NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

The long and winding road

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.

I want to suggest an alternative way of considering the role of artefacts / creative works in a doctoral submission, by offering the liberating concept of ‘epistemic objects’ – their possible forms and agencies, and the alternative display/sharing of the understandings generated from these through ‘exposition’ not exhibition. This is the topic of a recently published co-authored book chapter (2018) (1), and what follows only briefly highlights its key issues.

The Journal for Artistic Research encourages submissions in the form of ‘expositions’. Its editor, Michael Schwab, offers an excellent description of this:

Exposition is an introduction. Exposition need not tell what something is; rather, it can set the ground for a play to follow, which can be open-ended … There is a didactic element to the notion of exposition, as far as it teaches how and as what something may be seen without determining outcomes. One may even say that there is something inherently gentle to exposition considered as introduction, a relief, perhaps, from the obligation of being a ‘work of art’, in the serious sense of the word. (JAR 7, 2015)

The sociologist Karen Knorr-Cetina (2001) articulates ‘epistemic objects’ as being characterised by the ambivalence of their ontological status as knowledge bearers, being both stable and mutable at the same time. They are stable in the sense that they comprise what the inquirer currently knows so far; and mutable in the sense that they are incomplete and ‘open’, allowing for further exploration by the creator and/or others towards new knowledge making. For example, Crick and Watson’s 1953 materialisation of the structure of DNA, using a retort stand, metal plates and rods joined with electrical connectors, might be considered an ‘epistemic object’. We identified some useful studies of the roles and agencies of ‘epistemic objects’ in architectural knowledge practices in design (Ewenstein & Whyte, 2009), in engineering and design education (Richter & Allert, 2011), and artistic practices (Borgdorff, 2012). In this sense artefacts generated in the process of creative inquiry need not be resolved ‘signature works’ rather they have an openness, giving the epistemic object a ‘capacity to unfold indefinitely’ (Knorr-Cetina, 2001).

If we consider exposition as a means of revealing the process of creative inquiry, and epistemic objects as outcomes of this process, we might see the usefulness of this for the doctoral student. The 2018 book chapter includes a few examples of ‘exhibitions’ as part of PhD submissions (including co-author Bristow’s ‘attempt’ at exposition), but these were difficult to find. Nameless Science, curated by Henk Slager (2008–2009) included the doctoral work of Matts Liederstam (2006). His installation guided the viewer through a carefully structured encounter, enabling his argument to be experienced directly. This concept of ‘context’ and ‘control’ in respect of the reception of artefacts in research was first mooted by Michael Biggs (2003), and provides an important framework for exposition.

Acknowledging these various individual attempts at exposition, there is however more organised and explicit thinking taking place. The ‘Adapt-r’ network, which includes RMIT, breaks new ground in doctoral education, hosting a Ph.D research project database and organising various residential events – Practice Research Symposia  – that combine research methods training, supervisor training, research in progress reviews, seminar and examination ‘auditing’. Perhaps the most radical move is their totally open public Ph.D examinations that are documented in their entirety on video, and published unedited on the web. Such examination events encourage the researcher to articulate the Ph.D inquiry in the presence of artefacts and/or resolved creative works, thus enabling participants the direct experiencing of the researcher’s argument and its constructive interrogation.

With this in mind, the 2018 book chapter offers a set of suggestions (to be creatively interpreted) for the possible rhizomatic structure and content of a doctoral exposition – as an integral component of the inquiry (properly archived, publicly available) – and not something to be ‘tacked’ on at the end of the Ph.D. If we as a sector can engage with exposition in a meaningful way, in terms of doctoral education at least, we might soon be able to claim that “we are getting closer”.


1. Gray, C. Malins, J. & Bristow, M. The ‘Epistemic Object’ in the Creative Process of Doctoral Inquiry. in: ‘Using Art as Research in Teaching and Learning’ (ed. R. Prior), 2018. London: Intellect.  Full References to work cited in this article are contained in this chapter.

Professor Carole Gray is an artist, independent researcher and higher education consultant, contributing to research development in the UK, Europe (Finland, Sweden, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Ireland, Latvia, Germany), and internationally (New Zealand, Mexico, USA, South Africa).  Carole served on the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Postgraduate Panel for Visual Arts and Media (2000-2004) and Peer Review College (2004-2012). She was a member of the UK Research Assessment Exercise 2008 sub-panel for Art and Design. Her practice as an artist has involved both individual and collaborative work exploring context specific artwork using contemporary technologies and materials. Carole has a longstanding interest in experiential learning in Art and Design education and has been involved in developing research student education and research supervision since completing her PhD in art education (1988).  The core of this pedagogic work has been concerned with encouraging creative and visual approaches to inquiry and it’s intimate relationship to practice.

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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.