A copy of a recent letter to my supervisors. The image below is of some ink paintings I have been making; I included one in each envelope. As usual, I’ve added footnotes to this copy of the text to support a more public readership.
Dear Robyn, dear Nic, dear Efrosini,
I’ve been painting with inks. I have no idea how to use a brush: I feel clumsy, naïve, envious. I took it up around the same time I began working on the RDCom2 form1, which I hate. Its demand for such neat predictions and claims about the next few years (about what work I will make, what knowledge it will produce, and how my writing will relate to this imaginary work) feels like such an assault. I’m not against my work periodically being monitored and challenged – and I’m in no way rejecting institutional structures altogether2 – it’s just the design of this particular process feels so inappropriate and actively hostile to my research.
I thought that starting each day by painting (totally unrelated to my stated topic of research) would be a good way of ‘protecting’ something about my work – a core of errancy, playfulness and flirtation – under threat here, and ensure that actual practice wouldn’t be entirely squeezed out from my days. (I’m thinking of Audre Lorde writing about insisting on ‘the erotic’ as “a kernel within myself […] that flows through and colours my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitises and strengthens all of my experience.”3) But I think it goes beyond this. I’ve written to you guys before about my faith in ‘unjustifiable practice’4, but it’s not a simple binary of (good) practice vs. (evil) institutional demands. It’s a more dynamic (dialectic?) relation – which feels increasingly important to my research. Because I’m not simply doing all the things I’m engaged with outside or alongside the formal institutional contexts in which I’m working (the university, Sadlers, wherever else); nor am I ignoring these institutional demands outright and focussing on a pre-defined practice. I’m evidently interested (in these letters, in how I speak about my work generally within the university) in flaunting the tension between these things; actively playing with that sense of errancy, veering, distance, in/appropriateness, in/decency, un/official-ness, ir/relevance; testing the permissions of what seems possible to situate within these contexts.
I think of the Andy Warhol quote: “Art is what you can get away with”5. I read it as a claim that one of the constituent factors of contemporary art – the things that makes art ‘art’ – is the fact that is has been ‘gotten away with’. That the meaning, value and ontology of the artwork is wrapped up in its critical, distant, or otherwise troubled relationship to its own conditions of production. (Works vary in terms of how much they foreground or make explicit these conditions. I’m curious here about who is ‘in the know’: who can recognize these structures, and read how they are being stretched or subverted?) This is sort of similar to what Walter Benjamin is arguing6 – except he castigates the individualism that imbues the Warhol quote, and calls for a dismantling of the specialist position of the artist or intellectual in favour of a wider political organising – but that’s for another time.
This promise (or demand) of the ‘critical’ (or ‘subversive’, ‘excessive’, ‘transformative’) function of art is wrapped up in the position of the artist as being outside or between formal institutional structures. Artists are trying to navigate their practice through various different institutions at the same time (e.g. me trying to make work that is relevant to both within the university as ‘artistic research’, and also various non-academic professional and grassroots contexts). Rohanne and I7 often simultaneously surround the same (or overlapping) bodies of work with different kinds of rhetoric, to satisfy different institutional demands, while also trying to keep orienting it to both ‘insider’ and ‘inexpert’ viewers. We’re trying to get the resources we need to keep making work that interests and excites us; trying to apprehend and stretch the structures we’re working within; trying to keep engaged with a growing community of peers. Trying to get away with it all.
So: I’m thinking about this continual work of interfacing, bridging and mediating to resolve the messiness of what’s actually happening with whatever institutional frameworks one is working within. And this is something that most of us have to do, and is in no way unique to art; but it does seem exacerbated by art’s promise of newness, and irresolvably turbulent relationship to purpose and value. The artist is continually interfacing between institution and their own emergent practice. The curator is interfacing between the artist and the wider organisation: it was a lightbulb moment to hear Robyn describing some forthcoming season of work to Sadlers staff outside of the programming team8.
And I’m thinking about the processes through which organisations seek to commission, invite in or hold space for that which is intended to exceed its current forms of scrutiny and value. There’s a contradiction here that I think is tightly bound up with the role of the guest-artist-curator. They’re not just doing the ‘usual’ work of the curator; there’s the expectation for this ‘outside’ figure will somehow stretch the institution’s existing capacities, and to cultivate space for practices and processes that otherwise sit outside of its reach. (For better or worse: I’m thinking of Rajni Shah referring to those people inviting in artists engaged in anti-racist and anti-neoliberal work – that is otherwise anathema to these institutions – as ‘the impossible bridge’9; and of Paul Sadot’s critique of how Breakin’ Convention10). I wonder: to what degree can or should the activity hosted by the guest-artist-curator be made visible and accountable (to the wider institution, or the existing programming and curation team)? Is there permission for an unusual degree of opacity? How much can be ‘written off’ as messy, casual, private, informal, un-evaluable? And if so – how far can this messiness extend? How is it bordered, framed, contained? Rather than having to do all the usual mediating work of the curator and the artist to satisfy the institution’s demands, I’m wondering how much are they allowed to get away with?
So I’ve starting to name this interfacing-bridging-legitimising activity as a more explicit and central part of my research; not only making and presenting artworks, but the activity by which these unlikely materials are situated and justified within various institutional contexts. And I’m trying to figure out how much I’m interested in addressing that in context of the university. Over the past few decades, ‘practice-as-research’ has become established as a significant commissioner of experimental artistic practice – there is nowhere else I could expect to get this kind of fee for my work! It has its own idiosyncratic set of institutional demands: this RDCom2 form – an exercise in description, promise and prediction – is a perfect example of this. I am justifying a period of activity to a panel of academics, who will judge it in relation to the university’s criteria for legitimate research (themselves established to satisfy wider conventions set by the Bologna Process of what counts as doctoral research11). Returning to Warhol and Benjamin – how important is it that I acknowledge and challenge the university itself, and ‘artistic research’, as the apparatus through which my work is being produced?
One of the main criteria of research is that it ‘produces knowledge’. I’m reminded of a joke Nic made last summer: what would it mean to propose a artistic research practice that generates no knowledge – an epistemological black-hole? I think this could be a way to intensify and gesture toward the (ridiculous, but intellectually rich, knowledge-generating) interfacing practice then necessary to legitimise and justify this work. And perversely, I think this would actually become a backwards way of resolving the ‘practice’ and ‘theory’ divide: despite the common claim in artistic research that the artistic materials and writing are interwoven parts of a holistic thesis, it’s also pretty evident that the written components (“a minimum 20,000 words” that must include “critical commentary on the creative materials”12) continue to be the determining factor of whether or not this artistic practice gets counted as ‘research’.13 In this black-hole strategy, the ‘artistic materials’ are whatever they want to be, and the written materials that surround the work becomes the practice itself.
Anyway. I really should get back to this RDCom2 form. I hope you enjoy this blob painting. Something messy, inchoate; an epistemological ink blot into which we might read (or write) whatever we fancy. I’ll leave you with a quote from Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia that came to my mind as I was writing this:
“To deprive thought of the moment of spontaneity is to annul precisely its necessity.[…] a hierarchy of importance is creeping into theory-formation which gives preference to either particularly topical or particularly relevant themes, and discriminates against, or indulgently tolerates, anything non-essential […] While thought relates to facts and moves by criticising them, its movement depends no less on the maintenance of distance. It expresses exactly what is, precisely because what is is never quite as thought expresses it. Essential to it is an element of exaggeration, of over-shooting the object, of self-detachment from the weight of the factual, so that instead of merely reproducing being it can, at once rigorous and free, determine it. Thus every thought resembles play, with which Hegel no less than Nietzsche compared the work of the mind. The unbarbaric side of philosophy is its tacit awareness of the element of irresponsibility, of blitheness springing from the volatility of thought, which forever escapes what it judges. […] Distance is not a safety-zone but a field of tension.”14
In a field of tension,
The ‘RDCom2’ is the second major hurdle of the PhD process at the University of Roehampton (the first being the original application), due around 6 months after starting. It consists of a ~4000word form in which you lay out what your proposed research activity, the intellectual legacy it sits within, and its expected contribution to knowledge. It is a standardised form for PhD students across different schools – humanities, sciences, artistic research, etc.
This is what I was surprised to find myself arguing for last December at the On Transversality conference. I was writing from a granular lens of political or activist organising (via Jo Freeman, Dean Space, etc.), but I’m curious about Stefano Harvey’s work on ‘logistics’ and ‘infrastructure’.
Lorde, Audre. (2017 ) The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, in Your Silence Will Not Protect You. UK: Silver Press, pp. 22-30. You can listen to her deliver a version of the full text here.
I can’t find out where (or even if) Warhol actually said this. There are many variations on the quote; and I’ve also seen it attributed to the media theorist Marshall McLuhan.
Benjamin, Walter. (2005 ) The Author as Producer. in Jennings, Eiland, Smith (eds.) Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2, Part 2, 1931-1934. Translated by Livingstone, R. London: Harvard University Press, pp. 768-782. Available here.
Robyn Cabaret is a producer working at Sadlers Wells Theatre – the official institutional partner of my research – and one of my supervisors. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been (remotely) attending some meetings there as a way to get some sense of the organisation’s current structure and interests. Alongside the weekly programming team meeting with Robyn and her colleagues, there’s been a couple of organisation-wide Q&As with the artistic director & chief executive Alistair Spalding and executive director Britannia Morton.
Rajni Shah is… amazing. They’re an artist, performer and writer, who undertook a PhD in ‘listening’ a couple of years ago. I find the listening they practice to be challenging, transformative, critical, joyful, potent, complex. The talk that I’m referring to in the letter took place last November at Attenborough Arts Centre, and was in dialogue with the scholar Royona Mitra. I don’t think it’s available online; but recently I got to attend another (brilliant) talk by Rajni, of which you can find a transcript here. And they’ve got a book coming out soon, which I’m very excited to read. I can’t recommend their work enough.
Last year the dramaturg and choreographer Paul Sadot published his PhD as a very beautiful website – which was here, but has since gone down. I can’t remember exact details of the text (and I’m pretty unfamiliar with the hip hop scene more generally) but bascially it was looking at how Breakin’ Convention – Sadler’s Wells’ huge and much-celebrated platform for ‘hip hop dance theatre’ – has very questionably shaped this emerging form to fit their own (and Arts Council England’s) interests. I think he described it as the ‘gentrification’ of hip-hop, an otherwise very grassroots and political dance form.
The Bologna Process was a European-wide initiative over the past 25-ish years to set common standards of university degrees at BA, MA and PhD level. These were developed in order to develop a meaningful and comparable across these different countries. I think most countries have a more particular set of criteria and legislation, but ultimately they each satisfy this international agreement. Click through for more info.
I wish I had a link to a formal university document that payed out this requirement, but frustratingly it’s only actually communicated through (pre-recorded and pretty dull) training sessions. This is part of my sense of frustration, I guess: that these forms themselves seem quite open, but once you scratch the surface, they reveal themselves to be full of very specific and unarticulated expectations and demands.
No one seems particularly keen to admit it in a formally published text, but I think the sentiment is caught up in the following: “it is when this potent and somewhat unruly discipline is co-joined with research that creative practice-led research becomes truly emergent in its outcomes.” From Haseman, B. and Mafe, D. (2009) Acquiring Know-How: Research Training for Practice-Led Researchers, in Smith and Dean (eds.) Practice-Led Research, Research-Led Practice in the Creative Arts (Research Methods for the Arts and Humanities). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 211–28.
Adorno, Theodor () Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life. Translated by Jephcott, E. F. N. London: Verso. Minima Moralia has got to be one of my favourite books ever. I love it, I love it, I love it.