Practice Based Research in the Creative Arts – a Faustian tract?

Professor Desmond Bell
Queens University Belfast

In this paper I explore some of the material difficulties and epistemological challenges faced in developing programmes of practice based research (PAR) in the fields of media arts, whether at doctoral level or in terms of institutionally supported research projects.

I write as an academic trained in the social sciences and humanities (philosophy) who later became a self-taught film maker and discovered that film making was a better tool for understanding the world around me….

To fully understand the possibilities of PAR and the resistance it continues to face within the academy, requires an analysis firstly of the contemporary political economy of higher education in the UK. This continues to marginalize creative arts research. Secondly, it necessitates an analytical exploration of the knowledge claims made for practice based research and more generally for creative arts practice. What are we fundamentally about as arts educators – making work or doing research? Can the outcomes of each of these processes be successfully combined? Can the art object in certain circumstances also be a knowledge object? I argue that PAR has developed as a defensive strategy to secure the status of the creative arts within the academy. This strategy has enjoyed some success in terms of facilitating the growth of doctoral research in the creative arts and brought valuable resources into art institutions. However, a price has been paid for this Faustian bargain. Has the making of challenging and innovative work as the primary activity of art educators been undermined by the new emphasis on the form of bureaucratic accountability and positivist fetish now colonising our art institutions? Does PAR as currently conceived of by the AHRC largely ignore the creative and professional core of artistic activity?

Desmond Bell is currently Professor of Film Studies at Queens University Belfast. Prior to that he was Professor and Head of the Department of Photography, Film and TV at Napier University. He graduated from the University of Warwick with a BA in philosophy and later gained a PhD in sociology. An interest in ethnography led to documentary film making. He has over twenty years developed a range of media arts courses courses combining critical theory and creative practice in the still and moving image. His films Hard Road to Klondike and The Last Storyteller were selected for the Venice Film Festival and his current film Child of the Dead End recently played at the Belfast Film Festival, has been invited to the Montreal World Film Festival and will be broadcast by TG4 and BBC. He is on the board of the Journal of Media Practice.

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