By Professor Estelle Barrett and Professor Barbara Bolt
At a roundtable at the Australian Council of University Art Schools (ACUADS) annual conference in 2014, panelists were asked to address the following question: What impact are higher degree research programs having on emerging trends and themes in contemporary art? Whilst the panel felt that the development of higher degree research programs in creative arts did not lead to better “art” they did agree that it has profoundly affected the way art is framed and understood both within the academy and beyond. Two years later, in the wake of the Watt Review of Research Policy and Funding Arrangements and the ACOLA Review of Australia’s Research Training System with their changes to Research Block Grant funding allocations to Universities, strategic and financial questions related to these are in danger of overwhelming the fundamental question facing creative arts or artistic research: What is the relationship between the academy’s research agenda, artistic research and contemporary art? As we move beyond two decades since the emergence of artistic research in the academy it seems appropriate to take stock of our positioning in relation to this question.
In 2015, the University of the Arts Helsinki in co-operation with the European Artistic Research Network (EARN) curated a research pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. Working within the theme ‘experimentality’, the curators, Jan Kaila and Henk Slager, aimed to articulate the dynamic between “artistic research” and “contemporary art.” The idea that we may need to articulate this dynamism may appear a contradiction in terms and yet, the fact that this was the first time artistic research had made an appearance at an international biennale, tells us that these are actually two different, if related endeavours—artistic research that seeks its legitimacy within the academy and contemporary art that finds legitimacy in the art world as it has continued to operate outside the academy. Kaila and Slager’s project is indication of a growing movement in the European context towards bridging this ‘divide’.
In Europe, particularly in the Scandinavian countries and northern Europe, the discipline of artistic research is now structurally well established within the Academy as evidenced by the establishment of Institutes of Artistic Research, professorships in artistic research, dedicated conferences and funding models that provide support for artistic research. However, in Australia, despite its early leadership in the development of higher degree research (HDR) training in the creative arts, artistic research remains caught between the skepticism of the broader research community which still questions whether art can be research (and this includes many artists working in the academy, albeit newly anointed as artistic researchers), and also a continuing skepticism concerning the value of artistic research as a paradigm from elsewhere, within the academy, where funding allocations privilege science and technology areas in terms of capital allocation, grants and HDR scholarships.
Hence, within the academy, artistic research has to prove its credentials where criteria of value are still skewed in favour of traditional academic disciplines, whilst beyond the academy, the real prize for the artist is not research grants, but success as a contemporary artist in the world of art business where valorization through art criticism and the gallery stable system still determine criteria of value.
Despite this skepticism, artistic research has insinuated itself into the world of art, through graduates of HDR programs, and into the academy through sheer persistence that has also seen the development of interdisciplinary research programs partnering with art departments and schools. The inclusion of the creative arts in the Australian research assessment exercise (ERA) has also been a key factor in profiling artistic outputs and articulating how art functions as research, using both scholarly criteria and esteem measures tied to gallery exhibition which has come to be acknowledged as a mode of peer review.
The production of art remains a vital and necessary indication of the health of the creative arts as a discipline. However, burgeoning scholarly publications emerging around artistic research demonstrate the impact and reach of this developing research endeavor. These include: a considerable number of monographs and edited books, the emergence of refereed journals (Leonardo, DAS Platforms/Contemporary Art, Studio Research, Studies in Material Thinking) and media rich digital platforms (Journal of Artistic Research, Unlikely Journal for Creative Arts, Project Anywhere.) This discursive explosion has been enhanced by the proliferation of interdisciplinary research centres and institutes that bring the creative arts into dialogue with other disciplines, for example, SymbioticA, the Centre for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI), the National Institute of Experimental Arts (NIEA), Synapse Art/Science Collaboration, Science Gallery International (SGI), Motion.Lab and Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC) to name a few. Finally we have seen the growth in arts based health research, for example the National Music Therapy Research Unit (NaMTRU) and the Creative Arts Therapy Unit (CATRU). Such collaborations between art and other sectors of the academy highlight what art can do in terms of research with other disciplines.
While the sector has worked hard to establish artistic research as a research field within the academy, there still remains much to be done in terms of articulating whether artistic research (for better or worse) has shifted institutional, professional and public perceptions of the role of art in contemporary society. Contemplating the need for broad-based research into the impact of artistic research within the context of post Watt funding arrangements is a sobering fact.
Estelle Barrett is Professor and HDR Coordinator at the Institute of Koorie Education, Deakin University. Barbara Bolt is Professor in Contemporary Arts and Culture and ADR at the VCA and MCM, University of Melbourne. Together they have co-edited three books: Material Inventions: Applying Creative Research (2014), Carnal Knowledge: Towards a “New Materialism” Through the Arts (2012) and Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry (2007; reprinted 2010).