NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Navigation and Visibility: an Artist in a University

SUSANNA CASTLEDEN ––– Being an artist and an academic is about contributing to the cultural capital of a community. From its inception a work of art is created to engage, however, navigating how to measure the success of this, what the cultural impact is, remains difficult to measure and evidence. This ‘wicked problem’ seems to be pertinent for funding bodies, galleries and universities alike.

This brief contribution to the new look NiTRO – Creative Matters bounces around some thoughts on academic and artistic work. The recurrent thread in these intertwined states seems to be something about navigation and visibility and why these have been in my thoughts of late. As an academic there is an attentiveness to the various ways creative practice is made visible both internally and externally. As an artist, my creative practice engages with the infrastructures and objects associated with transport, travel, and energy, and examines ways to visualise these systems in the context of human experience and proximity. The strand of visibility and navigation runs through both of these.

Being an artist and an academic is about contributing to the cultural capital of a community. From its inception a work of art is created to engage, however, navigating how to measure the success of this, what the cultural impact is, remains difficult to measure and evidence. This ‘wicked problem’ seems to be pertinent for funding bodies, galleries and universities alike. Meanwhile, as ERA and Impact and Engagement remain in their current state of hibernation, the institutional hand-wringing about how best to rank, prioritise and make visible our own NTROs has abated for now, and conversations about a possible change in how to approach, report and evaluate NTROs has emerged.

A few weeks ago, a science colleague posed an interesting question: what is the Humanities’ equivalent to getting published in Science or Nature? My first thought was the Venice Biennale – the Olympics for artists – but with only one Australian ‘published’ every two years, the odds are significantly lower than the 8% success rate of getting published in Nature. Maybe a solo show at a state gallery or public institution? A highly regarded commercial gallery or regional gallery, or maybe the Archibald or a lucrative commission?  All these things speak to a prestige linked to a gallery and/or a peer-review process which could be considered akin to the editorial and peer-review process in Science or Nature.

However, does this gallery/journal plus peer-review equation just become a convenient but inaccurate proxy for the work itself having excellence, engagement, and impact?

Thinking through these various registers of prominence of both creative practice and traditional research has been entangling with my ideas for a new artwork.

I’m trying to make a work for an exhibition later this year that has as its central theme a particular island just off the coast of Fremantle in Western Australia. The island, Meandip/Garden Island, has a long settler colonial history, and since 1978 has been a naval base, which means it is visible from the mainland but mostly inaccessible to the public. On the island is a Submarine Escape Training Facility, the only one in Australia. Built in 1987, but with a Brutalist aesthetic, its concrete tower with curved edges and porthole-like windows gives visual hints of ‘submarine’ whilst contrarily being firmly fixed and stationary. There’s something compelling about this building, on an island that’s inaccessible, and where $8b of investment is about to occur.

The elusive idea for the island artwork kept me awake the other night. The University Accord, the ARC review and a recently announced WA State government review into our public university sector, didn’t make for a return to sleep either. So, I listened to an episode of the Art Show and let the conversation between Daniel Browning and New York art critic Jerry Saltz distract me from those things that are seldom solved by, as Saltz calls them, the demons at 3am. The ever-irreverent Saltz talked about living in a time where everyone likes everything, and yet in private no one likes anything, which is why he writes what he really thinks about an artwork. He not only says why he liked something, but more importantly, what he thought made the work less interesting, why it might be plateauing, why it wasn’t as good as previous work, what is unoriginal about it. Saltz claims he writes for the reader, not for the dealer, the glossy art magazine, art market, the gallery, or the museum.

It made me think about what Saltz, or another art critic does: presents a peer-review narrative about the artwork, rather than the museum, the gallery, or the market. Might this be a model for a new ERA where the emphasis is less on the system and more on the quality and impact of work itself. But then I fell asleep to Saltz musing that ‘85% of the work you and I see is crap… but none of us can agree on which 15% is good’.

The co-editors of NiTRO asked me to reflect on my experience of being an artist in a university. Teaching and assessing undergraduate fine art students, where the teaching/research nexus is most tangible, seems like the simplest answer here. However, my current academic role, where focus is attuned to metrics to determine what that ‘good’ 15% might be, means less time teaching, which makes the answer less straightforward. The visibility and navigation thread goes some way to answering this. As creative practitioners in the academy, we need to find ways to have the work we do seen, but also have an unobstructed view of, and then navigate, the systems used to measure it that might sit outside the established art market.

Being an artist in a university also provides the space to make works that don’t fit into an art market, or in my case, on a commercial gallery wall.

My recent artwork, 1:1 Wind Turbine Blade (see , is a 17-metre rubbing of a section of a wind turbine blade, made for an exhibition at the John Curtin Gallery. The exhibition Energaia was part of the university’s commitment to becoming a world leader in research and education around alternative energy, and included works by creative practice colleagues in the School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry at Curtin University. This collective creative research engagement was funded by the university Research Office and ties into our newly established Institute for Energy Transition, which has ‘Energy Humanities’ as one of its core themes. 1:1 Wind Turbine Blade is my largest and possibly most ambitious work, which was enabled financially and structurally by both university funding and a huge university art gallery wall.

Making work outside the studio – in an aircraft boneyard, a wind farm, or an aerospace museum – requires negotiation, tactics, and strategy to gain the necessary permissions to access the sites. With some tenacity and a bit of luck, the ideas and drivers for my creative practice have led me to work with industry and willing research partners.

The words ‘industry engagement’ and ‘research partners’ here might seem out of place for an artist, but they are reminders that what we do as artists is part of the university research ecosystem.

However, at the output end, existing university research repositories are not always a good fit for creative practice, which results in an inelegant scramble come evaluation time. 

The creative outcomes in the Energaia exhibition were built from collaborations between scientists, sustainability experts, community activists and industry. It was a clear reminder that the world isn’t built in silos, and work towards energy transition will require new understandings and approaches that will be driven via multidisciplinary research. The same could be said for the contribution creative practice researchers, and humanities researchers more broadly, can bring to the various university and ARC reviews. 

Associate Professor Susanna Castleden is Dean of Research in the Faculty of Humanities at Curtin University. She passionately advocates for the recognition of humanities research, its diverse methodologies and approaches, and champions the important role Humanities researchers contribute to society. Susanna is a multi-award-winning artist and educator and has exhibited continuously throughout her career. She has participated over 30 solo and group exhibitions, and her artworks are held in more than 20 major collections across Australia, including the National Gallery of Australia and The Art Gallery of WA.  Susanna’s creative practice, predominantly in printmaking and drawing, includes large-scale projects that bring together ideas of mobility and proximity, often seeking to reveal alternate ways of encountering and understanding movement. 

IMAGE: Susanna Castleden 1:1 Wind Turbine BladeJohn Curtin Gallery 2022, Gesso and acrylic on washi paper 458.5cm x 1662.5cm Image courtesy of Brad Coleman

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JOSEPH TOLTZ ––– Artistic practice researchers had been battling internally (within the academy) for years for peer recognition and a slice of the awards and grant offerings. Inclusion in ERA may have seemed like a victory in 2009, but it was fairly pyrrhic. Is it any wonder that academics engaged in artistic research are weary? 
VANESSA TOMLINSON ––– Endless questions linger about creative research processes – and everyone reading this article would have heard these before: what is the threshold (size, length, importance) for a work or a body of work being accepted as a creative research output? Who is qualified to endorse this decision? How do we have parity and consistency across artistic disciplines with different working methods, timelines and artefacts (a feature film may take longer to produce than a poem, an exhibition of works longer to paint than an improvised music event)?
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