Artist film-maker and doctoral researcher Kayla Parker interviews herself and Dr Roberta Mock, Professor of Performance Studies, about arts research in the Faculty of Arts at University of Plymouth
What’s a doctoral researcher?
Kayla. It’s someone like me who is studying for a doctoral degree: when qualified, you become a Doctor of Philosophy, and can put the letters ‘PhD’ after your name.
Roberta. To be awarded a PhD, you normally study for three years full-time or five years part-time to produce a thesis which is then examined by experts who have not played a part in the project itself.
The form of the thesis used to be quite strict, but recently this has loosened up to include elements that are expressed in ways other than through the written word. Although it varies from discipline to discipline, in the arts and humanities it is normally up to the researcher to create an appropriate programme of study with the help of her supervisors.
Artists becoming doctors, whatever next?
K. Well, there are many artists who have also been researchers: Leonardo da Vinci was a scientist, artist, engineer, and an all-round genius.
However, it’s only in the last 20 or so years that art and creative practice has been accepted as part of academic research culture, and I think this is a result of the expansion of higher education, including widening participation initiatives, that took place during the 20th century. Governments since the 1960s have stressed the economic necessity for the UK to compete successfully in a global context, and this is a key driver of the continued upward thrust of education, pushing more and more people into achieving qualifications at ever-higher levels.
R. Artists have been awarded PhDs for a long time – it’s just that their own artistic practice wasn’t allowed to form part of their PhD submission. They usually ended up researching and writing only about the work of other artists. And while this may have helped them in all sorts of ways, it denied the validity of a large portion of the way their knowledge was gained and shared with others.
I think the inclusion of art departments in universities – and also the validation of art degrees by universities and the absorption of art schools into universities – over the past 20 years or so has meant that people teaching art in these contexts are expected to be qualified in the same way as lecturers in the sciences or humanities, for example. It is increasingly difficult for artists without PhDs to be offered permanent full time contracts at universities.
What does an artist’s PhD look like?
K. Research in an academic context needs to fulfill specific criteria, and for a PhD the research must be original and create ‘new knowledge’ that is recognized by one’s peers and is publishable.
As artists we can explore and communicate experience – what it’s like – in whatever media and forms we use in our practice. I am doing my PhD ‘by practice’ because, as an artist, I develop ideas, find out things, and present what I have discovered through the process of making films and showing them to people: art is my main language. My PhD therefore has a creative element – my films and other artworks – and a written component that links my own ideas and reflections in response to practice, with the theories and critical thinking, and practices of others.
R. It’s important to understand that all of this together is considered the ‘thesis’. In the case of performance practice, it is normal for the thesis to include a live performance event as well as documentation of performance events that are discussed in the written elements of the thesis.
Why did you want to go back to school and study for a PhD, Kayla?
K. For me, someone who’s been making films for around 20 years, the PhD creates a space in which I can review my work and establish contexts for the ideas I’ve expressed through my practice. My thesis title is Every frame counts: creative practice and gender in animation. I explore processes and methodologies of artists’ moving image from a feminist perspective as an artist filmmaker: this is ‘new knowledge’ because the majority of writing on this subject is by men, most of whom are not practitioners.
The actual process of getting here is through a series of chance events that became connected.
I visited the Facing East exhibition of landscape photography by artists from Nordic and Baltic states, shown at Plymouth Arts Centre in 2005. The exhibition was curated by Liz Wells, whom I met at the Land/Water and the Visual Arts summer symposium at the University in June 2006. This led to me meeting her every few months to talk about ideas, and then to me to writing my proposal for PhD study, and an interview with Roberta in May 2007. Liz Wells, Professor in Photographic Culture, and Dr Roberta Mock, Professor of Performance Studies, are the supervisors of my PhD.
It’s brilliant for me to have two women who are so highly regarded for their expert knowledge in their respective areas, as my supervisory team.
As well as an exhibition curator and acknowledged authority on photography, Liz Wells is the editor of two key reference books: Photography: A Critical Introduction and The Photography Reader; and her new book Land Matters, Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity will be published later this year. Liz has just returned from a three month research trip to Australia, so I’m looking forward to hearing about that. I’ll let Roberta speak for herself…
What was your PhD about, Roberta, and how do you use it now?
R. I completed my PhD in Drama at the University of Exeter in 2002, although I have been teaching theatre and performance full time at the University of Plymouth since 1993. Despite this, at the time I started my PhD I considered myself more as a theatre practitioner who taught than an ‘academic’ (as I do now).
My practice was a combination of directing, scenography and lighting design. But I started my PhD before anybody had completed what’s called a ‘practice-as-research’ PhD in the UK so I did a more traditional doctorate that combined performance analysis, critical theory and historical study on the subject of Jewish female performers. A much better rewritten version of my thesis was published as book called Jewish Women on Stage, Film and Television in 2007. I continue to write about Jewish women performers, as well as issues of gender and sexuality in performance.
But throughout this period of time I continued with creative practice, mainly with my colleagues Ruth Way and Chris Hall as Lusty Juventus physical theatre. I also became involved in an important project called PARIP (Practice as Research in Performance) between 2001-2006, which was led by Professor Baz Kershaw who was then at the University of Bristol.
So even though I don’t have an ‘artists PhD’ myself, for quite some time I have framed by own creative activity as research and nearly all of the PhDs I supervise can be considered ‘practice-led’.
How does postgraduate arts research at the university affect people in Devon and Cornwall?
K. A lot of the work we do relates directly to the south west, the area we live and work in; some of our research focuses onto specific places, or aspects of locality and history of the region.
For example, Catherine Cummings is a doctoral researcher in art history: “My research is the ethnographic collection of Gertrude E Benham (1867-1937) who circumnavigated the globe eight times and collected over eight hundred objects which she donated to Plymouth Museum in 1934. The collection consists of objects from all over the world.”
Benham was a mountaineer and traveller. As well as the Alps, she climbed mountains in Canada (the Truda Peaks are named after her), New Zealand, and Japan; and was the first woman to climb Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. She died aged 71 on board ship on her way home from a solo trek across Africa, and was buried at sea off the west coast of Africa.
Catherine’s research tells us very much more about Benham’s exploits, and allows us to understand the indigenous peoples she encountered as an unarmed lone woman travelling through remote and dangerous regions in the first part of the 20th century. Benham’s Tibetan boots are featured in the BBC’s ‘A History of the World’ series that tells the history of our world through object.
Another example is Lu La Buzz, an artist who is researching the China Clay and Ball Clay deposits in the south west for her MPhil/PhD; also Laurie Reynolds, an MRes Photography student, who uses the water from an abandoned quarry on Dartmoor to develop the photographs he takes at the location, so his work is a kind of collaboration between him and the landscape. Laurie produces extremely beautiful large photographic prints that capture both the ‘sense of place’ and the mysterious mineral processes that form the images themselves.
R. These are all excellent examples and there are so many more. I think I’d like to mention a really exciting PhD that is very close to completion by Karen Smith. Karen’s topic has been ‘the continuing professional development needs of artists in the South West’. It was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as a collaborative doctorate between ourselves and ArtsMatrix. Karen has made some fascinating and really important observations about artists as professionals and the ways they negotiate their on-going practice in the region.
MPhil/PhD: what does this mean?
K. When your research proposal is accepted and you register at the University, you’re enrolled as a MPhil/PhD candidate because the first part of your programme is considered to be at masters level, and you’re intending to go on to the next stage: the PhD. At around the one-third stage, you write a report on your research, do a live presentation of your work so far and say how you’re intending to develop this further. If successful, you then ‘transfer’ from MPhil/PhD to PhD status and are allowed to eventually submit for a PhD.
R. Some people decide not to go on to complete a PhD but to submit sooner for a Master of Philosophy (MPhil). An MPhil is smaller in scale than a PhD and doesn’t need to make an ‘original contribution to knowledge’ which is the main criteria for a PhD.
MRes… can you explain?
K. This is the Masters in Research programme: a great route into doing a PhD because the qualification is customized to suit the area you’re interested in. As a creative practitioner, you can put your art at the heart of your study, and the MRes programme provides a really good structure for you to learn about research and to develop your ideas. All MPhil/PhD students share a research training module in their first year with MRes students, so it’s also a way to meet people and find out about the variety of subjects being investigated.
R. We offer 12 MRes programmes in the Faculty of Arts at Plymouth including Dance, Computer Music, Photography, Theatre & Performance, Landscape, History, Art History, English… You can do it in 12 months full-time or 24 months part-time. They’re different from our MA programmes because they really do revolve around the student’s research project and the teaching is kept to the minimum and focuses on research skills.
Where can I find out more about what arts researchers are doing at the university?
K. Some of us have our own websites where we publish details about our work, projects we’re involved in, and talks we’re giving. Here at the university each researcher belongs to a research group or centre, and there’s info on these websites also. I’m a member of the Land/Water and the Visual Arts research group:
Fine art lecturer Dr Debbie Robinson has been artist in residence at several molecular biology laboratories since she completed her PhD, and there’s information about these research projects on her website:
Sharing your research with other people and getting feedback is an important part of the process of developing and testing ideas in a PhD. As well as giving formal seminars and academic papers, I also run workshops in which I talk about the research I’m doing and enable people to learn film-making skills or animation techniques; I gave a performance, screening and artist’s talk in Studio One at Plymouth Arts Centre recently, and the short films I make are shown in the UK and abroad in exhibitions, cinemas, festivals and as part of touring programmes. I usually put details on my own research website:
and on the Sundog Media site that I share with film-maker and sound artist Stuart Moore:
R. I agree that websites are a great place to start. The University website features links to research groups and also to individuals. If you are interested in music, theatre, dance or live art, I would start with the Centre for Research in the Humanities, Music and Performing Arts (HuMPA) website:
For all other art forms, I would start with the Centre for Media, Art and Design Research:
I would also suggest that people subscribe to the Peninsula Arts mailing list since we do try to make arts research available and accessible to the public through this programme.
K. That’s great, thanks Roberta!
(image: The Measure of It: Kayla projecting 16mm film scroll. Courtesy of Stuart Moore)
This is an article from our Plymouth ArtsCulture magazine, which you can read for free online, or buy your own copy to cherish and hold.
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