Thoughts on creative practice and research

I set out to offer some initial thoughts in this post on a practice-informed research project I’ve been messing around with for the last couple months called FATHEAD, which basically amounts to a wearable microphone/headset that simulates how the world would sound if the wearer’s head were 1000 feet wide. Before I got to discussing the project itself, though, I found myself needing to explicitly note my hesitation around the term “practice-informed research,” and that note ultimately swelled enough that I thought it could probably constitute a short post unto itself. So, in the near future I’ll offer an account of FATHEAD that will include the source code, materials list, instructions, and some reflections on the emergent theoretical questions that the piece yields; for the moment, though, I want to offer a few thoughts on the relation between practice and research.

My skepticism about “practice-informed research” (as well as its various discontents such as practice-based research, research-based practice, etc) comes from a number of places, of which I’ll mention only two. Firstly, to my knowledge the term initially gained prominence in the context of the UK’s ideologically-motivated emphasis on measurable outcomes in University research and teaching. This emphasis is at best spurious, and is part and parcel of a neoliberal politics that is probably the most proximate danger to the tiny element of intellectual diversity that can still be fostered in universities. Despite being a (probably) necessary tactic for that particular political battle, this in no way means that such a terminological expansion should take hold as a strategy as that battle’s purview expands. That is, an effective detournement of liberalism’s emphasis on proceduralism doesn’t necessarily translate to a desirable plan to contest the values that underwrite that system.

Secondly, and relatedly, I’ve always wondered about the implicit value that seems to be given to ‘research’ in this arrangement. In the case of practice-based research, for example, I find it hard to understand how this formulation is anything other than an authorization of creative practice via the assumption of value in research; is such an authorization really necessary? This reeks to me of the same logic that suggests listening to Mozart because it will make you smarter. In any case, research in itself isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but I suppose my hesitation lies in the fact that arguments in favor of PBR almost always lay claim to attending to “other forms of knowledge and knowing” which to me is the exact opposite of what is exciting about artistic practice, in so far as knowledge (when it is treated as an identifiable thing) premediates the vagaries of practice. Institutionally-recognized knowledge is, by definition, a reification, and is thereby oriented towards certain kinds of exchange. Do we really want to frame the contingencies, wonders, and ephemeralities of artistic practice in this way? (To be clear, I’m in no way suggesting that we just accept that these features of artistic practice have necessary and a priori value in themselves and are therefore beyond the pale of consideration, I just can’t believe that institutionally-sanctioned research is the most interesting way to approach this.)

Obviously, the very fact that these questions matter to me speaks to the fact that the problem of insisting on practice is one that I feel merits attention. (I’ll also note that I recognize that these questions won’t matter to many, as these are questions whose relevance is greatly amplified by the context of working in a university.) For myself, I’ve approached this problem in part by thinking of the practical component of my work as splitting along three lines. There are, firstly, my creative works that are worked towards completion in the conventional sense, and that subsequently circulate in the economy of art and music worlds. These works are rare for me—and increasingly so—precisely because I find it hard to accept the trade-off of my having to hustle the work in order for it to speak in this register…in the absence of any real belief in ‘great works,’ such activities—which are necessarily quotidian for professional artists—feel disingenuous to me when I undertake them (though only for me,  I know that most artists don’t feel this way and probably shouldn’t…and also that hustling is as much a part of giving a paper, teaching, and myriad other settings I’m engaged in where I am ultimately willing to make the trade-off).

Secondly, I often like to make or do things just for the sake of it, buoyed by the assumption that the process of doing so will ultimately spur some fresh pathways or tendencies in my daily thinking and living. This kind of work (of which FATHEAD is an example, as is to a certain extent Exurbia) tends to take on what might charitably be called a DIY aesthetic, but what really is just the look of incompletion. Schematically, I tend to think of such projects as catalyzing (as opposed to causing) research, where, the distinction between catalysis and causation is simply meant to suggest that they activate a system (my thinking) that operates according to a logic that is distinct from their own. (Causation and catalysis are of course never completely distinct.) In these sorts of projects I often intentionally make the work such that they aren’t really viable art objects: FATHEAD, for example, can’t easily be displayed, shown on stage, documented, circulated, et cetera.

Finally, I think there is a place for practice-based methods in answering research questions that predate them. These sorts of projects, in my case, proceed by answering a question that can’t be answered except in its execution; that is, the types of questions that tend to be answered in the form of patterns, tendencies, and accruals rather than synchronic analyses. If you’ve heard me talk about Skewed Remote Musical Performance, you’ve probably heard me talk about this.

To be clear then, I’m in no way undermining the value of practice, nor suggesting that there is no place for practice in conventional research settings. With that said, though, I’m appalled how often PBR is used as an alibi for activities that don’t succeed according to the demands of either term separately, and whose peculiarities are—by virtue of being framed as PBR—collapsed into the institutional procedures that subtend Art and Research (uppercases intentional). It strikes me as crucial to keep in mind that even though creative practice and research might be equally valuable (if we’re being generous to research), not everything matters in the same wayand acting as though everything does has a better chance of undermining the vagaries of creative practice than it does of introducing any cracks in the foundation of research complexes.

That said, I know that many of my friends and colleagues disagree, so I’d love to better understand why if anyone cares to comment.

– Cecchetto