Creative Research: A Creative Conversation
Laura Bissell and Sarah Hopfinger
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
To Cite this Article
Bissell, L., and Hopfinger, S. (2022). Creative Research: A Creative Conversation. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e, 6.
Performance-Researcher / Artist-Researcher
Laura Bissell (LB): I am a performance-researcher, educator, editor and writer. These areas of my practice all feel interconnected and entangled: my research informs my teaching, my creative writing blurs into my academic writing, and my students teach me a lot about what performance is and can be.
I have worked in higher education for almost two decades. Prior to lecturing in Contemporary Performance Practice, I taught Theatre Studies at the University of Glasgow, on the MRes in Creative Practices programme at Glasgow School of Art and at the Transart Institute MFA in Berlin. I am currently external examiner for the MA in Contemporary Performance Practice at the University of Salford and was previously external examiner for the European Theatre Arts programme at Rose Bruford College. I co-edited Performance in a Pandemic (Routledge, 2021) and Making Routes: Journeys in Performance 2010-2020 (Triarchy, 2021) and was associate editor of the Theatre, Dance and Performance Training journal for three years. I have presented my research at conferences nationally and internationally and have had my work published in the International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media, The Body, Space and Technology Journal, Studies in Theatre and Performance, The Scottish Journal of Performance and Contemporary Theatre Review. My current research is around climate crisis, pandemic performance, and performance and motherhood. I will present at the Museum of Motherhood conference this year and am also editing a special edition of the International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media on Matrescence and Media. This connects to my personal experience of motherhood which I wrote about in a memoir about parenting in the pandemic called Bubbles: Reflections on Becoming Mother (Luath, 2021).
I describe myself as a “performance-researcher” because everything I undertake is enquiry driven and starts with a question or series of questions. My PhD focused on feminism, technology and performance and these concerns are still very present in my current research, but my other interests include performance and journeys/mobilities/ecologies. My research practice and projects are shaped by what is happening in the world too: after the Scottish Independence referendum I co-wrote an article and made a film with artists about the role contemporary performance had in that movement and I am currently working on interrogating the role of performance in relation to climate crisis. My research practice responds to what is happening culturally, ecologically or politically and what ideas are in the ether that need interrogating. I would also describe my research practice as creative, interdisciplinary and collaborative.
Laura Bissell working on the interdisciplinary project Landscaping with Beavers
at the Bamff Estate in Perthshire (2019).
Sarah Hopfinger (SH): I am a queer disabled artist-researcher with specialisms in performance, ecology, disability and chronic pain in dance, crip practice, and intergenerational collaboration. My artistic practice sits between live art and choreography, and I often work with a diversity of collaborators including children and adults, disabled and non-disabled people, professional and nonprofessional performers and experts from non-art disciplines. My work focuses on how performance can enable us to practice alternative ways of being in the world in the context of ecological perspectives and climate emergency. My current Carnegie supported research project, Ecologies of Pain, explores how lived experiences of chronic pain can offer unique insights into what it means to live with and respond to wider ecological pain. This research involves: autoethnography focusing on my experiences of living with chronic pain for the past 18 years; studio based research with leading disabled dance artists including Raquel Meseguer, Laura Fisher and Amy Sayer, to develop movement practices by, for and with chronic pain bodies. This research is disseminated through live performances, documentation of creative practice, peer-reviewed articles critically reflecting on the practice, and other forms which will emerge throughout the creative research process. Connected to this research is a new work, Pain and I, which a diversely accessible body of work – performance (live), audio (digital) and graphic score (digital) – that celebrates what pain can teach. This work has been presented at the Made In Scotland showcase at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2022 and is currently touring nationally and internationally.
I work part-time as a lecturer and researcher at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) and the rest of the time as a freelance artist. My performance work has been presented nationally and internationally, and I have published my research in journals such as Performance Research, Research in Drama Education and Performance Ethos. I think of myself as an artist-researcher because I am a practitioner and academic: my practice leads my scholarly research enquiries. The gaps between my role as a teacher, researcher and practicing artist are blurred and my roles do not easily fit into different categories. The following creative conversation points towards this blurring.
Sarah Hopfinger working on the practice-led research project Ecologies of Pain
at Trinity Centre in Bristol (2019).
Journeys into creative research
SH: I came into research as a performance-maker. Without calling my approach research, I had been approaching performance practice – the creative process of making as well as the doing of live performances – as a way to find something out about performance or a wider question, which I could not find out another way. So, when I arrived into a formalised research context, I realised that part of what doing my PhD was meant was to articulate, deepen and better understand what I was already doing as an artist: that is, naming an inquiry, naming a methodology for going into that inquiry, then seeing how my original question might have changed, and reflecting on the multiple answers to my question that the practice shows me. The research context enabled me to become a more rigorous, informed and responsive artist – it made me a better artist – because my inquiries became clearer, or rather how to go on an in-depth inquiry became more visible and apparent to me. By taking a similar practice-as-research approach to what Robin Nelson articulates as an iterative process of ‘doing-reflecting-reading-articulating-doing’ (2013: 32), my artistic practice developed and shifted in ways that would not otherwise have happened. Whilst the performances I make stand alone as artistic works in their own right, the research context changes the work I make and what I make work about.
LB: My journey into research was through my background in Theatre Studies and English Literature via a more traditional academic context. Then I fell in love with live art. The content of the contemporary performance work I have explored and analysed has always felt hugely creative and innovative. If we are defining the term as “finding new knowledge” then I think being in a conservatoire environment has really helped me to think creatively about research approaches and different methods that can be applied. Sometimes that means avoiding the thing I feel most at home in, (reading a lot of books), and instead thinking “what is the right method for this particular question?” In recent projects that has been a more embodied way of approaching things. I’ve been challenging myself to expand my own ideas about what research is, and in interdisciplinary processes, thinking about what research means in different fields. When I reflect on what is specific about performance research, I think that it provides a practice-led, practice-focused, creative and rigorous way of doing research that can expose and explore ideas in a particular way.
SH: Your question about what creative research can offer wider research is an important one, which I think is partly demonstrated in the different approaches that our students have taken on the Performance Research module. Some students have explored a question that is focused on finding something out about performance practice per se, such as how performance art practices can engage with the ‘crisis in masculinity’. On the other hand, other students have used performance practice only as the methodology to explore an idea which is outside of performance studies, such as using sensory-led movement practice to explore how we can relate to our bodies beyond the socially constructed ‘medical body’. In the former approach, performance practices are, as it were, the object of study, wherein unforeseen ideas can emerge that reach beyond performance even when this was not the intention or focus of the research. Whereas the focus in the latter approach is on performance practices as the methodology of the research, where an idea outside of performance is the object of study. This latter approach can bring to light what performance practices can offer wider research that other methods cannot. For example, one student used feminist performance activism as a method to explore wider social ideas around breast cancer and women’s relationships to their bodies, where her ideas and reflections were focused more on the wider social aspects of her question as opposed to performance itself. Having said this, I think that performance practices can offer something to other domains of knowledge even when we do research that is aimed only at furthering knowledge about performance studies. Perhaps this unforeseen knowledge that performance practice can offer is what makes creative research so important? Whether we are trying to find something out about performance as an artform, or whether we are only using performance as a methodology to find something out about a non-performance question, creative practices can bring different kinds of knowledge and understandings to bear on the research findings.
LB: That is really important, that question of what performance can offer. The third year of study on the CPP programme is called “The Researching Artist” and the way in which we are framing research in what is now called the Performance Research module has shifted over the years. In developing and reviewing this module, I was keen to move away from the old title of “Dissertation”, where the focus is very much on the written element, to instead foreground the process of research and the creativity that that can offer to our artist-researcher students. What I enjoy about these changes to Performance Research is that I don’t know what the students will do. We recently wrote about this module as “Inviting in the Unknown” (Bissell and Hopfinger, 2022) which I think captures the intention to invite exploration, experimentation and finding out something through the artistic practice. I feel resistant to giving examples of previous cohort’s work as I want the students to find out what the practice is of their own individual research. I want to open up the possibilities of creative research rather than close them down or determine them. As Lynette Hunter says: “As I practiced the research I realised that I was also researching the practice” (2009: 234). I don’t want us to define what practice as research is, I want them to have agency in defining that and finding it themselves (once they have learned some methods and approaches to support this).
SH: Within performance there are of course varied artistic forms and, crucially, the different practices within performance give different sorts of knowledge. For example, one student began her research with a focus on working with participants to explore her ideas about the ‘grievability’ (Butler 2018) of different bodies, but then due to constraints of time and resources she decided to focus on solo performance practice. Solo performance then became the key framework for her research, and her findings focused on how her singular body could signal multiple non-present bodies in a live performance context. The performance form – solo practice – became the key frame for her findings: different forms of performance take us in different research directions and enable us to discover different kinds of thoughts and knowledge.
LB: Some students have found challenges with the ethical approval processes and the ways it made them conceive of their projects; they found it limiting and difficult. If we think of creative research in the same way as artistic practice, sometimes it is those boundaries, those limits or parameters that are made available (or that you choose) that can be the creative stimulus and impetus for the work. If you have some rules or boundaries there’s a quicker way in: parameters can be an opportunity for a re-focusing of the project, a distilling down of the ideas, which might take it in a different direction. During these processes I often feel that our students already have an idea at the beginning about what they are going to make, and instead, I want to invite them to not know, as challenging as this may seem. I want them to learn that you shouldn’t understand everything at the beginning in order to have a genuine process of finding something out. These things I tell students I need to tell myself! The desire to know exactly where you are going can be very tempting but is to be resisted!
SH: Baz Kershaw discusses how the methods of practice-as-research are inherently diverse because the approach is particular to each artist-researcher (Kershaw 2009: 4). With our students I think they can sometimes become debilitated at the beginning of the Performance Research module because they think that research means they need to know more about what they are making than when devising a performance in other modules, but as you say the research context is another version of going on an artistic process where you do not know where you are going to get to but you have some methods to work with.
LB: There is something vital about the ownership of these ideas they’re working with: the process of research can make artists feel like they can claim their ideas. Working with students also impacts my process greatly and challenges me to constantly develop my pedagogy, practice and research. I feel passionate about developing research within the RCS and ensuring students are empowered to deeply and critically understand their artistic practice within a wider context. As well as developing excellent performance-makers and facilitators I want students to be able to go on to publish their writing, present at conferences, and embark on further study if they wish to do so. I want them to think of themselves as artist-researchers and to have confidence in situating their work within a wider critical and artistic field.
SH: I studied CPP over a decade ago and I remember being encouraged to be in a place of un-knowing when I made performance work. I thought I was really good at that, but it was not until doing my PhD that I was able to more fully open up to the unknown and unforeseen: the research context offered me a new kind of permission to be in the unknown. Artists often say to me that they do not want to do a PhD because they are afraid of having to fix their ideas down and be less open to the creative process. However, I have found that performance research is in fact another way to be unfixed, and may in fact enable me to be more open to the unknown within a creative making process. My experience of entering the academic research context was that I permitted myself to be more responsive to the unpredictability of my artistic practice. As part of my practice-led PhD research into how performance can be an ecological practice, I collaborated with professional and nonprofessional child and adult performers, and a diversity of nonhuman materials including rocks, water and fire, to devise a new movement-based performance called Wild Life that explored ‘wildness’. This artistic collaboration was framed by my research into wider ecological theory and philosophy, and I understood the creation of Wild Life to be a matter of a diverse intergenerational performance ecology: I hoped to find something out about wider environmental and social ecologies through focusing on a specific performance ecology. I think that this critical context allowed me to be more open to the unpredicted forms of collaboration that emerged through the creative process. I took risks and experimented in this creative process because I was doing research: somehow rooting my artistic work in performance studies and in academic fields beyond performance enabled me to, as it were, ‘let go’ of any fixed ideas about my practice and the type and style of work that I make. The research context also demanded me to critically reflect on my practice, which was not about evaluating the success of my work or attempting to prove its worth (as artists often must do to gain arts funding), rather it was about reflecting on the practice and what new ideas and knowledge emerged from the doing of that practice, with the understanding that this process of reflecting is different to the practice itself. The research context pushed me to respect performance practice as a form of doing and making knowledge in itself. So, performance practice can be understood as itself a theorising and thinking activity, producing ‘knowledge or philosophy in action’ (Barrett 2007: 1). This makes me think about the different forms of creative research and how that research can be variously disseminated.
LB: I often produce performance analyses of other performance makers’ works. I’ve written critically about my own experiments and also write creatively about and for performance. The artworks that are made are always through a process of research and all my work is driven by a question I am attempting to respond to. I’d mainly define myself as a performance-researcher as the things I make are a product of the research process rather than starting with the intention of making an artwork. It is always coming from a place of enquiry and this manifests itself through creative and academic writing, collaborations and interdisciplinary research.
SH: The muddiness between art and academia is part of it. I define myself as an artist, and sometimes as a researcher or artist-researcher. I make my own work and the publications I have are all critical reflections on that work, where my practice leads the explorations and points to the theory I need to engage with. The relationship between artistic practice and research is often a productively unclear one: they are distinct yet entangled. I go back and forth between them, where the research and artistic practice can feel like two pathways that, at moments, entangle with each other. The artistic practice is a motivation for the research, and the research inquiry is a motivation for doing, exploring and developing my practice in new directions. In this sense, the writing, reading and practice are all creative research methods.
LB: Even when I am writing critically about other works it still feels creative, what I am offering is my subjective reading of that work. That process is involves conceptualising what I am trying to draw attention to in the work or am choosing to frame; this feels like a creative practice despite being rooted in analysis and theory. Sometimes it is harder to critically reflect on works I’ve been involved in and at times it requires other methods. For example, my work on performance and journeys with David Overend (2010-present) has involved embodied experiments, interdisciplinary explorations, autoethnography and different modes of communicating this in our writing. Similarly, in my work Tide Times (2018) created collaboratively with sound designer Tim Cooper, we began with a shared experience of visiting a tidal island which then allowed us to develop our collaborative and creative process and then to find a way of writing about this.
SH: It is complicated to reflect on your own practice – it can be a limit as well as a potential. I find it useful because critical reflection is about moving beyond an evaluation of my own work: the reflection brings me to new insights about the practice that the practice alone cannot do. For example, the process of writing critical reflections on my recent solo performance – Pain and I – brought me to the idea of my pain and I as a partnership, and this idea then fed into the next stage of creative development of the performance. So critically writing about my own work can take that artistic work in new directions. Often, I am not sure where an idea for developing the performance material has come from – the practice, the critical reflective writing on that practice, or somewhere between.
LB: There have been times I have felt quite doubtful about writing about other people’s work. I remember performance academic Dee Heddon (who was both Sarah and I’s PhD supervisor) describing this as being like a parasite, like you are leeching off someone else’s practice and that idea stuck with me. I’d like to think of it as a more reciprocal thing; when I am writing about other people’s practice, I want their art to reach other audiences. Artists are very generous with their time in supporting research and I am keen to be able to give something back. I’ve felt under-confident about that over the years, who am I to reflect on that? What gives me the right? But I hope that it will add something to the conversation about the artist’s work or the theoretical frame I am working with. In my more recent practice research, when I have been undertaking it myself, it has challenged me to have more embodied experiences of research – to be reflecting, critiquing and writing from within. With my mobilities work with David I would have been happy to read lots of books about journeys and performance but that project required us to reimagine our journeys through what ended up being physical acts of – not endurance – but certainly exertion. I definitely found out something different from that embodied process of doing.
SH: When someone writes about your work, that person brings their own experiences to the work, which provides something new and hopefully useful for the artist. When others have written critically about my artistic work, it has allowed me to see my practice slightly differently and has provided insights into my performance work that I would not otherwise have had.
LB: That can potentially be reductive, that the work gets lessened to the elements which are analyzed when it could be one part of a very complex and nuanced work.
SH: That reductivity can be the same when I write about my own work: writing about my performance research can sometimes close the practice down. I have to name the key findings when I write about my work, but there are so many different findings from the practice that I could have reflected on. Also, when I devise performance I do not know what elements from the creative practices will form key parts of my research dissemination. With Pain and I, the creative process has involved autoethnographic writing on my experiences of chronic pain, where some of that writing has become creative texts in the actual performance as well as texts within article submissions that critically reflect on the work. So these autoethnographic writings have had different roles, which I did not know when I wrote them – at the time of writing them, they were simply part of my creative process. In performance research, I do not know what I will use for what, which means that everything I do in a creative process is available as possible modes of disseminating the knowledge from the research process.
LB: The material that you have produced in the creative process can become material in the performance or in the critical work. In terms of praxis, the same texts can be disseminated in multiple ways through different modes. For my work exploring the sea in performance I engaged with multiple practices with various outputs, including writing performance text for a collaboration with a choreographer, writing daily haikus, devising a new sound/text piece with a sound designer, and working with my local community on the West Coast of Scotland to create a short film and audio piece about their experiences of living by the sea. Many of these became ways of disseminating the work as well as being part of the work itself.
SH: That creative text is contextualised differently depending on whether it is in the live performance or an academic article.
LB: And it can also become part of your teaching. The cycle continues!
What can performance do?
LB: I strongly believe that an artist who also has the skills to think critically and deeply about their practice and is able to situate their work within the wider theoretical context of ideas, can make a difference. Asking questions about where we are politically, socially and ecologically through performance practice can be useful, but the pandemic also made us reflect on what performance spaces themselves can offer (Bissell and Weir, 2021). Moments of community, empathy, intimacy and conversation are all important in terms of the palimpsest of crises we face.
SH: I have often thought of performance research as a case of creating performance in order to research performance, but what does that live enactment of performance offer beyond performance studies? What is it to witness something or be witnessed doing something in terms of wider research knowledge? My own journey has been one of realising that performance offers a lot to other disciplines: when writing about ecology during my PhD, I would often forget about human relations when reading about ecological philosophy and theory, however, doing intergenerational performance practice as part of that research meant that I could not ignore the intra-human relations within ecology. This became a key contribution to the posthumanist theory and new materialist philosophy that I was engaging with, since those perspectives often forget about human relations in their focus on the nonhuman. So, it was because I was doing performance practice that I was able to make a contribution of new knowledge within and beyond the performance field.
LB: Performance can draw particular attention to the live moment, a sense of awareness, a heightened noticing. Performance strategies can help people see/arrive/attend to the live moment, what Fischer-Lichte describes as that which is “not fixed or transferable but ephemeral and transient” (2008: 33), and this can have the potential to be transformative.
SH: Yes, in my experience of interdisciplinary research contexts, performance practices can offer skills in allowing ourselves to experience the live moment: performance practice can teach us about different ways of paying attention to our own embodied experience. Perhaps this is the main offer creative research makes to research beyond performance?
LB: As a hybrid and interdisciplinary form performance holds a multitude of possibilities and I love that about it. The field of research is similar in that it can also hold lots of different methods, concepts and ways of working. Teaching is also such a creative practice in terms of how you find ways to speak to different people, how to communicate and connect with artists and find ways of supporting their artistic enquiries. Considering the diverse ways that creative research can be disseminated, teaching and communicating about performance research necessitates different kinds of pedagogical methods that embody the principles of practice-led research. Perhaps this could be the focus of our next creative conversation?
This conversation has made me think of:
How I approach collaboration
How conversation is a strategy for un-fixing my ideas of what creative research looks like
How talking about the work is a significant part of the work
How talking about the work lets me value it anew
How writing about the work is a significant part of the work
How writing about the work brings out different insights than (only) talking about it
How creative relationships develop over time and in different ways (Sarah and I have taught together, been on creative retreats with each other, have facilitated together and written together)
How the threads of our research continue and so the research never really ends
How conversation can be creative and playful
How conversation allows us to play with our understandings of creative research
How conversations are beginnings
How asking ‘how’ we do research opens our expectations of what research can be
Creative Beginnings: Invitation for Creative Conversations
We wish to offer our initial questions that inspired this creative conversation as an invitation for you – artists, researchers, artist-researchers, academics, others – to have your own conversations about creative research.
Define “creative research” in relation to your practice. What does research mean to you? How did you reach this point in your practice/research?
What relationship does your creative research have to your teaching practice (as well as your artistic practice)?
What about the term “research creation” in relation to Practice as Research (PaR)? What are the outputs you most make (writing/artworks/collaborations/other)?
Why PaR? What can performance research offer? What might be unique/particular to performance research (ideas of embodiment, thinking through doing).
How is PaR knowledge variously disseminated? What does this diversity of dissemination enable? What are its limits?
What can performance offer other fields/disciplines beyond the field of performance? (Practice as Research – using performance to research performance and to research beyond performance).
Barrett, Estelle. 2007. ‘Introduction.’ In Practice as Research, Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry, edited by Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt, 1-13. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bissell, Laura and David Overend. 2021. Making Routes: Journeys in Performance 2010-2020, Axminster: Triarchy.
Bissell, Laura and Lucy Weir (eds). 2021. Performance in a Pandemic. London: Routledge.
Bissell, Laura and Sarah Hopfinger, 2022. ‘Performance research and pedagogy: inviting in the unknown.’ Media Practice and Education. 23:1.
Fischer-Lichte, Erika. 2008. The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics Translated by Saskya Iris Jain. Oxon: Routledge.
Kershaw, Baz. 2009. ‘Practice-as-Research: An Introduction.’ In Practice-as-Research in performance and screen, edited by Baz Kershaw, Simon Jones, Angela Piccini and Ludivine Allegue Fuschini, 1-16. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Nelson, Robin. 2013. ‘Robin Nelson on Practice as Research.’ In Practice as Research in the Arts, Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances, edited by Robin Nelson, 1-114. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Riley, Shannon Rose and Lynette Hunter eds. 2009. Mapping Landscapes for Performance as Research: Scholarly Acts and Creative Cartographies. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Laura Bissell and Sarah Hopfinger are researchers at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. They have both taught on the Contemporary Performance Practice (CPP) BA (Hons) programme at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) and work in the Research, Knowledge Exchange department. Laura and Sarah had a creative conversation about how they view their practice as creative research from the perspective of their own experiences as artists, researchers and teachers.