By Dr Nancy Mauro-Flude
Now that most art & design programmes have been usurped into a graduate model there is impetus for academic institutions to quantify and rank creative enquiry through endorsing practice based research outputs. In many cases, universities that champion the modality of valuing of practice based method do so as something innovative and pioneering. While received ideas about the relationship between artistic production, writing, theory and criticism are being expanded, lamentably, adopting this approach as novel is to ignore a millennia of practices and investigations that adopt a practice based research methodology and as such devalue the approach by presenting it as up-to-the-minute rather than a valid and time honoured technique. In the 17 Century, Leibniz adopted the theoria cum praxi motto due to the fact it both motivated and guided him to consider the true value of theoretical inquiry as having a capacity to enhance the common good. In many cases these precepts continue to shape various field of research (Weckend & Strickland 2019), because they are more inclusive of people who have had different pathways into the role of receiver of that knowledge.
But absorbing then translating experiential knowledges into larger critical theoretical reflection models is an incredibly demanding process, especially if it is to be undertaken with high-level commitment in the domain that is being contemplated.
The inevitable mechanisms of Key Performance Indicators (KPI) and performance measures like ERA, has barely met protest or critical reflection (Hope, 2019). To bring the artistic research issue into the centre of our interest is to begin serious work on the subject at hand. Above all, it entails a special formulation of almost every major problem concerning art, notably that of the unity of the several arts, in fact of the often denied, yet patent fact of their actual division; the paradox of abstraction in a mode supposed to be characterised by concreteness; the cultural significance of style, the political power of technique.
Personally, as a performance artist, I was drawn to an academic research environment not only because I have a respected context in which to share my work, or the fact that I am almost guaranteed a situation to continue and share this perspective in a research institution, but as a practitioner I wanted to make an intervention in the theoretical field underpinning research from the inside. This was in order to question the edifying meaning of aesthetic judgement, and rarefied technique; to highlight modes of pedagogy and expanded forms that are more inclusive of people who have had different pathways into the role of researcher. People who might have an inability to articulate their pathway, because of its lack of orthodoxy, and who are unable to find a voice to communicate this, are so because they are starved for an affirmation of their own historical existence (Lester1998). Many of us work double, even triple time for the privilege of operating within the borders of dominant discourse systems, cultivating grants, fellowships, and faculty appointments. Some of us feel this keeps academics oppressed and too distracted to fulfil their social obligations of critical reflection on a rapidly changing society, and is a move towards authoritarianism.
On one hand, we are told that professional practice “Engagement and Impact” is increasingly important, and on the other, publications and KPIs we must consider quality over quantity. Not to mention teaching workload allocations mixed in, which is another can of worms. In short, in the time we spend justifying an often immaterial major creative project alongside the time it takes to actually develop the work itself – we could have written a book, or, at least a few peer-reviewed journal articles. Even those academics whom claim to be in solidarity with practice based research affirm that a major creative project will never be equal to a book chapter or even a Q1 journal. (A Q1 indicates that the journal is in the top 25% of its subject category. It is immediately accepted by the university as a key performance research contribution not requiring any further explanation. Typically these go through a process of double blind peer review and can take a year before formal publication. It should be noted that although even if often the quality is high, not only the fact that by the time you are reading it the zeitgeist may have past, the actual community of practice from which the content has been brewed exists in a very different realm.)
Does any of this promote quality outcomes, originality and innovation? If a practice based research is a compost or fabric of critical ideas, not like science – a body of general propositions expressing discovered facts, not a collection of moral truths learned by some other means than factual discovery – then a major creative work is a stocktake of the ideas in terms of which one expresses facts and laws, beliefs and maxims. Producing a major contribution both to artistic practice and to the academic understanding of this practice, it is the study of the conceptual framework in which all our propositions, are made, although never scalable. If it isn’t technique, nor talent, nor skill – creativity is the ability to synthesise multiple disparate and conflicting ideas into a surprising gestalt.
Is it even possible to encourage a more systematic consideration of a range of methodologies with wider cultural analysis and formulated conclusions? Amid the speculation of traditional qualitative and quantitative traditional academic method, verses the half-baked yet significant studio/rehearsal talk of artists, always on the search for a new language for feelings, one crucial issue is never fully faced. It is skirted with a sort of intellectual awe, or treated emotionally with no demand for meaning at all. That issue is the problem of artistic creation. How is an artist’s work really a process of creation? What, actually, is created? Is there justification for the notion that one should speak rather of reproducing and re-creating than of creating things in art? Or, is the whole idea of art for arts sake in the age of the cultural industry a sentimentalism?
These questions in Non Traditional Research Outcomes (NTROs) characteristically demand a starker treatment by the numerous levels of internal, then external research committees that analyse these research submissions. In NTROs there is no formulaic solution like Traditional Research Outcomes (TROs) like Q1s have to the subject of research. The expansiveness of artistic research, its ability to move across scales or moments, (prizes, funding, media and press reviews, curated projects, and prominent exhibitions all that are privy to cultural capital notwithstanding, subcultural deference and other forms of gatekeeping and folklore) is one means of surmounting such observance but paradoxically also something that ensures its fallibility.
Not to mention such a “linguistic” approach to “proto-linguistic” topics require further translation, as the reading and production of text often may be deeply alien to the more intuitive world of practice and making – at least, for the critical and radical among us who exist in seeding grounds. Although it is precisely through “careful observation and analysis”, a leading Australian performance studies theoretician Gay McAuley, whose examination of the methodological and ethical issues raised by experiences of observation advocated for the usefulness of critical ethnographic theory in practice scenarios, led her to examine embryonic rehearsal room. McAuley reminds us:
“The task of the academic specialist in the field of performance studies is, in my view, essentially to observe, record, document and analyse the creative process, the resulting product and its reception by audiences. The theorising which is a central part of any academic enterprise (and which is too often brushed aside as unimportant by Anglo-Saxons and carried on in isolation from practical experience by European academics) should emerge from and be rooted in this careful observation and analysis. Ultimately, some of the theoretical insights produced will be fed back into the creative practice of the artists as well as shedding light for all concerned on the way the art form functions. (1985: 21)”
Practice promotes critical analysis of one’s own position and activity within their domain through “careful observation and analysis”, and the exercise of writing is a means to help us record and explicitly address the research and the understandings we encounter which are normally perhaps a little more implicit aspect of making, but utterly useful in order to develop practice through explicitly argued contextual understanding. As an academic with a dance background, it took years squirming in my chair with blood boiling, in an attempt to articulate my fervent views in an academic discourse. It is often for precisely this reason – creative practice research’s capacity to make the known, the understood, and the lived, “strange” that it is valuable; to reside in the paradox without a critically rigorous ability to understand methodologies, in a complex manner.
To try and resolve it from just one angle does not create anything dynamic or meaningful – it is the very crucible of our labour – but then does this pioneering trope mean we are destined to work always double time?
These mechanisms and pressures that we are subjected have shifted the focus from the “art” as the primary focus to essentially an irrelevance, it’s all about the writing. Therefore it is posited that to inhabit the space in-between is even harder, not only because it never feels as stable as moving from one extreme to another, trained in ethnographic strategies in thorough scrutiny and consideration we are always already tarnished with a witness within. Does this have to mean we cannot maintain a strong connection and contrapuntal relationship to radical practices and contribute to counter movements taking place outside the institution – albeit the opposite? It is worth mentioning, that another crucial and political issue is now Higher Arts institutions all over the world have wiped out the out the “artist-in-residence” programmes, for “industry fellow” where once academic institutes worked in collaboration with radical artists across many artistic genres. A simplistic “play it safe” attitude abundantly expressed in pseudo-institutionalised vernaculars type of trend has serious consequences because it is creating an opposition to experimental forms of artistic practice. When we obscure these kinds of differences, that is, when we conflate barbaric instinct with literary nuance, culture and art, and dismiss the contemplative, critical life of a pundit, in esteem of a vitalist participatory form, then artistic research as a critical strategy risks a new kind of Philistinism.
On the other hand, the role of the autonomous artist, fortuitously, does not have to answer to everything …
We need urgently to demand a new conversation.
Dr Bill Hart former head of UTAS School of Art, for his ongoing conversations on this topic over the past decade.
Hope, Cat. 2019. ‘Are we in – or out – of the system?’ in NiTRO 21, The Measurement Game: Evaluation of quality, impact and engagement of creative arts research.
McAuley, Gay. 1985. ‘Performance Studies: a personal view’ in Australasian. Drama Studies 7. 5; 23.
Lester, Gary. 1998. ‘Kai Tai Chan: Part One Fingers Dancing in the Dark’, Brolga 8 7. 17.
Weckend, Julia, and Lloyd Strickland. 2019. Leibniz’s Legacy and Impact (Routledge Studies in Seventeenth-Century Philosophy). Routledge.
Dr Nancy Mauro-Flude has devised and curated extensively within the field of experimental art forms often with the aim to bring the audience closer to the front line of non deterministic aesthetically oriented advances in Human Computer Interaction (HCI). From 2015-8 she was Art Chair for the ACM, SiGCHI the 11th Creativity and Cognition Symposium Singapore Museum and ArtScience Museum Singapore. Recent exhibitions include: DarkMofo, Tasmania; Transmediale, Berlin; Radical Networks, New York; FILE, Sao Paulo; Contemporary Art Tasmania; EastBloc, Montreal. Mauro-Flude has contributed to publications, such as: Writing in the Expanded Field, ACCA: Melbourne; FLOSS+Art London: Mute; Techne/Technique/Technology: Intersecting Art and Technology in Practice, Routledge; Unlikely: Transdisciplinary Journal for Creative Arts, University of Melbourne/Latrobe; Live Interfaces, Leonardo MIT Press. From 2016-8 she was Art Chair for the ACM, SiGCHI the 11th Creativity and Cognition Symposium Singapore Museum and ArtScience Museum Singapore. Formerly MFA course leader Trondheim Academy of Fine Art, Norway, Assistant Professor Communication and New Media National University Singapore and currently coordinates, Emerging Digital Culture and HCI and Aesthetics studio, School of Design RMIT University.