Over the last decade, many thinkers have attempted to diagram the interlocking processes of studio-based research in an attempt to clarify the need for a PhD degree in studio art (http://thinkingpractices.wordpress.com/theories-of-art-practices-as-research/). We have been inspired by these attempts to chart what we do fairly naturally here at the ICI. At the same time, we find that most of these diagrams seem to omit two key elements of visual research: discovery and play.
Discovery is the spark that fuels most ICI endeavors. We describe ‘discovery’ as an act of noticing, an undirected, unmotivated act of scanning with one or more of the senses that leads to some small hiccup (slip) in our perception of the usual order (of things, ideas) that then sets a visual researcher’s head spinning with possibility. We have positioned it on our chart against the other key components of research to indicate its importance in any visual investigation but in so doing we risk the conclusion that it is only essential at the start of each new activity. In fact, discovery is important throughout the long process that defines each project. It is a welcome visitor when ideas have waned in the middle of a long investigation but it can also show up at the end of a project when its arrival turns everything you believe on its head.
Play is even more essential to our work at the ICI. Play has no borders or parameters so we have positioned it in our chart as a circle at the center that penetrates all our divisions; it is the ‘stew’ in which all activities are brought together. In fact, it might be more apt to liken this stew to a ‘stone soup,’ like the melange at the center of the European folk tale of the same name that features strangers in a poor town who nudge the residents to enrich the foreigner’s ‘stone soup’ with what ends up being the components of a common stew. In the end, both stranger and neighbor come together to create a bountiful meal for everyone. While the story is often told as a morality play for cooperation among neighbors or between strangers, there are some other components of the tale that help explain the power of play in the research process. The stew, like artist’s play, needs a catalyst, something that evokes curiosity and amazement. This often common object (text, thought, even stones) is suddenly seen in a new context and sparks the essential moment of openness when a fantastic idea can be brought into play, many times against all good reason and tradition. Essentially, we allow ourselves to suspend what we know or think we know because the possibilities of that ‘fantastic idea’ are too enchanting, too provocative, too essential to our perceptions of well-being to pass up. Some other lessons of stone soup can benefit the play stage of research as well: to not be afraid to try something new; to collaborate—abandon hierarchy and ownership (of materials, of ideas); and to expect that each session of play (like each making of stone soup) will be unique and unpredictable.
We have tried to remedy these two omissions in this skeletal chart of our visual research practices at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry. In the months ahead, we’ll add to this diagram as we build a theory of visual research based on praxis (not economics) in our post-discipline times.