Beyond the PhD, Frankenstein, Knowledge transfer

Knowledge transfer: turning my PhD research into an art exhibition

I haven’t blogged for some time, and that’s because I have been busy on what universities love to call KT – knowledge transfer. I have turned my PhD research into an art exhibition.

From my PhD creative project and exegesis – about 100,000 words all up – comes the first exhibition I have curated – My Monster: The human-animal hybrid  – at RMIT Gallery in Melbourne.  It opens on Thursday 28 June 6-8 pm, and runs to 18 August.

For those who know me as a writer, this evolution of my work into curating is actually not unexpected (my first degree was in visual art – and I have worked at RMIT Gallery for 8 years) – but it’s not the outcome I anticipated from my doctorate in Creative Media.

I thought the outcome would be a book, but what came first is an exhibition is based on my PhD research and taking this into a gallery is a form of knowledge transfer.

It has taken four years since graduating to get to this stage. Why so long? Well, it takes time to pitch new ideas from your research, to submit chapters to publications and conferences, and get knocked back, and resubmit. To pitch manuscript proposals and get rejected, to then pitch exhibition proposals, and have some people think the work is too confronting…it’s a long, tough road and you have to be prepared to love your ideas, research, and stay true to your concept, and think long haul.

Even after you get your doctorate, it takes time and perseverance and faith to keep going, and writing, and researching, just to get any traction for your work. And this is on top of your day job.

I had lots of ideas, images, artists and installations in mind over those four years as a sort of daydream ‘other idea’ about my research. Odd when I spend all my spare time in art galleries, and when I spend all the working week in a gallery…but I was so fixated on the words I thought the images were the optional extra, not the main game.

Then, when I was given the green light to go ahead with the exhibition at the start of this year, I had only six months to jump into action.

It was a tough gig but let me tell you, when someone actually does believe in your work [RMIT Gallery Acting Director Helen Rayment] and champions your research and the opportunity arises to do something with your research, you do whatever it takes to get the job done.

And the timing in the end was perfect – the opportunity arose in 2018 – in the 200th year of the anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Shelley’s seminal monster novel explores life and death and reanimating flesh. It is also the story of a hybrid outcast, for Frankenstein’s creature was made as a new species, from a combination of both human and animal parts.

Mythology and fiction have long entertained the fantasy of the animal and human fused into one being, and the metaphorical hybrid is embedded in mythology and folklore. The hybrids that appear in art can be whimsical, alluring, and confrontational. While hybrids shock and jolt with their appearance, they also offer an unsettling recognition of the disquieting unease we all feel about our place in the world.

Jazmina Cininas, Blood Sisters, 2016, linocut reduction, 69.5 x 56 cm. Image courtesy of the artist. Artwork features in My Monster: the human animal hybrid

Hybrids are the ultimate metaphor for the outsider. Their very existence is a political act, an affront. Like monsters of old, they are harbingers of a future we may not like, but are intent on creating through each twist and tweak of our species through biotechnology.

Welcome to the journey of My Monster: the human animal hybrid. It’s my PhD research finally seeing the light of day beyond the academic journals and conferences where it has had its publication and airing in front of the academic cohort.

But there is nothing dry and academic about this show, which is delves deeply into animal studies, women’s studies, mothering futures, feminism, critiques on biotechnology and explorations into immersive sound art as well as taxidermy, printmaking, painting, ceramics, sculpture, cinema, and more!

I have gathered together the following amazing artists Rose Agnew, Jane Alexander, Janet Beckhouse, Peter Booth, Jazmina Cininas, Kate Clark, Catherine Clover, Beth Croce, Julia deVille, Heri Dono, Peter Ellis, Moira Finucane, Rona Green, Ai Hasegawa, Rayner Hoff, Sam Jinks, Deborah Kelly, Bharti  Kher,  Deborah Klein, Oleg Kulik, Sam Leach, Norman Lindsay, Sidney Nolan,  Eko Nugroho, Patricia Piccinini, Kira O’Reilly & Jennifer Willet, Lisa Roet, Geoffrey Ricardo, Mithu Sen, Maja Smrekar, Ronnie van Hout, and (((20hz))).

Rona Green, Dusty Rhodes, 2011,
Rona Green, Dusty Rhodes, 2011, hand coloured linocut, 76 x 56 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Australian Galleries. Art work features in My Monster: The human animal hybrid.

It’s been an incredible journey to translate my research into a visual form. Suddenly, footnotes can come alive as painting, quotes become immersive installations, and references to critical movies become – movies! Now that the exhibition nears completion, seems like it was meant to be all along.

But it’s also been a steep learning curve of taking academic research from the page into an art gallery…and all that curating a major exhibition entails.

Such as – commissioning new work, liaising with overseas artists via email, talking to local artists, juggling space, budget, freight and even wall colors and plinth sizes.

Not to mention writing the catalogue, making a film for the exhibition itself, writing the wall text (condensing 70,000 words of exegesis into 5 x 300 word wall panels…) AND…doing all the media and comms (which is my day job at the gallery). It’s been many late night and long weekends getting the exhibition together – as painfully familiar as doing the PhD and working full time, in fact (what a friend’s husband dubbed ‘the kamikaze method’).

But then, no one says knowledge transfer is a ‘zero cost’ activity; it takes effort and time to make it work.  The main difference is that from the start, I have had to think of a wide audience, and broadly extend my research. All those things your PhD supervisor says ‘now is not the time to be going down that path’ – well, with an exhibition, it is exactly the right time. Time to look at the societal impact of research, to ask the really important questions –

‘so what’, and ‘why now?’

In fact, as they are so concerned with – and deeply enmeshed with – their research, I don’t think many academics or curators actually stop and ask these two important questions;  ‘why should anyone care?’ and ‘why is this show important now?’

I was determined to have my answers ready!

Why should anyone care about human-animal hybrids? After all, we are talking about fictional characters from mythology and science fiction; and from folklore to vampires and werewolves; and from films like The Shape of WaterSplice and The Fly and…hang on, aren’t scientists creating pig-human embryos and human-sheep embryos….?

Right, then! Human-animal hybrids are big news because they have always been within the human imagination and creative expression…AND because we are live in an age of biotechnology where the almost human is right around the corner. How do we feel about this as a society? How do we cope ethically with the possible creation of people made from animal DNA or material?

Doesn’t this sound a lot like…Frankenstein? So – there we go – why the human animal hybrid matters, why we should care, and why now, in the 200th anniversary year of the publication of Frankenstein.

 

 

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creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Marketing your research, Writing strategies

No laughing matter – 10 lessons in taking comedy off the page

Simon Mallory in The Heckler
Simon Mallory in The Heckler

One thing that universities rarely do well is getting students to think beyond the doctoral completion and how to sell their product. This is a problem if that ‘product’ is the result of four years of a Creative Writing PhD. I can vouch for the fact that while I had to sweat through classes in research methods, advice on pitching to an agent, writing a killer synopsis and finding a publisher were not taught. Or – even mentioned.

Perhaps there needs to be a post doc course in ‘making the research count in the real world’. Who wouldn’t sign up for that? More to the point – why isn’t it taught? Instead of lamenting the fact, I went to some experts for advice. And by experts, I mean people who have made the successful leap from theory and research to industry success.

Writers Steve Mitchell and Graeme Simsion, who both met as screenwriting students at RMIT, wrote and produced The Heckler , which recently won the “Best Ensemble Award’ at the LA Comedy Festival.

The Heckler is an out-of-body feature in the tradition of the great Ellen Barkin comedy from the early 1990s, Switch. Like that movie, The Heckler’s protagonist Steve isn’t entirely likeable or laudable. So when the self obsessed stand-up comic’s body is hijacked by a jealous heckler following an accidental death after a gig, it provides the opportunity for Steve to start literally waking up to himself and rebuilding his relationship with those around him. The movie features some wonderful twists and sight gags, and a truly sexy and romantic kiss that in the way of body swap happens between two women.

Steve Mitchell’s background is in IT. As an emerging comedy writer who has many TV credits under his belt, he jokes that he sometimes performs stand-up comedy to “prevent his self-esteem from reaching acceptable levels” (stand up obviously has much in common with sending articles to academic journals). Steve studied filmmaking at VCA and Professional Screenwriting at RMIT (where he met Graeme Simsion), and has the stand up gift of making everyone in the audience feel that he is speaking directly to them – a skill that is invaluable when promoting his movie.

Graeme Simsion is the author of the 2013 best-seller, The Rosie Project; translation rights to his book have been sold to over 35 countries, and a film of his novel is in the pipeline with Sony Pictures. When Graeme came to the screenwriting course, he already had a PhD (in Data Modelling) under his belt and says that helped him overcome any fear of writing a large project. I rather like the fact that the producer of a movie about hecklers on the comedy circuit has not one but two PhDs – Graeme received a Doctor of Communication Honoris Causa from RMIT in 2014.  Lesson # 1– doctoral skills transfer, and as a mature age student you bring skills and life experience that will help you leverage your research into industry.

I got together with Graeme and Steve at a café near RMIT to discuss creative careers, collaboration, and advice for students hoping to see their stories on the screen.

Steve Mitchell promoting The Heckler
Steve Mitchell promoting The Heckler

Graeme wanted to dispel one myth first – that creative writing students have it tough because there is no defined pathway into a career after they graduate. “There is actually no defined pathway after a commerce degree either, and I built a career as I went in IT. I had to adapt to what’s changing; the arts are not madly different.”

Steve agrees that ‘you make the path’. Lesson # 2 – don’t be too defined in your career path because it might be a long and winding road to where you want to go But that’s fine – don’t be so precious about what you want to do. As a writer, every encounter and experience is copy. Take notes.

Now this is all well and good, except if you are grinding through your doctorate and wondering what comes next, if that creative project that has to pass through the examiners will ever see the light of day in the commercial world. Here is their advice – stop looking at the end goal and the ‘Hollywood movie’ (or best selling novel) as the big dream. That, says Graeme, is a million miles away. Lesson # 3 – major success may be so far down the track, break up your goal into smaller chunks – keep revising your goal with what you learn on the way.

Ironically, The Rosie Project started out life as a screenplay, and ended up as a book when Graeme changed his goal to something he felt was more attainable. Don’t lock yourself in. “The journey is important,” said Graeme. “You have to enjoy all the little goals along the way.”

GraemeSimsion. Photo credit James Penlidis
Graeme Simsion. Photo credit James Penlidis

This attitude is necessary in surviving – and thriving – in the creative industry. Just last week it was announced that Jennifer Lawrence, who was to play Rosie in The Rosie Project, had to pull out of the movie. The director Richard Linklater then followed. Graeme’s response to media was that he was disappointed “that the deal with Ms Lawrence didn’t happen” but he was getting on with writing his next book. Lesson #4 – don’t lose sight of the work, and don’t measure yourself against massive goals. Anything could happen.

The Heckler is a movie that came to the screen via networking. The sort of networking within an academic cohort that we so often overlook because as doctoral students we are focused on word counts, deadlines and completion. But your academic cohort are your network, and you need to put the effort in to meet them and work with them.

Not surprisingly, Graeme and Steve gravitated to each other during their course as they both put in the time and effort above and beyond what was expected. They instantly recognized each other as kindred spirits – ex IT, ambitious, mature age – and immediately partnered up to help each other with writing and editing. Steve was Graeme’s writing buddy from the inception of The Rosie Project, back when it was The Klara Project, and Graeme is credited as an editor and producer on The Heckler.

Lesson #5 – working within your cohort and finding the people among them who have similar ambitions and experience is important. Find writing partners, writing groups, academic reading groups – but make sure these are with people of a similar level of experience and energy. You don’t want to carry a dead weight.

But what about external networking? You know – making contacts in industry, pressing the flesh, finding out who can help you get a job inside or outside academia? How does that work?

Steve laughs. “You shouldn’t work the room when you are starting out. What do you have to offer? It’s not about what someone in power can offer you – it’s what you can offer them.”

Steve Mitchell (right) at the opening night of The Heckler.
A dream realised – Steve Mitchell (right) at the opening night of The Heckler.

Well, what can you offer? Look at it this way – you are smart, ambitious, and want to get ahead. Offer your time, and your hard work. Contribute to joint projects, volunteer. I volunteered my communications and journalism expertise to promote and support an academic conference as soon as I completed my doctorate – a way of getting to know those in the industry and also supporting the academics who supported me in one way or another during those four years of study. Lesson # 6– when it comes to networking, put in, help out, be humble and learn. No one will help you unless you offer to help first. Your efforts will be recognised as will your attitude.

While having a movie such as The Heckler, or a book published, is a major achievement, those in the creative arts need smaller calling cards to alert people to their ability to manage a project to completion. Do you have one? Lesson #7 – get a calling card. Make something and put it in the public eye so people can see what you can do. Send your stories to smaller literary journals. Publish a poem. Start your own blog – get your writing out there.

Graeme put in money as The Heckler’s producer, but he only did so because he knew Steve had the runs on the board as a writer and director. Steve received development funding from Film Victoria for his AWGIE-nominated feature ‘The Non-Believers’ and he wrote and directed ‘The Unusual Suspects’, which was a finalist at the 2012’s Tropfest Film Festival. Lesson #8 – submit your writing, put it out there for grants and festivals and awards. As someone reminded me when I was wavering about whether to put in the time and effort pitching for a project I didn’t think I’d get – opportunity involves being there to begin with.

By now, it should be clear that as funny and uplifting as The Heckler is for someone sitting in the audience, the path to the screening has been a long, arduous and unpaid one for the writer. That didn’t change once Graeme was on board as producer. “The last thing I want to do is give someone money for a salary,” Graeme said. “Writers are going into the ultimate capitalist world and people expect them to work for nothing. This is where courses get it wrong by telling students to go and get grants. It’s not about grants – you can’t write a book or film in three weeks or three months, you can’t write it while on a retreat, if you can’t do it without a grant, chances are you can’t do it.”

The length of time that Steve worked – unpaid – on The Heckler before Graeme came on board as producer was three years. Lesson #9 – be prepared to put in many long years of unpaid labor before you get your break. Even The Heckler’s final sound mix and mastering was achieved via crowdfunding with a Pozible campaign to raise the required $20,000.

Finally, both Graeme and Steve have a piece of advice for writers who feel pressured to build a social media presence in order to sell their work. Lesson #10 – work on your writing rather than your social media profile, and get the product as good as it can be. It’s ready to go once you are proud of it.

Steve agrees, “even with all the years I spent on The Heckler, once we committed to the shoot we did two more tighter drafts and made it as good as it could be, because once it is made, it is forever, and while the act of movie making has never been easier, making people care has never been harder.”

Graeme agrees. “In the end, your best promotion is word of mouth. Don’t worry about the critics.”

The Heckler is screening at selected venues around Australiawhere to see the movie

The Heckler is also available to download on iTunes.

Academic Study

100 Days to the Doctorate – and Beyond

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Dr Evelyn Tsitas started 100 Days to the Doctorate in 2013 with literally 100 days to go before she handed in her doctorate in Creative Writing at RMIT University, investigating the human animal hybrid in science fiction.

As a journalist exploring literary journalism and creative non fiction through blogs, Evelyn decided to go public with the trials and hopefully, triumphs ahead in her doctoral journey, and the intense pressure-cooker of life with two kids, two pets, and a full time job and part-time teaching load on top of full time doctoral study. It was a wild ride!

In the second year of this blog, Evelyn offers hard-won advice for completing a doctorate, and explores writing, life and career opportunities after post graduate study. Reflection about this is useful – why do a doctorate when academic employment opportunities are rapidly shrinking around the globe? Doesn’t a Creative Writing doctorate by its very nature suck the life and creativity out of a creative writer? How do you fit in full time doctoral study around parenting and a full time – and unrelated – job? To also teach or not to teach as part of the doctoral journey?

This blog is now called 100 Days to the Doctorate – & Beyond to encompass the reflective nature of the post graduate life. What was it all about, anyway? Was it worth the long years of delayed gratification? Evelyn knows all too well the questions that plague successful doctoral graduates at this point: What do I do with my career now I have a PhD? How do I get my novel published? Can I turn my Creative Writing exegesis into a book as well? How does not just what I have studied – but how I studied and learned to research – impact on my thought process?

Evelyn also blogs about doctoral and other matters at Online Opinion and The Thesis Whisperer, and on her main website  evelyntsitas.com and also motherland Evelyn Tsitas Motherland. She writes about the academic journey, the writing life, parenting, feminism, social change and social commentary.

A literary journalist, Evelyn puts herself in the story. As the late Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, Heartburn) observed, “everything is copy”.

Please join Evelyn in this (mostly) weekly blog about the doctorate – and beyond!