Case study two: Doing creative practice ethics in art theory and sociology

Name: Ash Tower
Doing: PhD, School of Art, Architecture and Design
23 years old, University of South Australia

Doing creative practice ethics in art theory and sociology

Ash Tower is a PhD scholar at the University of South Australia, undertaking how research into the laboratory environment influences artistic production by thesis. In the past Ash’s creative practice has been investigating scientific processes and he has engaged in dialogues of classification and scientific representation. In his PhD project, Ash is working at the intersection of art theory and sociology,

I am trained as an artist… I did my Undergraduate Degree and my Honours in Visual Arts… So my research sits somewhere between kind of art theory and sociology with a liberal portion of sociology of science, that’s kind of in one of those intermediary areas.  

Project description:

As a part of his project examining multiple lab interactions Ash documented his lab working processes in a residency at SymbioticA at the University of Western Australia,  using video journaling and notes. He needed ethics approval from his home university to observe the lab technical and social practices of others, as well as the University of Western Australia to do the residency work if he wanted to work with particular tissue cultures and lab techniques:

So I’m writing a dissertation that addresses, as I mentioned, how the laboratory influences artistic production, that’s largely done through case studies, through talking very specifically to certain people about their experiences and how that forms the way that they work and kind of lab practices they undertake. I’ve elected to not do my assessment via creative practice component although I am using creative practice methods in my research design.

Ethics process experience:

At the beginning of his project Ash attended a symposium held by three universities in Adelaide for ethics training for all disciplines,

…because it was from a different disciplinary background to see how people working in education, people working in domestic violence and research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, and so that kind of provided assistance by scope I would say. So by understanding how different disciplines undertake their ethical procedures I was perhaps better informed about mine.

Ash discussed how this early exposure to the issues that institutional ethics dealt with in medicine, and with vulnerable communities lead to him starting his ethics application early. He began 4-6 months before he needed the approval to be in place which did have an influence on his research design:

To some extent that was worthwhile because my particular projects ended up ranking in an E2 which is a midlevel risk assessment and that subsequently needed to go within the Uni SA ethics system that requires around a half-panel review. There were some changes that needed to be made after the first screening process, so I feel like that was well justified because I did it so early it helped me build my research proposal around the research design.

He also contacted the chairperson of his university’s ethics board and had a few informal meetings and discussions about his project, “and he had time to get a coffee and talk about the ins and outs of things”. The website and online resources provided by the university’s HREC were useful.  Ash also mentioned his second supervisor’s advice as helpful and very experienced in sociology and the ethics process.

Another type of ethics experience Ash discussed as being important to his approach was a weekly critique session for graduate scholars:

I guess another less institutional iteration of that [ethics experience] is that I attend the weekly critiques that we hold here at UniSA where the visual art’s practice that students present their work and there have been discussions around ethics that are associated with those in a more artistic sense. A candidate representing different cultured women, for an example, as a Caucasian western male… the ethics that are associated with that, and the responsibilities of the artist (with formal ethics approval for the project in place)… – I find those discussions are really much more helpful in interrogating ideas because when you’re working outside of the institutional sense of ethics, it’s less consequential; there’s no kind of threat of being in breach, and there’s no kind of reparation that occurs as a result. So you can talk about whether or not an artist has the right to represent these forms and things like that… in an inconsequential environment of the critique. Because, as you know, artistic practice when it’s conducted outside of an institution doesn’t require formal ethics in a lot of procedures.

And what was interesting about the work that I mentioned about the male HDR representing [another culture’s] females was that, as part of a HDR program, and to obtain formal ethics approval to go over and to work with those women and to pick them in that way, he had institutional ethics approval. Yet we still found a lot of provocative discussion to be had around the more artistic ethics system that was at play, like the kind of cultural privilege that was associated with that.

I know that some people who might be discussing institutional ethics may be afraid to ask certain questions or may be afraid to talk about certain things for fear of either looking stupid or looking like a liability in the face of the ethics panel. Critiques are, or at least the ones that we have, I feel are a lot more open forum to be able to discuss that type of stuff.

Project issues:

Some of the issues Ash encountered in his case study at SymboticA included: identified participants; expert contributions; opt-out consent; observations; small sample size; and director/s of site consent.

In my experience I had the opportunity to meet multiple times with the head of our ethics committee and there were some points where the research that I wanted to do was just incommensurate with the standard models of ethical conduct. For example, SymbioticA is a very small lab of between five and 12 people depending on the season which makes it very hard to anonymise participants that you’re working with. So in the end we developed a model whereby I sought permission to identify all the participants on the basis that they were experts in the field who were providing me with knowledge and that was a way of responsibly attributing their contributions to them while simultaneously being able to work in that way. Another kind of problem that came about was with such a small sample size and wanting to do observation I risked losing people quite quickly, if I was to just hand them a consent form and say ‘Hi, I’d like to watch you for a little bit,” naturally especially seeing as I had to email them before any of them had ever me, none of them would have worked with that, so I was able to gain opt out consent for that part, the directors of the lab were able to approve on behalf of the participants.

But that was, I guess, a further kind of interesting point, where I actually didn’t end up doing — I ended up doing no observation based work in the lab in the traditional sense. This was because the fact that it was identifiable made me personally feel uncomfortable about taking and publishing that information.  And so while I had carefully crafted an ethics application such that I could gain the approval of the participant and recount identifying them by name, some of the actions that they’re undertaking in the lab, I found myself uncomfortable in that situation, once I got to know everyone, and have largely used my own experiences, my personal recounts from the lab instead.

In conclusion:

…I think that the ethics approval is part of making an artwork in an institution and if your creative practice is completely irreconcilable with formal ethics approval then perhaps an institution is not the place for it. Academia is just another form of knowledge acquisition, it’s not this kind of ultimate overarching — this kind of ultimate overarching body — and I think that it doesn’t need to be perfectly plural to encompass the rest of the world.


More about Ash Tower:

At SymbioticA

In Collage, Adelaide University Art History Club

Thesis link: When available

Ash Tower was interviewed by Megan McPherson via Skype in April 2016.

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