A delegation of faculty and students representing Harvard’s graduate-level work in the arts recently traveled to Paris for an intensive exchange with colleagues at the arts/research PhD program within Université Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL), a new consortium of nine top-level French academic institutions with ten associate members. Our trip was a follow-up to the October 2017 Art as Research: A Transatlantic Dialogue in which Harvard and SACRe students and program directors presented at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.

PSL’s SACRe Doctoral Program (Sciences, Arts, Creation, Research) shares similar goals and scope with Critical Media Practice, Harvard’s secondary field for PhD students. Both programs aim to integrate art-making with scholarly research at the graduate level and require students to produce both a written dissertation and an artistic project.

Our hosts planned a fascinating and packed program that involved events at all five of SACRe’s partner schools, which are spread throughout Paris. Each institution’s administrative leaders welcomed us and led a tour of their beautiful and historic facilities. Several schools also arranged for us to observe classes, exhibitions, rare musical instruments, robotics demonstrations, and hidden art pieces.

For us the heart of the visit was the Harvard and SACRe student presentations. Fourteen students each had about 30 minutes to introduce and show their work followed by questions and responses from faculty and other students.

The students in both programs span a continuum from artists whose work will find its place in the art world to scholars who use artistic practices to conduct or present their research. The most exciting projects truly unite artmaking and research. These were some of the highlights:

  • Harvard RLL/TDM student Amanda Gann explores the theatricality of grief practices and the intersections between archive and performance in a theatre project based on texts by a British woman who began hearing voices after her brother failed to return from WWI.
  • SACRe student Hadrien Jean combines musicology and cognitive science in his investigation of auditory selective attention, working in collaboration with a composer to create a musical piece using certain constraints.
  • SACRe student Emile De Visscher is a designer, engineer, and editor investigating the current utopia of local and distributed manufacturing through tools he describes as “technophanic.” His project comprises a 300-page paper and objects in a performance.
  • Harvard Anthropology/CMP student Noha Mokhtar researches the relationship between kinship and architecture in Cairo using photography variously for ethnographic “note-taking,” source material for art pieces, and as artwork in itself.
  • SACRe student Elizaveta Konovalova created a seven-part installation as a visualization and plastic interpretation of research about the wasteland of a former Soviet city in Germany.
  • Harvard Music student Rajna Swaminathan is a mrudangam player whose research and practice question the politics of virtuosity and the queer/ diasporic extrapolations of musical traditions – for example, can time can be “queered” in music?
  • Harvard VES/CMP student Jessica Bardsley is an artist who works at the intersection of nonfiction and experimental filmmaking in a mode she calls “autofiction.” Her scholarly research investigates water in post-1960s contemporary art.

The exchange was a fantastic opportunity to interact with a consortium of world-class institutions who have launched a program with goals very similar to those of Harvard’s CMP field. Their faculty and students seem steeped in the same kinds of inquiry as ours and were impressed by our students’ stellar examples of true arts-based research.