Aesthetic Materialism: Developing a Methodology of Praxis-based Research through Participatory Speculative Fictions


Informed by radical pedagogies and epistemologies, as well as the cooperative movement and the arts, my doctoral research deployed an experimental methodology that weaved together elements from speculative design, art-based action research, and autoethnography. It did so by bringing together a community of people working in cleaning, estates, and the library of the University of Bristol (UoB). It emphasized an approach that rejected assumptions of intellectual imbalances between the researcher and the researched, teachers and students, intellectual and manual workers. We worked as a community, one of which I was as much a part as they were. Put simply, we operated as if the UoB was an arts co-operative, and this had a performative effect on both us and the university.

The field research was organised in two main parts. The first part involved using participatory photography as an accessible method that creatively documented the hidden realities of university workers. The second half used these hidden realities as a springboard to speculate on a vision of a more collaborative higher education. Starting with the development of a poetic manifesto, the second phase was more participant-led, with community members using their preferred mediums, leading activities and workshops, and using university spaces and resources for the first time. The creative process culminated in the conception of the UoC, a semi-fictional, utopian university inspired by the science fiction of authors like Ursula Le Guin and China MiƩville. This was followed by an exhibition that transformed a university classroom into an open space of utopian imagination (see video at the end of the page). The thesis distilled the process in a repeatable methodology for praxis-based community research in universities and other organisations.

The project was supervised by Professor Richard Owen and Dr Harry Pitts, with additional support by the Bristol+Bath Creative R+D.