Monday, 31 July 2017

Life Update

It’s been quite a while since I last posted an update on what I’m doing professionally – not really since my post on Blast Theory back in December, where I volunteered after finishing my Masters degree.
Since December, I’ve been in the process of applying to do a PhD at Royal Holloway University in London. Full-time PhDs are typically three years long, and require you to carry out a full-length research project followed by a written thesis. It’s a big commitment in terms of time, effort, and money, so I needed to have a clear idea and plan of what I wanted to research, and how I was going to go about it.   
During my Masters degree I’d heard about practice-based PhDs, which means that the project is based on producing a practical work of some sort (e.g. an artwork, event, performance, etc.), and then writing a discussion of that work – shorter than the usual length of PhD theses – in relation to other academic and practical developments in the field. As it has long been an aim of mine to enter the art world through academia, connecting the two together, the practice-based approach appealed to me as a way of getting experience in undertaking an art project from start to finish, while also continuing to nurture my academic interests and knowledge within cultural geography.      
My project idea centres on making a mixed-reality game that uses environmental storytelling – the telling of stories through, and in relation to, your surroundings – to investigate the ways in which places become meaningful to people. The design of the game would invoke a kind of treasure hunt format using geolocation. People would have to find certain locations that, when reached, would trigger media (e.g. text, audio, images) to be communicated by a device to tell stories about the places you’re exploring. By walking their own paths between the locations, and potentially contributing their own stories, players would be able to perform into being their own relationships with the places they journey though. To keep it within a manageable scale, I anticipated that the game would be set in one parish within the Canterbury district, or potentially throughout the whole district, depending on what form the game ends up taking. This setting also draws on the theme of pilgrimage – as a way of using walking to emotionally connect with places – and the history/mythology of storytelling from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.        
To complete a PhD, you need funding to cover not only three years of tuition fees, but three years of maintenance to cover living costs, and sometimes costs involved in doing the research itself. Most students apply to funding bodies to get this, such as research councils or doctoral training partnerships/centres. Originally, I intended to apply for funding from the TECHNE Doctoral Training Partnership, which is funded by the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council), whose deadline was at the end of January. This funding was particularly well-suited to my project, as it is intended for experimental, interdisciplinary research projects that will ensure the significance of arts and humanities research in the future.
However, after making initial contact with my prospective supervisor, it became clear that it would be impossible to complete everything that was required for the TECHNE funding by the deadline, especially as he thought that the project would require a supervisor from the university’s Media Arts department, as well as Geography. Fortunately, my supervisor pointed me towards a different funding source with a much more achievable deadline in April. This was the Leverhulme Trust’s Magna Carta Doctoral Centre, which funds projects related to ‘freedom and the rights of the individual in the digital age’.
From February onwards, my supervisor began talking to the Media Arts department to see if anyone there would be interested in co-supervising my project. Happily, my project generated a lot of interest in the department, and by mid-April both my Geography and Media Arts supervisors were on board and ready to complete the Leverhulme application. This consisted of writing two sides of A4 outlining the project, supervisory team, relation of the project to the theme of the Magna Carta centre, and the impact the research would have. Yet unlike the TECHNE funding, the application had to come from the supervisors, not the student. As I had devised the project, I was still able to give lots of input on the details of what I’d be doing, and ideas of how we could relate it to the theme of ‘freedom’.
How else did I occupy myself during this time? Well, for starters I worked on the university PhD application, which is separate from funding applications, and needs to be completed to ensure that you can get a place to study at the institution. Once supervisors have agreed to supervise your project, this is more or less a formality to ensure you have the required grades/experience and so on, and to gather all your details into one place. It still required a fair amount of work, though, including a 2,000-word research proposal and supporting statement, as well as numerous form-filling exercises.
Alongside this, I’ve been building on the skills I’ll need for the PhD project. Firstly, I’ve been learning to code using Harvard’s free ‘Introduction to Computer Science’ course called CS50, as well as other resources. Depending on what form the game ends up taking, the project could involve making my own app, or working with an app developer, so some programming knowledge would be essential. I’ve also been practicing and improving my creative writing, a skill I’ll need to make the stories I tell through the game engaging. As well as writing pieces for this blog, I’ve been reading an excellent book called The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to develop their creative writing skills. It’s a hefty tome but is remarkably digestible, which often isn’t the case with books aimed at ‘teaching’ you something.
Then there’s also been plenty of activities unrelated to my PhD plans. I wrote an article on the regulation of busking and public space for the Manifesto Club, which I also posted on this blog. In April, I attended a three-day ‘Living Freedom’ school in London, which was a series of lectures and discussions hosted by the Institute of Ideas on different concepts and issues around freedom, followed by lively debates and panel sessions. It was an engrossing experience that taught me lots about philosophies of freedom, which I’d been keen to know more about as my work on the regulation of public space intersects with many of these debates. And then, as you’ll know if you’ve seen my last couple of blog posts, I travelled to California for two weeks with my Mum to visit my brother, who lives over there.
All these events bring us up to mid-May, when I was due to hear the outcome of the Leverhulme application. The result: revise and resubmit. The Magna Carta Centre listed some elements of the project they wanted us to elaborate on, and asked us to address these in a new submission for a deadline in June. It was a frustrating outcome, given how long I’d already been waiting for a resolution on my future for the coming academic year. It also gave my supervisors extra workload during a busy period of marking in exam season. And by the time we had addressed all the Centre’s concerns as best as possible, I was a little uncomfortable with the way my proposed project had been pulled away from the initial vision I had.
In the meantime, I received an unconditional offer to study for my PhD at Royal Holloway, which meant that my place at the university was secure - I just needed to get the funding to pay my fees and support myself. I also used this time to continue improving my coding and creative writing skills.
We heard the final outcome at the beginning of July, when I found out our application was unsuccessful. By this point, though, I wasn’t worried about the result either way. I knew I could probably defer acceptance of my offer until next year if necessary, and realised that another year would give me the opportunity to complete an application for the TECHNE funding, which was a much better fit for my project. It would provide me with more opportunities for training, forming connections with people/organisations across the cultural sector, and has more funds available for research costs. Additionally, this funding source would give me much more leeway to plan the project in line with my own ideas, as it is specifically intended for experimental projects, and doesn’t force me into the intellectual straightjacket of relating the project to ‘freedom’. Finally, it meant I could use the extra year I have before starting to get more valuable experience working in the arts, which I could take forward into my PhD and beyond.
Now that the PhD process is on hold for the time being, my main task is preparing to present my research on walking simulator video games at the Royal Geographical Society International Conference at the end of August. I have to give a 15-minute presentation followed by 5 minutes for questions, as one of 10 speakers talking over two sessions on Geographies of Video Games at the conference. It’s quite challenging to condense a research project for which I wrote a 15,000-word dissertation into around 1,500 words (assuming roughly 100 words a minute), while also ensuring that my main points are clearly communicated, and that the presentation is delivered in an engaging way.
I’m also currently searching and applying for jobs in the arts that will tide me over until next September, while giving me the kind of professional experience I’m looking for. Positions in the arts – particularly paid ones – are incredibly competitive, but my vision for what I want to create in the coming years is more than enough to keep me motivated.
So it has been, and remains, a very busy time for me. It’s still exciting, even though the timescales in which events have unfolded weren’t always what I was expecting. I’m able to see the positives in the way things have worked out since the beginning of the year. And, most importantly, I’m convinced that in twelve months’ time I’ll be in a far better position to embark on a project that will hopefully be the start of something much more significant.