Research? What Research?

A new government (at last we can exhale) suggests a great opportunity to begin afresh on many public projects. But is it too much to think we can reset ingrained cultural attitudes? Let’s dream big, at least for now. I would love to see a fundamental shift in Australia’s attitude to research. Not to any specific research, just research as a concept.

When most people hear the word ‘research’ they think ‘science’. Some even specifically think ‘medicine’. If you remind them of phrases like ‘market research’ they might possibly think ‘statistics’. This is at the heart of the change I want to see. I don’t deny that science, too, has been starved for support, with horrendous cuts to the CSIRO and many other valuable institutions. However, it’s easy to say “we need to support research better” and have people nod because they think you just said we need to support science.

Is it too vast an ambition to want to move the cultural conversation to where everyone expects there to be research on everything? My current job is supporting people who do research into creativity, and it’s an immense privilege to work on getting more of that out into the world. But very few people grasp that something like ‘creativity’ is something that can be researched. Discussing the topic in the context of education sometimes helps, but it’s so much more than that, and one of the things we need to do is stop trying to justify esoteric areas of study by focusing on how we teach it. We need to grapple with how much most most of our society doesn’t realise that there are people out there producing research in Drama, History, Literature, Philosophy, Culture, Music, Politics, and a thousand other things that don’t necessarily have health, education or numeric applications – and that’s what we want for our world! Research has a PR problem, and academics and universities need to broaden their agenda to address it. I have ranted before about the misconception when funding is discussed (and scoffed at) of treating it like buying a book, rather than employing a specialist. We need to shift the conversation to talk about research as a process of work.

The whole GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) sector could benefit from the same, and that might require an examination of a deep-seated principle of deliberately making the work invisible. Conventionally, curators of exhibitions or collections don’t centre themselves, the idea is for the framing of the work to feel inevitable. There are lots of good ideological reasons why we might want to make the standpoint of the curator apparent these days; there is a major cultural shift going on to allow an audience to assess the perspective and potential biases that went towards producing any cultural work. This could be extended to help the whole enterprise of increasing public support for the field. Pull back the curtain, expose the mechanics, show the work, show that it is work.

Let’s begin now. Stop hesitating to speak about how hard or skilled or specialised the work of research is. Share the process, work through the puzzles in public. The beauty of this is that it’s a really positive thing to do anyway – research is fun and satisfying, and if we talk about it more, lots more people will want it in their lives!

Which of these items produces research? (Trick question – it’s the researcher that does that.)

An Arts-Led Recovery

We’re all at a point now where healing has to be the concept that rules all others. Healing the environment, healing those who have become not just acutely but chronically ill from a disease we don’t yet know enough about, healing the grieving.

Creative expression and the Arts forge connections among people, and connection is one of the key things that keeps people healthy. If we are all going to get healthy again after the body blows we’ve taken it will only be through personal and community connections, and art is drawing the map for us to find those things.

Given that arts work is fundamentally communicative, and most artists communicate for a living, it’s bizarre how little traction any of the very positive messages they are constantly putting out there seem to get in public consciousness. In Australia practically everyone engages with art every day, and yet the sense they have of what they are doing is somehow that “the Arts” is other stuff that people are doing elsewhere, not the music you listen to and your kids’ holiday workshops and that mural you like on that local wall. I don’t know how to solve this. I know who the enemy is; I know that conservative government and media believe that they get favourable responses when they trash talk arts workers, and I know, alas, that they seem to be right. I don’t know what can break the cycle.

Right now artists, exhausted and resource-stripped as they are, are doing what they always do. They’re working to help the communities that are struggling to recover from floods, and those (particularly the young, the old and the disabled) who have been feeling the impact of increased isolation. Always putting out there more than they can recuperate.

We must make it possible for arts workers to live and arts organisations to thrive, not just because we want to continue to have those things in our society, but because there’s no way our society can heal from the damage it’s taken in the last two years without them. Art is how we will get through this.


A multi-modal workshop on Beowulf for Year 9 students

Don’t forget to listen to yourself

This is not a mindfulness or self-care post, it’s a drama post.

I had the opportunity to do another cue-scripts workshop recently. All the things that usually work worked beautifully. Actors really listen to one another using this method. The pace is always exemplary, dialogue absolutely snaps when actors are using cue-scripts. They act leaning forward on their toes. However, this made me notice a quirky thing. It takes training to learn to hear oneself speak, that is, to process the meaning of what one is saying, even though one is speaking the words. Doing the thing your character is being led to do is a learned skill.

We were working on scenes from Much Ado About Nothing, which is a play that absolutely hums with embedded directions for physical activity. It’s surprising the way a student who is doing a great job of responding to the verbal cues of other people on stage can still say a line like “I will kiss your hand” without making any gesture towards kissing her hand. When I give out worksheets with instructions for how to go about marking up a script in preparation for performing it, “mark any indications of likely physical action” is included. But it clearly isn’t something that people can do instinctively. Just another example of the way, in teaching, you can think you’ve broken everything down into the most basic building blocks and there will still be further levels of things that need explaining. “Your cousin just fell unconscious to the floor, do you think that you would continue to stand two feet away? What else might you do?” Great fun, of course, to watch people figuring it all out, and always a delight when it works and they surprise themselves.

If you were wondering where I went, I haven’t disappeared, I just got a job at last, so I’ve been busy. It’s not lecturing, but it’s still pretty great: facilitating research and advocating for the value of the Arts. I’ll post links here when there are things to share about our work.

The Merchant of Venice is a funhouse mirror

The Merchant of Venice is a perfect example of one of Shakespeare’s key tricks: writing things that can be taken to be making entirely opposite statements, depending on your point of view. Is King Lear a misogynist play or a play about the damage done by misogyny? Is Coriolanus showing the dangers of a despotic ruling class or of mob rule by the people? Is Hamlet really mad?

What we can say is that Merchant asks its audience to think about the reality of what lies behind the surface image. The fairytale task of choosing the right casket and the nonsensical legal quibble about flesh being distinct from blood are vehicles for a question that is every bit as embedded in our lives today as it was in the lives of Shakespeare’s first audience – how do you reckon the value of a person?

In NSW Australia the final year of secondary school culminates in sitting for your Higher School Certificate (HSC), despite there no longer being such a thing as the School Certificate (a relic from when it was reasonably common to leave school at the end of year 10). There are various English level options, but they share one Common Module: Texts and Human Experiences. This module has a huge variety of set texts to choose from, one of which is The Merchant of Venice. This video is framed in such a way as to be pertinent to that module, but also fine for general interest watching.