Research Conversations Summary Reports

Autumn 2023:

  • Beginnings summary by Hannah Ludikhuijze

    On 16 October 2023, we held the first Media, Arts and Humanities in Conversation event for the inaugural annual Research Institute theme ‘Beginnings’, which around 40 people attended. In three strands – Beginnings and History, Beginnings and Climate, Beginnings and Creative Practice – we explored a rich tapestry of insights and questions, relating to our own work and beyond.

    In the Beginnings and History conversation Chloe Porter posed two questions to guide conversation around the room: How can we use beginnings and ideas of beginnings to frame questions of the past, and can we think of history without beginnings? In three groups, the room responded. While beginnings grant authority and validation, questioning beginnings is also part of decolonising and questioning the linearity of progress that fixed origin points imply. In terms of etymology, word history and terminology can often be seen as a limitation, falsely equating the emergence of a term with the beginning point of an idea. Indeed, inherent to beginnings is also recovery: recovering lost beginnings and silenced voices. The authority that comes with being ‘first’ makes us question whether ‘firsts’ are indeed useful for designating change. We must ask ourselves which cultural perspectives are prioritised when selecting or designating a beginning. The creation of origin myths also plays a role in this, especially in terms of belonging. For example, in post-religious contexts,  how does secularisation impact our perception of origins? ‘Prequels’ in major film franchises, as another example, show a clear cultural need for origin myths. But what is invested in the avoidance of beginnings?

    The Beginnings and Climate conversation, chaired by Natalia Cecire, centred around the narrative of growth and the humanities. Are there alternative narratives for growth? Research expertise around the role of children, adolescence, neurodivergence, protest, environmentalism and indigenous voices collated in the room. What followed was an emerging discourse filled with tensions and questions. For example, from an environmentalist perspective, what does a close understanding of a landscape mean in terms of patchwork conversation? Inherent to this is thinking about the role of the local, which seems so important: how to make the local seen and represented? This might be a core issue for the humanities: how to make the precise thing seen? Indeed, poetics is looking at the pronoun: what happens when it becomes a ‘we’? Here is also the question of scale, and the tension between collective action and scaled solutions: how do we think about the specific and contingent? Poetics takes the small scale, which makes us wonder: is scaling up something the humanities can’t do? Is what we make bespoke? Or do we need a communication strategy, and to re-centre the role of the media?

    In the Beginnings and Creative Practice conversation Jo Walton created space to share some practical advice for practitioner-researchers who are beginning new projects, emphasising the need for these spaces to share developing ideas. A theme which quickly emerged was making art under challenging political circumstances, where certain sorts of ideas and expression may be forbidden, or where audiences may be unwilling or unable to engage with them. How do we begin to speak when the discourse to support those speech acts does not yet exist? The room touched on the use of allegory, and indirectness, as well as absences and lacunae. Within this, conversations around technology and innovation explored how creative practice invites practitioners to frame their work as new, novel and innovative while asking what we might discover by resisting or subverting that.

    Weaving these strands together back in the research common room, a key question emerged: what does humanities engagement with questions of sustainability look like? All groups had touched on this in some form, for example through the tensions between tech capitalism solutions to climate, and the realities of local solutions. How can deep understandings of landscape produce new insights in the ways of working? Overarching was the question of whether these conversations are about beginnings or endings, as solutions are often framed in terms of not thinking about endings.

    The Research Institute’s theme speaks to the crisis of futurity, and the danger of simplistic beginnings which do not have the confidence to project the future. How do we respond to this at Sussex, with our history of a radical focus on power and politics, as well as thinking about compassion and care? We hope that this event has brought strands of research together, and created space to think about the complexity of beginnings and endings.

    Hannah Ludikhuijze, Senior Institute Officer (PGR)

Autumn 2022:

  • Activism summary by Margaretta Jolly

    Work on, about, with or inspired by activism is popular in the School. A group of us came together to think about it as part of this term’s Media, Arts and Humanities Research Conversations. Our discussion touched on the history of social movements, popular culture and resistance, digital activism and commodification, documentary, creative practice and activism, memory studies, pedagogy, situatedness, ecocriticism in music, the aesthetic work of activists, Judith Butler's theory of disobedience, philosophies of speech, power and the possibilities and limits of the university as an enabler of activism. Our research collectively investigates and allies with feminism, women, LGBTQI+, gender equalities, poverty and employment rights, refugee rights, anti-racism and Black power, endangered languages and minority people’s cultural survival, homelessness and housing rights, Travellers’ rights, children’s rights, environment, water and climate justice, to name only those mentioned during our short exchange. Places of study included China, France, Nigeria, Malawi, the UK, Poland, campus and its surrounding communities, Brighton & Hove, the M25 and the globe itself. 

    Nearly all of us felt able to say we have a theory of social change and have investigated social movement theory. Many of us had also taken part in different forms of activism or protest. Yet a starting point for the discussion lay in the tensions between research and activism and a deep question as to how best to tune research towards effective social change. We tested ideas of social labour and employment contract in relation to activism and where impact or community engagement might overlap with, or be necessarily different from, activism. Ethical review process was marked as an identifying moment. We also heard from colleagues engaged in participatory research, creative practice, reflexive or auto ethnographic method and action research. Some stressed organisational, advocacy and other skills training both as observers and participants. One particularly interesting question was whether we acknowledge or learn from activist failures and regrets. This shed new light on activist memory research and resistance by later generations to know their past. We also raised the challenge of activism for causes which we do not share or approve of and debated where academic activism has become weaponised as an idea. The willingness of funders to support research on activism was noted, though we did not conclude on its significance. 

    Many more in the School explore these fields (29 in the School are tagged with ‘activism’ in the University's find a researcher database) and are sustained by intellectual and personal ideas of justice and collective action. The conversation represented a moment of interested listening to each other’s diverse work, in person and across subject area and career stage. Precious time in urgent times. 

    Margaretta Jolly, Research Conversation facilitator

  • Creative Practice summary by Lizzie Thynne

    A group of faculty and PGRs from Critical and Creative Practice (Media), Music, Drama, American Studies, English and Art History took part in this conversation on Creative Practice.  

    Danny Bright, Piotr Cieplak, Augusto Corrieri, Evelyn Ficarra, Irene Fubara-Manuel and Ed Hughes kicked off the discussion with short responses to the following questions, drawing on examples from their own work: 

    • What form of knowledge do you feel your own practice or other practice-led research produces? 
    • In what ways does your practice fit (or not) with existing models of practice-as-research, practice-led research, practice-based research?  
    • Do you consider your practice to be inter-disciplinary/ multi-disciplinary/ undisciplined?! 
    • What does creative and critical practice offer to wider fields of research? 

    Irene described their work around ‘the border’ as a created zone which they interrogate through animation, exploring how biometric physical borders connect to physical borders. They suggested that a fertile ground for practice-led research is, for instance, imaginatively addressing the gaps in the archive, giving as an example of such a method, Saidiya Hartman’s ‘critical fabulation’ in her book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: an account, set in New York and Philadelphia at the turn of the twentieth century, that blends history and fiction to chronicle the sexual and gender rebellions of young Black women. Practice-led research could be especially potent in exposing gaps in what is considered ‘knowledge’. 

    Evelyn suggested that her work provided not ‘knowledge’ but an experience which could not be simply translated into words. Her current work around robot opera is focussed on the theme of putting oneself in the place of the other and imagining what the subjectivity, thought processes and voice of the robot might be (or should that be robots?!), with voice being a crucial but particularly under-developed aspect of robot design.  

    Ed’s work is concerned with how orchestral music can incorporate new instruments and embody natural forms. He explores productive collisions between texts, contexts and musical expressions so, for instance, creating a libretto from interviews with carers in a community opera that was staged at the ACCA, creating new understandings through putting words/text in different musical contexts. He is developing a project working with young people on musical re-telling of myths and fairy tales.  

    Danny noted that creative practice doesn’t always produce knowledge in a conventional research sense. Knowledge derived from practice-based research could take other forms such as the bodily knowledge gained from doing a thing and learning through the process of performing e.g. how playing with unconventional or new instruments challenges how one would normally perform or what one could normally achieve as well as disrupting perceptions of what music is or what a performance is. 

    Piotr’s recent work has been looking at the use of vernacular photography in Argentina in relation to the last dictatorship through both written outputs and film. He questioned an ‘illustrative’ approach in the use of creative practice in academia and stressed the interaction form and content produce new understandings that cannot be equated to written exegesis. 

    Augusto provocatively asked how do we allow art into the institution (of the university) without forcing it to adopt the language of the institution? He recounted the Twitter lament of an artist, Tai Shani, who complained of how practice in the academy is subject to ‘flattening and absolute quantification’. 

    This led to a general discussion of to what extent creative practice could or should conform to demands of knowledge production in the academy and in particular the demand to explain or contextualize one’s artistic output for REF or funding purposes.  

    Tai Shani wanted to be able to say about her work ‘It just came to me’ i.e., that the role of intuition should be acknowledged. Some felt that it was a privileged position to be in the academy where one could be paid a salary to include making creative work, that the requirements for this to be contextualized to identify its research contribution were not necessarily a hindrance or a burden and that in any case, all art, has a conceptual basis and intuition can be seen as the result of implicit knowledge and practice. The point was also made that any ‘art’, itself a monolithic concept, is made in a context of production with its own constraints and norms. Irene usefully concluded by recounting an encounter with a student who when asked what he thought was strong about a piece of creative work, said “it’s cool”. ‘’Well,” they said, “but what principles of cool have you applied to your work?’’ 

    It was suggested that having ‘Creative Practice’ as a conversation topic tended to ghettoize it and encourage a sense that it needed to justify itself as research. 

    The notion of what ‘rigour’ meant in a practice context was raised – is it the rigour of the idea behind a work or the rigour that has gone into the making? Also, could writing about practice work be writing about what it is not in it rather than what is? 

    Lizzie Thynne, Research Conversation facilitator

  • Translation summary by Aaron Kahn

    A group of us met to discuss the concept of Translation in a quite broad way. Most people think of translation as simply restating something in another language, but throughout our conversation, we discussed the many varieties and nuances of translation. In the process, we discovered how each of us uses different forms of translation in our research practices, finding some common ground across the board.

    Each participant revealed how the significance of translation has affected them personally and professionally, and all agreed that it is a vital skill in our global community. Translation can be linguistic, cultural, physical, spiritual and theoretical, among other qualifiers. The most immediate impact has been that as a result of this conversation, a Media, Arts and Humanities colleague has agreed to teach a unit on the new MA in Translation Studies, beginning in September 2023.

    With the long history at Sussex of studies in languages, linguistics, culture and many other related fields, we look forward to the continual development of research in Translation Studies in the future.

    Aaron Kahn, Research Conversation facilitator