Action research. Creative practice. New knowledge.
My scholarship combines theory with practical action. This approach is called both action research and practice-based research. Within this context, I see myself as an archivist, curator, digital storyteller, and sound artist, engaged in theoretical issues and design of implementation crucial to informed literacies in the technologically complex 21st century. My endeavors are contextualized in three areas: digital humanities, investigating sound in conjunction with narrative and storytelling, and creating media art and digital works.
In their ground-breaking book, Digital_Humanities, Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunefeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp say that by making things we conduct research. Resulting cross-media artifacts, interactions, and critically informed literacies are equally valuable, and compelling, as more traditional text-based analysis, commentary, narration, and critique (Burdick, et al., 10).
My scholarship follows this approach to scholarship through creative responses or making artifacts. I consider my approach to scholarship is both action and practice-based research. The desired results are transformative pedagogy.
Action research, advocated by Stefano Vannotti, combines design/creative practice with critical academic research to promote a "systematic enquiry conducted though the medium of practical action, calculated to devise or test new, or newly imported, information, ideas, forms, or procedures and to generate communicable knowledge" (Vannotti 2008, 55). Action research is a way to unite "practical work in the field . . . with academic research" (Vannotti 2008, 51) and teaches students how to think critically and theoretically about their practice. As Vannotti notes, all "theories, principles, and ideas reside in the artifacts we create" and "build the ground for further investigation" (Vannotti 2008, 56).
Historically, researchers have tended to distance themselves from their work, as if to distinguish their results as more plausible, credible, scientific. But action researchers contend that the researcher stands at the center of his or her life space and that any understanding of that space can only come from understanding the perspective of the individual involved in the practice, the making of that space. The researcher must then attempt to do something, to make something, learning from the effects of this doing on the solving of real world problems.
Action research offers three different approaches: research into/about design, research for design, and research through design. Action research thus allows us to position design at the center of our research endeavors and suggests that digital media, for example, is not merely the object of study, but rather the reason for our exploration. This focus comes from the product of specific material, social, and historical circumstances that produced the practices, and by which they are regularly reproduced through social interaction in the particular setting. From such in situ situations, knowledge can be created. If open to construction, then the same efforts must be open to reconstruction and extend beyond the realm of traditional solutions, including the potential for borrowing and remixing. The action researcher is thus an insider, part of the fabric of the inquiry in which everything and everyone is interacting.
Historically, researchers have tended to distance themselves from their work, as if to distinguish their results as more plausible, credible, scientific. But action researchers contend that the researcher stands at the center of his or her life space and that any understanding of that space can only come from understanding the perspective of the individual involved in the practice, the making of that space. The researcher must then attempt to do something, to make something, learning from the effects of this doing on the solving of real world problems. Action research is thus a systematic inquiry conducted via practical action, calculated to devise or test new information and communicate knowledge.
Practice-based research (PBR) takes a similar approach. Where traditional research prescribes objective methodologies and insists on results that can be quantified and verified as part of best practices for a preconceived agenda, PBR also encourages experimentation and iteration and learning from failure. The researcher (or research-practitioner) is fully invested in the subjective process of discovering outlying or random information that may provide further research opportunities. In this regard, one's ideas and position are in constant discussion and translation with each other.
This translation process promotes rupture and distortion, and alternatives to fixed positions and pre-built interfaces. As Paul Feyerabend notes, by moving through or against knowledge, we not only critique research tendencies, but as well we throw ourselves into the process of seeking results based on knowledge gained from repeated failure (Feyerabend 1975).
In this regard, PBR might be seen, according to sociologist Andrew Pickering, as a "goal-oriented practice [that] takes the form, I think, of a dance of agency" (Pickering 1995, 10, 15).
Both action research and PBR encourage alternative and transgressive approaches to research by embracing risk. Risking failure promotes iterating (rapid creation), prototyping (testing), and versioning (reworking), which, in turn, encourages experimentation and further risk-taking.
This focus comes from the combination of specific material, social, and historical circumstances that produced the practices, and by which they are regularly reproduced through social interaction in the particular setting. From such in situ situations, knowledge can be created. If open to construction, then the same efforts must be open to reconstruction and extend beyond the realm of traditional solutions, including the potential for borrowing and remixing. From this perspective, the action researcher is an insider, part of the fabric of the inquiry in which everything and everyone is interacting.
Results are, according to bell hooks, transformational, empowering students by their engagement in praxis-oriented approaches to create their own knowledge and suggests a "revolution of values" (hooks 2014, 23).
Within this framework, I contextualize my scholarship in three areas: digital humanities, sound in conjunction with narrative and storytelling, and media art and digital works.
Digital Humanities refers to the use of computer/information technologies (digital media, data mining, software design, and modeling, etc.) to visualize, analyze, compare, or critique issues in the humanities, especially those that might be difficult to impossible to effectively investigate without the use of such technologies. My work in Digital Humanities is largely guided by the research question "How might digital technologies facilitate the collection, organization, and presentation of information and narrative structures?"
One answer is curation, defined by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp as a "fundamental activit[y] at the core of Digital Humanities" (Burdick, et al. 2012, 17). Their list of curatorial activities that can be assessed for scholarly impact include "creat[ing] . . . commentary, record[ing] and display[ing] relevant debate trails generated by objects, creat[ing] a public forum in which these debates are edited or represented for study" (Burdick, et al. 2012, 67).
Brautigan Bibliography and Archive
An example of my work with digital archiving and curating is Brautigan Bibliography and Archive, an online, interactive information structure noted as the preeminent bio-bibliographic resource on the life and work of American writer Richard Gary Brautigan (1935-1984).
Brautigan, a novelist, poet, and short story writer, is often called the one author to best capture the zeitgeist of the challenging social, political, and cultural changes emanating from the epicenter of the so-called counterculture movement: the North Beach and Haight-Ashbury neighborhoods of San Francisco during the late 1960s-early 1970s.
Brautigan's body of work includes ten novels, ten collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, an album of spoken voice recording, and uncollected non-fiction writings. He remains popular, especially abroad, where most of his works have been translated and remain in print.
A dynamic methodology . . .
The intent of Brautigan Bibliography and Archive is three fold. First, I collect in one place all available bio-bibliographic information about Brautigan, his life and his works. Second, I make these resources accessible to researchers, scholars, and readers. Third, I provide access to information about the context from which Brautigan emerges: counterculture politics, cultural change, historic biography, new historicism, beat poetry, literary criticism, ethnography, etc.
Traditionally, this research endeavor would have culminated in a large reference work, peer-reviewed, and then published. The information provided would be static, possibly dated, and only as useful as its table of contents, index, subheadings, and other traditional, print-based finding aids.
A more dynamic methodology for publishing my research is to conceptualize The Brautigan Bibliography and Archive as an actively curated web-based "bibliopedia" regarding Richard Brautigan, his life, and his works. Immediately and always available, and responsive to continual updating, this research project centrally collects and connects the scrambled, disparate, and hard to find scholarship and other assessments of Brautigan's literary bibliography and continuing legacy.
Primary sources include details for every known work by Brautigan, including background information, publication history, and discussion of contents.
Secondary sources include reviews, criticism, memoirs, tributes, eulogies, obituaries, biographies, and references. Reviews of Brautigan's works include full source citations, abstracts, and in most instances, full text.
The ability to overlay and connect previously dispersed, hard to find, and in some cases inaccessible information sources provides the ability to tease out heretofore unknown knowledge about Brautigan's life and works. The result is a larger knowledge base, and an enhanced understanding or appreciation of the research subject.
New form of publishing scholarship . . .
Realizing that I am exploring a new form of publishing scholarship, I am concerned with information organization, and findability. A web-based information portal, like a book, without benefit of well designed tools, can be a difficult context in which to find specific information. In response to this challenge, I created and maintain genre-based catalogs of Brautigan's works and their translations, an A-Z Index, and ubiquitous search capabilities. These resources provide for known item searching, even while facilitating discovery through browsing.
There are also opportunities for input from people who have lived experience or actual engagement with Brautigan. This resulting network of social, collaborative, intellectual interactions provides a new culture where the researcher is at once the information expert and a guide for the continuing creation of knowledge regarding the research subject.
Pre-eminent information resource . . .
As an online three dimensional information resource, The Brautigan Bibliography and Archive makes the leap from a traditional text-based research project to one overlain with various computational technologies. This online information portal draws from traditional forms of humanities scholarship, but the collaborative and generative aspects firmly situate it in digital humanities. In the end, this project provides a repository for information about Brautigan's life and works that heretofore was not readily available, and certainly not as accessible. As a testament to its success in providing the most complete information regarding Brautigan, his life and works, The Brautigan Bibliography and Archive attracts more than 400,000 visitors a year, and is acknowledged as the world's leading resource for information about Richard Brautigan.
The Brautigan Library
An offshoot of my work on The Brautigan Bibliography and Archive is The Brautigan Library (2010-present). The Brautigan Library archives unpublished manuscripts with no real hope for publication through traditional channels and makes them available to interested readers worldwide. The Brautigan Library follows the vision of Richard Brautigan by providing a home for "the unwanted, the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing" of all varieties without passing judgement as to content or technique. I led the negotiations to move this library of nearly 300 manuscripts and associated papers to the Clark County Historical Museum where it is now a permanent, interactive exhibit.
Traditional scholarship focusing on The Brautigan Bibliography and Archive includes the following.
- Barber, John F. 2015. Richard Brautigan and So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away. Honest Ulsterman. Londonderry, Northern Ireland. June.
- __. 2014. Archiving the Nouscreen: Preserving the Permeability of the Post Screen. Vicente, Ana and Helena Ferreira, eds. Post-Screen: Device, Medium and Concept. Lisbon, Portugal: Seleprinter, Soc. Gráfica, 74-83.
This essay evolved from my keynote address to the Post-Screen: International Festival of Art, New Media and Cybercultures, University of Lisbon, Lisbon, Portugal, 27-29 November 2014.
- __. 2010. Trout Fishing in America—Richard Brautigan. Post-War Literature 1945-1970 (Resource Guide to American Literature). Bruccolli Clark Layman.
- __. 2009. Brautigan Bibliography and Archive: A Case Study for Archiving Electronic Literature. Hyperriz: New Media New Cultures.
- __. 2008. Digital Archiving and The New Screen. Transdisciplinary Digital Art: Sound, Vision and the New Screen. Springer.
- __. 2007. Richard Brautigan: Essays on the Writings and Life. McFarland.
- __. 2007. Richard Gary Brautigan and Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan. Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. Facts on File.
- Barber, John F. and Dene Grigar. 2001. New Worlds, New Words: Exploring Pathways for Writing about and in Electronic Environments. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Barber, John F. 1990. Richard Brautigan: An Annotated Bibliography. McFarland.
Additionally, The Brautigan Bibliography and Archive has been the subject of eight national and international press articles, including in The New York Times and Independent Herald (Glasgow, Scotland).
Sound as the basis for narrative and storytelling
"How might digital aural immersive / interactive compositions / performances / installations form the basis for engaged narrative?"
This question guides my scholarship regarding sound. Answers take the form of traditional scholarship (examples below) as well as international juried sound art exhibitions and international juried radio art broadcasts.
Sound, listening, and hearing as participatory practices
My interest in sound+radio art considers sound, listening, and hearing as real and concrete participatory practices involving aural experiences across a wide range of theory and practice. Sound art focuses on sounds conveyed in installations, exhibitions, festivals, and concerts, all often site specific. Radio art utilizes relationships between listeners, producers, and the radio medium. Radio art is not sound art, but rather radio created by artists using the radio medium as their art form and channel of distribution.
"How might a focus on sound encountering computational methods of research and production provide new and different opportunities for interactive, socially collaborative narrative and storytelling?"
The idea of using radio, with its many associated cultures, as an information portal is interesting DH action research. In response, I created and maintain Radio Nouspace as a curated exhibition gallery, virtual museum, and interactive installation inspired by the radio medium and its emphasis on sound.
This research proceeds in different ways. First, Radio Nouspace archives and curates exemplary examples of radio-audio drama, radio+sound art, and sound poetry. Radio drama highlights the use of scripted dialogue, sound effects, music, and silence to portray dramatic situations. Audio drama also provides narrative, but often without the use of human voice. Radio+sound art includes found sounds, phonography, field recordings, and soundscapes, meant to provide acousmatic listening experiences, often broadcasted using radio technologies. Sound poetry, an artistic form bridging literary and musical composition where phonetic (sounds / acoustic properties) aspects of human speech are foregrounded rather than semantic (meaning) and /or syntactic (process of constructing sentences) values. The word sound acknowledges the initial presence of text, but the result is voice without words, intended primarily for performance.
Projects experiment with the modality of listening as part of the narrative experience. An examplel is Re-Imagined Radio. It is a partnership between a group of radio drama enthusiasts and a local, historic theatre. Live performances of radio drama are augmented with multi- and social-media. I combine this curation by re-creation with gallery showings of student work created in my digital storytelling course. The result is multi-modal, collaborative, immersive, and informative. To date we have re-imagined and re-created "A Christmas Carol," "Around the World in Eighty Days," "The Island of Dr. Moreau," "R.U.R.," "The Fall of the City," episodes of Gunsmoke and The Shadow, and "The War of the Worlds," the most famous radio drama ever broadcast.
Other projects have been selected for gallery installations, international broadcasts, and, in one case, publication in an online journal as an audio memoir of important rhetorical events during the 1960s. Each project seeks to foster immersive, imaginative, and magical narrative and storytelling experiences based on sound, transmitted by radio, and sustained by the act of careful listening. This combination is purposeful, based on the power of sound and the ability of radio to promote intimacy and involvement.
Scholarship results in communicable knowledge
Action research suggests that one's scholarship results in communicable knowledge. The following traditional humanities scholarship provide examples.
- Barber, John F. "Radio Nouspace: Radio, Sound, and Digital Humanities." Digital Studies. DHSI Colloquium 2015 special issue, James O'Sullivan, ed. Submitted.
- __. "Radio Art: A (mass) Medium Becomes an (artistic) Medium." Appareil, "the art in the medium" special issue. Pascal Krajewski, ed. Forthcoming.
- __. "EGC Literature and radioELO." In Electronic Literature: Contexts, Forms, and Practices. James O'Sullivan, Dene Grigar, and Sandy Baldwin, eds. Center for Literary Computing, West Virginia University Press. Forthcoming.
- __. Sound and Digital Humanities: Reflecting on a DHSI Course. James O'Sullivan, Mary Galvin, and Diane Jakacki, eds. Digital Humanities Quarterly. Issue 10.1. 2016.
- __. Internet radio and electronic literature: locating the text in aural narratives." Electronic Book Review, 3 May 2014.
- __. "Walking Talking: Flâneurs, Soundscapes, and the Creation of Mobile Narratives" (Digital Storytelling and Mobile Media: Narrative Practices with Locative Technologies. Ed. Jason Farman. Routledge Press, 2013)
- Barber, John F. and Dene Grigar. "Winged Words: On the Theory and Use of Internet Radio" (Going Wireless: A Critical Exploration of Wireless and Mobile Technologies for Composition Teachers and Researchers. Ed. Amy C. Kimme Hea. Hampton Press, 2009.
Media Art and Digital Works
As a scholar engaged in action research, it is imperative for me to engage in the production of media art and digital works, as both examples of my scholarship and creative expression inspired by that research. The creative practitioner can uncover tacit knowledge that theoretical studies alone cannot reveal. As a sound artist, I create media art and digital works exploring sound-based narratives. As a result, my efforts are realized both through traditional scholarship and peer-reviewed international radio art broadcasts and/or juried gallery installations and exhibitions.
My creative efforts are based on the following conceptual framework. Sound was the original and remains a fundamental sensory input and communication channel for human culture. Sound conveys deep, rich information; is capable of providing immersive, interactive contexts for listeners. Through the act of careful listening, listeners can derive a great deal of information about the world they inhabit. Sound transforms space to place. Sound is the phoneme for speech (verbalization of abstract thought). Sound is the central component of narrative (the recounting of a sequence of events and their meaning). Sound is the driver of storytelling (the addition of setting, plot, characters, logical unfolding of events, a climax). Sound is the basis for literature (written works considered to possess lasting artistic merit) and the various practices and cultures associated with its production and consumption (reading, writing, and listening).
Radio is a medium based on sound, especially the sound of the human voice, speaking. Radio subsumes and extends speech (McLuhan). As one of the most significant (perhaps the most significant) technologies of the 20th century, radio has long been considered either an art form in its own right, or a medium with which one can create art from sound. The radio art artist is one who uses sound to make art. This interplay provides an intermedia framework and prompts a multiplicity of practices. As a result, the relationship(s) between artist and audience, transmitter and receiver, can be redefined, along with the telecommunications airwaves as the site for its practice. See my Radio Nouspace project.
Radio (or "transmission," based on the interaction with the transmission technologies of radio) art addresses the imbalance of sight over sound, how the visual overly influences the way we relate to and think about our daily lives. Upon this thesis Michael Bull and Les Back advocate for "deep listening as a way of attuning our ears to listen again to the multiple layers of meaning potentially embedded in the same sound." Deep listening, they say, also involves "practices of dialogue and procedures for investigation, transposition and interpretation" (Bull and Back 3-4).
In short, radio (transmission) + sound art provides opportunities for sounds from various sources and cultures to create and sustain new narrative strategies and subvert historical media conventions.
Scholarship results in communicable knowledge
Action research suggests that one's scholarship results in communicable knowledge. Please see the Creative section of my website for specific examples.
Bull, Michael and Les Back, eds. 2003. The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford, UK: Berg.
Burdick, Anne, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, and Todd Presner. 2012. Digital_Humanities. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Feyerabend, Paul. 1975. Against Method: Outline of an Anarchist Theory of Knowledge. London: New Left Books.
hooks, belle. 2014. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge Press: NY.
McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill.
Pickering, Andrew. 1995. The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science. The University of Chicago Press.
Vannotti, Stefano M. 2008. "Let Us Do What We Can Do Best: But How Can We Produce Knowledge by Designing Interfaces?" In Interface Cultures: Artistic Aspects of Interaction. Christa Sommerer, Laurent Mignonneau, and Dorothée King, eds. Transaction Publishers: New Brunswick, NJ.