Professor Nick de Ville
Director of Postgraduate Research in Visual Arts, Goldsmiths

Nick de Ville, "inventing methodologies2" (2007), Goldsmiths.

Introduction to the Plenary Discussion

It is an interesting fact that this workshop, and the one that preceded it, are very largely the result of Sophia’s struggle to find a legitimate form of writing that satisfied her concerns and her approach as an artist, and at the same time engaged with discourse in a serious way.
It is, I would contend, in this arena of the practice-led PhD, easy to write if there is no such engagement. The fears that this engagement produces, which seem to threaten the special character of visual material practice, can be summed up by the following remarks that I collected, thinking about speaking here today over the past few months. And there are four of them, this is the first:

“It is important within the framework of my practise to keep my critical writing and my studio practice separate, in order to maintain the integrity and the independence of my practical work.”

The second:

“Rigour in practice is managed through language.”


“Theory is the master discourse.”

And fourth:

“A practice-led thesis inevitably induces a theoretical trauma.”

Those are all things that I heard in the everyday exchanges that I am party to in and around the PhD programme.
It is scarcely surprising then, given sentiments such as these, that the morning session yesterday began this workshop by discussing writing. Starting off with Uriel Orlow in conversation with Anne Tallentire, this conversation set the scene for the difficult balancing act between practice and writing that producing a PhD in art implies.
Uriel’s fear that his writing would not “stand up academically”, his adoption of a strategy of having his “practice supporting a stand-alone thesis, although where the two were conceptually related”, was a poignant reminder of the early contortions required of practice-led PhD’s. For Uriel, practice was a privileged term in the PhD context because of its ability to deal with contradictions more productively than writing. Contradiction became a major figure in his thesis because it engaged with ideas “that were not subsumable by existing theoretical writing”.
What was notable was that in both his and Anne’s case, their work entered or found its way back to the arena of the book form. And for both, libraries were important as a form of archive and repository for source material. Did this presage the return of text as the master form of presentation? And after all, don’t all art theses still have to emulate the book? Or was the attempt here to do some new kind of reflexive work with writing, where the artist was, as it were, “a visitor in the discursive fields of other disciplines”? The cross-disciplinarity in Uriel’s case engaged—by his own admission—with philosophy, psychoanalysis and art history. And the aim “was not the production of new pieces of knowledge, but new models, new interfaces”.
The next two presentations, from Nicholas Stewart and Sharon Kivland, went in their individual ways towards problematising some of the writing issues, touched on in passing by Anne and Uriel. Nick Stewart proposed that language itself was the problem that writing by an artist must first and foremost address, proposing that different languages are related to context models of legitimisation. He asked “How does the self-legitimising language create its legitimisation?”, and gave us three forms of legitimisation that artists are fated to negotiate with in writing between the academy and their experience as artists. These being: the authority model, the subjectivity model and the utilitarian model. He discussed how these promoted a figure of sliding temporalities as a way of thinking through a contemporary sensibility.
Sharon Kivland used the instance of Mozart’s Così fan tutte to highlight an instance of the tension between the divine music (art) and the libretto which was mired in dissolution and deception (writing). The opera became a vessel for fleshing out Lacan’s four discourses which were at work in any individual where the intersubjective nature of language is emphasised but “where communication always fails, which is why we need to keep on talking”.
The four discourses gave us some unenviable choices to make between the discourse of the master, the discourse of the university, the hysteric’s discourse—that’s you lot, well, research students—and the discourse of the analyst. Where Nicholas gave us models of legitimisation, Sharon gave us roles that we were fated to play out in the academic context, where art could only do its work because it is mistaken for the lost object.
The effect of these two contributions, I would contend, was to suggest that the amiable collaborative relationship that Uriel and Anne had sketched out previously—with Anne as the supervisor and Uriel as the research student—must perforce have had dark depths and implied difficult and unresolved issues that they had somehow skirted around.
Sharon’s telling of Lacan’s discourses of the university, with its focus on the power of knowledge, and where authority is at work for its own ends, paints a bleak picture of the context in which to ask an artist to work.
The irony here of course is that Lacan becomes the personification of the oppressive disciplinarian authority. One of those sacred monsters that academia occasionally spawns. However, Sharon’s insistence that we were not infiltrating the academy but “assuming its badge and sign” was a warning shot to those who take the view that art by its nature alone offers a site for criticality within the academy.
In the afternoon, Suhail Malik turned our attention to interdisciplinarity. And here, in all expectations of a defence of artists trespassing on other disciplines, of discipline envy, of the professional amateur and the amateur professional, the conditions for authentic interdisciplinarity, as opposed to the more familiar form that is more entropic than transgressive, were not addressed. Suhail rather invited us to dismember art as a discipline. This he related to the distinction between the two possible expectations required of a PhD, that David [Mollin] has touched upon again this morning. One is that it produces new knowledge, something that had become a considerable issue in Sharon’s understanding of what a PhD is attempting, if you remember that in the session just before lunch. The other is that it affords, and I use the University of London’s form of words, that it “affords evidence of originality by the exercise of independent critical power”.
Suhail’s argument was that, in a pragmatic sense, art practice lays the ground for a credible PhD research project by being critical; satisfying the latter, but not the former of the two possible requirements. Which as a side effect obviously releases the text element from the need to be anything other than a report to the academy.
The complications that arise from this pragmatic determination are, in his judgement, twofold. One is that practice as research is not epistemologically based, it is ontological. In his words, “there are things in the world that are not epistemologically grounded, and this includes works of art”. Thus the consensual grounding of critical art practice in the discipline is not available to art practice. Secondly was the problem that art can be anything “up to the legal point”, that art has an openness to everything, since the institutionalisation of the voiding of art as an ontologically certain category. The response to this state of affairs is either to recoup art under the banner of inclusivity and diversity, which returns us to what he called “a discipline softly spoken”, or otherwise we need to see critical art as a method, a method without a discipline.
Suhail’s proposition does I think throw a new light on what might be the object in that well-know proposition by Roland Barthes on interdisciplinarity, which is as follows:

“Interdisciplinary studies, of which we hear so much, do not merely confront already constituted disciplines (none of which, as a matter of fact, consents to leave off). In order to do interdisciplinary work, it is not enough to take a "subject (a theme) and to arrange two or three sciences around it. Interdisciplinary study consists in creating a new object, which belongs to no one.”

The point is it would seem to me, that what I will call the Malikian proposition is itself epistemological. It comments on the field but cannot be of the field, or the field would become a discipline. In commenting on art from outside the field it would seem to raise in another form the issue of interdisciplinarity that the session so deftly avoided. And confers I assume, authority—in this case on philosophy—to comment on art as an ontological material production. The Malikian proposition therefore institutionalises the tension between material visual practice and theorisation that can only originate outside the field.
David Mollin followed with a paper that was both a description of the contents of a PhD and an embodied proposition as to how to avoid some of the problematics of the practice/theory dichotomy. For him the thesis was the practice, which could not be separated from the practice and where the methodology was the subject-matter of the thesis. There was a way too, in which he approached Suhail’s proposition of a method without a discipline, via his proposition of the autonomy of the field: an interpretive community engaged in an autonomous field in which acts only have an effect within that field—which we perhaps, David, did not hear enough about. Here also, via Stanley Fish, was the figure of the authority, the scholar, the theorist who governs from above or outside: the academics bent on assimilating stuff into coherent discourses, an activity that an artist like Duchamp, or a writer like Baudelaire would use against them.
There followed three presentations from Miguel Santos, Julia Lee Barclay and Adnan Hadzi which gave us different insights into a variety of forms of authorship, including versioning and modes of presentation. Where the relationship between stating something, on one hand, and embodying or implying something, on the other, represented values contesting normative expectations of the thesis in what I would call the humanities, soft sciences, or human sciences. These contributions showed the diversity of perspectives that are being opened up for a PhD in this subject. The point is not to find a single model, and this workshop has clearly not proposed one.
It is probably inevitable that my perspective is to wonder what all these contributions might mean for those given the task of setting the institutional terms for this kind of strange activity. Because whatever else, let us never fall into the trap that the university does not matter. The thing that I would focus on is what we really mean when we talk about practice-led or practice-based research. What kind of relation do we have here? Lots of disciplines here at Goldsmiths have over the past few years rather indignantly declared “We too have a practice!” Rather as if we had denied such a thing.
The key to the kind of PhD that is central to this workshop, I would contend, is that the form of the thesis precipitates a crisis of authority, wherever authority arises within the project. The vexed relation between the writing, as a mode of representation, and the visual material practice, as another mode of representation, is central to this. My sense is that this form of thesis highlights in a particularly acute way, the limits of those modes of representation and the incommensurate nature of those two modes: writing and visual art practice. They sit together uneasily within the thesis as a whole and despite the most assiduous efforts to cement them together, there remains a kind of question or lacuna at their juncture which puts both under question. But significantly I think, theory.
For me what is interesting beyond the bounds of the matter at hand of this workshop as it were, are the certitudes of those theoretical constructs that are put to work on art from, as David Mollin put it, “above and outside”, and particularly in conventional text-only theses.