About Wordblock

My original poster submitted to IAC 2019

Adventure as / art / Research

In June 2019 I made a pitch to the International Adventure Conference proposing that we can work with art as adventure, citing artists who made art that involved outdoor adventure and real physical risk.

IAC 2019 flyer

As part of the pitch I introduced work being done by arts education and the arts therapies in which direct experience of art making and performance was experiential learning. I felt it offered some interesting opportunities to experiential and outdoor adventure education.

I was unable to attend the conference but I started writing material on my website and submitted this to the conference.


Document Search

I read a lot of academic material. I learned a lot. I wrote a lot. Over time my understanding of how you could use art as research moved on. This influenced my own arts practice through which also moved on. My intention was to post my writing on my site. But as I wrote more and more, the older writing seemed more incomplete.

The main thrust of the academic material was that art making itself was research, but research in which doing and the senses were central. Using words for describing doing was second order knowledge. The art could speak for itself. Art making was both the process and product of research.

My suggestion was that if we could use art as research as a model and see experiential learning as performance, or work with the outdoors as art, we could use the ideas from art as research to explore experiential learning as art.

It became clear to me, after about a year and 10,000 words describing doing (and going to work, digging the garden, being a dad and husband and making art etc) that the words were not cutting it. I needed to be doing more doing and describing less describing. I needed to move on from too much writing about art to more doing art. But I was so invested in the writing that I needed something to move me on. I had writers block that needed to be unblocked.

An important thing I was realising from my reading and my practice was the way art had a liminal quality. It could be a boundary crosser. With art as research, shifting a theme of interest from one artform to another revealed things about the theme under investigation.

I ruminated on ways to shift the words I was reading and writing from a linguistic form to a visual form. I also wanted to kill and bury the 10,000 words I had written. What helped to move from a discursive to a non-discursive way of thinking was to sketch ideas.

One of a number of original sketches

Through drawing, an image of block containing all the words, like an unreadable book came to mind. I started to make the woodblock.


Experiencing Making

I printed the pages like they would be a 6×9 inch paperback.

This would need a lot of glue and I researched if I could make it myself. I found a way of making a thing called wheatpaste from 3 parts water to 2 parts flour. This was cooked on a hob for about 30m making sure it was whisked all the time. Wheatpaste is what would have been used to physically post political or commercial ideas into the public domain before we started ‘post’ on the internet. The wheatpaste was dispensed from a bottle. I liked the idea that my words would be posted into the public domain but be unreadable.

Then I pressed the pages flat with a bookpress over 3 days, removing excess wheatpaste twice a day. Then I let it dry in the sun or indoors over a week. In the end it took about a month to fully dry and was pressed flat again when it started to curve like all paper does when it dries differentially

Cooking the wheatpaste
Drying the wordblock


It Was A Result

Making wordblock proved to be a deeply satisfying end to my writing mission. It turned me around and moved me from reading and describing how to do art as research, to doing art and then describing how it works as research. Whilst this may seem a simple task, long overdue, it is at the core of the contention of art as research. The doing is the primacy, the describing is secondary. But for evidence of efficacy, in arts education and the arts therapies, the primacy is the describing, in numbers and words. For arts practitioners in education and therapy, the primacy is the doing. It is the painting, the dance, the poem, the performance. I could not say on 10,000 words what I said in wordblock. I knew that wordblock worked but the words did not. The difficulty is that knowledge, like my personal experience, is subjective, situational, emergent, contingent and ambiguous.

In the academic material, I was reading a central theme is that the personal experience of making art is research which is a source of knowledge. It is not quantitative or qualitative knowledge but can be described as performative knowledge and art as research can be described as performative research. The mission in art as research is to raise the status of the performative. My mission is to seek to show that art as research, being based in personal experience, in doing and the senses, has much to offer experiential learning.

But the experience of writing about art making, describing doing, is problematical. It is like describing a map in words. Can’t be done. The best model I found was that of Rhizomatic Knowledge, by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Words have a starting point, a map, like a rhizome does not, but both contain knowledge.

I want to use art making to present a number of themes or nodes present in art as research. I want to show that we can use art making as a form of research to explore and express personal experience, and that working with art as research and the outdoors as art and sharing my workings I can show ways of working that could contribute to the understanding and development of experiential learning.

So what did I learn from making wordblock?

I learned a lot from my reading about art as research in arts education and the arts therapies. It fitted with my experience of art making and experiential learning and enhanced my practice and theoretical knowledge. It was at once simple and profound, practical and sophisticated.

I came to fully realise that describing what other people did as art as research was less efficient and accurate than doing art as research, then describing it. But doing then describing was accurate and precise, but in a subjective way. Describing what other people were doing was more objective but less accurate and precise. In describing my own work, I started from inside the map, in describing what other people did, I started outside the map. In the former I used inductive reasoning, in the latter, deductive reasoning.

In observing my writing I came to realise that whereas I intended to provide a finished product, an end point, what I experienced was a process of learning. In rewriting other people words and in seeing my own ideas as words I realised the act of writing was a way of processing. It was like the writing was a rehearsal, and I was seeking a finished performance.

Author Sarah J. McCarthy in ‘International Handbook of Research in Arts Education.’ identifies four metaphors of the writing process. She talks about composing text as having emergent, cognitive, social and critical aspects. Emergent writing is about exploration and discovery in which a writer finds her voice. Cognitive writing is about reasoning and learning rather than demonstrating knowledge acquired. Social writing has a quality of conversation in which texts are part of a chain of discourse. Critical writing is seen as a tool for an individual to reflect on their social situation as a means to take action.

This could be seen as a performance or performative model. In performance studies performance is seen as an iterative process, seen as reflection driving conscious action, and also as the interaction between the performer and an audience or witness. Seeing writing as performance fits. The act of writing text serves as a reflection and the writer becomes witness to their act of writing.

Art as research has a strong thread of performance within it. Brad Haseman, artist and director of art based research at Queensland University of Technology talks about art as performative research, separate but an adjunct to qualitative and quantitative research. If performance is an action which brings about a change the audience, the performative is an aspect of performance in which an action brings about a change in the performer. They are overlapping aspect of the same phenomenon.

He generalises, but goes on to identifiy quantitative research with numbers, qualitative research with words, and says art as research is ‘Expressed in non-numeric data, but in forms of symbolic data other than words in discursive text. These include material forms of practice, of still and moving images, of music, of action and digital code’. He follows this by suggesting art based researchers call for ‘texts that move beyond the purely representational and towards the presentational’. In short art, like experience can speak for itself.

Acts and ideas to do both with the writing the content and with my construction of wordblock can be seen as performance, art as research and experiential learning.

Header image – John Baldessari – I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art

John Baldessari does art that is funny. I wanted wordblock to be funny. John inspired this. The content of wordblock is boring but in the words John Baldessari…