Sarah Whatley Blog Post

Practice Research may start from several beginnings.  It may be speculative, unconventional, or, if funded, may mean having to produce a ‘work’ by a certain date.  Each practice project is the result of different ways of working, different traditions, paradigms, methods and contexts (so producing a painting is not the same as producing a dance work). Notwithstanding the challenge of evidencing the research in Practice Research where no tangible object can be produced (of the ‘research’ itself) the researcher can’t afford to wait until the ‘after’ of the practicing to produce the artefact that evidences the research.  The practice is emergent, iterative, often multiple, and put bluntly, unless documented along the way of the making, might already be too late to put forward for REF as Practice Research (in a way that makes it reviewable).  The opportunity to ‘reverse engineer’ the output that may not have intended to be research but becomes researchful in how it develops is what often happens (analogous to writing the papers once the ideas have been formulated, consolidated and tested) but the many elements that might constitute the ‘work’ might already have disappeared if not collected and organised along the way.  This is not to get into complex debates about what a ‘work’ might be, and the ontological conditions that determine an art work as being this, or that, but it is important that we acknowledge that practice is not always research, and that doesn’t mean that the practice isn’t good practice (or to suggest that practice appears out of nowhere with no thoughtful process driving it) but Practice Research has to make clear why it is just that, research.  The questions that are driving the researcher need to be articulated, the methods of production need to be considered and understood, and the ‘output’, however multiple or ephemeral, needs to be ‘published’ so that there is evidence that it exists, it has form and can be encountered, contemplated, even if it demands a different mode of attention or engagement by the viewer; and when it comes to exercises such as REF, reviewed accordingly.

Earlier this year I enjoyed an email conversation with design expert and theorist Ken Friedman, who told me he was trying to figure out how we can develop a rich culture of practice [based] research, in a way that links a rich variety of research skills to a rich experiential base in practice. His view is that most making — practice — involves inquiry, development, and thinking – and for advanced practice, this is definitely the case. I liked his comment that ‘There seems to me to be some kind of area in which these [practices] shade off into research — and then, on further work, much of this is definitely research.’ So where is the line between practice and Practice Research? His comments made me think about this blurriness, and how we need to support our colleagues and the broader research community navigate this blurriness, particularly where a practice researcher’s own identity may be both (or either) ‘artist’ and ‘practice researcher’.  Is it back to how to describe the research element? I turn to Friedman again in his call that lived action in a situated context requires care and insight. The care this requires is far greater than the care required to observe and describe a text that sits on a printed page without moving. Lived action changes continually. The form, the acts, even the context shift subtly and continually.

My own discipline is dance and I work closely with those engaged in Practice Research in dance and movement-based arts; very much ‘lived action’.  I recognise the imprecision in categories, but there are features of this Practice Research that present particular challenges when part of exercises such as the REF.  Dance is an inherently unstable practice.  It tends to resist its own recording.  It is encountered through the doing, the viewing, the remembering and frequently foregrounds the tacit knowledge of the body that once documented can unintentionally undermine itself. Colleagues directly engaged in Practice Research produce performances (in multiple sites and contexts), choreographies, exhibitions, films, digital resources, installations and other outputs that are not easily categorised. For those working in hybrid and liminal practices, the ‘work’ may only exist in the direct experience of being in relation with it as it unfolds. In such cases, where the research that drives the practice may actually be ground-breaking, the outcomes can be elusive or can seem to evaporate in the very process of attempting to pin it down for the purpose of review.  The playfulness and curiosity that may characterise the development can feel constrained by the processes of recording, but recording we must, so that Practice Research is fully present and can claim its authority.

For practice researchers, there are some documentation strategies to consider (and these are drawn from guidance notes prepared with my colleague Simon Ellis for our own research team):

  •  Documentation is what emerges through collecting the traces, outcomes and leftovers of the practice. Writing often forms part of the documenting; it can weave through/between/ around/alongside practice, and unfold through the practice – it may be part of the practice itself (scores, scripts, poetry, glyphs, blogs, etc.).
  • Decide what to document and what purpose it serves, and the relationship of the document to the practice and the research questions/provocations. For example, unless the process is a key aspect of the research (the research is investigating process) then don’t kill the research outcomes with blow by blow accounts (video or otherwise) of process.
  • Documentation might be a practice itself.
  • Be judicious in the aspects of the project you are collecting and collating. They should be quite directly related to the research questions driving (or emerging from) the project.

A linear approach to developing Practice Research for the purposes of REF might then look something like:

  1. Outline the research area and concerns to develop objectives and research questions.
  2. Work through practice(s) to address the questions – be open to what is going on in the project-that-will-be-research.
  3. Collect and note key moments/insights.
  4. Ensure documentation of the work that is appropriate to the research questions/project objectives.
  5. Collect samples of materials for the submission (e.g. images, reviews, project summary, other writing – scholarly or otherwise).
  6. Develop, through careful crafting, the 300-word statement.

Practice Research is important for all our arts disciplines, it ensures the health of our disciplines within our institutions as well as within processes such as REF.  But what is clear is that for much Practice Research, the work involved in producing the work for external review purposes is significant. Once the article, the chapter is written and published; job done.  Once the Practice Research is ‘done’ the work may be just beginning to organise the collected traces, and the records and documents of its production.  But a careful and thoughtful process of documenting from the beginning will ease this process and help with managing what can be a complex and multi-layered endeavour.

One thought on “Sarah Whatley Blog Post

  1. Thank you for posting these thought provoking observations. This might be the beginning of a methodology of documenting artistic and curatorial practices.
    When I organised the exhibition about sound artist pioneer Peter Vogel in 2011 in Brighton together with Conall Gleeson, I was acutely aware that once the exhibition was over, nothing of the event would remain – apart from the date of the exhibition, a symposium and a few pictures. I decided to create a documentary film about this sound artist and his work, because essentially sound art exists only in time and the medium film would be the most appropriate form to represent this time-based art. This documentary film, Peter Vogel : The Sound of Shadows, with an accompanying booklet containing 4 essays, has been published by WERGO in 2011. A shortened 30 min online version on vimeo ( has been watched over 80K times. I have also created a website about the exhibition

    In hindsight it was a good decision. Most of the rich details of this exhibition would have been lost. In the heat of planning and organising a complex event like an exhibition one can easily neglect documenting all the steps, but as Sarah so clearly argues, it is essential later for building a research portfolio.
    Jean Martin
    Senior Lecturer
    Digital Music and Sound Arts
    School of Media
    University of Brighton


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