An Exploration of the Idea and Importance of Practice-Led Research in the Current Climate

By Lauren Redhead

Practice-Led Research, although in many ways a new concept in the history of University-based research, is by now a familiar part of what takes place in most university creative arts departments. Depending on the department, and the researchers themselves, it might be described as Practice-Based Research, Practice as Research, or Creative Arts Research. There are subtle differences between some of these labels: ‘Practice as Research’ most often implies that the researchers see little or no need for any written exegesis, or for other components such as written statements of research questions, believing that the practice should speak for itself; ‘Practice-Based Research’ usually implies a fixity of methodology meaning that all of the knowledge and understanding generated by the project arises from the practice itself (rather than, for example, an evaluation afterwards); ‘Creative Arts Research’ usually implies that the objects created by the research should themselves be considered art. All of these labels contain important assumptions about Practice-Led Research in universities: that artistic practice can speak for itself, without the need for the addition of language (Practice as Research); that practice is a way of generating knowledge and not simply something one knows about (Practice-Based Research); that the objects created by research have intrinsic artistic value, that is not necessarily connected with their research questions or outcomes (Creative Arts Research). Personally, I prefer ‘Practice-Led Research’ as a label for what I do. This is not because there is anything deficient about any of the other labels, but because I believe that they are all encompassed under ‘Practice-Led Research’. The extra assumption that this label makes, as well as those already described, is that practice can occur at any point during the research process, the most important part of the process being that the practice that is done by the research plays a crucial role in generating knowledge and understanding. But why do we need this type of research at all, particularly at a time when universities are re-evaluating their activities due to funding cuts?

Why is Practice-Led Research important at all?

Some of the reasons why Practice-Led Research is important are not linked to specific projects that have been undertaken, but the implications made by undertaking and supporting this type of research in universities.

  • Practice-Led Research values different kinds of knowledge than just the linguistic. Of course, other researchers can rightly claim that they also value extra-linguistic kinds of knowledge, but the value of the objects and outcomes of Practice-Led Research that are themselves extra-linguistic helps to communicate that this type of knowledge is of equal importance in research today.
  • Practice-Led Research can also help to establish and explain links between disciplines. For example, in my own discipline (music) there is an accepted link between music and philosophy that is often studied in the context of Wagner’s link with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. This is an interesting line of enquiry, but establishing that link between music and philosophy is only sensible when researchers consider the value and existence of similar links in the present (e.g. between contemporary philosophical thought and contemporary music).
  • Practice-Led Research allows all researchers to understand the nature of what is studied in and by arts disciplines. The results of Practice-Led Research projects reveal artworks not to be discrete, fixed, objects but dynamic systems that relate to themselves, each other, and society in a number of fluid and changing ways.
  • Finally, Practice-Led Research projects enable researchers to understand the performative nature of research itself. This kind of meta-understanding of the situations in which research is undertaken allows for consideration of the nature and purpose of research by universities as well as individuals.

What are the problems that face Practice-Led Research and researchers in the current climate?

It seems to me that many of the problems faced by Practice-Led Researchers today are linked to poor communication and understanding of the assumptions made by this type of research.

  • Researchers might not state their research questions clearly or provide sufficient exegesis for non-practitioners to understand its nature and purpose. Whilst I mentioned that one of the assumptions of Practice as Research was that the practice should be able to speak for itself, this also assumes that it can be universally understood by even others outside of the practitioner’s discipline. This is not something that is assumed readily in other types of inquiry, and even when researchers do not consider communicating research questions or evaluations to add to the value of the research, it could be argued that this does add to the value of its dissemination.
  • Some outcomes might be misunderstood as not being research due to poor communication of their value: researchers might assume that others in their discipline will value the creation of art due to their shared area of study. This may not always be the case, and there is room for criticism and suspicion of Practice-Led Research as simply a cover for artists to undertake their practice on university time and money. The discussion of the value and appropriateness of Practice-Led methodologies needs to be more foregrounded to prevent this from being the case.
  • Practice-Led Researchers may struggle to find funding opportunities in the current climate as universities prefer to fund ‘traditional’ research with linguistic or numerical data outcomes, considering it a ‘safe’ option.
  • Research councils and bodies also do not extensively fund Practice-Led Research, perhaps for the reason given above, and perhaps also because Practice-Led Research can be more expensive than other types of research (for example: funding a year’s research leave to write a book might be cheaper than funding a year’s Practice-Led Research with its implications in terms of costs of space, materials, performers and production).
  • As a result of the limited funding opportunities available from universities and research councils, Practice-Led Researchers may be pushed towards creative arts funding which is interested in the outcomes of their work and not in their research, and which is also diminishing in the face of government cuts.

What kinds of contemporary issues can Practice-Led Research address?

Despite the problems encountered by some researchers, it makes little sense to value Practice-Led Research simply by the funding available for it, or its relative costs. If this were the case across the board, few science or technology projects would be funded. If Practice-Led Research is important, it is because of the kinds of issues it can address successfully.

  • Almost in spite of the problems I have listed above, Practice-Led Research communicates the value of the arts, and of funding for the arts. By presenting Creative Arts Practice as both a methodology and a valid form of knowledge, Practice-Led Research explains the value of such practice outside of commercial entertainment industries, and the personal enjoyment of connoisseurs.
  • That art ‘enriches the soul’ is considered a poor argument in favour of the value of creating new artworks in times of austerity. Practice-Led Research can help to explain the mechanisms by which we gain knowledge from artworks and through artistic practice. Thus, it actively argues for the creation of new artworks in order to allow for the creation and dissemination of new knowledge.
  • Practice-Led Research is uniquely placed to address the issue of contemporary consciousness: not only can and do artworks address contemporary situations, an understanding of the practice and processes involved in their creation can shed light upon the consciousness that brings about those situations and the reactions to them (just as much good work is being done by researchers understanding past artworks in exactly the same way).
  • In addition, and linked, to the previous point, Practice-Led Research also allows researchers to understand interaction of individuals and groups with society, or each other, not through analysing the outcomes of these interactions after the fact but by actively manipulating their form and structure. This gives Practice-Led Research a privileged interior perspective on these interactions.

So, why is Practice-Led Research important in the current climate? And why should institutions support it?

The suggestion of the issues Practice-Led Research can address well is one thing, but reconciling the value of these issues with the problems and costs of this research in the current climate of austerity is also necessary. I would argue that the value of Practice-Led Research to universities is greater than the sum of the values of the individual projects undertaken by researchers.

Practice-Led Research projects are frequently exploratory, open-ended, and often seen as specialised. They are the kinds of projects that are set to decline in all areas of research as access to funding is tightened. Added to the fact that they often produce the kind of extra-linguistic knowledge that it is difficult to include in reports, such projects look to be some of the most precarious in the current climate. And yet most university departments continue to support this research. Why?

I believe that the answer is that support for Practice-Led Research is, in kind, support for all research. When universities support these projects, they are sending the message that they don’t believe that knowledge and research are uniform, that sometimes research doesn’t have outcomes that are clearly defined in advance (and, let’s be honest, if it always did we wouldn’t be learning much), and that research agendas must be set by researchers and not external bodies. In addition, continuing support for Practice-Led Research sends the message that universities understand research in the arts as a contemporary concern rather than one that is only concerned with historical theories and objects; this doesn’t mean that research in the history of the arts or historical art works aren’t important, it means that this research, too, is understood as being relevant in contemporary society.

Therefore, Practice-Led Research is important in the current climate, precisely because when this type of research is valued by universities, by implication other types of project must also be valued for their inherent research-value rather than their ability to gain funding, or produce knowledge that fits a specific template.

Lauren Redhead (@laurenredhead) is a composer from the North of England. Her work has been recognised internationally and performed by, amongst others, BL!NDMAN, Ian Pace, Rhodri Davies, the Nieuw Ensemble, Trio Atem, Philip Thomas and Edges ensemble, and rarescale. Her opera, green angel, was premiered in January 2011 with the support of the Arts Council of England, and she has been commissioned by Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Yorkshire Forward, and Making Music. Lauren is also a performer of British experimental music for the organ and has premiered works by many composers including Chris Newman, Caroline Lucas, and Nick Williams, a performer with the experimental vocal group Vocal Contructivists, and a musicologist writing on the aesthetics of contemporary music.