Katharine Craik Blog Post

Oxford Brookes University

No one was in doubt in the 1970s that reading took the form of dynamic, improvisatory practice. According to Wolfgang Iser, writing in 1972, reading is nothing more nor less than the actions we take when we respond to a text. Such actions create realization through which literary works take on life as we attend carefully to them. Iser’s famous essay ‘The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach’ describes how this realization hinges on neither the text nor the disposition of the individual reader. Instead these two points of origin converge to make reading flourish as its own creative activity in a new and lively “virtual dimension”.

What does this reading practice look like now, nearly fifty years later? Iser’s essay seeded a wealth of scholarship on reception and audience which remains an important strand of literary criticism. But what would it mean to take on the idea of reading as practice – to really take it on – from within today’s academy? Iser’s most radical suggestion, from the perspective of university English departments now, is that readers need not confirm anything since literature, unlike more expository writing, seldom sets out to fulfil any expectation. Instead each reader who fully perceives a work of art undertakes a new and unpredictable act of “recreation”. Of course, this is hardly news to students and teachers of creative writing whose work increasingly forms a lynchpin of UK English departments. But the relationship between creative and critical writing, as related but distinct forms of practice, still remains more or less untheorized. A renewed focus on practice-based reading might just reveal what critical and creative writing share in common.

It is not difficult to see why we have abandoned the idea of literary criticism as something dynamic and improvisatory. The REFable essay of around 8,000 words has become entrenched within a career structure which regards it as an unshakable marker of professional attainment. For this reason, and others, the form and length of the academic essay remains more or less static, and its voice remarkably uniform. Can you ever confidently identify the person who is speaking to you in a journal article? Is it possible to imagine the relationship between the essay’s author and the literature she is analyzing in terms of dynamic, improvisatory process? Does the essay itself respond to – or even recreate – a lifelike or virtual dimension? Such questions seem irrelevant at best, indecorous and impertinent at worst, not least because of the unbreakable form of the essay itself. Erasing idiosyncrasy of voice, and seeking a studied neutrality of tone, the essay sets out to assert command over the text it considers. Criticism finds patterns, makes arguments, keeps things straight. To do this properly, it must suppress whatever does not fit. But sometimes such patterns seem ill-equipped to respond meaningfully to the complex reality of the literature they survey – let alone the complex reality of life itself. More to the point, they can be singularly lacking in what Iser calls liveliness.

With the rapid upsurge of creative practice within English departments, it is however becoming increasingly difficult to regard the academic essay without irony as anything other than what it is: only one way among many of capturing what happens when we read. And the costs of our studied neutrality are becoming clearer in a world where the humanities are under ever more acute pressure. To detach ourselves from our writing, and from the literature we are writing about, still seems essential in order to attain or retain credentials within the guild of literary criticism. It is part of what we do; and there can be no doubt that neutrality can and does achieve much in elucidating and contextualizing literary texts. But what about Iser’s point: that when we “climb aboard” a piece of literature, any confirmative effects in the writing are likely to make us rapidly climb off again? Literature does not fulfil expectations. There is, then, a strange and fundamental mismatch between literature and literary criticism which – in public, at least – binds itself ever more tightly to a certain set of expectations about how the text will work upon us, and how we will account for such workings. If the academic essay forges its own form of practice, this is not the dynamic or improvisatory kind of practice that carries out much beyond itself.

How can we make our criticism more answerable to the unfulfilled promise of practice-based reading? The first step might be to achieve freedom, inside as well as outside the university, from Lit Crit’s traditional forms and expectations. The second might be to find a more confidently theorized place for lived life in critical thinking. A phenomenology of reading fit for the twenty-first century might thereby recognize that readerly subjects, like any other subjects, participate in richly complex ways in the diverse worlds they inhabit, rather than regarding them from a distance. Together, these two innovations might just re-animate literary criticism – not only by doing better justice to the lively experience of reading, but also by allowing our discipline to speak in more genuine ways to worlds outside the academy. Most of us have long since turned away from the possibility that literary criticism might achieve something beyond itself. The academic impact agenda has become shamefully debased, in its own way, by the mechanisms of measurement and control. But here, still, there are aspirations worth holding on to. Why shouldn’t literary criticism – as practice – be deeply ambitious not only for itself, but also for others? What kinds of liveliness, or lifelikeness, might become possible through acts of reading if it were?

Lauren Redhead Blog Post

Thinking Through Documentation

In Second Wave of Practice Research (2016), a presentation that is part-reflection and part-manifesto, Dr Rachel Hann presents a call to action regarding the presentation of practice research projects:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2Sva2mXemM – (start at 33:18)

Here, she states: “there is a responsibility to sustain the knowledge claims beyond the timeframe of the initial project itself”. This statement addresses the need to consider documentation within research projects rather than as the re-presentation of their practical outcomes. What this means for research processes and the way that they might be documented and shared is not straight forward, but is something that I have wanted to explore through my own work. I often deal with practice that employs iterative processes, has no defined single outcome, and that may yield multiple forms of documentation. This performance lecture, related to my ijereja project, addresses some of these issues in and through my practice:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gjz3hZ0QsbI (Performance lecture)

The question of documentation highlights the multiple layers and plurivocalities of practice research projects, and the difficulties of capturing and presenting them. The claim that the moment of knowledge within many projects is embodied and ephemeral has—at times—dissuaded researchers from creating documentation that seeks to do anything other than provide evidence that the work took place, and led to a perception that documentation itself might distract from the moment of performance. Conversely, Ayerbe (2017) concludes that, “the ephemeral nature of performance art does not preclude its documentation; irreproducibility must be rethought in a mediatized context such as the present one”. To achieve this as a practitioner-researcher, one might consider oneself as what Melrose (2007) has termed an ‘expert spectator’. Spatz has addressed multi-layered and embodied knowledge and its expression in practice research as a transference of technique related to practice. He writes,

Far from being secondary to the production of singular events, the development and transmission of knowledge in the form of technique can be seen as the primary activity of many practitioners in physical culture and performing arts— the ground upon which the “singular event” can be realized and without which there can be no event at all. (2015: 233)

Through portfolio presentation, I have tried to enable documentation of my research to take on the role of transmitting its methods of gaining and embodying non-linguistic knowledge, and identifying and sustaining that knowledge beyond the performative events themselves. There are two particular issues for me regarding the outcomes of this approach: the first is the question of how to externalise a process that is a continuous cycle of continuous flux without a defined goal or endpoint. The second is the question of how to make this process clear when the number of artworks or artistic products associated with the research or created as a part of it vastly exceed what seems like a reasonable amount of work for someone to engage with: the role of documentation and re-presentation of the research becomes not one of packaging but of entering into an active dialogue with the research to externalise it.

Standards for documentation of practice research need to be considered within its opposition of process and product: there can be no standard or expected modes of documentation. Rather, just as the research community has come to largely accept that a practice research methodology will be emergent from the research process, so too might its principles of documentation be. This requires the researcher to be clear about the research component of the work, allowing the documentation to be planned as a part of the research process—one that interacts with and exerts pressure on the research itself—rather than an observation of outcomes that may or may not elucidate its research questions. Inherent in this process is consideration of the legacy of such documentation and its effective archiving. Finally, the amount of documentation in any project should be considered. The archive of all documentation arising from a project might be vast and potentially obfuscate the aims and outcomes of the research.

My solution to this problem has been a portfolio presentation of the research materials that considers the portfolio as the outcome of the research. My intention is that the component parts of the portfolio represent all of the aspects of practice in the work, but don’t completely document all of them. I have gathered together a selection of outcomes, representing the range of events or outcomes in the project and have tried to bring them together in a way that does not prioritise any types of practice or documentation, but  shows how they can be seen to relate to each other in different ways, and can be considered in the manner of a non-linear process. My intention is that by looking only at the portfolio one might access the range of ideas related to the research and knowledge aims of the work.

As a second principle, there is nothing related to the project that is not open access. This includes the albums which are free to access online, and the written component of the work that is published in an open access journal. Thus, this work seeks to address the accessibility of the research not only through the university’s repository but through the accessibility of all of its component parts. The materials in the portfolio address many audiences, including other artistic practitioners and music audiences, as well as a research audience. This is also important to me, since this work and documentation has not been created for the sole purpose of assessment in REF but seeks to address those both within and outwith the academy who might interact with it. Creating this portfolio has involved a shift in my thinking: that the outcomes of practice research might not represent a single product, and that the ‘research outcome’ of the project can in some ways be defined in advance separately from the practice itself. It is, for me, the complete expression of the project and also its complete research outcome.

References:

Ayerbe, N. (2017) ‘Documenting the Ephemeral: reconsidering the idea of presence in discussions on performance’. Rev. Bras. Estud. Presença (Presence and its Related Fields). 7.3. http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2237-26602017000300551&lng=en&nrm=iso&tlng=en#B34

Hann, R. (1 June 2016) ‘Second Wave Practice Research: Questions and Ways Forward’. Paper for ‘Practices and Processes of Practice Research: Interdisciplinary and Methodological Critique’. Canterbury: Canterbury Christ Church University. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2Sva2mXemM&t=2051s

Melrose, S. (July 2007) ‘Confessions of an Uneasy Expert Spectator’. https://www.sfmelrose.org.uk

Redhead, L. (2018) ijereja and entoptic landscape: Music as an Iterative Process. Portfolio. http://research.gold.ac.uk/24827/

Spatz, B. (2016). What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge, Practice as Research. Abingdon: Routledge.

Timothy Mathews Blog Post

On the Voices of Love

Or why translate Roland Barthes again?

It’s often said that any translation is an interpretation, and that’s just as it should be. Antoine Berman writes that it’s the destiny of all great works to be re-translated, and Frank Kermode that it’s their destiny to be re-interpreted as the generations succeed and forget each other. It’s true I’ve never really known what a great work is other than one that absorbs me and seems to absorb many others in ways that are hard to enumerate. I’m talking in any case about works of the imagination which includes works of thought. Roland Barthes’s Fragments d’un discours amoureux seems to have a foot in various camps, various ways of writing and approaching the reader, ranging from the fragment itself, which comes to us along hybrid lines from Heraclitus, Sappho, German Romanticism and Walter Benjamin, and including theoretical analysis and allusion, adaptation, improvisation, autobiography and short fiction as well. They all seem to blend, and it’s the blend that matters rather than the distinctions, and all the elements resonate together to live. But, like the sounds of language, resonation is heard in a further blend of the singular and the communal; to hear it is to enter the labyrinths of knowledge bleeding as it does into projection. Which is one way of describing the witness we bear to our times and that we each live in one set of moments and not another.

And translators of the imagination have a particular witness, which is that everyone hears what they can and not what they cannot. It gives to the imagination the sense that Barthes gives to what he calls ‘l’imaginaire’, in his own silent and very living translations of the word in Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, Gaston Bachelard and many others. It evokes the imagination thriving on its own limitations while also warning against them, a thought that Sigmund Freud discovers in all of poetry and that surfaces in modern times in the writings of Charles Baudelaire. In the translation I’m writing of Fragments d’un discours amoureux, which I’m proposing simply to call Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse, I’m leaving that French word as it is in my English text, and even though Barthes is using a French word in his French text, I feel I’m doing something of the same thing: in some sort of partnership, now triangulated and with the translator involved and insinuated into the intimate relation of Barthes with his readers, I feel sure the meaning of the word ‘l’imaginaire’ will accumulate; or rather the meanings, the passing thoughts and associations that give it breath and life. The same goes for the word ‘jouissance’ in my text, meaning extreme pleasure of a range of kinds; seeing the French word in many different English places, the reader will want to make up her own mind or his as to when it means orgasm and when an impression of the sublime.

There are many inventive and illuminating insights into Barthes’s text in the English version written by Richard Howard shortly after the original publication. Beginning with the title – Fragments: a lover’s discourse: the simple gesture of replacing ‘of’ with a colon captures for me many of the paradoxes of thinking about love in discourse, and about a discourse in fragments. I’ve also appreciated his version of ‘l’imaginaire’ as ‘image-repertory’, which I’ve found helps very much tell the story of the word, its theoretical implications and history, and especially with students: a repertoire of images suggests something that has to be learnt and practised, but each person learns in different orthodoxy in different ways and chooses different things to learn. My own translation of this book is a re-translation only in that it’s being written some thirty-five years after Richard’s, but its story begins I’m not sure where. I do remember reading the book for the first time: I’d taken it away with me to try and launch a project that was still only a sketch, and I became absorbed in every sentence, the varying rhythm of each fragment and the undulations of their sequences. They can be read in any order and still a shape emerges from any of these journeys through the book, long or short.

I also know that a piece emerged that I still don’t know what to do with and which juxtaposes this book with Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme, The Charterhouse of Parma. I’d become fascinated with the kind of melancholic rapture that permeates both books, a sense that not even the sinuosity of love and sex meanders outside cultural codes and a discourse. How could they, and why would we want that, and still want it, when the images floating with whatever compromised spontaneity are still the cause of so much energy; with joy and anxiety coupled together with the unpredictability that’s the hallmark of structure?

I was thinking at the time of the well-known and still awesome scene towards the end of Stendhal’s novel of 1839 where two young lovers in a sea of love, sex and post-Napoleonic politics, with creative energy erupting and decaying everywhere, find themselves communicating across a prison yard with Fabrice spelling out words letter by letter in coal dust on the palm of his hand, and Clélia inserting words of warning and forbidden love into the way she sings popular arias of the time. Needs must, it seems! – in this extraordinary novel of impulse, constraint and ageing. A wildly impossible way of writing and reading… and still it works, but how? Not just because anything can work in fiction, and the more operatic the better, but because this love duet with no music and no-one really there is smothered in signs; and because in fiction, as in life, to communicate at all is to get caught in the labyrinths of what can or can’t be recognised, if not recognised then imagined; with each relentlessly dependent on the other.

Stendhal and Barthes seem to agree that in love as everywhere, everywhere there are signs. And when I embarked on this book as well as Barthes’s other later writing it was writing I was interested in. Like many I already knew that theory needs writing and that to theorise is to write, but I also wanted theory that sparks the pangs of… let’s say extravagance, and its twin, melancholy. As time went by and I became more immersed in teaching as well as reading across the borderlines of French and English, as well as theory and practice, when it came to Barthes students would encourage me and confirm me in the thought that with the passing of time, another writing in English would serve this far-reaching and arresting book. It’s not just hindsight that’s been prompting me, the ever sharper understanding of the way Barthes’s sense of purpose is wrapped in Proust; it’s more that such a dimension has always been apparent, as though writing were hidden in plain sight, its power to move, to generate thought and commitment to life.

A witness-in-translation to the hidden-in-plain-sight, then: it involves idiom and the idiom of the day, another reason to translate more than once. But the plain sight of idiom hides many layers in the pervasive idioms of the day. I feel I can hear the variety of idioms in play in Barthes’s French, but I hear them with an ear belonging to my race, age and class, and aware of the range of French and English I’ll never speak or write. Something of the same goes for Barthes himself, in a situation analogous to any writer’s and to mine as translator, but without any of them meeting. The range of his styles is shaped by the voices in his head that he works with and that work him, and which it is his mission to illuminate along with the experiences of voice in the heads of you and me.  I’m left trying to translate what I hear, knowing it’s filtered through my own life and aware of the distances from all the other idioms flying about in our own time.

My practice has become one of translating what’s on the page, the page like the fragment itself is the unit of reading, thinking and writing, and the practice embraces all the quotation and allusion integral to Barthes’s way of writing in the book. I don’t feel I’m writing a critical edition, although translation is contiguous with writing criticism as I understand them. I’d rather try and write in English what I’m being offered, and mime in English how the various elements on a page of Barthes’s French interact with the others; and so I’m translating myself the translated quotations I’m given to find in that moment that along with other readers. I’d like to enact – show, not tell – something of how the French translations interact with the other French close by. Interaction like relation is made partly in the moment, partly in the moment’s scattering, and this is one of the ways I’m trying to respect writing through translating writing, and the relation-in-the-making of text, translator and reader. 

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. 

Scott McLaughlin Blog Post

University of Leeds, School of Music

Artist Website

University website

I’m a composer working with the physicality of sound, exploring the behaviours and agential possibilities of vibrating objects; which can be musical instruments, but also any other object that makes sound. The central idea in all of my composition since about 2010 has been that of ‘Material Indeterminacy’, surfing the contours of the indeterminate sonic behaviours of objects. I develop strategies for practice that inverts the standard musical paradigm of control. Traditionally, the performer bends the instrument to their will. In my model, the performer is an activator and supporter, providing energy for the instrument to do what its material ‘wants’. Composition becomes a way of contingently structuring forces in what Andrew Pickering [1] refers to as a ‘dance’ of human and material agencies.

In thinking of my practice as a way to carry out research—and disseminating it in a way that can be useful to others—I invoke a model of forking paths via Tim Ingold’s “wayfaring” [2] as a way of moving in reciprocal engagement with our environment; not as a passive passenger but active and situated. A key aspect of my research is the forking; not so much the paths themselves, but what happens along-the-way to afford each new direction. Sometimes (rarely…) we can describe these epiphanic moments with great clarity, but more often this is a near-invisible co-incidence of the forces and terrains through which our practice channels. We may not notice the fork until later, presenting as a conflict between current and previous versions. If we’re lucky, we’ve been tracing just enough of the debris of practice that we can recover some evidence; a change in environment, a previously unconsidered relation that suddenly fizzles with meaning. Something shifted, and we were in the right place to go with it.

The idea of Material Indeterminacy described above is not a path, it’s a distant beacon that drives some part of my curiosity. The beacon is never quite reached and never quite the same as the last time I thought about it, yet something stays the same. The idea drives practice, but I can only articulate it through the works that I make. Over time, I have found that the continual unfolding stream of this practice has pooled around basins of technique, ways of working in relation to specific families of vibrating objects. Below is simplified diagram of my the continuum of my research across ten years. The idea first took hold in woodwind instruments, then found ways to transform and carry into percussion, strings, and even the piano; which in 2010 I couldn’t even contemplate writing for since it seemed so distant from my interests. Pianos have not changed since 2010, the idea changed enough to open a way into pianos.

The research always unfolds this way. Working with the objects, exploring their behaviours under different conditions and in relation to the practice of musicians, and developing strategies for human agencies to recede and reveal material agencies. The practice unfolds and it crystalises into ‘pieces’, coherent snapshots of a relationship at a particular moment. Pieces have an identity of their own and can in some ways be separated from the continuum of research, but there is a tension in fitting all of the above to the REF. How to map a dynamic research continuum onto a static grid of outputs.

The core of my research is the idea of Material Indeterminacy. Everything springs from that idea in a circular and iterative manner: that is, everything continuously updates, expands, and enriches that idea. When trying to make my research reviewable, I first have to explain Material Indeterminacy. Since this in itself would fill a 300-word statement, I’ll include for each output a single-page supporting document about Material Indeterminacy: the same document for each output, sketching the network of ideas and other art-works to contextualise the idea. In each specific output I can address the research dimensions of the work—process/questions, the research insights, and research dissemination[3]— in relation to this supporting document.

While the idea of Material Indeterminacy drives the vast majority of my artistic output, the idea is not in itself a REF output. The output itself is most likely a musical score and recording. In my case the output will not make research dimensions clear, so I need a statement and possibly also supporting documentation: if I only submit the artefact, at best, reviewers have to assume generic research dimensions—which is unlikely to yield a high score for progressive research—at worst, they simply don’t know how the work addresses these questions. To ensure the continuing presence of my work’s research dimensions, and to make it reviewable in REF terms, I use the 300-word statement and specific additional supporting documentation to address the areas of process/insights/dissemination. The key here is to make a coherent explication of the research, concisely unpacking aspects that may not be obvious to even a subject specialist.

  • Research questions/process can be summarised—with respect to Material Indeterminacy document—as part of 300-word statement. I would also include concise supporting materials indicating key elements of process: annotated video/images/sketches showing materials and exemplars of transformations; explanation/walkthrough of key techniques, etc. (where not obvious in the output).
  • Methodologies and contexts are covered broadly by the Material Indeterminacy document, but key contexts for specifics outputs can be indicated in their 300-words.
  • Dissemination is tricky, and needs two axes:
    • (1) I need to distinguish between dissemination of the artefact itself (performances/recordings/score) and the larger package that includes explicit reference to the research (talks and papers, workshops);
    • (2) and demonstrate dissemination to the overlapping areas of academic researchers, professional stakeholders, and public. The research-specific parts can be summarised in the 300-word statement, but some kind of supporting diagram may also help with the bigger picture.
  • Insights can be demonstrated in the 300-word statement, focussing explicitly on how this specific output forks-off from the overall Material Indeterminacy research question.

[1] Pickering. Andrew. The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science (University of Chicago Press, 1995).

[2] Ingold, Tim. Being Alive (London: Routledge, 2011).

[3] ref-2019_02-panel-criteria-and-working-methods, paragraph 266.

POETIC MATTER: An Interview with Alison Gibb and Elaine Thomas

Poetic Matter is a collaborative practice-based project that exists to think through and to articulate the concerns that we face in our practices through an ongoing inter-disciplinary dialogue around the role of performance in the making and showing of work.

By working in collaboration, we are able to share research concerns and research questions from our individual practice areas such as dance making, visual arts, writing and performing poetry to approach a current problem. We often begin with questioning what performance is and what it could be in order to shape our investigation. The performance and the creation of the work co-exist as our collaborative practice, our method of creating practice from research and as our method of developing research methods from our practice.  Live performance is for us another mode of our practice. We don’t see it as a final event or as our final outcome. However, it is important for us to present our practice investigations in a performative way.  The performance is a way of bringing our questions into focus in the present and live moment of performance. Each performance work generates further research questions and outcomes in other forms of practice including drawings, diagrams, movement exploration and working with different forms of body and voice work.

In this article we reflect on how we treated practice as research in developing our recent multi-media performance work Making S P A C E S: a poetic response.[i]

Our primary sources for devising performed elements for this work were two books on forestry practice from which we borrowed concepts of planting, harvesting, clearing and sky-lining (a method of using ropes and pulleys to fell trees). These forestry concepts were used to generate movement material, texts, sound and film. The instructions for forest management from these books became elements that we could think about conceptually in order to create a performance space. For example, we used ‘harvesting’ as a concept to create the third part of our performance, where Alison projects diagrams of harvesting drawings on to Elaine, as she performs choreography created in response to harvesting. The soundtrack that accompanies this section of the piece is made up of the sounds of trees being felled and of sounds of harvesting machinery.

Q. How does the research project begin?

ET:   In Making S P A C E S: a poetic response, some of our starting questions were: What makes a performance? What does it mean to perform? How can the interaction of different elements, movement, spoken word, film, create a texture in live performance? Can concepts of forestry practice be realised spatially? However, we quickly departed from the initial questions to follow aesthetic lines of inquiry.

The way we respond to starting materials, such as the forestry books, text, images and diagrams, may take us in any direction but we do keep referring back to the original source in the movement, images and text that we make in response.  The research questions provide the context for the work we produce; they help gather the different elements together.

Methods of production for the work provide another mode of enquiry. For example, I edited the sound piece from sound samples of a sawmill and tree felling as well as a recording of my voice murmuring some sounds from Kerouac’s Sea. In the edit these sounds were stretched, repeated, and layered to create different densities and rhythm. This method of producing sound is echoed in the methods used for generating movement. I used diagrams from the forestry practice book to make a series of movements. Alison directly responded to these movement sequences by placing markers in tape on the floor that correspond and joined these markers to create a diagram of the shared spatial investigation. The taped diagram then became another stimulus for further movement and text. Similarly, the movement I generated as well as existing text from the forestry books are reflected and responded to by Alison in creating some of the poetic text, which is then again layered with movement and sound in the live performance. These methods of production are present in the live performance and shape how the work comes to exist. We are interested in how the method of making something can also be a questioning of how to work collaboratively and in how to treat the various elements that we bring to the process.

‘I crossed the body to mark the area’

AG: Our processes become the content and context for the performance. For this project we produced a lot of initial response elements to get our ideas going and to create methods of collaboration. For example, I began by responding to a series of tabulated information pages from one of the  forestry book through a process of scoring, annotation and drawing. The information in the tables explained forestry practice methods including suitable conditions for planting, water supplies, soil types and assigned processes for planting and maintaining forests. Once I had determined a set of annotations, I applied them to the tabulated pages to create new visual and verbal scores from the forestry information. I also gave Elaine a set of the pages and the system of annotations and had her score her own     responses. We went on to use the scores as textual resource materials for writing poems and texts, as visual aides and as reference material throughout our studio practice.

Another early response was to independently gather video, film and photographic images of trees and forests to share with each other at our second studio session. The outcomes from these visual investigations provided us with strategies to select and to edit our video footage into the three video work elements of the piece. Hence, our research response elements became the visual, verbal and choreography tools that we developed through our collaborative practice to perform the operations of our ‘live performance’.

‘—To look at it in an another way—one finds that aspects of—’

Q. What transitions does the research go through?

ET: The large question of ‘what is performance?’ and ‘what does it mean to perform?’ will be addressed through some imaginative engagement with the forestry drawings, for example. The diagrams give some markers for staging, and from my perspective, for movement material. Through this movement I am exploring new ways of addressing these questions but also allowing new things to come through. The text that Alison works on is also a conduit for this process. It gives me other possibilities for expanding and developing the movement and to think through something spatially.

‘To feel experience before an act of language’

AG:   Our research goes through many stages of transition. For example, by taking forestry practice and planting as a basis for developing conceptual frameworks and for gathering materials for performance, we were able to begin to explore spatial practices of ‘harvesting’ and ‘clearing’ and the method of ‘sky-lining’ as sites for thinking, making and performing       choreography. For example, Elaine created some choreography inspired by the ‘harvesting’ as a conceptual method to occupy and mark out space for performance through her movement. I responded to watching Elaine work by placing markers of tape on the floor to correspond with her contact with the ground. Once I had finished plotting a selection of her movements, I taped the marks together to create a diagrammatical documentation of our shared spatial investigation. Once drawn, the diagram remained throughout the performance, adding to the layers of visual and verbal elements that we present within the piece. Thus, to investigate ideas of performance and to make ready a space for performance through modes of   performance are integral to our enquiry into making and showing the work.

‘SPACING is an action of VISUAL APPREARANCE—overall’

Q. What were the research outcomes?

A&E:    We began with forestry practice and planting as a basis for performance. Some of the outcomes are the films, the score, and the performance. On reviewing our video footage, we decided that Alison would create a series of edited options for us to review as part of our ongoing studio sessions. During this period Elaine was making choreography in response to the Kerouac’s Sea poem, and, to do this, recorded herself reciting it at various speeds and volumes.  Alison also began writing a the poetry text based on the contents pages of the forestry    book pages, which we had both agreed held visual and verbal poetic possibilities for us.

Our studio practice model is to get as many individual poetic elements on the go as early as possible, so we can use our studio time to exchange, develop and to explore each element collaboratively.

Our shared interests are in the processes and the creative acts of making and performing work. As such, questions of making and processes as a method of enquiry are a recurring mode of our studio practice. For example, with this work, each time we met in the studio we would start by sharing any responses we had made independently since our last meeting as starting points for our session.

These sharings often triggered responses that led to the creation of new elements for performance. For example, I responded to Elaine’s Kerouac-poem-inspired choreography by writing ‘harvest.’ This poem is primarily written from texts found in the forestry books and is set within the template of the poetic form of Kerouac’s ‘Sea.’

Our collaborative approach is to produce work for performance through an extension of our experimental studio methods. As the piece developed, we decided that Elaine would perform her ‘harvesting’ movement in a spot-lit area and that I would project, via a handheld projector, images of the diagrams of tree felling and sky-lining on to her.  This film is made from the black and white photographic imagery found in the forestry books. The ‘harvesting’ poem doesn’t accompany the ‘harvesting’ choreography. Instead, we treat each performative element as materials or layers that we combine through finding new ways of working together. Unspoken understandings of how we might respond and what works in creating poetics also come into play.

Of A. planting of the whole subject’

Q. What do we mean by performance & how does performance constitute research?

A&E.    For us, performance is the site of investigation. The performance may hold other questions and investigations, most obviously in the form of manifestos and performed lecture texts. There are different modes of performance within each work. Each of these modes could exist singularly but in the instance of the particular performance are parts of the whole.

In recent years, the academic conference format has allowed us to show our work in a space where there is critical feedback but the expectation of the audience is not necessarily framed by theatrical expectations or might not allow us to question theatrical norms. In a conference space there is the expectation that things might exist across and between art forms, that we might present something that is in progress and that performance as research might be welcomed.

We step between reading, moving, speaking, visual images and film, staging, sitting and watching as a way of making a space.

‘TACTICS of the main agencies for INTER-SECTIONS’

‘MOBILE ELEMENTS’

‘THUS PLACE IS AN INSTANTANEOUS

‘CONFIGURATION OF POSITIONS’

‘op i n e s  a m p l i f y i n g’ [ii]


[i] Making S P A C E S: a poetic response is a multi-media poetic dance performance commissioned by Vital Signs for performance at the Vital Signs Festival, Sept 2019. For more information please visit http://www.vital-signs.org/

[ii] Poetry texts from SOIL HORIZONS written by Alison Gibb for ‘Making S p a c e s a. Poetic Response.’

Poetic Matter is a collaborative project between Alison Gibb and Elaine Thomas. Alison Gibb is a poet-artist and researcher. She recently completed her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London. Elaine Thomas holds an MFA in Choreography. She is a senior lecture in dance at Roehampton University. Together they have presented work at a number of arts festivals and academic conferences. For further info visit, please https://www.alisongibb.com/collaboration

Derek Neale Blog Post

Many practice subjects have their more academic cousins. Creative Writing is no exception and is the obvious younger relative within its usual (but not exclusive) academic setting: English Studies. The first UK Creative Writing MAs were launched in the 1970s, the undergraduate single and joint honours programmes proliferating in the 1990s. The first UK PhD was completed in 1990, with the Jordanian novelist Fadia Faqir at UEA. This coincided with the first iterations of the question: what is Creative Writing research? There were alternately ambitious and wry observations from those present at the subject’s birth. Malcolm Bradbury co-leader of the first MA at UEA aimed for a psychological and literary theory of creativity, relating to an exploration of ‘the ways in which the instincts, the structures, the modal forms of imaginative expression can take on their purpose and pattern … as original humane discovery’ He also described writing as playing in the sandpit and said ‘it seemed somewhat strange for us to be announcing the Death of the Author in the classroom [in reference to Barthes], then going straight back home to be one’. In the US the history is longer and has links to philology (see Cowan, 2018 for a fuller history https://www.nawe.co.uk/DB/current-wip-edition/articles/the-rise-of-creative-writing.html ).

In our newcomer status in the UK we’ve gleaned much from other practice subjects, for instance the QAA benchmark statements for Dance, Drama and Performance and Art and Design informed and influenced the first Creative Writing QAA statement (2016) as much if not more than the English benchmark. The prequel to that inaugural QAA document was a joint teaching and research subject benchmark (2008) developed by the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE), which is Creative Writing’s subject association. This prequel was itself influenced by other practice subjects. Perhaps the impasse faced by all practice subjects is the impossibility of translating practice (process and output or artefact) into anything other than what it is. That is no less true for Creative Writing; the fact that the common currencies of our practice are words and narratives makes it no easier and makes practitioners no more willing or able to re-narrate their work. This is why at the end of my PhD, for instance, I felt that my critical commentary on the relationship between writing and remembering was just as much a fiction as the novel it accompanied; a different kind of fiction admittedly, but, of course, both kinds are fictions in a very positive sense, a sense that signals a route to a kind of truth.

NAWE has attempted to keep up with responses to the Creative Writing research/practice conundrum and in so doing has expanded on the three pages devoted to research in 2008’s prequel benchmark document. The more recent updated research benchmark (see https://www.nawe.co.uk/writing-in-education/writing-at-university/research.html ) asserts, perhaps in the way that younger cousins are prone to, the discipline’s research principles: the centrality of practice and the various forms practice research might take.

The updated research benchmark has learnt from English Literature and Language, but also from other disciplines. We’ve inherited perspectives that can be applied to practice, if often retrospectively. These include but are not confined to critical analysis, theoretical methodologies, literary history, ethnography, as well as formal, stylistic, narratological and linguistic approaches. These opportunities form chapters, books, articles and commentaries about process, but cannot supplant practice as the central research method in the discipline.

In a seminar recording from last year, a collaboration between OU’s Contemporary Cultures of Writing research group and NAWE, Robert Hampson talks through possible research outputs and assessment strategies. See http://www.open.ac.uk/arts/research/contemporary-cultures-of-writing/node/25 This offers evidence of how REF assessment of Creative Writing research has evolved and is evolving. Typical practice outputs include novels, short story and poetry collections, creative nonfiction, scripts and performance, but these forms are constantly being expanded upon. Disparate portfolios pose another problem. For instance, I’ve a small collection of commissioned short stories. They are diverse though connected by theme and motif – mothers and fathers, for instance, memory, time and madness. Here, as is often the case, the research questions didn’t precede the writing or the collecting of the stories. Research questions became apparent retrospectively. I find this is a useful attitude to adopt, one which relieves the unnatural fit between creative process and bureaucratic necessity. ‘Not knowing’ is more important in the writing process than any obedience to a preconceived research question.

What are the research questions that arise in that collection of six stories? I’ve mentioned the thematic connections but there are separate research questions. For instance, the stories ask how consciousness and human narratives can be imagined and represented, eliciting empathy. How can narrative elucidate being human? And, in relation to this, what part is played by various narratological elements – mimesis, diegesis, prolepsis, analepsis, paralypsis – and how does contextual literary knowledge inform, enhance or reference such narratives?

There can often be further complications in REF assessment inherent to the nature of the dissemination of literary outputs. For instance, some of the stories were published previously (though never submitted for previous REFs or RAEs); some of them are new stories. REF assessment should be focused on this new constellation as a coherent project rather than their prior individual appearance. The issue is also discussed in the audio in relation to the different publication lives that poems might enjoy.

The quest to establish what practice research means in Creative Writing continues to produce vibrant responses, ones in which practice is acknowledged as central but where research significance or what a previous blogger on this site has called researchfulness has been flushed out and illuminated, hopefully without forfeiting the writing’s tacit route to knowledge. Not only is the question – what is Creative Writing research? – still being asked, but it is now firmly coupled to the knowledge that playing in the sandpit is a big part of the answer.

[1] Bradbury, Malcolm. 1993. ‘‘Graceful Combinations.’’ In The Agony and the Ego: The Art and Strategy of Fiction Writing Explored, edited by Clare Boylan, 57-63. London: Penguin.

[1] Bradbury, M. (ed.) (1995) “Introduction”, in Class Work: The Best of Contemporary Short Fiction, London: Sceptre. p. viii