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Research or re-search: Knowledge production in contemporary arts and design

Since process-based art and design became favourable in the contemporary cultural scene, research gained importance for many artists, designers and their organisations. Systematic investigations of the subject matter, tools, materials and media used to make an artwork, or implement a design became a valid part of the creative undertaking. By adopting and adapting the language of research, the creative processes of art and design have become more accessible for people from other disciplines. Artists and scientists can better understand each other's motives and objectives. Designers and technologists share similar heuristics, where trial and error play an important part in both the technological and the artistic creation. Art and economy have a hand in a common context, the present-day world and the changing society.

Transdisciplinary design research

It is through research that multidisciplinary practices can become truly trans-disciplinary, bringing the previously separate fields of knowledge closer to each other. The advantage of transdisciplinary research for the creative process is a multivalent approach to creating and problem solving. The creatives (both artists and scientists) have a whole range of tools and methods at their disposal, allowing them to tackle a problem from many different directions. Furthermore, collaboration with non-artistic disciplines in the creative process enables the results to have manifold benefits. In the process of researching a technology in order to create an artwork, the team might also design a tool that can be useful outside of the artistic sphere. For example, in art and design that demand audience participation, designers are required to understand at least some aspects of human psychology, phenomenology and sociology; the results of their research can be applicable for their creative works, but can provide new insights in social therapy as well. Technological, bio- and eco-artists are known for their innovations not only in the art-world, but also in the scientific and technological disciplines they involve in their work. However, the methods used in design research are not as well documented as is the case with scientific research. In academia, as well as the industry, practice based research is slowly becoming a legitimate methodology. Issues of evaluation, usefulness and repeatability are more convoluted in the context of design research. If we want design research to become a respected and valued approach, we have to be able to distinguish mere 'fiddling' from valuable research.

At FoAM, we consider design research to be a creative endeavour targeted towards producing new knowledge. Instead of being focused on creating a unique object or situation, researchers aim to broaden, deepen, compare and extend existing knowledge in a range of trans-disciplinary subjects. This knowledge can then be used for creating unique artworks and designs. Knowledge production differs from making a work of art or design in its emphasis on externalising the process of creation/production. Researchers document and publish results from the early beginnings of the process, so others can follow their tracks, be inspired, intrigued, informed, as well as avoid making the same mistakes. Documentation of the whole research trajectory (in text, image, video, or other media) is a crucial element of the design research process. As knowledge is produced along the way, not only at the end of the trajectory, the process and its documentation are necessarily a part of the 'creative work'.

Design research methodologies

New knowledge can emerge from a range of different approaches; for example, from a comparative survey of existing knowledge, whereby new connections can be found. Some researchers ask a question, finding that no one before them has managed to find an answer, think of different ways in which they could answer it, set up experiments, document them and make the (positive and negative) results available. Alternatively, the researchers plunge into a situation, unsure of what they are seeking, discovering new patterns of forms, behaviours, or information in the process. The process and the results are translated into verbal, visual, sonic or haptic documents - sometimes the researchers write up their findings, other times they sonify, visualise, or map them, etc. In most cases, the results are used as inspirations or foundations of an artwork or design, but they can also be useful in other fields. There are many methods (some of them more accepted than others) that artists and designers can use in their research. At FoAM, we hope not to limit anyone to any particular method. To begin with, we encourage the artists to come up with their own methodology for producing new knowledge. However, when we see that someone's research has reached a dead end, we suggest some of the methods proven to help people produce interesting results, or even tailor 'customised' and personalised approaches .

Design research at FoAM

FoAM's motivation to engage in artistic and scientific research originates in one of our core values – fostering interdependence between individuals, their disciplines, communities and realities. For interdependence to work, sharing knowledge and resources is a foremost need. Sharing is the foundation of FoAM's ethical and philosophical principles, but also a practical consideration. In our creative practice we want to create 'things' and situations that other people can enjoy and appreciate. Sometimes we know how to do this, sometimes we don't. In both cases, we benefit from sharing the knowledge and information with people who either work in a similar field (peers), or have complementary knowledge (experts in other fields). In a creative production setting it is rare that we get a chance to share knowledge, interests and resources with people outside of the project (and very often not even with the people inside it). This is not a sustainable practice, as the sources of creativity become rapidly depleted, people burn out, resort to proven methods, rather seeking fresh insights and creative solutions. The process of experimenting should be as inspiring and open as the product of experimentation.

FoAM operates on the edges between technological, relational and ecological arts, in a field that is very rich, but at the same time quite vague and undefined. There are many people (including us) who can benefit from sharing knowledge and resources, thereby advancing the whole field. Through transdisciplinary research, we approach the world in an ecological or holistic manner, seeing our practice as a part of a larger network of human endeavours. Such research enables artists to operate in the interstitial spaces between artistic and scientific, grown and built, physical and digital worlds, allowing them to re-integrate otherwise disparate human knowledge and initiate joint endeavours. The future of contemporary art and design, from our point of view, is in the hands of artists, designers, scientists, cooks, engineers or gardeners, who are interested not only in advancing their own fields, but sharing and applying their skills in new social and public contexts. Seeding the substance of everyday life with the playful, unexpected, inspiring or imaginary situations, with research as their compost.

From a brainstorming session:

why research?

- sharing knowledge and resources: this is on one hand a very philosophical and ethical point (i will not go into this here), but on the other hand a very practical one as well. we want to make things/situations that other people can enjoy and appreciate. sometimes we know how to do this, sometimes we don't. in both cases, we benefit from sharing the knowledge and information with people who either work in a similar field (peers), or have complementary knowledge (experts in other fields). in a production setting it is rare that you get a chance to share knowledge, interests and resources with people outside of the project (and very often not even with the people inside the project). this, we thought is a pity, as the process of experimenting should be as interesting and open as the product of experimentation. working in a field that is very rich, but at the same time quite vague and undefined, there are many people (including us) who can benefit from sharing knowledge and resources, thereby advancing the whole field, rather than clogging the world with yet another marginal/elitist cultural artifact (this also requires a bit more discussion, but i hope you understand what i mean). research should give us all time and space to allow such sharing to happen.

what is research at foam, and how is it different from an artistic production?

a simple way to define research is that it has to produce new knowledge. instead of being focused on creating a unique object/situation (what art usually focuses on), you want to create new knowledge (that can then be used for creating unique objects/situations by you and others). it differs from making an artwork because you externalise your process of creation - by documenting and publicising it, so someone else can follow your tracks, be inspired, intrigued, informed, as well as avoid making the same mistakes. research requires a slightly more disciplined process of creation, because instead of being judged on your final work, your whole process becomes 'the work'.

new knowledge can emerge in many different ways. e.g. from a comparative survey of existing knowledge, whereby you find new connections, or point at gaps that need further research. Or you can produce it by for example asking yourself an interesting question, finding that no one before you has managed to find an answer, think of different ways in which you could answer it, set up experiments, document them and make your results available (both positive and negative). Or you can plunge yourself into a situation, unsure of what you're looking for, look for patterns (of forms, behaviours, information…); once you found the most interesting patterns, you can do something with them (write up your findings, you can visualise them, make something to map, influence or change them, use them as inspiration for a design…). there are many methods (some of them more accepted than others) that you can use to research something. at foam, we hope not to limit anyone to any particular method, but if we see that your research doesn't go anywhere, we can suggest some of the proven methods that help people to produce interesting results. however, it is more interesting for everyone (including foam) to come up with their own methodology for producing new knowledge.

what is successful research?

so how do you know if you have succeeded or not? the simplest check is to go back to your original question and see if you are any closer to answering it (but this is overly simplistic). or if you preferred to begin without a question, you can check whether you can begin seeing patterns in the initial chaos. if your research fails it's usually because your process is not well documented, you don't come any closer to answering your initial question, you spin around in circles unsure how to proceed, you don't have any interesting findings to share. however, it is a difficult question to answer generally - so i'm afraid we don't have a checklist that you can follow and be sure you have succeeded if you check more than 50% of the boxes ;)

maybe this all sounds a bit complicated, but it actually comes down to playing games and telling stories about them. you are curious about something, and through a series of thinking-and-making games you come to find out more about it. and then you tell others about your experience. sometimes your experience is not so interesting, but the way you tell the story can be innovative. this in itself can become research too. the stories can have many forms - from published scientific papers to realised artworks (and everything in between). in foam's research, we are mainly interested in the forms in between. new ways of telling stories about the new games that curious people play, in order to dig out new knowledge, from the thick compost that the world is.

what do i do?

here are a few notes that might help you focus your research and work towards an outcome

1. find a few questions which you will attempt to answer through your research.

2. take notes, in any form you find suitable (and make summaries on the libarynth, so we can follow what's going on and comment if needed). go back to your notes regularly - it will help you find patterns of information, as well as interesting threads in your own thoughts.

3. your work should have two components

theoretical: we don't expect anyone to make groundbreaking theoretical work in their fields (yet ;). however, theory shouldn't be completely discarded either. if you are not aware of your field, you might find yourself reinventing the wheel. a very useful theoretical exercise is to make a survey of the field of research. the size of the field can be as wide as is appropriate for your research question (it can be a very narrow, covering one topic within one discipline, or very wide in the case of a comparative multidisciplinary research). the narrower the field you pick, the more certain you can be that you will make an accurate survey, but wide surveys, even though incomplete can offer new insights as well.

practical: make one larger, or a few smaller practical experiments, that should be informed by / reflect on / add to your theoretical work. the experiments can take a wide variety of forms, depending on your choice of medium. best for this is to choose a medium that you have some expertise with, otherwise it becomes a school exercise (which is good for your own development, but doesn't necessarily produce new knowledge in the field). be analytical in your experimentation - some people find it easier to experiment if they have a specific problem to solve; others prefer to 'fiddle' first and explain the experiment after it's been completed. both approaches are valid, but you have to be able to explain what you did and why this is interesting. document the process of setting up the experiment, so that it is possible to repeat it following your notes - if you think of it in food terms, the notes should be as recipes, while your experiment is a dish - if you or someone else wants to remake the same dish because it was very tasty, it helps having a recipe to remember what you did.

4. choose working methods that you are most comfortable with and inform us of your plans. if your project is ambitious, break it up into smaller steps/phases, so that even if you don't finish the work in time, there will be some results to evaluate. use the Research Report Template to guide your research process - a lot of design research will benefit to always keep in mind the context, the problem and the possible solutions. at the end, summarise your theoretical findings, as well as the notes that you keep for your practical research into a research report. the report doesn't need to be verbal if you're uncomfortable writing, but you do have to find another way to share your findings that is legible and useful to others. also remember to make a note of 'future work' - things that you think need researching, but you will not have the time to do it within the scope of your project - this can help someone who'd like to continue similar research to focus on something relevant to both them and you.

related: Research Notes

research_methodology.txt · Last modified: 2010/07/07 16:33 by 83.101.5.51