The practice of play

2017-02-25T22:56:27Z (GMT) by Tim Sherratt
Keynote presentation at the Deakin University Faculty of Arts and Education HDR Summer School, Geelong, 24 February 2017.

I’m a historian. But in the past decade the nature of my research has changed quite profoundly. Instead of heading off to the archives, taking lots of notes, and writing up a book or an article, I now make things. Generally these things are online, and open to the public. I make things for people to use, to explore, to play, and to ponder.

I started down this track before I realised there was a name for what I do – practice-led research. The things that I make even have their own acronym – they’re NTROs, or Non Traditional Research Outputs.

But practice-led research is not just about making things. New knowledge is generated through cycles of creation and reflection. My aim in making is not to follow a blueprint, or check off a list of requirements, but to end up asking ‘What is this thing?’, ‘What does it do?’, ‘How does it do it?’.

In the past, I’ve tended to talk about my research practice as playing with data. I think there’s an important argument to be made for the role of play in research, particularly when confronted with large cultural datasets. But ‘play’ doesn’t quite capture what I do, nor does it look very convincing in a research proposal. So what do I really do?