Stephen Scrivener- Incorporating Doctoral Programs into Art Schools -an Interview

Professor Stephen Scrivener has long been at the forefront of the incorporation of practice lead research and doctoral programs into the art school. In the first of a series of in depth interviews with leading researchers we took the opportunity to take stock 20 years after the experiment began when the polytechnics became Universities…. 

David Garcia: Some years ago, writing of the introduction of research into the art and design academy, you said that “an experiment is underway that could ultimately lead to a professional research class”.  Given the two decades that have past since the experiment began, I wonder if you could say a little more about the nature of what you call the ‘experiment’?

Stephen Scrivener: When I wrote that I wished to suggest that the art academy had initiated a “what if…” experiment, meaning it was an experiment started without aim. We asked, “Let’s see what happens if we introduce a research function into our academies”. Basically an opportunity arose once the polytechnics became universities; art and design had to deal more seriously with the idea of research, because that is what universities do and the academies did not want to feel inferior in status to other university disciplines.  Additionally a lot of government funding became available to support both academy staff and doctoral students. So, I believe, it was opportunity, rather than principle, that in the first instance, at least, initiated the experiment and drove the growth of research, both as a core activity of academy staff and doctoral degree programmes.

I suppose in that sense you could call it an experiment with intention: an experiment in exploiting the income generating opportunities that presented themselves. So, the experiment, in my view, was not driven from the bottom; it was not driven by a demand from artists and the practitioner worlds for a home that might support them in this thing called research that they were yearning to do, even though I have personal experience of artists and designers who applied, at this time, to undertake doctoral degrees because they had become rather disenchanted with operating within the parameters of the art and design worlds. It was driven top-down, by the art and design academies.

DG: Historically some have seen this process as quite arbitrary or even cynical?

SS: Not arbitrary, in the sense that there were motives informing change; nor would I say that the academies’ actions were contemptuous of art and design values. Art and design are, in their natures, risk taking, so I believe that there was a genuine anticipation that the plunge into research would accrue more benefits than losses.

DG: But origins are not destiny. An experiment can be top–down and still yield benefits which could not have been predicted.

SS: I agree, but experiment involves risks and I thought it would be prudent of the art and design community to make some attempt to weigh the risks and benefits so that it might steer its course a little, rather than merely allowing itself to be blown toward its destiny.

DG Why did you think we might drift toward a professional research class?

SS: My beliefs in this respect are based on history and my experience of being an academic. In the UK the majority of the nation’s research is undertaken in the university and there are close connections between researchers inside and outside the academy via collective endeavour, such as learned societies, journals, conferences, etc. History tells us that this was not always the case and that, over time, discipline by discipline has organised itself in like, collective manner. It seemed. It seemed to me, at that time, that the introduction of research into art and design as a core element of identity was highly likely to bring these subjects to the same end.

Also from personal experience, I had seen this end come about as a computer scientist. When I entered computer science it was not even understood as a science and there was no term that bound those working with computers together; all sorts of names were use to label computer-based courses and their graduates. It follows that there were no computer scientists: the staff in the computer department that I joined were mathematicians, physicists, linguists, historians, psychologists, most of whom did not possess doctoral degrees. If you look at the faculty of computer science departments these days, most will be computer scientists, of one ilk or another, and almost all faculty will be found to hold doctoral degrees. Likewise, there are a host of instruments, of the kind noted above, that bind university-based computer science researchers to their counterparts in the wider world.

DG This comparison with the development of computer science is illuminating and it is inspiring to hear of the parallel growth of a network of outside of the university in terms of appropriate learned societies and their conferences and their associated journals. The research orientated artist does not yet have any equivalent to this ecology. But alongside these opportunities did you see any risks in this process of professionalisation?

SS: Whether or not it is a good thing in principle for art and design I really do not know. It certainly seems in opposition to ideas about artists (less so designers) as being essentially autonomous agents operating outside and often against systems of collective organisation, endeavor and purpose.

Many factors influenced my thinking on the matter, but one that I remember vividly is attending a conference on doctoral education in design where, in one of the presentations, the presenter posed a question about the future of design education. His government had stipulated that all university faculty members must hold a doctoral degree. Prior to this stipulation, faculty appointed to his schools of design were expected to have completed as significant period as professional design practitioners. Post stipulation, design students exiting from masters degrees who wished to become design educators were undertaking research degrees via traditional modes of research and immediately re-entering, because schools required new staff. He predicted that within a decade all of his faculty would have doctoral degrees and no design practitioner experience. What, he asked, might the consequences of this be for design?

His question was rhetorical, of course, since time did not permit debate; it was offered by way of food for thought. Of course, the situation in the UK was and is different.  The qualification demanded for university lecturing is not determined by government diktat. Furthermore, the UK was in the midst of a heated debate about the role of art and design practice in research, but divisions were already visible in the art academy between “research” staff in the subject departments and those in the research department. The latter self-identified as researchers, whilst the former would speak of their practice as research, although this was often merely the use of a different form of words, rather than real movement toward the intellectual and material practices predicated of research (and largely drawn, if tempered, from disciplines with stable research practices).

The fact that departmental staff, whilst feeling largely unsupported, were required to contribute to REF exacerbated this division. Furthermore, the presentation I referred to also seemed to ask whether the future research-led faculty would be fit to teach the practice of art and design. In the extreme case, art and design teaching would degenerate or art and design would have to change so as to be consistent with the demands of research.

Large-scale institutional change is by definition a long-term project. I wouldn’t really expect to see anything take proper shape for forty or fifty years. So if we see it as kicking off in 1992, we still have twenty to thirty years to go before the situation becomes stable, not least because countries are still, now only, entering the experiment. We’ll have to wait and see what this future brings.

So yes, origin is not destiny, but, whatever imagined scenario pans out, art and design research constitutes major structural and intellectual change in the academy. So, at the time that I wrote the paper you referred to, it seemed to me that the way we went about it would make a difference and I wanted to contribute my own view on the matter, which was and still is that art and design possess, and perhaps have always possessed, a research function, although not clearly identified as research or formalised as an institutional practice.

DG So it was 1989 when art and design was actually brought in to the RAE process for the first time producing a research revenue stream, and the appearance Christopher Freyling’s influential essay which appears in 1993 re-mixing Herbert Read’s model of education through art to describe different ways of thinking about research.

SS I would say Freyling was questioning, in this paper, whether the artwork itself could actually be a source of knowledge. He seems to see more potential in what he called the cognitive dimension of art, citing, amongst others, George Stubbs as an example. In order to achieve his artistic aims, Stubbs set himself, it is argued, to understand the anatomy of the horse and ended up making a contribution to that understanding; his book The Anatomy of the Horse can still be purchased as a paperback from Amazon. In this example, there is the suggestion that artistic processes can contribute to knowledge acquisition, perhaps even in special way owing to the artistic interests that drive the artist. He sees art and design as essentially directed toward expressive rather than cognitive enrichment.  In any case, he certainly introduced some doubt into the whole debate.

 However, as I said earlier, in my view it was the absorption of the polytechnic into the university sector in 1992 that was the big driver of research growth in the art and design disciplines because it was at this moment, as if by a sleight of hand that art and design came into the research fold with all the other disciplines.

DG But beyond the questions institutional expediency you have suggested that the law of unintended consequences might give rise to surprising radical outcomes. You have, for instance put forward the notion of “doctoral degree […] as a passport into a community of transformational practice operating largely within the academe, then this will put into question what it means to be an artist”. Is such a radical questioning of our position as artists a claim which given your experience in subsequent years still appears to be taking place?

SS Yes I do, because I can see that the future alluded to above is coming about. For example, many advertisements for teaching posts in the university require applicants to be research active and would prefer the researcher to have a doctoral degree. In the university at least, art and design research is becoming standardised and professionalized.

DG How do you see this playing out?

SS The pessimist in me imagines a situation where we have academics that are good researchers but have very little to contribute to preparing art or designer practitioners; the optimist in me imagines a situation where good research fits neatly with art and design practice, notwithstanding that practice is expected to change by coming into contact with research. In fact, I cannot see the present situation as consistent with the pessimist in me, but nor is the optimist in me satisfied. I can’t see that the art and design research departments in the academy are fully and fittingly integrated with the teaching divisions.

If I’m honest, I suspect that art and design research has not yet found the right form to significantly impact, for good or bad, on the academies teaching or the wider art and design worlds. The REF seems to contradict this statement, in that many of the staff submitted as researchers are employed primarily as teaching staff and, therefore, it would seem likely that the teacher in them benefits from the researcher. However, I would suggest that what such researchers do, as practitioners, starts out in the art or design worlds and ends up in the research world for REF purposes.

Given my take on art and design research, I see this becoming research as a positive thing, given that a significant proportion of teaching staff are performing the research function that I have argued art and design already embodies; that the work they are submitting is the result of this function; and that its “becoming research” surfaces as reflection on motives, contexts and methods. Although I am deeply skeptical about the value of the REF, I have seen instances where the portfolios submitted for assessment evidence these features; in this respect REF may actually have helped the UK art and design community to articulate and communicate its research dimension.

The problem, as I see it, is that research in art design, either as a matter of principle or of institutional organization, seems to imply not the development, refinement and concentration of a pre-existing competence, but the insertion of something radically new and alien into the whole business. As much as anything, I think this is at the bottom of the tension between research and teaching in the academy. It will be interesting, in fact, to see what proportion of the art and design research submitted for assessment in REF 2014 is constituted by practitioner portfolios. If portfolio submissions represented a small proportion of the total number of submissions, what might this signify?

DG: Given your background in computer science and the early experiments in art and technology, you have identified in your writings the “transformational element” as being the component that distinguishes a practice that can be seen as research.

SS: This is the name that I have given to the research function that earlier I said is already present in art and design prior to any collective debate about the nature of research in these fields.

I think that most people would agree that research involves doubt. John Dewey identified a kind of doubt, termed “felt difficulty”, which enters into and interrupts our purposeful, everyday lives; this initiates what he called the reflective operation, which comprises five stages: a search to locate the problem, analysis of the problem, the articulation of possible explanations, consideration of their bearings and experimentation to discriminate between competing explanations. Dewey suggests that this process deserves to be understood as research and I am with him on this.

Art and design practitioners find themselves surprised on a day to day basis and in dealing with it they can be understood as researchers. Furthermore, their beliefs are changed by it; if nothing else, as new knowledge it contributes to their store of knowledge; they are transformed, if only with a small “t”. Here is one way of thinking about a transformational element.

DG I am curious as to the importance you give to the doctoral process as a means of professionalisation. At one point you describe a situation in which you see the changes in the “…academic art-world that could ultimately lead to a professional research class” .

SS: By professionalising I mean the putting in place of systems that bring individuals and their “professional” work under agreed standards and shared values in institutional settings where work can be carried out, supervised and governed according to these shared appreciations. If this was to take place in art and design, my proposal was that the work to be emphasized would be that of producing surprise, rather bringing it to resolution, because, if I’m right in what I said earlier, practitioners are accomplished at dealing with surprise. However, such surprise is often of a trivial kind that only slightly modifies the practitioner’s (or researcher with a small “r”) beliefs. Professionalised, the emphasis would be on the generation of surprises leading to significant changes in not merely the individual’s knowledge but the knowledge of his or her research co-researchers.

DG: And how might we recognize that this doubting is actually taking place?

SS: When we are together, for example, as PhD student and supervisor, surprise and doubt, when they arise, are visible to everyone. Traditionally, I would suggest, such doubting is implied by the surprise that the work engenders in us.

DG: These are highly suggestive ideas but quite abstract. Can you provide a more concrete example?

SS: For me, Cezanne is an example of an artistic researcher who not only changed his own beliefs about his practice and the world, but influenced generations of painters and artists. We cannot be sure what surprised Cezanne, because he did not write about it in great depth, but we try to find it in the gap between our encounters with immediately apprehended art of Cezanne in front of us . The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of his surprise in encountering Cezanne’s paintings. He is immediately apprehended by them; they stand out from the paintings by other artists that surround them. He struggles to understand them because he senses that they are relevant to his own doubts and difficulties as a poet and writer. Immediate apprehension of them is blocked, but he cannot reject them because he feels they are in some sense relevant to his own interests. In due course, Rilke resolves his doubt and is, in his turn, transformed.

DG: You talk about arts transformational capacities as what makes it research for you and now you have gone on to describe it as a process that is going to generate surprise. The transformation, which we experience as surprise, follows in both the recognition and in the resolution of the doubt. Where I am still struggling (or doubting) is whether that is enough.

SS: I’m not quite sure what you mean by enough. If you mean enough to figure as research with a big “R”, I would say that if the work takes place in a context that is attentive to the production and value of surprise or doubt, and if that context is surprised by what a co-researcher has produced, then that is enough. What more could one expect?  I suspect that there are those who would insist that the knowledge recipients’surprise must be explained to them.

Whilst not completely worked through, my answer to this question explores questions of knowledge engendering and propagation: is this achieved largely by means of lived reflective operations or the transfer of propositions. Is scientific knowledge, indeed, largely circulated by textual devices, or are these just the instruments by which other scientists can reproduce and relive the surprises of the laboratory? I may be wrong in my interpretation, but Hans Jorg Rheinberger’s book Toward a history of epistemic things, in which he identifies scientific experimental systems as systems of differential reproduction that yield epistemic things, seems to open up similar doubts about where the knowledge of a discipline resides and how is it propogated.

DG: But Stephen all artists, if they are to be noticed must conform to that paradigm of questioning the discipline with a resulting transformation so that being the case what distinguishes the practicing artist outside of the academy from the artist researcher inside the academy?

SS: Well, I have admitted that prior to the change we are discussing, art and  design’s research function played itself out in the practice world, but not all artists are performing it and many of these are amongst the artists that get noticed. Whilst the function’s home was the art and design worlds, these worlds were not primarily directed toward this function. What would distinguish research in the academy, as I imagine it, is its emphasis on the production of surprise and the social-technical organisation of such events in a context designed to increase the likelihood of their production.

DG: Does the ways in which you have answered that question suggest ways in which we might come closer to the ambition stated earlier that this experiment in artistic research in Universities might change the ways that art is practiced in general.

SS: Regardless of what we conceive art and design research to be, such systems of production would represent a radical change as many artists place great value on their autonomy and do not want to think of themselves as operating in a profession. The academy is creating another means to support art and design innovation and it is quite happy to go on doing its research, producing its doctoral students, playing the REF, acquiring ARHC grants, etc., and the art world largely ignores it. At present the art and design worlds and the academy don’t have much to say to each other at all. This being the case, if research changes the way that some art is practiced, then there are barriers that will have to be eroded if wholesale change is to occur, even if that were desirable.

DG. From this point on, what do you see as the main issues to be tackled in further developing the nature and quality of doctoral degree programmes?

SS: I gave some consideration to this question in an essay that I wrote for a publication of the Hungarian University of Fine Arts Doctoral School. I suggested that the art and design doctoral student experiences as double rupture: between what they did before their doctoral programme and what they have to do to once they are in it, and a rupture between what the programme prepares them to do and what the post-degree world beyond wants from them.

If you talk to any art and design doctoral degree student, whether they joined their programme from BA or MA degrees or after many years of practice, they will report the shock and difficulty of getting into their research and completing it. This is not just the fact that it is hard to do research, but that they have to change their practice significantly: what they have to do appears very different from what their education and experience has equipped them to do. It is true that most academies now provide research training courses for their doctoral students, but these do little to ameliorate the shock and often add to a student’s sense of alienation from themselves by accentuating the difference between past and present.

This is not the case in other disciplines, where there are stable research practices and where many students become relatively competent in them whilst undertaking their undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Whilst we might resist comparison with other disciplines, I cannot see any special value in making the learning curve for doctoral students so sheer and precipitous.  Furthermore, it is terribly inefficient; for example, I find myself addressing the same basic research ideas with every doctoral student that crosses my path. To resolve this problem, in my view, we need to begin changing undergraduate and postgraduate degrees such that they include research. This will be a very significant step for art and design, because as soon as we begin to tinker around with the core educational instruments of the art and design then we are on the road to changing how these fields are practiced.

The second rupture between past self and present self arises when the art and design student completes their research degree, because there is nowhere for them to go as a researcher. Given that there is no research world to go to, they return to the art and design worlds.

When I did my degree in computer science I knew exactly where my post-degree world was. It was in the university, for a start, but additionally there were associations I could belong to, for example the British Computer Society, along with a whole network of exchange points: workshops, seminars, conferences, etc., etc.. There were bodies that funded research, journals that published its results. Furthermore, this world was distinct from the practice of computer science, which was done in a business or state enterprise of one kind or another. You had quite a clear choice to take one path or another. At present, notwithstanding a few conferences and the development of subject specific journals, etc., there is no real lived research worlds that can be entered; what exists are the present practice worlds of art of design, there isn’t yet an art or design research world as such.  So we need to consider, as a community, how we sustain and develop the impetus of research developed whilst undertaking a research degree.

It seems to me that these issues are real, whatever the nature of art and design research that one is seeking to promote, but, notwithstanding the fact that the debate is far less divisive than it used to be and that for the most part practice is seen as being key to most conceptions of art and design research, I do not believe that there yet exists a body, representing the whole, that might steer them to resolution as a shared endeavour. Rather, each institution constitutes an island community that trades haphazardly with its neighbours. Hence, each institution will have to decide how it will go about binding doctoral and other level studies within a revitalized and unified institutional self and binding this new self with the institutional selves in the wider art and design world.

Each institution will have to decide how it believes things should pan out. Are we looking toward radical systemic change, such that new art and design research worlds are created running parallel and largely independent of those that art and design graduates currently enter, or do we see the research function as being progressed through acts of emphasis, supported as necessary by the addition of new forms of operation and exchange grafted onto to the existing systems? Given the conception of art and design that I described earlier, I would be looking in the latter direction.

In any case, I’m pretty sure that these problems are being registered at the institutional level. In response, I think we will see many plants being put out to grow, some will prove to be weeds, and others blooms worth cultivating.  Furthermore, I’m optimistic that the art and design worlds have the good judgement to distinguish the one from the other.

September 2013

The quotations which are referred to in this interview are drawn from the essay Visual Art Practice Reconsidered: Transformational Practice and the Academy which appeared in the book the The Art of Research. University of Art and Design Helsinki. The book arose from a conference held at the University of art and Design Helsinki, 2005, at which Stephen Scrivener gave as keynote presentation.

David Garcia: December 2013