2018 July: A Letter to G

16 July 2018 – PhD ideas

Hi G,

Thank you for thinking of me, it is really valuable to me to have your support. And a lot of what you say about the world of maths academia in France certainly goes for the UK as well. In the past I didn’t want to burden you with a long email like this one about the content of my proposal, in the fear of becoming the archetypal academic that bores everyone by going on about their work in some specialism that hardly anyone else in the world is concerned about! But given that you have thought about me so kindly, and taken the care to draw from all kinds of valuable references from you and your husband and friends’ experiences, to share with me such diverse wisdom, I feel at ease to tell you more of the details of what I know about the process, and what my research pursuits are.

I began finding out about the process of entering further research and study in the arts here in the UK about this time last year, and there was a great deal to learn. It took me half a year of pretty intensive research and writing just to apply for the PhD, on top of my MA studies. There are intricacies, as you say, between the informal and formal aspects of the academy. I was surprised to learn that applicants are encouraged to reach out personally, and develop informal relationships with scholars they feel an affinity with, to then invite them to consider supervising their PhD project. I have previously attended and presented my research at conferences, as well as encountered scholars through art projects: I discovered it is a surprisingly small world, and am increasingly seeing links between universities and scholars in the arts more and more clearly. I think you are right: it is important to foster relationships with scholars within the same field, and for at least a couple of them to know me well enough to really back me up. The application process therefore took me a long time, and I did choose a supervisor and subject of study. I spent months working on a proposal which, to fit the criteria for a scholarship, had to show exactly what I was going to do with my three or four years of research, as well as that I am up to speed with the state of the art and have strong evidence from earlier studies that my topic is worth pursuing.

My proposal was called “Scripting for Agency”. I am not a scientist, but a practising artist, so I had to elaborate on my artistic methodology and what I think it might yield for my topic of interest. “Art PhDs by Practice” are relatively new to academia, but more and more, artistic strategies are being valued by academic institutions as valid forms of ‘knowledge production’. I don’t think a PhD in art is by any means necessary to being a good artist – it just so happens that my own interests and the artwork they yield draw a lot from theories and ideas usually attributed to the sciences and philosophy. Also, my approach to making art is scientific to the extent that it is a methodical and experimental strategy for trying to answer questions I have.

My past five years of study and art-making have generated for me a lot of theoretical questions about “agency” (e.g. the agency of human beings, of fictional characters, of artificial intelligence). The burning question usually revolves around “what is it that makes a person?” – this is because in my work I frequently encounter such convincing – but as we tend to see them derivative – forms of persons: that is, fictional characters, in my own or other works of fiction, performance and art. I have learned a lot of interesting theories about personhood from artificial intelligence discourses, biology, and philosophy, which really criticise some common-sense assumptions about the distinction between real and fictional persons. Some of these philosophical ideas pose very practical problems or clues in artificial intelligence engineering. And, as somebody who closely and regularly deals in emulating, creating, performing and conceiving of fictional persons – entities which I work hard to coax into feeling very real – I found over time, interestingly, that an arts practice such as mine could function as an experimental platform for those very abstract and theoretical ideas about “what it takes to make a person”; that an artwork could take some of those hypothetical ideas and actually test them.

I managed to demonstrate this to the academics evaluating me, by showing them previous works. So actually, in applying for the scholarships, I already had to go into a lot of detail, historically referencing particular lines of thought that led to my research question, and demonstrating how I could explore the subject rigorously with an artistic practice. I had a lot of support from professors at each of the universities that offered me a place, they guided me in refining my proposal drafts before submitting them to the board that awards the scholarships: this is often comprised of members from disciplines other than my own, so I had to word my proposal in “non-artspeak”.

Ultimately, my question regarded whether it could be possible to “write” a real person, whether something like consciousness, or agency, or all the complicated miracles associated to being a person and having the force of a person, could be scripted. In asking this I reference the well accepted theory that all the intricacies of biological organisms are encoded in DNA scripts, as well as the fact that any serious endeavours to create machines that emulate human behaviour take place in programming – another form of writing. As a writer and storyteller, I have in my work often borrowed principles from these very distant disciplines to experiment with the idea that a living thing can be emulated through text, as it potentially can be in these other languages (genetic, computational). Can a person be written in plain English? It sounds silly, but it is a question extrapolated from remarkable feats accomplished in other “languages”.

My proposal was backed by the Royal College of Art, and in particular by a specific scholar there who would be my supervisor if and when I start studying. Therefore, the university offered me a place and chose to back me, but it was up to a third body to decide. Even at this stage I did surprisingly well, I passed two rounds of selection and only didn’t make the final one. This all leads me to think that the proposal was as strong as I’d hoped, because I have had such great support from academics close to my field in the three universities that decided to take me on. At the final level I think it may have been down to other factors, such as chance, or even the mere formality that at the time of applying I hadn’t officially completed my MA yet. Hopefully, equipped with my diploma and the support of my supervisors, I will have another good chance in the coming year.

The only thing that is really in my control at this point, is to keep up the good relationship to the scholars that have agreed to support me, of course, but also, as you mentioned in the “PS” email, to accomplish other things during my gap year. Certainly, I hope it won’t be an empty year. Yet here too are there some differences between what kind of background and experience would be valued in mathematics and the sciences, to those that would be valued in the arts.

Exhibitions, performances, art projects, residencies, publications, artistic interventions of any sort are the kind of thing that would boost my chances for the scholarship. Another course or a technical placement may not actually be the thing, as it otherwise could be in the sciences or maths. I need to show that I can produce and distribute high quality art works and events or exhibitions, and that I am being noticed for my work. Any collaboration with a reputable arts institution in my role as an artist (as opposed to intern or assistant – which often leads to more administrative or technical career paths) would be a big plus. And these endeavours have constituted a big part of my weekly schedule since I started out five years ago, such that, despite a massive heap of rejections, I have a few impressive achievements of this kind already, especially for my age. I need to continue with this sort of thing to up my chances. Because a practising “contemporary artist” is expected to agitate and reimagine conventional art forms, I must not necessarily master skills such as acting, that is, in terms of perfecting current successful acting strategies taught in drama schools, but employ them critically, innovatively, or even incorrectly, if it is somehow interesting and pertinent. (That being said, if a course in acting could help me accomplish that, then I’d enrol; it would be one of my requests for further research).

So the criteria and achievements expected are in some ways the same, in some ways different, to those you list as important in France and in other disciplines. In either case a lot of demonstrable achievement, key personal collegial relationships and a robust proposal are required. The type of achievement and who awards it can be quite different in the arts, usually an important venue or cultural institution will have a lot more say than a vocational or even academic course.

You have reminded me of how important it is to keep very active in all three of these, and I enjoy hearing thoughts on the matter from you and your close ones. I don’t know if I ever mentioned it but I am also really fortunate (though I am probably rather a product of this fortune), to have parents that both completed PhDs in their youth (and in my childhood) and went on to live unusual lives in academic pursuit – my father in Fine Art and Computing, and my mother in Comparative Literature. Looking at those subjects, it is too obvious that I am my mother and father’s daughter… they have really helped me a lot in terms of readings and inspiration and learning how to write and research.

Thanks again for generously thinking of me, G!

Best wishes, Katarina

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