Remaking Research, the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD) 2012 Symposium on Research, took place at Emily Carr University of Art and Design from Nov. 1-3. The event was billed as
a “working symposium” centred on the pragmatics and possibilities of creative practice as research, both within art and design institutions and in the context of interdisciplinary, inter–institutional, and partnered relations.
This symposium brought together practitioners, educators, administrators and theorists from across North America, Europe and as far away as Israel for a dialogue on the state of research in academic art and design (A & D) institutions.
With Remaking Research behind us, I though I’d share a few observations, comments and themes the came up during the event. The following five points are offered in the spirit of a continuing dialogue. 
Disclosure: I am on sabbatical from Emily Carr and had nothing to do with organizing event or day-to-day lead up. Nevertheless, as a member of the local research community, I am deeply engaged in the production of creative practice research and theorizing its impacts on cultural and institutional transformations. With Ashok Mathur, Canada Research Chair in Artistic Inquiry at Thompson Rivers University, I co-facilitated one of the break out session on Research Funding.
1. Research has arrived
Remaking Research demonstrated that research is a serious venture for A & D faculty and institutions. The symposium displayed a wealth of research projects, collaborations, and institutional developments. From their energy and enthusiasm, it was apparent that participants are hungry for opportunities to confer and share in an emergent meta-dialogue: research on research.
As the opening plenary by Graeme Sullivan and keynote by Carol Strohecker made abundantly clear, creative practice research has a relatively long history, and for more than decade, it has been at the core of significant institutional transformations, across international contexts.
The symposium was orchestrated to showcase exemplary projects and to provide opportunities for panel discussions and dialogue that might help situate the work in relation to a variety initiatives—centres, labs, networks, etc. The overall scope of events was impressive, making it clear that A & D research has moved beyond its difficult start-up phase.
While there is still work to be done, the initial stages of remaking research (taken as a noun phrase) have irrevocably changed (remade) the institutional contexts of post-secondary A & D education / academic practice. “Art School,” its seems, has made it to university (or college as our US American colleagues might say).
2. Art & Design Research is not a single entity
The broad spectrum of presented research demonstrated the breadth of research practices that can be collected under the umbrella of creative practice research. Participants shared project descriptions and insights related to topics as varied as product design, digital arts, experimental forms, sustainability, institutional development, engaged pedagogy, data visualization, and collaborative methodologies.
In reflecting on the presentations and sifting through the project descriptions is difficult to find an overarching thematic, beyond the notion of creative practice research. While collaboration is at the heart of much of the work discussed, the nature of these collaborations and their goals/outcomes make it difficult to assert a shared concern or approach.
How does one categorize projects as diverse and provocative as the following (to offer a few samples from the larger gathering)?
- Justin Nowak‘s ceramics project Darwin;
- Joanna Berzowska‘s research on electronic textiles and responsive garments in her XS Labs;
- Debera Jonshon‘s organizational work on the Partnership for Academic Leadership in Sustainability (PALS);
- Anne Burdick‘s text-based explorations of the digital humanities (new book) and experimental writing;
- Sanjit Sethi’s social engagement research as Director of the Center for Art and Public Life.
3. From Objects to Episteme
Despite differences in approach and expressed goals, there was a prevalent interest in the fabrication and use of things. Technology—not so much in the sense of techné or know how, but machine or tool—seemed to be crucial to the questions asked, including those dealing with (environmental) sustainability or social engagement.
Given the historical grounding of art & design in material practice, this focus on objects and object fabrication makes sense. However, the implications are important to bear in mind as we talk about creative practice research as a field of study.
As long as this materialism respects the work of the many pioneering artists / designers/ researchers who have helped us understand the link between things and the social relations they engender, this can be a strength. In particular, I’m thinking about an understanding of things, as it was investigated by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel’s massive ZKM exhibition Making Things Public.
The danger arises when we become mesmerized by the cool stuff we make, rather remaining vigilant to the implication of the making. Investments in expensive technologies and subsequent desire for industry partnerships can easily hijack the research agenda. As a number of panelists noted there is an important distinction between “directed” and “non-directed” research that needs to be more fully understood—by practitioners, administers, and community partners.
I would have liked to see this concern taken up by more of the artists and designers who presented on their work. Arguably, the current focus of creative practice research (demonstrated at this symposium) tends to privilege a cluster of creative methods (re: making research) rather than fully engaging with the transformation academic practice (remaking research). Some presenters situated their work in relation to historical or art historical trajectories and, in the case of design research, it was clear that many projects responded to research questions. There was, however, as one participant commented, a glaring absence of literature review: the hallmark of most forms of research in the Social Sciences and Humanities.
To generalize, I might say that creative practice research seems to be more about methodology than epistemology. With time, I expect there will be more cross-talk between front-line researchers and those in organizational, administrative roles—many of whom have strong research practices.
4. Articulation & Reporting Matter:
The continued growth and development of creative practice research requires attention to the problem of discourse—articulating the nature of the work and reporting on it. To keep the research making / doing vital requires the development of systematic methods of describing, theorizing, criticizing our emergent discipline (or disciplines).
Writing about the research—along with venues for that writing—is necessary to ensure that artists and designers continue to participate in the larger transformation of post-secondary education. We need to ensure that government officials and university administrators have the knowledge they need to demonstrate the important contributions art and design research and to secure the resources. Internally, we need this type of information for hiring, tenure, and promotion, as well as for curriculum development
As creative practice researchers become more articulate about their disciplines, making equivalences between the different types knowledge mobilization that characterize art and design research—i.e., between public talks, exhibitions, screenings, charrettes, trade publications, catalogue essays, etc. and peer reviewed publication—we will be in a better position to challenge dominant assumptions about the nature of academic practice, particularly in relation to its roles viz. various constituents or stakeholder communities.
One way of moving in this direction might be the formation of national and international associations. As OCAD University President Sara Diamond pointed out in a “dialogue” with Pamela Jennings, Director of the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Centers for Research and Collaboration at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), academic associations help feed the machinery of bibliometrics, which in turn are used by the research councils and funding bodies. Artists and designers need to make sure that their work is available and accounted for.
(For discussion of the lack of data on art and design research, read Canadian Council of Academies report The State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012 p23-25.)
Situating creative practice research in relation to the larger networks of research discourse will also help clarify and challenge the way we approach the work.
5. Research, Making and Pedagogy
As part of the symposium wrap up, participants gathered to hear, see, and feel students responses to the three days of presentation. Billed as an act of listening, student recordings (video, photographic, textual) and performances presented participants with a unique feedback loop or mirror. 
To a large extent, the student translation or re/presentation—their listening—tended to focus on issues of terminology. The tendency to mashup and playback elements of the presentations and social gatherings highlighted the opacity of our discursive practices. The layering and repetition of text and image, sound and video, drew attention to the materiality of the language of research, as it was developed and presented over the course of the three days.
Thinking through this media rich, polysemic presentation allowed me to question my own thinking about A & D pedagogy, or more precisely the flow between making and knowing. It struck me that there is still significant work to be done in demystifying and translating creative practice research for student practitioners. It also occurred to me that we need to remain vigilant to why research matters and to the disciplinary practices that help to give our research force.
A point of departure, particularly in relation to pedagogy, might be to continue examining the ways that research is always already making. To reverse the lens of remaking research, I want to think about how, like pure research, there is no such thing as pure making. When we undertake creative practice research, as well as when we write about and critique it, we are already entangled in the complex machinations of states and institutions. To come to terms with the shifting nature of this complicity, we still have a lot to learn from the generations of artists and designers who have come before us and to the scholars and philosophers who have engaged their work.
1^ This post is part of a process of attempt to incorporate a practice of thinking out loud or writing out in the open. It’s an experiment in moving toward a digital workflow capable of building readers and feedback into the publication process.
2^ I apologize for not properly citing this project. I have looked for the names of students and faculty involved, but I can’t find anything on the website. Will update when get more info.