Circa 150 BCE, ancient Greek persons unknown created a mechanical computer capable of astronomical calculation. Known as the Antikythera mechanism, the device was lost in a shipwreck where it lay undiscovered until 1900. Nothing like it was known to have been produced by humans in the 1,400 year period between the creation of this computer and the development of astronomical clocks in Europe. Practical knowledge encoded in an object, lost for thousands of years. In the winter of 2013 I posted a query on my research blog titled Artistic Research? I was curious about a term I’d been hearing increasingly frequently since arriving in Europe, but had heard very little about in my career in the US prior.Two years later: I have successfully defended my own practice-based research PhD. I’ve read a lot of writing. I have a few opinions. Namely, while practice-based research (also called design research, research-by-design, artistic research, hybrid research, practice-led research and sometimes interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary to name a few!) is an incredibly powerful means of knowledge acquisition, the waters are a bit muddy.
Every one of these specific terms represents a particular line of thinking and a particular agenda. Some of these distinctions are useful, most are not. Throughout the literature the only common thread is that all of these engagements have at their core the creation of an artifact. And here is one thing we all seem to agree on regardless of discipline: artifacts have encoded in them a great deal of knowledge. This knowledge encompasses the facts necessary for an object’s physical instantiation but also the context of the object, situational information and cultural meaning. But while this information may be present in the final product, decoding it may not always be possible.
The argument has be made that such contextual meta-information is extraneous (after all, the Antikythera mechanism exists even though it is almost entirely devoid of context) but lack of context can prevent knowledge from being effectively applied. It is always the artists’ prerogative to present the final product and only the final product, but we lose something significant when we omit or obscure the mess of creation or focus too heavily on what we have predetermined are salient facts.
We cannot and should not capture everything, but there is a growing sense that traditional research techniques which focus on publishing objective accounts and which skew strongly towards omitting failures remain insufficient. Some of us suspect that practitioners have a good deal of knowledge rarely allowed inside the academy. We also suspect that attempts to categorize this by drawing borders around disciplines is a mistake. We think we’re losing something but we’re not sure what.
Presented here then is a practice based project in describing practice based research: a perpetual work in progress, an open-ended exploration of the body of hybrid-design-artistic-practice-based-object-whatever-centered research work. I take the starting position that making matters. I will not (yet) declare allegiance to any one set of terms. There will be false starts, mistakes and dead ends. I’ll record these. I hope you’ll join in.