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Practice-based Research Methodologies

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PbR is an action methodology, which focuses as much on the process of creation as on the artifact produced and the theoretical aspects of that process. PbR was invented to provide a methodology that would be in concert with the creative process. For a long time academic research in the Humanities has privileged a theoretical dimension. The traditional separation between theory and practice, researching and doing, was first questioned by Donald Schön’s account of the reflective practitioner and his argument that knowledge is produced in action (1983). His studies became an incentive towards new forms of learning by doing in school, and for the introduction of practice in art and design doctoral programs. The first practice-based PhDs were introduced in Australia and the UK in the 80s, when artefacts began to be included alongside a written dissertation as part of the submission. The growing influence of PbR stems in part from the recognition of the value of academic engagement with real-world initiatives. It is also increasingly recognised as the most suitable way of conducting research in the arts. Some strong proponents of practice-based research also assert that all research is practice-based (sometimes this is called action-research).

Yet, after several decades there are no universally accepted definitions, evaluation criteria and methods for PbR. Different terminology is still used (Research-led Practice, Art-based Research, Practice as Research all refer to similar methodologies but with different nuances). Perhaps one point of agreement is that usually the research practitioner is also the research subject. Another common trait is a cyclical process of trial and error, evaluation and implementation. This results in a continuous feedback loop between artefact and research.

Debates arisen from PbR primarily concern the relationships between artwork and knowledge, particularly around two main issues:

  1. the role of the artefact (does it embody the knowledge? or is it just a tool to achieve new knowledge? does it need a text or is it autonomous?)
  2. what kind of knowledge emerges from art-making? (subjective, local, affective? tacit and embodied? knowing as action / dynamic? or transferable and applicable to other domains? In any case we face an expansion of what can be considered a ‘contribution to knowledge’)

Some takes on the issue:

  • focus on aesthetic experience and interpretation > enriching theory (but not specific to the maker > practice-led).
  • use of visual methodologies as instrumental to non-artistic research, for instance in sociology, anthropology, medicine or psychology etc.
  • self-centred approach: researcher and research subject coincide, reflection on making process, analysis of own process.

Activity 1: using the materials provided, create mind-maps or posters to address one or more of the following questions. You can identify keywords, connect issues, reflect on your own experience, add further questions and so forth.

– How can you translate practice into knowledge / How do you discover something new by making / doing?

– Do creative research methods necessarily involve the production of material artefacts? What else can be the outcome?

– What challenges and limitations are associated with practice-based creative research methodologies?

– What can the role of collaboration or participation be in practice-based research?

– What is your own definition of practice-based research?

– How can we demarcate art as research from art practice (which often involves research)?

 

Possible methods for PbR:

notes, reflection, analysis of own practice, ethnography of practice //  interviews, collecting feedback from public or peers // artefacts as proof of concept or to test, explore hypothesis // RtD: artefacts to elicit people’s ideas, desires, attitudes (for design) // artefacts to respond to specific problem creatively and designerly // artefacts that makes explicit certain relationships, issues, concepts // media archaeology.

Typologies of knowledge outcomes emerging from PbR in the arts:

  •         Introduction of new methods and methodologies
  •         Practical guidance for artists, designers and makers
  •         Technological advancement / innovation
  •         Introduction of new areas of exploration or research
  •         Sociological or psychological insight / understanding of people’s relationship to art or technology

 

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Examples

New Media Art > Occupy the Screen by Paul Sermon and Charlotte Gould

“The installation takes live camera shots from above the screens of two separate audience groups in Berlin and Riga, both located on large blue ground sheets, which then combines them on screen via a chroma-key video switcher in a single composited image. As the merged audiences start to explore this collaborative, shared telepresent space they discover the ground beneath them, as it appears on screen as a digital backdrop, locates them in a variety of surprising and intriguing anamorphic environments. These backgrounds directly reference their social and cultural setting, containing converged scenes of Riga and Berlin in a 3D ludic game world.”

Commissioned by Connecting Cities, but published as research as part of their academic roles at Brighton University  and presented in a paper at ISEA 2015 where the project is explicitly described as practice-based research and as a case study.

The paper situates the project against a theoretical background (literature review) which addresses the topics of urban screens and urban sociality; play; art as intervention; interactivity. The project is also located in continuity with previous work by the artists.

It outlines specific research aims: “what the opportunities are for creativity, intervention and public cohesion through these screens?”

It identify a methodology: “the authors utilise a method which maps the five elements of play, as defined by Hans Scheuerl in 1965 to measure open and closed system”. They analysed and compared the behaviours observed in the participants (through live observation + recordings) to the features (elements) of play to identify and classify ways of structuring urban interaction to stimulate agency and sociability (including for instance “closeness of the game”, “ambivalence” and “virtuality”).

It claims clear contributions to knowledge: “a framework for artists and curators to maximise engagement with public audiences through play”.

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Sound and participatory art > UrbanRemix by Jason Freeman, Carl DiSalvo, Michael Nitsche

UrbanRemix is a collaborative and locative sound project that enables participants to explore, the acoustic identity of communities, based on sounds they discover, record, and remix. Participants use mobile phone software to record and share geo-tagged sounds captured from the urban environment. A web-based tools enable anyone to browse and remix those sounds with an intuitive map-based interface.

Aims: “our original intentions with Urban Remix: to re-engage citizens with their surroundings with the help of locative sound; to engage community members in a creative use of smartphone technology.”

Background: other project with locative media and sound (UR is claimed to be different for stronger accent on community). The acoustic ecology work pioneered by R. Murray Schafer. Public and participatory art.

It consists of three key elements:

  • a mobile application for capturing geo-tagged sounds
  • an interactive online map for exploring and remixing sounds
  • a range of outreach workshops and live performance events.

Design and Implementation:  mobile applications for iOS and Android. The web site enables users to browse, explore, and remix the content that has been uploaded . The map view serves as both a browsing mechanism and a spatial remixing engine. On the map, paths become a means to remix audio content into spatialized soundscapes. Users can draw paths directly on the map or compute directions between two locations. The path is rendered as an audio soundscape, mixing together the sounds closest to the path.

Public Presentations: UrbanRemix is organized around workshops and public events in specific urban neighborhoods. Each event typically begins with a period of sound and image collection. After collection is complete, DJs and/or VJs prepare a public performance in the neighborhood, using only the contributed content in their remix.

Discussion and Future Work: “We are currently implementing two key extensions to the existing UrbanRemix platform. First, we are making image content more integral to the platform, in particular by enabling the map-based interface to remix images in a similar manner to the current functionality for sounds. Second, we are complementing the existing map-based remixing functionality with a locative remixing feature for mobile devices.” “we look forward to seeing how we can continue to collaboratively discover, explore, capture, repurpose, and share the unique urban spaces we so often take for granted.”

Depending on the context the value of the project could change: eg. in area about to be redeveloped in Atlanta it became a form of acoustic virtual heritage that allows an audio-exploration of places whose character is bound to change rapidly in the near future.

Limitations: “Participation still depends on availability of relatively expensive smart phones, for example. Although we provide devices during the workshops, many other citizens remain excluded.”

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Curation > Artistic Prototypes by Gabi Arrigoni

My research introduces new kinds of understandings of artistic practice taking place in laboratories and engaging with the design, production and critique of technological artefacts. More specifically, I identify the concept of artistic prototype to describe the outcome of a great deal of research in the field of new media art, design and physical computing.

Mine is a practice-based PhD where the practice is curation, so I developed a number of projects (exhibitions, workshops, seminars) to gain knowledge about my topic. My methodology is a combination of different approaches and every project has a different role in my research. This is partially due to the lack of models to look at, since the few existing curatorial PbR PhDs were mainly based on analysing audience behaviour, while my own focus is on what artists do.

Research Questions + Contributions

What happens when art practice is involved in research? What kind of aesthetic object emerges from artistic research? How is research influencing art practice?

The most notable characteristics identified in artworks produced in research and media labs resulted in their prototypicality. Essentially, these artworks are presented in a state of constant suspension and becoming. They do not aim at a final arrangement but at transformation and proliferation, extending themselves into multiple versions. This led to a second set of questions:

Why are prototypes so frequently the outcome of artistic practice conducted in labs? Which are their specific features and behaviours? How can we talk about them?

These questions have been answered by articulating the concept of artistic prototype and developing a conceptual framework to analyse and interpret its behaviour and its aesthetic dimension.

The framework is based on the investigation of a number of examples and case studies encountered through my curatorial practice. Beyond its role as an interpretative and critical tool, it is intended to support and inspire innovative curatorial strategies and methods, responding to a further research question:

How can curators respond to the notion of artistic prototypes? Are new potential avenues for practice being disclosed? How can a renewed understanding of prototyping influence the way artworks and collections are being presented to the public?

These last questions is answered through the analysis of two curatorial projects organised as part of my PhD, but also looking at current emerging tendencies advanced by other practitioners, and eventually suggesting further possibilities which have not been tested in practice yet.

 A Hybrid Methodology

Initial projects (prototyping and design fiction workshops; exhibitions in CL) helped me to familiarise with the potential of prototyping to share ideas and engage the public; to generate new questions; to collect approaches and reflections from artists-researchers.

The central project (a group show at the NewBridge Gallery) was a materialisation of my research; a way to get closer to artistic practice through interviews and ongoing collaboration; a way to visualise and categorise a number of features of artistic prototypes to develop a conceptual framework.

The last projects (exhibitions and engagement program) were applications of my framework and previous insights in the field of curatorial practice and heritage work; ways of demonstrating that the theories advanced in the thesis can have a direct impact of practitioners.

Differently from most PbR in the arts, here the focus is outside the researcher’s practice: the object of investigation is what other practitioners do. There is also a movement from the particular, the specific experience, to general, abstractable elements.

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Activity 2: Read the methodologies extracted from a set of existing research projects and discuss them in group highlighting strengths and weaknesses, and trying to relate them to your own practice and potential future research endeavors.

Practice Project 13: Exhibition Documentation

The work was exhibited at Culture Lab, Newcastle, as part of the CAP group’s first exhibition –

MA Creative Arts Practice (2013-2014)
Degree Show
“The most brilliant students in all CAP history present a set of interactive works about self-awareness and transition.”
Culture Lab
Newcastle University
23rd-26th September
12.00-17.00
Private View
22th Sept, 17.30 – 19.30
website: dm.ncl.ac.uk/being-in-the-world/

Chamber of Consciousness feedback –

Room for improvement however would be perhaps trying new ways of wearing the sensor, such as the ear clip, as people were often pressing too hard on the sensor preventing it from working. Another observation was that the interactive work would be more effective on a bigger, more immersive scale, such as a life size room that uses VR.
Future developments of any audiovisual biometric project would take this feedback into consideration.

Practice Project 12: Exhibition Opening

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The exhibition opening was interesting – most people had some valuable comments to make about the work, such as…

“It’s like being in a horror movie”
“I feel like a rabbit caught in the headlights”
“It’s like being awake inside a dream”
“The lights make it seem as though I’m on trail for a murder investigation”

So, in summary, it did what it was intended to do!

Practice Project 11: Exhibition Preparation

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The issue of presentation has been resolved in three steps:

1. Hiding the wires and MacBook under the table draped with black cloth
2. Replacing the built in camera with this go-pro quality device, fixed onto the bottom of the furthermost screen
3. Placing a light on each of the screens to illuminate space

Speakers have also been placed under the table, so that the soundscape is at its loudest when the participant is stood between the screens. I have purchased a black Arduino uno projects box so that the uno board can be concealed. Hopefully, the lighting system should provide enough light to allow for a good image to be captured by the camera, at the same time as keeping a suitable atmosphere; the row of lights in the studio itself was too bright. The idea of concealing the work within a room within the studio created using black curtains was explored, but it was decided that due to practical obstacles (I.e. Not being able to hang the black sheets) this was not possible.

Special thanks to Matt Robinson for assisting me with the technical issues.

Practice Project 09: Testing and Results

STORMPROTOTYPE

Six participants were invited to test the prototype, all of whom were studying digital media in some respect at master level at Newcastle University. The participants were given a set of questions, and were encouraged to answer in as much detail as possible. The participants were notified that at any point they were able to withdraw from the study. Selected participants agreed to be filmed as part of the documentation of process. The Pure Data based prototype is controlled by the heartbeat of the participant, who is wearing an Arduino pulse sensor.

The below image demonstrates how the prototype was set up. Some challenges the process posed are as follows:

– What kind of camera is best to use?
– How to hide the camera whilst effectively attaching it to the screen?
– How to hide the computer?
– What method is best to make the pulse sensor both accessible and wearable without instruction?

These are some of the items I will be investigating over the newt few weeks.

The below video documents the testing process.

Some issues arose during testing:

– Some participants could not hear a change in audio from the biometric data
– Some participants did not think the change caused by the biometric data was particularly obvious without being told about it
– Some participants suggested that the blob tracking needs reworking because it obscures the view too much

The testing process was incredibly insightful and useful. The visual and audio components of the prototype will be refined, as will the way of exhibiting it.