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Michaela French

PhD Information Experience Design, 2014–

I had been thinking about doing a PhD for a long time. When I came across Information Experience Design at the Royal College of Art, it seemed to combine all the different things that I do; things that were part of my practice but which had always felt to be quite divergent. It was like finding my idea of heaven. I got in touch, found out more about the programme, and I knew it was something I wanted to be part of.

Before the RCA, I was working as an artist, including doing freelance commissions, often collaborations with choreographers and directors. I’ve worked in various different aspects of live performance, including theatre and contemporary dance; there are two shows currently touring Australia, which are coming to Europe in 2016, which I’ve worked on in the past 18 months. That side of my practice continues, but the work that I’m doing in IED is more individually focused, looking at recording and using light as a material that is translated through various means, including objects and projections for exhibition.

As well as my art practice, I’ve also always taught in academia, usually as a visiting lecturer, which sits beside or feeds into my practice, so there’s always been an academic component to the way that I work, and I felt that I wanted to pursue the PhD to continue with that process. The RCA is a world renowned institution with a great reputation. When I made the initial enquiry, I didn’t know if I’d be accepted onto the programme, so I still feel excited that it’s been possible.

I’m studying part-time and continuing to teach, now tutoring two days per week here in IED. Of course, there are divisions between my own practice and the teaching that I’m doing, but there are also many more opportunities for crossover. For example, I’m doing a collaborative exhibition with one of the other IED tutors and we have a project space booked in November at Bow Arts. One of the workshops that we’re running for the first-year students will take place in that exhibition space, looking at the show we’re installing and engaging the students in that process.

I used to work in planetariums, making projections for full-dome video environments and, by coincidence, Dr Kevin Walker, the Head of Programme for IED, also used to work in planetariums. As a result of that, we set up a collaborative project with the Peter Harrison Planetarium at RMG Greenwich. This evolved into the RCA Fulldome Research Group which combines students from IED and Visual Communication, and investigates the creative, artistic and communicative possibilities of immersive fulldome projection spaces through practice-based research. This project is a personal interest specifically related to my PhD, but there are ways to expand that within the wider IED programme.

Part of what is fantastic about being at the RCA, is that you encounter so many different people, both staff and students, with different ways of thinking and working, and it’s easy to want to be involved with everything. But the first year has taught me to be selective and make sure I stay focused on the specific path of the PhD.

Being a part-time research student, it can be difficult to keep up continuity and flow, but we have a dedicated research office in the School of Communication, and there’s a great dialogue, both informal and critical, between the research students who use that space. There is a sense of community that I find very productive and supportive. Spending time there has led to collaborations that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and getting to know technicians in the workshops has also enabled projects; I’ve been working in the digital aided making, and the Darwin workshops, and I intend to use them a lot more in the future.

What I’d originally proposed for the PhD has changed quite a lot; the scope of the original proposal was far too large. My research investigates the embodied experience of light. The practice involves different ways of recording light as the foundation for a series of artworks. Over the past year, I’ve been developing different techniques for collecting light, involving physical computing and environmental sensors, using time-lapse photography, and personal observations of light changing. Recently, I did a 10-day residency where I combined those techniques to develop a data set that will form the foundation of the practice I undertake over the next 12 months.

"There’s a great dialogue, both informal and critical, between the research students... There is a sense of community that I find very productive and supportive."
Michaela French
Michaela French