Inter-disciplinary art and technology practice-based research and the creative arts

By Professor Linda Candy

I have been deeply involved in creative art and design research since the mid 1990s but have never worked in an art and design faculty. Instead, I found a home in IT and computer science where from the outset, there was a remarkable openness to having artists amongst the mix of people from different disciplines.

My very first research grant for studying collaboration between artists and technologists which funded a series of artist residencies over four years came from the UK’s physical sciences and engineering research council.

We need to cast our eyes over areas where there is considerable success. In asking what the creative arts can learn from art+technology practice-based research, I focus on three areas: interdisciplinarity, methodology, dissemination.

At that time, most arts schools (with notable exceptions such as the Slade School of Fine Art) did not seem to be suitable places to forge new ways of making art with technology. They worked in painting, sculpture and print making silos and there was almost no investment in the expertise and equipment needed for making advances artistically and digitally.

Much has changed since then but it is still hard to find places that truly understand the needs of the creative digital arts within universities and, without the influence of external bodies, there might have been much less progress than we observe today. Nevertheless, the academic provision for PhD research in the creative arts has been pivotal in promoting practice-based approaches.

But “Are we there yet?” is still a pertinent question. My answer would be that depends on where we want to be.

University authorities and academic staff around the world are continuing to ask questions about the standards and criteria that apply to the PhD degree in art and design. Moreover, the conflation of practice and research in some areas has been detrimental to establishing the kind of productive discourse and shared methodology for Practice-based Research (PbR) that is so essential to its grounding and status academically. PbR is still regarded with suspicion and doubt in the wider world of research methodology and the lack of a cohesive cross-disciplinary discourse is hampering progress.

Even in Australia and the UK where there are well established PbR doctoral programmes in the arts, not all university research training schemes are adequate and there is less than whole-hearted inclusion of ‘non-standard’ outcomes. As Jen Webb pointed out in her article for the 2016 issue, whilst considerable progress was made from a very low base, we cannot assume continuing recognition.

Should we be worried? Is practice-based research in the creative arts fragile?

What has to happen to strengthen the place of PbR at all levels?

I suggest that not only do we need to be ever vigilant, but we need to cast our eyes over areas where there is considerable success.  In asking what the creative arts can learn from art+technology practice-based research, I focus on three areas: interdisciplinarity, methodology, dissemination.

Interdisciplinary environments are essential for fostering an understanding of the wider world of research at the same time as providing a place to develop the original ideas and practices that are so necessary to making a contribution to knowledge.

What follows is a brief distillation of some lessons learnt from long experience of art and technology practice based research in Australia and the UK.

First, university authorities at all levels need to take inter-disciplinary research on board in a serious and pragmatic way. At the top, it is sometimes assumed that a mission statement like, “This institution is a place for inter-disciplinary creativity”, accompanied by bells and whistles is all you need to make it happen. If truth be told, the needs of inter-disciplinary research are poorly understood. What is more they are not very well supported by existing organisational structures. This especially applies to rigid rules for distributing funding beyond the faculty boundary.

Some of the more forwarding thinking institutions have tried allocating special funds to encourage inter-disciplinary research groups but when it comes to which party takes credit and receives support for a PhD researcher, different faculty members find themselves having to fight it out for who gets the funds. This needs to change: if the supervisors come from different faculties the resource must be shared if we want to facilitate inter-disciplinary research. Relying on the goodwill of sympathetic academic staff is not a sustainable solution.

The second lesson is that there has to be a clear and well-articulated understanding of research methods that are best suited for practice related studies. PBR methodology can be a very slippery matter and many students find it difficult to know what approaches, procedures and methods are appropriate for this kind of research. This can be achieved in many ways and not just by improving the research training courses alone: although that is useful it is not enough in a field where the area is fluid and researchers are developing new and hybrid approaches as part of their PhD programmes. A valuable resource for students is providing models and exemplars as guidance as demonstrated in the trajectory model of theory, practice and evaluation (Edmonds and Candy 2010).

It also helps if practice based researchers do not work in isolation from peers working in different disciplines. Having access to a collegiate supportive space where they can come into contact with new thinking and methods is known to be very productive. As we discovered at UTS’s Creativity and Cognition Studios, co-locating students and sharing ideas and approaches through a regular series of meetings and presentations can lead to successful completion rates and a high rate of publications including a significant book on the work of the group (Candy 2011).

Interdisciplinary environments are essential for fostering an understanding of the wider world of research at the same time as providing a place to develop the original ideas and practices that are so necessary to making a contribution to knowledge. In the art and technology context, for example, brushing up against different perspectives from Donald Schön on practitioner “knowing in action” to Thomas Kuhn’s on paradigm shifts in science, can contribute to a greater understanding of how to address key questions such as what is knowledge and what is my PhD’s contribution to knowledge?

The third area where art and technology can show a way forward is in the dissemination of the outcomes of practice-based research. This is essential for building a community of understanding and knowledge out of shared interests and practices. A critical activity is the reporting of principled approaches, research methods and working practices in high quality journals with international reputations. Two examples are Digital Creativity and Leonardo Journals both of which have fostered inter-disciplinary art, science and technology work. In 2018, Leonardo celebrated its 50th anniversary with gatherings of artists and scientists throughout the world, all of whom had published the outcomes of their practice and research over that time. I was privileged to attend more than one of the occasions when a strong and vibrant community of internationally recognised artists spoke about the value of being part of a global practitioner researcher community.

Much has been achieved by practitioners, academics and research councils and we should be sure to acknowledge that progress. The road ahead looks promising but we should not assume it will not be without barriers along the way - at least for now.

For anyone wishing to explore the substantial and growing body of work emerging from practice based research in art and technology in Australia and beyond, there is a list of books and articles below.

Linda Candy is currently writing a book called The Creative Reflective Practitioner to be published by Routledge in 2020.

Practice-based Research Publications

Candy, L. and Edmonds, E.A. (2018). Practice-Based Research in the Creative Arts: Foundations and Futures from the Front Line, Leonardo, Volume 51, Issue 1, February, pp 63-69.

Candy, L. and Edmonds, E.A. (2018). Practice-Based Research in Practice: Regulations and Recommendations, Leonardo, Volume 51, Issue 1, February, supplementary article

Candy, L., Edmonds, E.A and Poltronieri, F.(eds) (2018). Explorations in Art and Technology, Springer Cultural Computing Series: Springer -Verlag, London, 2nd Edition.

Candy, L. and Ferguson, S. (2014). Interactive Experience in the Digital Age: Evaluating New Art Practice, Springer Cultural Computing Series Springer -Verlag, London.

Edmonds, E.A and Candy, L. (2010) Relating Theory, Practice and Evaluation in Practitioner Research, Leonardo Journal 43 (5) 470–476.

Candy, L. and Edmonds, E.A. (2011). Interacting: Art, Research and the Creative Practitioner, Libri Publishing Ltd: Faringdon, UK.

Professor Linda Candy is a writer and researcher living and working in Australia and the UK. She is currently a principle investigator for the Australian Research Council Linkage Project Artistically rethinking creative coding for digital media. She will support the project research design and studies of creative practitioner process and act as research mentor to the team. She has written over 100 papers and articles about the creative process, the role of digital technology and practice-based methodologies.

To date she has produced three edited books: Explorations in Art and Technology (2018 second edition); 'Interacting: Art, Research and the Creative Practitioner' (2011) and Interactive Experience in the Digital Age: Evaluating New Art Practice (2014).  She is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Art, Design and Communication in Higher Education, the International Journal on Design Creativity and Innovation and the Springer Cultural Computing Series. She has guest edited several special issues in Leonardo journal, Design Studies, Co-Design and the International Journal of Human Computer Interaction.

In May 2003, she became research manager for the CRC Construction Innovation project, Team Collaboration in High Bandwidth Virtual Environments at the University of Sydney. She has held honorary professorships at the University of Technology Sydney and Sheffield Hallam University and is currently co-director of Artworks R Active, an independent consultancy in art and technology research.