Updated: Sep 27, 2020
'a practice-as-research process is tough' - Robin Nelson, 2013
Connecting the angel wings together. Photo Credit: Charlotte Discombe.
Just before we get started, I thought it would be useful to say that I have a little definition of my understanding of practice-as-research (PAR) here on the website. I would suggest checking that out, and the recommended reading, if you're new to the term. Before reading on, I would also suggest making sure you've got plenty of time to look through this blog, because it's going to be a little bit longer than most of my other blogs. So prepare yourselves!
With that all said, let's get into it.
What does PAR mean? My understanding of PAR is that it refers to research projects that involve more non-traditional methods of thinking and learning. For instance, instead of reading library books and then writing an essay about said research you've conducted in the library, PAR projects are more practical and sometimes more creative too. Academic Robin Nelson has written a particularly useful book entitled Practice as research in the arts : principles, protocols, pedagogies, resistances. This book explores Nelson's own understanding of PAR, and contains contributions from professors around the world discussing their own understanding. Nelson states 'practice-as-research involves a research project in which practice is a key method of inquiry and where, in respect of the arts, a practice [...] is submitted as substantial evidence of a research inquiry' (2013). In relation to Call Us Angels then, I have personally spent over 100 days collecting, sorting and cleaning my trash. I have then made and worn trash angel wings. These acts of doing, over an extended period of time, have enabled me to physically feel and explore my research questions of: why are women and young girls protesting more against climate change and the ecological crisis? ; what is the relationship between gender and the ecological crisis? and can women be seen as guardian angels of the world? These acts of doing, and my deeper understanding of gender and the ecological crisis as a result of these acts of doing, have been shared and documented on Instagram and this website. The act of making and wearing angel wings has been a crucial part of exploring my research questions and, as Nelson states in his definition, this practice will be submitted as part of my research concluding my MA at Roehampton University.
In the introduction to his book, Nelson goes on to state that PAR is the 'drawing attention to the thread of the researcher's doing-thinking' (Nelson, 2013). I love this understanding of PAR projects. His use of the word 'thread' in connecting the researcher's thinking with their doing (and vice versa) really resonates with my own experience of developing Call Us Angels. Throughout this project, I have spent months using string to thread trash into the shape of angel wings. This slow process of threading trash into angel wings afforded me with the time to think through the relationship between gender and the ecological crisis, but also allowed me to physically contemplate my own role within this crisis. Without this time spent threading, I would never have physically grasped or understood the amount of trash I personally have made and collected during the course of 2020, emphasising my own need to cut down the trash I use to reduce my own involvement within the ecological crisis.
Overwhelmed at the amount of trash I produced. Photo Credit: Charlotte Discombe.
I have really enjoyed working through Call Us Angels as a PAR project and as a result I have often forgotten to take into account this new strand of research's history, and some of the problems that have arisen during my time conducting a PAR project. This is something I need to rectify now.
PAR courses and research emerged in the UK during the 80s and 90s. It was during this time that polytechnics, who provided many vocational and creative courses for students, were becoming 'new' universities. Wanting to keep the vocational aspects of their creative courses, but develop the academic rigour to adhere to their new university status, PAR courses and research were developed (Nelson, 2013). As academic Estelle Barrett states in their book Practice as Research: approaches to creative art enquiry, PAR provided university institutions with 'an alternative to traditional academic pedagogies that emphasise a more passive mode of learning' (Barrett, 2007). There was and still is some push back from academics who privilege these more traditional modes of knowledge sharing (i.e. lectures, reading, essay writing) over the more tactile forms of knowledge favoured by PAR research (i.e. practical seminars, studio work, creative practice).
Realising that many academic institutions privilege traditional research over PAR research has been eye opening and confusing to me. During Call Us Angels, I have not only been developing my own knowledge about gender and the ecological crisis by making trash angel wings, but have also been delving into academic texts. In doing so, I realised that these academic texts are always in a certain format, using overly complicated scientific jargon, making these texts inaccessible to many. Furthermore, said texts are only accessible to a limited amount of women - those who are able to access a university library, and those who have the time and money to undertake research into gender and the ecological crisis in these kinds of institutions. This shouldn't have to be the case. I question why so many universities are so hesitant to include PAR research and projects in their institutions. Perhaps including more practical research projects, like Call Us Angels, would provide people with an alternative access to information? In the case of Call Us Angels for instance, I used Instagram and a blog to share free, accessible information about gender and the ecological crisis. There needs to be a more diverse range of methods of sharing knowledge in order to encourage a diverse range of voices within these institutions.
'How can we speak of "practice" in the broad sense and then confine our research to the kind of temporal structures that academic institutions support?' - Ben Spatz, 2018
I have often questioned my sanity in choosing to conduct a PAR project. Although a PAR project has allowed me to explore different methods of sharing knowledge about the relationship between gender and the ecological crisis, it has come with its difficulties. Nelson even states that 'a practice-as-research process is tough' (2013), and admits that he encourages many of his PhD students to avoid undertaking such a task. This is because these kinds of creative research projects require a variety of different skill sets. In the case of Call Us Angels, I needed to be sure that I could craft wearable angel wings out of trash. I also needed to be sure that the crafting of said wings would enlighten my understanding of the relationship between gender and the ecological crisis. I still needed to read and understand academic texts and work out how these academic texts related to my own physical research processes. I also needed to be able to write said research down in an eloquent format that simultaneously engaged with a more accessible form of sharing knowledge learned during the project. At times this felt almost impossible, as if I was trying to undertake too many tasks all at once.
This hasn't been the only problem I have had to battle with during this PAR project. Time is also an issue for PAR projects, particularly those taking place within the rules and regulations of a university setting. Not only have I struggled to understand the privileges of traditional research, I have also been beginning to question what it means for me to conduct PAR research in the confines of an institution that has their own timeline and their own need for a final outcome. Academic Ben Spatz, writer of the chapter 'Mad Lab - or why we can't do practice-as-research' in the book Performance as Research: knowledge, methods, impact questioned 'how can we speak of "practice" in the broad sense and then confine our research to the kind of temporal structures that academic institutions support?' (Spatz, 2018). Throughout Call Us Angels I have made it very clear that I have been focusing on the process of making and wearing angel wings, as well as the process of learning about the relationship between gender and the ecological crisis. I decided very early on in my project that there would be no end point to this PAR project and that I would continue to develop this project after my MA has been completed. However, I still have been confined to the timeline of my MA programme, and therefore need to hand in some kind of final outcome on the 28th September in order to obtain a university degree. Has the university environment confined Call Us Angels to a blog and Instagram page that can be handed in and marked instead of allowing this project to continue to grow over time? Perhaps. On the other hand, I would not have been able to access the resources needed to conduct this PAR project if I had not attended university and had not committed to the institution's timeline.
Call Us Angels Instagram page. Photo Credit: Charlotte Discombe.
Problems with PAR projects not only stem from the confines of the university institutions in which they develop from, but they also emerge from the subjective nature of the research too. As Barrett makes clear, 'what may be argued as the very strength of such research - its personally situated, interdisciplinary and diverse and emergent approaches - often contradict what is expected of research' (2007). Most traditional modes of research ignore the experiences and feelings of the researcher, suggesting that this would cause research to be subjective, therefore making said research only relevant to the researcher, not society as a whole. I question, what is so wrong with the subjective? Throughout my time in the education system, I have often felt that my own voice and experience have not been valid as a result of not conforming to traditional methods of research and knowledge. This has often made me reluctant to conduct my own research and join in with academic debates. Call Us Angels has given me a platform to explore ways to present, inform and make information about gender and the ecological crisis accessible to other women. Yes, my ways of exploring gender and the ecological crisis have been subjective, revolving around my own experience of making and wearing trash angel wings. However, I would argue that Call Us Angels should not be seen as the sole research project informing people of the relationship between gender and the ecological crisis. This would be reductionist to do so, with any research for that matter! Instead, we should view this PAR project as enabling my experiences to contribute to the conversations surrounding these issues. Maybe in doing a PAR project, in talking about my feelings and experiences, rather than writing another academic text, I might be able to encourage other voices of women who have also felt neglected by the education system to join in with the conversation.
PAR projects are not only subjective in their inclusion of the researcher's feelings and experiences, but are also subjective themselves. The term 'practice' within PAR is undefined. I would argue that this allows for a variety of artistic research practices to take place. However, Spatz sees this undefined nature of practice within PAR as controversial. '"Practice" in the context of "practice-as-research" is often left undefined. We may think that by not defining practice we are leaving it radically open, but in fact this lack of a rigorously epistemological definition of practice compels us to fall back continuously upon mainstream, vernacular, and above all professional definitions and standards' (2018). I find this quotation from Spatz hard to swallow. I question who would get to decide the definition of practice if we were to remove its radical openness - most undoubtedly the overly white, overly male, and overly middle class institutions in which these PAR projects are struggling to be accepted into. I see Spatz is trying to make a case for defining practice in order to avoid generalised ideas and use of the word, but Spatz does not give us a solution. I cannot give a solution to the undefined nature of 'practice' in PAR projects either. As Barrett makes clear, 'the impact of practice-as-research is still to be fully understood and realised' (2007). PAR research is still a relatively new form of research, and its place within academic institutions is still being found. We may never have the solutions to the undefined use of the word practice, and maybe over time the term will become more nuanced and defined. We shall have to wait and see.
To conclude for now though, the loose definition of practice has allowed me to make and wear trash angel wings to find out more about the relationship between gender and the ecological crisis. In conducting a PAR project, I have had the joy of engaging with a more tactile, subjective kind of knowledge. Although often frowned upon within traditional university settings, PAR projects allow for a subjective and deeply personal exploration of subjects and research. Without making and wearing my trash wings within Call Us Angels, I would never have been able to achieve the depth and understanding of the relationship between gender and the ecological crisis and would never have shared this knowledge with fellow angels.
Barrett, Estelle. 'Introduction'. Practice as Research: approaches to creative arts enquiry. London: I.B Tauris + Co Ltd., 2007, PP.1-15.
Nelson, Robin. Practice as research in the arts: principles, protocols, pedagogies, resistances, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Spatz, Ben. 'Mad Lab - or why we can't do practice as research'. Performance as Research: knowledge, methods, impact, London: Routledge, 2018, N.P.