The Thesis: a speculation

It was time.

It was getting serious.

It was here. Looming.

She turned the corner of the course and there it was. Giant. Immovable. Inevitable.

The course had been difficult, stressful sometimes, fun sometimes but somehow a bit informal. The assignments had been challenging and sometimes difficult but always manageable. She had sometimes felt a little at sea but never drowning, a bit directionless but never lost. This, however was totally different.

It had many names: thesis, dissertation, final major project. Call it what you like, it was there. And she had to do it. Even the name had gravitas and a threatening sound. “Final” it intoned. “Thesis, dissertation” it hissed like a dangerous snake. The language in the Brief carried a similar heft. Referencing carried the weight of an Ivy League institution. Literature had transformed from books to read on the beach to objects for review. And then there was the R-word.

“Research” has been hijacked by an an elite caste who have denied entry. They have created a closed shop. Researchers. Research-active grown-ups have kept the children out until they learn to behave. There is ‘real research’. Research outcomes. Research measures. Research methods. It’s serious stuff.

Vocational courses and their students have been forced to ‘research’, to listen to the guardians of the caste demand theses and dissertations. Students working on (and paying for) courses developing partnerships with industry and developing portfolios fit for interviews suddenly find themselves faced with a demand for a Harvard-referenced tome to climb. Ill-equipped and labouring under illusions handed down from the caste, they quite reasonably panic… and fail, at least in the terms of the elite.

Research does not stand in opposition to industry and work. Academic research is not academic. It is deeply industrial. Or at least it should be. Not in a narrow instrumental sense where it serves the needs of a top-hatted capitalist overload of today. Rather in a speculative sense building the industry and jobs of tomorrow.

Research isn’t a difficult thing to understand. Contrary to academic careerists, it’s not something for the few. It’s of the many. It’s just finding something new. Discovering. Uncovering. Turning up something.

And it’s not scary. It’s not over there. For them. It’s play full, practical, creative.

And it’s small. It’s not about strokey-beard musings and aha moments. 42. The grand theory of everything. It’s micro uncovering. Small insights. Perhaps with profound implications but within reach. They just need turning up.

The Units so far had been predictable, controllable, manageable. There’d been lectures. Notes taken. Occasionally annotated. Filed. There’d been workshops. Tasks. Briefs. Beginnings, middles and ends. There’d been practical sessions. Skills to learn, master, control. Crits to take on board, sparking discussions, decisions and to do lists. Each Unit was a unit, a unitary package of learning. Whether passively received or more interactively engaged with, all was clear, linear, under control.

But now she sat in front a blank sketchbook, a black screen, a clean whiteboard, being told it was all over to her now. “This is your moment to rise.” “This is your project, all yours.” Every question was answered with a question. Her tutor had turned into a Zen monk, speaking in Koans. Sending her off to practice with no end in sight, no criteria to judge, no Brief to meet beyond practice, play, experiment… “learn, my child, learn.”

She suddenly understood the phrase “rabbit in the headlights”.

“I can’t live by metaphors,” she thought. “Play”, “practice”, “improvisation”. The only concrete thing was the deadline. She tried GANTT charts. She signed up for “GTD” apps and made countless plans. Her tutor nodded sagely: “strong foundations. Structure but not superstructure”. He wanted to see more. More what? “More play. More practice. More improvisation”. Circular logic.

“The Literature Review” is usually said with a solemn tone and a gravitas-soaked nod. To hear the term is to see the speaker in doctoral robes, looking over a pair of glasses and furrowing his (for it will be a he in this nightmare) brow. “You think you’re so clever don’t you? You think you’re ready? Well you know nothing. You’re not standing on the shoulders of giants. You’re not even at that feet,” the academic Sergeant Major screams in hushed tones appropriate to a leather-chaired, dusty library.

Let’s be frank, the Lit Review (we abbreviate to show our familiarity) is the chance for supervisors to reassert control. They assert their authority by reading off what has already been done, what has already been found and what they have read. All too often it’s an exercise in intimidation.

Such mind games are bad enough but what is worse is that this academic hegemony narrows down the existing work that students are asked to engage with. If the Lit Review is designed to get the student to address the debates, identify themes, critically engage with the issues and find the things that have not been said or asked, a model that focuses purely on the journals misses much of what a modern practice-research project should explore and critically address.

The opinionated battles in the trade press need contextualising.

The rhetoric of the start-ups needs a decent discourse analysis.

The patents need unpicking

The literature of now deserves the same focus and engagement as the literature honed at the speed of a journal’s editorial process.

She grasped at books in the library. Practice based research. Practice-led research. Hyphens and no hyphens. More metaphors of webs and circles and tangram folding tessellations. Words about metaphors about words about ideas drifting across the space and time before the deadline… the only thing that was secure and the only thing that mattered.

She widened her search in the real library and its virtual shelves. She wandered through artist monographs. Creatives. Practitioners. Practicers. The monographs were finished. Complete. Works. Performances. The auteurs made statements with the work, through the work. They and their work had conclusions. Just like the written commentaries on the neighbouring shelves, the work took the reader through a journey, delivering her to a conclusion, a point.

Here practice as research followed a clear logic. Do the stuff, draw the conclusion. Publish and move on.

Her tutor smiled. “Yesss… that’s one way of thinking,” he drawled. “But I want you to do more, to be more, to rise above.” He kept saying that there was more and ominously kept talking about failure. Failing gloriously.

When had her tutor changed? He’d always been clear about what he wanted. What he said employers wanted. What he knew industry demanded. A Brief. Work. Crit. Work. Crit. Work. Solution. End. Begin again. The submission was the solution. The truth was out there. Now he muttered a holy trinity not a Holy Writ. Play. Practice. Improvise.

The textbooks on practice-research draw diagrams and model the nature of practice. Whether it is Smith and Dean’s cycle[1] or Sullivan’s unfolding tessellation[2] the process leads to product. The telos. The research outcome. The knowledge. The truth. The Truth. Those programmes brave, or foolish enough to offer a practice-research option in their final projects frame practice as the vehicle on a journey to a research outcome. The practice appears in the methodology chapter and then again in the Appendix. The supervisor makes it clear that it doesn’t have to be perfect, that it is a tool, that they will be judged on the outcome, the knowledge they uncover after the practice.

The practice in practice-research, whichever school of that term you subscribe to, is often portrayed as heavy. It is serious. It weighs because it has to compete with other ‘real’ methodologies. It has to have as much gravitas as a qualitative focus group; as much heft as a quantitative survey. But practice is light, joy-full because it comes from a passion. It may be hard work but is our work, born of our passion. No-one forced me to play guitar, to paint, to run. To do so is to discover something about my world and myself. To practice is to engage with that discovery. To discover is a joy. To be a part of that discovery is light.

Practice makes perfect, we are always being told. No. Practice makes imperfect. Practice uncovers fault-lines and liminal spaces. Practice discovers. Practice plays. Practice is not the step on the way to a finished performance, it is the performance itself. Practice is what we do, not what we do so we can do something else, something better, something more.

Practice emerges from love. When we love something, when it means something to us, we practice. Music. Art. Sport. Yes, we practice to get ‘better’, but we also practice to be a part of something. We practice because we are musicians, artists, athletes.

To practice — to build a “final major project” from practice — is not to suffer under the weight of expectations. It is to throw oneself into something, something you love, something that means something to you. Something more important. It is to do it for the joy of doing, of making sounds, marks, jumps and journeys. It is only when the musician, artist or athlete focuses on the practice rather than the target that she discovers her music, art or sport and her relationship to it.

As Glenn Kurtz explores, practice shows us something bigger than the skill or art we are seeking to master[3]. In his account of becoming a classical guitarist, giving up music and rediscovering it, he uncovers practice as a space of discovery as much as growth. The practice he comes to at the end of his book is not the obsessive practice of his youth, searching for perfection, judging and demanding a linear journey towards a goal. The practice he uncovers is one that illuminates a bigger picture, tells him things about himself as well as his art.

He gave her a sketchbook. A sketchbook for goodness sake! Sketchbooks were for artists or children. They were for work that didn’t have to lead anywhere — certainly not a mark let alone a final degree. They called it a “major” project for a reason, she muttered under her breath. Sketchbooks were for background, preparation, doodling and musing. They were not for delivery and clear, concrete research. That was the world of spreadsheets and visualisations and transcriptions, tagged notes and annotations. Grown-up stuff not childish meanderings and outlandish doodles.

He kept talking about the sketchbook as a space. A place for doodling and imagining. Yet more metaphors: this time spatial.

She had nothing against sketchbooks or doodling. As a break from research it was as good as daytime television. It was a respite, a meaningless, mindless distraction from the real. Maybe that was what it was for, she thought as she picked up her pen and began. She drew a storyboard, scribbled a line of dialogue. She stopped. Product. Done.

At her first supervision session her tutor looked at the neat page and nodded. “Leonardo’s sketchbooks should be in frames too,” her said. Beauty full. Interesting. Immaculate. Products. “But I don’t want you to produce sketches, things. I want you to practice.” Someone “sketchbook” was a verb not a noun. Somehow we wanted her to move beyond sketch(ing) as a process to sketchbook(ing) as a process.

She sighed.

To ‘play’ is to be frivolous and childish. Play is less. Play is in the service of something else more real, more important, more… Play is added to the curriculum to sweeten the pill of maths lessons, to combat obesity or build teamwork.

Not worthy in its own right as a practice let alone as a process, it is always the step on the route to something else, an understanding of a scientific principle, an ideal BMI.

Computer gaming has crept into the curriculum as a vehicle to open up questions of gender and colonialism, subcultures and code. Game Studies is the new Media & Cultural Studies. Where once we studied soaps to draw conclusions about gender and identity, we now study software to critique surveillance. Where once we made media to decode texts, we now engage with MUDs to critique power. We don’t play. We certainly don’t play for its own sake.

Ian Bogost, a play full researcher if ever there was one, argues that play is ins’t about freedom from constraints but rather “a practice of working within adopted constraints,” thinking inside the box[4]. Great play, he says, comes when we defamiliarise the everyday — when a stick becomes a wand; a crack in the pavement appears as a lava stream; washing dishes becomes an obstacle race and dance party. Here play is not a object to study or worse still to turn into a gamification tactic. It is not outside. Nor is it a false consciousness, a balm to put on difficult problems (like research) — what Bogost calls the Mary Poppins approach. It is a way of working with what is, acknowledging the playground of objects in which we find ourselves. It is seeing ourselves as an object in play.

There is nothing frivolous about play. But it is fun. There is nothing childish about play. But is childlike. It embraces experimentation and discovery, open questions and weird answers.

She tried to imagine a laboratory. She was a ‘mad scientist’. She tried to rid herself of all she thought she knew about academia and research. She tried to stop feeling guilty about ‘just playing’, just experimenting, failing.

She was used to ‘finishing’ pieces of work. Some were good, some less so. But she was able to judge their success because, well they were finished. You could compare them to a standard because they were products. But now she was supposedly focused on the process. Practice.

She tried to forget the outcome and threw herself into it. She made fictions. She imagined characters and plot lines and scenarios. She followed narratives as they unfolded for her. As she wrote the stories things appeared. Ideas emerged. Questions. Big issues about power and politics. Critical industry topics of privacy and business models. Even philosophical problems of ontology, epistemology and ethics. Truth-Power. She wondered, was she discovering?

She built prototypes using media and code. She plugged blocks together. A script copied from the web together with an API service. She shot film and pictures not as auteur but as (am)auteur, for the play, just because. As she hacked things appeared. Big things. Subjectivity and narrative. Surveillance and techno-capitalism. She was no longer building with small discerete objects, she was building with structures. Power full prototyping. Full of power. She wondered, was she researching?

Practice-research is a form of improvisation. It is improvising with content. It is jamming with objects to make and by making, discover. It is play full and experimental but not anarchic. It is not without structure. It is a practice built within rules.

The great improvisers explored their medium, pushed it, practiced within it, played across it. And they discovered new music as they did so.

Their playground was western harmony. Their objects were the 12 tones of the major scale, the chord changes of the Great American Song Book. Within that playground they experimented and discovered. The true improvisation greats did not learn licks and string them together. They did not follow patterns. They played with form and content, connecting their objects together within the playground, building on and with each other. They played inside the box.

It is a common myth that improvisation is anarchic, without any rules or structure, playing whatever comes to mind. Even the most cursory exploration of the training, work and thought processes of improvising musicians shows that in reality they walk the line between structure and freedom, between rules and anarchy, between the old and the new. They are deeply steeped in tradition and an intimate knowledge of the rules of their discipline. The know their harmony and scales, they know intervals. Even those who reject the chord sequence structure know progressions and standard forms. They may have taken the net down, but they know the rules of — and in many ways are still playing — tennis.

When you learn to improvise you familiarise yourself with your objects. You develop a deep relationship with the things on the playground. You develop a sense of those objects and how they connect. You know the intervals that separate and connect them. You become acutely aware of the relationships you are building and what that means for the practice you are engaged in. Because this is a process, a practice, not a product or even a journey to a product. The improvised solo or jam session is a practice, a process a work in movement, discovering, uncovering musical possibilities as it happens.

Some of the relationships you explore, build with and discover are pleasing to the ear, some jar. Consonance. Dissonance. They are just different sorts of relationships. Dissonance isn’t a problem. It’s a choice. Some objects connect naturally. Chord notes connect chord and note. Some connect in passing. The improviser is master of all as she throws the score and the plan off the stage and plays.

Practice-research, like improvisation is brave. It is throwing yourself out there to play. There is no safety net, no way back. It is the journey of practice and the playground of possibility. The notes in play for a musician and the objects in play for a practice-researcher are so much potential generating dissonant dialectics or consonant connections. Neither creative musician nor creative practice-researcher is operating without rules, without tradition and structure. But those rules, structures and traditions are objects in play. Coltrane took the Circle of Fifths as an object which when connected with his philosophy and horn discovered Giant Steps. His wildest steps on the stage at the Olatunji Center of African Culture in New York were not outside the box. They were exploring the liminal spaces of the box, the limits of what can be done with his instrument, harmony and the notes themselves. The objects were in play. He was creating a playground. He was practicing. He was practice-researching.

Improvisation is utopian. It imagines possibles. It is speculative.

Experimenting on her own was one thing. And as she settled into it and left behind her previous conceptions of play, practice and research, her tutor’s enigmatic pronouncements took on the shape of provocations rather than simply pronouncements. She was sketchbooking. She’d even begun to see how play and practice generated new ideas, even knowledges.

But now her tutor asked her to work with another idea: improvisation. He wanted her to think of her solo practice-research as a solo. He now wanted her to play with the others — responding to others’ improvisations, other work. Here’s the literature and the theory were not add ons or even dangerous supplements, they were others configurations of content objects to which she would respond as a soloist spins off a rhythm, a chord change or another’s solo.

She was not musical.

She liked Spotify as much as they next millennial but music was a whole to be consumed or a hole too sink into not a world to play in.

When her tutor gave the class a listening list she thought he was moving from Zen monk to Jack Black’s School of Rock.

John Coltrane, Ginat Steps

Miles Davis Kind of Blue

Keith Jarrett The Köln Concert

Ornette Coleman Free Jazz

Derek Bailey Solo Guitar

She retuned to the Lit Review and the library. There was a chapter to be written. Separate from the practice. There was a theoretical school to master, conceptual tools to be comfortable holding and wielding for an analysis. She moved from practice-play mode to research mode.

She sat alone with her books and soloed. But as she did she found something new. She picked up a concept and ran with it. She responded to a reading and critiqued it. She built her synthesis of the literature in response to the authors. She stood on the shoulders of giants. Her Literature Review solo picked up the theme and soared.

No longer was she separate from the literature and the others who had considered the same questions. Now she was one among an ensemble, responding and relating… jamming.

And when she returned to playing, to practice she found a new relationship not only with makers, designers, hackers and artists who had also played in the same playground but also to the objects she was playing with. The APIs she connected, the digital movie files and the analogue transparencies she built with took on a new power as they prompted her to prototype-solo in new directions, in new harmonic environments. Prototype harmonies. Dissonant relationships. The objects in play were active players. Human, unhuman, digital, analogue, abstract, real. A mad, play full improvising band.

Speculation, hardly a word synonymous with research. Research is about the real. Real knowledge. Real discovery. It is about what is True now. Even if you insist of doing practice-research, this is to discover facts, concrete findings. There is nothing speculative about research.

Except there is. If your research method is improvisatory, play full, practice, if that is where the knowledge is discovered, then speculation is an object in play. Thinking to the edges, into the liminal spaces, into the futures is part of the practice, the performance. It can never be restricted to what is. It has to be explore what almost is.

Speculative design and its close relatives speculative fiction and design fiction are a family of practices which as well as generating products and outcomes, are practices. By creating fictions, stories, prototypes from the almost here to the wildly potential, they open up ways of seeing, thinking and knowing the world (answering research questions to use traditional language) that can only come from practice and improvisation.

What unites the myriad of disparate examples in Dunne and Raby’s Speculative Everything is both the sense of practice not as a path to a set destination but a journey (of discovery)[5]. The artists, activists and investigators take nothing for granted. Nothing is off limits. All is in play. The speculations set the viewer’s mind in motion but they also empower the ‘author’ to discover something — maybe the limits or implications of a technology, possibly the liminal spaces in a situation, potentially the power relations in play in a particular assemblage. The practice of speculation on the part of the author and viewer are the creative improvisations generating the new music/knowledge.

Her mind drifted off. She imagined. Maybe daydreamed a little. But she didn’t feel guilty. She was researching.

One scenario unfurled like a dark Black Mirror episode. Another exploded in her imagination like a kickstarter video. Another had been quietly and slowly developing like Kerouac’s scroll.

Each had started with a thought, a picture, an imagining. She’d allowed them to move and play. She’d followed the logics. The solos had spun away from the harmony and back. She’d taken a diversion and watched as the story tools turns she’d never expected. She’d played. She’d improvised. She’d practiced.

And as she did, things emerged: questions, connections, pictures, phrases, riffs, truths, knowledge… research findings.

She was surrounded by stuff… sketchbooks of Heath Robinson-style doodles and Geiger-esque visualisations, cardboard prototypes and post-it notes with scraps of dialogue. She still wasn’t sure how to add these to the shoebox that she had been told was the appendix but heh, she’d imagine something.

She was surrounded by research findings: insights deep into the assemblage; uncovered relations between human and unhuman actants; new ways of understanding the powerful structures emerging from the presents into the speculative future. And they were her findings. Her solo. Her song.

Her strange tutor smiled, just a little.

not The End

[1] Smith, H., Dean, R.T., 2009. Introduction: Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice — Towards the Iterative Cyclic Web, in: Smith, H., Dean, R.T. (Eds.), Practice-Led Research, Research-Led Practice in the Creative Arts. Edinbugh, pp. 1–40.

[2] Sullivan, G., 2010. Art Practice As Research: Inquiry in Visual Arts, 2nd ed. Sage Publications, Los Angeles and London.

[3] Kurtz, G., 2008. Practicing: a musician’s return to music, 1st Vintage Books ed. ed. Vintage Books, New York.

[4] Bogost, I., 2016. Play anything : the pleasure of limits, the uses of boredom, and the secret of games. Basic Books, New York.

[5] Dunne, A., Raby, F., 2013. Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London.