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Introduction – On Having the First Line Written

Jessyca Hutchens, Anita Paz, Naomi Vogt, Nina Wakeford

To cite this contribution:

Hutchens, Jessyca, Anita Paz, Naomi Vogt, and Nina Wakeford. ‘Introduction – On Having the First Line Written.’ OAR: The Oxford Artistic and Practice Based Research Platform Issue 0 (2016),

In 2014, a group of us at the Ruskin School of Art (the Ruskin) – the Fine Art Department of the University of Oxford – began a set of conversations which have resulted in OAR: the Oxford Artistic and Practice Based Research Platform. Drawing on our experiences of academic research in contemporary art and its institutional manifestations, OAR is a collaborative project which brings together our different alignments in art history, theory, philosophy, and the making of art works.

OAR began as a way to find productive focus for the ways in which ‘artistic research’ and ‘practice based research’ have been mobilized in many educational institutions to offer designated forms of research greater voice or status. At the core of OAR is our hope that researchers from a wide range of backgrounds might be given space to pay more attention to the specificities of the knowledge and experiences generated through such methodologies, from whatever discipline they approach them.

Although the discussion and promotion of artistic research seems to have reached fever pitch in the academic art field, we nevertheless felt a place for broader critical interrogation was lacking. Despite optimism over the interdisciplinary potential of artistic research, it has remained largely only a buzzword in disciplines outside of fine arts, not yet accepted as a unique epistemological category or rigorous mode of research. Perhaps these are not inevitable or desirable destinies, but where were such questions being played out, and answers accumulating? As researchers with interests in other disciplines (philosophy, visual anthropology, cultural studies and so on) and yet being committed to contemporary art research, we were particularly interested in how these other disciplines conceived of practice in their research and were understanding or coming to adopt artistic methods.

We also wanted to take advantage of the infrastructure of Oxford University, at which the collegiate system encourages extensive connection to academic researchers outside of immediate schools and faculties, to produce an arena that would convene artistic practices occurring across different disciplines and research areas. Thus came the idea to create a journal of artistic and practice based research with its initial base at Oxford, both as a way to link together a diverse community of researchers already interested in artistic research at the University, and to encourage others to delve into these frameworks, approaches and methods.

It’s also worth noting here that, while artistic research is increasingly recognised as an innovative and dynamic category of research in universities that follow largely Western pedagogical traditions, more holistic approaches to research that utilize artistic practices have long been a part of different educational systems the world over. In the experience of one of our editors, for example, courses taken in Aboriginal History at the University of Western Australia incorporated visual arts, storytelling, visits to important sites, performances, and research papers, as equally valid and important means of investigating Indigenous knowledge and histories. There is nothing new about artistic and practice based research, only its acceptance within particular disciplines and institutional settings. Moreover, we should remain sceptical of artistic research as a neatly distinguishable category from non-artistic forms of research.

When art historian Adrian Rifkin was announced as an upcoming speaker at the Ruskin, the perfect opportunity presented itself to initiate our journal project – which was to be concerned with both the theoretical and practice based aspects of artistic research. Rifkin’s presentation at the Ruskin, ‘On Writing the Last Line First’, might best (or most easily) be described as a performance lecture – a format that has been much explored by contemporary artists – yet Rifkin asserted emphatically during his talk that he was ‘not an artist’, and used the term ‘practice based research’ with some scepticism. His assertion meant that we were to take his ‘enunciation’ not as art but as firmly rooted in the discipline to which he belongs, art history, albeit a form of art history that few of us had ever experienced. In her contribution to this issue, Naomi Vogt likens Rifkin’s art history to following a score, transforming the lecture as a whole into an interpretation of objects more similar to a musician’s interpretation of sheet music. Considering the role of ekphrasis in art history – together with the role of looking away – she examines ways in which seeing objects, making them visible to others, and making meaning out of them can become fully intertwined.

In the same vein, Rifkin’s intervention never becomes a ‘careful unfolding of archival research’, which he promises not to provide at the outset of his lecture. Jessyca Hutchens uses this promise as a prism to address the expectations of ‘revelation’ held around research. The seductions, as well as the asymmetries and pitfalls of the archive are woven together in her essay, from the gaps in colonial archives to heroic discoveries of documents, increasingly romanticised with the help of TV and cinema. In his lecture, by intertwining art history, autobiography and fiction, images, performative gestures and spoken words, Rifkin’s research was unfolded in non-linear and sometimes obfuscating ways – ways that might sit closer to how research in fact takes place: its stops and starts, contradictions and revelations, and even its affective potential.

This enunciation served as a starting point, the beginning of an on-going conversation between us, a collaborative process (we each transcribed a section of the recorded performance), and the provocation for a series of individual responses. The concept of ‘response’ thus forms both the topic and format for this issue. For instance, using a quotation by Rifkin as a starting point, Anita Paz’s essay opens a philosophical exploration around the nature of response. Conceptualising the response, exploring its possible modes, means, and courses, her text develops a larger question around the activation of moments of thinking: how are we to think new thoughts?

Nina Wakeford’s contribution to this issue reworks a section of The Dialogues of the Carmelites (Poulenc, 1956) to interpret and reanimate the words of Adrian Rifkin. The result is a manipulated image of the score, and a soundwork sung by the artist Hannah C. Jones. Further, in a photography series produced for OAR, Arturo Soto responds to Rifkin in the form of a personal, urban rippling. He selected lines from the lecture, not to illustrate them but as an attempt to find their resonance in the aftermath and broader environment of their presentation: decontextualized, the lines resurface with the experience of Oxford’s urban landscape.

In another twofold project, Dimitri de Preux and Anna Tarassachvili respond to Rifkin’s film narrations, intended to replace archival and academic rhetoric. Their essay discusses the politics and authority of an enunciation that ‘places knowledge into the present’. A film program follows, with a film selection that envisages ‘film’ as one of the languages spoken by humans. Moreover, the very cover page of the journal responds to the contents in the form of a comic strip conceived by Julien Mercier, the designer of OAR. The work seeks to restore the author’s impressions of the lecture, decoding and recoding it in accordance with textual and visual comics tropes. Finally, Adrian Rifkin offers his own thoughts on the issue and some of its underlying themes, such as the iconography of the gasp. This final contribution is published as the sound file of a recorded conversation.

As editors, we thus chose ‘response’, not only as a means of producing content from the generative ground which Rifkin’s performance provided on the topic of artistic research, but because we wished for response to be a central part of all the journal’s issues going forward. Rapid responses to journal articles have long been included in the social sciences, but despite enthusiasm for response and collaboration in the humanities, such formats are rarely formally integrated in research publications. The individual researcher, that frequently lone, individualised dweller in the archives, tends to reign supreme as a romantic ideal. Encouraging collaborations and building response into our journal format, we hope not only to form a more integrated research community, but also to extend our journal temporally – to be conscious of not letting individual submissions quickly slip away into the ether of the internet, but to allow our articles and themed issues to continue to accrete and accumulate new knowledge long after their first public release.

Instead of beginning with Issue 1, we launch a prelude, Issue Zero, as an attempt by the current editors of this journal to gesture towards the journal we wish to produce. It is the initial provocation to give the project momentum. We hope each issue will be a prompt or provocation for further content, commentary, response, and debate.