Art as Research

‘Art-based research can be defined as the systematic use of the artistic process, the actual making of artistic expressions in all of the different forms of the arts, as a primary way of understanding and examining experience by both researchers and the people that they involve in their studies.’

McNiff 2012

The definition of art as research above is from Professor Shaun McNiff, a leading light in the arts therapies and art as research for over 20 years. See here and here

To pick his definition apart. Art as Research is about art, and making art, being the actual research, not the subject of research. It could have other forms of research attached, but this would not be art as research. McNiff’s definition refers to the artistic process, but it also refers to it as ‘systemic’. The systemic bit means the art made is more than just doing a painting to sell or staging a play at a theatre. The art would be made with the intention for it to be research. This means either doing it as part of a PhD, or as part of evidence gathering research for an arts therapy practice, or as a purposeful element of personal arts practice.

The research would be making art. But this would be supported by a range of referential activities. Photography or a journal, further artistic interpretation of process or product, written exegesis, supervision by a tutor, professional supervision as a therapist, exposition or exhibition in a gallery. The art would be made as art not just as a topic of research.

A final phase could be the science equivalent of peer review. The art could be put into the public domain like any other work of art and be opened to scrutiny as a work of art in it’s own right. For a PhD student the ‘systematic’ bit could be a pass or a fail. For the artist, irrespective of the intention of the art making, may have the work reported and scrutinised as good, bad or indifferent art.

To do the art as research, you would need to have an understanding of art. This is the same as for quantitative or qualitative research, where you would need to be able to crunch numbers, or interpret stats or accurately titrate or do sampling and manage generating numerical evidence. To understand art as research you would also need to understand art, the same way you would need to understand data or stats in quantitative or qualitative research.

McNiff wrote ‘Art-Based Research’ in 1998. I trained as a drama-therapist that year. It was the only book around then that even mentioned art and research.

Today the situation is different. Many books are now in print examining art and research with topics like Arts as Research, Art-Based Research, Studio Research. These books represent a lot of work in the arts, art education and the arts therapies.

Over those 20 years I have worked in the arts and the outdoors, with experiential learning programmes in health, education and care settings. I have seen research grow in arts and outdoor settings. I have always been of the opinion that at some level, the experiential nature of art and art-making and of outdoor and adventure learning, have a lot in common. It’s like they are two different languages describing the same thing, or the same thing is happening, just in two different places.

To do an outdoor experience as art as research, the researcher could, say, do a day walk. To see this as part of a systemic approach, in which the protagonist does this as art, they could work beforehand at becoming familiar with Land Art or Richard Long or Hamish Fulton. They could do try doing a journey as art beforehand and reflect on the experience and make some art to express the experience. They could do the journey and use film and photography to record it, but maybe use the film as a silent film, avoiding verbal interpretations. They could reflect on images they collected and research them as landscapes and develop an exhibition of images that reflect their experience on the day walk.

The researcher could attach this to further writing about what the experience taught them about their relationship with outdoor places. Or if the work was exhibited, invite comment from visitors or viewers of the art. Or if the experience proved to be impactful, invite friends or tutors to comment on what changes they saw in the person after having the experience and doing the art.

The ‘Art as Research’ section of is an exploration of where we might be able to translate between the two languages, or find common ground between the two places, like the imagined arts as research scenario above.

My intention would be to share my experience of this exploration so as to invite more people to join in with the exploration, and hopefully find some new ways of working and new ways of thinking.

In both working for 20 or more years in outdoor learning and adventure therapy, and then training as an arts therapist and using the arts, I have done a lot of reflection and a lot of reading. In my own arts and creative practice I have taken photographs, made music, movies, paintings, prints and generally done many weird things in the name of art. Through this I have learned a lot.

I recently applied for a job as an art tech in a school. I was one of three candidates, and the only one without formal arts training. Nobody got the job but I was required to show my own arts and creative practice. I felt at first that I had none. I had never sold of exhibited anything I have ever made as art. My major interest for years was photography. I found a quote by Garry Winogrand, a favourite photographer.

‘I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.’

Garry Winogrand

It totally struck a chord. I have never been interested in being an ‘artist’ but art was a way I had found to understanding and examining experience. Art fulfilled my sense of curiosity. It came to me that my art making was a kind of research. I felt this intuitively. I dug around for ideas linking art and research and remembered my copy of McNiff’s ‘Art-Based Research’. On re-reading it after many years it was suddenly redolent with meaning I had missed when I first trained as a therapist.

A central idea expressed in McNiffs book was that making art is research. Art therapy is personal research. But in presenting the outcomes of art as research to a medical world which needed research findings to be quantitative and delivered as numbers, or qualitative and delivered as words, the research findings of art as research would be visual, or gestural, or musical, or poetic. Art as research did not play well with science.

It struck me also that this was also a problem faced by experiential approaches to learning, and outdoor therapy.

On page 89 of of his book McNiff’s says…

‘Art-based research utilizes the methods of art therapy as the essential tools for understanding its significance’

McNiff 1998

The argument goes that art making is research, so the arts therapies (and arts education) need to find a way for art to be understood as research directly, not indirectly by words and numbers.

This is a theme, amongst many themes, now emerging out of the work started by McNiff 20 years ago. For me, ideas and practices now being presented under the overall moniker Art as Research, and emerging out of post-graduate research centres and the arts therapies, ring true with my experience of art therapy, experiential and outdoor learning, arts based development and wellbeing work, and my own arts practice.

The most important thing for me is that we don’t research art. Art is research.

The phenomena described in the books is an academic and intellectual discourse, but it is also an accurate description of the experience of making art. It is psyche and soma.

My intention is, over time, to develop more material on this site which helps populate a liminal space between arts and the outdoors and a way of translating between two, related languages.

‘Practice as Research – Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry’ by Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt offers the most accessible materials to link the arts and outdoor learning. In summary I would suggest the following as key themes in art as research of interest to experiential and outdoor learning.

  • Art making as the production of knowledge.
  • The making and the experience of making is the research.
  • Use of knowledge gained from doing and the senses.
  • Reconciling words and numbers as second or third order replications of experience.
  • Arts as experiential learning.
  • Using situated knowledge: the subjective and personal in research.
  • Art making and art as research as problem or action-based learning.
  • Emergence and emergent methodologies in research.
  • Interdisciplinarity in research as a mode of understanding complexity.

To shift this to outdoor learning. To use art a research methods in researching outdoor and experiential learning, this is how it could look.

The researcher could, say, do a day walk. To see this as part of a systemic approach, in which the protagonist does this as art, they could work beforehand at becoming familiar with Land Art or Richard Long or Hamish Fulton. They could do try doing a journey as art beforehand and reflect on the experience and make some art to express the experience. They could do the journey and use film and photography to record it, but use the medium as a silent film, avoiding verbal interpretations.

Orson Welles said that..

‘The enemy of art is the absence of limitations’ 

Orson Welles

..he could be talking about the way that in outdoor learning, the learning (ie the art) comes out of the engagement with living out of a backpack, or running out of protection on a lead climb.

The situation and the risk are different, but the process is the same. Pisning with acrylics is not paining with oild or watercolours. A painting cannot sing, nor a novel perform on stage. The limitations and how they ‘learn’ you what to do. This is the ‘Intelligence of Materials’ talked about elsewhere is where the learning happens. The learning is research. Finding your way off a hilltop in deep fog, or overcoming your fear of a step-across, or diving sump when caving is where the learning happens. The place is the intelligence of materials. The learning to navigate or manage fear or hold you breath is the research

At the moment I would also see, in no particular order, the following ideas from Art as Research and being common or of interest to experiential leaning, indoors and out. Get past the first few and it becomes much more familiar.

  • Creative writing as research.
  • Dance and choreography practice as research evidence.
  • Visual knowledge, as experience and as research.
  • Incorporating and representing different ways of knowing.
  • Resolving tensions between the the individual as practitioner and researcher.
  • Elusive knowledge in research.
  • The opportunities and challenges of research that is neither quantitative nor qualitative.
  • Using knowledge obtained from doing.
  • The role of embodied knowledge.
  • Mentoring and supporting students doing art based research.
  • The role of representation of experience as words or numbers.
  • The role of self knowledge obtained from research.
  • Working with not-knowing and the unexpected as an aspect of experience and research.
  • Assessing and understanding the experience of making art and making meaning.
  • Trusting the felt sense in research.
  • Representations of transience.

All these things above are elements present in the Art as Research discourse. For outdoor or experiential educators, the medium is entirely different, but the discussion of process that takes place there could be shunted straight across from art to adventure. To me this suggests there may be room for some kind of exploratory journey, (ie research) to find ways to link art and adventure. Where are the boundaries and where is the liminal space between two forms? To a pure positivist quantitative researcher the idea of dance and writing as research would seem no weirder that paddling a canoe or pitching a tent as research. It’s all relative. But incorporating Art as Research ideas into Outdoor and Experiential Leaning Research may, like McHiff says, give us ways of ‘understanding and examining experience ‘, if we see adventure as art and art as adventure.

Finally, as a picture is worth a thousand words, Brad Haseman in Barrett and Bolt (1) describes art based research as ‘Performative Research’. He places it as an adjuct or complement to other research methods.

The identification of art as research with the performative totally fits for me, particularly as a dramatherapist. This is partly because performative is such a slippery but useful idea. I think it sums up art as research perfectly.

Prof Richard Schechner at the Tisch School of Art, New York University talks about art and performance as displaying embodied performativity on my For Facilitators page about performance studies.

(1) Practice as Research – Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry. Edited by Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt. I.B.Taurus Press.

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