Autoethnographic Practice?


Bit of a mouthful, but it’s a term I’ve latched onto recently in thinking about what criteria are inherent within my practice that might enable me to consider what it is that I do as ‘practice-based research’ (or any of the other myriad of names: practice as research, practice led research, research-led practice and the whole shebang). While I know there has been a fair amount of criticism in terms of viewing art practice as research (which I will get to at some point), particularly with the idea that art is being shoved into an anthropological model of knowledge that it may (or may not) just about squeeze into – albeit somewhat uncomfortably, this just seems to be the right buzzword to get me thinking about it.

Please excuse the long sentences, for I am prone to rambling but I do mean well!

Autoethnography has been described as “an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno)” – and, ergo, suits my motives and purposes in my practice quite well. Throughout my time on this MA, I have come to realise that as much as I would like to make work that investigates the Caribbean/Bahamian/hybrid/post-colonial experience for the benefit of other artists working in this area, my motives are entirely and utterly personal and, I would hope, not leaning towards narcissism but more towards personal investigation of the self. How could I possibly begin to write and make for others (and what would give me this right anyway?) when I first need to grapple with my own understanding of myself – in all its flux, change, and affectedness. Though the ‘auto’ prefix might connote some lack of integrity or methodological/qualitative rigour for some, who is to say that, from an epistemological standpoint, that personal and experiential knowledge is not more ‘pure’ – for lack of a better word – in that it is less mediated/affected and implies that first-hand knowing, tacit knowledge in some ways and unmediated in others. Rather than setting a hypothesis and seeking to prove it (which, while it can be helpful for working practices can also limit experimentation and capacity for alternate outcomes), practices like this, like mine, tend to draw on what is already present – a seeking without quite knowing what you’re searching for (I am trying not to be melodramatic, I swear!). There’s usually this inherent intuition that I’ve seen in many crits with many artists, wherein there’s a “feeling” that “something” is there and you don’t quite know what it is – but how is this remotely useful when looking at art in a research context!? The frustrating ineffable unknowing – speaking of which, I may have to look more into ‘not-knowing’ in arts practice and how that can actually be a good thing (yes, I was dubious myself).

Whilst I understand that a level of objectivity (or what is understood to be such) is necessary for research in many other areas and clusters of knowledge, I don’t know that the extent to which this idea is integral or entirely true to the arts. Art is inherently personal because it is never entirely removed from its idea of an attachment to its creator. Even work that rejects the notion of an author is still tied to that idea of authorship, the producer. Barthes proclaimed the “death of the author” in terms of the artist’s intention no longer being the solitary meaning of the work once it is in circulation or “out in the world”, but the artist is still present although the dynamic of how to read the work has changed. Even work which seeks to remove this personal aspect still has ties to it in its resistance to the notion. We are irremovably a part of the work, even if we cannot ‘speak for it’ as such.

There is a value of personal experience in art that I can only see replicated in one other area of research: auto-ethnography. The life experience of the researcher is paramount, it is the very crux of the thing itself. And again, though it is so deeply personal and specific and situated, it is also translatable. Ultimately, all knowledge and articulation of knowledge is translation, and perhaps it is only lived experience as it exists in the mind in the moment that is not translated. It is in this way that I personally find a value not only in what I do with my own artwork, but in how my own research and all research holds value. It is all translatable and transferrable, and though the meanings change and shift with time and the limitations of the medium through which to articulate and share these ideas, they do all still hold a high value – albeit in different circles and for different people, but isn’t that what rhizomes are for anyway!? Again, another discussion that I shall save for another occasion I believe!

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