Auditing my ‘academic literacies’

This post has been prompted by Cally Guerin’s recent observations on doctoral writing and different academic ‘writing literacies’ on the Doctoral Writing SIG blog.

For Cally, academic writing literacy spans a whole range of genres from application forms and funding proposals, to composing survey and interview questions, writing conference presentations, journal articles and book chapters. She also counts blogging and social media, such as Twitter and LinkedIn updates. Not to mention of course the all-important THESIS! In her post Cally states that:

Through these different writing experiences, doctoral writers learn how to express their ideas clearly, how to structure material so that all sorts of readers can engage with it, and consider the appropriate layout of the document to indicate how it fits together. They learn about the nuances of genre and audience—what’s appropriate, expected, and useful in a range of different writing situations.

With this year’s APR (Annual Progress Review) just a week ago and still being in a somewhat reflective mood, reading Cally’s post prompted me to log a few thoughts on my own progress with these different academic literacies.

Conference papers – Yes I’ve now done a few of those and I’m working on a new one for our annual ICCHS Postgraduate Research Conference at the moment. At this stage of my research these are very much ‘work in progress’ papers. Coming from a visual arts practice background my instinct has always been to start with the visual presentation first and then work up my text (or script) to go with these. But in an effort towards a more focused academic delivery, I’ve now switched to working the other way round. At the conferences I’ve attended I’ve encountered a whole range of approaches to academic presentation but found the papers that are formally read without any visuals much the hardest to digest. I’m still very much exploring the academic culture here and need to continue experimenting to find a presentation mode that best suits me and my current ‘work in progress’ material.

Funding applications – This is an area of ‘academic literacy’ that I’ve now worked quite a lot on, and with some success! Not so much in terms of my own research (although I did manage to get AHRC funding for my PhD – thank you AHRC!) but rather in support of other academic’s bids. Through contacts in Fine Art here at Newcastle University I seem to be developing a bit of a specialism in creative practice-based research proposals. This is great for me, as it gives me an opportunity to work directly with artists again, something I used to do all the time in my previous professional work with Grit & Pearl and Commissions North/Arts Council England. These AHRC funding applications are a very specific and condensed form of research writing where you are following an externally imposed structure. Like other academic writing it’s both sometimes a solitary endeavour and also extremely collaborative, with much redrafting and discussion and responding to feedback along the way.

Survey and interview questions – Well surveys are not really my thing but I’ve certainly written interview questions for use in my own research project. From recent interviews I’ve conducted, the questions I’ve drafted for these seem to be effective in drawing out a good quality of responses. Although in the interviews themselves there are always additional questions raised that we don’t have time to explore. Working with one of my supervisors on a recent external research project I’ve also had an opportunity to explore and write for more unusual elicitation methods. In this case developing introductory texts and prompts for a online diary based qualitative investigation tool that invited user responses to an artist designed app project called ‘Second Moon’.

Social media – Hmmm…. As you may have noticed this blog has been pretty quiet over the last few months, as my writing attention has moved towards literature reviews and thesis chapter drafting. But I’ve been building up my Twitter activity (you can now follow my latest tweets on this blog) – a form of ‘academic literacy’ that’s easy to fit into tiny writing/thinking pockets in the day, especially when I’m out and about. (Although in honesty retweeting is reading rather than ‘writing’.) I’ve found that being in a more relaxed space away from my desk/laptop seems to put me in a better Twitter writing mode. But for longer form blogging (like this current post) I feel I need a more formal space/time that’s a bit closer to my chapter-drafting environment.

The THESIS – Of course, for me (and my PhD supervisors!) this is the biggest and most important academic writing literacy I need to master. In my revised project plan I’ve given myself a writing target of 10,000 words a month – the majority of this will go into the thesis, but not all of it will count to those magic (and still very far off) 80-100,000 words. For me this thesis writing time (as a part-time student I’m scheduling three x three hour slots for this per week) isn’t just about chapters, it’s all the draft texts, research notes, mind maps and outlines that go into their making. These are the inside working processes of the PhD writing project that you never really get to see in other people’s thesis writing, although these processes are certainly written about. I’ve found the standard academic writing handbooks by Dunleavy (2003) and Murray (2006) and blogs such as the excellent Patter and the Doctoral Writing SIG extremely helpful on all this, but I’d still really like to see inside the engine of someone’s thesis, to get a feel for the progress of the various drafts that’s gone into its making. Although I certainly value my supervisors’ feedback on my own writing it’s hard to judge one’s progress (and to feel positive about it) when you are always comparing your own writing with fully completed theses.

But, going back to Cally’s blog post and the positive learning that she suggests can be gained from these various writing experiences. The question perhaps for me at the moment is, are all these writing literacies just competing demands on valuable academic writing time, where one writing genre and project battles with another that has a more pressing deadline? Or can these different academic literacies be developed and managed in a complementary and mutually supportive manner?


Dunleavy, P., 2003. Authoring a PhD, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Murray, R., 2006. How to Write a Thesis 2nd ed., Maidenhead: Open University Press.


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Folkestone Triennial 2014 and ‘The Sculpture Question

Will Kwan, 'Apparatus #9', Folkestone Triennial 2014

Will Kwan, ‘Apparatus #9′, Folkestone Triennial 2014

A week ago I was down in Folkestone to catch the last weekend of the Folkestone Triennial 2014.

This was the third edition of the Folkestone Triennial. While it’s primarily promoted as a temporary public realm programme within a sculpture festival type framework this triennial is an interesting case study for my own research as it sites new temporary commissions alongside legacy works from previous Triennial years. Presenting this work under the banner of Folkestone Artworks it’s a rare UK example of public art engagement with the concept of ‘collection’. So far the Folkestone collection numbers sixteen permanent artworks maintained for the town from the two previous Triennial events (2008, 2011). Up to eight works are likely to be added to the collection from this year’s edition. I wonder which works will be chosen to stay in the town and on what basis this selection will be made? Practicalities, like material robustness and site ownership and probably contractual and planning issues too are likely to play a major part in this. How might this be balanced with the popularity of certain works with Triennial visitors and local audiences? (Gabriel Lester’s The Electrified Line and Jyll Bradley’s Green/Light in particular seemed to be attracting lots of attention while I was there.) It was too early really to explore these issues on this visit but these are questions that I’d like to return to again early next year, hopefully in conversation with the curators at Folkestone Artworks/The Creative Foundation.

Gabriel Lester, 'The Electrified Line', Folkestone Triennial 2014

Gabriel Lester, ‘The Electrified Line’, Folkestone Triennial 2014

Jyll Bradley, 'Green/Light (for M.R.), Folkestone Triennial 2014

Jyll Bradley, ‘Green/Light (for M.R.), Folkestone Triennial 2014










My second reason for going to Folkestone was to attend ‘The Sculpture Question’, a conference organised by the Creative Foundation and the University for the Creative Arts, Canterbury. Although part of the Triennial programme ‘The Sculpture Question’ conference had a rather wider remit, seeking to explore the future of sculpture in its expanding ‘expanded field’. The conference set itself two key questions: The first was concerned with the teaching of sculpture within a ‘trans-disciplinary’ framework, where it is increasingly positioned in relation to installation, architecture and performance; The second with the broader issue of the agency of sculpture within the institutionalised and formal public realm. The conference set out to address these questions in three sessions, labelled broadly as: Terms; Frameworks; and Encounters. For me it was this third grouping which was the major attraction and interest. The conference programme promised a stimulating debate that linked with my own current investigations into public art audiencing and interpretation:

In the final part of the conference, we look at the experience of sculpture. How does the public confront works in the public realm? And what is the value of signposting ‘art’, or allowing for unexpected encounters? How much contextual information should one offer to the viewer and how might sculpture be seen as a starting point, or a reference, for a multi- layered response by a viewer – one that takes into account the frameworks discussed above, as well as personal experience?

The speakers for this session, of whom the keynote was the French curator and art theorist Nicolas Bourriaud, addressed these issues in sometimes oblique and sometimes direct ways in their presentations. Here are some of my edited notes that highlight, for me some of the more interesting and pertinent points made during the session and in the follow-on panel discussion:

  •  Sculpture is defined in terms of temporal and spatial ‘contingency’ and ‘social gathering’ as oppose to the distance and ‘flatness’ of the image.
  •  It’s important to recognize that sculptures sited in the public realm can be both an ‘attraction and a repellant’.
  •  Sculptures/artworks need to be active ‘generators’ i.e. producers of ‘something else’. It’s important to keep the story of the artwork ‘spinning’.
  •  Public space and public activity is now more ‘atomised’ and ‘polarised’ – this means we can no longer talk of ‘a public’. Instead we need to think in terms of a ‘fragmented multitude’.

 (Nicolas Bourriaud)

  •  What do we do when sculptures/artworks fail? i.e. when they fail to ‘gather’ in this sense, when they remain ‘flat’.
  •  Shifting from the visual to the linguistic and back again: ‘The Art World is in denial about how much text it uses.’

 (Gilda Williams)

  •  Public realm sculpture = something you ‘bump into’ either as a ‘surprise’ or as an object ‘that gets in the way’. May be a ‘distracting’ or ‘disturbing’ thing’, friendly or unfriendly, but also a ‘non-thing’ for some people.
  •  What do people do with things that they don’t want to see?
  •  Objects look back at us: they are ‘doing something to you’ or ‘demanding something of you’.

 (Anouchka Grose)

The Sculpture Question

The Sculpture Question: Anouchka Grose

NOTE: Although developed over a much shorter timescale Folkestone Artworks approach is similar to the model pioneered by Sculpture Projects Münster in Germany. The fifth edition of Sculpture Projects Münster is due to take place in 2017.

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‘The time it takes to peel an orange.’


Over the last few weeks I’ve noticed a lot of media interest in, and some quite strong critique, of the National Gallery’s decision to allow people to use their mobile phones to take photos of artworks in its galleries. Several writers lamented this decision, suggesting that photography hinders rather than encourages engagement with artworks.

Commenting on this debate, journalist Archie Bland, writing in The Independent, quoted some interesting and conflicting opinions about the time needed to look at and understand or ‘appreciate’ an artwork. Here are some of the amusingly alternative timescales suggested in his article:

  • As long as you like.
  • Longer than you think.
  • 100 hours.
  • The time it takes to peel an orange.
  • A lifetime.

Bland compares these with the average audience time spent with an artwork reported by some gallery visitor studies:

  • 15 seconds (for the ‘Mona Lisa’ at The Louvre).
  • 32.5 seconds (Metropolitan Museum of Art , New York).
  • 17 seconds (research at Rutgers University).

While we might traditionally consider the gallery as the place for more concentrated and contemplative looking and public space/public art as a place of the ‘glance’, this research makes me think that actually these art experiences may not be so dissimilar. Do the accumulated moments of glancing and passing by or even the half an hour spent with a public sculpture over a summer sandwich count towards an incrementally deeper or extended encounter?

What the shortest or longest time you’ve spent with a work of public art? What might this add up to over the course of a lifetime?

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Art Everywhere: better than another car advert?

Art Everywhere logo

Today marks the first day of Art Everywhere 2014, a ‘national outdoor art exhibition that aims to flood the streets with great British art’ (Source: Art Everywhere website). A not-for-profit collaboration between the UK ‘out of home’ advertising industry, the Art Fund, Tate, Facebook and others, Art Everywhere describes itself as ‘A Very Very Big Art Show’.

The project is ‘Big’ on many fronts. Over the next six weeks it will present giant (and smaller scale) reproductions of 25 paintings by British artists on 30,000 public billboard and poster advertising sites across the UK. In doing so the project claims to be able to reach an audience amounting to 90% of the UK population. The project is crowd curated: the final selection of the 25 images was decided through a Facebook poll that received 38,000 votes. It is also partially crowd funded, with supporters gaining various levels of reward for their cash donations. And it’s social too – making full use of Twitter and Instagram to promote to and engage with audiences.

In its ‘bringing art out of the gallery, onto the streets, and to the people’ ethos Art Everywhere would seem to offer a glossy and sophisticated media version of public art. But like much public art it’s not without some controversy. While some contemporary artists have been keen supporters (Antony Gormley and Grayson Perry jointly launched the 2014 project last week and the artist Bob and Roberta Smith offered similar endorsement to the 2013 edition) others have been more critical. In an A-N debate on the project last year some artists questioned whether Art Everywhere could in any way constitute ‘good public art’. While some A-N contributors argued that any new opportunity for the public to engage with visual artworks must be regarded as positive (and certainly better than gazing at just another car advert) others criticised the project for being ‘safe’, ‘gimmicky’, and ‘patronising’. In focusing on the reproduction of existing and often well-known artworks it was regarded by many of these artists as a missed opportunity to commission new and context specific work. And of course, as A-N’s Susan Jones reminded readers, using billboards and public media as a site for artists’ works is hardly a new phenomenon. Similarly as another contributor to the A-N discussion suggested, conventional permanently sited public art collections, such as the ‘220 Public Artworks’ to be encountered in Milton Keynes might also be happily tagged as #arteverywhere

I wonder whether there be much debate on the Art Everywhere project this year, and if so where will this go?

NOTE: this year Art Everywhere is even bigger – it now has a US version too.

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Working with and through the visual










Last week my PhD time was focused primarily on the opportunities, issues and complexities of what might be broadly termed ‘visual research’.

In the first part of the week I took part in the NEDTC’s ‘Developing Theory and Practice in Visual Methodology’ training, then followed this up by attending the Newcastle University Visualities Research Group’s ‘Visual In-Sights’ Conference at Newcastle’s Culture Lab. Together these two events offered a overview of different approaches to ‘the visual’ and useful prompts for thinking about my own research – both in terms of its visual subject (public art objects), its methodology and its dissemination.

The NEDTC training offered practical opportunities to explore a spectrum of methods, tools and analytical approaches. These included hands-on group work with creative 3D modelling, visual context mapping, and found image analysis (probably the most applicable to my own research) The second day (which I wasn’t able to attend) went on to a more detailed exploration of different photo analysis protocols and tools for participant-generated data. Throughout the emphasis was on the potential of visual methods as alternatives to more standard quantitative or qualitative tools such as interviews, questionnaires, or observation. The message being that visual methods offer: a) an attractive route for participant engagement; b) a means of generating rich data; and c) an opportunity to open up more creative thinking, for both academic researchers and research participants.

These issues were explored and discussed in more detail, and in relation to a range of disciplines and research project examples, in the conference presentations and panels in the second half of the week. Here, visual research ethics, the changing status of the photograph and the social/communicative nature of visual images were recurring themes. Methods and approaches went beyond the found, elicited and participatory to showcase more emerging visual research practices including: digital/multimedia storytelling; research process storyboarding; actor-network visualisation; use of visual/graphic probes; and social media analysis. Of most immediate interest to me (in my own current investigation of public art representation on photo-sharing sites) were the three presentations in the ‘Visualities and Social Media’ panel by current PhD candidates Caelli Jo Brooker, Rhys Crilley, and Elisa Serafinelli. These investigated institutional and individual image based social media activity, variously on Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram. Together this group of presentations led to an interesting discussion on visual social media analysis techniques, ethical concerns, and potentials for qualitative investigation as oppose to current enthusiasm for ‘big-data’ oriented social media research.

Altogether it was a thoroughly stimulating week at the methodological interstices of the ‘visual turn’.





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Note to a disappointed reader

At our recent ICCHS PGR conference earlier this month a fellow PhD student spoke these guilt inducing but motivating words: “So when are you going to update your blog?” Oh no – someone’s noticed my blogging failure! But, hurrah too – I had a disappointed reader!

My last blog post had been months back, in January, and I had a series of half written drafts and notes for new posts sitting silent and unpublished on my laptop. My PhD research had been moving on, with c.9000 words completed on my first draft literature review, a series of interviews successfully underway, and my first external conference paper prepared and delivered. All very positive in PhD terms, but somehow not great for my academic blog. A blogging block had set in.

So definitely time for a revamp then: hence these new pages and this new design. More tweaks and new content coming soon (promise)!

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Timelines – onto ‘the conveyor belt of history’?

Sara Fanelli's timeline at Tate Modern. Source:

Sara Fanelli’s timeline at Tate Modern. Source:

In his article for Curator: The Museum Journal, (2013) US academic Steven Lubar argues that although timelines seem like a ‘natural’ approach to museum display, they present an over deterministic narrative structure. He warns that the timeline should be ‘used with care’ (p.169). For Lubar a new approach is needed that retains the usefulness and accessibility of the timeline but which opens it up to more visitor interaction and personalisation. In the article he makes six suggestions for how the timeline format might be expanded upon (p.185):

  1. use it to highlight key ‘decision points’ and pivotal moments;
  2. complicate it historically by intersecting with other topic timelines;
  3. make it ‘lumpy’ by focusing on defined periods;
  4. use it to connect events across the world, rather than in one place;
  5. focus it on geography, rather than on time;
  6. invite visitors to remix it to fit their own stories and personal interests.

Prompted by Lubar’s article, I’ve started to use the content curation platform to compile a collection of museum based timelines. This is to help develop my own thinking about how a timeline architecture and Lubar’s ‘six suggestions’ might be applied to my research into the public art ‘collection’ in Newcastle-Gateshead. Interestingly, as Tate is one of the timeline rejectionists of the 1990s/2000s that Lubar discusses in his article, a lot of these examples actually come from Tate. Here the timeline is fully present again, as artist designed gallery souvenirs, as in-and off-galley interpretation and as exhibition design – the new ‘Walk Through British Art’ display at Tate Britain.

Following my own initial data collection work in Newcastle-Gateshead I’ve been visually grouping individual artworks into a rough chronology using the free visualisation software Easy Timeline. I’ve also been researching other web-based ‘timeline’ applications. Some of these have the capacity to link time and place through image geo-tagging. In visiting other public art ‘collections’ (online or physically), it seems that it is through this frame of place and location that public artworks are more usually interpreted rather than through the lens of ‘art history’. It is the map, rather than the timeline, that is the ubiquitous form of presentation for a public art ‘collection’.

References and links:

Lubar, S. (2013). Timelines in ExhibitionsCurator: The Museum Journal56(2), 169–188. doi:10.1111/cura.12018 [Online. Accessed: 25 October 2013].

Note: the title for this post is taken from Nicholas Serota’s (1996 statement) quoted by Lubar in his (2013) article.

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