Grasping the basic concept of practice as research is a bit tricky and something I'll most likely be struggling with for some time. It seems as though it's a phrase constructed to simultaneously represent several forms of connective tissues between artistic practice and more formal research. From what I've been able to gather thus far, these connective tissues may take the form of a more formal research process that eventually produces an arts-related project, an art project that is merely one component of a larger research process utilizing a range of methods, or a research process that is conducted entirely through an artistic practice. Regardless of what form the process may take, the end goal is seemingly the same - to bridge the oft-separated worlds of art and knowledge, studio-based inquiry and research, experiential learning and logic.
Estelle Barrett (Associate Professor of the School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University, Australia) and Barbara Bolt (Associate Dean of Graduate Research at the Victorian College of Arts and Music, University of Melbourne) co-edited a collection of essays expounding several modes of creative research entitled Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry. The first essay in their collection, written by Melbourne-based artist and writer Paul Carter, considers the problem of assessing the value of practice-based research within the context of what he considers "the ethics of invention." In describing the universal condition of invention, Carter writes:
I am particularly struck by Carter's description of invention as a state of becoming that emerges from an acceptance of ambiguity. Ambiguity seems to be a common thread in the study of practice as research, or at least in my understanding of practice-based research. As I stated above, the very concept of practice as research is ambiguous in form and structure. And while ambiguity may prove problematic in more rigid areas of study (ie. science, math) I believe it to be an essential component of my own artistic practice, and most successful arts-based processes. The inability or unwillingness to define or interpret any given artistic expression may lead to further exploration of that expression and unexpected observations of the expression. Or creative inventions, as Carter might argue. An acceptance of ambiguity as part of an artistic practice might not be a revolutionary notion, but ambiguity as a function of a research-based process is personally groundbreaking and inspiring.
Carter later suggests that in practice-based research ethically-sustainable invention responds to three conditions:
He suggests that in forming a situation, the impulse to create generally stems from a sense of silence, loss, or absence that originates outside the artist. This silence establishes an environment in which the impulse to invent can occur. The "materials" used to carry out the practice of invention are then to be chosen with regard to interest - utilizing an anything-goes mode of speculation - over more conventional systems of classification. Again, an acceptance of more ambiguous notions of reasoning may lead to unexpected discoveries. The necessity to invent should then emerge from a balanced dialogue between the artist and the environment - the commissioning organizing, the museum curators - that allows the artist to create without adhering to predetermined conditions of the environment.
There also seems to be a strong emphasis on ambiguity as a necessity of possibility. In order to invent - or in other words, in order to create - there must be a desire to reject more conventional and limiting notions of practice. There must be a willingness to detach the signified from the signifier in order to challenge accepted perceptions of the world around us. We must acknowledge that without some presence of the ambiguous unknown, we might never stumble upon a new certainty. And where better to enter into that unknown than the artist's studio - the home for creative innovation that often leaves us in the dark for most of our artistic journeys until we happen to shine a light on something unexpected and profound. And as fas as practice as research is concerned, it's seemingly in the shining of this light that artists are conducting their own experiments - their own models of formal research. And the data collected through this research - the art created by the carrying out of a unique artistic practice - is just as worthy of study and attention as the data collected through any other form of research.