02W: Research processes

Why research? Because research is what opens experience onto new things and new possibilities. Research is a set of practices and strategies for finding the ‘new’ – finding a difference that will make a difference – a difference in practicing, or in thinking, or in living.

This might be a different take on research to that which we normally think of when we are undergraduate students.

Research as an undergrad is, for most students, the hard (mostly boring) work of finding stuff to support an argument in a library (or on google) – normally in response to a set question. Research is less about finding the ‘new’ as its is about finding a particular answer.

In media arts (in particular – but everywhere else as well) we need to escape this thinking – and ask ourselves the question – Not ‘Why research?’ but.. How do I research productively? (or even better… generatively… how do I use research to realise the new?)

When we think of research this way it ceases to become something ancillary to making (art or otherwise).

Art making is research a process of open discovery as we interact with materials and ideas to generate new possibilities. We can think of research as not the thing we do to support Art (or media) making – but as the primary activity of making art/media..The object that we place in the gallery or in front of a user is merely an Artefact of that process of ongoing research (or practice).

How to research productively?

For the sake of clarity I’m going to break research down into three areas. This distinction is pretty arbitrary. As much as possible we should try to ensure work in each of these categories is informed by the others.

We (your tutors) aren’t interested in reading about the history and context of your project, or the theories that inform it but when you do good research this stuff shapes and provides depth to the artefacts (art objects) it produces.

Productive research might involve in no particular order;

– Context – Historical/Contemporary Research (of forms and practices).
– Theory – Historical/Contemporary Research
– Practice – Material Research

Note there is no ‘arrow’ or ‘hierarchy’ here. One is not more important than the other. Once does not ‘serve’ the other in a linear fashion.


If you are working in one category and it is not informing or speaking to at least one of the others  this is an indicator that perhaps you need to shift your approach to that category. If you think theory is irrelevant to practice alter your approach to theory – make it count.

Exercise 1: Contemporary Context

I’m dividing this category into two parts .. Contemporary and Historical. Both involve situating your work in a contemporary and a historical context. On the one hand you want to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ rather than ‘reinvent the wheel’ and on the other you want to avoid naively assuming the logics  that are embedded in contemporary cultures and technology that might reduce your potential to see marginalised research vectors (to see the new).

Check out this great chat with Robert Darnton , Professor of History and University Librarian Emeritus at Harvard about ‘Fake News’ and its History;




Note the importance of placing the contemporary rhetoric around ‘Fake News’ in a historical context. It allows us to see contemporary practice not as something new but as something that is historically situated. Only by placing the contemporary practice in a historical context can we see the differences that make a difference (if any at all) in the contemporary situation.

For that to work however we need an understanding of the present/contemporary context.

  1. Compile a list of five contemporaries in your field or who might inform your research either practically or conceptually.
  2. Find one work each from three of these contemporaries that resonates with your project.
  3. Describe the work in detail as if you were reverse engineering it. What skills and knowledge sets are involved? What antecedents does the work evoke? How does it work technically (in the one hand) and conceptually/theoretically (on the other).
  4. Identify an practical/material experiment that involves emulating a facet of each of these works.
  5. How do each of these works fit within a wider Series of works, how does this work fit within the artists wider Practice/Practices
  6. How is that practice situated in relation to other contemporaries
  7. How is that practice situated historically? Find three instances of historical works/forms/practitioners whose work resonates with this work and practice….wash and repeat… do this same work for these antecedents.

Exercise 2: Historical Context – Media Archeology.

  1. Research the history of the medium and practices with which your are working or the one identified in the research of your contemporaries. Find three different historical vectors. If you are working in virtual reality that might be; narrative cinema, simulation, immersion. If you are working in marketing it might be Propaganda, Brands, Targeted Advertising.
  2. Map out a historical Timeline for each of these vectors identifying key points of development, instances of expression, protagonists etc.
  3. Mark key protagonists and developments on this timeline noting which of these might provide vectors for deeper research and analysis – which moments speak to the contemporary moment and how. Think back to the example of ‘fake news’; a great example of a timeline of antecedents.
  4. In these key protagonists find theoretical perspectives, concerns, or techniques that might inform the other vectors of your research.
  5. Identify three historical techniques, qualities, or effects that have been marginalised or forgotten – formulate a practical experiments that emulate them materially.

Exercise 3: Theoretical/Conceptual Research.

  1. Identify 5 academic papers related to your field using the Libraries search function or using google school scholar. Work out which three are most immediately relevant and read scan them for Key Ideas (read them properly during the next week)
  2. Go to the references section of each of these three papers. Identify where references are duplicated across papers – Are particular authors or volumes or journals used in multiple texts.
  3. Find three references in each paper and locate the referenced material in the library catalogue or online. Assemble a Bibliography of project reading for the next week using this method.
  4. Extend this method until your list includes 15-20 sources.
  5. Read through your list looking for a) potential material experiments b) new context (artists/histories) c) the context of the ideas – how are they situated within a field of thought? Where do the ideas come from? What is the historical context of the ideas or approach d) useful/interesting ideas/concepts.

Exercise 4: Material Research.

Afrum White James Turrell 1966

Afrum White James Turrell 1966

  1. Given the results of the exercises above propose three experiments or explorations that you will enact as a program of creative material research over the next week.
  2. Ground your proposals in the research you’ve done. This might mean – exploring one of the (historical) qualities that you identified in your media archeology, or emulating a technique used by one of your contemporaries, or to test, explore or experiment with the ideas, concepts or questions posed in the academic research.Its important that this creative research be grounded in a particular field of inquiry that is well contextualised in terms of contemporary practice and historical development.
  3. Write up these experiments. What question do they ask? Are the experiments open (indeterminant/experimental) and generative?


Assessment 1 week 2: Research your field: provide a brief overview of the history and theory that define your field and inform your practice

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