Why doing a PhD?

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

PhD Student Presentations (5 min presentation each)
Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre

I completed my MA over 12 years ago 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 audience for 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.

I was lucky to be awarded an UAL studentship, and to be able to dedicate fully to my practice. To have the time to reflect on it, 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 do the work of “theory”.

My research subject (Click here to read Abstract)

I am researching mainly through an examination of my own art work, to try to establish what is the political efficacy of community-based practice when the artist is also a member of communities that are simultaneously the subject matter, the co-authors, and the privileged audience of the work. 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.

My supervisory team is encouraging, supportive and questioning. I am able to draw on their varied expertise and points of view. My Director of Studies Isobel Whitelegg is an art historian and curator, particularly interested in Latin American conceptualism of the 19060s-1970s. As well as seeing me through the technicalities of the PhD, she encourages me to think in which ways my research can contribute to historicise practices that take place beyond the institutions of art – and thus are largely undocumented and underrepresented in the mainstream – in a culturally-appropriate form that is faithful to their ethics.

My second supervisor Rebecca Fortnum is a painter, and a 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. My third supervisor, John Cussans, artist and former Head of Theory at Chelsea MA Fine Art, puts me through my paces when it comes to establishing clearly the definitions, structure, methodology and key theoretical discourses that underpin my practice-based research.

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 organised by Professor Stephen Scrivener and Hayley Newman.

Research students are also proactive in organising activities that closely suited to their interests. I am a co-founder and co-facilitator of 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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