Interesting presentations about academic research and the video essay at the ASPERA conference at RMIT on Tuesday. Debate here gets convoluted quickly, but the principles are simple. No one in the academy says a video essay cannot ‘count’ as research. However, there is no such thing as a free lunch and in Australia research from the point of view of the university is defined quite specifically for us as:
the creation of new knowledge and/or the use of existing knowledge in a new and creative way so as to generate new concepts, methodologies and understandings. This could include synthesis and analysis of previous research to the extent that it leads to new and creative outcomes. (2013 Higher Education Research Data Collection guidelines – go on, get the PDF it’s rivetting.)
The emphasis here is very specifically on knowledge, not aesthetic experience (or anything else you might want to use to judge creative outcomes) and so all academic work needs to contribute knowledge to knowledge. This is reasonable, we are in universities, significantly funded by the public purse, and the role of the university is knowledge work. In addition, there are numerous, robust and accepted ways in which creative practice is validated and recognised, through exhibition and curatorial economies and the like, so that specific system of evaluation and value does not need to be remade in the university context, though more importantly this economy does not have to be about the production or value of knowledge – I can make art that makes knowledge claims that meet the above criteria, but this is not what makes it art, and so similarly I can make art that makes no such knowledge claims. (I’ll leave to one side the whole argument raised by Deleuze and Guattari in What is Philosophy? that clearly separates art, science and philosophy as undertaking different tasks as one way to articulate these differences.) As it ought, the intrinsic value of creative practice lies somewhere other than the specific intended creation of new knowledge.
The second requirement is that all work must be peer reviewed. This is the traditional threshold to determine merit in academia (see Mark Bernstein’s discussion “Reviewing Conference Papers” for one of the best guides), and the only threshold, again mandated for us in Australia, is:
an acceptable peer review process […] that involves impartial and independent assessment or review of the research publication in its entirety before publication, conducted by independent, qualified experts. Independent in this context means independent of the author
Pragmatically frank, it is, like research, hard to quibble with.
The key points are that this is about research, not creative practice, and so with work that likes to consider itself as research it is the creation of knowledge that qualifies it as research. This contribution can be to practice, but it is not enough for it to be merely practice, after all any research can be easily conceived of as a practice (it is much harder to imagine how it could not be).
So for work in time based media to be considered research it needs to create new knowledge, and for the quality and significance of this knowledge to be verified through peer review. That’s it, you’d think, wouldn’t you?
Unfortunately, it seems not. There are two points, one reasonably significant the other I think trivial. The first is that peer reviewers routinely suggest, or require, changes to a work for it to be publishable. In the context of time based media this is problematic. First of all, like much creative practice or work that lies close to creative practice, it seems questionable at best to give a peer reviewer the right to change the work. Question it, certainly, but change it? This seems to me to be the academic equivalent of the studio cut, and if we think that’s a troubling practice in film making I’m having a very hard time to see why it would be imported uncritically into the university. However, in the case of the sorts of things being discussed I think it would be very interesting, valuable, and quite legitimate, to require peer review of what in film we call the ‘rough cut’. This is work that is nearly finished, much like a good draft in the context of writing, and this would seem to be an ideal time to provide critique, make suggestions, and to intervene to indicate what may need to happen for it to become research. The finished work would also receive review, though at this point I suspect it would be more in line of how the work has responded to the peer review. This, after all, is the same thing as we do in writing if we accept that what is submitted for publication is done so on some sort of assumption that you’re going to need to edit it some more before it is accepted.
The second intersects a little with the first issue, and is from the ‘practice is sufficient’ school. I am deeply sympathetic to this but remain also sceptical and, to date, unconvinced. I believe some writing to contextualise a work is essential, and while I don’t think I’ll engage the specifics here, it is easy to see that if I make a film and write something accompanying it, then it is much easier to accommodate peer review through writing. Whether the writing changes, or I just respond directly to the questions or concerns of the reviewers, this can be done within the contextual writing that sits alongside the work. Pragmatic? Absolutely, yet if the problem is getting the work recognised as research, then I can’t see much problem with a pragmatic system that facilitates that.
However, if the problem is not really about the work being research, but the more idealistic belief that the work is sufficient in itself as research, then the invitation to write to the work is generally met with hostility, derision, or some belief that the integrity of practice is now diluted. We’ll put aside the earlier observation that all research is a practice, though will note that it is the reporting or dissemination of the research that is actually the issue, not whether or not it is a practice, and use a couple of examples to indicate why it is not “self evident” (to quote a comment in the session) that the film is “obviously research”.
Example One. Imagine a film that is shot, and edited, on a mobile phone. It is a documentary. It records the same moment, every day, for a month, informally using a free app and hand held. The work is partly about place, but also just as much about the sorts of mobile, informal (yet informed) making that things like the iPhone now enables. In this example the decision to use an iPhone is part of the research question or problem being explored and investigated in the work and the practice. The maker could have used other equipment, other methods (set up a very good camera, in a water proof box, with a digital intervalometer and automated the process) and has access to such resources. The decision to use an iPhone matters not just aesthetically but as part of the research project. Looking at this work (lets imagine it uses HD) it is hard to know that it is from a mobile phone, and you think the slight tremor in each shot is a problem and a tripod would have been better.
Example Two. Imagine a film that is shot, and edited, on a mobile phone. It records the same moment, every day, for a month, using a free time lapse video app. The maker wanted to see what would happen doing this, and happily set up a spare phone on a little GorillaPod stand. It looks pretty much the same as the film in example one.
The first one is undertaking research. The second one isn’t. Looking at the films does not tell you this.
Example Three. Imagine someone who is investigating no-budget film making. This is the research investigation and intent. To do this they make two films (with no budget). Both are dramas. The first uses extensive improvisation techniques with the cast. The second is scripted and storyboarded in great rigour. The researcher wanted to see the differences in the quality of the experience of making the film, for the actors, when they aren’t being paid. Did the opportunity to improvise mean they had a more positive experience than having a script? Why?
Each is undertaking research. Looking at either of the dramas in no way tells you what the research they undertake, is. The differences in the way they were made might not even be apparent.
In all cases the films require a supplement to contextualise and ground the research. Yes, they could have some how included this within themselves, but that seems to me contrived and not really the point (of the works or the research). Once you insist that the artefact itself is the only thing that is necessary to communicate the research the complexity of the artefact is risked. Its labour, as knowledge, is not necessarily self evident, nor in many circumstances does it need to be. This does not mean it is not knowledge making.
I reckon a journal that can accommodate all this is the model. Got a didactic video essay that makes explicit knowledge claims, that’s fine. Got something more essayistic, then that is probably good too but please, let’s peer review the rough cut. Something more poetic, or marginal, or something creative that is used as the basis for knowledge work. That too, but you’ll need to use something else to make these claims explicit (heck, a didactic video if that’s what rocks your boat). The issue really isn’t practice but is the visibility of the new knowledge. Let’s make this visible and just get on with it.