy, impact, and engagement projects, reconciling the capacity of film with the demands of modern higher education institutions. I used to see my academic work as entirely separate from this professional film production. My thesis was, after all, a fairly conventional written document about the cultural history of eighteenth-century transplant surgery. But over the next five or six years, cultural history and film-making gradually intertwined to the point they’re now inseparable for me.
Despite being unremarkable for scholars in the arts, practice-as-research methods aren’t so established in subjects like history and literature. That isn’t to say we don’t use them. It’s not unknown for humanities scholars to go beyond written text — archeologists use computer programmes to reconstruct ancient villas, for example, and conservators learn about the behavior of seventeenth-century paint by following long-forgotten recipes — but such work is seldom referred to as practice-as-research. Practice-as-research is, however, exactly what it is; examples of replication, re-construction, and re-enactment that contribute to our knowledge of historical materials and processes.
To add a more idiosyncratic example, here is the first research film I ever made — the point at which I started to think film-making might have a role in my own research:
I made this film in 2010, shortly after starting my PhD. I didn’t fully appreciate, at the time, how integrated it was — or might be — with the more conventional document I was writing. I was under the impression every thought had to be expressed in size 12 font, double-spaced. I hadn’t been introduced to practice-as-research. The film related back to a larger body of text, however, and helped me express and connect my thoughts. It even informed and framed them. Reflecting on it now, I think it should have been submitted along with my thesis.
I was thinking through the human experience of skin as a way into discussing early-nineteenth-century skin grafting as a political act. As part of my explication, I wanted to address the different orders of magnitude on which we experience the skin, so I prompted my then-PhD supervisor, Steve Connor, to talk on this point. I wanted to say that, from our pigmentation to our laughter lines, we tend to associate our skins with our identities (that is, something unchanging; from the French identité or Latin identitas — ‘the quality of being the same’). But this is only the case if we look from far away.
My film was shot very close-up, the images so tightly framed it’s difficult at times to tell whether you’re seeing my interviewee’s cheek or his neck. On screen, all you see is undulating flesh. Most of this is actually footage of the corner of Connor’s mouth as he talks, with other pieces of skin from other parts of his body spliced in as cutaways. I even threw a few shots of skin from my own hands and my flatmate’s chest in there for good measure. I was making the point that, if we view the skin at this order of magnitude, it no longer has anything to do with identity, with that ‘quality of being the same’, but instead becomes a de-personalised material. Skin is constantly changing, developing spots and blemishes, wrinkling and tightening. You never really know something ‘like the back of your hand’, as the English idiom goes, because the back of your hand doesn’t stay the same for very long.
The production is a little inelegant and is unsubtle in places — it’s my student work after all — but I think the layering, juxtaposition, and framing all contribute to a reading of skin that is both highly personal and entirely impersonal. The film makes some sense alone, but in the context of my PhD relates to ideas of grafting in Levi Strauss and Derrida. Materials have meanings, and moving them around alters and extends those meanings. Folded back into my thesis, it enabled me to argue that skin grafting is a recognition of this philosophical knot. Like all grafting, it’s a form of writing or editing, of meaning creation, and this should form part of our cultural understanding of the procedure.
I’d struggle to express this in writing alone. With a macro lens, however, I had the tools to literally frame the problem, making the point about scale and meaning where words might be less precise.