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Search vs. research

Here are some helpful definitions:

To search

To search is to try to find something by looking.

To research

To research is the systematic investigation into and the study of materials and sources to establish facts and reach new conclusions.

Josef Albers – a passion to open eyes

I was able to read ‘Search verses Re-search’ by Josef Albers (1969) whilst on the Albers Residency in 2022. This publication is based on three lectures he gave in 1965, after he had retired. Here, he reflects upon art education.

Albers is asking the educator and artist some important questions:

What is the difference between searching and researching? Learning how to look is at the heart of Albers’ teaching philosophy. As artists, let’s ask ourselves ‘how do we look?’. How can we make sure that we see the world afresh each day? In Samuel Beckett’s words, how can you avoid habit so that you can remain curious and live in ‘the suffering of being’?

To search is more important than to research

As a ‘lecturer’ in a university, I am an academic, and yet, I am primarily a practising artist and educator. I love reading, learning, talking, and teaching about art. Like Albers, I have a passion to open eyes.

I have organised symposiums, given papers and conferences, done online talks, published essays, and recently co-written a chapter on my work about Milton for a book to be published by Oxford University Press. I do all this because I enjoy sharing knowledge. This is why I write* this blog.

However, my main form of communication is the visual languages – painting, drawing and printmaking. These outcomes will become my research, in solo and joint exhibitions, nationally and internationally.

Research Excellence Framework (REF)

Universities need research. They get funding and status from it. It should be the beating heart of their unique offer and intellectual life.

We need transparency and understanding about what we mean by ‘research’. As part of the university system, I’m expected to ‘research’, to have outcomes which are then used by my employer for the Government REF. Here is my research bank for the 2021 REF here in the UK. At The University of the West of England, this earned me an extra 30 days on top of my annual 30 days. Books, journal articles, physical artefacts (like paintings), presentations, conferences, talks, a chapter in a book, or exhibitions all qualify for the REF. Any of the these with an international slant and accompanying publications and reviews gain the most points which equate to money for that university. I am reliably informed that all the outputs you see here were put through as four star for the REF 2021, although we will never know as apparently, the awards are given and then destroyed.

Things have not always been this way. Acceptance of purely visual work as research is new in the UK. When I started as an academic in 2005 only written outcomes were acceptable. Everything had to be squeezed back into words. That felt very unnatural for me as a painter. This all changed about six years ago when our visual outcomes were accepted as currency for REF.

I search naturally. I’m happy for this to be called research, but I just get on with it. I don’t invent projects to look good, to get time to do what I want, or to orchestrate points for the REF. I just do what I love – it’s a way of life. Unfortunately, this places me in a position where I could feel used and vulnerable.

My focus for 25 years:

If colour is a language, then how can you become literate and therefore teach it?

This search has taken me to some odd places and I’m now exploring green. By pondering Paradise Lost, the greatest light / dark contrast of the English language, I followed a new path. As a result, I have met some extraordinary academics. I first met Milton scholars at a British Milton Seminar at the University of Birmingham. I felt at home because these people had a real passion for their subject and a desire to share their knowledge. It was an electric experience.

My path has felt quite lonely, but I will continue to reach out, navigate this word-based education system as best I can, as an outsider where visual poets are seldom understood.

I’ll share more thoughts about teaching and research, based on Emmanuel Levinas’ philosophy of kindness in Part II at a later date.

*I write this blog with the help of my wife, Tessa, a communications specialist. As a dyslexic, I count myself extremely blessed to get this support.