The PhD for artists is currently discussed widely in the Dutch art world. Ilse van Rijn interviewed Irene Kopelman, WJM Kok, Matthew Buckingham and Sarah Pierce, to bring some clarity to the artist's motives and answers the question of why a PhD candidacy is different from the now ubiquitous ‘artistic research’.
Observe and Analyze
‘I have let go of the idea that that I have to be intelligent,’ claims Irene Kopelman (born in Córdoba, Argentina in 1974; lives and works in Amsterdam). In September of next year, she will complete her doctoral research with an exhibition and a discursive segment in which she describes four or five projects and puts her modus operandi into context. For her, research consists of visiting and studying natural history collections, including the microfossil collection at the Artis Geological Museum in Amsterdam (incorporated in her work Reconstructing Time, 2005). She also studies mostly overwhelming natural phenomena and recently travelled to Antarctica. Kopelman works in collaboration with scientists and, through their dialogue, tries to redefine her own methodology. With Menno Schilthuizen, researcher at the Naturalis Centre for Biodiversity in Leiden, for example, she is preparing a project about mirror images in nature. Schilthuizen’s knowledge and scientific methods fuel her efforts and give insight into her own thought processes. Her contact with Bert Theunissen, instructor at the Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and Humanities, also one of the mentors for her PhD research, works in much the same way.1
As Kopelman’s research progresses, drawing has proven an important instrument in her approach. She formulates drawing as a form of ‘embodied knowledge’.2 ‘Drawing implies observing and analyzing. It makes me conscious of what I see, such as the differences between the butterflies in Ubx Expression.’ The drawing is not an objective in itself, but an instrument for analysis. It is usually determined by external circumstances. We see this, for example, in the images completed in Hawaii, where Kopelman, perched uncomfortably on black rock in the burning sun, copied lava formations (The Levy’s Flight, 2009). ‘Doing a PhD gives me ground under my feet. I could have studied natural phenomena and natural history collections for years on end without ever realizing why.’ Only now, by entering into dialogue with a ‘different’ field, does it become evident how the way she arrives at an understanding of a physical phenomenon differs from the often categorical way of reasoning found in science. The similarities between the artistic and the physical process of creation are also brought into perspective. Isn’t there always a certain madness and impossibility in creating replicas of nature?
Kopelman leaps to life when the conversation turns to the issue of the artist’s social position and the contribution of doctoral research towards raising consciousness of a possible ‘new’ status. In her opinion, artists too often live in an ‘art bubble’, an almost hermetically sealed universe. This attitude and its paucity of engagement is something unknown to her in the Latin American world from which she hails. In addition to the fact that doing doctoral research is a way to give shape to her own research, which characterizes her practice in general, the interdisciplinary character of the process reflects the necessary involvement in a world that is not solely and exclusively determined by art.
What is doctoral research?
A part of doctoral research is about doing doctoral research, as WJM Kok (born in Utrecht in 1959; lives and works in Amsterdam) confirms. For about a year now, he has been working towards his doctorate at the Humanities Faculty of the Academy of the Arts at the University of Leiden. Frans de Ruiter, deacon of this institute, in collaboration with Janneke Wesseling, has made it possible for artists to work towards doctorates (PhD Arts) at the faculty. Kok explains that the substance and practical realization of this structure still need to be defined, as they progress, by the faculty as well as the candidates themselves. In his case, almost monthly, he gives a presentation on his progress at both the universities of Leiden and Leuven.
No formal requirements are set for the doctoral study. Kok finds this an admirable principle, but in part because of pressure from the outside world, it proves difficult to maintain as a starting point. Moreover, it cannot be expected that these provide for every artist the best conditions in which to conduct their own investigations. For Kok himself, it is the discursive element of the PhD research, the analytical and reflective thinking and communicating, often unrelentingly absent in the visual arts and whose relevance in PhD research by artists is often in doubt, that is important. He emphasizes that this does not mean that his own practice and the subject matter that he is investigating have to conform to that. ‘The doctoral research must be something that others can follow, but the freedom to discover one’s own frameworks and methods is paramount.’
In terms of content, Kok is mentored by Lucy Cotter, an art historian trained as an artist and currently working on her own PhD at the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis (ASCA), by the philosopher Sybrandt van Keulen, and by the artist Joke Robaard. With a further network of artists and theorists,3 he discusses his principles and how they are developing. Although the specific subject changes, like that of Kopelman, Kok’s work is based on a problem defined within his own work, in this case the use of series. A part of the investigation is a close reading of Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (1968), under the guidance of Sybrandt van Keulen. Kok sees the concepts described by Deleuze reappearing in conspicuous ways in visual art. Along with the repercussions in a written work of this study into concepts and, implicitly, into the question of how, as an artist, one deals with his or her discipline, especially important for artists working highly conceptually such as Kok himself, the doctoral research will consist of the development of a number of visual works in which new production methods are investigated. He recently worked with video for the first time. In Roundabout (2010), Kok investigates the coincidental, yet continuingly repeating round form in the immediate surroundings of the space where he is exhibiting the work. 4
The intriguing but sometimes problematic question of the practical and substantial imbedding of the research is less important when the PhD trajectory is more firmly incorporated in existing organizational structures, or so it seems. While Kok’s research barely has any financing at all, and external funding had to be found for Kopelman’s PhD work, Matthew Buckingham (born in Nevada, Iowa in 1963; living and working in New York) by no means finds himself in a financial impasse. The four-year research projects of the PhD candidates at the Malmö Art Academy, at the University of Lund, where he is studying, are supported by Swedish stipends and grants. On further inquiry, the situation at Malmö seems to be unique.5 Buckingham is one of only five PhD candidates. He began his research in the autumn of 2007 as a part-time postgraduate student and hopes to complete his doctorate in 2013.
In 2003, Buckingham began teaching in Malmö, where he became acquainted with the doctoral programme. The opportunity of working with Sarat Maharaj made him decide to undertake PhD research there. As is true for all the postgraduates interviewed in this article, the PhD gives Buckingham the opportunity to formalize an investigation that was already under way. The question arises whether his decision to do this at the institute where he was already teaching, together with colleagues whom he already knew, does not imply a silently uncritical form of sponsoring his own projects. The difficulty that it took to be able to speak with him – he was overseas for his research – would imply that the supervision and responsibility for his PhD research are not limited to the indeed highly competent institute in Malmö.
When I was finally able to reach Buckingham, he was extremely passionate about his work. He explained that he studies models of historic memory and consciousness that form the cornerstones of the way we give form to our past. His research comprises two parallel segments, with the working titles of The Sense of the Past and Subterranean Pass Way. In this context, the relationship between theory and practice, the ‘creative’ and the ‘discursive’, are made explicit in different ways. The Sense of the Past will comprise a sequence of texts incorporated in visual form, while Subterranean Pass Way will be a work based on photography and film, although driven by writing and research.
The Sense of the Past refers to Henry James’ unfinished novel of the same name.6 The protagonist in this book is a young American historian, Ralph Pendrel, who is planning to take a journey in time, at which point the author is suddenly no longer interested in him, as Buckingham explains. Whatever the reason for the incomplete state of the book, Buckingham sees it as a spawning ground for a reflection on the task of the historian, as well as on the transfer from one discipline (literature) into another (the writing of history), and vice versa. The technique of bibliographical notation, borrowed from academic texts, as a means of underscoring the act of interpreting on the part of the artist, as well as the viewer or reader, were already visible in his Muhheakantuck – Everything Has a Name (2003).7 This process will be expanded on in The Sense of the Past, although it remains to be seen exactly how. According to Buckingham, by means of footnotes, appendices and glossaries, the problems of Henry James, the fiction writer, will be contrasted and compared to those of Ralph Pendrel, the fictional historian. Artists can read the text as an autonomous essay on historiography, or as a commentary on Henry James’ unfinished novel.
For Subterranean Pass Way, Buckingham is investigating the social and historic recollections of the Underground Railroad, a nineteenth-century antislavery movement that organized escape routes and hiding places for runaway slaves from the southern states, in America. The emphasis in this segment of his doctoral research lies in the role of violence within the Underground Railroad and on the idea of the existence of a ‘moral community’ that organizes itself in defiance of opposing powers and the law. Buckingham moreover wants to extend this into an investigation of contemporary human trafficking today.
Education also has a place outside the formalized encounters and discussions that we have about it, as Sarah Pierce (born in Connecticut in 1968; living and working in Dublin) had earlier explained, a comment that puts things into perspective in the context of the PhD debate.8 It is this critical approach that shines a clarifying light on the sometimes disputable institutionalization that threatens PhD research in art. Pierce is working towards her PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London. It is not a ‘practice-based PhD’, which she learned about as a university research associate. She worked there for two years, but had difficulty with the rules that had to be adhered to and consequently decided to become a PhD candidate at the Curatorial/Knowledge section of the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, which focuses on the relationships between knowledge, its legitimization, (imposed) reading and acknowledgement within visual cultures. Pierce is working under the supervision of Professor Irit Rogoff and Jean-Paul Martinon, who established the Curatorial/Knowledge section. Knowledge is generated by way of intensive seminars and reading groups, rather than being accepted in advance as predetermined.
In her research, Pierce concentrates on the concept of rebellion. She is interested in forms of knowledge that are rebellious and contrary, because they escape every category. To this end, she studies student work: what students produce, how they learn, their being in the world, all of which she perceives as a means of engagement in which people react to ways of producing and knowing, without anyone being precisely able to refer back to the usual methods of knowledge production.9 In addition to a theoretical dissertation, which she hopes to verbally defend in 2011-2012, in her artistic practice Pierce is developing methods that approach the problem in another way. Since 2006, under the general term, ‘The Metropolitan Complex’, she has produced a large amount of work, archival material that she expands on in exhibitions, such as It’s Time Man. It Feels Imminent (2008). This was an installation at De Appel, in which she investigated how people organize their political and social commitment by way of institutions. The objective is to use this archive to enrich the relationships between the various ‘ways of knowing’.
Against Intellectual Takeover
The question, on the one hand, is whether or not the observed need for thinking about artistic research as something beyond institutional frameworks is not once again being encapsulated by PhD research. On the other hand, the structurally organized form of doctoral research gives a subject matter the academic attention that it would no doubt not otherwise receive. This duality, with or without institutionalization, characterizes the discussion about the PhD for artists as a whole. The general opinion is that this long-protected field needs to be opened up. A port of refuge has to be created within ‘our own ranks’. Buckingham refers to the current, and according to him, temporary tendency in art to draw from ‘outside’ disciplines, such as geology, sociology or anthropology. The PhD trajectory contributes to this tendency. Others reveal themselves to be more concerned, and accordingly more pugnacious: art must arm itself against intellectual takeover (Pierce), against the neoliberal market thinking that is taking it over (Kok). Kopelman appeals, although somewhat reservedly, for the creation of a separate discipline of knowledge production by way of the PhD trajectory.
What are in all of these cases interdisciplinary PhD research trajectories can perhaps serve these purposes, during which the limitations of visual art are sought out and ultimately extended. The perpetual, urgent justification of an artist’s own investigation is a starting point. For the first time in decades, the social position, social consciousness and involvement of the artist and his or her audience that all take shape in this manner, are giving the artist new traits, now that the initial distrust, the teething troubles and growing pains of PhD research seem to be resolving themselves. Although the consequences are still hidden by clouds, it seems that the PhD trajectory is a necessary next step taken in the development of the artistic investigation. Collaboration between scientists, theorists and artists has emancipated itself.
Ilse van Rijn is a writer and an art historian
- Kopelman is also supervised by Henk Slager, lecturer in artistic research and dean of the Utrecht Graduate School of Visual Art and Design (maHKU), and Mika Hannula, curator, art critic and professor of artistic research at Gothenburg University.
- See also Irene Kopelman, ‘Ubx Expression’, in Art & Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods, Volume 2, No. 2, Spring 2009.
Also in: ‘Nameless Science’, MaHKUzine: Journal of Artistic Research #7, Summer 2009.
- Kok names Peter Halley, Bob Nickas, Patricia Pisters and James Williams as his most important interlocutors. He plans a seminar with them at the end of his PhD candidacy.
- Roundabout (2010), together with the work in which the series is investigated with the help of video, was shown at the exhibition Push Pull, with WJM Kok, Frank Mandersloot and collection, at Rijksmuseum Twenthe, 20 March-13 June, 2010.
- As a comparison, only two grants are available at Gothenburg, with more researchers. Helsinki provides no grants, but the programme is free. In England, PhD candidates pay tuition. Goldsmiths offers a reduction stipend of €10,000 (thanks to Henk Slager). Irene Kopelman explains that PhD research is structured differently in Latin American countries and also has a different status.
- Henry James, The Sense of the Past (London: W. Collins Sons & Co., 1917).
- See Buckingham’s text in On Knowledge Production: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, Marie Hlavajova et al, eds. (Utrecht/Frankfurt am Main, 2008), 16-37.
- Quoted in Curating and the Educational Turn, Paul O’Neill & Mick Wilson, eds. (London/Amsterdam, 2010), 324.
- See Annie Fletcher & Sarah Pierce, in ‘Introduction to the Paraeducation Department’ in Curating and the Educational Turn, Paul O’Neill & Mick Wilson, eds. (London/Amsterdam, 2010), 195-200.