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Creative Interactions

Laura Swift writes about the workshop which was held on 24 May at the ICS

Where does academic research get done? What should the end goal of a research project look like? What if, rather than being a monograph, article, or conference paper, the answer to those questions could be a poem, painting, or puppet show? On 24th May, the launch event of the Open University’s Creative Interactions Research Group explored how academic research can merge with creative practice, and how the two fields can enrich each other. The beautiful setting of Chancellor’s Hall provided the perfect setting for creative inspiration, and we’re very grateful to the ICS for letting us use it. 


In some academic disciplines, the boundary between artist and researcher can be a fluid one. But for more traditional Humanities subjects like Classics, the two spheres remain separate. Academics are welcomed onto creative projects as ‘consultants’, in other words, experts who are brought in to impart knowledge and answer specific questions. For their part, academic institutions and funders have embraced ‘public engagement’ and ‘impact’, but this presupposes academics are using creative projects to disseminate research that has already been carried out in a traditional setting. One of the questions we were interested in thinking about is how creative projects themselves be a way of investigating research questions. In disciplines where ‘practice as research’ is not a familiar concept, how can we treat artists as co-researchers rather than recipients of academic advice?

These drawings by Marika Tyler-Clark (instagram: @marikatylerclark_art) represent an artistic response to the myth of Hecuba, who ended her life transformed into a dog

 

Over the day we heard from various academics and practitioners who had collaborated in new and exciting ways. Since the day was about challenging what research means and who can do it, it was appropriate that many of the presentations included practical or performance-led elements. The day began with a theatrical turn, first from Potential Difference (https://www.potentialdifference.org.uk/) who demonstrated the principles of puppetry, and how they overlap with academic methodology around making sense of fragmented or partial source material. They used an overhead projectors to demonstrate a shadow puppetry display inspired by the discipline of papyrology, and invited us to think more broadly about how gaps and partial information can act as a spur to human creativity. 

Puppeteer and performer Tom Espiner demonstrates shadow puppetry using an overhead projector

 

By Jove Theatre (http://www.byjovetheatre.org/) offered a reading and showed some videography from their digital installation inspired by the Oresteia myth, The Gentlest Work. We learned how the creative team had reimagined their repsonse to the myth, turning their focus away from the original academic brief and onto the figure of Iphigenia. We also heard about how they created immersive theatre in digital form, and how the finished piece crossed between the the worlds of performance and archive. Later we heard from academic Eleanor Rycroft and comedian Angie Belcher, who have worked together to create a set of comedy walks exploring the history of Bristol and what it means to walk for leisure. Their presentation included a mini-performance of the opening dialogue from their walk, which contrasts different approaches to the history of the city, and invites us to reflect on what aspects of public space are the most important. 


Attendees were encouraged to become practitioners themselves by Siobhan Campbell and Sally Blackburn-Daniels, who ran a taster writing workshop as part of their presentation on how creative writing can help communities and individuals to restore and reclaim themselves. This project has won plaudits for its work with NHS staff during the pandemic, and it was deeply moving to see some of the work produced by healthcare workers who had taken part in the project. Finally, Zoe Harris-Wallis talked about her forthcoming immersive performance Dog-Tomb. This will explore the myth of Hecuba in the Crypt Gallery in London, sharing fabulous images of costume design, as well as explaining how her project will engage with the physical space in which the audience experience it.

Latex and soil dress designed for Dog-Tomb, by Johanna Hehemann (Instagram @johannahemn) 

 

But the day was about brainstorming, networking, and discussion as much as about showcasing existing collaborations. We spent a good deal of time using the Open Space methodology, which allows participants to set their own agenda and explore whatever ideas and topics they want in breakaway groups.  

The Open Space ‘time space grid’ lets participants propose their own programme of breakout groups and discussion topics 

 

We talked about the exciting potential of thinking outside the box in terms of what counts as ‘research’ or a ‘research output’ and shared our experiences of what our relationships with project partners had taught us. But we also discussed the challenges to making this type of work happen. Despite the emphasis placed on ‘impact’ and ‘public engagement’ by universities and funders, the academic system (grant paperwork, the rules around the REF, the internal expectations of institutions) presupposes that research should take a certain form. 

Participants play with creating imagery on the overhead projector in a break between sessions

 

As well as posing practical problems, for those of us trained within these conventional structures, it can be daunting to redefine ourselves in a different type of role. But for those participants who had taken part in creative research projects, there seemed no doubt that this was among the most rewarding and exciting moments of their careers.

Tom Espiner demonstrates the core principles of puppetry, turning a napkin into an elderly hooded figure