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Ground-breaking research project produced in digital format
Author: Sue Segars
Published: 22/12/2021

​After an “intense" and “tough" PhD journey, contemporary artist Nicola Deane has become the first Stellenbosch University student to present a PhD degree in a completely digital format, a ground-breaking achievement which paves the way for students in other fields of study to make use of this format.

Deane, who works across a multiplicity of platforms and media, will this week receive her PhD in Visual Arts. It is entitled Decentering the Archive: Visual Fabrications of Sonic Memories. Her inter-disciplinary practice-based research project engages archival material of the Documentation Centre for Music, or DOMUS, to create audio-visual media for a conceptual art installation.

When Covid-19 “threw a spanner in the works" and made an exhibition of her work impossible, Deane did her thesis and exhibition virtually and thereby created a PhD format which, according to her supervisor, Prof Stephanus Muller, is ideally suited for the arts but also, probably, for other fields of study where practical work and non-text-based work are part of the research. The study was supervised by Prof Muller and Prof Willemien Froneman of the Africa Open Institute (AOI). 

Deane used the digital platform herri (an online open access cultural journal and project of the AOI for Music, Research and Innovation) in her work. 

Muller, who is the Director of the AOI, saw her Master's exhibition and suggested she use the DOMUS archive to develop visual responses to its music-related materials. Her research was a visually-based exploration of the sound archives of the DOMUS. In her work, described by Muller as a “strongly feminist text", she identified similarities between the “incarceration" of women in domestic spaces and the categorisation and ordering which characterise an archive.

“Since I was starting this journey in the wake of the student protests of 2015, I wanted to engage decolonial theories and decolonising practices for my research. Hence, I came up with the title “Decentering the Archive: Visual Fabrications of Sonic Memories" with the aim to decentre or destabilise the object of study. It evolved, however, when I realised how vast the gap was between my “quietly domesticated country life" and the noisy, politically dissatisfied urban reality. I had to reflect deeply on my marginal position to the struggles of the marginalised," Deane said.

Deane, who was born in Scotland, but moved to South Africa when she was two, did her undergraduate studies at Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town (UCT), and returned to do her Master's degree 10 years later after becoming a mother.

She was awarded her Master's in Fine Art degree (MFA) with distinction in 2012 before moving to Greyton. She was granted a graduate school scholarship in 2016 to do her PhD in Visual Arts at Stellenbosch University.

“It feels 'great' to be the first student to complete a PhD degree in digital format at Stellenbosch University, especially after the challenges COVID-19 presented. I had to rethink my initial plans to do an installation for the examination and focus my imagination on a virtual presentation instead. Thankfully the opportunity to use the digital platform of herri came up, which dispelled my disappointment, and I became quite excited to work out the digital domain of presenting my research, where the artworks could be more fully engaged with while reading the dissertation.

“In designing the dissertation for the website I gained more control of the ways in which it could be read, opening up the relations between the textual and creative outcomes of the research. The various features of herri allowed me to create visual reference pop-ups and links throughout the text, to embed my own film works as well as YouTube videos that I referred to, to interrupt the text with audio files or image carousels, with the aim to integrate theory with practice and make the reading experience more interactive and multimodal. I was very fortunate to have this carefully designed site to play with, as well as the brilliant advice and technical support of its front-end designer, Andrea Rolfes, who worked tirelessly to help me pull it off," said Deane.

Asked about her future plans, Deane said she was hoping to do a fellowship or studio residency that allows her to further reflect on the broader context of the doctoral project, “and to realise some creative and reflexive outputs".


 Photographer: Stefan Els