My full PhD Confirmation Report

As promised here is my full PhD Confirmation Report, submitted in April 2015
as a PDF document:
Confirmation-Report-Tal-Fitzpatrick-2015

Alternatively, below is the Title/Research Question/Abstract for all those of you who “aint got time fo’dat!”

Research Title:                 Craftivism and the Political Moment

Research Question:         Can craftivism create Political Moments?

Sub Questions:

  • How is craftivism different from other forms of activism?
  • Can a material, craft based practice such as craftivism be understood as a socially engaged art?
  • In light of a post-political critique of participation is it possible to initiate political moments through socially engaged artistic practices?
  • How do feminist new materialist and post-humanist conceptions of agency and matter reshape our understanding of power and the potential of art to enact social change?

Abstract:

This practice-led research project is shaped by an artistic practice that plays in the spaces between craft, socially engaged art, activism, community development and autoethnography. It looks to explore how a particular style of figurative appliqué quilting might be used to initiate what philosopher Jacques Rancière describes as ‘political moments’ in a post-political environment. Through a series of creative case studies delivered in and with different community groups and organisations, this project will test the material-discursive potential of appliqué quilting to act as a socially engaged strategy for activism.

Importantly, this project doesn’t aim to develop a set of tools for leading revolutions or even to create a methodology where outcomes can be reliably repeated. Instead it looks to develop a practice based methodology for becoming more mindful of the patterns of consequential differences and of the overlapping ideas between: art, craft, activism, socially engaged practice, feminist new materialisms, post-political critique, post-humanism and community development theory.

However, if anyone actually does read my full report – I would love to hear your thoughts, feedback, reading suggestions, artists I should know about and constructive criticism. As always you can get in touch with me via email: tal.fitzpatrick@gmail.com

Finally – just for fun, below are some of my powerpoint slides from my PhD Confirmation presentation.

Cheers

Tal

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PhD Confirmation Presentation – 16 April 2015, TF

As promised, here is my full PhD Confirmation speech which I presented at VCA on April the 16th, 2015. If you read it I would love to hear your thoughts, so please don’t be shy!

Full presentation with slides: Confirmation-speech-TF

Here is an outline of what I covered in this 40min presentation:  Slide02Once again thanks to everyone who was there, and for those who wanted to come but couldn’t be there. I am really excited by the fact that other people are interested in my research.

My panel meeting with my supervisors and assessors is on Wednesday so wish me luck!

🙂

ECH Residency – Day 2

Today was a quiet drizelly day in emerald.

I spent the morning working quietly on my own, finishing the first panel of the Cockatoo kindergarden and then getting started on the second panel featuring Emerald Community House hall – here is a work in progress shot:

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In the afternoon there was a small workshop in the second space of the hall, 5 local ladies where in there making really beautiful mosaic pots (see image below). At afternoon tea time they came over and introduced themselves and we had a chat about my work. They really loved what I have finished so far and one of the ladies, Donna, happened to be on the people who originally came up with the idea of transforming the derelict kindergarden into a memorial/museum of Ash Wednesday! She has been on the committee driving the project for ten years and was of course a part of the protests that prevented the building from being demolished.

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Donna told me some of the history and details of the project and how it they finally managed to get support and funding to get it to happen. Having spent four years speaking to community leaders in disaster affected areas around the country the story she told me is a familiar one: Its a story of local people identifying a need or gap in their community and coming up with their own solution to address it – but then having to fight a long and drawn out battle to win political and monetary support to realise their ideas; Its a story of local women at the forefront of grassroots leadership – doing amazing, innovative things – but still having to struggle with how our society perceived women who show leadership (‘bossy’, ‘pushy’ and ‘a bit too in your face); Its a story about the struggle to get local emergency services to recognise the importance of community resilience building activities that address the phycological issues that arise from disaster events (but don’t have anything to do with ‘putting out the fires’). Its a story about how grassroots leaders adapt and learn to lead from behind (placing ‘important, white, men’ as the spokesmen for their ideas). The good news is that Donna spoke about how much things have changed, and that the Cockatoo kindergarden is now heritage listed and about to be rebuilt.

She also shared some snippets from different stories about the building, such as: During the fire while the 300 people were sheltering in the building there were three firemen on the roof protecting it, and that the building continued to act as a refuge after the fire, at least for one girl who used to break in there at night to get away from domestic issues in her family. She said she has a lot more photos to show me and that she will hopefully pop in to see me again.

Here is the finished panel of the cockatoo kindergarden building soon to be an Ash Wednesday memorial/museum. Complete with Dot standing on the roof protesting the proposed demolition of the building.

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ECH Residency- Day 1

I just got home after day one of my Emerald Community House (ECH) residency in the Dandenong ranges.

The hall is a beautiful old church that has been lovingly restored by the community, its bright with white walls, high ceilings and wooden floors. A marvellous space to work out of. Especially on such a beautiful day.

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In the week leading up to this project I was growing nervous about going into the space without a pre-conceived idea of what I was going to make. However, that was a conscious decision because I wanted to create a piece that responds to the site and to my experience in it. As well as to create something that links thematically to the community workshop/research project I will be leading at ECH in the 8 weeks following my residency. Happily, this all came together today quite naturally…

As I was setting up Mary Farrow (ECH co-ordinator) and another community member who came along to see the project and get involved both brought me the same book to look at – “Baked Apples on the Tree” edited by Icia Molloy is a collection of first hand accounts, stories, poems, photos and artwork from the local community put together following Ash Wednesday. As well as this book Mary also had a folder for me to look through. It was the application ECH put forward to have the Cockatoo kindergarden listed as a site of significance (and in doing so spared demolition). The story goes that during the Ash Wednesday fire over 300 people sheltered in the kindergarden and were saved. Thankfully the application was successful and in a few months the kindergarden, long neglected, will be re-opening as a memorial to Ash Wednesday. Of course, this is an amazing and important story to commit to cloth and so I am going to spend the next two weeks making a cloth-art piece about this story. It will feature both the kindergarden and ECH on it in acknowledgment that ECH helped to save the kindergarden which saved so many lives. Mary suggested it could even end up in the new Cockatoo kindergarden – that would be something wouldn’t it?

The community member who joined me this morning (I won’t name her) was a local. She had built her house with her own two hands after purchasing the block at the age of 19. She said that she was there during Ash Wednesday – still living in a shed at the time and spoke a little of how frightening the event was. A few years ago she was in a terrible traffic incident and now lives with an acquired brain injury. We spoke a lot about how miraculous her recovery was and about how she is still struggling and unable to find suitable work. A reminder that fires are not the only thing we need to have resilience for and only one of the many hardships that we overcome.

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Above is a photo of the section of the cloth-artwork coming together – I started with the Cockatoo kindergarden. I will finish it tomorrow, complete with a protester standing on the roof – a nod to one of the locally famous images from the fight to save the building, (see below) and then start on the ECH hall. The theme of protest is an important one in my personal practice and once again, quite naturally I have been able to translate that to my site-specific work.

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The design of the cloth artwork I’m making is based roughly on a quilt my grandmother made which is in her book “Folk Art Appliqué Quilts” (1990). I have been in conversation with her over the past month (she’s 93 years old!) and we are going to start collaborate through the process of me remaking some of her cloth artwork as well as making new cloth artworks based on drawings she is sending me. Keeping in mind that I am learning how to quilt and appliqué on the fly – by remaking my grandmothers work and by working from her book I become her pupil, her assistant. In effect I am inhereting her practice and her style just as I have inherited her genes and have been imprinted on by her aesthetics. This process of remaking and reimagining is an important part of the auto-biographical aspect of my research and is part of the heuristic development of my practice. Like my grandmother before me I am exploring this medium through trial and error, developing my own aesthetic language as I go.

Emerald, like many of the disaster affected communities which I have visited in my role as coordinator for Volunteering Qld’s Natural Disaster Resilience Leadership project is full of stories of survival, overcoming great odds and of slow but meaningful recovery. Already, Mary is talking about other nearby disaster affected communities that I could take this ‘Cloth-art Stories of Resilience’ project to. It’s funny how my work in this field is bleeding into the work and research I am doing for my PhD at VCA. I am genuinely passionate about community resilience and I find myself intrigued about how this will all unfold going forward.

Until tomorrow,

Tal

Dinner with Ilka White

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On the 14/05/2014 I wrote a blog entry about the work of Melbourne artist Ilka White. Her website describes several Socially Engaged Art (SEA henceforth) projects which I was really interested in as they use textiles as the mode of engagement in a similar way to how I hope to engage people in my own practice. I really wanted to find out more about these project and Ilka’s work so, as promised, I made contact with her and she kindly agreed to share a meal with me and to discuss her work (the perks of living in Australia’s most creative city!). In this post I will share a bit of what Ilka and I talked about, including how she got into working with community and her insights into the sometimes challenging world of SEA.

Please note: I have italicised the parts where I am paraphrasing Ilka’s own words, and I had Ilka herself look over this text before posting it.

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Firstly however, lets recap:
As it says on her website: Ilka White is a visual artist who works in textiles and sculpture. She is also a socially engaged practitioner, who works with community groups and other artists to create work. Direct engagement with the natural world (and the forces at work therein) is central to Ilka’s making process. Her current work explores relationships between the mind, body, time and place, and questions the separation of these elements.

Ilka holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Monash University and an Associate Diploma in Studio Textiles from Melbourne Institute of Textiles (now RMIT). She taught Contemporary Art and Design, Weaving and Textile History at RMIT University for 12 years (1999-2011), and was teaching artist in residence at the ANU School of Art in 2012. She has exhibited internationally and her work is represented in the public collections of the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, RMIT University and private collections in Australia, U.K. and U.S.A.

Ilka’s work appears in a variety of publications including Textiles: The Art of Mankind (Thames & Hudson, London. 2012), Art Textiles of the World – Australia Vol. 2 (Telos Art Publishing, U.K. 2007), The Melbourne Design Guide (Lab.3000, 2006) and Handmade in Melbourne (GSP Books, Melbourne 2006).

ilka white BoiteBannerSo how did it all start?
Ilka White talks about coming from a creative and musical family and growing up in a close-knit community where as a young person she regularly attended the Turramurra Music Camp. She spoke fondly of her time at these camps where her own creativity and creative aspirations were nurtured alongside a strong sense of community. After graduating from Monash and RMIT, Ilka’s first professional job was to create a banner for The Boite’s world music café concerts, not a SEA project but a piece made in consultation with/ for a specific community. She shared with me the old adage that ‘its all about who you know’ when you are looking to get work as an aritst, particularly when working in community. Reflecting on the fact that the networks and relationships she has build over time have really been the key to her SEA practice.

Another banner project followed the Boite commission. This time created with Cultivating Community, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes and supports the development of community garden projects. This banner, produced with community members at the Hoodle St Neighbourhood House, proved a formative experience and taught Ilka a great deal about trust in group process and informal skills exchange.

Ilka’s next SEA project came several years later and was a Cane and paper sculpture project called the ‘Turra Mahal’ which she facilitated at the very same Turramurra Music Camp Community which she attended as a teenager. As a long time member of the community the camp organisers were keen to get Ilka involved and share her skills with the community so they invited her to deliver a workshop as part of the two day camp. Often one of the challenges of being a SEA practitioner is that it takes time to build connections within a community, gain trust and come up with ideas that are sensitive and appropriate for that community. However when working within your own community these issues can be almost totally avoided and Ilka found that taking her practice into the context of the camp was a seamless progression outward from her personal practice. The sculpture project went really well and she has gone back to deliver workshops at the camp several times since that first project, doing something a little different each time and progressively collaborating more with the camp’s participants.

Since then she has worked on several SEA project including a “Ghostnets” shadow puppet performance on Moa Island in the Torres Strait with the local indigenous community, a community arts project called “The Four Seasons Wall Hanging” with multicultural ‘Loving Threads Sewing Circle’ who work together in the Factory, Belgium Avenue Neighbourhood House, a collaborative “Suzani “ embroidery project with the Fitzroy and Collingwood Afghani Women’s Group. Most recently she returned to the Loving Threads Sewing Circle to create a culturally sensitive burial shroud to be used by the local funeral home that services a population with a high number of culturally diverse people.

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Talk to me about Textiles:
Ilka needs no further promoting to talk about her love of textiles: “Working with community using textiles is absolutely fantastic!” Textiles as a medium isn’t caught up in the traditional art hierarchy but rather are seen as a vernacular craft. While this is a “bummer” in art world, it is really useful when working in a community context because it means textiles are more accessible. People don’t feel they need to be an ‘artist’ to work with textiles as they are familiar and all this means that you don’t need to build up people’s courage like you would if say you were using the mediums of painting or sculpture. Textiles have a long history in many different cultures which involve the process of people meeting and making together and many people already have excellent technical skills which they learnt from their parents, grandparents or someone within their community.

As a SEA practitioner I see my most important role is being a good facilitator and drawing out of people the skills and talent within them, providing them with an opportunity to shine. Depending on the project, the community you are working with and your agenda, it is then possible to really push people a little, move them out of their comfort zone and into the learning zone. However, I believe that pleasure and enjoyment are the most important outcomes of a SEA process and again I see that textiles lend themselves beautifully to this aim. Where people shy away from seemingly simple creative tasks like drawing when working in textiles there seems to be less hesitation and fear.

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What is it like to lead SEA projects?
Ilka’s SEA work blurs the lines between art, teaching and facilitation and she said that this balancing act can sometimes be very tricky. While she feels it is critical to focus on the facilitation of SEA projects in order to ensure they are successful and that people have a positive experience, Ilka is always conscious of her position and influence as the ‘artist’. While most often the focus of community art projects is that participants have a good experience and learn something or connect with others as a result of their involvement, with SEA project there is still the expectation of the project achieving artistically accomplished outcomes in the form of physical art objects. This fact can sometimes lead to conflicting agendas and ideas between stakeholders.

While none of the participants in the groups Ilka works with are being assessed on the quality of artistic outcomes, often the success of a project as determined by funders and the public does depend on its artistic outcomes. These outcomes in turn are then understood as a reflection of the artists capacity, vision and skill which can lead to challenging questions about authorship, ownership and decision making when collaborating with groups- not all of them comfortable. While Ilka finds the most exciting part of a SEA project to be the dynamics of the group and how they are developing and growing- as opposed to how beautiful work is, the public audience of a work as well as project coordinators and funders are often concerned with the finished project and their judgment affects your reputation. “I’ve learnt that you have to decide who you are trying please at the beginning of a project and make this clear to everyone at the outset. While your reputation is being assessed – success should be judged as much on the social outcomes of a project such as group dynamics then on material outcomes.”

Ilka shared with me a sense that there is a tendency amongst community workers to “bulldoze” artists who are interested in SEA with criticism about being naive and unaware of the complexities of what they are trying to do. However, she feels that artists are generally incredibly sensitive and actively listen and respond to what is happening in community in ways that not many other professional practitioners would take the time to do. Money is also an ongoing tension when working in community, with many people expecting artists to volunteer their time and services. In some cases the fact you are being paid (even if it is way less then you should be) brings up uneasy tension between the artist and the community they are collaborating with. Despite all this Ilka feels there is an understanding that artist’s help people achieve things they wouldn’t otherwise do/make/achieve and that paying artists to facilitate SEA projects is an important way to help artists sustain their professional practice and ensure that communities have greater access to participating in creative projects.

What do you get out of it?
bWhen I asked Ilka why SEA work is so meaningful to her personally, she answered that the crux for her is the same as what her participants describe as the real value of the work: gaining a sense of community and belonging; taking part in a process which brings me into contact with people I wouldn’t meet otherwise socially; seeing how much can be achieved within a short space of time when people work together – that is really exciting! As the facilitator/artist for me one of the most moving and humbling things about the leading SEA projects is how collaborative making inevitably builds a high level of respect for one another within a group of potentially very different people. For me if a project is done well it is always enjoyable. It flows often much more easily than my individual work does, and it’s a pleasure. I feel fortunate to be paid to do this type of work, particularly as the rest of my work is largely solo. While I do collaborate with other artists, it’s a very different experience. It’s more about negotiating your individuality and authorship than co-creating something as a group.

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Summing Up:
I really enjoyed having the opportunity to talk face-to-face with Ilka, it was really insightful to hear about her personal journey and to take heed of the warnings and lessons she gave me about the challenges of working in community. While it is only a small part of her practice, for me Ilka’s SEA work is some of her most interesting, not because of the artistic outcomes per say, but because they speak with a voice greater than any one person on their own could command. They really do show what people can achieve when they work together with a common goal and exemplify how the art of textiles can bring people great joy. So thank you Ilka for taking the time to meet with me, and thank you for your words of advice.

 

Art Sucks

I think what really upsets people about Practice as Research and perhaps art more broadly is that it it doesn’t have to be useful, or rather that its value is not bound up in its usefulness…

What we learn through practice is not restricted by having to be applied or broadly relevant. In fact, often it is totally unique to a particular practitioner and can only be replicated by the very few if by anyone at all.

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Practice + Repetition = Clarity

There are two things that I’m going to continue to write about and revisit over and over again in this blog, they are: 1) Socially Engaged Art/ Participatory Practice and 2) Practice as Research. This entry will be no different.

As an artist, like many of my peers, I am grappling with a set of challenges and ideas that feel as if they are encroaching not only on my autonomy as an artist but on the way I and others understand art and its role in society. Recognising that:

“Art does not stand apart from history by any means, least of all its own; but intrinsic to its identity is the principle of freedom with regard to that history. Any prediction in advance of what it will (or should) do is alien to it, and equally, any attempt to fully account for it, whether through the apparatus of criticism or that of the market is doomed to be incomplete. It is the part of our culture where we allow ourselves to think otherwise.” 1

I fear that perhaps the most significant of these attempts to ‘account for art’ is its commercialisation and commodification, its reduction to a form of mere entertainment. This disturbing shift seems to be rendering even the most shocking, revolutionary or obscene artworks as impotent, harmless or easily contained. As artists we often have grandiose ideas about how our work can challenge hegemony and power or disrupt social, political, economic and even ecological systems. However, at the same time we continue to use the measures of success set by the neo-liberal capitalist regime in which we live: money, fame, prestige and acceptance into mainstream galleries and museums who themselves are bound by conservative funding structures, aggressive business models and upper class patrons. The strange bedfellows, artists and capitalists, have effectively reduced art to a spectacle.

As a way to better understand and explore this challenge of how art can break free from the negative impacts of the market I have gone back several steps in order to explore the question: What roles does art plays in society? Not in an attempt to define or assign art with a set role as I don’t agree that art has some kind of essentialist form or function, rather this focus on the many roles art play in society is an attempt to to understand and articulate what role I would like my artwork to play.

Art is many things to many people, but the kind of art that I’m most interested in making is known as Participatory Practice or Socially Engaged Art (Bishop/Kester). As I understand it socially engaged art (henceforth reffered to as SEA) is the kind of art that plays in the gaps and silences between binaries, destabilising dichotomies and continuing a tradition of pushing the boundaries of what art is as well as what it art does. Arguably SEA has been around in one form or another since very early in the 20th Century and has been happening right around the globe. It is an incredibly diverse practice in its methods, approaches and intent. Generally speaking SEA concerns itself with the tensions between/and the challenges of:
– authorship, audience and participation
– consumerism and the commercialisation of art
– the production of useful art vrs. The fight against its reduction to a utilitarian tool
– Aesthetics and new materialism; the ephemeral and the call for documentation
– the collective/collaborative and the individual
– democracy and dissensus; the gallery and art in public spaces
– addressing current world issues and the historical trajectory of the Avant Guard
– the space between art and life
– the “third term” , the ‘so what?’ 2
So, in other words, seemingly everything. However the common thread and that is people and their relationships, whether they are relationships between people or between people and ideals, or people and the material world.

Alongside my interest in SEA I am also keenly interested in the role of art as a reseach methodology, or what is otherwise known as Practice as Research (which is why I have taken on a practice-led PhD). Practice as Research (henceforth PaR) is the proposition that artistic practice can be viewed as the “production of knowledge or philosophy in action… artistic research demonstrates that knowledge is derived from doing and from the senses.” 3 Or in other words that there is an inherent logic to art (and in my case craft), a methodology that can be applied in the world in order to make significant contributions to knowledge which are generative, unique and extend the frontiers of research. As described by Robin Nelson in his book:

“PaR describes what practitioner-researchers do, [it] captures the nuances and subtleties of their research processes and accurately reflects the process to research funding bodies. Above all it asserts the primacy of practice and insists that because creative practice is both on-going and persistent; practitioner-researchers do not merely ‘think’ their way through or out of a problem, but rather they ‘practice’ to a resolution.” 4

This process of practicing towards a resolution can also be described as an iterative inductive method of research.

This paragraph really resonates with me and helps me to articulate why for me PaR was the logical choice; this notion of the ‘practitioner-researcher’ very accurately describes how I think and feel about my practice. For me making art is a process of being and interacting with the world around me, it is how I process information as well as my inner thoughts. It is a two-way dialogue between my inner thoughts, feelings and ideas and the materiality and autonomy of the material world. An interaction that also extends to the theoretical, philosophical and political forces operating in the world around me. Furthermore, I really resonate with the idea that in the case of a PaR methodology ‘knowledge’ follows after, is secondary to, the practice – or rather emerges out of that practice.

PaR has evolved out of a higher education context, emerging from within the artistic academic community – particularly at a PhD level – and is therefor shaped and bound by the limits of these institution. It is an approach that tries to extend the limits of what can be understood as ‘research’ and as ‘knowledge’ and aims to have artistic research and artistic knowledge valued equally to other disciplines and methodologies PaR “…is an acceptance that knowledge is not fixed and absolute.”5 and really pushes what kinds of ‘knowledges’ are accepted by the institution. While PaR recognises that research in some form is a part of all artistic practices it ultimatly requires “the rigours of sustained academic research [which] are driven by a desire to address a problem, find things out, establish new insights” .6

Whilst PaR is in part an attempt to ensure financial viability and sustainability as well as a recognition for the contribution that art brings to these institutions and to society, it is also a direct challenge to the very fundamentals of what PhD is and what it requires, such as the basic assumption that a PhD should begin with a well defined ‘research question’ and finish with data being used to point to some sort of resolution or answer. Instead PaR typically focusses on a research inquiry which “affords substantial insights rather than coming to such definite conclusions as to constitute ‘answers’.” 7 Personally, I much prefer the idea of a research inquiry to a research question. I feel that the ‘problem-solution’ dichotomy is not an appropriate approach for working in social contexts; that society is infinitely complex and diverse and that any attempt to presume to identify and define a ‘problem/question’ let alone extract some kind of ‘solution’ or find an ‘answer’ – in fact I feel the act of doing so is often more harmful than useful. The adaptive challenges faced by communities do not require technical fixes, they require long term support with the experimentation, co-creation and implementation of alternate ways of doing and being. As such, I didn’t go into a Practice as Research PhD with a focus on Socially Engaged Art in order to ‘fix’ anyone, or any community. I want my work to be accessible and I would like my practice and the outcome of my work to be humble. I do not want to make grandiose claims about the impacts of my work, or the findings of my research. I am not driven by the ideas of progressivism or the agenda’s of social reformers. What I do aspire to achieve is a practice that is revealing about its subject, engaging of its audiences, sensual and seductive in its materiality and subtle in its socio-economic-political positioning. Like a good film, I hope that my practice will be able to capture people’s attention, moves them emotionally and entices them to reflect about their ‘being in the world’ – giving them an invitation to reconsider or reimagine their current realities.

References:
1 Adamson, G. Thinking Through Craft, 2007, p9
2 Ranciere, J. – Emancipated Spectator introduces the “third term” solution, which is echoed in substance in Aesthetics and its Discontents,
3 Barrett, E and Bolt, B. Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Inquiry, 2010, p1
4 Nelson, R. (ed) Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances, 2013, p8
5 Nelson, R. (ed) Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances, 2013, p39
6 Nelson, R. (ed) Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances, 2013, p3
7 Nelson, R. (ed) Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances, 2013, p30