Theoretical analyses are also lived realities

(Rogoff 2005, 132)

No artistic endeavour is developed without cultural conversation, or dissent or affiliations

(Govan, Nicholson, and Normington 2007, 14)

What is theory?

Theory is a model of thought put forward by an individual or a group.
Theory offers a system of ideas.
Theory is often presented as an argument.
Theory often has the express intention of interpreting a given thing or area, an object, or a subject.
Theory can propose the principles on which the practice of any activity is based.
Theory can be an idea that explains.
Theory can be used to account for a situation or justify a course of action.

You may begin your doctoral study wondering, ‘What’s the point of theory? Why do I need to read and write about what other people think?’. You may also question what theory ‘does’, during that period of initial frustration, doubting why you need it at all. Partly, this is often bound up with the perceived/received differences that persist between the practice of the artist and the academic, despite these having been debunked. Irit Rogoff encapsulates the obsolescence of this belief, reiterating how theoretical engagement is always already a lived reality when we situate ourselves within productive cultural activity:

The old boundaries between making and theorising, between historicising and displaying, criticising and affirming have long been eroded. Artistic practice is being acknowledged as the production of knowledge and theoretical and curatorial endeavours have taken on a far more experimental and inventive dimension, both existing in the realm of potentiality and possibility rather than that of exclusively material production…Instead of criticism being an act of judgement addressed to a clear-cut object of criticism, we now recognise not just our own imbrication in the object or the cultural moment, but also the performative nature of any action or stance we might be taking in relation to it. Now we think of all these practices as linked in a complex process of knowledge production instead of the earlier separation into creativity and criticism, production and application. If one shares this set of perspectives, then one cannot ask the question, ‘what is an artist?’ without asking the question, ‘what is a theorist?’ (Rogoff 2008, 97–98).

Theory, then, is always in a symbiotic relationship with practice and there are various ways in which one can inform and modulate the other. Given this, there is a constant and creative conversation between art and philosophy that is fundamental to practice as research for the doctoral student. The continuum of doing, thinking, interpreting, discussing, and writing are all bound up within the same process of articulating your research. As Peggy Phelan observes:

Creating performances and writing about those performances require acts of critical and creative imagination; both contend with the imperatives carried by ‘the act’ (Phelan 1998, 7).

In most activities related to arts practice and creative engagement, there lie levels of in-built critique of the relational activities of making, sharing, experiencing, and interpreting that automatically involve some level of theorising. It certainly requires an awareness that the processes and works in question do not exist in a vacuum but are part of a wider context. Theorising certainly already exists in all or any of the background research and informal critique that you have always done when creating work. By acknowledging this in a self-reflexive manner, it will foreground the fact that philosophy resides, always already, in your art-making and, in turn, that art-making and art-appreciating is always already-always a philosophical pursuit. Susan Kozel describes the feeling of negotiating the relationship between theory and practice and further elucidates how scholarly practice is itself a creative practice – how the meeting point between the two opens up a productive and rewarding space:

At first glance practice seems so heavy, and the theories so ephemeral yet in reality, ideas are felt, touched and lived, and breathed; practice is ephemeral, changeable, invisible, and disappearing. Writing and thinking are practices, just as moving and making are highly conceptually driven. By diluting the strong duality, changing the terms of the debate, and making them fluid, it is possible to escape old value judgments and to appreciate the terrain that opens (Kozel 2011, 206).

Similarly, Barbara Bolt highlights the sophisticated knowledge that evolves from this interwoven approach: ‘the double articulation between theory and practice whereby theory emerges from reflexive practice at the same time that practice is informed by theory’ which is a ‘very specific type of knowing, a knowing that arises from handling materials in practice’ (Bolt 2006). Such theorising underscores the dexterity required for practice-as/led/based-research in ‘the magic of handling’ theory as both conceptual influence and a fundamental material of the practice. It is an engagement with the ‘tools and technologies’ of practice that prevent a drift into abstraction and provide a rigorous testing of knowledge (Bolt 2006).

While practice as research is not generally based in propositional knowledge or abstract argumentation – drawing instead upon practitioner knowledge – it allows for a drawing out of conceptual knowledge, retaining the centrality of the creative processes that produce and embed sensual knowledges whilst usefully collating and questioning pre-existing theoretical discourses. In this way, the practitioner-researcher grows to understand and articulate how the act and activity of embodying the research through practical application allows for an inhabiting and a felt groundedness of the theories, whether related to technical methods or artistic philosophy or both. To embody theory in this manner, to think through it by working through it helps to makes sense of the situatedness of knowledge.

So then… what is the point of theory? What does theory do?

With all of this in mind, it’s still useful to think through some responses to the questions posed above and to alight on possible options which will serve your research.

Theory can inspire and it can influence. It helps shape your questions, themes, and forms.

Theory muses. It contemplates the whys, the ifs, the hows, the wheres and whens, the ‘reallys?’, and the why nots? It can help you remain curious and open to the unknowns – the why sos?, what ifs?, and how abouts? It imagines possible futures while making sense of multifarious pasts. In the act of engaging with this, you enter the possibility of predicting possible outcomes, in light of the chosen ways of perceiving, interpreting, being, doing.

Theory solves the conundrums. It can provide solutions to problems encountered. It proffers answers that help to articulate the unknowns.

Theory elucidates. It sheds light on what you’ve been thinking and doing. It can, therefore, be reiterated by you as you elaborate on or emphasise your own propositions and findings; ‘This, yes, this. This is what I think. This is what I have done. This is what it shows’. In this way, theory helps explain what you do. The practice you do.

Theory questions. It helps question the creative choices you’ve made, whether premeditated or improvised. The value of engaging with theory is that it always provides options for ways of thinking, ways of seeing and ways of doing. Engaging in this dialogue – with alternative perspectives that meet or diverge from your own – is an (interactive) act of reflexivity.

Theory vexes, sharpens, hones. It can provide an alternative perspective, a resistant perspective that causes you to rethink, to shift, to interrogate deeper and find substantial evidence that supports and proves your enquiry.

Theory guides. Theory helps us come to an understanding of areas that perplex us, areas which we are unsure of, things that we don’t yet know. It helps make sense of techniques, concepts, themes, perspectives. It helps make sense of the wider contexts in which we practise. In so doing, it helps solve the knotty problems that we come up against. At the very least, it helps us to deliberate these and realise there are no (easy) solutions.

Theory interacts. It interacts with its contexts and helps you, in turn, interact with and articulate your contexts of practice: these being immediate and personal, social, cultural, historical, and political. Theory cannot exist in a vacuum – it emerges, lives, and evolves according to the circumstances of its progenesis.

Theory informs. It informs attitude, broadens it, deepens it, strengthens it. It enables you to speak from a more informed place. In so doing, it locates a stance or ideology with which to address themes and issues at the heart of your work.

Theory pluralises. You can draw from multiple perspectives and combine them in new and original ways within your own research. In this way it is, and can be encouraged to be, entirely interdisciplinary in conceptual approach and technical application.

Theory politicises. To think critically is a political act. To place one’s thought against, alongside, in relation to embodied, social, cultural, historical perspectives and experience is to find yourself within a social and a political turn.

Theory energises. It can bring new vigour to your thinking in/and/through practice. It acts as a springboard, to catapult your work, your thinking in/and/through practice, to the next level.

Theory underpins. It provides a foundation: a starting point from which you begin, you explore, you tease and test, and to which you return to question and converse – a to and fro of, ‘Is it this? Yes this is it’.

Theory corroborates. It can be employed and applied – in practice in the studio and in verbal or written critical reasoning – to justify your intentions, your methods, and your outcomes. In this respect, it can intervene and prevent personal opinion from being expressed as solely that without supporting arguments or evidence.

Theory delimits. Theorising sets the parameters of your practice, fine-tunes the findings. It offers up a language with which we can talk and write about that practice subsequent to the act of being within it, and subsequent to the act of presenting it to an audience in various modes.

Theory emerges. It emerges from the process, the practice. From the new words and phrases that you coin to explain and define what you’re doing. This is the point at which you realise that this is original to you, or newly expressed by you, following in the path of those who went before with whom your thesis is now in dialogue. As it emerges from you, this is the point when you can feel confident that you’re contributing new knowledge to your field.

A theory is a thesis. Theory – whether it’s that which is selected from wider sources and is deployed through the work, or whether it emerges from and is iteratively and originally applied through your research – brings order, clarity, and control to the pleasurable messiness and unruly construction of performance practice. Testing theory through practice is the journey that you embark on. Asserting your own, original theory in and/or through practice is the destination that you reach. This final stage is your thesis, through which you assert: ‘This. This is it. This is what it is. This is what I think, feel. This is my practice’.

And how…?

You might…

Remember that, when you talk about your work with others or reflect on it in writing – about the ideas, experiences, and sources that have inspired it, the themes embedded within and emerging from it – you are already engaging in an act of theorising your practice.

From the start of your doctoral journey, embrace the pleasures of reading, hearing, absorbing, applying, and owning theory as part of your practice, not separate from it.

Allow theories to enter as a deepening of that everyday process of thinking about work – your own or others – widening the references that complement your own thinking.

Give time and space to extending and advancing your theoretical references. This will serve to elaborate your practice and help you to accumulate a wealth of critical approaches.

Imagine theoretical materials residing in you like an embodied archive to which you’re constantly in the process of adding new works: some that are constantly returned to, some that grow dusty on the shelf but remain relevant, some which you choose to remove entirely, so that new ones might take their place.

Engage in processes of iterating and reiterating, appropriating and repositioning, agreeing and disagreeing – offering alternative ways of applying theories that might take you, and your audience, somewhere entirely new.

Attend to processes of improvisation, conversation, and composition, becoming aware of how you are encountering, unpacking, selecting, and applying theory as you go.

Take pleasure in the theories themselves; the sensual concepts and methodologies of artistic practice are often already embodied, expressing the sensations of the thought, the felt, the sensed, the live(d). Enjoy how these theories themselves, in style and theme, shape-shift mimetically around the concepts and forms in order to translate their inherent ideas and processes to analysis.

And remain open to the fact that theorising practice is always a simultaneously creative and critical act.

So then…

The iterative and reiterative nature of the above statements illustrates the constant ebb and flow of conversation that will occur as you continue through your doctoral research. As John Freeman and his diverse case studies show (Freeman 2010), theory enables the researcher to ground and chronicle the heuristic processes of practice as research; it enables an articulation of the opinions, thoughts, and feelings of the practitioner, from within and without of the practice itself, in a manner that allows for increased self-knowledge and awareness alongside an ability to translate the tacit knowledge of practice to an explicit, ‘focal knowledge’ that contributes to thinking and form in the given field (Freeman 2010, 179–180). Furthermore, the wider theoretical underpinning on which we build (or, in physical terms, shoulders on which we balance) can help to support our work financially in that it provides a research frame and context that helps make sense of it to others who might make decisions about where funds are awarded. It highlights how it contributes to knowledge in the field when we offer up a provocation, a paper, a performance; helps us play the funding game when we’re applying for support; helps others to put our research within the field. Leslie Hill and Helen Paris of Curious, both of whom work across artistic and academic realms articulate this perfectly, beginning with Paris:

Prior to being involved in any academic institution, that idea of what those questions, or theories or philosophies are, just approaching them as questions, has always been really significant in the whole body of our work…One of the things that got me into writing about my own practice was that feeling of the artist as struck dumb; they make the work but it’s up to someone else to interpret it. And it is, it’s the audience’s responsibility as much as any formal analysis. However, I’m really interested in how the artist describes their own questions, theories, philosophy. They are a really true and organic part of the process for any work that I make, notwithstanding me being involved in teaching in academia (Machon 2011, 195).

Leslie Hill continues,

Sometimes I feel quite evangelistic about wanting artists to be more self-actualised because we work with a lot of emerging artists who can be very down on theory, or see it as something irrelevant to them and also down on doing funding applications which is another area where you have to articulate how you define and where you place your work. We really encourage those artists to take it on and own it as another facet to what they’re doing. It’s important to get in there and grapple with it and represent yourself and be clear. It’s demanding, it’s not easy to be a good theorist, or to articulate your work; it’s no easier to do any of that than it is to make a good piece of work. They’re all complicated and complex exercises (Machon 2011, 195–196).

Paris posits, in regard to placing one’s work in an academic context, ‘I wouldn’t pressure any artist to feel that they had to explain or justify their work but I wouldn’t want an artist to not think that they are creating or working in contemporary theory and practice. They’re part of that’ (Machon 2011, 196). These mutually inclusive while different ways of being in and critically engaging with practice offer up a rounded, symbiotically nourishing way of expressing that practice, its levels and modes of enquiry, and its respective findings and outcomes. It is a confluence of perspectives, pulled together to assert an argument so that others might have access to it, might build on it.

In line with this, the opportunity to explore and employ multimodal forms in the ongoing collation of findings and in the ultimate presentation of your thesis is an important tangent and pleasurable outcome of practice as research. Finding the best form to express the argument, that meets the content and illustrates the modes of analysis encountered across the process, is a creative/critical engagement in and of itself. In regard to these modes, most artistic doctorates include a significant articulation of the thesis in written and verbal form. This is usually a formal requirement within the degree regulations, with a stipulated word count that sits alongside the less prescriptive requirements for the practice. A written component to the thesis often becomes an important way to provide context, map a history, and express ideas as a core part of the practice. The writing style that emerges often follows a more poetic, creative tone or interweaves differing registers that flow between the artistic and academic, intertwining the voices and arguments of supportive theorists. It invites a folding in of those wider theories to your own work (imagine the cook in the kitchen blending the ingredients, gently folding each into the bowl). The putting into words – verbal and written – of an experience can be a tussle but it results in a reward: the ability to simultaneously delimit and open up that experience in a manner that someone else can understand. It requires that that experience is translated into another form and transferred to another person, in order that the practice itself might be shared in multiple ways.

Where your own practice leads the research, it is useful to map your own performance trajectory, chart your history, to contextualise your work and the evolution of the research questions as part of your contextual introduction and in identifying how your theoretical framework has been constructed over time. Negotiating the relationships and identities you own in your research can be a necessary part of this mapping. This remains true if you position yourself as an audience member and interpreter of a field of practice, as opposed to a maker of work. In simple terms, it is useful to identify who/what is the subject and object of the practice as research and how this inflects the reflections and critical analysis of that practice. This will help you to identify how any wider theoretical engagement supports and critiques this. In fact, at the proposal stage – or certainly at the registration stage – it is vital to identify who you are and how you practise within the research:

  • as the artist in the practice
  • as artist-technician, testing technologies/mechanics as well as ideas
  • as practitioner with collaborators, human and otherwise
  • as audience-practitioner interpreting the practice

As part of this identification, you may find it useful to acknowledge the position that you might place yourself in in regard to theory; or within theory; the relationship you have with it. It may be one where the theorist becomes friend or foe, arbiter of your opinions, and judge of any conclusions drawn. It may be more spatial, processual, where the engagement with critical activity is, as Rogoff suggests, one of curation and unboundedness (Rogoff 2006). The relationship itself may well change and will certainly evolve along with your research. Remain open to this.

And so it begins…

A doctoral student once asked how to approach having a hunch about something but it still being out of reach. I remember this same feeling myself from my own doctoral research. My approach then, as it is now, is an interwoven activity of returning to my sources, whether that be philosophical texts, existing artistic works, or evolving creative forms (usually a combination of all three), with an attitude of re-familiarising myself with it, responding anew to it. This helps me locate what it is that I’m trying to say. Secondly, it’s really helpful to chat with people who are critically engaged in thinking about the world in general and also objective about your project; talking around an area with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances can often unlock something specific that you’re thinking, or can lead you to wider references that assist in this. There is also great value to be placed on paying attention to that which resides on the periphery of your thesis – listening to the radio or podcasts, reading novels, watching films, visiting exhibitions – which are seemingly unrelated (while broadly in keeping with ‘the arts’, ‘humanity’, and ‘thinking-about-the-world’ in theme and form), while all the while working through the knotty problems of your argument. In short, an openness to ways of thinking can (often unexpectedly) lead to an epiphany, make that hunch, that feeling, become a clearly expressed idea. When translating this to written form, automatic writing, stream-of-consciousness, can be useful for this. Subsequently, a more ‘toil’ approach is just to ‘keep writing it’; keep writing that specific page, paragraph, section, or chapter. Then go back to it the next day and refine, rewrite. This helps you get to the core of what you actually want to say. Returning to the beginning, those key sources, illustrations and quotations, can help find a way through in that respect.

Any doctoral researcher’s journey begins from a hunch, an inchoate idea, which evolves through doctoral study to become a ‘final’ thesis. That said, an investigative thesis, by its very nature, is always evolving. The discipline of setting deadlines at every stage, including the submission of the thesis for examination – whether a practical element or the bound, written component of the thesis – are a way of setting the milestones of that journey. With each milestone, it is important to acknowledge that there is always a life beyond submission, which is an ongoing journey with the next milestone always ahead, on the horizon. Acknowledge that there is a satisfaction to be had in the meeting of the deadline itself – much like the resting on the milestone – a pleasure to be had in the acceptance that this is the final deadline for today, the final for now.

Theory exists on the page, on the screen, on the canvas, in the handling of instruments and materials, in artistic forms produced, and in performance. As artists and scholars of art, we become highly attuned to this fact. Engaging theories in diverse formats is a vital part of practice-as-research and a rewarding outcome of the final-for-now submission of your thesis. The more we expose ourselves to ideas in a range of forms and formats, the more confident and articulate we become about expressing how practice is always already a process of theorising and an interdisciplinary vehicle for research. So, enjoy the ride.

Reference List and Additional Resources

Bolt, Barbara. 2006. “Materializing pedagogies.” Working Papers in Art and Design 4. Accessed September 13, 2018. [Online]

Freeman, John. 2010. Blood, Sweat and Theory: Research Through Practice in Performance. Farringdon, Oxfordshire: Libri Publishing.

Govan, Emma, Helen Nicholson, and Katie Normington. 2007. Making a Performance – Devising Histories and Contemporary Practices. London & New York: Routledge.

Kozel, Susan. 2011. “The Virtual and the Physical: A Phenomenological Approach to Performance Research.” In The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts, edited by Michael Biggs and Henrik Karlsson, 204–222. London & New York: Routledge.

Machon, Josephine. 2011. (Syn)aesthetics: Redefining Visceral Performance. Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave.

Phelan, Peggy. 1998. “Introduction – The Ends of Performance.” In The Ends of Performance, edited by Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane, 1–19. New York & London: New York University Press.

Rogoff, Irit. 2005. “Looking Away – Participation in Visual Culture.” In After Criticism – New Responses to Art and Performance, edited by Gavin Butt, 117–134. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Rogoff, Irit. 2006. ‘Smuggling’ – An Embodied Criticality. [pdf] Vienna, Austria: European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies. Accessed September 19, 2018.

Rogoff, Irit. 2008. “What is a Theorist?.” In The State of Art Criticism, edited by James Elkins and Michael Newman, 97–109. London & New York: Routledge.


Josephine Machon

Josephine Machon is Associate Professor in Contemporary Performance at Middlesex University, London. She is the author of The Punchdrunk Encyclopaedia (Routledge 2018), Immersive Theatres: Intimacy and Immediacy in Contemporary Performance (Palgrave Macmillan 2013) and (Syn)aesthetics: Redefining Visceral Performance (Palgrave Macmillan 2009, 2011), and has published widely on immersive, interactive and experiential performance practices.