Rebecca Heaton on Art and Design Education

Investigating cognition in the creative arts.


A theoretical web

The metaphor of a web has been used by many artists. Roman Ondak used it to document those involved in performance art; each name offering a new story, Tomas Saraceno’s elastic rope installation, Galaxies Forming, intends to model how environmental, social and mental spaces collide and Jim Campbell created a web of lights at the Hayward Light Show to document exploding views of moving images (See examples below). What interests me here is the use of the same metaphor to interpret diverse artistic disciplines. When attending an EdD session at Cambridge University, hosted by Karen Littleton, yesterday evening concerning the use of theory in academic writing visualising a web enabled me to make connections in my own thinking. I felt like this was the moment I accessed my own cognition, if I related this to Suillivan’s (2005) notion of connectionism I was using the metaphor of a web to make links in my thinking. Whilst engaging in the session I also quickly began sketching ideas for installation based artwork portraying a web like structure, on reflection what I believe I was doing here was using Suillivan’s (2005) transcognitive notion of thinking in a medium to embed my own thoughts around theory in my doctoral study within my own cognition.


Galaxies Forming along Filaments, like Droplads along the Strands of a Spider’s Web. 2009 Installation, elastic ropes Tomas Saraceno


Jim Campbell Exploded View (Commuters), 2011 (detail); © the artist. Image courtesy Sarah Christianson.









So what was it about the session that led me to this epiphany? Karen Littleton discussed how when writing research we need to think about how we mobilise theory, what comes to the foreground and what sits in the background? This resonated, with my thoughts around art, what does the artist choose to showcase? Why? With academic writing judged on ones contribution to knowledge it is important to identify where your theory is addressed and how this links throughout your writing, is this the same in arts based research? In writing, ways to achieve this could be through the exemplification of ideas, or by creating a golden thread of theory throughout.

Karen also identified the importance of using a theoretical lens to articulate ideas, this statement encouraged me to think about the different lenses and voices I would use to tell the research stories I am generating both artistically and in writing. Due to having a range of stories to tell the cognitive web I was visually creating in my mind and on paper began to grow. Not only are there different stories in my research there are different voices in which they can be told, creating another three dimensional component to the theoretical, cognitive and visual web I began formulating. Even within first person narrative and the pronoun (I) there can be emotional or academic responses which would portray thoughts from different lights (Davies, 2012). Within voices, as with theory being shared in research, a reader writer relationship becomes apparent. Just as an artist audience relationship is created when an artwork is interacted with, like with the artist’s works above. The web becomes an emotional, social and theoretical entity, something I would like to depict in my next artistic creation to help articulate further the cognitive connections between voices, stories and theories being shared in my academic practice.

From this theory in research session I take away a number of new thoughts to progress my academic studies:

  1. It is important to step back from your research, look at it from different angles and use different lenses to interpret the theories within it.
  2. To keep your research tight, use theory to connect it together, but keep it focused, remember the golden thread.
  3. That there can be different theoretical systems that may be illuminated as the work evolves.
  4. Most importantly to construct a theoretical dialogue.

In terms of my own cognition, I feel this session has been prolific in aiding the organisation of my own thought both for artistic and articulative purposes. I hope through this reflection I have articulated how I became aware of my own cognitive connections when thinking about theory use in academic research.


Sullivan, G. (2005, 2010). Art practice as research. (1st and 2nd eds.). London: SAGE

Davies, P. (2012). ‘Me’, ‘Me’, ‘Me’: The Use of the First Person in Academic Writing and Some Reflections on Subjective Analyses of Personal Experiences. Sociology 46(4) 744–752. 




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.