NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

A Brave New World for Art

By Associate Professor Keely Macarow — Judging from a quick glance at today’s news cycle, it is clear that we live in uncertain and debilitating times in which our political leaders lack leadership and imagination in addressing climate and humanitarian emergencies that demand human and ecological justice.

Our planet and world is at a tipping point due to global heating, the emergence of extreme right-wing and populist leaders and the continuing dominance of colonising and austerity politics.

Artists cannot afford to merely represent Rome burn or the polar bear as the ice melts; it is important that we are also engaged and collaborating with researchers from other disciplinary fields through programs, centres, events and projects to enable and equip communities to become sustainable and prevent the climate emergency from becoming a catastrophe.

Because we are at a crossroads in life on earth, it is important for artists to contribute to not only conversations through exhibitions, performances and events (as important as they are) but to experiments and solutions: whether it be in the development and rollout of renewable energy, the provision of new methods and interventions in public healthcare provision, or (very) affordable and sustainable housing. I believe that it is no longer enough for artists to address “tricky questions” through representation, illustration or conceptual responses alone. Our imagination, lateral and creative thinking and material practices are also needed for experiments and solutions for reconciliation, social, ecological and health justice and innovation.

My interdisciplinary collaborations have spanned the creative arts, design, ethnography, public health, engineering, aged care, social science, housing and activism. I refuse to be locked into a discipline, medium or message, and seek opportunities that are much bigger than me, and which are difficult to achieve alone.

The researchers I collaborate with provide a dynamic interface for experimentation and a generative community of practice. This fusion of disciplines and creative thinking (or design thinking which is more common parlance), has enabled the creation of medicalised jewellery wearables; sound compositions to alleviate the stress and anxiety of emergency department patients; choreography as a method to understand the relationship of bodies in aged care settings and manifestos and creative interventions advocating for homefullness (rather than homelessness). In short, I have collaborated with researchers from diverse fields to critique and advocate for social and political concerns and to use creative, social and material practices to provide interventions to assist medical practitioners, housing policies, hospital departments and aged care residences.

My vision is for a culture in which creative arts researchers, students, artists and designers are situated across industries in creative and non-art environments including non-government organisations, cultural institutions, government agencies, medical settings and transport systems to develop and present projects and participate in diverse workplaces. I believe that it is important for those of us working in art and design schools to locate and foster external opportunities for our researchers and students to enable and ensure that creative thinking, making and creative practices and research contribute to local, national and international conversations, exhibitions, performances, events, residencies, innovations, policies and solutions. Diverse work integrated placements, artistic residencies and projects will extend creative thinking in workplaces, provide a range of sites and contexts for artistic production and presentations, and lead to new employment and projects for researchers, students and graduates.

We need the creativity and boldness of artists to collaborate with researchers and practitioners in other disciplines. I am by no means suggesting that artists are not involved in interdisciplinary research and practices, as there are many artists who engage with creative, scientific and technological innovations, ecological rebellions and projects of social and ethical responsibility with researchers from diverse fields. I am also not suggesting that artists shift away from creating works for public presentation. Far from it – but I am encouraging colleagues in my loudest voice to think and act laterally and contribute to interdisciplinary projects to not only pose questions but contribute to solutions. We need the thinking, risk taking and courage of artists to collaborate with colleagues from other disciplinary fields for knowledge exchange, advocacy and experimentation and to drive the social and ecological change our planet sorely needs.


Awan, N., Scheider, T., and Till, J. (2011), Spatial Agency. Other ways of doing architecture, Routledge: Oxon and New York.

Gill, A. (Ed) (2017), The Future of Public Space, Metropolis Books: New York.

Haslem, N., Johnson, G., Macarow, K. & Knutagård, M. (2019) “Cities of Homefullness; innovating global  action on housing issues through art and design” in Designing Cultures of Care, Vaughan, L.  (Ed.), Bloomsbury Academic: London.

Heiss, L., Macarow, K. & Beckett, P. (2018), Smart Heart Necklace, in Reciprocity, Design.Liège, the Triennale of Design and Social Innovation, Liege, Belgium, 5 October – 25 November 2018.

Macarow, K. (2018), “Art Does Matter: creating interventions in our thinking about housing.” From conflict to inclusion in housing – perspectives on the interaction of communities, residents and activists with the politics of the home. Graham Cairns, Georgios Artopoulos & Kirsten Day (Eds.), Housing – Critical Futures book series, UCL Press / AMPS: London.

Macarow, K., Weiland, T., Brown, D., Jelinek, G., Samartzis, P., Grierson, E. Winter, C. (2011), “Designing Sound for health and wellbeing in emergency care settings.” Journal of Applied Art and Health, Vol 2.3, 207-219.

Thompson, N. (2012), Living as Form. Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011. Creative Time Books and The MIT Press: New York and Cambridge.

Associate Professor Keely Macarow is Coordinator of Creative Care, School of Art, RMIT University, Melbourne. Keely has worked as an artist, creative producer, curator and writer for creative arts, performance, exhibition, design, cinema and publication projects which have been presented in Australia, the UK, the US and Europe. Keely is currently working on interdisciplinary projects with creative arts, design, housing, aged care and medical researchers based at RMIT University (Melbourne) and the Karolinska Institutet, the University of the Arts Stockholm, Konstfack & Lund University (Sweden), and with Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre (Melbourne).

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Jenny Wilson — Is this the future of creative arts or the end of specialised practice?
By Dr Caren Florance — What do photographers and poets have in common? Despite the contemporary ease of digital publishing, they both yearn for the authority of a physical book. Funnily enough, this is also the case with academics, but here we are thinking about non-traditional outputs, so I won’t go there.
By Associate Professor Jonathan Duckworth — I am fascinated by research that brings together the arts, design, science and technology having worked collaboratively across these domains for most of my academic career. My own interdisciplinary journey began with two research projects funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the Australia Council for the Arts through their Synapse initiative.
By Dr Elizabeth Ellison — At one stage in my academic career, I spent time teaching into a broad postgraduate degree in which my teaching team and I coordinated cohorts of students in study areas. Mostly, these were what we might consider to be traditional discipline areas, such as creative writing or interactive design. I, on the other hand, was the coordinator of the cohort of “Interdisciplinary” students.
By Professor Jon Cattapan — Arts training institutions, and indeed the artworld itself, reflect the complex and rapid shifts of information and technologies available to us. Is it really possible to be immersive and discipline-specific in a world where access to many knowledges provides such rich counterpoints and ruptures to singular practices?
By Professor Ross Woodrow — Creative arts research is probably too widely established in Australian universities to be dislodged by any argument against its validity. Even so, judging from past attempts at exclusion of the creative arts from consideration as research by the Australian Research Council and the OECD with its Frascati Manual, reform will not involve reasoned argument.