Legitimizing the Ph.D. as Creative Research

Summer 2010: v.06 n.01: 2010 CAA Conference Edition, 2010

Jonah Brucker-Cohen
New York University, Interactive Telecommunications Program


I began working on a Ph.D. in order to categorize, analyze, and understand how the theme of networked artistic projects I had been working on over a nine year period fit into the larger context of media art practice, popular culture, and cultural theory. My intention with the Ph.D. was to use my projects as examples of a methodology that I have been working on called “Deconstructing Networks” [1] that attempts to show specific elements of how to effectively understand how networks function and actively try to disrupt or challenge this functionality by interjecting both subtle and obvious shifts in how the public relates to these systems on a daily basis.


The Ph.D. provides a different approach to studying new media and digital art and culture from that of an MFA because it attempts to create or define a working form of research or “toolkit” that others could then apply to their own research. For instance, in my own Ph.D. work, I focus on creating a methodology or series of steps that one could follow to effectively “deconstruct” a network. This is according to methods I have taken in over fifty individual projects that I have completed within the last nine years. In my opinion, an MFA is an exploration into learning about a specific field while mastering the tools, theory, and methods associated with that particular field. The Ph.D. goes beyond this initial exploration and attempts to evaluate the work in question and provide a theoretical grounding for it, which can be further extrapolated into a category or theme of research. Thus the Ph.D. provides a more rigorous framework for discovering more in-depth relationships between the projects that were undertaken and their connection to existing systems and modes of practice from both within the artistic and research domains.


A key element in showing artistic practice as doctoral research is to ground the approach in discovering and uncovering novel forms of understanding through everyday investigations. This is evident in the work of Michel De Certeau and his book “The Practice of Everyday Life” [2] This method could be further extrapolated in the context of using artistic practice to justify research findings, since the artist’s approach tends to question and provoke responses amongst people interacting with the work or projects in ways that a scientific or theoretical approach would rarely initiate. This methodology is also evident in Iain Borden’s book “Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture and the Body”[3], where the author uses the example of skateboarding as a method of describing and rethinking the penetration of architectural design on urban landscapes. Citing theorist, Michel Foucault, Borden explains in the following quote how architecture gains meaning from the social situations that it is constituted from.

“We might say, following Michel Foucault, that architecture is not an object with a role to play, but is constituted by the discourses and practices of social life. Architecture is not an object but a process, not a thing but a flow, not an abstract idea but a lived thought. Architectural history should follow this course.”

This expresses the idea that the experience of living and interacting with the city or any specified location, as artists often put into practice in their work, is considered a valid form of both theoretical and practical evaluation within the realm of research.


One of the main challenges that artists face when trying to situate their work as doctoral research is whether or not their work posits questions about their field as a whole and how these questions might effect the creation of further work in this field. Most colleagues in this field would not consider their work to be worthy of a doctorate since they merely create art that they think is worthwhile and is truly personal in nature. Since a doctorate often involves publishing your work in both academic and artistic conferences, many artists tend to feel an apprehension about writing critically about their work and practice since they would continually pursue this work whether or not any form of academic confirmation or approval existed. Thus the following challenges remain: 1) How to make their work relevant to public dialogue and research goals 2) How to inform their practice through research into other forms of media and even unrelated fields.


Creative exploration is measured by traditional doctoral research by recognizing that not all art production will fit into this mold. By honoring practices that challenge and extend the scope of this form of research, there is potential for more artists to engage with the traditional academic environment. Often, an artist’s work is exploring a specific theme that may involve a social problem or experience, which could be further informed by academic research into the field. By integrating this research into their art practice, regardless of how unrelated it might appear to be by the casual observer, the artwork itself will carry even stronger weight that it might on its own as a separate entity. This form of integration is already seen in the fields of “critical design”, “data visualization”, and “mashups”, where the art object itself informs the public about disparate aspects of society and how those could be mapped or filtered into data sets. One example of this form of mashup was the art project, “McMurder” [4] which visualized the amount of murder rates around McDonalds restaurants in urban areas. Although this project was shut down by the corporate entity, it remains a powerful testament to the possibilities of connecting research ends (in this case the amount of murders that occurred) with pop-cultural entities and public facilities such as McDonalds restaurants in dense urban locations.


As more artists enter Ph.D. programs this activity will help to further legitimize artistic practice as a viable research platform. With artists holding doctorates, there is great potential to shift the field from focusing on expression, reflection, commentary, and therapy to one that provides quantifiable results that can be further extrapolated on and used to enrich wider disciplines beyond artistic practice. The field of new media will become more than just a fringe aspect of fine art, but rather a way for artists to use digital media and culture to reflect on society the same way that a sociologist might use social activities to prove hypothesis. Since digital media is interactive by nature, as well as easily disseminated to the public, it provides a built-in method of distribution and engagement that many other disciplines might not be engaged with. Also since the ability to keep track of user involvement is also embedded in the medium, this data becomes a valuable asset for eliciting feedback and analyzing results of use by the public of specific projects. Thus the combination of the medium itself, with the elements inherent in the technologies of use, allow for a greater engagement with the public and the artwork, thus enriching the Ph.D. further.


Despite an increased interest in Ph.D. programs amongst practicing media artists, there is still further work needed to persuade artists to continue in this direction. Since the field of digital media art remains an emerging and growing one, the incentives for working on a doctorate (after receiving an MFA or equivalent) are not clear to most artists since the teaching positions within this field usually only require a Masters degree. Depending on where the candidate wants to end up, there might be potential for artists with a Ph.D. to emerge as leaders of creative organizations that honor digital media and art, or for them to become authors on the subject of media arts and curatorial practice. This dialogue would need to be expanded amongst practicing artists with Ph.D.s to discover how they have been able to advance their careers with a Ph.D. and how this has enabled them to gain access to new levels of engagement among engineers, other artists, and the academic and research fields as a whole.


The author would like to thank Linda Doyle and the Networking and the Disruptive Design Team of the Telecommunications Research Group at Trinity College Dublin for the opportunity to work on my Ph.D. in the discipline of art and technology within the framework of an engineering program.


1. Brucker-Cohen, Jonah, “Deconstructing Networks”, http://www.coin-operated.com/projects”, (last visited 8/3/2009)
2.Borden, Iain, “Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture and the Body”, p.9, 2001, Berg Publishers.
3. de Certeau, Michel. 1984. “The Practice of Everyday Life”, Berkeley: University of California Press.
4. McMurder, “http://www.mcmurder.com”, (last visited 8/3/2009)