Practice, research and relationality - a manifesto

By Dr James Oliver

Relationality

I begin with respectful acknowledgement of the Traditional Owners and Elders of the Kulin Nation on whose land I live and work. I also acknowledge my slionneadh, dùthchas and ceilidh within my community. This is how knowledge is gathered, shared, reimagined.

The myth and operational ontology is that measuring progress is possible, and desirable, through cycles of surveillance of performance and productivity, regardless of the health and wealth impacts and outcomes.

This short essay responds to an issue at heart of Professor Jen Webb’s succinct and useful overview of creative practice and research in Australia (NiTRO, July 2018), particularly its implicit attention to relationality in the question ‘are we there yet?’

 Relations of life and practice-as-research

“Are we there yet?” is a searching but also ambiguous question posed about creative practice research and the academy. In fact, yes, we are now deeply ensconced in the academic sector and its intersections with ways of governing knowledge and research. Of course, systems need to be developed and conformed to if we are to be able to ‘play the game’ (e.g. of ARC, ERA and FoR) - but ultimately this is also a highly differentiated and differentiating sector (as a knowledge industry corporate complex), segmented and divided by New Public Management discourse and practices that enable a particularly instrumental approach to accountability and knowledge (1). For example, yes, instruments have indeed been evolved to ‘count’ creative practice research, but this is also in the context of continuing economic austerity, disparity and precarity for our sector.

Perhaps understood in such terms of relationality, of formations and experiences of knowing, then freedom can also be understood in terms of ceding power ... and not in accumulations of authority or status. To that end, maybe we need an academics’ practice-based research manifesto.

As the pot of money gets smaller the disparity and precarity increases, negative status games and a competition culture perpetuates and persists. The business of busyness accelerates (anyone for a game of administrivia?). The myth and operational ontology is that measuring progress is possible, and desirable, through cycles of surveillance of performance and productivity, regardless of the health and wealth impacts and outcomes. So, despite the language of equity, inclusive practice, safety and wellbeing, it seems the underlying culture is that not everyone can be winners (e.g. with ARC, ERA and FoR). This can be toxic for institutions as workplaces and even for disciplines. Indeed, there is now an international field of research and a prominent book series dedicated to these concerns (2). It’s a serious issue. Not unrelated, then, is the greater attention now being given to mental health in education institutions (3). Art and Design are not exceptional in this regard.

Qualifying Dis-ease:

It is a truism that not everything that counts can be counted (4). We all know and feel the truth of this in some measure. Furthermore, we see it to be true professionally with creative practice research. The epithet ‘neo-liberal’ has become something of a readymade prefix, dare I say shibboleth, for flagging a critical discourse and standpoint against systemic problems. I have employed that language many times myself but whilst meaningful within context it is also a phrase somewhat lacking in nuance and operates at a certain level of ambiguity and abstraction. In terms of creative practice, research, impact and engagement we need to better account for nuance.

So - are we there yet? Perhaps at this point the question now has a different emotional force. That is my intention. The original question as positioned is still relevant and important - as situated with particular attention to creative practice research and its articulations into the transformed, and transforming, academy - where, ‘the university has become an intrinsic part of the economy.’ But as I indicated, I think it is important to draw out the underlying dimension of relationality (or social embeddedness, to reference Karl Polanyi rather than his brother Michael Polanyi). When asked to contribute to this edition, a suggestion that I noted was: how has creative arts research evolved and responded … to the increasing interest in disciplinary collaboration and interdisciplinarity? (5).

I think a tension in all this is that the desire for collaboration and interdisciplinarity is often confounded by other institutional pressures and intersections (as noted above) that reify disciplines and self-preservation. Thus, an overdetermining of practice and creativity limits possibility, limits faith in collaboration for research and expanded ways of knowing and doing. So there remains an economic and socially-structured feeling of uncertainty for practice-as-research. The paradox is that uncertainty is also something we frequently seek to nurture in practice-as-research, to challenge assumptions and even explore transdisciplinary ways of knowing. Perhaps this is creative friction, or what Anna Tsing describes as ‘being in the grip of worldly encounter’ (6).

Uncertainty and the Cultural Force of Emotions

Anthropologist (and poet) Renato Rosaldo writes about the cultural force of emotions (7). This makes me think about the moment and condition of uncertainty and our need for new understandings, articulations and practices of academic and artistic freedoms. But what exactly are these freedoms, so as not to resonate as a reactionary or entitled class of creative practitioners? Recently I edited a collection of essays on creative practice and research. In it I contend that knowledge is provisional, situational and relational, and as such can bring us to new formations and experiences of knowing (e.g. through practice-as-research)(8). Perhaps understood in such terms of relationality, of formations and experiences of knowing, then freedom can also be understood in terms of ceding power—within social and institutional relations, within collaborations and disciplines—and not in accumulations of authority or status. To that end, maybe we need an academics’ practice-based research manifesto.

Manifesto

  • research is ordinary - it is both traditional and creative

  • quantitative easing values culture - more money and less metrics

  • art and research are technologies of the imagination

  • ceding power is crucial to seeding possibility.

 

Notes

1. Broucker, B and De Wit, K. (2015), ‘New Public Management in Higher education,’ in J. Huisman et al (eds) The Palgrave International Handbook of Higher Education Policy and Governance; Carvalho, T. (2018), ‘New Public Management and The Academic Profession,’ in J.C. Shin and P. Teixeira (eds), Encyclopaedia of International Higher Education Systems and Institutions.

2. For example Palgrave’s Critical University Studies: https://www.palgrave.com/gp/series/14707

3. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/11/anxiety-depression-mental-health-graduate-school/576769/

4. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/05/26/everything-counts-einstein/

5. Email correspondence from Jenny Wilson

6. Tsing, A. L. (2004) Friction: an ethnography of global connection, Princeton: Princeton University Press 

7. Rosaldo, R. (2014) The Day of Shelly’s Death, Durham: Duke University Press

8. Oliver, J. (2018) ‘Introduction: Practice as Research,’ in J. Oliver (ed.) Associations, Melbourne: MUP.

 


James Oliver is a Senior Lecturer and Graduate Research Coordinator (Design) at MADA, Monash University. Prior to that he also ran a creative practice PhD program at the Centre for Cultural Partnerships at in the VCA. James is a Hebridean Gàidheal and a native of the Isle of Skye (an t-Eilean Sgitheanach). He was raised on his ancestral lands with native title and language and cultural rights that have informed his creative practice standpoint and practice of research. He is also a member of the international United Indigenations Collective, whose work ‘Kitchen Table’ is part of Yirramboi in May 2019.