Creative Practice as Research: Discourse on Methodology

Practice-Based Research

Practice-related research can be hard to define, as the notion of “practice” encompasses so many potential activities, from the artistic to the analytical. As such, practice-related research is referred to in many different ways, depending upon the tradition from which it draws (from engineering to medicine to design to education), or upon the preferences of individual researchers. In related literature, “the terms ‘arts-based research’, ‘practice-based research’, ‘practice-led research’, ‘practice-centered research’, [and] ‘studio-based research’ are more or less used synonymously” (Niedderer & Roworth-Stokes 2007, 7). Some of these terms, such as “practice-centered”, “arts/practice-led”, and “studio-based”, place the focus on the artistic practice, de-emphasizing the research aspects of the activities; one imagines “studio-based research” aligning with the notion of an artist-in-residence in an academic department. The term “practice-led research” is typically the one used most consistently in the literature (cf. Perry 2008, Stewart 2006, Smith & Dean 2009, Sullivan 2009), perhaps because it puts the creative practice ahead of the research, a horse before a cart, as it were. This section defines four categories of practice-related research, according to the relationship between the creative practice and the communication of scholarly knowledge generated by such practice.

The first two categories are likely the most familiar to the arts and humanities field: practice-and-research, and practice-as-research. Practice and research have long gone hand-in-hand in various arts disciplines; poets draw from their own creative practice in their textual analyses and criticisms of others’ poetry, as do creative writers and dramatists. This approach, practice-and-research, is the most established in literature departments, journals, and publishing houses. The practitioner-researcher’s creative artifacts and critical outputs are disseminated separately, while knowledge acquired from the creative practice informs the critical explorations. In some fields, particularly music, practice-as-research is also common, wherein the research consists entirely of the creative practice, with no explicit critical exegesis deemed necessary. The creative artifact is considered the embodiment of the new knowledge; emphasis is placed on creative exploration and innovation in the given artistic practice.

Where we begin to tread new territory is in the realms of practice-led and practice-based research. These categories of practice-related research “[involve] the identification of research questions and problems, but the research methods, contexts and outputs then involve a significant focus on creative practice” (Sullivan 2009, 48). The outcomes of such research are intended to develop the individual practice and the practice of the field, to build theory related to the practice in order to gain new knowledge or insight (Niedderer & Roworth-Stokes 2007, 10; Sullivan 2009, 48). Linda Candy, in her 2006 guide to practice-related research, makes the distinction between these two, though it can often be a rather blurry line in actuality. Practice-led research focuses on the nature of creative practice, leading to new knowledge of operational significance for that practice, in order to advance knowledge about or within practice. The results of practice-led research may be communicated in a critical exegesis without inclusion of the creative artifact, though the creative practice is an integral part of the research.

In practice-based research, the creative artifact is the basis of the contribution to knowledge. This method is applied to original investigations seeking new knowledge through practice and its outcomes. Claims of originality are demonstrated through the creative artifacts, which include musical performances, musical recordings, fiction, scripts, digital media, games, film, dramatic performances, poetry, translation, and other forms of creative practice. The creative artifact is accompanied by a critical discussion of the significance and context of the claims, and a full understanding can only be achieved through the cohesive presentation of the creative artifact and the critical exegesis.

Put simply, in practice-based research, the creative act is an experiment (whether or not the work itself is deemed “experimental”), one designed to answer a directed research question about art and the practice of it, which could not otherwise be explored by other methods. We create art to connect with others, to connect with ourselves, and often just for the sake of it. We experiment with our art in order to push boundaries, to ask questions, to learn more about our art and our role within it. This is nothing new. What emerges, then, from this methodology, is the exegesis that accompanies the creative work: that knowledge that has remained implicitly within the artist, made explicit and seated within the context of the scholarly field.

Graeme Sullivan’s 2009 model identifies a framework of four key areas in which a practice-led or -based research methodology is applicable and appropriate. The first is theoretical, in which the practitioner-researcher is exploring research issues and problems; this project can be seen as an exegesis of theoretical practice-based research, as the methodology it communicates was developed during the composition of a significant work of creative practice as experiment, in the absence of any existing methodologies that could be applied. In Sullivan’s second category, conceptual, “artists give form to thoughts in creating artefacts that become part of the research process” (50); often, this type of practice-related research is conducted as an attempt to understand the creative artifacts themselves, rather than to respond to a gap in scholarly technique or cultural context. A writer may be interested in the affects of different narrative perspectives on a short story, or a sculptor might explore the affordances of different sculpting media; in my work, I am interested how constructing narratives in different media affects me as a writer, and the structures of the stories that result. Dialectical practice-related research explores the human process of experiential meaning-making: how we connect to other minds through the middle-men of artistic media, how art conveys meaning beyond mere communication of actants and/or events. The final category is contextual, in which the practice is an effort to bring about social change (morality plays, for example).

The remainder of this model of practice-based methodology will focus on practice-based research as the foundation approach, primarily in the category of conceptual (though, as noted, other results do arise serendipitously; the categories are not mutually exclusive). Embedded within this foundation are methods of observation and analysis that provide a far more robust framework than relying solely on post-composition reflection for translating the implicit knowledge practitioners naturally develop through their creative practice into an explicit exegesis that the field can engage with. This framework consists of a modified ethnomethodology, cognitive analysis, and media-specific post-textual analysis.

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