Research Creation: A Scholarship of Creativity?

Hart Cohen

Associate Professor, School of Humanities and Communication Arts, University of Western Sydney


The educational future of visual arts study at the university level lay in the contribution to be made to knowledge and thereby adapted the conventions of scholarly practice. [1]


While the term “research-creation” has gained a currency in Canada such that it commands not only a understanding of particular kinds of research practices, but has also become a formalized term within the main funding body (SSHRC) for the Humanities, enabling artistic practices and research a purchase in the competition for the research dollar. This is unique within the OECD even while under certain circumstances adjudicating panels distributing research dollars will have Creative Arts added to their nomenclature (as in a panel for Humanities and Creative Arts for the Australian Research Council (ARC)).

This paper explores the sometimes contentious space referred to as “research-creation” but known as practice-based research in the national context of interest for this paper, Australia. There is a shared lexicon in this field with UK institutions as is often the case in the educational exchanges between Australia and the UK. I argue in this article that, in the high stakes game of research funding, it is incumbent to find in Research Creation the scholarly values that underpin mainstream research funding. To reinforce this argument, I will present through summaries and media, an exhibition and symposium in “research-creation” that was held in Australia in 2014 that exemplifies best practice in the field.

A Scholarship of Creativity

In 2009, I published a paper titled, “Knowledge and a Scholarship Creativity.”
The paper concluded that, “. . . Arts practice research can create new knowledge and contribute to new ways of thinking. The practitioner constructs theories of ‘artistic knowing’ and in this manner can develop theories about art, about learning and teaching art and about the cultural worlds to which art is frequently linked.” [2] Since this time, there have been significant changes within those parts of the university where research creation has developed and within the bureaucracies that enable them – in particular national research councils.

In the context of the opening quotation from Graeme Sullivan, the criteria for acceptance of research creation as a viable category of research hinges on the character and quality of it making an original contribution to knowledge. However, in a manifesto on practice-based research, Brad Haseman notes that rather than an original contribution knowledge, research creation may be concerned with “improvements of practice, and new epistemologies of practice distilled from the insider’s understanding of action in context.” [3]

A renewed understanding of the criteria for scholarship in research-creation” (RC) is linked to the usually accepted norms but adapted to the artistic ways of knowing. “Research-creation- shares the space of analytical knowledge production in that of necessity, artists must negotiate problem settings – something that artistic practice addresses mostly through the making of things.

Despite an on-going dialectic of framing and re-framing – solving and retracting solutions – there is no systematic accounting for the process of making without a conscious intervention of the practitioner. The process of constructing a scholarly work requires the practitioner to move from a tacit knowledge use to an explicit one. [4] Methodologically, it could involve the use of items such as a process work diary and similar records towards the creation of a database of reflections. The database would reflect significant incidents in the process; recognition of choices and decisions; a catalogue of experiences, and the sharing of process work with colleagues for validation.

The characteristics of ‘hard’ knowledge production are associated with reductionist approaches to problem solving through specified methodologies and the accretion of a body of knowledge over time. They are supplemented through the establishment of theories and laws by a detached and objective subject and employ the use of reductionism, methodological specialization and continuous practice within a knowledge paradigm. As Haseman writes, “The result is a set of research methodologies which aim to eliminate the individual perspectives of the researcher (and, if human subjects are involved, the views of those subjects being studied).” [5]

Emerging from research about practice within qualitative research approaches are strategies to interrogate the situations of practice and the diverse range of inquiry that ensue. A scholarship of creativity promotes a progressive idea of knowledge building through the scholarly practices of exploration, discovery, application, integration, and dissemination. Unlike conventional problem-led research (with its research question(s)), research creation may be led by a sense of wonder where there is an embrace of potential for innovation. This appears as ‘blue sky’ experientially driven engagement with a research possibility space, rather than a narrowly defined research problem.

Research-Creation Methodologies

A key step towards the specificity of “research-creation” is the move to disseminate its knowledge in the language of practice. This means that those symbolic forms germane to music, visual and media arts, etc., will report research outcomes in their material forms. The expanded forms of visualization relatively recently re-mediated via digitization open research to a broad range of communicative interactions. Specifically, there is a fine distinction between visualization of knowledge and visualization as knowledge where the latter performs an action rather than describing it. The implication for methodology is that “research-creation” opens up a unique pathway to realizing knowledge that is neither wholly quantitative or qualitative though may partake of aspects of both. Importantly, methodologically speaking, “research is initiated in practice, where questions, problems challenges are identified . . . and secondly, that the research strategy is carried out through practice” [6] With this kind of specificity, it may appear that research creation moves into a unique space of practice-led scholarship. However, many of the same presuppositions about knowledge building and scholarship in qualitative and quantitative research would obtain here. For example, the need for robust theoretical and analytical framing where observations and judgments of work are subject to rigorous oversight continues best research practice. In this regard, research creation can legitimately take its place alongside other research practices as an evolving and viable research paradigm.

Literature Review

There is a growing literature on “research-creation” that moves through an early phase associated with fine/visual art practices that then expands into a range of materials that address other creative activities such as music and creative writing. The early phase of literature also developed critical and scholarly engagements with Research Creation though not using this particular nomenclature. Examples include work by Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt, and by Graeme Sullivan. [7, 8] In many respects the pre-thinking of practice-led research can be traced to the philosophical reflections of Michel Polanyi and Donald Schön. [9, 10] The “tacit knowledge” proposed by Polanyi and “reflection in action” suggested by Schön complement each other conceptually. Lived experiences and reflections made explicit in the research process are key foundations to practice-led research.

In February, 2006, Media International Australia (MIA) released a special issue on research-led practice. The issue features eleven articles on the topic concluding with a practice-led research “manifesto” by Brad Haseman.

One of the key contributions to the reflection on practice-led research is the work of Roger Dean and Hazel Smith. [11] The book was an impressive collection of edited essays on the creative arts as research and was indicative of the rapid growth of this form of research over a relatively short period of time. With its focus on practice-led research and research-led practice, Smith and Dean tapped into leading thinkers who have taken an early but definitive step towards validating and theorizing the use of the creative arts in research practices. Based at the University of Western Sydney, Australia, Dean and Smith have established a strong Australian presence in the MIA special issue. The rise of the Doctor of Creative Arts in particular universities in Australia is a reflection of this interest.

The book provides a scoping of the field at that time (2009) with a contribution by one of its early champions, Graeme Sullivan. Sullivan tracks the early policy statements that connect the creative arts to knowledge increase – the gold standard of research – through the value of ‘creativity.’ Binding the creative arts to all research practices, however, limits the arts to other concomitant demands such as the development of new applications particularly in the service of sustaining economic value. The resulting exercise in making the creative arts ‘equivalent’ to other forms of scholarship resulted in what Stelarc has referred to as “bad research practice and bad art.” [12] Against this negative trend, Sullivan tracks a series of relatively recent contributions that develop criteria for practice-based research on its own terms. He progresses to policy statements that give recognition to both research practice and outcomes in a creative arts practice. Sullivan makes a strong case for re-conceptualizing the epistemological dynamic in practice-led research where the move from the known to the unknown reverses an accepted pattern of knowledge building but which, in the context of creative arts research, permits new insights into older knowledge formations.

In part two of the book (“Case Histories”) Keith Armstrong is noteworthy for the contributions he has made to the field of interactive media arts with an emphasis on embodiment, experience and computer-based technologies. [13] Armstrong’s works are grounded in a philosophical approach termed ‘ecosophy’ with an interest in sustainability, interdependency and new subjectivities. This approach is marked by an “anti-productivist” ethos (drawn from Tony Fry) in which the created works are inclusive and transformative – “dialogic and conversational.” The approach is illustrated by a case study, titled Knowmore (House of Commons), destined for the State Library, Brisbane, Queensland. For Armstrong, the choice of the library as a venue connects to the knowledge resource implications of how libraries are transformed by technology and new forms of collaborative learning. Armstrong goes on to describe the project’s provenance as a process of ideas and conversations in which reflection in action (as described by Schön) provides the model for the emergence of this work.

The two contributions relating to literary practices in the “Case Histories” section are both marked by an autobiographical framing. Jane Goodall’s chapter, “Nightmares in the Engine Room,” does well to emulate Sullivan’s earlier point about new knowledge – what Goodall refers to as “new angles on existing knowledge.” [14] The marriage of research and creativity here goes by way of needing “a convincing vignette.” By this, I believe Goodall means that the value of an authentic feeling in novel writing can be created if the scenario has the ‘real-world’ sensibility drawn from research. For Goodall, it is both “viable options” and “convincing vignettes” that become the staples of the novelist seeking to make the story’s sources taper to the logic and shape of the invented world. Goodall’s chapter then takes a sharp turn towards the dilemma of story writing when research cannot do the work required in breaking down certain blockages. Instead, she circles back in a counter-mapping exercise and shows how new strategies (e.g. improvisation) can lead to rethinking the contours of the project and the way forward in the writing process.

The book ends with a chapter by Sharon Bell – one of three contributions to the section, “Contextualization in Education and Politics.” [15] Traversing those aspects of her academic experience as filmmaker, lecturer and administrator, Bell is keen to surface the tensions that issue from the demands these roles place on what she calls the “Academic Mode of Production” (also the title of this chapter). This contribution traces the challenges set by the demands of the university and those who make up the community of practice (in this case documentary filmmaking) such that it becomes difficult to satisfy either. Bell echoes the earlier comments by Stelarc and Sullivan regarding the potential for these research practices to lead to bad art and bad research. By unpicking the detail in the way her film-works were made and received, Bell argues a strong case for opening the idea of contextualization to include the use and interpretation/understanding of creative works beyond their initial formulation. This is specific to the case of Bell’s four films made in Sri Lanka in the context of the shifting political conditions that rendered the films and their preferred meanings important to the political actors of the day. Bell makes the case for seeing creative arts as a kind of ‘underbelly’ of the academic mode of production and one therefore that can disturb and in this way contribute to questioning the boundaries in the knowledge formations that prevail. In returning to the current ‘accounting’ approach to research so favoured by contemporary governments, Bell observes that the final word on practice-based research as a viable research strategy in the university is yet to be given and is very much in a process of argument and debate.

Research-Creation Day: the contexts of practice

Moving from literature review to contexts of practice allows for a more explicit account of how practices themselves are the basis for thinking about the relationship between research and innovation in the media arts.

In support of the development of research creation at the University of Western Sydney, a Research Creation Day was developed during Research Week, a week set aside within the semester to celebrate research at the University. [16] The School of Humanities and Communication Arts supports several degree programs in communications, design and music alongside traditional Humanities, Languages, Linguistics and Translation. The staff and postgraduate students working in media production, design and music made up the bulk of the presentations as well as a presentation by a member of the Digital Humanities Research Group. This event was curated and developed in tandem with the Penrith Regional Gallery. The gallery plays an important role in western Sydney in supporting and fostering local artists and new work. Keen to partner with our School’s engagement with “research-creation,” the gallery provided space for exhibition /installation and a room for seminar presentation. The following summary (a selection of works) suggests the scope and scale of the work presented on the day.

Visual Art and Design

Greg Hughes – Surface Tension 2.0

Surface Tension 2.0 is the next iteration in Hughes’ continuing cymatic data visualization experimentation. Mean sea level and coastal wave data is combined and transposed into audio signal phasing and traced in the surface waves of a built micro liquid environment. The layering of data and resultant collisions form combinations of what in physics are known as standing, constructive, destructive and harmonic surface wave phenomena. In this particular iteration of the Surface Tension series a harmonic pattern is found, continuously played and asked to survive mean sea level data normally destined for applied scientific analysis. The work hopes to make the destructive subtleties of a micro water environment visible while invigorating coastal environmental discussion from a gallery context.

Surface Tension 2.0, 2014, Greg Hughes, digital print, Project Contepmorary Artspace Gallery,Australia, © Greg Hughes. Used with permission.

Surface Tension 2.0, 2014, Greg Hughes, digital print, Project Contemporary Artspace Gallery, Australia, © Greg Hughes. Used with permission.

Juliana Swatko – The Visual Hybrid

These images were made in designed gardens in Australia and the United States as part of ongoing research into experimental image capture, unusual plant life, and creative garden design. Speculative image capture methods have always been a part of Swatko’s work, pushing and pulling at the edges of the medium to extend its boundaries and possibilities. Thus, the content of the images cannot be calculated beforehand, beyond the development of a shooting strategy, which can be repeated.

Kenoten, Lower Hudson Valley NY, 2014, Juliana Swatko. Photography; digital printout from scanned medium format film, ©Juliana Swatko. Used with permission.

Kenoten, Lower Hudson Valley NY, 2014, Juliana Swatko. Photography; digital printout from scanned medium format film, © Juliana Swatko. Used with permission.

Sarah Waterson – Laika’s Dérive

A new media locative data-mapping work investigating interspecies communication, collaboration and knowledge. Community participants and their dogs use an electronic mapping system (custom iPhone app-GPS, accelerometer, interval timed and geo tagged photography) within their local area. The data collected is incorporated into the online mapping and visualization system (website) together with the participant narrative and profiles. This work engages cross-species sensing to explore a psychogeography of place.

Katrina Sandbach – The Living Studio

The design studio is more than just a physical space, but also a site of methodic design practices, that indicate, to an extent, how design is being carried out. This talk argues for the preservation of studio-based design education that is perceived to be an integral part of students’ ‘learning by doing.’

Enrico Scotece – Photographic Works

Enrico Scotece works on questions time and space. Technologies of duration and spatial re-orientation work together to inform the image constructions which in term release responses to profound questions of cosmology and creativity. Photography, through representation and experimentation, allows probability. Photography allows significance. Photography allows for biographies. It allows us to see. It allows us to consider the make up of our existence and it carries the responsibility of investigating the social and psychological impacts that are encompassed. Paradoxically, ‘photography’ and ‘seeing’ contest our notions of meaning within almost all aspects of our waking lives. They are two acquaintances that, with the help of each other, predict definitions that by nature appear to be somewhat self-explanatory yet offer every opportunity to avoid explication.

Interventions are inevitable. Ignore it, disregard it, or attempt to perfect, the core domain of interest of any given image is purely based on interventional intent. If one’s self-expression defines one’s experience then, as self-expression, the way that I intervene with my given societal environment allows me to contemplate how the content of my photography is very much akin to being the content of one’s cognitive and behavioural relationship between perception and reception. It is one’s self-expression that defines one’s experience, and in my own case it is an experience that allows me to arrive at a photograph. Put simply, there is more to life than what is seen and what we see is based more so on underpinning a constructive and meaningful interpretation of ourselves as represented in a photographic response.

2014_252, 2014, Enrico Scotece, silver gelatin fibre base photograph, © Enrico Scotece. Used with permission.

2014_252, 2014, Enrico Scotece, silver gelatin fibre base photograph, © Enrico Scotece. Used with permission.

Alison Gill – Recoding abandoned stuff: 2nd lives for fashion and games

Alison Gill’s research interests in design philosophy, critical theory, and socio-material studies are evident in publications about sports product advertising, deconstruction fashion, audiences/user practices, and sustainable design education. She seeks to develop critical frameworks – theoretical, pedagogical and practice-based – that provision and amplify everyday sustainable practices such as dressing/clothing, repair cultures and the management of consumables/stuff. The Recoding project is an example of critical, visual practice frameworks to support longer product lives and rethink value creation, necessary for a sustainable material culture.

A. M. Lopes and A. Gill – A story of Design Research: Initiating a change network for Western Sydney

Lopes and Gill tell the story of a digitally facilitated design research network and a symposium held at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. The objective of the talk and poster was to showcase research-based design practice that contributes to change initiatives across sectors of society and culture, with particular relevance to Western Sydney. Their talk outlined the key design components that supported the formation of a network of researchers interested in amplifying the change agency of visual communications design, including the symposium event, keynotes, a design brief, community partners, ICD branding and engagement of Higher Degree research students.

Alison Barnes – Geo/graphic Design

Drawing on theories from both cultural geography and graphic design these experimental books challenge the perception that print and text based work is unable to engage with the ‘more than representational’ aspects of everyday life and place, and offer the reader a non-linear, multi-sensory space of exploration.

Dan Johnston – Skateparks

Skateparks: Place and Culture is an ethnographic visual study of the social and environmental interactions that occur in skateparks. In this practice-based project, the photographer has documented recurring visual phenomena at skateparks spanning six countries. This study sheds new light on the significance of skateboarding culture as a complex set of social and cultural practices, beyond the fringe urban activity for which it is universally recognized.

RIP Taxonomy, 2014, Dan Johnston, Photography, ©Dan Johnston. Used with permission.

RIP Taxonomy, 2014, Dan Johnston, Photography, © Dan Johnston. Used with permission.

Abby Lopes – Funny Dunnies: involving design in transdisciplinary research

Lopes’ talk described the role of design research in an ambitious transdisciplinary research project, “Transitioning to sustainable sanitation futures,” which involved trialing a novel system of sanitation in a university setting. Two cohorts of visual communications design students from two universities responded to a range of briefs generated by the project team. The resulting artifacts influenced how the project was perceived by non-designers and supported a shift in emphasis from technical to social innovation. This project demonstrates the reciprocal benefits of bringing teaching and research together, and shows that creative research has a unique role to play in exploratory, transdisciplinary projects.

Funny Dunnies, 2014, Graffiti board in situ and detail. Designer: Yana Mokmargana, University of Western Sydney. Used with permission.

Funny Dunnies, 2014, Graffiti board in situ and detail. Designer: Yana Mokmargana, University of Western Sydney. Used with permission.

Program of Visual Art/Design Exhibitions – Installations/Posters

“Research in Sonic Design,” Ian Stevenson, poster and video of Stevenson’s work with Tess de Quincey.

Ghost Quarters, 2009, Ian Stevenson, frame & video © Ian Stevenson. Used with permission.

Sharawadji, 2011, Ian Stevenson, video © Ian Stevenson. Used with permission.

“Practice-led research – Ross Edwards’s piano work ‘Kumari’ from performance to journal article,” Diana Blom, poster.

“Swings and Roundabouts: Cycles of Music Therapy and Research,” Alison Short, music therapy poster.

“Engaging with Maori community research through mutual Christian spirituality,” Shannon Said, poster (HDR).

“Musical composition as a sustainable and collaborative creative practice: assembling a conceptual framework and generating designs for participatory music-making,” Sharon Williams, poster (HDR).

“Figurenotes: facilitating musical engagement for individuals with special needs,” Matthew Breaden, music therapy poster (HDR).
“Engaging the Depressed Brain with a Choir Therapy Program,” Kirstin Robertson-Gillam, poster.

“Thinning and thickening music: empowering flexibility and responsiveness in clinical improvisation,” Oliver O’Reilly, poster.

Video Film Digital Humanities Installation

A significant body of work by both staff and postgraduate students was presented and summarized in ‘lightening talks.’ Many of these works were completed in support of the Doctor of Creative Arts.

Bruce Crossman and Iqbal Barkat, Gentleness and Suddeness, film and original composition.

Gentleness and Suddeness, 2014, frame and video, Bruce Crossman and Iqbal Barkat 2014. © Crossman & Barkat. Used with permission.

Rachel Bentley, Cutback – Occupy the City, film about street art.

Maryella Hatfield, The Future Makers, film about developing technologies for alternative power generation.

Iqbal Barkat, Mortars, dramatized film on the challenges of suburban life in Western Sydney.

Mortars_Barkat, 2014, frame and video, © Iqbal Barkat. Used with permission.

Des Devlin, Distorted, documentary on punk in Sydney in the 1970s.

Wendy Chandler, Animations/Timor Leste, animated films in collaboration with East Timorese about their historical trauma and resilience.

Dave Cubby, Proscenia of Quotidian Circumstance – Theatre of Everyday Life, photographic essay developed in China.

Getting By, 2014, Dave Cubby, photography, © Dave Cubby. Used with Permission.

Getting By, 2014, Dave Cubby, photography, © Dave Cubby. Used with Permission.

Rachel Morley, Creative Ecologies, summary of a successful retreat for creative writing and thesis development.

Jason Ensor, Old Questions, New Technologies, illustration of Digital Humanities methodologies in relation to successfully completed projects.

Kate Richards, Grove, installation innovating light effects and space for interactive engagement.

Grove, 2014, Installation of light, rubber and salt – floor detail. Image: Heidrun Lohr. Used with permission.

Grove, 2014, Installation of light, rubber and salt – floor detail. Image: Heidrun Lohr. Used with permission.

Juan Salazar: Futuring Antarctica: Cultural & Digital Research on Antarctica, film on an imagined future for Antarctica in the context of climate change.

Antarctica, 2014, Juan Salazar, frame and video, © Juan Salazar. Used with permission.

The range and diversity of work made the day a compelling experience for all who attended. It demonstrated that research creation or practice-led research is marked by diverse creative practices where knowledge creation, analytical and critical concerns and contemporary art practices cross.


Whether titled “research-creation” or practice-led research, the place of creative work, as scholarship is now an entrenched feature of the research landscape of the university. It remains to elevate the status of these practices to that of the leading research fields such as they are currently constituted in the tertiary education sector. Within this educational brief, the possible collaborations with the many venues for exhibition, as well as robust on-line curatorial practices enhances these works as relevant and public intellectual and artistic production. In this way, research creation is at the forefront of technological innovation and knowledge dissemination – the two drivers of a vibrant cultural economy and therefore of great value to the creation of cultural and social capital.


  1. Graeme Sullivan, Art Practice as Research: Inquiry in Visual Arts (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005), 16.
  2. Hart Cohen, “Knowledge and a Scholarship Creativity, IM: Interactive Media no. 5 (2010): 7,
  3. Brad Haseman, “A Manifesto for Performative Research,” Media International Australia no. 118 (2006): 100.
  4. Michel Polanyi, Personal knowledge: Towards a post-critical philosophy (London: Routledge, 1962).
  5. Haseman, “A Manifesto for Performative Research,” 99.
  6. Carole Gray, Inquiry Through Practice: Developing Appropriate Research Strategies, (1996): 3. Quoted in Haseman, “A Manifesto for Performative Research,” 104.
  7. Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt, Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Inquiry (London: Macmillan, 2007).
  8. Sullivan, Art Practice as Research, 3.
  9. Michel Polanyi, Personal knowledge.
  10. Donald Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 1991).
  11. Roger Dean and Hazel Smith, Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). This section is based on a published review of Dean and Smith in the Global Media Journal /Australian Edition,
  12. Stelarc (address to research seminar, School of Communication Arts, University of Western Sydney, 2010).
  13. Keith Armstrong, “Sustaining the Sustainable?: Developing a Practice and Problem-led New Media Practice,” in Dean and Smith, Practice-led Research, 187-200.
  14. Jane Goodall, “Nightmares in the Engine Room,” in Dean and Smith, Practice-led Research, 200-210.
  15. Sharon Bell, “The Academic Mode of Production,” in Dean and Smith, Practice-led Research, 252-63.
  16. Research Creation Day was held on December 5, 2014, at the Penrith Regional Gallery, Emu Plains, New South Wales.


Dr. Hart Cohen is Associate Professor in Media Arts in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts and a member of the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. Dr. Cohen is currently working on a database documentary in relation to the project, Digital archives, datadiversity and discoverability: the Strehlow Collection as knowledge resource for remote indigenous communities. Two films commissioned by Public Television in Australia have been made in relation to these projects: “Mr. Strehlow’s Films” (SBSI 2001) and Cantata Journey (ABC TV 2006). Hart Cohen co-edited a special issue of Media International Australia on the theme of Digital Anthropology (MIA 116 August 2005) and is co-author of Screen Media Arts: An Introduction to Concepts and Practices for Oxford University Press (2009) and is editor of the Global Media Journal/Australian Edition: 2007-present.