Practice

I thought I had a really good idea about where I wanted to go with my PhD research. I’ve been interested in memory and nostalgia for a really long time, especially when it comes to the storage and retrieval of memories, the emotional attachments that we form with physical objects, and the way that we respond to digital objects as opposed to physical ones. “Great” I thought, “I’m getting somewhere with this”. I did some reading, some planning, I’ve read papers and books in fields like memory studies, cognitive psychology, human-computer interaction, media studies, anthropology. And I wrote a draft research proposal, an idea for a research question, on design for nostalgia and serendipity in archive software. “Not too shabby” I thought, “for someone who is new to this whole academic research gig.” But then something went wrong. For the last few days I’ve been hanging out in the rehearsal space with the lovely ensemble at Circus Oz as they prepare for their upcoming show in Melbourne, and as we (RMIT that is) ramp-up our research practice where the Living Archive project is concerned. It was a great experience (and one I hope to continue) – I’ve been “playing anthropologist” – hanging out in the corner with my notebook, observing people, conversations, physical and technological practices. Watching how a group like this puts together a coherent and complex circus show is absolutely fascinating. Problem is, this tiny bit of actual, on-the-ground, in-the-thick-of-it research has changed my mind completely about what it is that I want to do with my PhD. I keep saying that I want to produce “useful, simple software”, and from my observations so far, what would be useful to Circus Oz isn’t some kind of archive that facilitates nostalgic engagement and tries to transfer characteristics and practices from “real world” archives in to “digital” archives blah blah blah… What they want is something they can use, on-the-ground, in-the-thick-of-it, as they work and develop and produce and perform. And there is something in that thought – a research question that addresses a real, useful, practical application: video archives as an augment to an existing physical development practice, or practical applications for video in performing arts repertoire development, or….? So I’m a little stuck now. I need to turn around and re-write my research proposal form an entirely different perspective (which involves a whole new path of background-reading), and I’m under time pressure: I want to get a new draft to my supervisor this weekend, I’m off to WWDC next week, and I’m supposed to present my research proposal to a panel as soon as I get back. I’m just guessing here, but I get the feeling that this is just how PhDs go. Everything you read and do sends you off on a new tangent – you follow a path for a while and get sidetracked, or hit a dead-end and have to turn around. I’m chalking this one up to experience – if I’m going to spend all this time watching circus performers practice their backflips, I might as well start practicing mine.

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