Practice-as-Research is a methodology deployed in departments of performing arts (including music), design, fine art, illustration, textiles, film, television, creative writing… Its outcomes are practical and/or written, creative and critical, still contested, and validated in both the definition of research in the documentation of REF2014 and the AHRC.
PaR has become contentious possibly because it is sometimes situated (often by non participants) in a theory v practitioner polemic. Whilst this captures in a neat binary opposition, the practice as ‘the doing’, and theory as ‘the thinking about the doing’, it simplifies and thereby limits the possibilities that PaR offers.
PaR isn’t always a practical experiment (in a scientific model) set up to provide material for a written paper (although sometimes it might be): sometimes it is its own paper, but its results are often in flux, and sometimes not replicable, something which is important in the scientific model of research. John Freeman of De Montfort University has this to say:
Performance is not easily made subject to the conditions of the scientific laboratory. Experiments can never be repeated, because the conditions, the human conditions, of performance are never even remotely the same from one experiment to the other. Performance is creation. It moves and transmutes, even as we watch. It amounts to a type of knowledge that one could not be in possession of before the fact. We can say, therefore, that performance work is not comprised of knowledge about something else – it is the fullness of its own knowledge.
(Freeman, 2002: 101)
Stephen Farrier, from Central School of Speech and Drama rejects the notion of what he describes as, ‘the academic as a sort of cataloguer of what happens in performance’ (Farrier, 2005: 143). PaR is also not quite about putting theory into practice: Farrier prefers to champion the use of the term praxis that he defines as, “an effort of will to transform theoretical concepts and considerations into shared physical activity” (Farrier, 2005: 129). The keyword here is transform, since in being animated through practice, theory can be critiqued, advanced, shifted and changed, whereas ‘putting into practice’ tends to imply that the theory is merely demonstrated. Farrier goes on to explore the symbiotic relationship between theory and practice:
‘making’ is not empty of thinking in ways that could be considered theoretical, and … thinking is not devoid of a form of creativity. … Through the use of praxis, the values of theory can be ‘embodied’ in physical situations.
(Farrier, 2005: 130)
In other words, as Freeman has noted, the performance scientist cannot always repeat the experiment with exactly the same results, not can the experiment be separated out so easily from its results and conclusions. Farrier also comments:
Rather than seeing practice and theory at opposite ends of a shape that values one over the other, a cyclical relationship can be used to describe to what extent theory and practice can be seen as equally interrelated. Given certain circumstances, practice is part of post-structuralist theory and theory part of practice; they are not discrete or mutually exclusive features, but inexorably wedded together.
In his 2013 book, Practice as Research in the Arts, Robin Nelson articulates the notion of ‘liquid knowing’ expounded by Marina Abramovic. PaR deals with embodied knowledge, of which Angela Piccini comments thus:
The creation of embodied knowledges is frequently invoked by creative practitioners as the fundamental epistemological contribution of PAR to the HE sector. This ‘knowing how’ is often placed in opposition to the conscious cognition of ‘knowing that’.
(Piccini, 2005: 192)
John Freeman defines PaR as:
Heuristic processes [which] offer an embrace of notions of self-discovery. … The very act of discovery leads the discovering researcher to new points of knowledge and new directions to take.
(Freeman, 2002: 99)
In the meantime, PaR is (perhaps, maybe…)
- embodied knowledges (Piccini, 2005: 193)
- a performance with nothing more to say than what it has already said
- a performance and a metanarrative
- a lost forever performance, the only archaeological traces of which are folk memories, blurred photographs and witness accounts
- ‘the wild freedom that is the privilege of the disciplined artist’ (Winterson, 1996: 74)
- a self reflective practice
- an affront to the logocentric prejudice of the HE academy (Papers at all costs! Publish or be damned)
- difficult to document; difficult to disseminate
- something which problemitises ‘PhD-worthiness’ (Smith, 2005: 83)
- sometimes about processes more than outcomes
- all of these things and none of them.
Nothing in the above list leads us to suppose that every instance of practice can be defined as research activity. Farrier offers this:
I suspect, in fact, that the majority of what we are able to see in established large West End theatres does not engage in any form of theoretical discussion or thinking, because part of what it has to consider is economic (and theory in performance is not particularly saleable). Yet, in colleges and universities such fiscal considerations are not at the forefront of work that seeks to engage with praxis, as I have described it, because its considerations are educational and thus have space for participants to play with ways in which they may make performance.
(Farrier, 2005: 132)
Key concepts of PaR include: discovery through play; self-reflection and auto-ethnography; and knowledge through and in an entwined creative and critical endeavour. In all this, a forecast of the outcome at the outset is sometimes difficult: PaR can be a journey without a map or a guide book. As with any creative process, PaR is sometimes a methodology that reveals its research question only at the end of the endeavour.
This is the nature of research into practice. In examining the nature of making, one also casts new light on the made. This is not about homogenization. All processes are different, in degree if not always in kind.
(Freeman, 2002: 101)
Farrier, S. (2005), ‘Approaching performance through praxis’, Studies in Theatre and Performance, 25, (2) 129 – 143
Freeman, J. (2002), ‘Writing the self; the heuristic documentation of performance’, Studies in Theatre and Performance, 22 (2) 95 – 106
Nelson, R. (ed.) (2013) Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
Piccini, Angela. (2005), ‘An Historiographic Perspective on Practice as Research’, Studies in Theatre and Performance, 23 (3) 191 – 207
Smith, Kathy. (2005), ‘Square Pegs and Round Holes’, Studies in Theatre and Performance, 25 (1) 83 – 84
Winterson, Jeanette. (1996) Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, London: Vintage.