In this essay I set out to explain my research as an embodied aesthetic experience. In my PhD study, Creative River Journeys—an inquiry into postgraduate education and practice-led research—I have adopted a research methodology called a/r/tography (Irwin & de Cosson 2004). This asks that my researcher identity embody the multiple roles of artist, researcher and teacher. This embodiment is not an abstract adoption of a research methodology, but a deliberate attempt on my part to confront the disparity between these roles in my past practice. I share insights that I have arrived at in relation to these three deeply interrelated aspects of my a/r/tographical self: the artist self—through poetic inquiry (Prendergast, Leggo & Sameshima 2009a); the researcher self—through the River Journey reflective practice; and the teacher self—through, for example, unexpected reciprocal mentorship in the project.
Keywords: a/r/tography—poetic inquiry—postgraduate education—practice-led research—researcher identity—reflective practice
The potential impact of an embodied aesthetic experience lies in its lingering, saturating effects to spark creative impulse, to invoke a human mind and spirit, to imagine beyond the immediacy of perceptions and sensations, to transform the world. (Thomas 2004: 15)
Recently I was asked to address the question, ‘What does embodiment mean in a research context?’ Research for me is a transformational immersion in my project of my various identities. My intention is that, through this immersion, my research is an embodied aesthetic, research and educational experience, however idealistic that intention may be. In my PhD study, Creative River Journeys, I have adopted a research methodology called a/r/tography with the hope that this choice can—as Thomas (2004) declares so heroically—spark for me the creative impulse, invoke and honour in my work the human mind and spirit, and transform arts education, the world that occupies me, in some small way.
In my research project, and in this essay, I take my permission to be personal from the a/r/tographer, poet and researcher Carl Leggo, who says:
It is not easy to write autobiographically, especially in the academy, especially with honesty about many issues, including experience of failure, fear, and frustration. We need a different culture, a culture that supports autobiographical writing that is marked by an understanding that writing about personal experience is not merely egoism, solipsism, unseemly confession, boring prattle, and salacious revelation. We need to write personally because we live personally, and our personal living is always braided with our other ways of living—professional, academic, administrative, social, and political. (Leggo 2008: 90)
If personal, why not ethnography, I have been asked. After all, Carolyn Ellis tells us autoethnography is:
Research, writing and method that connects the autobiographical and personal to the cultural and social. This form usually features concrete action, emotion, embodiment, self-consciousness, and introspection…and claims the conventions of literary writing. (2004: xix)
However personal I have found my aesthetic responses to have been within my research project, my project is not all about me. It is, in fact, predominantly about artist-researchers other than me.
My project involves engagement with a group of ten artist-researchers who are also completing their Masters or PhDs at Edith Cowan University (ECU), and for whom creative practice is a key component of their projects. Through conversation and reflection on their creative process, the participants and I are attempting to document the critical moments—that is, moments of significance or change—in their creative journey. In this project, I am driven by my deep interest in practice-led research and in finding meaningful methodologies for practice-led researchers.
My project is called Creative River Journeys because I am documenting my participants’ creative practice by using the River Journey chart, applied previously in other projects; for example, in interviews with children about their experiences of music (Burnard 2000), and with arts educators to identify key influences in their choice to be teachers (Kerchner 2006).
A completed river journey looks something like this:
My chosen methodology is a/r/tography (Irwin & de Cosson 2004; Irwin & Springgay 2008; Springgay, Irwin, Leggo & Gouzouasis 2008), a methodology less familiar in Australia than it is in overseas institutions. In a summary of over 30 research dissertations at the University of British Columbia, Sinner et al describe ‘a new stream of practice that is interwoven in some of these dissertations and underpins many of them: the methodology of a/r/tography’ (2006: 1223). Being an a/r/tographer means that, in engaging in research, I embody the multiple roles of artist, researcher and teacher: the a/r/t within the very name of a/r/tography. This embodiment is not an abstract adoption of a research methodology but a deliberate attempt on my part to confront the disparity between these roles in my past practice. Barbara Bickel, an a/r/tographer, summarises a/r/tography and these three roles thus:
At its best, a/r/tography encourages the combined creative freedom and risk-taking of the artist with the theory, rigor, and responsibility of the academic researcher, along with the ethics and compassion of the educator. Combining these three roles with the integrity, and awareness of what is called for in each area, is a demanding undertaking. (2008: 136)
In this essay, I aim to convey insights that I have arrived at in relation to these three deeply interrelated aspects of my a/r/tographical self:
The artist self—I have a creative writing practice that has surfaced at various times over the past two decades; however this practice has been submerged for some time. In this PhD project, I have made a deliberate attempt to re-engage with my artist self through a poetic inquiry approach. (Prendergast, Leggo & Sameshima 2009a)
The researcher self—this is the self that I have embodied most predominantly over the past decade. I will discuss how the River Journey research tool reflects my past research; for example, my documentation of the creative writing process as flow (Csikszentmihalyi 1996).
The teacher self—I have a background in secondary and tertiary teaching, and a deep interest in arts practice and education. I will discuss how this aspect of my self has grown and found a home in a/r/tography, and evidence this through the unexpected reciprocal mentorship and connections in my PhD project, Creative River Journeys.
The insights I have gained from an a/r/tography perspective will be offered from the three vantage points: artist, researcher, teacher. However, I will discuss how I have worked to integrate these three roles in my work in the PhD project. Barbara Bickel elaborates on these three roles in her work in this way:
BICKEL AS ARTIST—Within the contemporary gallery setting [where Bickel exhibits] there is an expectation of innovation and stepping beyond familiar understandings and representations, allowing the beholding of new information and interpretations that can change patterned ways of knowing, seeing, and being in the world. Aesthetics as well as public interaction and learning can and should guide the presentation of art with an a/r/tographic intention of expanding understanding and knowledge. (2008: 132)
BICKEL AS RESEARCHER—Through multiple methods of inquiry, I engaged and collected data from processes that included art making, ritual, the female menstrual cycle, trance, journal writing, and poetry ... Critically reflecting through writing, and researching the work of other artists and writers, carried the inquiry to another level. (2008: 133)
BICKEL AS TEACHER—Through this [reflection on exhibition responses], I have come to fully acknowledge that my preferred teaching site for ‘transformative learning’ … is within public spaces such as art galleries. (2008: 132)
My own experience of embodying these three selves over the past two years of the Creative River Journey project has provided unexpected insights, not least the poetic moments in my project—the aesthetic embodiment I experienced when writing poems in response to my research. This poetic voice is the embodiment of my artist self.
The artist self
Part of my experience has been as a practice-led researcher in the field of creative writing so, in accord with the a/r/tography approach, this creative writer self has become my artist self. In 2004 I completed a masters degree by research in creative writing at RMIT University, Melbourne. This involved writing a novel and an exegesis. Here began an initial fascination with the relationship between arts practice and research, brought about as I wrestled with the shape of my exegesis and its relationship to my novel. In my exegesis, rather than taking an abstracted critical evaluation of my novel, I chose to explain the process of writing the novel in relation to Csikszentmihalyi’s (1996) model of creativity, flow, thus exploiting the potential of the exegesis to elucidate creative writing as practice-led research.
I completed my masters of creative writing and novel in 2004, which was then taken up by a literary agent, Jenny Darling and Associates. After several years of unsuccessfully trying to sell the novel, it was recommended I write another novel. This coincided with the award of a scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge, and I relocated to England to do a masters degree in Arts, Culture and Education. And I didn’t write that novel. So in designing my project, I deliberately chose the a/r/tography approach to re-engage with my creative writing practice. In my proposal for the project I envisaged the A for artist being related in some way to my artistic practice as a creative writer, though the specific iteration was yet to be resolved.
The rich, interconnected nature of a research community led me to a breakthrough in how I might synthesise my creative writing experience and my research methodology. In a seminar ECU researcher John Ryan gave about his PhD research project on the aesthetics of southwest Australian flora, he drew attention to his use of poetry as a method of inquiry: ‘My poetry evokes—and mimics at times—the processes of plants in order to express their mutability. The conflation of living plants with objects of art rests on the perception of their shared stasis’ (Ryan 2011: 8). Ryan’s framing of poetic inquiry as a reflection of his field research was a crucial influence in defining the A in my a/r/tography method: A for poet. It was a critical moment in my own research journey, resulting in the discovery and enactment of my own poetic voice.
This breakthrough can be deemed the result of what two other ECU researchers call serendipity: Lyndall Adams, in The Impact of Serendipity (a chapter from her 2008 PhD), describes how the story of a work changes and shifts with unexpected influences:
The story telling begins in the studio. The stories I tell are about the way in which I walk around in the world, everyday stories about the world around me: the activity, the people, the colours, the light, and the connections I make. The impact of serendipity cannot be overlooked in this telling of stories. (Adams 2008: 30)
Lelia Green talks of serendipity in her 2011 dissertation, drawing attention to the importance of accepting the influence of these serendipitous moments in a research or creative process (Green 2011: 239). Green says, ‘recognizing authenticity and truth in what is unknowable, but intuited, accounts in part for the surprising results of [her] creative effort’ (2011: 284). Part of the surprise and the creative effort in my own research project has been to acknowledge the artist in myself once again, the creative writer embodied within the practice of a/r/tography, that poet part of myself re-discovered serendipitously. However, my focus in this project is the practice-led research of other artist-researchers, not my own creative writing process. Thus, my project involves engaging the poet within myself, while making space for the creative practice of others. And the poetry I am writing at present is in direct response to engagement with my participants and research material.
The choice to engage in poetry writing as part of my a/r/tographical project has meant that I have had to challenge my usual academic and prose writing styles. Faulkner, in a detailed discussion of her ‘research/poetry’, states ‘when we consider the time that researchers invest learning their own methods, it seems that researcher poets should study poetic craft with a similar intensity and not claim poetic license as a reason for unconsidered craft’ (2009: 2) In order to develop my poetry skills and to immerse myself in a poetry writing practice, I have committed to a year-long poetry writing masterclass at the Peter Cowan Writers Centre, located on a campus of ECU. Here I am critically engaged with the poetic form, in monthly workshops led by established poets such as Andrew Taylor, Lucy Dougan and Marcella Polain.
Adding to the already complex research process of a/r/tography in my project, further development of my poetic skills has meant I have needed an understanding of poetic inquiry within qualitative research frameworks (Leggo 2008; Prendergast, Leggo & Sameshima 2009a, 2009b; Butler-Kisber 2010a, 2010b; Faulkner 2010). My experiences of poetry arising within my project most closely reflect Butler-Kisber’s two-fold conceptualisation of poetry in research:
two helpful ways for framing and thinking about poetic inquiry are as ‘found poetry’, when words are extracted from transcripts and shaped into poetic form, and as ‘generated’ or more autobiographical poetry, when the researcher uses her own words to share understandings of her own and/or others’ experiences. (2010b: 83)
The following excerpt is from one such generated poem. The poem has arisen directly from my project, and illustrates my attempt to engage with the metaphor of the river through which my artist-researchers’ creative practice is documented. It is also an autobiographical reflection on the way my many roles are interrelated.
Excerpt from the poem, Deep Water Point
I am at the river’s edge, the shore fringed
The hum of the freeway like persistent life,
A child’s idea of a mansion, red on a green
A small boy, mine, another flash of red in
Stops to sink his toes in the silt, grins as the
“You’ve got to see this”, he calls to me.
But I have now sunk myself into grass, the
The battleship boy I can see at the café, his
Metal detector man is way down the shore, his dark back firm against the wind and inquisitive eyes.
I feel the cool earth beneath me, see the
Want to close my eyes and hear only the river gum’s rattle-rustle above me,
'You’ve got to see this', he gull-cries.
I stand at the water’s edge, his small hand
Our feet, his small and pale, are like white
The river bed is an intricate lacework of hundreds of
At Deep Water Point,
The sky is gosling grey,
The birds reel over us like Dervish dancers,
We are keeping the water’s edge.
I had somewhat of a crisis of confidence, or energy during the winter of 2011. My then supervisor Dr Julie Robson gave me the advice to just go and sit by the river and just see what happened, even if nothing happened. And what happened was a poem, of which this excerpt is the closing section.
The researcher self
Three successive masters degrees, two by research, have impacted on my understanding of research and have aided the formation of my researcher identity. In addition to the creative writing masters, I completed a master of education degree at the University of Melbourne in 2007, which included instruction in the university’s Centre for Evaluation, Curriculum and the Humanities. Studies in Cambridge in 2008/2009 heightened my qualitative research interests, this time in a degree which itself was polyphonous: a Masters of Philosophy in Arts, Culture and Education. In Cambridge, we were pressed to consider the way that the arts and culture, research and education interplay. The nexus of arts, culture and education in this research degree has informed my understanding of the relationship between art, research and teaching in my PhD project and in a/r/tography.
Researcher is the self that I have embodied most predominantly over the past decade. However, in proposing my research through the frame of a/r/tography as methodology, I was both placing myself in the comfortable role of the researcher and shaking up my complacency in that role because a/r/tography asks that we integrate three selves—artist, researcher and teacher.
In integrating these three selves in my research project I have discovered that I must integrate other parts of myself. Being a creative artist is difficult work. Being a PhD researcher is difficult work. Teaching also presents great challenges. Add to this that parenting is difficult work (and being a single parent adds to that degree of difficulty): at times throughout my project the multiple demands of my various roles have presented great challenges. However these difficulties were exacerbated by my initial belief that these were separate roles, or at least that I needed to keep them separate in my work.
If one is to be true to a/r/tography as a methodology, then this multiplicity of identities must be acknowledged and the movement between these identities needs to be given space. That is, the thoughts, feelings and work of all of one’s identities need to flow together. Irwin and de Cosson say of this that an a/r/tographer: ‘embraces a métissage [multiple identities] existence that integrates knowing, doing, and making … [He or she] desires an aesthetic experience found in an elegance of flow between intellect, feeling and practice’ (2004: 29). One way for the multiplicity of my identities to be voiced is through poetry, where the usually polyphonous nature of these identities can be voiced clearly. Irwin et al also say that choosing a/r/tography as a methodology places the issue of the polyphonous identity of the researcher firmly within the bounds of the a/r/tographical research project: ‘The slashes in a/r/tography (and other related words) purposefully illustrate a doubling of identities and concepts rather than a separation/bifurcation of ideas’ (Irwin et al 2006: 70).
This deliberate choice of a/r/tography in my project has brought about, for me, a challenge to flow between intellect, feeling and practice, though achieving elegance in this flow seems far from the reality of ‘juggling roles’ with which I, and many women scholars, are familiar. The flow between these many roles in my life, not just those of artist-researcher-teacher, was quite unexpected and has led me to now approach my research with a willingness to embody my in-between identities, or double identities, such as mother-poet. For example:
There are two hubs
In my home
A shared wall in between
In the kitchen
The wall is red
Tomato? Fire engine? Fury?
I like to think of it as
Appetite red, blood red,
Mother feeding womb red.
On the other side,
A wall of books
About art? fiction? methodology?
I trail my fingers along their spines,
But where is the poetry?
Which wall should it rest upon?
Perhaps both, or neither.
Perhaps it lies in the dance in-between.
This poem was written after one of the many days spent at my desk at home, wandering between the room for supplies of tea, coffee, nuts, cookies. Or to put the evening meal in the oven. Despite working in this space for nearly two years, I had never realised that there was a shared wall between the kitchen and the study.
The teacher self
In a/r/tography, the T represents teaching. However, I conceptualise teaching in my project to be the university context of the research; hence it encompasses ideas about teaching, learning, education, mentorship, collaboration, the academy and much more, though for the sake of the term a/r/tography, I retain the T for teaching. The words teaching, learning and education are seeded throughout descriptions of a/r/tography as a methodology:
A/r/tography is a form of practice-based research steeped in the arts and education … [Here the authors are not referring to practice-led research but research that is based in practice or action, akin to educational action research principles]. A/r/tography is one of many emerging forms of inquiry that refer to the arts as a way of re-searching the world to enhance understanding. Yet it goes even further by recognizing the educative potential of teaching and learning as acts of inquiry. Together the arts and education complement, resist and echo one another through rhizomatic relations of living inquiry. (Irwin et al 2006: 70)
In the Creative River Journey project, I decided to work specifically with postgraduate artists with the clear intention that university education and its interplay with the participants’ creative practice would be explored, and I expected that my teaching background would inform my research. My teaching background includes ten years of teaching in secondary schools and adult education, and three years of teaching creative writing at tertiary level. However, the project highlighted the way many artist-researchers were engaging in creative practice in their degrees through practice-led research, and resulted in a much more complex understanding of the teaching role in relation to my participants’ practice-led research. This helped to further the integration of this complex understanding of teaching into my a/r/tographical identity.
The interconnections and the reciprocal mentorship between my participants and myself within the project contributed to the expansion of my understanding of my teaching role, and the phrase ‘rhizomatic relations of living inquiry’ describes the connections that have been created within and outside the project. Two examples of these rhizomatic relations within Creative River Journeys involve the Victoria University academic Ron Adams. Firstly, at his seminar ‘Demystifying the Thesis’ (2011), Adams described a new PhD student he was supervising who was working in practice-led research as a weaver. He was at the same time celebrating and lamenting the challenges of practice-led research, an area new to him as a supervisor; and, even newer for him, weaving as an art practice. One of the artist-researchers in my project is exploring similar territory—weaving within a practice-led research context—and she kindly gave me permission to connect her by email with Ron Adams and his eastern states-based student. So this simple act by me as teacher within an a/r/tography context enabled this rhizomatic connection across Australia.
The second example comes by way of a quote, drawn from several references about mentorship and a/r/tography, and forwarded to me by one of my artist-researcher participants:
To interrogate our assumptions and unsettle our understandings, mentorship within a/r/tography requires provocation and flexibility so that the conditions of relational aesthetic inquiry become ‘a passage to somewhere else’ …, a somewhere that remains unpredictable at the onset. Similarly, mentoring for emergence is concerned with the generating of meaning rather than the transfer of predetermined knowledge. This ‘emergentist’ pedagogy requires mentors to be cognizant of how their actions might cause the reproduction of their ways of understanding to the exclusion of emergent understandings. (Kalin, Barney and Irwin 2009: 357)
Engagement with the artist-researcher participants in the Creative River Journey project through a co-constructive process of reflecting on and documenting their creative practice has been fundamental in changing my understanding of teaching. While I have never simply adopted an instructive-style pedagogy, my previous conceptualisation of my role as a teacher has now expanded to include a more relational generation of shared meaning between myself as teacher and the artist-researchers.
The artist-researcher who provided the quotation in the preceding paragraph was motivated to become a participant in my project because of her own use of a/r/tography as a methodology. The shared generation of understanding of a/r/tography between participant and researcher, and the reciprocal mentorship between us, are examples of the unexpected mentoring in the project. How she came to be in the project also involves rhizomatic relations via academic Ron Adams.
In another training session Adams had run—which I did not attend—that artist-researcher sat beside one of my ECU colleagues, and when my participant mentioned her methodology in this session, my colleague simply said ‘A/r/tography? You should talk to Kylie Stevenson’. And so she did. We discovered we were both using a/r/tography as a methodology, and she offered to be a participant in my project. Over the course of her involvement in the project we have shared references and resources about our rather obscure methodology, a/r/tography, and of particular interest were articles she sent to me on mentorship in a/r/tography, from one of which I drew the above quote. Below is a poem about this participant.
She tells me she is still working
Whilst this one heads OS
This one bunkers down for TEE
This one recovers from lost love and first-
She is a circus performer
Spinning all the plates in the air
Carefully balancing each support
This one on her knee
This one on her head
This one on the ring finger on her left
Yet her fingers on the right
Are tapping at the keyboard
Shooting me email after email
Flicking the pages of a book.
Her mind, a mansion of many rooms,
Holding all selves,
And all the while she is reeling out conversation
Like carefully plaited rope,
Tying all the parts of herself together
In words and thoughts and actuality.
This poem was written to express my awe and admiration after a conversation with that research participant, a woman who manages to juggle multiple roles in her life without seeming to lose sight of any of them.
It is also a comment on how her representation of this feat reflects back to me the multiplicity of my own roles, including the demands of motherhood.
In this discussion about the methodological pathway that I have chosen—a/r/tography—I have offered insights into my journey of embodying the roles of artist-researcher-teacher in my project, Creative River Journeys. Bickel says of the challenges of the a/r/tographical approach that:
The path of the artist as researcher and educator is demanding on many levels. Not all artists have the support and guidance available to take on the multiply complex practice of a/r/tography. I have found it requires external support from others willing to be critical allies, as well as an internal personal practice that assists in working through emotional, ethical and spiritual issues that arise when engaged in this practice. (Bickel 2008: 131)
Choosing a/r/tography as a methodology does require a complexity of practice whereby one is conscious of embodying the roles of artist, researcher and teacher, and whereby the emotional, ethical and spiritual issues are just some of the factors in working in this way. Having critical allies is another factor. In concluding, I draw on Bickel again, who poses the following research questions to the viewer of her artwork and to herself as a/r/tographer, questions that reach to the very heart of a/r/tography and my own practice:
I ask the viewer/reader/learner to ponder with me the questions that have troubled my own a/r/tographic journey: Am I not making art?/Am I not researching?/Am I not educating?/Am I not writing?/ Am I not performing?/Am I not ritualizing?/Am I not learning?/Am I not my self? (Bickel 2008: 128)
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