‘I have a desire to encounter’

I’ve spent a long time now in an academic environment (2014 begins 18 years of identity transition for me from journalist to teacher/researcher). Nevertheless I’m still a writer (of many sorts and forms) and I still value, and want to hold in tension with the priorities of my work life now, the experience and creativity and unpredictability of writing. So when this commitment gets a bit wobbled — as it does with any encounter with journals, editors, peer reviewers, institutional bean counters, rating committees, etc — I often put myself into conversation again with artists, the people who are consumed by an alternate vision of what matters, so that it brings back into perspective the tightrope I’ve chosen to walk to hold onto this commitment.

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The Practice-Led Writing Workshop, organised by Leora Farber and Tracey Murinik, from the Visual Identities in Arts and Design Research Centre at the University of Johannesburg in January, was a deliberate engagement on my part to understand and involve myself in how artists are managing and thinking about their place and work in academic institutions, especially now when what counts as research translates into how much money and freedom you have. I discovered a really new and interesting avenue of exploration — practice led research (Farber has edited a beautiful book on the issue called On Making).

Louise Hall Very simply, as explained by Louise Hall, who is one of a new breed of PhDs in visual arts practice pioneering this avenue of work, the difference is that instead of doing some art, and then reflecting on it in a thesis-style written piece, practice-led research demands that the art making and the art thinking be done simultaneously, backwards and forwards, always in dialogue. And, Hall commented, that’s an extremely difficult thing for an artist to do, because of the way the brain — and especially the creative brain — works. “It’s a deliberate relationship of integration,” she said, “a complex amalgam.”

There is difficulty in integrating the two cognitive processes, she said, the “making and talking about making”; and practice-led research demands that the talking about making go way beyond the “quagmire of subjective musings”. But Hall said, it does deepen artistic practice, and “it shifted and challenged my art-making process… I did make some very powerful art works as a consequence of this sustained practice”.

Written texts offer distantiation (the view from without) but “they cannot provide all the insights” and she pointed out that the process of research and discovery “needs others”, “needs dialogue”. Which brings me to Nathaniel Stern’s input.

Nathaniel Stern Stern is one of those extraordinary cross-over people with a great deal of confidence whenever he arrives in a new, slightly uncomfortable space. He had two really important things to say, to my mind. The one was about “research creation”. “We can do more than narrativise and explain,” he said, “we can illuminate the stakes.” He also reminded us that “philosophy and art bookend science, all produce affect. Art is affect in context, actually expressed, philosophy is virtually expressed, all produce sense/sensation and making sense.” Art is use-less, it should have no utilitarian value, it should push its makers into uncharted territory where discoveries can be made, it should throw up problems, it should have elements of play.

Then he took on the idea of peer-review and breathed life into it. In Stern’s mind it’s not a useful process unless it’s about “ongoing dialogue”: the “making, reading, writing and critique” all the way through the process need to be seen as a “dialogical practice”. In other words, you need a community to talk to WHILE the work is being made, when it is being put into words and through to the process of publication. The components of READ, THINK, TALK, MAKE, WRITE all infuse each other and integrate process and output. (“I have a desire to encounter,” are his words and relate to his commitment to working in groups and collaboratively as a radical form of peer review.)

Stern can’t understand the one size fits all format approach that journals require. To his mind if you are publishing you are always asking What? How? Why? and For Whom? and choosing mode, strategy, format and style for the purpose. He had a little list of possiblities to consider:

  • a thesis does the job of an argument and is written with the logic of problem, context, method, data, findings, conclusion
  • a case study is descriptive and does relational work
  • autoethnography is a narrative and does dialogical work
  • an artist’s statement is invitational

Bronwyn Law Viljoen Bronwyn Law Viljoen, who is a writer and editor long involved in the publications of the arts (Art South Africa, and now Fourthwall Books) and director of the Wits PhD programme in creative writing, commented that “new forms of presentation of art should question settled notions of form”.

Keyan And then Keyan Tomaselli, editor of the journal Critical Arts weighed in. Tomaselli has worked with Farber as a guest editor of his journal because it has been extremely difficult for artists to find spaces to publish because of their non-conformity to rigid journal style (notably that they often write about their own work instead of someone else’s, and should, in Tomaselli’s opinion). He said “Journals are not read, they are there to mop up the articles produced for SAPSE points.” And he went further: researchers should ask: who am I writing for? Which community of scholars? They should take risks and publish beyond the accredited journals on the Dept of Higher Education list. They should think of the Global South context and “open up spaces to engage with received knowledge, shape it and change it” in stead of treating Northern journals as simply “post boxes”.

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