Practice Matters: Arguments for a ‘Second Wave’ of Practice Research

Dr Rachel Hann, Lecturer in Scenography in the School of Arts at University of Surrey invites your submissions to ‘Practice Matters’, an online section of Studies in Theatre & Performance (STP):

My attendance at the Goldsmiths event confirmed two things. Firstly, that I was not alone in wanting to move on from the defensive positions cultivated over the last 20 years. The proposal to focus on the future chimed with my own belief that the argument that ‘practice matters’ had been won (at least administratively). Secondly, the move away from the micro-politics of practice as/through/based/led was particularly welcome. I am therefore an out and out convert. ‘Practice Research’ works for me. It focuses on the wider issues related to how researchers share, apply and critique knowledge borne of practice.

Equally, the discussions on June 4th were particularly timely. My colleague Dr. Victor Ladron de Guevara (Plymouth University) and I had undertaken a similar debate at the Theatre & Performance Research Association’s (TaPRA) annual conference nine months prior. An outcome of this discussion was to approach the editors of Studies in Theatre & Performance (STP) and set up a new section devoted to sharing and promoting Practice Research projects. Details of our vision were outlined at the start of the year in our formal announcement published within the journal (Hann and Ladron de Guevara 2014). Our agenda was simple: in order for Practice Research to evidence its knowledge claims, we require a peer-reviewed archive of related projects.

The result was ‘Practice Matters’. An online section of STP that would host a range of media content that clearly evidences excellence in questions of documentation and communicating research imperatives, as much as it offers new critical insights and original approaches. Importantly, Victor and I had both undertaken PaR PhDs at Royal Holloway and the University of Leeds respectively. We were both among the first to graduate, based on this particular methodological approach to doctorial study, having argued our findings through practice and, most importantly, had these findings assessed through a combination of, what Robin Nelson describes as, ‘complementary writing’[1] and documentation of the practice. This ‘portfolio of evidence’ was fundamental to our experiences as PhD students. While in Theatre & Performance documentation has remained a point of contestation following Peggy Phelan’s famous dictat that performance ‘cannot be saved, recorded, documented’ (1993: 146), for the purpose of my doctorate exam multi-media material was gathered and ‘effectively shared’[2]. I use the language of the REF’s definition of research here deliberately.  For, I would argue, the system of submitting Practice Research portfolios in ‘boxes’ for the eyes of a panel of experts only would appear, to me at least, contrary to the ethos of research.  Research should be shared.  In sharing research we enable others to grow their own perspective and, ultimately, that of the discipline overall.  Reducing this ‘sharing’ to a few lucky enough to witness a conference presentation, performance or other temporal event denies the project a sustained legacy: one that may feed future researchers work and enter into the ‘discourse’.  If, as individuals such as Nelson have argued, the ‘know-how’ of practicing a particular craft or action can produce new disciplinary knowledge, then their relegation to an administrative exercise seems negligent.

Of course, I am aware that materials submitted as part of a Practice Research submission may include peer-reviewed articles and material hosted on accessible websites. But the ‘portfolio of evidence’, as submitted to the REF, exists for the most part as a whole object only for the purpose of this exercise. In order to assess the range of styles and approaches to composing these portfolios, it would appear that you need to be on the panel. In my role as a PhD supervisor, it is most frustrating to inform students when they enquire about examples of documentation (or the format of a portfolio submission) that there is currently a ‘throw-away’ culture when it comes to Practice Research. Because it is hard (expensive) to share multi-media content or politically problematic (see Phelan), it would seem that there has been a collective reluctance to ensure the long-term legacy of the particular conditions of knowledge borne through practice.

The main concern of, what I propose as, the ‘first wave’ of Practice Research was to win the right to conduct research through practice from the administrators (university management, HEFCE).  The end game of this perspective is, I would argue, that it sustains a culture where Practice Research is conducted for the purpose of administration: for evidencing an individual’s research profile to be assessed, holistically, by exercises such as the REF.  Consequently, the discipline at large remains in the dark. Unable to access and assess the material for the most part, the legacy and accessibility of these projects is reduced to hearsay. It is no wonder that with no clear archive of material from which to assess the claims of Practice Research more broadly, there remains a suspicion from our disciplinary colleagues: a suspicion that Practice Research lacks the intellectual rigour and significance of other (more well trodden) methods of research.

The current situation is not good enough. The Goldsmiths event confirmed the need to move beyond the administrative focus of Practice Research.  Indeed, in the sessions I attended there were recurring themes on questions of accessibility and evidencing excellence.  As scholars, we need to be able to assess a range of projects that clearly evidence their research imperatives. We need to collectively share our knowledge of these issues through processes such as peer review (a subject that Victor Merriman has outlined succinctly on this blog). Indeed, the question of peer review is paramount. While the REF panel is centred on this activity, peer review works best as a feedforward exercise: it is not best positioned after the project has been completed, but occurs as a procedural developmental tool. When done correctly, peer review is intended to make the work ‘better’.  Practice Research is no different from any other scholarly area. We need to collectively share ‘good practice’ and sustain a narrative of excellence that our wider disciplinary areas can access and assess. We need to ensure the legacy of our knowledge insights in order to revoke the critique that Practice Research lacks scholarly integrity. The best way to achieve this is by promoting an archive of ‘portfolio’ examples. This is the premise of our section for STP ‘Practice Matters’.

 In terms of the technical matters aligned with a multi-media archive, our perspective is that trying is better than avoiding the issue. Indeed, we have been in conversation with Prof. Yvon Bonenfant about his work on Experiments & Intensities (E&I) an online edited collection series published by Winchester Press (http://www.experimentsandintensities.com/). Collaborating with Prof. Bonenfant, we have an outline of the basic requirements involved in hosting an online platform and we are currently in discussions with Routledge (the publisher of STP) about the best way to proceed.   For instance, we are aware of services such as figshare (http://figshare.com/), which offer much in terms of hosting and referencing individual items of media content. Nevertheless, what we are focused on is archiving the ‘full’ portfolio in a manner that allows the knowledge claims to be assessed. The narrative of the research project is paramount. Yet, it is also to be concise and to the point – we are not, necessarily, interested in two hour long videos (see submission statement below). It is likely that the interface will be straightforward in the first instance and focused on the clear communication of research imperatives. Equally, as outlined on June 4th, I do not personally conceive of Practice Research as being innately concerned with creative practice. Accordingly, while we understand that a well-designed and multifunctional interface is attractive to artists, our first concern is to focus on functionality and sharing the work as part of a peer review community.

Moreover, we recognise that each project will no doubt have its own particularities with regards the relationship between medium and content. We are open to suggestions in that regards, as outlined as part of our submission process. I would, however, suggest that the possibilities of an online format allow us to frame the idea of complementary writing with integrated media content. In particular, we might consider the notion of ‘integrated writing’ as a more holistic method of arguing how the content relates to the medium (and vice versa). While I personally am not keen on the use of video as the only curatorial strategy, the use of short video clips alongside and in dialogue with text (and other media) seems to me to offer one useful (and attainable) way forward. Importantly, our vision for the ‘curated portfolio’ submission is that, at the proposal stage, individuals submit a contextual and curatorial statement. It is vitally important that these documents offer a clear organisational principle and allow individuals to move in and out of particular sections. Ideally, a reader should be able to skip content in a logical manner, as well as pick up from when they left off. The experience should not be too far removed from the manner in which we are able to navigate a book. Nevertheless, the focus must remain on evidencing the knowledge claims. Additional information relating to a full documentation of a performance, for instance, is supplementary. The relationship between our mapping of these contextual and curatorial statements is outlined in the submission guidance included below.

In summary, I believe that the ‘second wave’ of Practice Research will be focused on questions of accessibility and quality. We need to share our findings more openly and we need to point to a clear narrative of excellence. In undertaking this not inconsiderable challenge, the idea is to evidence to our broader communities the innate value of practically borne knowledge, so that we, as a grouping of disciplines, can enter into a shared ‘discourse’.  The idea that a Practice Research project has a shelf life is no longer good enough. Accordingly, we need to ensure that the new insights acquired through our collective processes of craft, action and dialogue are sustained beyond any one individual or event.  The work – the knowledge – must be accessible by future experts and non-experts. Practice Research is not an administrative task.  Overall, the future of Practice Research is access and signposting quality.

Download STP Submission Guidance.

The material included below was published in Studies in Theatre & Performance, Issue 35.2. A further articulation of our vision for the section can be found in our original announcement in STP 35.1 (Hann and Ladron de Guevara 2014).

[1] ‘People might say things as, ‘if I could put it into words, I would have to dance it’. While I have considerable sympathy with this point of view, it can be unhelpful. […] I believe the complementary writing of artists might afford access to the complex process of making to non-specialists’ (Nelson 2013: 36-37).

[2] ‘For the purposes of the REF, research is defined as a process of investigation leading to new insights, effectively shared’ (REF 2011: 48).

Bibliography

Hann, Rachel. and Ladron de Guevara, Victor. 2015. ‘Addressing Practice: Introducing a new section for STP’, Studies in Theatre & Performance 35.1: 3-6.

Nelson, Robin. 2013. Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Phelan, Peggy. 1993. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, New York & London: Routledge

REF. 2011. ‘Assessment framework and guidance on submissions’, REF 2014. [accessed 14/07/2015] URL: http://www.ref.ac.uk/pubs/2011-02/