Bruce Brown blog post

If we are ever to solve some of the major challenges facing society then it will take all of the intellectual and creative resources at our command to do so. In response to this challenge, conventional models of research have proved to be inadequate. If, for example, rising ocean levels are to be controlled we first need to understand global warming and then invent a way to re-freeze the melting polar caps. This will take knowledge and imagination — indeed, our future will depend upon such a capacity for radical innovation being born out of a partnership between discovery and creativity. Without the power to imagine future scenarios we will be constrained by the chains of incremental development that never quite deliver the game changing solutions or radical innovations that are so badly needed. In this context we still have to overcome barriers that stand in the way of knowledge being made accessible across all of the research domains, from discovery to creativity, so it can be effectively, and widely, shared. Achieving this will be a key to our future.

The outcomes of research in areas of discovery science and creative innovation will be manifest in many different forms. The emergence of academic research in ancient universities, some 600 years ago, coincided with the invention of printing from movable type (this, in itself, was a radical innovation that profoundly changed the ways through which we would go on to educate ourselves and understand the world). From this point on, the codification and dissemination of knowledge—through numbers and letters printed onto bound sheets— has remained the dominant mode of scholarship for discovery science and the humanities.

The first universities did not include subjects in the creative and performing arts and design (from here on referred to as ‘artistic research’) which were, instead, located in the Trades Guilds. This first binary line served to establish a long-standing stereotype between scholars (in universities) and artisans (in Guilds). Thanks to the Guilds, however, we have inherited the great cathedrals of Europe along with a visual language that has conserved our cultural heritage and belief systems down through generations.

This binary line persisted into the late 19th century as Arts Schools and Polytechnics were created alongside the Guilds—but still outside the university system. It was only in 1992 that the Polytechnics were transformed into modern universities that absorbed many (but not all) of the free standing specialist Arts Schools. Only in the last quarter of a century, therefore, has artistic research been able to compete for mainstream research funding within a modern university system. This development brought with it a wealth of practices in which the outcomes were predominantly, but not exclusively, non-text. The development of a scholarly infrastructure that is appropriate to the various disciplines of artistic research is, therefore, a young project that is still maturing.

The quality assessment of research has been founded on long-established principles of text-based outputs in discovery science. Here, a primary definition of research is the discovery and verification of new knowledge. In this context, the outcomes of artistic research include just a small proportion of research that could claim to be new knowledge that is communicable in textual form. One outcome of this has been a sense that artistic research is legitimised only when it is translated into the form of a more traditional output such as a conference paper or a journal article.

In order to develop new forms of scholarship more appropriate to the disciplines of artistic research greater precision may be needed in the expansion of the definition of research beyond that of knowledge discovery. For example, both the testing and recovery of knowledge are relevant to many areas of artistic research i.e:

  • testing the boundaries of existing knowledge in order to determine its limitations;
  • the recovery of lost knowledge.

In the first instance much of what we know about the world, and the ways in which we construct our societies, is built upon assumptions and orthodoxies that constantly need testing. In the second instance there are many examples from digital heritage where technology has enabled the recovery of lost knowledge about ancient civilisations that informs dilemmas in the modern world.

The introduction of competitive research assessment also stimulated the emergence of a term known, in one form or another, as practice-based research. On the one hand this served to indicate that a new type of scholarship—based on non-textual forms along with their translation into real world applications—had entered the arena. Perhaps, inadvertently, it also served to perpetuate the underlying binary division between researchers (scholars) and practitioners (artisans). Indeed, this historic divide, between research and practice, still frustrates the emergence of a new type of scholarship that is more appropriate to non-text forms of artistic research.

In broad terms, practitioners engage with audiences whereas researchers work with users. There are, of course, many overlaps between these two constituencies as well as fundamental differences of intent.

Practitioners will engage with an audience in order to co-create work where the dynamic nature of a reading, or an interpretation, is central to the creative process. In this case practitioners will often conceal, or disguise, the underlying intention in their work so their audience has sufficient space to collaborate in the construction of new and novel readings.

In contrast to this, one important aspect of every researcher’s work is to clearly and effectively share the knowledge gained from their research, with users who may benefit in one way or another—and to make this knowledge accessible and discoverable. So it is central to the work of all researchers within the academy that they plan for the effective sharing of their research as well as its production.

An artifact, performance or composition can exist in both domains—practice and research—though advanced practice, by itself, will only become research when the underlying imperatives have been clearly articulated and then made discoverable to potential users.

Many, if the not the majority, of non-text outcomes from artistic research will not readily communicate or reveal their underpinning research imperatives. In many cases the work is also ephemeral—leaving no trace unless documented by the researcher.

This raises a number of questions. Where will future scholars of non-textual research go, in 50-100 years time, to find the knowledge pool we are today producing? Researchers who are committed to building this pool of knowledge for future generations of scholars will further ask: where will it be located and made discoverable; how do we enrich and refresh it in a sustainable way; how can it be made accessible to potential users outside the professional language of artistic research and the academy. These are some of the questions that PRAG will be looking to advance in partnership with the sector. Indeed, there is much work to be done for us to create new forms of scholarship appropriate to artistic research. No longer is the printed word the only vehicle through which to share knowledge—in all its diversity of forms—as new technologies expand the possibilities to create digital pools of knowledge.

All this said, it would be a mistake to consider that non-text, or practice-based, outputs are unique to the disciplines of artistic research—or that the need to establish new forms of scholarship for such research is an isolated phenomenon—it is not, and many other disciplines continue to face similar challenges. It may be helpful for a moment for us to step outside the sometimes insular debates about practice-based approaches to simply address the fact that, in common with many other disciplines, our aim is to produce new understandings through research.

Indeed, it is the powers of imagination that underpin creativity and innovation in the disciplines of artistic research that is distinctive. Furthermore, in partnership with discovery science this opens up the possibilities for game-changing solutions and radical innovations. In this respect, the key will be our ability to establish knowledge legacies that are discoverable, accessible and intelligible for many people over many years. Though this is a job of work still needing to be done it will be an essential tool—but it is not the end game. Now that we have the tools to make most anything we wish to make the real challenge is to decide what we want to achieve in an increasingly fragile and unstable world.


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