Our Land? The State of the Union

After completing my MA in Photography I have been ponding the next development in my photographic practice, initially this was a project Latitude N52° - N53° discussed in a previous post [http://bendolman-photography-journal.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/latitude-n52-n53.html] but I have also been thinking about doing a part time PhD but perhaps not for the most obvious reasons.

I do not see undertaking a PhD as a means to improve or develop my photographic practice, this can in my view be best done by just taking photographs, looking at other photographers, exploring all the analogue and digital processes, observing and trying to understand the world around us through the view finder of a camera and trying to edit a collection of photographs that elicit some kind of visual delight and intelligence. Creating new visual narratives does not require a PhD, this requires an empathy with a subject is something that the experiences our lives teaches us not academia.

I do not see undertaking a PhD as means of developing my conceptual or historical understanding of photography as there are books, blogs, conferences, exhibitions and abstracts I can access anywhere freely, the knowledge of the discipline of photography seems free and open to all. I do not see undertaking a PhD as a means of developing my academic career as I see little in the way of serious research funding in the arts, life as an academic researcher in the humanities has few rewards and a lot of pain as one constantly tries to square the circle working in an indifferent and sometimes philistine funding culture that really only seeks to invest in STEM research and even this area is not truly fully funded. Given there is little funding for applied research and practice in the arts many academics turn to writing books and submitting papers for conferences but these new outlets have little impact or an audience outside academia, often at a given symposium the audience is only made up of speakers rendering any impact from the research outside a specialist circle null and self referential. To seek a wider audience and have an impact from your creative work the best means still is to exhibit it in the public sphere, submit it to open nation and international competitions and create art/photo books for sale to the general public.

I do not see undertaking a PhD as a means to develop my teaching as the research will be beyond the understanding or relevance of most of the undergraduate students I teach these days who seem to be more interested in their smart phones and social media than their studies which is a shame. Research led teaching could work if there was more applied research and practice in the arts but given the lack of funding for this activity the only research feeding into teaching tends to be of a conceptual, historical and critical nature and does not fully address the needs to teach unfocused students how to make things and physically solve problems and this can lead to a creative malaise and impasse in the student body.

I do not see undertaking a PhD as means of developing my academic qualifications, back in the 1990s and into the early 2000s a PhD in art and design was something special, not many people did them and it was something unique to put on your CV. Now there is a PhD production line in every art and design institution across the country, we are turning PhD students out by the bucket load, they are now too many over qualified PhD students and very few will find employment in academia and will have seek employment elsewhere and in art and design that is a hard thing to do. To get or to develop a job in academia and especially in the arts it is very difficult even after years of equal opportunity policies and a proclaimed belief in a meritocracy, to get an academic job it is still based on the usual suspects of knowing someone, your face fits, you are a friend of a friend and you will not rock the boat, you belong to the clique and this is on top of the sheer numbers of people who apply for each vacancy. To get around the internal politics in academia and to develop your career the best way is to bring in external funding, a big pot of money for a project and this does not require a PhD, Universities are businesses now whether we like it or not and money overcomes most obstacles.

So why on earth would I think of doing a part time PHD, a course of study that would take up all my spare time for the next 5 to 7 years to undertake a PhD would seem madness given that I would on the surface gain very little from it. The one thing that could redeem undertaking a PhD for me is there would be a defined time and purpose, time to develop my work within a given research question and its resulting course of studying. So why does Ben need to define things and to seek time, you have plenty of time when you leave work and you can create a project for yourself. Here comes the real reason why Ben is thinking of a PhD, he is weak willed, easily distracted and happy to be inconclusive in his visual experiments and photographic detours. If I did not have a full time job teaching I think I would find a proper structure in my personal creative practice but because it takes place after a full days work the mind is not as focussed as it could be, it is running half empty and concentration and discipline is hard to find in the mist of mindless and lazy distractions. One day set aside during the working week with the addition of the weekend whilst studying for a PhD would create enough time for a more focused activity in developing a new body work that will take the engagement with the practice beyond that of being a mere hobby, deadlines and peer review can be good sometimes.

There might be one other positive reason to undertake a PhD and that is to seek a relationship with a STEM subject and see if there are any possible cross interdisciplinary opportunities in applied research. This area of research would be centred around process and technology rather than practice and theory though there might be some overlaps when studying the science behind land use and change but most of the research would be social, economic, political, geographical and historical.

1. The Research Question

So here I am thinking about a PhD and I need to think what will be my research question for a practice based Phd, what will keep me interested and committed for the next 5-7 years. The working title I have come up with is OUR LAND? The State of the Union, yes big, bold and brassy I know but lets not be meek and go for it, no obscure arty bollocks here lets gasp the moment though I might fall on my arse before you can count to three.

Our Land? The State of the Union is a development of my MA project Between Spaces - Traces of England in that takes on a bigger subject, the United Kingdom and its current State of the Union, the seemly fractured union between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and our national and regional identities as seen through the landscape. The practice part of the PhD will be broken down into three sub-projects; Longitude, Latitude and the Atomic Sea.

Below are just some rough notes and keywords that will have to be shaped into a 2000 word PhD submission will be done over the Christmas period, things will need to be firmed up and defined and the hardest part will be to find something that will be bring new knowledge to this area of research.

Title > Our Land? The State of the Union [Whose Land]

Keywords > [private - public] [local - migrate] [nationalism - globalisation] [ancestor - alien] [industry - nature] [romanticism - enlightenment] [land use - reuse - abuse] [regionalism - centralism]

2. The History of Our Land [scape]

Before the Revolutions:
The Stone Age - the age of the hunter and fire
The Silver Age - the age of farming and architecture, the birth of civilisation
The Bronze Age - the age of tools and war
The Iron Age - the age of the rise and fall of empires
The Middle Ages - the age of the Church
The Renaissance - the age of the arts and rebirth

Agricultural Revolution: General enclosure act, crop rotation and the cast iron plough

Age of Enlightenment: Science, religion, political revolution

Industrial Revolution: The rise of modern urban cities and mass migration from the countryside to the new centres of industry
, the Highland clearances

20th Century: World Wars I & II and the Cold War, fall of Empire, mass migration, the social state, Democracy - National Socialism - Communism, capitalism and the free market, mass entertainment, out of town shopping and the atomic bomb
, chemical farming and genetic modification, intensive framing and the supermarket

Post Industrial Society: The digital age, disruptive technologies, climate change, terrorism, consumerism, urban sprawl and mega-cities, online shopping and social media, globalisation, free trade and offshoring, population growth and decline in natural resources.

3. Projects & Location

Longitude will be based along a vertical line starting in the north of England crossing the border into Scotland, the exact line of longitude is still to be determined, it maybe a journey along a chosen path or the study of two locations along a given line of longitude. This part of the project will look at national and regional identity and how this is shaped by or in the landscape.

Latitude N52° - N53° has been defined, the locations will be in the flatlands of the Fens and the mountains of north Wales. This part of the project will look at the topography of the landscape but also issues of migration and modern farming practice.

The Atomic Sea will be based along line from the western part of England across the Irish Sea and into Northern Ireland. This part of the project will look at the impact of industry on the landscape's ecology and climate change.

4. Process & Making

The process and technology behind making photographs be it analogue, alternative or digital is a rich seam of research, photography seems to be in a constant technical revolution subjected to a never ending disruptive technologies in how an image is captured, displayed and shared. The research could centre around different hybrid analogue and digital work flows from hacking or re-engineering sensor arrays to new print imaging technologies and web based tools sets, the list of possibilities is endless.

The central thing for me is the making, for me making is not just a process and a creative activity it is also a political act in the post industrial society I live in, a society that seeks its livelihood from the service sector, a sector that generates very little real wealth or worth. We now live in an age where most live on credit, wages stagnate, the few get richer the rest poorer, we have deskilled the workforce, the skill artisans and workers replaced by the warehouse stacker and the call centre operator. Well paid skilled work has been replaced by unskilled minimum waged work supported by tax credits, international corporations gear their profits to go overseas, we borrow to buy the latest shit we do not need, our governments borrow from the next generation before they are born to keep the whole pyramid system going. Social inequality has become a real issue, it can destabilise society and threaten social mobility and human progress. Social inequality leads to short term thinking, selfishness and segregation and this is often mirrored in the landscape.

It is an interesting time to look at the country I live in, its landscape and the union of countries that make the nation.