Notes on– Action Research Methodology for Artists

Lecture by course leader Jonathan Kearney

Date: October 17, 2017

The lecture began with an intro from Cecilia Graham about the student’s union. Here are a few of the things she said that I felt were interesting and would like to check out further:

  1. Made in arts london: It promotes and sells the art made UAL students and alumni (how cool is that? :D)

  2. Student Initiative Fund: To fund extra curricular engagements organized by students

  3. Further info to all can be found at www.arts-su.com or by emailing Cecilia Graham at c.graham@su.arts.ac.uk

Jonathan began the lecture by describing the difference between ‘methodology’ and ‘methods’. The former is the overarching structure of the research while the latter refers to the tools you use to achieve the research goal. Based on these definitions, ‘Action Research’ is a TYPE of research methodology.

He then asked the class in general what immediately sprang to mind at the mention of the word ‘research’. I paused the video to think on my own as well, as if I was part of the class (haha). Together some of the words that clicked were: investigation, text, images, survey, looking, library, study, experimentation. He then asked us what we thought of when he said the word ‘Researcher’. Some of the words that popped out were person searching, expert, curiosity. 

He then posed a more detailed question: How would you research the impact of eating fruit on a group of 100 children living in an economically disadvantaged community in London?

Now since this is a recap, I already know where the lecture leads and really wish I had thought of a more inventive and different answer. BUT the following is my actual answer: (come on, I was working alone, not in a group of three! 😉 )

1. Initial assessment

2. Followed by experimentation: 50 kids are the control group, 5o kids are the experimental group. Move them all to a better location with better food and facilities but only give ONE group fruit. Assess once more through a multitude of methods such as weight gain, ability to focus etc.

Yes I forgot hypothesis, oops! and more importantly I focused (as Jonathan expected) entirely on a quantitative understanding of research.

Action research on the other hand was a technique developed in the 1940s within social sciences, to cope with the abstract messiness of studying people. For example, what if we had explored the impact of eating fruit on that community by asking them all to keep diaries? The records would not allow us to formulate quantitative judgements, but the results would be no less true! Though, perhaps, significantly more interesting! Which leads us to this quote:

“Research should CHANGE the world. Not JUST create books” — Cohen and Morrison (2000)

So what is action research?

  • Research INTO practice

  • By the practitioner

  • to change and improve

Essentially — we’re talking about what artists do!

Action research is a unique combo of both action AND research, not simply one of those things. It requires you to think and investigate more than you normally do. To ask more questions and to challenge yourself.

There are 4 characteristics of Action Research:

  1. Cyclical: Plan-Act-Observe-Reflect-Plan: You move, not in circles but in an outward spiral, growing with every completed cycle (kind of how I imagine the project proposal shaping).

  2. Collaborative: With other people/materials (an essential component of executing that project proposal).

  3. Qualitative: working with an emphasis on words not numbers. Words represent feelings and emotions are not clear cut. But that makes sense since artistic research DOES sit on the qualitative side.

  4. Reflective: This is a crucial aspect for us MA students if we want our research to not just be documented but also to impact the world. You ask yourself important questions:

    1. What do you make?

    2. How do you want to change or improve?

    3. Plan your next steps in light of action research.

I answered these reflective questions that day while listening to the lecture but, after much reflection and undergoing the tutorial session, my understanding of what I make and where I am headed has changed quite a bit. So I’m just going to quote a small piece I wrote today to explain my work to someone (I also supplanted my current About Me section in my website and put this):

Visual artist and storyteller, Kehkashan has dedicated her time to inspiring the artist within everyone. Unlike age-old narrative art, her approach requires no plot, character or settings, rather she seeks to explore the narrative potential held by everyday trifles; objects, words, emotions, landscapes. Her paintings tell the ‘slice of life’ story of absent protagonists, exploring the thoughts, ‘stream of consciousness’ and stories of the inner mind as opposed to the cliche of a hero’s mono-mythical journey. Furthermore, she is inspired by the digital age and the associated, ongoing dialogue between art and the audience. It fascinates her that the progression of time in art is vague, not unlike the stream of consciousness in a human mind; the audience approaches art at their own time and pace and with their own background and mental framework. Other than creating narrative art through her paintings, Kehkashan has organized a multitude of community art projects under the banner “Art to Spark Hope” to give voice to the stories that need to be told. Partnering with various NGOs in Pakistan (Special Olympics Pakistan, Orange Tree Foundation, The Garage School, among others) she worked with the underprivileged to paint stories of their struggles and aspirations and reached out to the community at large to celebrate the telling of these stories in public art exhibitions. Now permanently residing in Jeddah, she hopes to continue this journey of connecting people with a love for art, and for building the stories that Jeddah has to tell.

At this point Jonathan introduced us to a book — The Reflective Practitioner by Donald A. Schon, which I’m really interested in reading. He mentioned two things that Donald talks about:

  1. Reflection on action: thinking and reflecting after the event.

  2. Reflection in action: thinking while doing or thinking on your feet.

Since artists are not always 100% sure what they are doing, reflection ON action strengthens reflection IN action.

For artists, uncertainty is welcome. They reflect on their own behaviors and reactions (which may be implicit), carry out new experiments, generate new understandings and cause changes in their situation.

So we come to ‘technical rationality’ versus ‘professional artistry’. Technical rationality refers to solving problems through a rigorous application of science. Professional artistry, on the other hand, is similar to ‘reflection-in-action’ where you chose intuitive practice over protocols when faced with a new or uncertain situation, because practice is complex and you are not always faced with generic situations; professional artistry allows you to carry your knowledge forward and improvise in such situations.

This kind of made me think of the TV series ‘West World’ where Anthony Hopkins has programmed his robots to learn from interactions and adapt and improvise, making them more human.

One of the ways to understand art is through ‘interaction analysis’, what do the audience think?

The interesting thing about art is, it can only be made once! A new blank canvas will always yield a different answer (paraphrased from Baxles, D & Orland (1993)).

But once that art is created, it impacts the world forever whether we like it or not, whether we note it or not. Once a piece of art is unleashed, the world can never go back to how it was before that piece existed. For example the works of Shakespeare, the world changed forever after them. And unlike scientific research, this art is unfalsifiable, it cannot be wrong.

Jonathan then mentioned another book/Research paper (?) we should look up, by Martin A Schwartz (2008), “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research”– what an interesting thing to say.

He ended the lecture by leaving us to ponder the following questions and here are my answers now that I have reflected upon them:

  • What have you done so far?

    • I have established a rhythm and categories for this blog, which almost make blog entries vital towards my MA progress. I feel like preserving these notes, writing about my experiences etc gives me so much clarity with every step I take towards formulating my project proposal. And the best part is being able to simply click to go back and see what I was thinking on a certain date and how that may have changed.

    • My tour of Jeddah’s artistic places has taken off, we have visited two places already and are working on a third really interesting place. Post my tutorial discussion with Jonathan I also want to interview a few interesting personalities I met and that is in the works.

    • I am letting inspiration take me where it will in the studio to organically understand where this amalgamation of storytelling, exploring Jeddah, fascination with inanimate objects and places takes me.

  • What have you discovered so far?

    • The most eye opening discovery so far happened in two steps. First, listening to the lecture by Jo Love gave me a lot of perspective on how project proposals evolve. Second, talking to Jonathan during the tutorial helped me understand how my own personal journey was going to begin and evolve.

    • In the tutorial Jonathan said ‘you are already building a story’. This was it. This was the point I needed to hear and understand. Instead of thinking of the project that my entire work would culminate into, I had to understand it as an ongoing process. I also had to delve wholeheartedly into my current context and USE that to build narratives.

  • What will you change because of what you have discovered?

    • So, if you see Symposium 1 I wrote vaguely about my love for story telling and narrative art ( I myself had a very cursory understanding of what that meant) and how I want to use it to build a project that encapsulates the narrative of the city of Karachi. But now, this has changed.

    • I still hold onto my love for a contemporary version of narrative art that requires neither plot nor character nor setting, but, I want to build this narrative in Jeddah first. I want to explore what this city has to offer and if that is what grows my understanding of myself as an artist, it will be an inseparable part of my work. Perhaps once the Jeddah chapter is undertaken, Karachi can be the next stop.

  • What will you do next?

    • This is a very vast question. Suffice to say that I have short term to-do lists and long term to-do lists that I am slowly and steadily following towards my goal.

    • One essential thing I have to do though is write a project proposal. Jonathan said it didn’t have to be perfect or set in stone, just detailed and clear so that I can see the goals I have set for myself and whether I achieved them or not (and if not, WHY not).

The end. 🙂

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