NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Creative practice research, making the invisible visible

Successful filmmaking requires the filmmakers to be invisible. Any trace of the maker in the film is usually scorned at, particularly in commercial films, that is unless the film requires the filmmaker to be in the film.

By Associate Professor Susan Kerrigan

Successful filmmaking requires the filmmakers to be invisible. Any trace of the maker in the film is usually scorned at, particularly in commercial films, that is unless the film requires the filmmaker to be in the film – think Michael Moore or Louis Theroux. Regardless of a film’s style, genre narrative, performances and visual or digital effects, filmmakers can see traces of their peers in a film. It’s simply the degrees of visibility afforded through the medium and its conventions which permit filmmakers to creatively cover their tracks.

Practice based research provides a third rigorous way to research … By adding creativity theories as a framing device and a methodology that defends the creators perspective, it means the internalized relationship between the spectator and the filmmaker, or vice-a versa can be brought to bear on practice.

When filmic creativity is achieved the audience becomes suspended inside an authentic storyworld. When creativity is flawed the makers of the storyworld are revealed and the façade becomes visible. The visibility or invisibility of the maker provides a rich arena for creative practice research, because creative practice is scalable.

This can be seen at the undergraduate level where students are learning the techniques to make their practice invisible, through to doctoral and professional practice research where the making of the film, the creation of a narrative that is meaningful to others is described as research. It is the embodied methods and process of filmmaking also known as screen production, which are gathered over time by the maker, that can only be researched from the uniquely subjective perspective of a film’s maker. Supporting those understandings of practice are a range of creativity theories and the Practitioner-Based Enquiry (PBE) methodology that brings reflective practice, artifact analysis, audience critique and personal accounts of the practice to the fore.

Viewing creativity as a system allows the maker, a screen practitioner, to place themselves inside systemic structures, where they are able to hold the knowledge of a spectator and the filmmaker simultaneously. Holding these two deeply-connected perspectives is possible when creativity is understood to be a rational process that is distributed by peers and comes into being through collective understandings and procedures. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi knows, creativity is systemic and it can be researched as a process, as a practice (individual or group) or as an idea.

One of our aims should be to reveal what we do, so that the richness and the creative complexity can be seen by more than just our creative peers, because for us to prosper as artists and creative industry professionals our research needs to be obvious to our academic peers too.

Psychology and sociology have produced multiple theories which allow creativity to be described and researched from the outside, taking a positivist’s perspective that observes creativity as a phenomena. Reconceptualising creativity theories and using them to frame practice as research in the communication and media arts space has allowed for new knowledge to be gathered that uses group creativity, flow theory, staged creative process theories, tacit knowledge, habitus, embodied practices and intuition. Combined, these theoretical understandings allow creativity to be seen a system in action and for it to be researched by the maker.

Researching the maker’s experience is more commonly being framed using practice-led, practice-based, research-led approaches, much like the discrete approaches of quantitative, which permits the use of big data and statistics, and qualitative, which allows for the rich descriptions and ethnographic details to be gathered through in-depth interviews or case studies. Practice based research provides a third rigorous way to research the making of, either on its own or in a mixed methods approach, in tandem with qual or quant. By adding creativity theories as a framing device and a methodology that defends the creators perspective, it means the internalised relationship between the spectator and the filmmaker, or vice-a versa can be brought to bear on practice. 

To get this balance right the ontologically and epistemological differences need to be disclosed, to avoid the jarring conflation that may sometimes occurs when quantitative methods are applied in a practice research setting. When done poorly these can lead to subjective and bias findings that are flawed. As creative practice researchers, who teach these ways of studying practice to our undergraduates and to our doctoral students we need to defend our ontologies, epistemologies, methodologies and methods so that our unique practitioner perspective, that is how we use ourselves, our tools and our environment to create, becomes visible and can be defensible.

As researchers we need to make visible our devices, techniques, social codes and cultural conventions used to research our practice, or generically creative industries practices. We need to take the opposite stance that we take as makers and creator where we want to be so masterful that our practice becomes invisible, as creative practice researchers we need to go against our intuition and those embodied desires to hide our practices. One of our aims should be to reveal what we do, so that the richness and the creative complexity can be seen by more than just our creative peers, because for us to prosper as artists and creative industry professionals our research needs to be obvious to our academic peers too.


Susan Kerrigan is an Associate Professor in Creative Industries and Communication at the University of Newcastle where she teaches screen production in the Bachelor of Communication. Susan is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Scholar and has published in international journals and has presented internationally at film production and media arts conferences on creative documentary practice and Creative Industries.

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Jenny Wilson — This edition of NiTRO was prompted by responses to a survey conducted last year, which asked readers what they would like to see more about in NiTRO. It is also timely, given the recent announcement of results of the ERA exercise and research engagement and impact assessments. We have devoted two editions to an exploration of the state of play for creative arts research.
By Professor Ross Woodrow — More than ten years of ERA (Excellence of Research in Australia) data gives a clear picture of the trajectory of creative arts research in academe. 
By Professor Carole Gray — In relation to the progress of creative arts research within higher education institutions, Jen Webb asks the important question “Are we there yet?” In this article I would like to partially address this question by focusing on a key component of a practice-led submission for PhD - namely the inclusion and presentation of artefacts as part of the overall argument, about which there has been a long debate. Their status can be ambiguous and the concept of ‘exhibition’ is - I would argue - problematic in this context.

“Are we there yet?” is a searching but also ambiguous question posed about creative practice research and the academy. In fact, yes, we are now deeply ensconced in the academic sector and its intersections with ways of governing knowledge and research. Of course, systems need to be developed and conformed to if we are to be able to ‘play the game’ … but ultimately this is also a highly differentiated and differentiating sector … segmented and divided by New Public Management discourse and practices.

I have been deeply involved in creative art and design research since the mid 1990s but have never worked in an art and design faculty. Instead, I found a home in IT and computer science where from the outset, there was a remarkable openness to having artists amongst the mix of people from different disciplines. My very first research grant for studying collaboration between artists and technologists … funded a series of artist residencies over four years.

In step with profound changes in the form and function of universities, creative arts research has been undergoing a process of transformation. While the past decade has been spent consolidating the creative arts into the evolving academy … the landscape we now face promises ongoing dramatic changes.

By Professor Jeri Kroll — There is no denying that creative arts in the university have been successful over recent decades. Yet Jen Webb still asks, in a July 2018 NiTRO piece,  “Are we there yet?” - the ‘we’ being the collective staff and students of the creative and performing arts disciplines.
By Professor Craig Batty — It was heartening to read QUT Vice-Chancellor, Margaret Sheil, write in support of the arts and humanities in the last edition of NiTRO.
By Professor Vanessa Tomlinson and Charulatha Mani — Drawing on Draper and Harrison’s earlier reflections in NiTRO on doctoral projects at Queensland Conservatorium (QCGU), I met with Charulatha Mani, an artist-researcher who has recently submitted her PhD on intersections between early opera and Karnatik music.

The UQ Drama Creative Fellowship, piloted in 2014, brings a playwright of national standing to UQ’s School of Communication and Arts each year to provide workshops, masterclasses and lectures. These activities have focussed both on the craft of playwriting and on the dramaturgy, or attributes, of the playtext. In 2019, UQ Drama took a different approach to the Fellowship.