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'Research Through Practice: Interdisciplinary Research and Artistic Practice'


Presented at COFA (College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales) seminar 'Research Through Practice: Beyond Research Equivalence in Art and Design', Sydney, NSW, 2004.



This paper examines a personal journey, that of an artist into the world of independent research. It formulates an orthogonal classification scheme for theories of art to define a relationship between elements of intuitive, aesthetic, historical and cultural art production. Finally it approaches the idea of interdisciplinary research and how that research can inform artistic production.


art, research, interdisciplinary research, institutional theory of art, cultural theories of art, psychological theories of art, aesthetics, information arts.



Art as Practice

My initial training was as a concert pianist. I was a child prodigy, attending The Royal Academy and Royal College of Music in London before the age of 16. Practice was essential to the development of technique, line, phrase, and aesthetic. An under-standing of the history of the composer and the history of the music and its cultural inflections were vital to a nuanced performance. After arriving in Australia in 1986 I undertook a Year 12 course in photography for two years and then entered RMIT University in Melbourne to complete a Bachelor of Arts also in photography. During these early years I developed a working methodology to achieve my aim of becoming a classical black and white photographer.
My subject matter was a photographic visualisation of the world and my place within it, a personal narrative based around environment and identity. I took black and white photographs and then tried to fit the concepts to the photographs after I had developed the film and proof sheets. This approach to constructing a body of work changed in a significant manner during the second year of the course at RMIT University. Through reading and research, concepts were found that focused my attention on specific investigations into environments and identities. This was the first time in my life that I had studied conceptual and philosophical texts and I found the challenge invigorating. It helped in having a mentor at RMIT University, one of my lecturers, who was a font of knowledge and
ever encouraging of my enquiries, and to this day we still remain good friends.

As a consequence of this research my art practice also changed. The black and white images had always contained 3D elements within them, such as pieces of lace, stone, or applied Letraset, but I now developed my exhibitions into installations, combining sculptural and colour elements with photographs and found elements. Gradually the personal symbology of the work became a more universal symbology, the concerns that were present at the beginning of my artistic career re-presented in a different form. These concerns are still present today, even though my work is now a blend of digital, analogue and installation based art practice.
After completing an Honours year I undertook my Master of Arts, studying the Apollian and Dionysian Ideals in the work of six photographers, namely Baron von Gloeden, Fredrick Holland Day, George Platt Lynes, Herbert List, Minor White and Robert Mapplethorpe. Two solo exhibitions were structured around the outcomes of the research along with the production of a written text. The conceptual research then led onto my doctorate that investigated, among other things, the history of the muscular mesomorphic body in photographic history and gym culture and how this body affected self-esteem among males. I travelled as research scholar to The Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Indiana to study their photographic archive, as well as to Princeton University to study the Minor White archive. The outcomes of the research were important findings, new knowledge that linked self-esteem and body image with unsafe sex in gay men, presented in a written exegesis and an artistic CD ROM (now adapted into a website). After finishing my doctorate I taught photography, website design, multimedia, cultural studies, and cybersociety at numerous universities around Melbourne before becoming Research Fellow at The University of Melbourne, a period I will address in the last section of this paper. I observe that there has been a thematic development
to my research as one research project and body of artwork has emerged from the last. I have found that my research informs my artistic practice and vice versa, themes emerging from the production of art leading to further research. Art practice and research live in a symbiotic relationship.


Mapping the Relationship Between Art, History and Research

“To understand the way we classify items of art today, we have to make reference to the historical development of the concept of art. Historicists do this by relating art made at a given time to the functions of contemporary or earlier artworks or to the intentions with which they are made. A cluster theorist would have to cope with the fact that the appropriate cluster of properties from which conditions sufficient for being art emerge is subject to historical change. Institutionalists … at least have to make reference to the origins of art institutions, to distinguish them from non-art institutions. In one way or another, a reference to art’s history is a prerequisite to a satisfactory definition of art.”1


It is not the place of this paper to argue the right and wrongs of the various definitions of art that abound in contemporary theories of art, such as the institutional theory of George Dickie,2 the historical definition of Jerrold Levinson,3 the functionalist aesthetic definitions of Monroe Beardlsley4 and Noël Carroll,5 the historical functionalism of Robert Stecker,6 or the cluster concept of Berys Gaut.7 Suffice it to say that I believe that all of these theories and more (such as resemblance-to-paradigm or significant form models) have something to offer in regard to how we can classify the relation between art, history and research. Dickie holds that there are natural-kind (emotional, psychological) activities and cultural-kind (“not written in the genes in the way that natural-kind behaviour is”)8 activities that are based on a web-like cultural institutional structure, and observes that various natural-kind activities may show up in various artworks, but that this phenomena is not actually necessary for a work to be an artwork. Dickie posits a “Janus-faced” dichotomy9 between natural-kind and cultural-kind artwork with little crossover between the two positions. His institutional theory seeks to find the cultural essence of a work of art, the underlying properties of “art” forming part of a larger reality, that of a web of relations instituted by a society of persons.10
In contrast to this binary system I propose an orthogonal classification system of art, one that is formed on a three dimensional mapping of space coordinates (x: psychological, natural theories of art; y: cultural, institutional theories of art; z the value and definition of artwork) in relation to time (w: the history of art). An orthogonal classification system would allow that
some or all of the conditions and criteria for the production of art would be present or not present in any particular artwork, all conditions and criteria acting (in)dependently of each other to a greater or lesser extent (See Figure 1.)


Orthogonal Classiificatiion Scheme for Theories of Art


Figure 1. Orthogonal Classification Scheme for Theories of Art




In terms of mapping the relationship between art and research the orthogonal classification scheme would enable us to define the level of conceptual identification within an artwork more easily, allowing us to better place each artwork in a three-dimensional matrix like space according to the artworks defining properties. In the case of conceptual art the criteria for defining those properties emerges from the concepts on which the work is grounded, the conditions of its production, the works relationship to the history of art, the quality of its aesthetics, and the value that we as a culture place on it.
In terms of the way forward for the relationship between research and artistic practice I agree with the ideas of Stephen Wilson. After identifying three stances that artists can take towards new technologies (Deconstruction as Art Practice: exposing the texts, narratives, and representations that underlie contemporary life; Modernist Practice of Art with Modifications for the Contemporary Era: individual vision and genius are still relevant, as is a specialized art discourse with claims to universal aesthetic truth; and Invention and Elaboration of New Technologies and their Cultural Possibilities as Art Practice: as artists establish a practice in which they participate at the core of this activity while maintaining postmodern reservations about the technological explosion),11 Wilson states that artists,

“Can pursue lines of inquiry abandoned because they were deemed unprofitable, outside established research priorities, or strange. They can integrate disciplines and create events that expose cultural implications, costs, and possibilities of the new knowledge and technologies. The arts can become an independent center of research."

Wilson continues, “Art as research is the most undeveloped and ultimately most crucial to the culture … The full flowering of research requires a much wider participation in the definition of research agendas … It needs the benefit of the perspectives from many disciplines including the humanities and the arts, not just in commentary but in actual research. This kind of artistic practice is not easy and its outcomes are uncertain. It requires that artists educate themselves enough to function non-superficially in the world of science and technology. They must learn the language and knowledge base of the fields of interest …”12

This is the key to independent research for artists: to learn the language and knowledge base of the fields of interest that they wish to investigate and then apply this knowledge to the production of their work.


Interdisciplinary Research and Artistic Production

The language and knowledge base that I gained from texts in the theories of cybernetics and mobile technologies while lecturing at The University of Melbourne stood me in good stead when I became Research Fellow in the Department of Information Systems. My art practice and research had developed over the last five years to be based around an enquiry into the interface between body, identity, technology and environment and the position of Research Fellow fitted in with my skill base in terms of research and requirements for thinking in a lateral, nonlinear way. The team at the Department of Information Systems actually sought out an artist who could undertake independent research, entrusting me with the bibliographic research for the SITCRC project ‘Mediating Strong Tie Relations Using Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs)’. Being present at scenario design days was very interesting and I designed two new mobile technologies that support intimacy at a distance in close personal relationships with input from other members of the team (for one example see Figure 2).


Lip Zone


Figure 2. The Digital Kiss: Example Future Oriented Intimate Device



The Digital Kiss

Imagine a device, smaller than a phone, that could communicate feelings without getting bogged down in words; that knew about our special codes and allowed them to be felt; where you could send kisses or thumbprints, or silly squiggles.

“She pulls out her Lip Zone and writes a love message in symbols that have been handwritten and programmed by her, making them very personal. She places her lips onto the screen in a kiss. The machine scans her lips with dimension and depth. Her message is sealed with a kiss!”13


This interdisciplinary research has lead to a new project, a Small Grant application at Charles Sturt University that aims to extend the research undertaken at The University of Melbourne into a new area. The two-phase research project will investigate whether truck drivers are using Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) to mediate intimacy in their close personal relationships at a distance. The first phase the research project will collect data through a range of methods that will include cultural probes (such as cameras, scrapbooks, and diaries), semi-structured interviews, and questionnaires. This data will be analysed to provide an understanding of whether close personal relationships are supported using ICTs. In the second phase this understanding will then be used to help find novel methods of effectively representing and communicating insights gained from the qualitative research, with the production of a written paper and a body of mixed media work structured on the outcomes of the research and addressing this new understanding. The presentation of the new artwork in an exhibition at an art gallery such as the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne is an integral part of the research, being a visual representation that illustrates the research outcomes.

One of the main problems when undertaking research that involves the production of art as an outcome of that research is that you do not know what the results of the research will be, and therefore do not know what the artwork will eventually look like as an end product. The only way to circumnavigate this problem is through establishing a sound track record of research informing artistic production. Unfortunately, this is a catch twenty-two situation – artists do not usually have good research and writing skills and organisations are unlikely to give artists research positions without the necessary recommendation from peers.

As I have observed earlier, universities should encourage artists to learn the language and knowledge base of the fields of interest that they wish to investigate and then apply this knowledge to the production of their artwork, at the same time encouraging those artists to write referred research papers to support their research development.



1 @
Stecker, Robert. “Is It Reasonable to Attempt to Define Art?” in Carroll, Noël (ed.,). Theories of Art Today. Madison: Wisconsin, 2000, p.51.

2 @
Dickie, George. Art and Value. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001.

3 @
Levinson, Jerrold. “Defining Art Historically,” in Levinson, Jerrold. Music, Art, and Metaphysics. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1990.

4 @
Beardsley, Monroe. “Redefining Art,” in Wreen, Michael and Callen, Donald (eds.,). The Aesthetic point of View: Selected Essays. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982.

5 @
Carroll, Noël. “Historical Narratives and the Philosophy of Art,” in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51, 1993.

6 @
Stecker, Robert. “Is It Reasonable to Attempt to Define Art?” in Carroll, Noël (ed.,). Theories of Art Today. Madison: Wisconsin, 2000.

7 @
Gaut, Berrys. ““Art” as a Cluster Concept,” in Carroll, Noël (ed.,). Theories of Art Today. Madison: Wisconsin, 2000.

8 @
Dickie, George. Art and Value. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001, p.46.

9 @
Arnold, Michael. “On the phenomenology of technology: the “Janus-faces of mobile phones,” in Journal of Information and Organization. Vol 13, 2003, pp.231-256.

10 @
Dickie, George. Art and Value. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001, p.49.

11 @
Wilson, Stephen. “Artificial Intelligence Research As Art,” in SEHR Vol 4, Issue 2 ‘Constructions of the Mind’ 1995 [Online] Cited 07/08/2004.

12 @

13 @
Howard, Steve et al. “Mediating Intimacy: Digital Kisses and Cut and Paste Hugs.” BSCHCI 2004. Leeds, England.