Research Outputs

Producing conceptually appropriate research outputs.

10min read

‘Output’ is a term most commonly used in computing – the transfer of information from internal storage to an external medium. Within the research community it is more often used to describe something that is published, like a book or research paper. However, the ‘young generation of creators’ (Holden, 2015) may think of it more as anything a practitioner produces for consumption by an audience. Grayson Perry may make a TV or radio programme, a book, a pot, an exhibition, a lecture, a film, a newspaper article or a social media post. We could consider all of them his outputs.

Audiences and participants, consciously or unconsciously, use outputs as a marker to judge quality, accessibility, relevance and credibility. There is a good chance that outputs may be the only thing audiences will come in to contact with and will determine if they buy-in to the ideas at large, want to be associated with them, or care about them at all. Those in the manufacturing economy understand this can be a massive block to engagement and sales, which is reflected in their large marketing budgets.

Research has the power to change the world and the attitudes of the people in it, but it must enter the public consciousness to do so. The ways we consume information and ‘things’ has changed dramatically in the past few decades, but the form research takes is only just starting to synchronise. The research community can learn a lot from the wider cultural landscape when it comes to the outputs it makes and the activities it engages in. Looking out at this landscape, the variety of outputs across sectors is there for us all to see.

We can think of an output as being made up of two things; information based on research, and the tool (or vehicle) that communicates it; INFO + TOOL = OUTPUT. It is therefore of paramount importance to select the right information and the right tool in order to end up with the right output. This equation could be considered a simplified version of the process of making artworks. What do I want to say? How should I say it? What does this mean further down the line? What systems will support these new outputs and how will we measure their success? 

This shifts thinking to reimagine, or consider more carefully, the form research can take after the book and journal, rather than putting all the eggs in one basket like the once great Kodak. This hypothesis is not anti-text, it’s pro variety. Variety is the spice of life. It’s all about acknowledging that texts are but one tool in the curatorial toolkit, one plant in the garden. Research per se, cannot go out of business like Kodak, but an inefficiency to communicate outside certain silos could be far more painful for humans, culture and society in the long term. Different avenues mean broader audiences. The world is littered with the skeletons of once innovative companies who failed to move with the times, this proves to some degree that adaptability and sustainability should trump medium.

In his TV series (The Artistic Garden, 2013), which is really a video essay and love letter to gardening, Monty Don alludes to an interplay between the outputs of Claude Monet (his garden at Giverny and the Water Lilies series of paintings), and suggests that as a body of work they are more than the sum of their parts.

The paintings increase our artistic appreciation of the garden, and visiting the garden enables us to appreciate and understand the paintings all the more

Monty Don

This indicates there is value to be added, not only by the variety of outputs, but in the relationship between them. This shows you can design and make outputs for specific audiences, but also acknowledge that they are organic in the sense that they will grow or die based on the way people perceive them. A successful output should make the viewer think there are more possibilities in the world than they did before they saw it.

Claude Monet at Giverny.
Monet in his garden at Giverny

Gardening as Method

A constant across cultures and belief systems throughout time is that humans (and maybe even other species) think of the Earth as a garden. Gardening could be described as hermaphroditic in that it is seen as both a practice and a methodology. Similarly, from afar it seems that great practitioners don’t separate their work and their life, not only are they the same thing, they live to work, not vice versa. If idiosyncrasies play a role in shaping their practices, then they too help shape the practices of their contemporaries. Gardening is shaping nature, art is representing nature, life is part of nature, and science looks to understand the laws of nature.

With no formal training in painting, or gardening for that matter, my behaviours in both arenas are the same. As something grows in the garden or takes shape on the canvas, a judgement call is made, if I like it, it stays, gets watered and moved to a more prominent position. If I don’t it gets removed and thrown in the compost, or painted over in whitewash. Miro (Taillandier and Lubart, 2017) too found his subjects in the creative process itself and spoke about his artistic practice in gardening metaphors. He saw the studio as somewhere between a laboratory and a kitchen garden, a place for the cross-fertilisation of ideas where he can prune works and watch them ripen.

Art can die; what matters is that it scatters seeds on the ground

Joan Miro

The curatorial concept for the nomadic biennial; Manifesta 12 (2018) in Palermo was based on the idea of a ‘planetary garden’, a phrase coined by botanist Gilles Clément who saw humans as its gardeners. Whilst this romantic metaphor may still resonate with us, today’s gardeners operate against the backdrop of “invisible informational networks, transnational private interests, algorithmic intelligence, environmental processes and ever-increasing inequalities” (Manifesta 12, 2018). The famous botanical garden (added to by all the civilisations to settle in Sicily), religious buildings, theatres and former palazzos became sites where artists responded to themes of climate, time, social factors, reliance on other species and the idea of shared responsibility. 

Describing itself as ‘a laboratory for the challenges of our time’ (Manifesta 12, 2018) the programme was designed to look for ways to be ‘radically local’ against the backdrop of globalisation. Organisers picked small, manageable projects, to be planted like seeds in public space. The race was to nurture (or care, cura) for them whilst the biennial was active so they might survive in the public consciousness when the events were over. This speaks to the aims and objectives of research communication. We cannot control the ecosystem at large, but we can pick, design, place and care for the seeds. We cannot promise that these projects will deliver ‘active citizens’, but we do know that “…you want to be what you see.” (Quincy, 2018)

Conceptual Appropriateness

Herein lies the issue of what one could call ‘conceptual appropriateness’. A personal judgement that takes a leaf out of the book of conceptual art. The conceptual artist seeks the best vehicle for the idea or concept at hand. Likewise, the curator of research seeks the best vehicle for the research at hand based on its aims and objectives. On both counts there is a clear refusal to default to traditional methods of production, a desire to find a shoe that fits.

Living Legacies (2013) involved an initial consultation with the subjects and participants of the project, organised by the commissioning charity LinkAge. This unearthed personal and collective concerns surrounding a lack of legacy for groups of elders they support. Settling in the UK, against the backdrop of old age, caused them to feel like they’d inadvertently opted out of having a legacy, and into a sort of cultural isolation. Living Legacies therefore became a touring exhibition of large format portraits. For Black History Month they replaced the gilded oil paintings between the councillor’s chambers and meeting rooms in Bristol City Hall. So in moving between rooms, in making decisions about the city, the councillors would see the faces of those who would be directly affected, not an 18th century politician. 

Traditional representation of legacy in European art leads us down the road of grand portrait paintings and statues in public places, victories, remembrance, stature and even perhaps decadence. Predominantly modelling the portraits on Sir Thomas Lawrence paintings was a poignant juxtaposition in a few ways; He was born in Bristol at a time when the social landscape was very different, painting people who were in some sense ‘legacy hunters’ in exchange for money. So these new portraits were gifts of a legacy earned by people who have settled in Bristol. Further shows were hung at M Shed Museum and the Malcolm X Centre and a small image given to all subjects, who at each opening would organise singing flash-mobs, thus contributing to the charity’s work on alleviating the social isolation old age can bring.

Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection by Krzysztof Wodiczko (2012) dealt in the legacies of an unheard group of people by delving into the consequences of war by interviewing veterans regarding their personal experiences. The interviews were made into a projection which appeared to animate the Abraham Lincoln statue in Union Square Park in New York (a site well-known for protests in support of social justice). The participants appeared to speak through Lincoln, making their experiences known to those in the park. An educational programme was also developed for 7th and 8th grade students in Manhattan, which fed into existing modules covering American history. The National September 11 Memorial (Local Projects, 2014) navigated tragic events in the design process by making an algorithm that arranged the 3,000 names of those lost by ‘meaningful adjacency’. The relationships between people on the memorial dictated where they were placed, as opposed to something generic like alphabetical order.

The targeted intervention at the Miss Peru Beauty Pageant (Al Jazeera, 2017) is a good example of conceptual appropriateness playing out in a non-art, non-academic setting. The contestants subverted tradition by delivering statistics on violence against women at the moment they would normally announce their body measurements. What seemed like a simple modification of proceedings targeted a very specific audience (the watchers of beauty pageants) in a very direct way. In addition, the framing and documentation of events meant it was pre-packaged in a media friendly way and could be seen and shared far and wide with minimal effort. If we plot this against the potential viewership of an exhibition on the same topic inside an institution we start to see different curatorial questions unfold. What is to say the same curator could not be behind both the intervention and the exhibition? Would the news coverage become a video installation?

Everyone could (or should) have something to say about how much they consider something to be conceptually appropriate. Even two different curators could have wildly differing opinions. This is one reason why the selection of outputs is a collaboration, a conversation between experts in research and experts in communication.

Producing Outputs

Although attentions are particularly aimed at the art world, visual culture, manufacturing and knowledge economies, a tool can be anything and come from anywhere. The academic wing of my curatorial work looks to continually map and catalogue these tools (potential outputs), resulting in a current library of around 250. They were compiled through primary observations of the ‘wider cultural landscape’ in Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Canada and the UK. This repository need not just be a library of case studies, but also a list of potential partners, collaborators, clients and facilitators.

When producing an output, we think carefully about the aims and objectives of the research at hand and the conceptual appropriateness of the tool. As before; INFO + TOOL = OUTPUT.  Here is the place which we can break with tradition and experiment with all sorts of potentially valuable combinations. Numerous outputs can be selected and put into production on a case-by-case basis, each designed to reach and engage audiences, but relating back to each other in order to maintain a consistent identity. 

Naturally, further questions will be posed; How and where will the outputs appear? Can you make a combination or cross-pollination? Is there potential for an output to display data or even collect data? Who will produce them? Who is doing the selecting? How will you document your outputs and activities, or do they act as documentation in their own right?

The value of research and education has always been high, but with a rise in populism and a move towards a knowledge based economy (OECD, 1996) its credibility and accessibility have come into question. Report recommendations (DfEE, 1997 and Stern, 2016) look to draw on the tools and expertise of those in and around the cultural establishment to work as facilitators and collaborators in order for society to realise the wider impact of research. Hooper-Greenhill (1992) shows that social institutions serve many stakeholders and therefore must play many tunes. She suggests success in this arena could be defined by their ability to harmonise all these tunes and still make a sound worth listening to. The curator of research doesn’t just hope to make a sound worth listening to, but one which more people can hear, see, feel and communicate with. 

The observations and propositions through which I ponder the interplay between research communication, public engagement and the curatorial are intended to be freeing and motivational, creative and scientific – a tangent through which more practice-based research can take place. There is hope that by reframing perspectives and introducing new ways of making and seeing we can push beyond existing boundaries to create favourable conditions for the broad consumption of research in society, and for academic institutions to realise the strategic goals they are set, and which they set themselves.

Research outputs are produced on a consultancy basis in collaboration with researchers and academics. Contact Luke to start a conversation.