Harriet Hawkins Blog Post

Geographies ‘Creative (re)Turn’: Practicing Geographies – Geographies of Practice

Geography, a discipline shaped by its diversity (taking in arts and humanities, science and social science), has in the last decade or so been undergoing what has been heralded as its ‘creative re-turn’. It is a ‘re-turn’ because creative practices, and specifically visual practices of sketching and painting, long sat central to the production of geographic knowledge, not least those artists who set sail with Captain Cook, charged by the British Admiralty to produce more accurate pictures than can be rendered in words alone. In recent years geographers have returned to these pre-Enlightenment roots to embrace the possibilities of practice as part of geographic knowledge-making. While practices of sketching and painting have drawn geographers’ attention recently, poetry, film-making, participatory and installation art have also become part of the discipline’s knowledge-making practices. In what follows I want to offer three mappings of the relations between practice and research within Geography. The first will simply chart this variegated terrain. The second will locate shared practices and points of critical exchange. The third will propose some critical coordinates for the future discussion of practice-research relations – principally, their geographies. I lens these discussions in the main through my own experience as a scholar whose work intersects geography and various forms of visual, installation and live art.

Mappings 1: Charting Practice and Research within Geography

The cultural turn within Geography at the end of the twentieth century, as in many disciplines, saw Geographers eagerly taking up the techniques of art historians, historians of music, literary and film theorists, and so on. Getting comfortable with studies of the practices of others was, it seems, a gateway to the discipline’s more recent excitement over actually developing its own ‘doings’. What I have explored elsewhere (after Rosalind Krauss) as the ‘expanded territories’ of geographical research and creative practice is a highly variegated terrain. This field encompasses the most “amateur” of geographers attempting to use creative practices in their research methods – drawing, sound recording, video – wherein output quality is only valued in so far as it offers ‘data’ rather than as a work for public consumption. It also, however, takes in artists of some training and renown. For the latter group we find collaborations, residencies as well as practice-based PhDs, offering a diversity of opportunities for practice as geographic research. There are a host of things to discuss further about this complex terrain, many of which are issues it perhaps productively shares with wider discussions of research and practices, including debates about skills and training; the politics of practice; what counts as knowledge; the terms of assessment; relationships between practices and supplemental texts. The list could go on. 

Mapping 2: Shared Practices

Mappings, exploration, fieldwork are all forms of practice that Geography as a discipline might consider proper to its histories and futures, but they are also all forms of practice to which artists and other creative practitioners have been drawn. Indeed, as I noted above, one of the histories of creative practice and geographic research concerns the place of artists within the discipline’s troubled history as a practice of science and empire. Of course, there is much written on the history of maps, and more recently we have seen all kinds of textual, visual and performative mappings, many of which critically inhabit the history of mapping as medium, whilst also turning it to exciting new ends. As for fieldwork, the field as a site of geographic thinking and doing has a long history as a shared, porous location. In this case we might ponder what the re-staging of past fieldwork practices, or the creation of ‘field-kits’ or ‘field-guides’, might do to rethink the field. We might ponder, too, what thinking about questions of ethics, techniques, epistemologies, bureaucracies, and so on that pertain to contemporary geographic fieldwork might offer to creative practitioners-in-the-field. When thinking about the relationship between practice and research, it is worth noting how the practices of other disciplines might offer interesting points of reflection for our own.

Mapping 3: The Geographies of Practice

As yet there is no significant literature within Geography that problematizes the relationships of creative practice and geographic research. Further, there is little awareness within the discipline of the wider set of debates that the conjugations of practice and research are furnishing. As I read through this expansive literature on practice as research, more than enough now, we are told, for a lifetime’s worth of reading, I do so with a Geographical sensibility. As such, I am particularly led to consider the possibilities of place and space as critical coordinates for thinking through research and practice.

We might think, for example, of how research practice relations might be approached in terms of that modernist triad of spaces: studio, museum and gallery, so long understood to be reconfigured by and to reconfigure the conditions for the production and consumption of art. Of course, these spaces have long been the site of history and critique (much of which has been accomplished through practice). To take the example of the studio, we might ask what is the role and form of the studio in research-practice relations; what use might models of the post-post-studio or of the transdisciplinary studio be? How might critical histories and geographies of the studio offer frictions through which to gain insights into contemporary practice-research relations? What, too, of accounts of creative practice that seek to challenge linear journeys of art framed first by the studio and then by the gallery, and replace them with complex topologies and ecologies of creative production and consumption? Finally, how might these research-practices hold out hope for us all with their critical tradition of critically remaking the sites of their production and consumption – not least important now within the neoliberal university with its own ‘practices’ of measurement and ranking, and its concerns with economic and political ‘impact’ and outreach.

As Geography continues to be a subject of interest for research-orientated practitioners, and as the disciplines continues to be fascinated by practice, it seems only right that we should build a critical account of these comings together. Ideally, perhaps, a critical account that takes place through practice, not just one written on it.