PhD Vitamin was a first-time event, held in a digital format at the Estonian Academy of Arts from the 4th to the 8th of May 2020. It consisted of a series of public video lectures on artistic research, held by theorists and practitioners in the field, with the aim of introducing different approaches to acquiring a PhD degree as an artist.
Below we will introduce the aims of the event, elaborate the need of such an event at the Estonian Academy of Arts, describe how the event itself transpired, and discuss whether there could be a need for other similar events in the future.
Kirke Kangro, the dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, first proposed that an event like PhD Vitamin should be held at the Estonian Academy of Arts (EKA). The intent was both to introduce artistic research as an integral part of contemporary art to a wider audience as well as to inform prospective students that they can specialize in artistic research if they enter the PhD program in the Estonian Academy of Arts.
Even though the PhD of Art and Design curricula was started in 2005 at EKA (the first degree was defended in 2011), one has to admit that artistic research is still not always so well understood amongst the students - and sometimes the teachers of the academy. Meanwhile, discussions about artistic research and the resources associated with it, in the academic and cultural world, are growing globally.
To give art students a sense of participation in research, the possibility of a research-based approach to art has to be introduced already at the BA level of their studies. The possibility of focussing on it should also be strongly supported as part of the MA curriculum.
There are interesting and original artists studying on the master’s program – and amongst its alumni - whose practice is strongly research-based. However, it still seems that they do not see the benefit of the PhD programme as a supportive environment for developing their projects. One observation is that they are too busy with making their art and doing research, to find the time to "administer" it; to fit the academic format.
The aim of PhD Vitamin was to tackle that problem, in bringing together expert practitioners and theorists with prospective students, with the intent of introducing the latter to the field of artistic research.
Besides providing a multifaceted introduction to the field, the participants could also consult with the experts in developing their own proposals for entering an artistic-research focused PhD program either at the Estonian Academy of Arts or elsewhere.
The evolution of the MA programme has been somewhat tentative at EKA. In the Soviet period, the academy offered higher education in the art curricula in the form of a five-year study programme, plus a one year diploma work. From 1994, it was changed to a four-year BA and two year MA programme. The Master’s degree at that time was considered for the ‘rare’ and ‘top’ graduates of the BA. The academic demands for the written part of the degree work were high and the artistic level of the students had to be outstanding and excellent. From 2005, the Bologna system was launched – and the ‘exclusivity’ of the MA degree disappeared. Instead, continuing to study at MA level became a natural step for most students. At the end of the 2000s, the demands for MA works were dropped and the required level of research for the MA thesis was achieved rather conditionally, with more extreme examples being just a few pages of text about the graduate’s mundane daily activities or even just a single sentence on a page. During that period, focus was put on the exhibited artworks.
The current MA program (in place since 2017) is designed with a wider choice for students to follow their desired artistic approach and development. Artistic research, its possible thinking platforms and methodologies are introduced. Students can form their own ‘research groups’, they cooperate with the students from other curricula, such as curatorial studies, and there are courses to support theoretical tools in artistic research.
Nevertheless, the bridge between the PhD study and MA programme definitely needs more focus. For now, the PhD programme is perceived, by most candidates, as a support for artists who are somewhat lost in their practice, confused, and in need of general support in the art field. PhD Vitamin was called into life to support artists who actually practice artistic research, as their daily professional practice, but who are not necessarily finding a path to PhD studies. The aim of the event was not to advertise the PhD program at EKA, but to make accessible realistic information about possibilities, allowing artists to make up their minds based on information rather than presuppositions.
PhD Vitamin took place during a total of five days, of which the first two were meant for the experts’ lectures and discussion, and the second half of the week was reserved for individual, one-on-one consultations between potential PhD candidates at the Estonian Academy of Arts and the invited professionals.
The event was kicked off by artist and professor Liina Siib (Estonian Academy of Arts) with the live video lecture “On Creative Research: Saaremaa Waltz and Tallinn-1967” (“Loomeuurimusest: Saaremaa valss ja Tallinn-1967”) during which she presented two exhibition projects to highlight different methods of working in the field of artistic research.
Her lecture was followed by the former doctoral student at the Estonian Academy of Arts, Varvara Guljajeva. She focused on her experiences in applying new technologies and natural sciences in her dissertation, "From interaction to post-participation: the disappearing role of the active participant. Introducing research framework of post-participation," and her artistic work as one half of the artists’ duo Varvara & Mar.
The third lecture was given on the second day of the event by Dr. Michael Schwab. During his 90-minute lecture he highlighted a number of problems surrounding the field of artistic research and the possibilities of acquiring a PhD degree from an explanatory but also critical point of view, being followed by the pre-recorded lecture “A ramble through 20 years of experience” by Dr. Chris Hales. In the latter, Hales gave practical advice to applicants on how to plan their studies, how to choose the right institution and what to expect from their time as a doctoral student.
The program was designed to give insights from both the practical and theoretical sides of artistic research and doctoral studies. Each of the lectures was followed by a discussion during which the audience could ask questions and point out challenges they had experienced both in their own artistic work and on an institutional level.
In addition to the experts who gave lectures, it was possible to register for consultations with artist Kristina Norman. All consultations were held privately between the participants and the experts over video chat during the second half of the week.
On the need for events like PhD Vitamin:
Events like PhD Vitamin have the potential to increase awareness of artistic research as a viable way of pursuing both artistic and research practices. The target audience could include both students and established art professionals. Given the importance of practice-based methods within artistic research, learning about it through interactions with practitioners and theorists is arguably more suitable than simply reading about it.
Furthermore, PhD Vitamin and other similar events could serve as a means for universities to advertise their PhD programs in artistic research. They could also function as preparatory workshops where prospective students can hone their skills in writing research proposals for their PhD applications either to the hosting institution or some other university of their choice.
Depending on the participants and the topics involved, events like PhD Vitamin could also foster critical reflection on the institutional changes and presuppositions behind the emergence of artistic research as a practice within contemporary art education. These changes have been driven partly by institutional reforms—the opening of PhD programs in art universities—and partly by changes in education policy—an overall decrease in funding coupled with the increasing requirement that universities must engage in some form of research. In the humanities and social sciences, methodological considerations, such as the desire to disseminate research findings among a wider audience, have also contributed to the increasing prominence of artistic research.
Bringing together practitioners and scholars working within artistic research with students and curious audiences could foster various kinds of creative encounters.
Even though it is too early to say whether PhD Vitamin served its purpose or if a similar event will be hosted by the Estonian Academy of Arts in the coming years, we believe that the format holds potential and should be explored further. From the first year of organising it, we have made our first conclusions.
Most of all, we realized the importance of preparing the sessions with the participating pre-candidates of the PhD programme. Although PhD Vitamin was a public event, we invited former and current promising MA students to participate. And although the event proved to be quite popular overall - with over 80 active participants in total - only a few of our chosen pre-candidates, whom we contacted personally by email before the event, joined. One way of preventing this from happening could be to approach the possible candidates already a year earlier, so both sides could prepare and be ready for the commitment.
Another approach would be to concentrate actively on current promising MA students and suitable tutors for them. Often the PhD program candidates apply without any idea who could become their tutor. Our hope was to match the students to tutors and invite them to the event considering a possible cooperation during the PhD studies in the future.
In conclusion, we strongly encourage colleagues in other institutions to organise similar events. Although it is not without complications to pinpoint the outcome of this year’s PhD candidates to the PhD Vitamin - as there may also be other factors - the level of proposals for the next study year (jury meeting held 08.07.2020) at the Estonian Academy of Arts was significantly higher than in previous years. This gives us motivation to continue and hope that organising more events focused solely on the PhD level of study for MA students raises the interest in artistic research, makes the problematics of the field more visible and enhances competition in a positive way.
Kirke Kangro is an artist and a professor. She is currently the dean of fine arts at the Estonian Academy of Arts.
Oliver Laas is an artist, cultural theorist and philosopher. He has studied fine art printmaking at the Estonian Academy of Arts and cultural theory as well as philosophy at Tallinn University. He is currently working as an assistant professor and junior researcher in the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Estonian Academy of Arts and as a lecturer in philosophy at Tallinn University.
Madis Luik is an artist, filmmaker and photographer. He has studied fine arts at the Estonian Academy of Arts and video installation at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. He is currently working as a project manager for the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Estonian Academy of Arts and as a creative producer in Hamburg, Germany, where he received an additional Master’s degree in media and communication.