Dr. Doors

David Mollin

No longer stencilled perhaps, but printed, from the computer, on to a piece of card or fibreboard. 'Doctor Blahdeblah'. This apparently is one of the reasons that academics get a PhD, put all that effort in. It is a Shibboleth. It opens doors as well as sitting on your own door. It lets you in. You have an office down a corridor and the office has a door and that's yours. Apparently, when you do things in the academic world you do so easier with the title. Its hard to say what those doors are that it opens. Not that it doesn't, It's just hard to know what doors those are if one doesn't teach and therefore doesn't have a door or an opportunity to see what doors 'Doctor' opens. As an artist, I cannot think what door the title would open.

The first time I came across the word 'Doctor' in relation to an artist it caught my eye. I was looking through a catalogue at a dinner in Vilnius in 1997 with Saulius Grigoravicius, a photographer, and his family, passing the time as I could not speak Lithuanian. I can't remember which catalogue it was but it was a fat one of a biennale of some sort or other. There was a photograph of this Bulgarian, I believe he was Bulgarian, driving a moped with a George and Mildred helmet on. This was Doctor so and so. I thought this eccentricity was a relief after the endless biennale catalogue fatigue that was setting in, page after page. I mentioned him later to the co-director of the artist group Jutempus in Vilnius, Gediminas Urbonas, who knew the man and already appreciated his lopsided slant towards the kerb in an otherwise upright procession of selected artists. I have not seen 'Doctor' used since by an artist and doubt if this 'Doctor' opened many doors for him in art. He opened doors clearly, as the whole eccentric package, but it was hard to tell if the moped and helmet didn't contribute more to the opening of doors than the title 'Doctor', which had the effect of making him look a little bit struck off.

But doors open for academics. I understand that term in art (perhaps an oxymoron) to mean those who start teaching after the PhD. Or took the PhD to open further doors in the teaching they already did -- getting a senior lecturer's wage, for instance. Artists in the sense that they teach something within an art department but primarily are professional lecturers. The practice, in this scenario, forms a kind of slide show that affirms what has been said in the lecture. There is a form of satisfying integration with the university that appears to be based on an art practice but is in fact based on the teaching practice. A compulsive need for integration with such an institution, feeding it ones RAE points which in turn becomes sucked into some small dull logo - a vortex of joy at a wage packet and an opportunity to invite students to your exhibition with the logo next to the opening times. The flip side of this university life being no show and beads of sweat on your forehead appearing like dew drops of your new morning at the job centre. I knew a man who could rustle up so few RAE points he ended up offering to do all the administration. They finally let him go.

But with a PhD doors open. That's the point. They open in academia. If you don't teach, and you get a PhD in art, doors don't open. That, thankfully, is the case. Anyway, they don't need to open so badly as in the hunt for RAE points. As an artist, PhD's become interesting as one needs to be inventive to know why one would do it, or even why one did it, leaving aside the dull predictability of artists doing PhD's in order to get a job at a university. It's this blank spot that is appealing. At the recent conference held at Goldsmith College, debates were centred around what constituted research in a Visual Arts PhD, something that, as artists, is probably the same as what constitutes practice in art when one of its components is writing. The sub-text of this question, and what makes it a little more complicated than simply looking at ones own practice as an artist and the relation between its various components and the broader context of discourse, is the dreaded question 'what constitutes research that will be beneficial to the university, its coffers?' This question can be ignored unless one wants to further oneself within the University. Or perhaps it can be taken up on the terms of ones own practice, some kind of quasi-department set up within a department that ignores the question as it was put and is debatable as to its use to the university. Perhaps set up as a think-tank in a shed at the backfields, circling round its own question of funding and, in this way, indiscernible from any other department apart from the problem with the heating. Personally, I think the question needs to be ignored or else one becomes neurotic. One can't flirt with these things.

Another subject of debate, 'what criteria could be applied to judging such research?' is again a simple question if one is used to looking at art and is down to the quality of those individuals judging the work. This question itself is cancelled out to a large extent (as long as one doesn't mind being judged, but as this is a PhD you get that in spades) as one chooses ones judges. It does become a question if there is a shortage of people who are good at looking at art and are able to read its various components and their relation to each other, following a logic directed by the work itself rather than a current theory or two. In this model the supervisor who knows academic writing but little about art can be used in an advisory role rather than a supervisory role, rather like the English Language department. This would minimise the kind of confusion created by applying the values of one type of PhD upon another, quite different, kettle of fish. What this looks like when it happens is an 'art' PhD where neither theory nor practice is done well, but gainful employment is almost guaranteed in some art theory department, or even one of the many art departments around the country that are exploring, amongst their usual offerings, the attractive possibility of starting a PhD course.

Much of this is all good stuff to debate and when one is doing a PhD or supervising PhD's, this stuff will be compulsively debated. It is the stuff of research departments. Small changes will occur as a result as the department modifies and tweaks itself in a fidgety kind of way in front of its own mirror before the big night out.

But what was most striking about the conference was how much anxiety artists had during their PhD as to the amount of writing that needs to be done. Although other institutions allow much less writing, and in that sense offer what appears on the outside to be a glorified MA course, the University of London do the whole PhD hog - 60,000 plus words. While that is an anxiety provoking number whatever it is pertaining to, in terms of a PhD it is not as if one didn't know it before signing the dotted line. In that sense it can't be that which troubles the individual's endeavours. That's the bit that is confusing. Why the anxiety? I mean beyond the anxiety that would be felt by anyone faced with writing 60,000 words? Why the anxiety that ones 'practice' will be ruined, neglected, etc., etc.? Why not just do it? Do it, Do it, to put a 70's frizz on it rather than a 90's imperative. Especially if it opens no doors whatsoever unless you mean to change your career to become a professional lecturer with a slide show in your bag called your practice and a list of values supplied by the RAE as to what constitutes outcomes... Now there's the rub. Maybe that's precisely the anxiety... misplaced on to the amount of words in the face of a just-about-to-be-renegotiated practice. The real anxiety of adopting an institutional value system to ones practice through an over-riding temptation of teaching and what use ones practice could be to the university. The denial that half the body is seriously contemplating becoming a professional lecturer. I mean, the door... why not? Or perhaps it is the smell around the place, not something that occurs to one when signing up but begins to rub off on one in the happy hand out of a day here and a day there.

But that is not an anxiety of a PhD in art. That is the anxiety of changing career and what that involves in the way of ones practice, its reconfigured status - how it is commandeered into this new career. It has nothing to do with what is interesting about using a PhD as an artist. Using a PhD that does not open doors and does not give you an office. It certainly doesn't act as an apprenticeship as it does with other PhD's and does it really give you the buzz of original thought? I thought (perhaps sluggishly) that original thought was part and parcel of art anyway. Besides, an unoriginal thought in art is still a little bit more colourful than an 'original' thought in many PhD's, judging by the titles. Original thoughts are ten a penny in art. Getting into the position of having done a PhD, I have to remember the Doctor in the biennale who I cannot remember the name of. Where 'Doctor', or the work to become one, is read as a component of the overall practice that includes the helmet and the moped, or whatever else one has that constitutes practice. And then, at the end of the day, it works as part and parcel of whatever you are doing, or wrapped up and carefully placed in the sidecar, away from Mildred's prying eyes. And including the use of the title as a moment of eccentricity of Bulgarian Doctor proportions, the PhD works as one wants. One can in fact keep it quiet if one chooses, as opposed to getting the RAE office and fossilizing oneself into the side of some old knotted oak that, like all old trees, wants to kill you. In this sense of it having no apparent use in terms of the literal opening of doors it becomes a ghostwritten PhD inscribing itself indelibly but not academically on ones actions after the event.

I will end up with the title on my credit card and driving license because you never know when you might need that kind of help. I will put it on my passport as long as it doesn't create too much confusion when they need a Doctor on the plane. The postman will deliver letters to me as a Doctor, while I consider for the tenth time this year whether to deliver them myself. However, the actual making of the PhD is important. Gleaned from the text that constitutes the writing of a PhD, its 60,000 plus words, embedded within the portraits that line the oak staircase and overlook the great hall of my own ancient PhD activity, was an idea. It trailed through the text, burrowing underneath, surfacing occasionally. It was another text, and one that doesn't constitute a PhD but a television documentary series. A detective story that starts in Düsseldorf in 1991, involving images of the occult, and the entrapment of those who read a certain unearthed text. This text is itself the fabric of the PhD. It is sewn between the lines, born from the PhD's own lack of utility within art, and allowing the PhD to end when it ended and not, in itself, open doors or hang around regurgitating itself in the form of university-supported exhibitions and a theme to take to every Tom, Dick and conference, If the pilot is never made, the PhD was not a waste. It was a good idea. It is this question of what does it mean, to do a PhD as an artist when one knows it does not open doors unless one moves into a career of teaching, that brings one up against an odd but important moment. But, and to reiterate my earlier confusion over the debates around what constitutes a PhD, as a PhD offers nothing to an artist in the way it does to candidates in other subjects, one is free to choose it or not. There is no ladder in this sense to climb. As it offers nothing other than that which is ghost written, it also means that doors don't close either.

© David Mollin 2007