‘Practice-Led Research’, forum panel as part of Beginning, Middle and End, new media festival, Australian National University, September 18, 2009
A place at the university table
When it comes to university research, we in the creative arts, and particularly the creative media arts are the new kids on the block. Certainly the other disciplines generally welcome us, but they don’t need us in their universities. Rather it is us who needs them we need them. University teaching and research paradigms were fine and complete before we began to get amalgamated with them twenty years ago. We need a place at their table and a slice of their pie. So we have to inevitably argue for our case on their terms. And this is what we have done, reasonably successfully over the last fifteen years, so exhibitions now more or less smoothly into translate to publications, studio practice translates to laboratory experiment, audience response translates into new knowledge. We can argue about the exchange rate, but the basic principles are accepted. This process has led to the pretty much global bedding down of the concept of practice led research. That is that the activities of a studio practice undertaken within the established forms, processes histories and goals of the creative arts can be the prime motive force of a research program, both in terms of method and outcome.
At the same time as this has been happening each university as a whole has being put under ever increasing pressure to measure itself and quantify its value to society in order to compete with other universities for funds. There is no doubt that this has put enormous pressure on us over the last decades, and that the creative arts are under more pressure than other areas of the university. But I don’t think we can argue with this. We can’t say our students shouldn’t be accountable. We can’t say that the things we do as practice based academics on our rare ‘research days’ shouldn’t be measured by the people who pay us to do them.
Nonetheless there have been some extraordinary over the top reactions to this process of migration of art schools into universities. For instance in a recent Broadsheet (and I’d like to thank Peter Fitzpatrick for drawing it to my attention) John Conomos argues that the radicality of contemporary art is being killed off by university orthodoxies about teaching and research. This is particularly a worry for the creative media arts he says, where the ‘intricate multi-dimensional media environment in terms of new digital technology and their intricate links between mediation, connection, immersion and community’ are under threat of a blanding out, becoming ‘decorative, ahistorical ‘wallpaper’ entertainment, journalistic lifestyle spruiking for the status quo and the academy.’
This all sounds like a mighty fine rallying cry, but the problem I have with John’s argument is that the alternative systems to universities for supporting radical contemporary art practices which challenge the status quo — the market, arts funding, patronage, the creative industries — aren’t much better. But, despite my reservations with his argument, John does indicate that the complexity of creative media art practice makes the process of the translation of art based processes and outcomes to university based processes and outcomes that much trickier. This is because the creative media arts are dispersed across various disciplinary fields and technological paradigms; they are in a state of perpetual emergence; a cycling flux between innovation and recuperation, the new and old, the latest invention and its instant redundancy, digital and analogue, this or that history, and so on and so on.
For instance I have great respect for my colleagues in say, Painting. I think they are great. But their research — of working in a studio for a year and producing say twelve paintings each on stretchers which each engage with the long-established history of painting, which has also formed the core of the established university discipline of art history for a hundred years, and which all go off on their identical stretchers to be exhibited together in a gallery along with a glossy illustrated catalogue— I think that process is easier to translate into ‘publication’, ‘experimentation’, or ‘new knowledge’ than, say, somebody who is writing code to create a new environment for a platform that hasn’t quite been invented yet, for a purpose that is only just emerging as a possibility. I think both are equally exciting and important, it’s just that in one case the holes are slightly less round and the pegs are slightly less square.
On the other hand, it must be said that media arts has the advantage that it is still incredibly sexy, cool and groovy, and somewhat mysterious, so we have an advantage there. But some of this sexiness might be wearing off as university administrators realize that it is also incredibly expensive, and continues to be expensive, every two to three years.
Media arts have a voracious appetite for money, and at the same time a more complicated process to negotiate in order to produce the high yield research outcomes universities crave in order to justify their budgets.
The problem of logocentrism.
The currency of universities is words. Our currency is pictures, or sounds, or things. Therefore our research — our art — has to be accompanied by words. Personally I don’t think this is a big ask. We have successfully established that these words are exegetical, that’s why the written bit of a practice based research thesis is called an exegesis. In a creative arts thesis nobody should be asked that they ‘explain’ what the work means. It is quite clear that the exegesis describes the process of meaning production, not the meaning itself. It should describe the theoretical context for the process, not substitute verbiage for poor art. If you don’t get that you don’t get practice based research, and if you can’t do that then don’t come to university. I think all these issues are being handled quite well within the various PhD programs, and if they aren’t in individual universities there are plenty of ways that they can be sorted out.
However what I do think is exciting about the concept of practice based research goes beyond the defensive posture it sometime adopts, you know, the posture of: “oh, why we have to do all this painful stuff just so we can get a seat at the table which is our right anyway, how dare you do it to us, can’t you trust us to know what’s best for us, oh it’s all too much”. What is exciting is the new research tools it brings to the academy. I think that is really exciting.
As has been well documented, in the humanities there has been a ‘pictorial turn’. In the last couple of decades, humanities disciplines like anthropology, archaeology, english, and cultural studies have embraced the visual. When that pictorial turn in the humanities meets practice-based research from the creative arts it gets really interesting. This is because other organs come into play: looking becomes a critical practice in and of itself, not just a means of providing sense-data to be written about, the same goes for hearing and touch. This is what is really exciting and positive about practice led research, and for me it’s happening in our PhD programs across the country, particularly where candidates from other disciplines or other backgrounds incorporate ‘our’ methods into their ‘methods’. When, for instance they are given permission to look and do — rather than look, describe what they think they saw, then do something based on that description — new methodological tools become available.
Again, I think the creative media arts are crucial here, and are naturally at the forefront. Although, as I have said, they are in a state of perpetual emergence, they are also intrinsically discursive. They are multi-sensorial, they are multi-user, they deal with data-sets, iterations, automated procedures, interactions. All this makes well know forms of academic process — like the essay, the conversation, the dialogue, the experiment — absolutely intrinsic to the creative media arts, rather than something which can be applied to them. You can have a conversation about a traditional art-work, you can have a conversation in creative media arts. You can write an essay about a conventional art experience, you can make an essay within a creative media arts piece.
So, paradoxically, although the creative media arts don’t fit in with some paradigms of the measurable research output, they do fit in with other paradigms of academic discourse.
For me the concept of practice led research comes down to the resistance of things. When I try to take a photograph it doesn’t all get in the frame or all in focus. When I exhibit something, people don’t think what I want them to think. Reality is obdurate and intractable. The fact that REALITY RESISTS US defines our lives, and for me only practice led research gets right down onto that interface. It’s not only a ticket to the small crowded table of university funding, it also helps me work out for myself, why isn’t the world exactly the way I want it to be.