Why doing a PhD?

This text was originally presented at:
UAL Research Open Day – Monday 10 January 2011
Roostein Hopkins Centre – London College of Fashion

(edited 09/2014)
Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre

I completed my MA in 1997 and worked continuously to a point in which you could say I have a well-established practice as a community-based artist. I never thought of myself as particularly well suited for academia, but then several artists who were doing or have done a PhD, mentioned that they felt every one of my projects was in itself a form of unwritten PhDs. At the same time, academics from other disciplines – sociologists, anthropologists, historians – were showing interest in my work process and sometimes they would refer to it as a form of “innovative methodology”. These factors together made me think that perhaps it was worth doing a PhD and trying to get to the bottom of what was going on there. Perhaps there was something happening that would be of relevance, of use, or of interest to others beyond the communities where I work and who are the main interlocutors of my practice. Although it was not something that I thought at first, I now appreciate that in a practice such as mine (mainly local and bound to a small geographical area) bringing a reflection of practice into an academic setting, made it possible for me to generate a wider and perhaps more detached engagement with the work, as well as to connect it to valuable research and experiencies in other fields and disciplines.

I was lucky to be awarded an UAL studentship, and to be able to dedicate fully to my practice for three years. To have the time to reflect, to observe and document in detail every step of my work process. Time to read, time to think, and time to consider the centrality of writing to my practice, and in what way the forms of writing that I use could perhaps might be able to do the work of “theory”.

My research project seeks to describe the practice of artist who are members of communities that are simultaneously the subject matter, the co-authors, and the privileged audience of their work. I am researching mainly through an examination of my own work, and a comparative/art historical study of two artists from the River Plate active in mid 20th century. I situate myself within a tradition of community art coming out of the politicised and experimental art of the 1960s and 1970s, with an emphasis on performative and conceptualist strategies, rather than the craft-based forms of community art that are generally regarded as the norm. I also claim as a forebear the culture of self-education and self-organisation of worker communities, and the radical stance of feminism and third world liberation theory.

My supervisory team is encouraging, supportive, questioning. I am able to draw on their varied expertise and points of view. My Director of Studies Dr Stephen Scrivener is an extraordinary guide. His research on the processes and methods by with artists do research, makes him interested not just in the content or object of study of my thesis, but importantly also, on the very process by with I as an artist could claim that my work produces new knowledge.

My second supervisor Rebecca Fortnum is a painter and very experienced art pedagogue. Not being invested in my specific area of practice, she posits very poignant questions that force me to undo may of the assumptions I make about my own work. She is also an implacable and impecable editor. My third supervisor (from 2009 to 2011), John Cussans, artist and former Head of Theory at Chelsea MA Fine Art, was pressing on the need for me to establishing clearly the definitions, structure, methodology and key theoretical discourses that underpin my practice-based research. An insuperable conversant, I am also grateful for the references and stories shared.

Community of research

An additional benefit of Doctoral research, is the opportunity to get involved with others in the exploration of particular areas of practice and theory, that complement and expand the reach of your individual work. There are opportunities organised by research staff – like 2009-10 seminar To Write How? led by Research Fellows Mary Anne Francis and Isobel Bowditch, or a research trip to Budapest in 2011 organised by Professor Stephen Scrivener and Hayley Newman.

Research students are also proactive in organising activities that closely suited to their interests. During my years as a full-time student, I co-founded and co-facilitated the Latin American Art and Theory Study Group based at TrAIN (involving researchers from UAL, Birbeck and Essex University); and of The Practice Exchange, a seminar series focused on the theorising of practice, with presentations by research staff and students from across all UAL Colleges.

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