Tuesday, 28 February 2017


Lifting off from Prown’s statement, “Cultural expression is not limited to things. But the techniques of material culture should be part of the tool kit of the well-equipped cultural scholar” (Prown 1982, 5), I am exploring what it means to undertake a research-creation project. I will admit to a sense of disconnect I am feeling with my current situation, both in the way I undertake research in the realm of academia, but also within academia itself. This term may see a lot of self reflection as I struggle to figure out my place within the university, and as I question how research is undertaken.

My meander through the readings I set out for myself started out fairly focused, but then things changed and I was able to take two directed studies (one in Material Culture, the other in Research-Creation and Materiality) instead of the singular one on material culture in the 18thC. This may prove to be both difficult and dynamic, as I bounce ideas from one reading list into the other. At the beginning, I read the introduction to Joanne Entwistle’s book, The Fashioned Body,  and about how we should be writing about fashion. Then I moved into material culture studies itself with The article by Michael Yonan, Toward a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies, which lead me to Prown’s seminal work on the theory and methodology of the field, Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method. That’s where the above statement caught my attention. It has stuck with me for a week now. After Prown’s article, I went back to my reading list and pulled up a more recent exploration on material culture study, Richard Grassby’s Material Culture and Cultural History. In it, Grassby explores what it means to be a material cultural historian today. What struck me from that article was Grassby’s mentioning that,

“Many cultural historians ignore the physical environment in which culture is embedded. They elevate abstract ideas above things, symbolic meaning above utility, and imagination above imperial facts. They generalize from images and texts as though they were material commodities, focusing on how the world was represented and perceived, not on how it functioned or how it was physically or emotionally experienced. In the giddy world of symbolic interpretation, goods have no practical use and the consumption function has no basis in reality.

Social reality has to be structured to be perceived and understood. Whether is communicates through words or visual representation, the cultural system relies on metaphor and symbolism” (Grassby 2005, 591).

My notes in the margins at this point ask why the ‘material’ part of culture is not important to the cultural historian. Materiality is very important to the living historian, so why not the cultural historians, are we not similar beings? Grassby then goes on to inform us,

“Objects give material form to the rules and belief patterns of those who trade, purchase, or use them. Unlike cultural anthropologists, material culturists may not be directly concerned with systems of belief and practical activity, but they are certainly interested in goods as symbols and tools of culture, and in structural patterns by which artifacts are organized into meaningful relationships.

This approach engages the senses as well as the mind. Choses vecues, the physical conditions of everyday life and the options for action of different groups” (Grassby 2005, 592-3).

The senses are very important to the living historian, they help cement historical moments in our minds, what it may have felt like to live the life of those whose stories we portray at museums and historic sites. History is so much more than big battles, and Kings, it is the everyday, what Grassby states when he discusses “how people met the basic needs of food, shelter, and warmth and whether levels of comfort, privacy, personal security, and taste improved” (Grassby 2005, 592-3). So for me, as a living historian, the material culture is important, and equally important is knowing the techniques of how those things of material culture were made.

So, over the years I’ve come to the point of understanding that my brain works in a different manner than the average, mainstream academic. Often I think more coherently in images and things than I do in words. This was expressed by my MA advisor Dr. Randi Warne at Mount Saint Vincent University, when she encouraged me to create a fashion collection to help support my thesis, and it apparently has been noticed by my team here at Concordia, as they have placed me in a Fine Arts stream of the Humanities program, allowing me to undertake a research-creation project to support my dissertation.

But what exactly is research-creation, and how can I apply it to my PhD program? The next article I read leans more towards my ‘Materiality’ course in that the authors discuss research-creation techniques within the Canadian university setting. In this course, I am exploring the materiality of my own art practice (research-creation), and this article was written by researchers from my own university. I had hopes that they might guide me in understanding what it is that I do, and how I would go about obtaining funding for the rest of my time here.

Owen Chapman and Kim Sawchuk’s article, Research-Creation: Intervention, Analysis and “Family Resemblances”, abstract states,

“Research-creation’ is an emergent category within the social sciences and humanities that speaks to contemporary media experiences and modes of knowing. The focus of this article if how this practice contributes to the research agenda of the digital humanities and social sciences. How the term has been articulated in academic policy discourses and examine prominent academic analysis that describe the practice of research-creation. Using Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘family resemblances’ before moving to a discussion of four modes of research-creation: ‘Research-for-creation’, ‘research-from-creation’, ‘creative presentations of research’, ‘creation-as-research” (Sawchuk 2012, 5).

My first question was, is it really ‘emergent’, or does academia want to think it is so they can be thought of as ‘cutting edge’? Turns out that no, the concepts are not really new, but they can be considered ‘emergent’, especially within Canadian academic circles, and definitely within the research funding organizations “Fonds Quebecios de la Recherche sur la Societe et la Culture (FQRSC), and Federal Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The third funding body the authors mentioned, the Canada Council for the Arts has a long standing tradition of funding artists, though I’m not sure I would find a great fit within that funding body as the project requires “production of a new work that will have some sort of public exhibition” (Sawchuk 2012, 9). Where I would be exhibiting my own work tends to fall outside acceptable academic venues for art exhibition, more likely put up as an exhibit in a museum or embodied upon(?) a living historian. It would, however, fit into the FQRSC standards of having the potential to “enrich ‘national and international cultural heritage’ SSHRC, 2011a)” (Sawchuk 2012, 9).

My thoughts then drifted a bit as I read the introductory chapter of Dr. John Potvin’s book, The Places and Spaces of Fashion, 1800-2007. In this chapter, Dr. Potvin argues that,

“encounters with fashion happen within a space at a given place and do not simply function as backdrops but are pivotal to the meaning and vitality that the experiences of fashion trace. More often than not, these environments mitigate, control, inform, and enhance how fashion is experienced, performed, consumed, seen, exhibited, purchased, appreciated, desired, and, of course displayed. Conversely, fashion enhances the identity, worth, pleasure, and currency of certain places and spaces…” (Potvin 2009)

Then, if fashion ‘makes’ the space come alive, and the space helps to embody fashion, it would seem that the study of the history of fashion is both important to the historical narrative, but also, it is important to study the accuracy of that fashion. In future weeks, I will be undertaking a critical examination of the clothing that makes up the ‘toolkit’ my husband and I bring with us into the field of living history. I will question the materiality of the individual items of dress, how they can be improved upon in cut and construction to give a better ‘look’ to the embodied fashion. I will also examine the practices of our living history experiences to understand how and why items of dress work, while others do not. Then I will consider my own art practice in creating historical fashion, how that has changed over the years, and why I feel this change is for the better.


Grassby, Richard. 2005. "Material Culture and Cultural History." The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 591-603.

Potvin, John. 2009. "Introduction." In The Places and Spaces of Fashion, 1800-2007, by John Potvin, 1-18. New York: Routledge.

Prown, Jules David. 1982. "Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method." Winterthur Portfolio 1-19.

Sawchuk, Owen Chapman and Kim. 2012. "Research-Creation: Intervention, Analysis and "Family Resemblances"." Canadian Journal of Communication 5-26.

No comments:

Post a Comment