:: artistic research

Time for a new model for artistic research?

Monday, October 2nd, 2017

I’ve now done several PhD defences on the mainland (especially Sweden & Finland). It’s a much bigger deal than the rather perfunctory PhD viva here. You have a public conversation with the candidate (who may have published their dissertation by then, and whose supervisors and internals will have assured themselves that there’s very little likelihood of anything but success). The audience is invited to join in too and there’ll typically be a celebratory lunch for the assembled company. It’s a heart-warming way to recognise the achievement of the student.

I’m usually called in to oppose (that’s what it’s called) artistic research doctorands. Singers-who-can-write-and–know-a-bit-about-academia is still a rather select body and the field of performance research is growing rapidly. I love the disputation part – knowing that you’re going to meet a candidate who’s been properly prepared (often with multiple supervisors and presenting multi-media projects). It’s invariably a dialogue between two artistic grown-ups.

But…I can’t help feeling that whatever follows Post-Modernism is going to have much less use for critical theory. Part of me can’t get enough of Judith Butler or Julia Kristeva, but it’s now a very small part. In the effort to legitimise performance practice research as being of academic value we all encouraged students to ground their work in cultural theory. My own thesis was heavily Gramscian and I do still value the Gramscian bits – though in my defence it was a theoretical thesis not artistic research (which hadn’t yet been invented).

I sometimes came in for a bit of stick from my university colleagues when I began to suggest to students that critical theory was a great intellectual exercise but didn’t have much to do with what I thought of as real life. Having now been out of academia and back into fulltime performing for several years I find myself quite a long way from anything I learned or taught as an academic. This isn’t to say there’s no room for artistic research – it’s more a plea for the research project to be valued on its own terms without the need to relate it to a literature which has surely had all the juice wrung out of it by now. After all, as a Swedish academic pointed out to me recently, if you’re doing a PhD in History or Biology you don’t have to include a chapter on Barthes or Merleau-Ponty (who probably knew as much about both those disciplines as they did about music). Furthermore, very few performers work on their own – we all collaborate with fellow musicians, dancers, actors or whatever, just as scientists and sociologists get together, so let’s have much more joint work.

A post-Post-Modernism artistic research programme will surely have enough practice-based models to call on not to need the abstract theorising which has become formulaic in so many recent theses. A spade is a spade, not a critical tool with which you can enter into dialogue with the earth.