Monday, 18 March 2013

To PhD or not to PhD? Interview with Mike Chavez-Dawson

I am currently writing an article for Axis questioning the benefit for an an artist to study towards a practice-based PhD.  I have been meeting with a few artists who have completed, or are currently working towards a practice-based doctorate to get their point of view.

Mike Chavez Dawson is currently a PhD Research Fellow at MIRIAD, and has given me his response to my questions below:

Q: Do you think an artist needs a PhD to be successful in their career?

MCD: For me, any academic course is a form of discipline akin to a mental and creative assault course. There are a multitude of rules, bureaucracy and etiquette to navigate, yet as artists we can transform this compromise into a 'medium'-or better still, a 'method'. Of course, this ultimately depends on what is perceived as the 'practice'.

Also, it should go without saying that no one should undertake a course for the sake of gaining the qualification, which should be viewed as a by-product of the process. One should wholeheartedly extract whatever knowledge, understanding and skill the given parameters, time and facilities provide. Of course, as artists we should endeavour to push, question and even rebel when and where possible, although for this to be effective one requires patient intelligence and critical astuteness.

Therefore the focus and openness, and the critical and creative flexibility that a PhD course demands should allow artists to succeed in their endeavours with more finesse and dexterity.

Q: What were the benefits of the PhD (for example, in funds, time, and facilities)?

MCD: As I implied, one benefit is the intensity provided by the academic discipline. Another is to view the PhD as a 'residency' of sorts, one that provides space, time and some reasonable economic recompense (if you're lucky enough to receive a bursary, freeing you from applying for many projects and so forth).

This is especially helpful if there's a key part of your practice you really want to resolve and frame within an ongoing discourse (or 'field' in which you find yourself), although more importantly it's about refining and furthering that area. I should say that as an artist you should arrive at a new perspective that becomes the next level of engagement for your practice.

Q: What attracted you to study towards a PhD initially?

MCD: It was having a particular framework and period of time to make a more in-depth examination of a key area, one that kept coming up in my practice (the borders between documentation and performance from a contemporary visual art perspective).

Also, I felt that this would contribute to the field of inquiry, and the only context that could facilitate this was the PhD.

Q: In retrospect, how do you think the doctorate has enhanced (or not enhanced) your practice/career?

MCD: I'm nearing the end, and personally I don't think I'd be making the work that I'm doing now if it wasn't for the PhD. I feel a deeper confidence and clarity in my methods. I have a refined nimbleness to my practice. It's certainly a personal shift, especially as I'm not drawn to pursuing an academic profession yet, and want to engage with a wider demographic beyond the institute.

In addition, one of the best things for me was being able to justify reading extensively in the area of my inquiry and practice. This was a luxury and a discipline that was hard to maintain as a freelance professional artist and curator.

It has certainly enhanced my career thus far.

Q: Do you see differences in ideas, content and form between the practice of those artists engaged in academic research (such as a PhD) and those who work outside the academic environment after a BA or MA education?

MCD: Again, it comes down to how you engage with the parameters, and the things that allow you to focus in a particular way. There's certainly a gear-shift in terms of intensity and clarification of your practice with an academic pursuit; the knack is to apply a flexible 'transposability' to the field or area in which you practise.

Q: Would you ever consider that studying towards a PhD is a sign that you are struggling as an artist outside of education?

MCD: I think artists just struggle whether they are outside academia or inside. It's their motivation and the extraction of possibilities that are important, and the struggle is just part of the course.

I feel it's best to view a PhD as a long residency where you're focusing intensely and rigorously on a key area of interest, one that you're happy to be grilled about by other knowledgeable folk.

So, from my perspective this is subjective. Ask me tomorrow and I might give a different answer.


Mike Chavez-Dawson is an Interdisciplinary Artist Curator based at Rogue Artists Studios, Manchester, his work fluctuates between curation and performance.

He was the visual arts editor and FLUX SPACE curator for FLUX Magazine for over a decade.

He curated and instigated the critically acclaimed Unrealised Potential show for Cornerhouse and more recently the hugely successful David Shrigley solo show 'How Are You Feeling?'.

He's currently a PhD research fellow at MIRIAD, and has recently shown and performed at TATE Britain, Barbican, ICA, Cornerhouse, The Whitworth Art Gallery, British Art Show 7 at Nottingham Contemporary and The Whitstable Biennale. As well as numerous international shows and projects in Dresden, Seoul, Rome, New York, Sans Francisco, Lisbon and Helsinki.

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