PhDs by Public Output Pt2 – is collage a good way of thinking about this?

Posted in PhD, Research, Texts by chrisfremantle on July 21, 2022
Detail from timeline included in PhD, designed by Dr Cara Broadley

These reflections follow a piece published here in 2020 looking at four examples of other PhDs by Public Output.

I came to realise as I prepared for my Viva that my PhD by Public Output was in effect a curious exercise in collage. The PhD comprises a thesis (essay hereafter) and a portfolio. My portfolio is an assemblage of material, the earliest piece dating back to 2006. One constraint was that the portfolio had to comprise peer reviewed materials. There are 8 pieces in the portfolio I submitted, 5 referenced in the main essay and 3 in an appendix.

Since 2006. I have written perhaps 600 posts to my personal blog (here) and 735 to ecoartscotland. The latter includes guest posts for which I was editor. Across both it’s a mix of notes, announcements and essays. My ORCID profile includes 37 pieces of work which count as substantive academic publications. The essay focuses on the 8 pieces in the portfolio and references another 19 pieces (supplementary materials). I used a numbering system to ensure that the essay could be correlated with the portfolio and supplementary materials.

I think I got more out of participating in the Scottish Graduate School for the Arts and Humanities’ ‘Practice Research Assembly’ in 2020 than I contributed! In particular, Joyce Yee speaking about experimental formats prompted me to develop a timeline for my portfolio. The timeline enabled me to explore the links and connections between the various elements. The timeline included the portfolio and the supplementary materials (but not the material on the two blogs!). With the help of Dr Cara Broadley, a colleague and design researcher with a specific interest in timelines, this became a figure in the essay part of the submission. The timeline creates a sort of order, intended to help readers (and examiners) navigate and understand the density and patterns in the portfolio. What is only partially represented is the sense of selection from a larger pile of materials – none of the other unused material is in anyway visible (as it is at least by implication in the cutting out an image from a magazine).

I conceptualise the process as collage because, unlike a conventional PhD, the materials in the portfolio are ‘givens’ and the task is to write an essay including:

(b) a review of the current literature;
(c) a discussion of the contribution and impact made by the works submitted to the general advancement of the field of study and research concerned; a common theme must be demonstrated; and
(d) a demonstration that the work constitutes an independent and original contribution to knowledge.

RGU Academic Regulations 2020

It is the demonstration of the “common theme” that is critical and which drives the idea of collage as a way of thinking about the PhD. All the other requirements can be met by a list, but the requirement for a “common theme” means composing something coherent out of the portfolio – a new meta-narrative.

Constraints abound: not all of the works listed on ORCID are peer reviewed and RGU’s Academic Regulations specify minimum and maximum pieces for the portfolio.

The pieces themselves are a bit like found objects. Re-reading something written 15 years ago is, at the very least, rediscovering something. One piece felt very dated – writing about Web 2.0 and co-creativity without knowing how it would be co-opted by populist politicians to promote alternative facts. Equally a piece ‘in development’ at the outset of the process became vital to the portfolio and needed to be published in a peer reviewed Journal to become eligible.

Much of the portfolio is made up of co-authored pieces, an aspect which is critical to my “common theme”, but it also means securing permission from all the co-authors. Luckily a couple of massively co-authored pieces (one with 183 authors!) didn’t form part of the portfolio.*

I thought my “common theme” was ‘participation, collaboration and interdisciplinarity’ but I had a moment, whilst out riding my bicycle during lockdown in early 2021, which made me rethink the argument in terms of what it means to ‘think ecologically’. The relationality that underpins participation, collaboration and interdisciplinarity is still important, but it needs to be balanced with an understanding of difference. This reconfiguration meant that the portfolio had a better mix and the “common theme” was more interesting (and provocative?). I presented this to my supervisors with great excitement. They didn’t get it. I went away and wrote it up. That generated a lot of questions. I had to dig in on the literature to ground this reframing. It came together with their help. They also insisted on specificity. Every ‘it’ or ‘this’ was replaced with a named object for the avoidance of doubt.

Tim Ingold, talking about artists researching, suggests that, unlike in some other disciplines where a hypothesis is established and then tested, we behave more like dogs in a field – our process of research might seem like random movement but it follows its own logic and reaches its conclusion. This helps when we think about collage as an analogy – configuring the materials and reconfiguring them until a compelling composition is resolved. Selecting from a large pile, sometimes using a rule e.g. all with yellow elements, or in this case all peer reviewed.

The value of this has, without question, been the need to reflect on, re-read, and make sense of a body of work which assembled in response to opportunities, projects, calls for proposals, and the way that working in the gig economy of the arts plays out. As I was writing I came across Iain Biggs’ essay on ‘ensemble practices’** published in the Routledge Handbook on Art in Public Places alongside an essay Anne Douglas, Dave Pritchard and I wrote on the work of the Harrisons (Helen Mayer Harrison 1927-2018 and Newton Harrisons b. 1932) in the context of global environment policy (which also includes a timeline). Working as a producer for artists’ works in public places, Iain Biggs provides a useful de-centring, and introduces the conception of ‘mutual accompaniment’ which is very sympathetic to the pedagogy of the arts and the work of a producer. This deepened the notions of participation, collaboration and interdisciplinarity, and complemented the conceptualisation of ‘joining a conversation’ which I found in the Harrisons’ work.

You can read the essay ‘Working together on ecological thinking: relationality and difference’ here I’ll be posting the elements of the portfolio (abstracts with links) to this blog over the next few weeks. It will all be shared on Twitter.

* It is worth noting that in assembling the ‘package’ for examination, the essay is a separate pdf from the portfolio. This is because the portfolio needed to contain published pieces covered by copyright, so on the institutional repository you will find the essay and links to all the cited pieces, but they aren’t packaged together. If you want the whole package contact me.

** Biggs, I., 2020. Ensemble Practices. In: C. CARTIERE and L. TAN, eds. The Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Realm. Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Taylor & Francis (Routledge).

%d bloggers like this: