Introduction to my practice-led PhD commentary – “The relationship between specialist and non-specialist identities in a dialogical art practice”


The title of this thesis, “The relationship between specialist and non-specialist identities in a dialogical art practice”, indicates my interest in how conversations, or dialogues, reveal identities related to knowledge. The focus of my research is the dual identities of specialist and generalist that inform the self and how both identities interact with society. My approach and methodology borrow much from the social sciences and pedagogy but my analysis and goals differ because instead of observing and commenting alone, I am intervening creatively as an artist. Although my research centers on questions of how one unfolds concepts to participants and audiences of a work my aim is not to be rhetorical. I am attempting to create new subjectivities for those involved in the works and allow them to find their own place in the constellation of ideas. The results of this research are then related to the event structure’s ability to allow people to enter into the work and think around the subject at hand. The research that I am presenting is performative and event-based but each project is visual and communicates through experience. I am also exploring the role that conversation has in revealing identities related to knowledge.

The first three chapters explore the surrounding discourse, exemplary practice and theoretical foundation of my research. The art historical discourse surrounding the methodology of my research has been formed in the last fifteen years and is continuing to evolve around issues of ethics, aesthetics, representation and visibility. My interests lie particularly in discourses that unfold a criticality and agency without alienating participants and audiences. The art historical discourse I am discussing is within the context of western European and American art in the early part of the 21st century. The exemplary works that I present for discussion are not an exhaustive list of influences but specific works that inform the reader as to the lineage my research aims to continue. The psychological and pedagogical aspects of Dan Graham’s performances play a large role in my discussion about the structure a work has involving participants. The social experiment in authority by Stanley Milgram and its recreation by the artist Rod Dickinson unfold the representational elements of social experiments. I will also reveal the role the artist has had with the specialized world of industry and their utilization of that knowledge through archival research of two important collectives, Experiments in Art & Technology and The Artist Placement Group. The theoretical section draws from elements of pedagogy, philosophy, anthropology and sociology to reveal a variety of approaches toward conversation identity and its manifestation in the everyday. The theorists Michel de Certeau and Felix Guattari as well as anthropologists Victor Turner and Dwight Conquergood feature heavily in the discussion surrounding the specialist worker and the playful generalist. I also discuss my interest in the pedagogical theories of Jacques Rancière and Paulo Freire. As my research is conversational I also explore the social and psychological intricacies of conversation through the writing of M.M. Bakhtin and Erving Goffman. Through this inter-disciplinary lens I hope to reveal the context and originality that my approach brings to the discourse surrounding these ideas.

The second and third sections discuss four of the practical research works in detail. All of my research projects explore the duality of knowledge identity within the self through a variety of dialogical methods. The first two projects discussed explored knowledge identity in relation to the market, pedagogy and pedagogical institutions. These projects utilized the contested territory of the market and the hierarchical territory of the university. The first project consisted of a walk-in school where people could speak with experts in the context of the local market. The second project was a performative workshop with a stone mason that included an audio tour of quadrangles at Oxford University on the one day a year many of the colleges open their doors to the public. The emphasis in these initial projects surrounded the fluid positioning of knowledge identity between the self and the other. These projects existed beyond institutional control, outside of the art gallery and in the public realm. I felt it was important to test my research methods in the field and engage people who would be unlikely to come into a gallery space. I wanted to find out if a heuristic method of engagement could be developed without compromising agency. How do participants engage in knowledge outside of the institution? How does a work function within contested territories?

The last two projects were done within the gallery space yet utilized ethnographic methods. My intention was that this approach would be useful to revealing the symbolic and experiential dynamics that these methods bring into an artwork. The context would also allow these methods to be assessed under laboratory-like conditions. The initial project was a participatory work where people revealed their knowledge identities through t-shirts. The later project utilized the skills of actors playing the role of historical figures known for their expertise in encounters with the public. Both projects were dialogic and ethnographic though in different ways. The first explored the methods of visual ethnography while the latter explored elements of ethnodrama. I sought to find out if the fractured nature of modern self identity could be revealed through the act of self naming and role playing.

Ultimately in all of the projects I wanted to reveal whether dialogical art could create a social structure that unfolded ideas for the participants and audiences while at the same time symbolically revealing the nature of enquiry and its relationship to identity. Could a structure create new subjectivities? In what kinds of contexts would my research methods be most effective? Could conversations unfold the duality of knowledge identity experientially and symbolically? Could I create temporal participatory works that were liminoid (a term I discuss in detail) and hybrid knowledge identities through play?

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