The idea of artistic practice as a form of research investigation may at first glance appear an anomaly: how does an artist research their own practice objectively and practice itself as a research topic? As an audio-visual artist, I’ve had to consider these questions as I explore aspects of my own practice through academic research.
Much of my artwork is derived through hands-on engagement with materials, in what could be described as a phenomenological approach to practice. This is where an artist through ‘praxical’ engagement with tools and materials rediscovers their ‘handleability’ whatever the medium, whether it be paint, textiles, wood, stone or in my case, sound and video. The innate qualities of materials and the tools we employ to manipulate them often inform our practice well before we attempt to realise a concept: indeed, an idea may arise from practice itself.
Phenomenology as a philosophical outlook was proposed by Husserl and further developed by Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, but it is from Heidegger that we draw on the idea of praxical engagement with tools and materials for their own sake, in effect ‘getting one’s hands dirty’ by simply being open to what they may suggest.
In my own practice, I adopt a phenomenological approach by isolating raw qualities of sound and vision, reassessing their inherent properties, being open to what they may suggest to me as an artist and then reassembling these aesthetically to provide a new and hopefully interesting experience.
My area of research is concerned with the experience of ‘spatio-temporal suspension’: for the uninitiated, a sense of time and place ‘suspended’ when listening or viewing certain types of music and imagery. This for me is similar to hypnagogia, the threshold experience between wakefulness and sleep, rich in imaginative thought.
Specifically, I’m interested in aspects of music and imagery that may trigger this state as I feel they are highly conducive to creativity. The investigation into this experience culminated in an hour-long performance at the Cultural Centre early last year, States of Suspension. With the group Paper Sun, I performed a series of improvised soundscapes accompanied by projections to instil a sense of ‘suspension’ as dusk fell in the Cultural Centre courtyard.
Drawing on the surrounding escarpments of the Jamison Valley and the open vista to the south, we explored through sound and music characteristics of what I considered suspended phenomena: blurry, abstracted and repeated forms, intermingled with sounds drawn directly from the landscape complemented by flickered, captivating projections.
But how do we articulate this kind of artwork as research?
Phenomenology provides a valuable research framework for artistic research in that it allows us to stand outside our own practice. By employing the idea of epoché, or ‘bracketing’ an observable phenomenon, we are able to stand back and re-examine what at first appears to be everyday experience, by looking at it with fresh eyes (and ears).
Pierre Schaeffer realised the value in this approach with his explorations in musique concrète by isolating a sound, objectively examining its properties free from cultural associations, effectively listening with fresh ears. Schaeffer regarded sound heard in this way as ‘the sonorous object’, noting “as a result of ever more attentive and more refined listenings, it progressively reveals to us the richness of this perception” (1966).
As a research approach to both sound and vision, I have found this method of isolating sound and imagery invaluable in reappraising what to many would be unremarkable sounds and images, reawakening interest in everyday experience and, in an artistic sense, instilling a sense of wonder in the natural world and its expression through creative practice.
by Peter Long, Composer and Academic