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It seems that we are at a time where showing your art work involves more than just putting it up on the wall of a gallery and having a nice little opening with nibbles and wine: It involves the ability to write about your artwork. Most juried shows and conferences related to art (and particularly to art and technology) will expect the creator of the work to also write a paper about the work which they are submitting for review. Also, more and more, artists author texts about their work which they submit for publication in art journals. In short, part of the job description of being an artist nowadays involves the ability to write authoritatively about your own output. I have been doing a lot of “art” writing, reviewing, and editing lately and it occurred to me that it might be a very good thing if I were to share some of what I have learned as part of my own PhD work, and also as the editor of an academic journal, about writing a more or less acceptable conference paper or journal article.

Subject:

Keep things focused. Never write a paper about all of your work! Leave that to the art historians who will compile your oeuvre when you are old and rich and famous, if not indeed already dead… ;-)

You may, however, want to write about more than one project if there is a strong thematic link between them. Do the same keywords apply in all cases? Is there a similarity in intention? Is there a similarity in output or results/impact? Can you use the same references for all of your material? Just the fact that a number of projects are video based, or all involve coding, or have been created in a particular environment or under general concepts (such as, say, “art and technology” or “interfaces” or “gaming” or “ubiquitous computing”) is simply not good enough in itself. There has to be a thematic link which comes naturally and one which makes sense, which does not make it look like an arbitrary decision to place these projects all in one pot. As an example: I have been working on 3 projects in Second Life lately which I have written up as papers to submit to several conferences: Two of them can be thematically linked since they both concern embodiment and the usage of the avatar as an art object. Also both projects ask of the viewer to look at their own physical bodies through the usage of virtuality. The third concerns creating heteronyms through multiple avatars. While all three projects have been created in Second Life, all are visual, all involve avatars even, there is only a thematic link between the first two projects, the third is a thing apart, needs a different literature survey and so forth. So, if I were to attempt to write a paper which covers all three projects my chances of achieving anything halfway coherent would be pretty much non-existent, whereas contextualizing the first two projects within one framework comes more or less naturally since they both address the same issues. They are in fact sister projects.

So, is all the material you want to cover strongly related? Is there a red thread? One that goes beyond general categorizations and can be pin-pointed into quite specific keywords and concepts?

Structure:

Set up a structure! Do this before you start to write since it will keep you focused and stop you from rambling and getting carried off of the subject.

Art papers seem to be very closely related to papers written in engineering, at least as far as their structure is concerned. This makes perfect sense since the content of an art paper is a close examination of a special project, and that is what technology papers are usually all about as well – the one notable difference being that engineering papers will also almost always have benchmarking and usability studies whereas the subject matter of art papers does not call for such surveys and tests. This difference aside, in terms of structure it is probably a very good idea to borrow the structuring of an engineering paper for an art paper. And, as far as I can see, this is what that would be like, the following little hierarchical structure or something very similar is what you should put down before all else and then proceed to fill out step by step with the stuff which I am putting in italics after each header:

Abstract. This should be a very short description – around 150-200 words – of what your work is all about and how you will approach it in your paper.

Keywords. Select up to 5, do not get carried away, please do not become absurd. Having more keywords will not make your paper better. Your keywords will really need to relate to what you do!

Background/Overview

Aims/Objectives. Here you should talk about why you decided to create this particular work. Pure and simple! Nothing complicated or esoteric! I should add that if you cannot figure out why you decided to create the work in the first place it may be a very good idea to drop the idea of writing a paper about it right here and now… ;-)

Survey of related literature. This one is all important: Artists are expected to be well read and are expected to be able to place their work within a larger framework of artistic as well as scientific/literary work. While some of this material will come from books/articles which you will already have read, quite a bit of it will involve a good database survey, conducted with an online keyword search. When I first started to write 4 years ago, I used to really dread doing these surveys but these days this is a part of writing which I have come to enjoy a great deal – it is almost like detective work or solving a puzzle: Your ideas will almost always be present in the works of others, in fact it is pure magic how your keywords will reveal results which relate to your work in an almost uncanny way. Thankfully, our university has a very good online database and you should familiarize yourselves with its usage. One helpful tip is to use Google Scholar or Scirius or Wikipedia or even reference.com (there are usually very good links at the bottom of the entries on reference.com!) to conduct a preliminary search and then continue with the uni database. When it comes to citing from major seminal books or journals, a very good online library such as Questia is also something that I would recommend you to subscribe to, although it does involve putting down some money. But in any case, your survey definitely has to come from peer reviewed sources, seminal texts, acclaimed books and respected websites. So, the order of desirability of where you get your citations from, is something like this:

  • Citation Indexed Journals
  • Peer Reviewed Academic Journals
  • Chapters in Books (These are books of related essays edited by an independent board of editors)
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Books. (While a book published by a reputable academic publisher is perfectly acceptable, a lot of books are privately funded and thus not peer reviewed by an editorial board. These are not considered to be too terribly significant. And do not forget that any citation regardless of whether it is from a journal, a proceedings or a book/book chapter needs to have it’s page number as well. Journal citations will also need the volume and issue number and proceedings will need their full title, as well as a page number.
  • Web pages: You can quote from a solid, academic web page, provided that your references do not all come from web pages. Again, you avoid this since it will make you appear lazy. Googleing a subject is what everyone does anyway, you should go much further… If you have 1 or at most 2 web page references in a total of say 10 that is OK. If you have 3 or 4 out of 10 you are in trouble, I would say... Blogs, incidentally, are not acceptable as reference material – again, there is no peer review involved.
  • Encyclopedias: Are not deemed to be very desirable, for the simple reason that they are way too accessible, both in terms of depth of content and also availability. And that will, of course, show laziness on your part. And the same also applies to Wikipedia, no matter how wonderful the article you find there may turn out to be. Wikipedia is the first place where anyone looks – you should look further and deeper. So, by all means, use an encyclopedia or Wikipedia to conduct a preliminary search but then proceed from there to the references that you will usually find on the topic at the bottom of the page and which, in their turn, will probably lead you even deeper into your search.

Note: A very very uncool thing which one sometimes encounters at some art presentations is “name dropping” where the names of “fashionable/sexy” authors are sort of reeled off without being properly referenced or contextualized. Please do not do this! Your survey should cite specific papers or pages from books where the author does in fact talk about something which is closely related to what you are talking about.

The State of the Art: You will need to show that you are familiar with current developments in the area, that you have not been working in a vacuum, that you know what goes on around you. This would be work created by others in your field, which you feel relates strongly to what you did. Not necessarily things you like!

The Work: This is the meat of your paper. The main course. While until now you have basically been leading up to it, here you actually start to speak about it. The language from here onwards can change, it can become far more informal and “artistic” if you choose to do so.

Description. Provide a very good description of your work. Not just images although you should have good images demonstrating the visual impact of your work scattered throughout your paper. So, what are the elements? How does it work? What is the viewer meant to do? Just look? If so, what will they see? If there is interaction involved how does it come about? Please be clear! Is there sound? Movement? Animation? Describe everything that you can think of! In clear short sentences! Do not make this a long thing. It is extremely important that the reviewer has a very clear idea of exactly what the elements of your work are and how it all works or is meant to be viewed/experienced; so this section is in fact highly important, however it is not a work of literature – keep it short and sweet and yet comprehensive!

Inspirations.This is quite distinct from the literature survey above. Your inspirations may come from anywhere – from nature, your childhood, the games you played, people you know, and also of course stories/poems/books you have read. Do not get sentimental or silly over this description but definitely put in relevant inspirations which would clarify the context of your work and what it means to you.

Content This is the part where you talk about what it is that you are actually trying to convey. Is it an emotion? A statement? A state of mind? Is your work autobiographical or conceptual? Both? Is it a purely formal visual investigation? What are the ideas behind it? Your narrative or story line – if there is one – also goes here as do the elements of your visual language, your iconography and the symbols which you used (be aware that you may need to reference these as well!). If you have an artist’s statement this would be the place for that also. In many ways this is the most important section of your paper. This can be quite long and even somewhat complex although you should not ramble about aimlessly or repeat yourself. So, to summarize:

  • Get to the point as fast as you can. Go into details only afterwards and only if you really need to do so.
  • Do not repeat yourself!
  • It is perfectly OK, if not even a downright desirable thing, to be sincere, warm, open and enthusiastic at this juncture. So:
    • Do not get self-important or boring!
    • Do not read a manifesto even if being a manifesto is what your work is all about. Let the work itself say that! Not you!
    • Do not lecture!
    • Do not state the obvious!
    • Do not use generalizations! Paragraphs which start with completely unnecesary sentences like “it is a well known fact that…” should really be avoided… If it is such a well known fact, then there is absolutely no reason for you to be stating that, is there? So, be as specific as you can be and get to the point as fast as you possibly can!
    • Be honest! Do not try to give your work concepts, missions and meanings or attributes which you were not thinking of when you were actually busy creating it. Do not make associations where there aren’t any to be made in the first place. Tell it as it is!

Technology. If there is any novel technology involved in what you do, this is where you add that information. If not, if you are in fact using already existent means (which is perfectly ok btw – this is an art paper, remember?) then this sub-section here is not a separate thing, but gets integrated with the description at the beginning of this section, where you briefly mention that, as an example, you have used action script to create a particular animation or OpenGL as a platform or whatever…

Conclusion/Future Work: What you do here is basically you repeat the abstract – but backwards… ;-). If you have any ongoing projects related to the work discussed or plans to do something related to it in the future you mention that as well. In fact it is a very good idea to do this, so even if you don’t intend on anything of the sort – make something up! In any case the conclusion should not be this long, involved story but a brief statement of around 300 words.

References. The references which you use throughout your paper are listed at the end of it either in a numerical order in which you used them - placed within square brackets! – inside your text; or as an alphabetical list, – with corresponding author last name and dates – in round brackets inside your text. Most applications will specify a particular style for this reference list and that is what you should of course follow precisely. However, if nothing is specified you can use the standard MLA style, which goes something like this:

6. Yee, N., Bailenson, J. N., Urbanek, M., Chang, F., Merget, D., The Unbearable Likeness of Being Digital: The Persistence of Nonverbal Social Norms in Online Virtual Environments, CyberPsychology & Behavior. 2007, 10, 115-121.

Visual Documentation:

Even the best described visual/sonic work will need substantial documentation of a really good, professional quality since both visual as well as sonic works tend to inherently carry layers of meaning which can usually not be conveyed through the spoken word alone. You can add a visual documentation of your work

  1. as an appendix to your actual paper where you show additional images of your output embedded into additional pages of the word document.
  2. A lot of art exhibits/conferences will also allow you to upload additional material. However, in most cases this is limited to 2 or 3 items, so my suggestion would be to create a pdf in photoshop in which you place your visuals and that you upload that instead of isolated JPEG’s.
  3. You should definitely make a short video of your work and post it at a good video portal such as Vimeo and make that link available to the reviewers if asked to do so. Since most serious art applications involve a blind read, it is a good idea to set up a completely anonymous account at Vimeo solely for this purpose: Reveal no personal info at all but use this account only to post visual documentations specifically for art paper submissions.


Language

Typically an academic text in arts and humanities is 3500 to 7000 words, depending on whether it is written as a conference paper or as a journal article. The higher number is what would be expected for a journal article where you would develop your ideas on a deeper level. The lower number is what would be expected for a conference paper, which is much more of a survey, broad outline type of text. For juried exhibition applications there may also be cases where you will be required to make short submissions which have to be only 2 and sometimes even 1 page long, including images. These are far more difficult to manage than the longer ones since the essence of the info above will then need to be squished into a summary of 1500 words or even less. But either way here are some tips on language:

  • Please please please: Do not hide behind big words. If your work has meaning and purpose it will become revealed in the simplest language. If it doesn’t, no amount of esoterica will make up for the lack. So:
    • Do not use long words!
    • Do not use words the meanings of which you are unsure of, no matter how good/sexy they may sound!
    • Use the online dictionary to find the absolute correct meaning of a word or term you are unsure of and the online thesaurus to avoid the excessive repetition of certain words or terms.
  • Do not get complicated in general: The person reading your paper will not be a Nobel laureate but some poor sucker like myself, who will get totally fed up with meanings which he/she cannot instantly decipher. In all honesty, I am sometimes horrified by some of the language which I encounter in submissions which I am asked to review! Complicated to the point of utter meaninglessness… And this may be a total coincidence of course but whenever the actual artwork does not add up to very much at all, the language seems to get more and more complicated? It is almost like as if there is some kind of bizarre inverse logic involved in the whole thing: The better the work, the simpler the language… Or is that only my imagination?;-)
  • Do not use long quotes but try to summarize the idea embedded in the text you are quoting from by using your own words. Using long quotes, again, will make you look somewhat lazy… ;-)
  • And please relax:  Your English does not have to be perfect. In fact, given our globalized world, most applications as well as the reviewers on the juries come from non-English speaking cultures such as yours and no one is looking for perfect English. That said, a few extra words to Turkish paper writers: Do not use the word “some” more than maybe once or at most twice in a full paper. We Turks use the corresponding word of “bazı” very often; however, “some” is not exactly the same as “bazı” and it’s excessive usage implies vagueness and uncertainty. Second, please remember that unlike Turkish, object words in English need to have “the” added in front of them. Be careful with this one – we Turks usually tend to totally forget the “the”. And, Turks and non-Turks alike, definitely do a “Word” grammar and spell check prior to submission! While no one may be expecting absolutely perfect English from you, typos and thoroughly weird sentences are not too cool either…

So, this seems to be all that I can think of at the moment. If anything else occurs to me I will definitely update the page, so you may want to check back in a few weeks also…

2 Comments

  1. What a terrific and inspiring idea you had, it’s clear, clean, and very inclusive of all the elements a good paper needs. Thank you, this is very generous. Yacov

  2. Great points for paper writing – but also an excellent summation of how to communicate and document ideas – something that could use a little more attention (from the start) in design/art education.


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