Carolyn Defrin

Carolyn Defrin, student, PhD Arts and Creative Industries

Student and freelance artist, Carolyn Defrin, tell us about her collaborative research with Hammersmith United Charities and gives crucial advice to others considering a PhD

Carolyn Defrin is a PhD student at LSBU whose research has been collaborative with Hammersmith United Charities, a local West London community grants giving organisation.

Carolyn’s PhD work is practice based and has primarily taken shape as installations. She has presented and shown this work at the London Festival of Architecture in June 2017, at the Borough Road Gallery as part of the Critical Care Symposium held by LSBU’s Digital Storytelling Network in April 2018, and in various locations in Hammersmith, including St. Paul’s Centre, Lyric Square and Westfield Shopping Centre. 

Additionally, Carolyn is a freelance artist and has just finished directing and performing in an original theatre production at Ovalhouse called Kissing Rebellion.

How did you decide on your area of research?

My PhD was a commission by Hammersmith United Charities, a 400 year-old housing and community grants giving charity. They were looking for research on the value and impact of funding arts activities for marginalised communities. With a background in theatre, installation and community arts programming, I was inspired by the advertised collaborative PhD with LSBU, as it presented itself as an intriguing opportunity to combine several strands of my practice and interests.

Part of the appeal for me (and also what I initially found daunting) was how little I knew about housing and local community grants and why the funding body had a desire to support the arts. I spent my first year learning as much as I could about the charity, interviewing staff, trustees and the local people they served. My naivety in the charity sector allowed me to ask questions and then apply my artistic practice in a way that disrupted my own ways of thinking and doing, as well as the charity’s.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your research?

Understanding that a PhD is really about coming into my own knowledge and perspective has been the most rewarding aspect. What started off as a commission, with an approach to answer someone else’s questions, became a self-led and surprising re-engineering of the research questions based on my own practices.

Rather than answer the charity’s questions about the value and impact of funding art for vulnerable communities (an area that is not only well-researched and well-reported on in the UK, but also holds problematic potential to perpetuate marginalising communities), I flipped the questions about art’s value back on the charity. Investigating the potential of artistic practice as a method for creating shared time and space for the charity to be with the communities they serve, the research specifically explores a multitude of ways for the charity to come into new knowledge with their beneficiaries around their needs and how co-created cultures might serve them.

Who has been particularly instrumental in helping you during your PhD?

My supervisors Andrew Dewdney (LSBU), Jonathan Banatvala (formerly of LSBU) and Melanie Nock (who was my liaison with Hammersmith United Charities as the Director of their Grants and Community Partnerships) have been invaluable in offering three different perspectives.

Dewdney keeps me on track as an academic and has catalysed a new-found appreciation for theory (of which I was very resistant for most of my PhD). Banatvala reminds me not to lose sight of being an artist, and Nock has kept me in check in the practical world of communicating the research in an accessible way to a wide range of people (from trustees to community members). Nock has also been critical in developing my skills for writing grants which I have already taken forward in my career as both a researcher and an artist.

Outside of my supervisor team, Dr Elena Marchevska, has been a consistent mentor, introducing me to several relevant theorists, arts practitioners and grant and conference opportunities to grow my networks.

Additionally, there was a cohort of about 6 other PhD students throughout my research period who offered great support and resources. Go Panthers!

Have you taken on work at LSBU aside from your PhD?

For the last four years I have taught second year BA students a module on site-specific theatre practices and theatre and audience relationships.  Additionally, I taught MA Creative Performance students a module on performing cultural identities. I love teaching students at this level because I find it offers me a chance to be in touch with younger people about what interests them and how together we might think about the needs of the industry and how it can evolve aesthetically and ethically.

Teaching in these areas has both been informed by and informed my PhD. The elements of working in non-arts spaces in the site-specific theatre module, and the consideration for ethics in relationships between artists and their audiences as well as considerations for better cultural representation in performance have all been critical to my PhD. These elements are impossible not to consider as I move forward in my practices as an educator, researcher and artist.

As a research assistant, I am currently working with Dr. Marchevska on her project “Finding Home” which will culminate in written and video case studies about migrant artists navigating home in their practices. This work is a great lateral step from the PhD in that it continues to focus on under-represented voices and explore how artistic practice can be a mode for aesthetically navigating politics.

In general, what keeps you motivated?

Deadlines! As a freelance artist I am used to being motivated to make my own work, but it takes a deadline to truly make that happen. I need the pressure of showcasing my work. For the PhD, the pressure of submitting an outline, a chapter, or a draft, has been critical. The assessment panels    help this pressure manifest, as do the nudges from my supervisors.

Has stress ever been something that’s held you back? How did you deal with it?

In my writing process there is a consistent stress that I’m moving too slow. I haven’t overcome it. The best I do to navigate it is to continuously show up to my desk and try not to give myself too hard a time   about it.

Can you recall a time you’ve doubted yourself?

I doubt myself all the time. But again, as an artist, doubt is a critical ingredient for making new things and I find that while I still struggle with it in the PhD, I continuously remind myself to let it be a part of what I’m doing.

My biggest hurdle with the PhD has been growing my confidence in writing academically. To this day, I still feel a slight imposter syndrome. One of the most inspiring, and equally daunting elements of doing a PhD is experiencing the adage “the more you know, the less you know.” There is a consistent feeling that I won’t have captured the picture, or have used enough substantial context. I often ask myself, “who am I to lay claim to this?”

I have a tendency when I lack confidence in my own knowledge to immediately give way to other peoples’ ideas and thoughts. But the PhD has made me realise this can be detrimental. I remember I did this on one of my first assessment panels, taking in everyone’s suggestions so much so that afterwards Banatvala and Nock told me I had “fallen on my own sword.” Their wise words continue to sit with me as I complete my writing and prepare for the viva.

In the end it will be me who has spent the most time getting to know a very specific area of research. I am continuously building trust in my own thinking, which, while open to critique and amendment, is still something I have considerable knowledge and swordsmith about.

What advice would you give to those considering a PhD to help them succeed and reach their potential?

Value taking time to think. Discover your own process for that. Take walks. Take up other hobbies so that the research has time to breathe and find new pathways. Do nothing. Don’t be afraid to take time to think through an idea. For a while. Write and write and write and don’t worry that any of it is a waste. Most of it may not end up in the final draft, but it is necessary to do that in order to get to what will. We live in a very fast-paced world where we don’t allow ourselves to be slow in our thinking. A PhD is a good space for slow. Until it’s time to just get it done.

Check out Carolyn’s website or contact her by email.

Find out more about our PhD Arts and Creative Industries.