This #Take5 is brought to you from Simone Maier. Simone is an inspirational lecturer in the LondonMet School of AAD – art, architecture and design – and is soon to complete an MA in Art Education, Culture and Practice at the Institute of Education (IoE).
Working with Simone, we became fascinated by the concept of practice-based research – where the practitioner makes something – anything – as a way of exploring or researching their own theory and practice. This, we thought, was something that every practitioner – every educationist – should think about and get involved with.
Read on and be inspired – and then think about producing some practice-based research of your own.
My experience of studying towards a master’s degree: learning to accept practice-based research
One of the enjoyable parts of working in a School of Art, Architecture & Design (AAD) is the opportunity to discuss the things we make. The AAD school at London Metropolitan University has two research units, CREATURE and CUBE, which organise exhibitions of work produced by AAD staff. Video, sketchbooks, fabric, VR, wood, photography and metalwork were among the materials that 13 CREATURE members displayed as part of their recent exhibition, Making Matters. It was a fascinating opportunity to see how a diverse group of colleagues engage with materials and concepts to examine, challenge and contribute to knowledge production. I’ve struggled with accepting my own art as research and the exhibition helped me to understand a little bit more about what practice-based research (PBR) can be.
A blessing in disguise
Last academic year, my teaching hours got dramatically cut. I was not happy about it, but the reduction did grant me the time I needed to begin the master’s degree I had wanted to undertake. So, in September 2022, I started the MA in Art Education, Culture and Practice at the Institute of Education (IoE), UCL. It’s a taught programme that is carefully constructed for those, like me, who are at the intersection of art and education with experience in both teaching and art practice. It promised to develop my knowledge and ‘capacity to develop innovative educational research’. The course began with a module called (you guessed it!) ‘Practice-Based Research’. We discussed the pre-readings and then found a studio spot to start making something – anything. ( The AAD foundation course on which I teach changed from being a Bauhaus-inspired cross-disciplinary course, to being taught in disciplines as part of a four-year extended degree. This left too many tutors with fine art specialism.)
Practice-based research (PBR) is where, in order to explore their research question, the researcher makes things as part of the process. The research is exploratory and embedded in a creative practice.
Image: PBR experiments in my IoE studio space (October 2022).
I began bringing in materials and chatting with my peers who came from all over the world and who teach in different art educational settings from early years through to universities, museums, galleries, theatres and neurodivergent adult spaces. Our creative practices span dance, calligraphy, puppetry, performance, paper, painting, video, mark-making, sculpture and drawing.
I found it enjoyable to make art knowing that it was not going to be subject to the usual art school aesthetic regime. Instead, I could let my materials lead me, playing like I did when I was a kid as my purpose was to explore my teaching practice but not necessarily in an explicit way. I could allow myself to make, allowing subconscious influences in including that of the things I was reading about and discussing with my peers: educational theories, the impact of assessment practices, ideas of material agency, and the relationship of language to creative practice (I’ll return to this later).
Finding a line of contentment
As I steadily worked my way through the modules’ reading lists, I deepened the foundational knowledge of pedagogic theory that I had acquired doing a Postgraduate Certificate of Learning and Teaching in HE (PGCert). I found it enjoyable to return to Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed and bell hooks’ research remains a favourite. The readings became more challenging as the weeks went by, introducing me to research specific to art and design education. We covered the ‘educational turn’ (The ‘educational turn’ was a term ironically coined by academic Irit Rogoff in 2008 to describe the theme of process-based art that had gained momentum in the mid-1990s and moved the focus from the art object to research-based art made collaboratively.), ‘participatory art’ (The British art historian and critic, Claire Bishop’s research elucidates ‘participatory art’ as art that directly engages the audience in the creative process so that the audience become participants in the event.), and relational aesthetics (The French curator Nicholas Bourriaud’s notion that artists are facilitators rather than makers, positions art as information exchanged between the artist and the viewers). I was also introduced to Sam Thorne’s entertaining book School which charts a history of Western art schools. It contains interviews with many of the thought-leaders behind contemporary art schools that were established to explore particular philosophies and approaches to making art. I did not know whether to laugh or cry when I read Thorne’s interview with artist Ryan Gander in which Gander asserted that ‘The best art school is a warm room’ (Thorne 217, 215). The book examines art education within both HE institutions and para-institutions, raising my awareness that both are embedded in the same economics and systems as those they notionally oppose (Malik in Hansen & Vandeputte 2015) thereby offering me a thread of content with my chosen context supporting the gateway into fine art education within a university settings.
Stepping up to MA engagement
Image: Discovering each other’s drawing of Plato’s Cave during a workshop with Dean Kenning (December 2022).
The MA has involved physical challenges. My PBR materials did not always do what I hoped. And the studio’s heating system broke leaving it so cold I found it hard to draw in an embodied workshop run by Dean Kenning in which he was trying to demonstrate how to understand Plato’s Cave via social body mind map (Kenning 2015). I’ve also struggled with the baffling impenetrable language that some academics write in. But workshops and group presentations have allowed collaborative insights into the revered ramblings of Judith Butler, Jacques Rancière, Pierre Bourdieu and Gayatri Spivak etc. I’ve also been grateful to be scaffolded by the knowledgeable (and supremely modest) PhD candidate, Sarah Rowles. Upon reflection, I realised that her pedagogy in a PBR tutorial demonstrated that listening is more important than addressing every issue (the student) presents. Sarah heard, observed and validated my concerns. She was student centred, recommended pertinent sources and helped me identify unnecessary distractions. What’s more, both Sarah and my other tutors managed to delicately balance their support for UCU industrial action while not allowing strike days to entirely ruin our ‘student experience’. Irony percolated the course as we discussed Foucault’s The Birth of BioPolitics in which he examines State imposed power and Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?
Conflicts typical of today’s commodified HE
My agitation against received policies was both theoretical and lived as neoliberal imperatives impact the MA in several ways. It appears that to remain financially viable (and perhaps meet student recruitment quotas?) the IoE admits a large proportion of high fee-paying international students to their courses – whether or not they are a good fit. I’m one of the fortunate ones for whom the course aligns with my desires to examine how I balance my creative and teaching practices as I explore the conflicts between my role as an AAD tutor, the neoliberal imperatives of university education, and the concerns that surface in my PBR that I’m developing a capacity to frame using educational theory (although with each new project, the search feels like it begins afresh!)
This – this is what I’ve done
Image: PBR – installation image of Daily Bread in IoE studio space (December 2022).
To date, I’ve completed three modules via a mixture of PBR and written assignments totalling 12,500 words. The detailed summative feedback and grades have been affirming; allayed my fear that my writing wasn’t up to the standards expected at a Russell Group university. I’ve also come to appreciate the excellent quality of the PGCert I had the fortune to engage with. Unlike some peers who have had to scramble to grasp philosophies of education such as Critical Pedagogy, I’ve been well-schooled by the London Metropolitan University’s CPED team. I’ve therefore been able to move on to explore further readings and current scholarship including that surrounding Post-Critical Pedagogy (Wortmann 2020) which came as an epiphany.
Post-Critical Pedagogy has offered me a way of seeing beyond the cynicism of critical pedagogy to focus on conceiving myself as an active agent with the language (Collini 2017, 217) to reflect on, and work with, the ever-changing student body on the AAD course that I help deliver. Post-Critical Pedagogy enables me to gain insights into my students’ values and needs and informs how I adapt my humanised approach (Abegglen et al., 2020) to L&T to bring about powerful heterotopic (Foucault 1984) spaces for thinking, being, making and imagining. As with any education but most especially fine art, this theory is all best taught by doing.
Resisting the impulse to explain
During the first formal crit on my MA, I explained my PBR piece (see above image) as an attempt to create a space for myself and my students where we could focus on making and escape the logocentrism of art education. I’d made this in part to test the startling assertion made by Rebecca Fortnum that by not articulating the ideas or ambitions behind PBR, artists might allow themselves to discover something that would have been limited by language (Fortnum 2013, 79).
I have concerns about the logocentrism in the AAD foundation course that I teach so I used my PBR to experiment with, not discuss, the ideas or physical development of my PBR, even with myself. So I avoided discussing or explaining my making. Yet, of course, it was through discourse in the crit that my MA peers helped me to understand my PBR through their eyes and gather suggestions that helped it to develop. My peers described my PBR as a shelter; a space to take sanctuary within. A tutor quickly pointed out I’d named it (Daily Bread), while the rest of my cohort had left their concurrent PBR untitled. Logocentric hypocrisy! OK, words do matter to me! And I’d further reinforced this by choosing to begin my crit quoting selected lines from Phyllida Barlow’s (recently deceased artist and former long-time Slade art teacher) Provocations for the Yorkshire Sculpture Triennial (Harrison 2021, 17) that play with semantics:
- It is pointless to define what sculpture is.
- The beauty of sculpture is its relationship to failure.
- Sculpture changes the space it inhabits.
- Everything changes the space it inhabits.
- Lies, and how to lie, are a powerful imaginative force for both artist and viewer.
Via crit discussions, I noticed that regardless of our teaching contexts in primary, secondary, HE or other art educational spaces, we commonly share a resistance to a perceived lack of value in art education. I’m searching for validation on my eye-wateringly expensive MA while I support my students to do the same on the AAD course. There’s a collective awareness among my MA cohort that arts education is at a painful, fertile intersection. We’re living in the fissures; in order to productively move forward we need to embrace glitchs, as failure and refusal, to open up to other ways of being and collectivity beyond the logics of the gender binary, capitalism, and neoliberalism (Russell 2020). Existing between policies, measurements, and the commodification of education – and art education – that we all know has more potential than a dataset or commodifiable product. Via giving me space to consider this, my PBR has also helped to affirm that a better art ecosystem is not about individual genius but a collaborative effort (Szreder 2021, 152). We all have our own PBR in which we work through our subjective concerns, but these are profoundly affected by the engagement with each other in our shared IoE studio spaces. Being part of a taught programme supported by experienced tutors also helps me to build energy and is rewarding in ways that going it alone could never be. I’ve been pushed to share and discuss process-based work which I wouldn’t have if it weren’t a requirement of the module. Exposing my practice to stimulate discussion is both daunting and relieving; it gives me awareness into how intimidating it must be for foundation level students.
Never mind the message … feel the collaboration
Image: artists and visitors at the MA exhibition opening 11 May 2023.
I have also come to realise that PBR can be a point of entry but perhaps unlike other forms of research, it doesn’t feel isolating. People like and want to discuss art. Unlike disciplines with predefined knowledge, anyone can share their experience and opinion of an artwork. But knowing how to articulate fruitful insights and being able to accept criticism takes training, otherwise it can be debilitating. Art education, via tutorials and crits, seeks to galvanise and validate a germ of an idea that appears though making. In my brief 15-minute crit, my peers brought my attention to their clear reading of my PBR as a shelter which was not yet effable to me. Our MA course crits allowed me to comprehend my own and my peers’ pedagogy via our PBR. This evaluation process provided me with a greater appreciation of thinking through ideas that are not necessarily immediately obvious to me (the maker) in the work itself.
The emergent curriculum – a group show
As part of the dissertation module, which started in January, we put on a group exhibition. Open to the outside world, the experience was nerve-racking, fun, and stimulating. My cohort’s bonds strengthened as we installed our works, reviewed each other’s artist statements’, designed the poster, and saw connections between our PBR. Predictably, the theme of art education’s role in the art ecosystem is there but so were many other themes: arts relationship to technology; identity politics; ableism; the tacit expectations of art education; and conflicts between learning and the measurement of educational impact.
Image: my son examining my PBR on view during the MA exhibition, 11 May 2023.
Around 10 pm on the night of my MA exhibition, I put my nine-year-old son to bed. In the few moments before he drifted into sleep he confessed with a child’s honesty ‘I like your paintings mummy, but to be honest, Emily’s work was the best’. I agree my darling! And it’s via spending time with Emily and her work (landscape paintings spliced with AI-generated video imagery) and that of other peers, that I discover new ways of understanding the world. Long may art provide me with that space!
Unlike many courses that deliver a curriculum structured around predefined knowledge (e.g., Law School needs to ensure their students understand the law), knowledge in art education is emergent (Orr & Shreeve 2018). In the absence of predefined content, my teaching on the AAD foundation course is structured to welcome students’ interests. We go on a journey with students to learn and develop together, contextualising making in light of current concerns. That means that as a tutor, my interest and aesthetics unavoidably influence my students. Once I’ve heard about their concerns and interests, I can suggest relevant practitioners to research, exhibitions or sources that might be useful to scaffold the student on their artistic journey but what if I don’t ‘get’ their making? I suspect this unease with the power I exert as a tutor is why I spent weeks making a self-portrait that I have not exhibited. I needed to put myself in the shoes of my students and struggle with my identity politics in a way I observe so many of them do.
I depicted myself on the pavement of the A10 – a London artery – near my home. I enjoyed that my image was illuminated between the synthetic light of the BP petrol station and the double red ‘no-parking’ lines but I struggled with the painting. I erased my face multiple times before overworking it with text and inserting multiple picture planes to show myself imbricated in undefined forces. I was trying to co-opt the genre of portraiture in a manner akin to the recent ‘Radical Figures’ (Blazwick in Yee et al., 2020, 4) artists – reacting to a sense of my pedagogic practice being marginalised. Compassionately, citing concerns about the ‘authority of canvas’ rather than it being Level One Identity Art (The White Pube 2022), a tutor suggested I exhibit other work as part of our dissertation show. But this PBR that is a self-portrait gave me space to think and some research must be allowed to fail. Artists need to make some bad art!
Image: PBR – detail showing oil painting depicting my legs immersed in different planes (April 2023).
The tutor and I agreed that I’d exhibit a series of ten small oil paintings. The 20 x 20 cm canvas boards had been inspired by Amy Sillman’s Colour as Material lecture that had helped me to put aside struggles with the often-contradictory expectations of HE art education (such as taking risks but presenting neat outcomes within a few weeks). In making them I’d tried to disregard my outcome, focusing instead on material agency, colour and composition. I titled the series Ode to Colour.
Look! My PBR does reflect my concerns.
Latterly, I’ve realised that the series is a meta-reflection on my pedagogic capacity to challenge the neo-liberal maligning of students as buyers of education, gaining a rubber stamp to become makers of things for capitalist consumption. Ode to Colour provided me with a mental and material surface on which to reflect on my role as a producer of education as a commodity. I played (James & Nerantzi 2019) with materials while also considering my role in teaching widening participation students. I thought about the knowledge I’d been able to accrue about colour and composition from hours of exposure to art in galleries and educational settings guided by experts. Such knowledge is not attainable to many of my students. I wondered if my formal and informal education results in me having expectations of my students that are unknown to them.
Image: PBR – installation image of Ode to Colour in MA exhibition (May 2023).
Developing Ode to Colour confirmed my will to resist a deficit model of teaching and assessing student work against learning outcomes that infer a particular type of ‘cultural capital’ (Bourdieu 1996) within a higher education framework that many students do not understand. I resolved to offer my students agency; asking them to show me how I can understand their world via their making. The MA course has thereby consolidated an appreciation for students centred learning that I was introduced to during my PGCert. I did not immediately see this development, but it became explicit when I developed a series of six poems that I exhibited in association with Ode to Colour. The poems are not indexically linked; they sit alongside the painted panels. Each poem written by me is followed by a quote. My poems explore concerns of my teaching practice including assessment, the crit, logocentrism, risk, our inner critic, aesthetic norms, and my own privilege. The quotes underneath each poem offer further provocation on the topic. Writing this, I’m left wondering if I am so ingratiated in academic practice that I defer to ‘experts’ rather than have confidence in my authority to explain.
Image: PBR – detail of Ode to Colour showing penultimate panel and poem ‘The Crit’ (May 2023).
Ultimately, such reflective praxis (yes, I should reference Donald Schön however blogging during my PGCert left me with embodied knowledge of reflective praxis) enabled me to acknowledge that like my students, I might know something, but having the confidence to do it with it is quite a different matter. I know from the work of artists I respect such as Katrina Palmer, Laurie Anderson, and Laure Prouvost, that PBR could be made of words but that didn’t mean I felt the confidence to do it for myself. Studying the MA has helped me to take one more step in building my knowledge and confidence.
On the home straight – concluding my MA
We’ve uninstalled the exhibition. From here, I’ve got to develop a 10,000-word written dissertation to sit alongside my exhibition’s PBR. An email from my Course Leader calls out the need to focus on what I have learned through engaging with practice as a research methodology, imploring me to think about ‘What key moments shifted your thinking and approaches? A conversation, an uncomfortable realisation, an accident, or unexpected encounter, or maybe a process of working through….’. One key moment came when tucking my son into bed. Another is writing this. Through writing I’ve realised the strength of taking on a Posthuman approach (Hughes and Taylor 2016), accepting the agency of materials, along with an acceptance of the phenomenological experience of making. As Tim Ingold put it ‘The prosperities of materials… are not attributes, but histories’ (Matter as Actor 2023). As a human, I do not have a monopoly on agency. My materials, environment and social interactions all interact with me. I also need to keep pushing myself to accept that my material includes words and no matter how problematic, language is a necessary part of art education. It warrants challenging in ways that Fortnum’s chapter in On Not Knowing: How Artists Think alerted me to. Her notion that language can limit PBR heavily influenced the creation of my PBR piece Daily Bread. My subsequent poetic series confirmed my interest in testing the relationship of language to my creative practice via a discrete series that was separate but related to the painted Ode to Colour series. Exhibiting them together at my MA exhibition confirmed that language can be part of my PBR, and that non-language-based research brings different, equally important knowledge. As luck would have it, Fortnum is helping shape an upcoming conference in Glasgow: ‘On not knowing: How artists Teach’. I’m attending along with a small group (a Community of Practice!) of my MA peers. I hope it provides a rich environment to consider the potential of art education, and what pedagogy and spaces are best suited to the development of practice-based research. I also have an inkling of what I’d like to do next for my PBR.
Suggestions for Beginning Your Practice-Based Research
Image: cover of Fisher & Fortnum (eds.) 2013 book.
- Set a weekly date with yourself – it’s your special time to yourself!
- Give yourself permission to make something – anything.
- Find materials/tools that make you feel something. You might like:
- collage because the paper sounds nice
- found bit of litter/nature because of their colours
- pastels because they’re soft
- charcoal because dark marks suit your mood
- LEGO because you’ve always loved construction
- photos because you select what to focus attention on
- Sharpie pens because they’re bold
- fabric because the texture makes you feel…
- Use a timer (decide if it’s 10, 20 or 50 minutes) and allow yourself to make
- Permit yourself to play with the materials you’ve selected.
- Permit your materials agency, this means not getting frustrated that it’s not how you’d imagined or hoped. Accept your making for whatever it is.
- Avoid perspective drawing. If you draw, draw based on movement, mood, line-walking, or markmark as a gentural response to something.
- Silence your internal critic – it doesn’t matter if it’s scruffy, clumsy, dirty etc.
- Take a photo of your making (unless your medium is photography)
- The next day, look at your making carefully
- Spend 10 minutes stream-of-consciousness writing to answer the question: My making expressing my …
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Russell, L. (2020) Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto. Verso.
The White Pube. [Podcast] Are white girls capable of making art that’s not about themselves? (revisited) Episode 10, 11 May 2022. Available at: https://thewhitepube.co.uk/podcasts/white-girl-art/ [Accessed 01 May 2023].
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Vaughan, S., Austerlitz, N. and Blythman, M. (no date) ‘Mind the Gap: expectations, ambiguity and pedagogy within art and design higher education’, in The student experience in art and design higher education: Drivers for change. Jill Rogers Associates, pp. 125–148. Available at: https://eprints.qut.edu.au/21084/.
Wortmann, K. (2020) ‘Drawing Distinctions: What is Post-Critical Pedagogy?’, in Journal for Research and Debate. Vol. 3 (9). Available at: https://www.oneducation.net/no-09_december-2020/drawing-distinctions-what-is-post-critical-pedagogy/ [Accessed: 18 December 2022]
Simone Maier is an artist and lecturer. After spending her youth in IT jobs, she returned to university as a career-changer and attained a 1:1 BA Fine Art (Hons). In 2019 she completed a PGCE under the supervision of London Metropolitan University’s CPED team and has never looked back. She is fueled by a desire to develop practice-based research, pedagogy and curricula suited to the emergent knowledge production in HE art and design. Since qualifying as a FHEA she’s published a number of chapters and papers that investigate and disseminate her experience of teaching on an Art, Architecture & Design foundation course. In summer 2023 she’s hoping to complete an MA in art education, culture and practice at UCL.
From Student to (Hourly Paid) Lecturer
A love song to my art school – a place I fit: a space in which I found new ways
in workshops, with materials and people who say things worth thinking about.
A place in which I got angry about the old narratives and the erasure of women
where I realised that I do have privilege: libraries, studios, and an audience to
nurture and explore other ways of knowing & being. Renew my contract please!
The authority in education lies neither in the teacher nor in the student
but in the thing.
It is the thing that has the power to equalize the students…
The task of the teacher
is to make the students attentive to the subject matter
in which they all can relate equally – Kai Wortmann
The Inner Voice
Work quickly or it might flood your process:
sweeping away your ideas and confidence.
Let materials take over and trust in making:
art will appear, seemingly not of your hand.
Cocoon yourself in a heterotopia for making
Learn from artists and art, what art is – Bruno Latour
Renamed a ‘review’ to try to escape the negative connotations.
You describe your process, from sources of inspiration through
material experiments (many failed) that your peers understand.
In exchange for your nerves and generous exposé of your work,
we offer validation and language to house your making within
Let’s play. In place of politics, it’s a crit:
Politics consists in reconfiguring the distribution of the sensible
which defines the common of a community,
to introduce into it new subjects and objects [art!]
to render visible what had not been,
and to make heard as speakers those who had been perceived
as mere noisy animals. – Jacques Rancière
It’s about action / making / experiments
silence the critical voice: get on with it!
think Le Guin or whoever floats ur boat
remember a core component of survival
the experiences between language where
the glitches create fissures of possibility
malfaunctions embraced & played with
new options of being become manifest
Bring it all in, lay yourself bare & listen
to the subtext: present neat outcomes!
… art draws us into a space of not knowing, a space of thinking in the widest possible sense, in which to test what it means to be in the world – Elizabeth Fisher
She laughs with surprise
at a new way of seeing
Don’t use the dirty word
appropriated to ad nauseum
Soft girl: Grunge: Academia
at art school we recognise
aesthetics’ tacit meanings
i know which words to use.
i go between them
justifying and reasoning
ambivalence and movement,
like this physical wave
between my feelings
– the white pube
I’ll help you to develop your practice
projects briefs, names, terms: words
What about material agency & play?
Time? Nooooo this course has pace!
Do the material experiments speak?
events that require us to articulate
our intentions, methods, processes
and possible achievements are
both extremely useful and potentially
destructive – Rebecca Fortnum