Expert Opinion

Breaking the Waves: Practice as Research in the Creative Arts

Not all research involves a 100,000 word thesis - it can be a film, a drawing or a dance performance. Professors Simon Morris and Robert Shail show us how.

Published on 03 Jul 2018
Four Words output on a advertising board

At the recent Research and Enterprise Conference at Leeds Beckett University, we had the opportunity to close proceedings by talking about a subject dear to both of our hearts: practice as research. This is an area which is currently flourishing at Leeds Beckett in both the School of Art, Architecture and Design and the School of Film, Music and Performing Arts, as well as in other schools.

It has been driven by the outstanding record of professional practice achieved by so many of our staff covering areas as diverse as dance choreography, performance as art installation, or experimental music composition. At the conference we were able to show, however briefly, some of this exciting and innovative work.

Practice as research remains a relatively new area for the academy and is not without controversy or its critics. For those who believe that research can only be archive-based or rooted in the scientific experimentation, must employ traditional empirical methodologies, and can only be expressed via a 90,000-120,000 word thesis, the idea that a film or a drawing or a dance performance can be research might seem alien.

The debate has been further clouded by discussions about whether such research is practice-led or practice-based. However, as thinkers like Robin Nelson have ably demonstrated, this is a false dichotomy because the reality is that practice is research.

Creating meaningful art

To create a meaningful work of art invariably involves a process of investigation using primary materials, a robust methodology, and definable outcomes which offer an original contribution to knowledge. This is not to say that all arts practice always constitutes research – after all there are many other professional and creative reasons for the act of making - but that in many or most cases there is an underlying research imperative.

Since both of us arrived at Leeds Beckett University in 2015, we have built LARC - the Leeds Arts Research Centre - in a successful collaboration with the Graphic Design Agency DUST, alongside the Digital Development Team and the Marketing Team at Leeds Beckett University. The website includes research outputs by our academics, profiles of our researchers, filmed lectures of key international figures that we have invited to speak at our university, details of exhibitions and publishing by our academics, our annual research newsletter, profiles of our doctoral students and key alumni.

We meet monthly with marketing and the university’s digital development team to keep the content current and engaging. Have a look for yourself here where you can view filmed lectures of the best minds of our generation, including art critic Gilda Williams, Turner Prize winner Martin Creed (2001) and the UK’s no. 1 emerging Fashion designer, Matty Bovan, amongst many others.

In addition to the filmed lectures of our honoured guests, the website is a rich repository for the practical outputs of our award-winning academics. Take a look and see the diverse variety of creative work currently being made.

Sharing new insights

The range of work includes: Harold Offeh (pictured above) who re-enacts archival album sleeve photographs by black singers from the 1970s and 80s in order to make visible the mediation and power of the photographic image to fix and shape identity; Dr Rachel Krische (pictured top) whose choreography questions how the live performance of dance can be archived; or Dr Jill Gibbon (image below) who combines art with anti-war activism, making undercover drawing interventions in international arms fairs in order to investigate the etiquette of the arms trade.

Our researchers at Leeds Beckett University are able to clearly articulate the field their research relates to, the methodologies that inform their practice and the contribution they are making to knowledge. They meet Research England’s definition of research which is: A process of investigation leading to new insights, effectively shared. We are justly proud of the work they do.

Keep investing in research

It’s certainly worth reflecting on Lord Stern’s words, when he was reviewing the last audit of Higher Education providers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Research Excellence Framework 2014:

“Societies which invest in ideas and research are generally more creative, more productive, more resilient, more open, more profound and more equipped to face and understand challenge. They are better places to work, to live and to think: stronger, deeper and more dynamic communities. Whilst creativity, ideas and questioning are of value in their own right, economies and societies which invest more in research generally show faster rates of growth in output and human development.” – the Stern Report, July 2016.

It's a very clear message – it makes sense to keep investing in research.

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