NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Working with Change: culture, complexity and counter-action

By Associate Professor James Oliver

I acknowledge and pay respect to the Traditional Owners and Elders of the Kulin Nation on whose land I live and work. I acknowledge my slionneadh, dùthchas and ceilidh, within my community. This is how knowledge is gathered, shared, reimagined.

“Nothing endures but change” – Heraclitus of Ephesus

“Some people are afraid to change; they try so desperately to silence us” – Greta Thunberg

As academics, artists and designers we are likely familiar with Karl Marx’s famous critique, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it” – for some this is may be a point of academic and political debate, nevertheless, it is boldly inscribed and re-contextualised in the main entrance of Humboldt University in Berlin. [1] In recent times there have been many critiques of the business models and metrics that govern and shape the contemporary university; these are models and metrics that also frequently produce and reproduce modalities of change and instability. So can universities meaningfully engage with practices of change?

What is change?

Change is a multiplicity of things, processual, structural, material and ideological. It can both inform and be informed by our taken-for-granted or critical understandings of ways of doing, knowing and being in the world.  It is epistemological and ontological as much as it is methodological. This short commentary on change, as intransigent or progressive, follows on from my previous article for NiTRO by engaging in a critical reflection and provocation on power and privilege. In particular, on the relationality, conditions and situations of progressing our academic and artistic freedom, where “ceding power is crucial to seeding possibility”.

Business as usual?

Institutional processes of change, incremental over time, and other more acute processes of change management, are something we will all have encountered and experienced in our professional lives. They are presented as inevitable, linear challenges – challenges that are part of everyday life and culture – although the scale, scope and situation of change will differ. Nevertheless, change by definition is relational not linear­ and we find that bigger challenges of complexity and contradiction emerge, and counter-actions are encountered, or even required.

One of the hierarchical and utilitarian assumptions made about change – whether internal or external; environmental, institutional or social – is that it is something that can be managed, and with a “business as usual” orientation and mind-set. Maybe this works in some measure, or for some people in some situations. It is an approach founded on perceptions of power and progress that are maintained within a teleological, linear paradigm that thrives on a utilitarian hierarchy. One might call it elitist. Inequalities and exclusions remain prevalent. This also exposes the contradiction of our collective reluctance to change ourselves within the context of other emergent changes. Therefore, we are prone to live with an existential crisis, and a structure-agency dilemma as individuals and institutions, that hinges on our reluctance to cede perceived power. A power frequently articulated and measured as necessary for maintaining an investment in conceptions of progress, an ontology of progress. And so, “bottom lines” indicating growth in “participation/consumers” and “income/profit” become other indicators of change and progress, but do not tell a wholly adequate story. The question remains, whose story of change and progress?

Is progress just a metaphor?

Whilst we are fully aware that as a “public good” universities have also become entangled within an education-industrial complex – and at worst as an extractive industry – our measure and understanding of progress needs to be more than rhetoric or hyperbole for “business as usual”. To be critical of the idea of progress as an ontology, or ideology, is not to be negative and negate progress as such; it is not to be confused as critiquing concepts and practices of being progressive, dynamic and open to change. To critique progress is to question its formations and use as a commodity, to be measured and competed over in an economy and hierarchy of practices of knowing and doing. Change therefore needs to be about being progressive, not regressive or punitive, and it needs to be about genuine engagement with our publics – to reach out, not up. One of the first things I learnt in my undergraduate degree was that “facts do not speak for themselves”[2] – an effective, reverse metaphor. Facts are brought into being, operationalised, by other controlling variables or structuring factors, other agencies and stories, not always audible, visible or sensible. Indeed, sometimes apparent facts are rendered obsolete by an explicit intervening politics, practice or method, scientific or otherwise.

So, from which or whose perspective and experience are we to encounter and engage with progressive change?

Counter-actions as Progressive Change.

I finish this commentary with a reflection on what I will term counter-colonial relationality. Earlier this year I visited OCAD University in Toronto, on an Indigenous Practice Research collaboration with colleagues from Monash University and OCAD University.[3] Significantly, OCAD University has implemented what I understand is a world-first in their current institutional Academic Plan (2017-2022),[4] where Principle One of this Academic Plan is “Decolonization”.  This is an explicit practice that is being engaged with, and as well as a process of Indigenising curriculums there is the crucial cluster-hiring of Indigenous faculty. As Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang[5] have highlighted, decolonisation is not a metaphor; neither is it a competition, it is a practice. It is progressive and it is a counter-action. It is often misapprehended as being about difference, but it is actually about what Aileen Moreton-Robinson describes as “cultural density”.[6]

Neo-colonial ontologies of progress, whether in people or in structures, on societies on environments, are not progressive, they are “business as usual”. They are aggressive, competitive and evolving, laying claim to a dangerous logic of progress as an ontological technology for governing lives, to flatten and conform. Ultimately it’s a violence on culture, knowing, being, and on the density of possibility.

Change is iterative, multiple, complex and contradictory. It can therefore emerge as counter-action in the face of normative hierarchical progress. Progressive change respects relationality and reciprocity through cultural density, which in turn will require social and institutional change that is counter-colonial.



[2] Carr, E. H. (2018 [1961]) What is History? Penguin Modern Classics: London

[3] This initial collaboration between the Indigenous Visual Culture program at OCAD University and Wominjeka Djeembana Research Lab at Monash University was aided by a ‘Networks of Excellence’ grant, Monash University.


[5] Tuck, E and Wayne Yang, K. (2012) ‘Decolonization is not a Metaphor,’ in Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 1-40.

[6] Aileen Moreton-Robinson, A. (2015) The White Possessive Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, p. xvi.

James Oliver is an Associate Professor of Design at RMIT University, and a transdisciplinary academic with more than 20-yrs of research, teaching and engagement practice. He has extensive experience in supervising research projects and research training, particularly practice-based research. An important aspect of James’ work is in the area of Indigenous Practice Research, in international context and collaboration with artists and educators across Australia and Canada. James is also an Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University where he is a member of Wominjeka Djeembana.

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Dr Jenny Wilson — “Change” is defined as the act of transforming or making something different from what would have been if left alone. In academia we are in a constant state of change. Things are always transforming – small wins here, steps back there – like a giant snakes and ladders board that can mask the bigger longitudinal picture.
By Associate Professor Lizzie Muller — It will be “business as usual” for arts policy and funding, said Paul Fletcher[1] Federal Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, commenting on the disappearance of the word “arts” from the title of his government department. A statement that anyone interested in the quality of life in Australia should not find reassuring.
By Steven Alderton — In 2022, the National Art School in Sydney will celebrate 100 years on the site of the former Darlinghurst Gaol, where the tall, convict-built stone walls date from 1822 and the first prisoners arrived in 1841.
By Paul Dalgarno — Artists and art lovers flocked to the Art Schools for Fire Relief opening night at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery on 30 January, 2019. More than $100,000 has been raised for Wildlife Victoria and the Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund in an art exhibition hosted by the Victorian College of the Arts at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery.
By Professor Paul Gough — I’m back in the UK, back here after a really memorable and innovative time at RMIT University; six deeply enjoyable and action-filled years as head of a college crammed with all the creative industries including the oldest School of Art in Australia, with its exquisite studio-based activities in gold and silversmithing, and innovative research and galleries that stand comparison with anything on the global stage.
By Associate Professor Kim Cunio — In Canberra no-one is saying Happy New Year. It is not that we have lost our manners but that it seems somehow immoral to talk so lightly when we have been encircled by the suffering of others in a never ending Summer of bushfire. There was more.
by Professor Herman Van Eyken — In the Scandinavian countries, Artistic Research is often defined as the creation of an original work of art in combination with a critical reflection on the process of creation, and publication is when the art work meets an audience and the critical reflection is disseminated to the broader community of artists in the field.
Dr Julia Prendergast and Professor Craig Batty — We are thrilled to contribute to this NiTRO edition focusing the theme of Change. In this article we consider the theme as it relates to the activities of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs (AAWP), the peak academic body representing the discipline of creative and professional writing in Australasia.
By Dr Tim Cahill — It is accepted that Australian universities run research at a loss, with research cross-subsidised from student fees. Across the sector this results in around a $4.1b difference between research revenue and research expenditure, or about 42 per cent of research which is funded from non-research revenue.[1]