NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Untethered and Together

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)?

I have been an artist-academic for 20 years, constantly tethered to the ever changing requirements for evaluating and reporting creative research outputs as defined by my school, my university and the ARC. For me this process has been mostly helpful, clarifying and purposeful – providing guidance on how to articulate aspects of my professional work in the context of research. As the years have passed the anxiety around ‘what is research’ has lessened and my confidence in judging the criteria for ERA-eligible creative research has increased. Now, as a Director of the Creative Arts Research Institute at Griffith University, I understand the co-joined nature of the artistic research project and the 250 word exegetical commentary; I understand what could constitute peer review; and perhaps most importantly I fully understand that artistic knowledge can be found in the most surprising places – there will always be exceptions to the rule.

Around the time of the last ERA evaluation in 2018, researchers across the 3 creative schools at my university, Queensland Conservatorium, Queensland College of Arts and Griffith Film School, banded together with the goal of finding a potential digital platform to showcase our research so our projects were visible, audible and citable. The GU Office for Research launched a scoping study alongside our Digital Solutions (GU) and Digital Library Service (GU) teams, and after 3 years of meetings, tenders, design, Covid and new beginnings, Creative Works was launched in August 2022 using the Figshare platform – ironically almost exactly the time that ERA 2023 was paused. 

Creative Works has been a game-changer for us; making our creative research findable and trackable, gathering around 5,000 views per month.

Each researcher uploads their research through the Figshare platform – incorporating media files (all common audio/image/document/3D objects etc accepted), public facing description, copyright information, publication information as well as the 250 word research statement. After uploading data, information is checked by Digital Library Service staff making sure metadata fields are correctly filled out, evidence and hyperlinks are consistent, keyword and category assignations are consistent, licensing agreement is correctly assigned, and checking there are no potential copyright issues. The file is then assigned to a discipline expert (one of the Deputy Directors of Research in the fields of music/sound, visual art/design, screen media) for verification as a creative research output, and then the project goes live. Once live, the output forms part of the university’s annual collection, and is ready to be incorporated into any future national evaluation exercise. Each research entry’s views and downloads can be tracked, with a DOI allowing us to track citations over time, adding to the impact story of the research item. In addition, each research entry can be updated into the future, incorporating further evidence of impact, uptake of work, discussion around the work, or indeed future iterations of the work. 

While this process does significantly improve the visibility and engagement with our creative research outputs, it does not remove some of the underlying difficulties in assessing each project. All research outputs uploaded to Creative Works must provide evidence of contribution to knowledge, be findable in the public domain and have been peer reviewed. Documentation of the work must be provided, and evidence of peer review incorporated into the research statement – whether that is evidenced through the presenting partner, the funder, the collaboration, the output or the critical reviews in journals or other news media.

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)? Why do we need to both make a creative project and then write about it? Can a good research statement elevate a mediocre creative work? Can an outstanding creative research work be let down by a badly worded research statement? 

And another thing: if we go back to the research definition as the ‘articulation of new knowledge, publically shared’ then are we swayed by the size of the knowledge (is the artefact small, short, long, big) and/or the impact of the knowledge (audience/social media metrics for instance)? 

To me these questions miss the point, and speak to the current state of creative research in the Australian context where individual researchers do not always have confidence and knowledge in the ever-changing requirements for evaluating and reporting creative research, and evaluators in each university have different approaches to assessment. Or perhaps the system has not always been clear to the researcher or the evaluator, leading to confusion, moving goal posts and eventual resistance in participation.

We do need quality control around excellence and peer review, but we must also remain nimble and alert to the as-yet unknowable and therefore as-yet-uncategorisable.

Creative researchers across the country have together made significant contributions within our research field, opening up access to our ways of making, doing and knowing. We provide pathways to knowledge inaccessible using any other methods. We sense, intuit, embody, contort and play through our research projects. And at certain times we find resting points, or resolutions articulated in a research output with clear contributions to knowledge and significance within the field. Each output is both a culmination of knowledge and a jumping off point – posing new questions, creating new pathways, and starting new conversations. This is why artistic research feels so unbounded. 

With the current pause in ERA, we still find ourselves making ‘ERA-eligible’ outputs. Creative researchers in the Australian system have been entrained to understand that the dual system of a creative project and a 250 word exegetical piece of writing equals research. Sharing information about the context of the work, honing in on the contribution to knowledge, and articulating the project’s significance in the public domain are all useful trackers for individual researchers. And it continues to serve the ever-increasing need to articulate the ongoing impact of our work, and the relationship between our research and society more broadly. 

But what is exciting are the next steps. We are now untethered from the time-consuming administrative ritual of the national ERA benchmarking exercise. Our sector is in a unique position to go forward with confidence, knowing that creative research, research through doing, can bring about new ways of knowing. We can also have confidence that we have measurable impact from our research as it directly engages with audiences/communities/stakeholders of all types.

Perhaps we need to band together around benchmarking, sharing platforms and systems that work, supporting smaller universities who may produce a smaller number of creative research outputs.

This could produce ways of collating and showcasing our research that is not driven by competition and ranking, but by sharing Australia’s collective creative research in the public domain.

Many before me have fought hard to make sure that the primary mode of communicating research does not have to be in written form. We can play, sing, paint, dance, act, compose, design, film and photograph our knowledge. The world is all the richer for it. But let’s make sure this work is documented, findable, citable, and sharable. Let’s make sure this body of research represents who we are as artist-academics. Untethered and together, let’s imagine the next collective chapter of capturing creative research into the future.

Vanessa Tomlinson is Professor of Music and Director of the Creative Arts Research Institute (CARI) at Griffith University. She is active as a researcher, musician , composer, curator and artistic director, with a focus on exploring how sound shapes our lives. With a long history in experimental music, Vanessa uses this body of knowledge to consider how we listen through site-specific explorations of space and place, and our potential to unlock new ways of thinking through sound. Key projects include The Piano Mill, The Immersive Guitar, Here and Now: Artistic Research in Australia, Beacons and Sounding the Condamine. She has toured the world for 25 years, premiering over 100 works by significant national and international composers, presenting work at major international festivals, and collaborating with improvisers, dancers, artists and more.

IMAGE: Vanessa Tomlinson, Beacons, Bleach Festival 2022, site-specific sound work. Image courtesy of Greg Harm, Tangible Media.

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