how to begin

As is the case with many researchers at the beginning of a project, I knew (or thought I knew) the what and why, and hoped to figure out the how. How to make a game that was as ambiguous as Neurocam; that likewise was not actually a game, but instead an invitation to alchemical, uncertain play? And the crucial point of difference: how to make it real? A game that could actually deliver an unveiling — was this possible?

For the first few months I struggled to imagine the details that would bring this game to life. (And then I struggled to imagine the ethics application that would accompany it.) Meanwhile I was also trying to locate myself within the landscape of creative practice research. As it turned out, the two challenges were intertwined.

Gradually, through seminars and lectures designed to orient new students to the realm of practice-based research, I began to get my bearings. And as I listened to experienced practitioners talk about their processes, I started to see my problem: I was using the wrong methodology. My original project proposal was influenced by the work that I had done during my MA in Creative Technology, and was essentially (though not intentionally) a human-computer interaction (HCI) project. I planned to make enigmatic, networked objects that engaged participants in open-ended ways, and to embed these artefacts within the game. By the time I formally commenced my PhD I had discerned that my efforts to develop these objects would dominate the project, and I abandoned my intention to include them in the game. But I did not abandon the idea of the project as design rather than art. Or perhaps more accurately, I did not critically reflect upon the differences between the two. T1

T1:The key question implied by these differences is of course that of purpose. Here the media art landscape of the previous two decades is instructive. While artists like Blast Theory have used available technologies to critically engage with a variety of sociopolitical issues, ubiquitous computing labs have created novel forms of gaming as a means to prototype these same technologies (Deterding 2014). The distinction between art and design has not been absolute, as evidenced by Blast Theory’s longstanding collaboration with the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham. But each party to such collaborations has a distinct agenda, as is clearly demonstrated in the first research paper jointly produced by Blast Theory and the Mixed Reality Lab:

‘Artistically, the project aims to articulate the spaces between mundane realities (such as traveling on a bus or train) and fantastical projections (most commonly derived from film and television) of drama and action, in which the city is inscribed with untold possibilities. Technically, the project aims to create new mobile mixed reality interfaces that are able to support rich and dynamic interaction between physical and virtual worlds, both indoors and outdoors, on the scale of a physical city’ (Benford et al. 1999, p.1).

The scholars Jillian Hamilton and Luke Jaaniste propose that the differing research aims of art and design can be plotted on a spectrum that ranges from evocative to effective, with implications for methodology as well as methods.

‘In evocative research … the research arises in and through the materiality and advent of the practice,’ the authors write. ‘It is through an ongoing dialogue between practice, theory and topic that the research question begins to make itself clear, and the shape of the research project resolves itself. The research question may therefore remain open-ended for some time and resist reduction to a single, specific problem. It is such an open-ended approach that allows the practice and artefact to remain irreducible in its meaning’ (Hamilton & Jaaniste 2009, p. 6).

‘In effective, problem-based projects,’ on the other hand, ‘the making practices do not tend to lead the research. Instead, the practical, or production aspects of the project begin after the researcher has established a contextual framework. This not only involves establishing the research question, but determining what is needed in the situation or context … It also involves developing a set of guiding principles and processes for the practice. Only when this (substantial) contextual research and planning has been conducted is the practice initiated to form part of the solution, or an instantiation of an answer’ (ibid.).

Irreducible in its meaningAn instantiation of an answer. The relationship between these two research results became clear to me in a question posed by my not-yet supervisor Lyndal Jones, querying this very point. ‘Are you writing a poem?’ she asked us, a room full of novice researchers. ‘Or are you building a chair?’

Not a chair, I realised in that moment. Not a chair.

I began my PhD under the auspices of RMIT’s Games and Experimental Entertainment Lab, which seemed a natural continuation of my masters work. But the lab was unequivocally aligned with the deductive methodologies of design, and as I discovered, was quite hostile to the notion of artistic, evocative research. This tension was instructive: after several stressful months of trying to conform; of trying to create schemas and plans for how I would come to understand the ambiguous city, I realised that I didn’t actually want to do design. I wanted this project to unfold. I wanted to work intuitively, organically — a return to the true nature of my creative practice.

Or at least I thought it was the true nature. I left the lab and struck out on my own, but quickly discovered that in fact I had no idea how to do intuitive research. It was a daunting proposition, to close the sketchbook and step into the unknown. To dwell in shadows rather than dispel them. I quite literally did not know how to begin. T2

T2:In time I would recognise this lack of knowing not as an obstacle but as a condition of a certain way of working, which can be identified by a variety of terms. It is described by Hamilton and Jaaniste (2009) as evocative; by Australian contemporary artist Lyndal Jones (2009) as propositional; by the artist-researchers Hazel Smith and Roger Dean (2009) as process-driven; and by scholars in the field of human geography as non-representational (Lorimer 2005).

This way of working ‘is based on the embrace of a mystery outcome,’ Jones writes, ‘beginning as it does with only the starting point and requiring ongoing responsive development as a result of acute attention to the contextual stimuli. By not judging and only by continuing to the next point — one that is informed by context, learning and chance occurrences — does development occur’ (ibid. p. 79).

Artworks that arise from working with this method should not be taken as statements, says Jones, but instead as propositions. ‘One or a number may coalesce to create a new perception, one that is at every stage irreducible. Propositions eschew analysis, the binary oppositions of form and content, mind and body and the illustration of intention’ (ibid. p. 77).

Both the evocative and the propositional are driven by an interest in process rather than an intent to reach a specific goal. ‘To be process-driven is to have no particular starting point in mind and no pre-conceived end,’ write Smith and Dean (2009, p. 23). ‘Such an approach can be directed towards emergence, that is the generation of ideas which were unforeseen at the beginning of the project. To be goal-orientated is to have start and end points — usually consisting of an initial plan and a clear idea of an ultimate objective or target outcome.’

As Jones suggests, propositions ‘are particularly relevant as a means to present art and to have it understood as research’ (2009, p. 77). It can be argued that this relevance extends beyond the arts, finding its way into the field of human geography through what itself can be best described as a proposition: non-representational theory.

‘Non-representational theory concerns itself with practice, action, and performance,’ writes the ethnographer Phillip Vannini (2015, p. 4). ‘Non-representational theorists are weary of the structuralist heritage of the social sciences and suspicious of all attempts to uncover symbolic meaning where other, more practical forms of meaning or even no meaning at all exist.’

In non-representational theory, ‘[t]he focus falls on how life takes shape and gains expression in shared experiences, everyday routines, fleeting encounters, embodied movements, precognitive triggers, practical skills, affective intensities, enduring urges, unexceptional interactions and sensuous dispositions. Attention to these kinds of expression, it is contended, offers an escape from the established academic habit of striving to uncover meanings and values that apparently await our discovery, interpretation, judgement and ultimate representation. In short, so much ordinary action gives no advance notice of what it will become’ (Lorimer 2005, p. 84).

In both the non-representational and the propositional there is an emphasis on the unknown, and also an attention to motion. ‘Life is movement — geographic and existential kinesis’ writes Vannini (2015, p. 3). ‘What is being spoken, then, is a sequence of actions,’ writes Jones, adding: ‘While one might imagine that training in the visual arts centrally involves developing visual acuity, the contention here is that the sense most highly developed in the strongest visual artists is, in fact, the kinaesthetic sense — the ability to develop images that arise from actions; actions that both artists and viewers respond to with empathy’ (2009, p. 80).

Although I hardly knew that I was beginning, my first unknowing steps into this project would involve movement in the most literal sense.

After several false starts I surrendered for a while. Summer had quietly become autumn; my marriage was coming to an end. I’d signed a six-month lease on a doomed old house in an unfamiliar suburb, and I had done all of the unpacking that I planned to do. I started walking. As far as my legs would carry me, in every possible direction. For my health, for my sanity, to fill the empty hours. I took my camera with me. Not to make pretty pictures, but to make a record. And as I poured these images into the reflecting pool of photos that I had taken across the years, I began to see the ripples. Back through Melbourne, Manchester, Portland. Through all of the uncertain times, the disorienting transitions, there was a silvery thread. I started to understand what I was doing. When I needed space, perspective, grounding — when I needed to be held fast and there was no one there but me — I walked. And I documented. Strange and beautiful things that caught my eye; moments when meaning sparked and only I was there to witness. To participate. To create. Moments when something held me; when I was not alone. T3

T3:Psychologist Joanne Duma expresses similar thoughts about her own wandering photography practice, which I was pleasantly surprised to discover after coming to my own intuitive grasping of these ideas.

‘With no audience in mind, I sought only direct contact with the image,’ she writes. ‘I found myself in a space where time lost all meaning, where the ordinary became wondrous … By being mindfully aware, I was more present to the image as well as to what was to be found inside my experience of attending to it. Looking outward was closely linked to turning back toward myself, for what felt real in me.’ (2012, p. 16).

Duma also describes a feeling of being held by this phenomenon, which she associates with the concept of transitional space as put forward by psychoanalyst  Donald Winnicott. Winnicott contends that transitional space first arises during infancy, when a child begins to experience its identity as separate from that of its mother or primary caregiver. The child adopts an object — typically a blanket or stuffed toy — to serve as intermediary between self and other, which facilitates the ‘initiation of a relationship between the child and the world’ (Winnicott 1953, p. 15). But Winnicott held that transitional space remains important throughout our lives, referring to it in the context of adulthood as ‘an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute’ (ibid. p. 3). Like the infant’s blanket or teddy bear, this intermediate zone ‘is an area which is not challenged, because no claim is made on its behalf except that it shall exist as a resting-place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet inter-related’ (ibid.) Winnicott saw creativity and the arts as inhabitants of this third area, which he considered to be ‘in direct continuity with the play area of the small child who is “lost” in play’ (ibid. p. 15).

‘In light of Winnicott,’ Duma writes, ‘I reflect now on how my camera can serve as a portal to potential space. How, within the frame of the viewfinder, the intermediary area between my imagination and reality can come together in play. The once familiar building with arching lines and space is the “found” object of my imagination. I see, in the image of its gentle curves, the arms of a loved one lost, the arms holding me in the moment. I rest my aloneness in the spaces between. And in them, I feel the missed presence within me. It is all of this at once … In holding the image, I feel held. In this space of potential, I experience myself as separate yet connected, and bridge the gap between what is lost and what is being found. It is a space for creativity both in my art and in my living’ (2012, p. 17).

That’s how I spent the first six months of my PhD, when I couldn’t figure out how to make a game that was real.