Towards A Fray of Messays: A Method-Mode in Artistic Research

Expanding the Essay Form in the Arts International Conference Proceedings, Ghent University, April 2022 (July 2023).


In dialogue with the 2021 KABK Design & the Deep Future Research Group (Hannes Bernard, Louis Braddock Clark, Jasper Coppes, Katrin Korfmann, Vibeke Mascini), PhDArts students, KABK students (including Anke Sondi Rumohr, Dominik Vrabič Dežman, Natalia Nikoniuk & Bo Wielders, Giath Taha, Anni Nöps, Ada Popowicz).



Artistic researchers like to claim that the process is as important as the end product. That critical reflection during the journey of discovery is as valuable as any insight attained at the destination. And yet, however worthy this ambition, the written record of this field of practice knows otherwise. Even if myriad variations of modes and genres and formats of writing have gone into the development of an artistic research project, when it comes to dissemination, experimentation is expunged. Findings are made ‘explicit’, stylistic idiosyncrasies are smoothed over and essaying forays are curtailed, in deference to the perceived strictures of academic writing from a former era of scholarship where the ‘writing up’ of findings was an activity that took place under duress at the end of a research trajectory.

The artist- and designer-researchers that I have mentored in the Netherlands, for example, often have a conception of academic writing as both an obstacle to be overcome and a restrictive set of gestures to be emulated. ‘I felt inadequate’, said one PhDArts candidate when we discussed their writing, ‘and so I doubled-down on what I thought was the kind of writing expected at such a high level of scholarship’.[1]

As artistic research matures, however, and feels less compelled to shore up its insecurities with the sandbags of so-called academic writing, perhaps it’s time to shrug off this inhibiting inheritance. Perhaps we can start to support one another in experimenting with ways of writing that are more authentic to creative practice and in writing throughout the duration of the research process. We might even give each other permission to enjoy it.

One of the most thoughtful advocates of artistic research in the Netherlands, Henk Bergdorff, always knew that when it comes to the ‘written, verbal or discursive component that accompanies the material research outcome’, ‘a double-blind reviewed academic journal will not be the most appropriate publication medium’.[2]

So what is the most appropriate? Of all the writerly genres and dispositions that an artistic researcher might choose to convey the ‘written, verbal or discursive component’ of their research, surely one of the richest in generative potential is the one which, according to William Carlos Williams, aims  at ‘multiplicity, infinite fracture, the intercrossing of opposed forces establishing any number of centres of stillness’ or, to give it another name—the essay.[3]

The essay, with its dual identity as an entity (trial, short literary composition) and an inclination (to attempt, to weigh, to test the mettle of, to sound the depth of, to set in motion, drive, to draw forth) taps a rich etymological compost of decomposing fragments of Old French and Latin. In the Online Etymology Dictionary, hanging like a low ripe fruit for the artistic researcher, there is even the editorializing addition: ‘the suggestion is of unpolished writing’.[4] The essay, whose mettle has been well-tested in art, film, video, performance, and digital design as practices, still has depths left to sound by research.

This paper explores how a defiantly even-more-unpolished variant of the essay might be used to activate writing all along the path of an artistic research trajectory. How it might perform as the site of a non-hierarchical convergence of the capacities of making and musing—an open, pluralist, and responsive method-practice—as ‘unsettled’ in its form as it is in its subjectivity.[5]

It proposes the term messay and the verb messaying to signal the meshing of writing as a practice and writing as a material. It is hoped that an elucidation of one instance of how this format-method has been assayed, will contribute to an expanded conception of how and when writing is used in and with artistic and practice-based research.[6]


Research was not exempt, or even separate, from the injustices being performed and endured around us.


At The Royal Academy of Art The Hague (KABK) I guide a research group, whose members are teachers and practitioners of design, art and theory. We meet every few weeks in each other’s studios where we discuss our experiments, read texts, write, and think with each other through the doubts, dilemmas and complexities of our individual projects and the methodological or thematic composite that connects them.[7]

The name of the group, ‘Design and the Deep Future’, acknowledges the need to reckon with design in relation to climate emergency and the social injustices it illuminates and accelerates. To reckon with design in the context of expanded timescales including geological deep time, to confront how the toxic run offs of design products, processes and values sediment into the planetary, atmospheric and biological records for the very deep future.

The 2021 group convened as this climate emergency was worsening, the coronavirus adapting and spreading, and repercussions of the Black Lives Matter and the Me Too movements fomented in Dutch institutions exposing in many (including, quite notably our own), a lack of social safety, transparency and accountability.

Before we could start building individual research projects using the usual formulas, therefore, it felt necessary to pause to ask how we could create conditions for doing research that we considered to be authentic to our practices (as teachers as well as researchers) and to how we were feeling physically and emotionally. Research was not exempt, or even separate, from the injustices being performed and endured around us. Social-environmental crises had been the content or subject matter of our research, but increasingly they were also becoming the context, and context in which it felt necessary to take a position.

We discussed how to cultivate a more robust practice of care in our own research and in relation to one another—how to give each other more time, for example. And, in acknowledgement of the collective and cumulative processes of research, how we might de-author our own projects while holding space for the voices and names, not only of our students and peers and researchers to come, but also the non-human agents we worked with, in what Anna Hickey-Moody has termed ‘human-object-space-sound multiplicities’.[8]

Part of this challenge was to develop a way of researching and writing together that, as Anna Mann et al have pointed out, does not mean attempting to achieve a single voice, but rather to generate a ‘viscous composite’, a we that ‘holds insolvable differences within it.’[9]


Friday, September 17, 2021, K, V and A
Today we met online via Zoom, and did some timed writing exercises in Notion. We each picked a visual arts research process/concept: Collaging, Displacing, Salvaging. First we wrote for 25 minutes freeform on whatever associations that word evoked, (although roughly in relation to deep time and our own visual arts praxis). At the 25-minute timer we stopped, moved onto the next concept and picked up where things had been left. In the next session we wrote for 20 minutes, riffing off of, and commenting on, whatever aspect of the existing text jumped out to us. One more pass, one more writing session of 15 minutes. Then we “unfolded” our efforts.

The exercise gave us a glimpse of what co-writing can be like (with all its awkwardnesses) at the granular, rather than the merely abstract/hypothetical level. We had to get used to our writing being treated by others as material to build on and with, as well as to disassemble; we had to gain confidence in interrupting, talking back at, and making holes in, the writing of our peers.

K said she tried not to look back at what she’d written before. The process seemed Dadaesque, she said. Especially when she was writing about her own practice of collaging, she felt she was inhabiting the very format of an endless collage. For V, too, the ticking clock and the permission to be messy, prevented the need to look back and self-correct.

By writing through these concepts, new terms rose to the surface for what it was we were doing. So we take forward to the next phase: Riffing, Interfering, Perforating.


Friday, October 1, 2021, A, L, J
L was in the Research space at KABK. A and J were each in their homes. We met on Zoom and did two timed writing sessions of 30 minutes. A riffed on Returning; J interfered in Collaging; L perforated Salvaging. We reconvened, discussed and then set off again: L on Displacing; A on Digesting; J on Salvaging.

Everyone got tired quickly. It’s an intense mode of writing. We paused to reflect. So many overlaps and connections. J saw how a collage under pressure could be considered a metamorphosis, like a sedimentary rock.

K: wow metamorphosis again – I know V is also reading Emanuele Coccia at the moment. We might add something in collaboration here?

In our post-writing musings today, we realized that our ostensibly distinct essay topics were becoming more and more (pleasantly) confused in our minds and among themselves and that, within an essay, voices were in merging in places.

Just then I remembered a conversation about silence I had had earlier that year with the musician, radio producer and PhD candidate Guy Livingston. I had asked how his dissertation was coming along and he had said it was still a mess. Just a never-ending sprawl of essay. A messay, if you will. I jotted down the word in my notebook. Messay…I said. I like that. Can I borrow it one day?


the messay surfaces meanings and new insights through the juxtaposition, clustering, sequencing, enlarging, cutting and splicing of images, fragments of video, social media memes, audio files, images, links, text and writing.


With a diverse range of archetypal progenitors and siblings, including the archive, the zine, methods of annotation and collage, open source software production, and participatory art practices, the messay surfaces meanings and new insights through the juxtaposition, clustering, sequencing, enlarging, cutting and splicing of images, fragments of video, social media memes, audio files, images, links, text and writing. Because the seam-ruptures between its components are not smoothed over, perhaps the most apt point of reference is Sergei Eisenstein’s intellectual montage, where the meaning-making is derived from the visible clash between heterogeneous elements.

Author and theorist Jean Ricardou’s concept of mixte is another reference point. When he wrote Le Théâtre des Métamorphoses, published in 1982, he felt that he had found a way to ‘combine’ the two previously disjointed activities of fiction and theory in one work. In an interview he said, ‘Je dis bien “combine” et non pas “assemblé”, car ce livre, ce n’est pas un “mélange” (un fourre-tout désinvolte), c’est un “mixte” (une diversité calculée).[10]

Jan Baetens sees the mixte as a juxtaposition of text and writing in dialectical conversation. Writing for Ricardou, according to Baetens, meant words that had an external referent, while text was internally and self-referential.  In advocating for its use in artistic research—and in particular literary artistic research— Baetens suggests that this strategy maintains the tension and difference between two types of writing, but it does so within one text itself. In other words, it neither ‘creates a diptych out of a piece of creative writing and a sample of critical analysis nor tries to invent new ways of writing that merge the two text types and erase or cover up their essential differences’. The mixte is collage, therefore, in which the text and the writing ‘cannot be superseded in a synthetic reconciliation, appear in opposition to and next to each other. In such a way, the mixte does not abolish the differences between creative writing and critical analysis, but neither does it exclude the possibility of their mutual enrichment’.[11]

Messaying can be done individually or collectively; privately or publicly. It can accumulate commentary and interpretation from collaborator-readers, and change over time. It can be done during a research process to reflexively document experiments conducted elsewhere and with other media. It can record the workings-through of theoretical concepts. But it can also function as the site of experimentation in itself.

The messay is material, a physical construction, which combines the modes and mindsets of making and essaying.

There is an embodied character to writing that is often disregarded, a tactility almost and a phenomenology of writing […] Most of what we do as scholars is refashioning, often through bricolage, by making novel connections, reconfiguring, reframing, and rearticulating ideas […] The process evolves through composition […] To put it differently, all creation is collective, emergent, and relational; it involves historically and epistemically situated persons (never autonomous individuals), and this ineluctable relationality is acknowledged now by designers in the age of “design, when everybody designs,” in Ezio Manzini’s (2015) skillful title. I suspect that many scholars would agree with the view just sketched of how intellectual making takes place.[12]

As anthropologist Arturo Escobar conjures it, ‘intellectual making’ is a desire to write designedly, but it’s an embodied conception of design, where ideas, interpretations, associations, rebuttals and questions are generated and sampled, modified and mutated and otherwise bricolaged in physical­—even visceral ways. Another PhDArts student, whose practice is choreography, and has found a way to escape the perceived limitations of academic writing, noted, ‘When I am writing, thoughts materialize and become gestures on the page, they sweep and they swirl, they crawl and cut. I want to “write choreographically”’.[13]


Meaning-making happens sinistrodextrally, but also diagonally, in darts and bursts, circularly, in infinity loops.


Messaying also wants to write spatially. As it probes, connects, negates, dissects, and unravels, it occupies all the territory of a page or screen. Meaning-making happens sinistrodextrally, but also diagonally, in darts and bursts, circularly, in infinity loops. The discursive sequence is amplified or disturbed by correspondences and dissonances between colours, shapes, and gestures that cut across and through the composition.[14]

Often it leaks out of its container and re-forms on noticeboards and shelves, in the way we use our hands in conversation, in workshops.

(Writing should really have its own workshop: just past Ceramics, and next to the Hacklab, with all its differently geared genres, formats, tools and modes arrayed in their silhouetted positions on the peg board. Here there are tools for noting, listing, questioning, prompting, scripting, coding, journaling; on the work surface there are samples of librettos, thick description, legal contracts, myths, taxonomies, recipes, captions; and strolling around are instructors eager to discuss the finer points of argumentation, exposition, science fiction, annotation. Messayists would often be found in this workshop, tinkering with a line of code, welding on an afterthought.)

In fact, my research group’s messay-making actually began a few months earlier than its metamorphosis into writing. In July 2021 we curated a radio show and a display of the objects and sources that fed our research. For the radio broadcasts, we each chose a student to engage in conversation about how and why we conduct research in, through, and with art and design. Students shared their thoughts on research and gave us advice on how we might best continue our inquiries.

The idea was that as we were talking and mentioning a citation or object, we would be able to indicate it in a three-dimensional assemblage of our individual and shared references, which included: a jerrycan of whale oil, an essay by Mark Fisher, a hunk of plastiglomerate loaned from Museon, a book by Emanuele Coccia, iron ore from Baffin Island smelted with silicon dioxide, a looping selection of scraped digital media, a bag of toxic granite dust, a folder of digital image waste, and a 3-axis Fluxgate probe.

Despite this potential for multimedia and embodied expression, the messay’s closest relation, however, is probably the visual essay. Like the visual essay, a messay is not communicated by its design on the page or screen; it is its design on the page or screen. Decision-making about colour, white space, typography, format, spatial relationships, and mode of dissemination is self-aware and charged with resonance. These visual aspects each play a part in building the argument, not by illustrating it, making it legible or framing an argument, but rather because they are in themselves what is illustrated, made legible or framed.


Friday, October 1, 2021, A

First thoughts/decisions on messays:

Things are starting to feel unmoored. We need some grounding. Let’s each write a 1-2 paragraph scene that is located in a specific time and place (can also include dialogue), a moment, exchange, or event in the research trajectory or occurrence at one of the sites of research practice.

Let’s not write about the findings of our research, but rather about the process of our research. It is thick description in the sense that it’s about what it feels like to be situated in the middle of the experience of doing our research in this particular configuration of researchers at this particular moment in time.

Let’s write to one another, offering advice, encouragement, reminders. We know each other pretty by now; and can guess at what we might each need!

Let’s not censor our our doubts and dilemmas; these are also research.

Let’s stick to, and dig deeper into, the first-person perspective. When does one I end and merge into the next? Does it matter?

How legible does this need to be? How should we keep the sense of an idea being developed along a course even as it is being disturbed by an awareness of the whole and the tension between its opposing concepts?

How profound does this need to be? How to keep the freshness of our first-person perspectives on a topic and the lightness of touch that comes from a timed-writing space but also indicate there are historical lineages of theory, even layers of our own thought and adjacent practices to acknowledge? Let’s experiment and report back!

the messay questions at the same time as it conveys its own contribution to knowledge. It posits an argument, but also invites a counterargument.


Like one of the central paradoxes of the essay that seeks, as author Brian Dillon discusses, the impossible simultaneity of ‘exactitude and evasion’ or  ‘the acute and the susceptible’, the messay questions at the same time as it conveys its own contribution to knowledge. It posits an argument, but also invites a counterargument.

Through revealing its own structure, it signals its provisionality; there is room for another interpretation on the part of the reader. As such, messaying as a creative act and tool, artefact and communication vehicle, has the potential to mediate between art and design practice and academic research.

Doesn’t it?

In later meetings of the research group, as we worked through the formative possibilities of the messay, we became nervous. We began to wonder where its edges might be. Where our own edges might be. We detected echoes of our own concerns in Della Pollock’s characterization of performative writing when it ‘anxiously crosses various stories, theories, texts, intertexts, and spheres of practice, unable to settle into a clear, linear course, neither willing nor able to stop moving, restless, transient and transitive, traversing spatial and temporal borders’.[15]

We wondered if we were trying to make a Borgesian 1:1 Map of the Empire, or the ideal book, as Deleuze and Guattari imagined it, where everything is laid out ‘on a single page, the same sheet: lived events, historical determinations, concepts, individuals, groups, social formations’.[16]

Would that way madness lie?

Was the mess- obstructing what we could -say?

If an essay, which according to Dillon, has competing urges to integrity and disarray, to be a form and a format even in its own process of collapse, what would that mean for the messay, in which the battle between refusing to be complete and still yearning to be legible is even stronger?[17]

Another PhDArts student: ‘My personal struggle is in discovering language to express the scaffolding or over-arching structure within which fracture and continuum must co-exist. How can I address the linear and the non-linear together, as a single and relevant form?’[18]

Whether the messay can contain the fracture and the continuum, and if its form is single let alone relevant, we don’t yet know. We do know it can be a site of imaginative exploration for corralling and bringing together ‘including that which cannot be joined’.[19] And it can be a printed, interactive, or time-based tool for gathering a community around research in an open-ended and welcoming way.


we have attempted to: intuit the material agency of baskets and duckweed, iron ore concentrate and whale fat, meme ooze and time; embrace the research potential of ceramics, web scraping, rehearsals, listening and props; heed the conceptual imperatives of hauntology, poison, migrant identity, fear, and collective authorship.


Within the structure of a year, the format of a research group, and in discussion with students, we have attempted to: intuit the material agency of baskets and duckweed, iron ore concentrate and whale fat, meme ooze and time; embrace the research potential of ceramics, web scraping, rehearsals, listening and props; heed the conceptual imperatives of hauntology, poison, migrant identity, fear, and collective authorship.

By iterating in a series of tentative moves, messaying with a bricolage of approaches and concepts salvaged from speculative design, the environmental humanities, new materialism and anthropology, from artistic research, geology, archaeology, and from practices of care, it is our hope that we might still be able to contribute alternative imaginaries to the reservoir needed for the sensory, emotional and intellectual compositing of more equitable climate futures.

By allowing our messays to remain unfinished and doubting with traces of their workings-out and workings-through still visible, their edges left unfinished, we wanted to signal that other ‘human-object-space-sound multiplicities’, are invited to enter the fray.

[1] PhDArts candidate, in conversation with the author, 21 September, 2021.

[2] Henk Borgdorff, ‘The Production of Knowledge in Artistic Research’, in eds. Michael Biggs and Henrik Karlsson, The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts(London: Routledge, 2010), 58.

[3] William Carlos Williams, ‘An Essay on Virginia’, 1925, in Imaginations, (New York: New Directions, 1970), 323.


[5] Nora M. Alter and Timothy Corrigan, Essays on the Essay Film, (New York: Columbia University Press: 2017), 12.

[6] Arturo Escobar, Designs for the Pluriverse, (Raleigh, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), xvi.


[8] Anna Hickey-Moody, ‘Manifesto: The Rhizomatics of Practice as Research’, Chapter, 9, Arts, Pedagogy and Cultural Resistance: New Materialisms (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), 181.

[9] Anna Mann et al., ‘Mixing methods, tasting fingers: Notes on an ethnographic experiment’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, Vol. 1. No. 1, Fall 2011, 224.

[10] Jean Ricardou, ‘Lire ce qui change’, interview with Bernard Magné, in Affaires de Style, no. 3, June, 1983, pp. 22-24.

[11] Jan Baetens, ‘Limits and Pitfalls of Creative Writing as Practice-Based Research’, in eds. Corina Caduff and Tan Wälchli, Artistic Research and Literature, (Leiden: Brill Publishing, 2019), 13-22.

[12] Arturo Escobar, Designs for the Pluriverse, (Raleigh, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), v-xvi.

[13] PhDArts candidate, unpublished text, September 21, 2021.

[14] Remco Roes and Kris Pint, ‘The visual essay and the place of artistic research in the humanities’, Palgrave Communications, Volume 3, 2017.

[15] Della Pollock, ‘Performing Writing’, in The Ends of Performance, edited by P. Phelan and J Lane, (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 73-103.

[16] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987) tr. Brian Massumi, 9.

[17] Brian Dillon, Essayism, (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017).

[18] PhDArts student, unpublished notes, October 2021.

[19] Henk Slager, The Pleasure of Research, (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2015).