02: Media Arts Research

Jeff Wall, A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai), 1993

This week we delve into the practice of research. What are the different research methodologies and processes that help us position what we do historically as well as contemporaneously? How do creative practitioners establish dialogues with media and materials through research? What does material research look like? Exploring these questions will help define parameters for practice and situate it in the broader field of knowledge.

Yejiri Station, Province of Suruga. Hokusai

Yejiri Station, Province of Suruga. Hokusai

A broader field

To practise, we need locate what we do in a broader field. This means: to situate our practice in history as well as in relation to contemporary contexts.

You may ask yourself:

  • How does my work relate to other works, other makers, or other times,?
  • How do past/existing works inform the way I make things?
  • What is happening now in this field that is important to what I do ?
  • How do my works contribute to the broader field now?
  • Is it possible for me to contribute to this field, influencing and shaping its future?
RAGE is an all-night music video program that airs every weekend in Australia on ABC. For over 27 years Rage has been showcasing a diverse range of music videos from Aussie and international artists, making it the longest-running music television program still in production.

RAGE is an all-night music video program that airs every weekend in Australia on ABC. For over 27 years Rage has been showcasing a diverse range of music videos from Aussie and international artists, making it the longest-running music television program still in production.

Imagine if you are invited to be a guest programmer on RAGE, what works would you choose for your 7-hour program? If you were to choose works that influenced your practice in some ways, what would they be? How far do these works go back in history? How much do you know about them, their making process, their makers? What kind of contemporary works would you have?

Cover of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own

Cover of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

Or imagining you are writing a novel or a film script, what types of research would you need to do? How would these different types of research help shape your work?

What kind of research practice is needed to situate ‘making’ in a broader field?

Material Thinking

  • Thinking through theory and practice is an important part of this research/ being informed.
  • Particularly, when research is engaged with dialogues with historical and contemporary practices.
  • Perhaps, the difference between theory and practice is the medium of play and execution.
  • Theory uses language (written and spoken) to articulate abstract thoughts (e.g. about structures, techniques etc.).
  • Practice (making) engages with physical (mediated/ translated) materials to abstract experiences.
  • How may we approach these two types of practices?


Material Thinking: the Theory and Practice of Creative Research by Paul Carter

Material Thinking: the Theory and Practice of Creative Research by Paul Carter

Paul Carter writes:

‘Material Thinking [the book] is a record of ‘creative research’ – a phrase that ought to be an acknowledged tautology. If research implies finding something that was not there before, it ought to be obvious that it involves imagination…. As a method of materialising ideas, research is unavoidably creative.’ (7)

That is: ‘material thinking’ is research

He argues that in our current social/ cultural climate, the practice of research is dominated by a framework derived from a ‘narrowly reductive empiricist notion,’ which insists ‘on describing the outcomes in advance, defines the new in terms of a present’. (7)

All disciplines shift to justify their research agendas to match against these criteria (such as implying that the outcomes of a research project can be known in advance, and promising to deliver these outcomes). As such, writings on creative practice and works tend to be about the work rather than of the work.

Philosopher, Bernard Stiegler also calls for an examination of how these criteria (in conjunction with technological, economic, and political agendas) are directing contemporary scientific research and practices. Tracing back to ancient thinkers, Stiegler quotes Pierre Aubenque’s writing on Aristotle:

Tekhnè always concerns becoming, and to apply oneself to an art [i.e. a tekhnè] is to consider the way of bringing into being one of these things which can be or not be and whose principle lies in the producer and not in the produced thing. (Stiegler 31)

Stiegler argues that tekhè refers to techics (a set of techniques) rather than to art. More importantly, he argues:

Action of (moral) praxis and production of (technical) poiésis thus concern together the field of ‘that which can be otherwise…’ (30)

This ‘that which can be otherwise’ is the unknown, unpredictable part of the research process – one that is central to practice.

For Carter, this ‘unknown’ refers to poiésis that is brought into being through materials.
For Stielger, it refers knowledge creation through technics.

The current research paradigm for both arts and sciences, for Carter, eliminates creativity, and for Stielger, stifles knowledge creation.

Following is some important works of the 20th century. What can you tell me about these works? What were the breakthroughs (or the ‘that which can be otherwise’ element) they achieved? Did the work break existing boundaries in some way? How were these boundaries broken?

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937)


Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych (1962)


Stanley Kurbrick's Barry Lyndon (1975)

Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975)



Practice as research and the material discourse

Like ‘spoken and written works’, creative works are also discourses, but ones that cannot be reduced to written and spoken language as this risks ‘dematerialis[ing] creative activity’. (Carter, 179)

How does one talk of work instead of about works? How does one approach and engage with creative works as a discourse? This does not mean that we cannot use words to engage with creative works, but Carter argues that this engagement must rest in the transformation of materials:

Materials are actively forming and informing, patterning and re-patterning themselves and their surroundings… their activity can reasonably be described as discursive. To say this means, thought re-materialisng discourse. When this occurs something else emerges. The image/ text, or non-discursive/ discursive opposition tends to melt away, and a third, material discourse emerges. (180)

For Carter, this means finding signs that ‘retain their materiality. He writes:

It would allow that, provided the materiality of their ways of signifying is recognised, visual forms can be , and are, discursive. Then, to discuss them as forms of creative research would not be to lose sight of their heterogeneity but, on the contrary, to incorporate it into our material thinking. (181)

These material signs (how ideas are encapsulated, experiences expressed etc.) embody meanings. The uncovering, discovering or imagining of these meanings is the dialogue.

This is akin to Walter Benjamin’s speculative critique. For Benjamin, experience presents this infinite configuration embodied within the work of art. The critic’s task then, is to identify these possibilities: both the origins of the work and its future interpretation.

Speculative critique uncovers both the contingencies in the making of the work as well as the possibilities of its interpretation. The critic’s task is to discover what is immanent in the work through direct engagement.

In a ‘work of art’, both technologies (technical processes) and art are transformed.

The Painter of Modern Life

Jeff Wall’s practice is defined by his ambition is to become ‘the painter of modern life’  – itself a quotation from Charles Baudelaire’s 1863 essay. In Wall’s practice, we can derive how artmaking is research. In the use of Wall’s primary medium (photography), he investigates images of modern life materially.

Edouard Manet, Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère, 1881-82

Instead of painting, Wall uses photography as a research tool to investigate contemporary life. At times, he re-interprets modernity captured in paintings. His photographs are all moments that are staged – to recreate these moments encountered in everyday life.

He has everywhere sought after the fugitive, fleeting beauty of present-day left, the distinguishing character of that quality which, with the readers’ kind permission, we have called “modernity”.

Jeff Wall's Picture for Women (1979)

Jeff Wall’s Picture for Women (1979)

Working with the tradition of the tableau and the modern painters to capture modernity or contemporary experience, Wall speaks of this project:

It was a direction for modern art that was superseded by other directions, that is, by abstraction and by strands emerging from Duchamp. Those were perfectly valid and important, but I remain interested in the picture-making project. It has a long history in the West, an inexhaustible quality, so the idea of the pinging of modern life was really just a way of keeping my mind focused on that alternative. (Burnett, 10)

In other words, Wall experimented with the medium and materials of photography (film, colour, light, figures, fields of focus, picture planes, compositions, and manipulation of time ‘etc. etc.) to investigate and produce these moments of modern life.

Burnett described Wall’s idea of using back-lit light boxes (now almost exclusively associated with his work)

Wall found a way to bring together the three things that interested him as an artist and a student of art history: the experimental  legacy of the avant-garde, the tradition of Western figurative painting, and the very day debris of contemporary life.’ (9)

The selected moments captured through careful staging, manipulation, calculation are presented in a scale and with the luminosity that capture the audience of modern life.

This is material discourse.



Media artists likewise engage in material discourse with the multiple media (mediums) they work with: exploring the possibilities each material afford, pushing the boundaries to breaking points, then bring these back just a little. You often hear makers talk about these processes in ‘the making of’ type documentations about their projects.

In the video below, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer describes this process.


The ‘creative process’ is not in the least mystical. The decisions that characterise it are material ones, and a good techne, or craft of shaping or combination, has to be open to criticism and correction.” (Carter, xii)

Knowledge creation is  Being + Becoming

Material Thinking is Making + Invention

  • These processes encapsulates research
  • Theory provides a framework to think about how materials can be approached in the process of making (tekne, technics)
  • These practices provide ways to approach the materials, to approach experience, and to approach the world.



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





Burnett, C 2005, Jeff Wall, Tate Publishing, London

Carter, P 2004, Material Thinking: The Theory and Practice of Creative Research, Melbourne  University Press, Melbourne

Caygill, H 1998, Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience, Routledge, London and New York

Stiegler, B 2007, “Technoscience and Reproduction” in Parallax, 13:4, 29-45.

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