02L: What is 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)


Apple Macintosh computer (1984)

Apple Macintosh computer (1984)


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-interpret 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.


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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