Irene Brown

Head of Fine Art, School of Arts & Cultures

First off, could you please just describe your current research interests or any projects that you working on? 

My area of research is wonder. I look at how art can instil wonder in the viewer and the way it can surprise somebody, make them hold their breath, and how that visual impact makes them engaged and curious. As Head of Subject, I’m currently trying a figure out how we carry on as an art department under Covid, so my most recent project is on hold. 

Which project is on hold at the moment? 

I'm working with a nature filmmaker and a couple of avian naturalists. We're trying to make a video of wild birds to use as a way of stimulating conversation on issues around avian ecology, but it's a very difficult project because it involves trying to film wild birds against a green or blue screen! 

We’ve got about 6 wild birds so far but it's a very difficult because it involves me sitting in a hide with a camera for hours on end, hoping that a little bird will sit in exactly the right space for exactly the right amount of time. We can't do it in the summer because there are too many leaves on the trees and bushes, so I was doing this during the winter! 

It is partly on hold 'cause I'm so busy and partly on hold because I have to wait for the winter to return before I can go back into the hides and sit there in the cold. So, if you want a description of my current research methodology at the moment, it's sitting in a hide. 

That is the only ‘sitting in a hide’ method that I have come across! 

OK, brilliant and then why did you choose this field? How did you come to research wonder? 

Oh, it was about 12/13 years ago. I transferred from Wolverhampton University back to Newcastle at the same time that they were refurbishing the Great North Museum: Hancock. I've always been interested in museum collections, especially science museums and nature museums. I persuaded them to let me go in as an artist in residence and record the refurbishment. I don't sit around and wait to be asked! 

So for about a year I went nearly every week and photographed the museum. I've got over 3000 photographs that I took of the formation of the new museum. At that time when I was photographing and recording this particular period they took everything out of storage and put it all in one really big exhibition room, waiting to put it back into the cabinets, and it looked exactly like a cabinet of curiosities. 

So, I started to do some research about the relationship and history between the Wunderkammer and museum especially the ‘age of wonder’ during the eighteenth-century enlightenment period. It was that word, wonder, that I really fixed on. I became interested in how curators in museums display things and how they felt they had to explain everything on the accompanying labels. I felt it inhibited the potential for the viewer to wonder. I was talking to one of the curators and saying, as an artist I always look at the cabinets and try and guess what the objects are first. I don't want to be told, I just want to look. For example, I might wonder if a small ceramic object was a pot to hold paint for an Egyptian woman to paint her eyes. Only then I might look at the label to find out. The curator said, “well, your unusual Irene 'cause most people want to know what’s on the label first.” And I thought, is it just me or is it artists? 

There’s a phrase that says something like “the knowledge of all things is the end of wonder.” But this is not necessarily so. For example, we know what a rainbow is. We know it's just light reflected off water droplets, but we still have to look at the rainbow. I'm concerned with the idea of intriguing the viewer visually.  

I'd say the difference between scientific research and practice-based research for me is that I’m not looking for objective answers. Very often, I’m researching to find and present more questions; what do you think about this? How do you feel about that etc? All to provoke an emotional and intellectual engagement with the viewer. 

How would you define research methods for yourself? Do you think about methods as a creative process?  

Everybody researches differently and this is what we teach our students as well. That's why teaching Fine Arts is so bloody difficult at times 'cause you don’t get everybody in the lecture theatre and say, “OK, everybody, this is how you research.” It's an individual thing. 

Yes, research is a very important part of my creative process. There are two main strands to what I do. One is historical and theoretical the other, practical making. I’m a site-specific installationist and normally work with historic sites or museums. Very often this involves quite a bit of historical research but at the same time I will be trying out new materials or techniques in my studio. I don't tend to work in the same way every time. 

I might make a sculpture for one site, a video for another or involve the people who work in the museum in another.  I respond to the site and the site is always different, but I always start with the physical space. I'm not a community-based artist and I don't collaborate. I've got nothing against these ways of working, it's just not what I do! 

I conduct a lot of research for each project. As well as historical research, I visit the site. I speak to all the people who work there; the cleaners, the people in the office, in the café, everybody I can think of. I dig  through the collections, archives and libraries. For example, a massive amount of research was involved in a project I did at the Thackray Medical Museum, Leeds in 2016. I'm now an expert on workhouses and World War One hospitals! Especially costumes, uniforms, the architectural design of workhouses and things like that. I just love that as a researcher you can go and investigate behind the scenes and gain so much knowledge. 

Amazing. And would you say that's quite important to your research approach? That practice is about learning new things and trying to develop new ways of doing? 

Absolutely for me it is. I'm really interested in learning new things because I want to surprise myself too. That's why it’s so time-consuming. If I just used the skills and knowledge I already have it would be a lot faster. And if I really can't [learn a new skill] in the time allowed I might get somebody to come and help me or I'll buy in some technical help. 

Are there any other skills you have your eye on at the moment? What's your next project? 

I'm teaching myself time-lapse photography at the moment. I'm also trying to learn about birds as you can't film birds without knowing something about them! In some ways, I set projects because I know I'm going to have to find out new stuff and they are going to take me somewhere new. 

We got onto thinking about the notion of the ‘stuff’ of research and how that feeds into the research process in general and I wonder if there is any specific way that ‘stuff’ is related to your inquiries? Do you sit down with it all at any point and just look at it? What do you do with all of the photos that you take or the conversations that you have, the notes etc. How do you go back to those? 

Well, I never take notes of conversations, it's not like that. I'm very visual. Very often I go to somewhere like a museum and they show me everything that they think I’m going to be interested in – it’s rarely those things that I am interested in! I guess, that is the point of working with an artist, they have a different perspective, a different approach to working with a collection. 

I look hard and gather as much information as possible. I suppose what I rely on is the impact things have on me, letting my brain sift through everything and whatever sticks with me or what I remember most clearly is what I come back to. Although I do keep lots of notes in terms of the historical research and I take a lot of photographs. Very often I'll just have a vague notion and follow a thread to see where it leads.  Then I'll try things out. So it's an experiment, like being a crazy inventor! 

Well, I'm conscious that we’re running out of time…I guess the final thing I’m interested in is how you teach students to become explorers? Is that exploratory approach common? 

A lot of teaching is trying to make them confident about their own ideas, it isn't teaching facts- it's teaching an approach. Trying to help them individually identify something that they can get excited about by exploring many possibilities and approaches.  We talk to them about taking risks, the value of making mistakes, serendipity, questioning received wisdom, individuality, invention and exploration of new territories. For example, sometimes students come to the department thinking they know what art is, with quite a narrow view, perhaps only wanting to do portrait painting as that's all they've ever done in school. So we say “Ok, I want you to make a portrait, but you're not allowed to use an image of anyone.” This provokes them to question how they usually do things and what a portrait could be rather than what they have been told it is.  

Often we're trying to help them develop a passion for what they say they are interested in. They might say “I'm really interested in collage” and you go “OK, that's great, so how does this manifest itself? What have you made already? How are you going to progress things? Have you read anything on this? Have you got any pictures about it?” Trying to encourage them to develop a real knowledge and enthusiasm about their subject, to question things, to investigate, explore and experiment. I don’t think that this individual approach to research is taught enough. 

With Fine Art practice based PhD students, many come thinking the most important thing is to read loads of text first as if this was ‘proper research’.  However, I often say, “you're not allowed to read anything. The first thing you have to do is make something.” The research approach for a artist is not, "I research about the history and theory,  and then make something."  Making something is the research. 

I guess, you can write all your formulas down and you can have all your theories, but at some point, you're going to have to mix the two chemicals together and stand back or ‘cut up the mouse’ and explore through practical methodologies. Making a painting and building a virtual reality viewer just to find out what would happen if you did is fine art research. So that's an important part of teaching. Whether it is a first-year undergraduate or PhD student, getting them to believe that exploration through practice is research and that in itself is an incredible form of inquiry!