Introduction for ITEM:
Artists in research environments

by Simon Biggs, 2006

Originally written for the book ITEM, published by FACT, 2006


This essay seeks to establish an overview of the current state of research activity amongst new media artists in the UK and the context within which they find themselves working, especially concerning recent significant changes in funding strategies. References are made to specific projects and institutions and also international examples that function to contextualise UK and, due to regionalised funding structures, particularly English practice. Research activity encompassed includes that taking place outside formal Higher Education (HE) as well as that which takes place within universities. A critique is sought on the effect of HE research upon artists practice. The scope of practice discussed covers artists working with diverse media technologies including, but not restricted to, film, video, television, computers, networks, sound, lighting, sensory systems and live art. Issues around hybrid arts/sciences practice are addressed but the primary focus here is with the impact upon new media arts practice of new and deepening relationships with institutional research frameworks and their attendant funding systems.

A comparative view is taken of the main UK research funding mechanisms operated by institutions such as Arts Council England (ACE), ACE Lottery, Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC - previously the Arts and Humanities Research Board), Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE), National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), EU Framework 5, Wellcome Trust and other corporate sponsorship. The real impact of these funding mechanisms upon the media arts sector is outlined. How these research facilitating mechanisms have evolved, beginning with the first Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) to include the creative arts of 1997, and the contemporaneous foundation of the AHRC and the initiation of structured research funding and assessment in the creative arts in education are examined. How research has been supported through existing funding such as ACE and NESTA is also explored. Conclusions about changes in research in the creative arts are illustrated with examples employing verifiable data.

An attempt is made to contextualise the UK situation by employing certain international examples such as MIT MediaLab and the US State University research funding system as well as European institutions such as Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe, Koln Hochschule fur Media and IVREA. The examples focus on those from which inferences can be drawn of relevance to the UK situation.

The context for this essay is the ITEM project initiated and run by the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, Liverpool. The ITEM project seeks to bring together artists and specialists from diverse disciplines into multidisciplinary research teams to address specific research questions or problems and to explore how methods and practice might evolve as a result. The ITEM project can thus be seen as an important instance in a larger process of development within our contemporary culture, in the UK and elsewhere, that is witnessing the blurring of disciplinary boundaries and the redefinition of how art, artists and audiences might be constituted.

The current research context

With the emergence in the 1990's of the new UK Universities, and research degree awarding powers for many fine art departments, a series of questions around what might constitute research in a fine art context have arisen that are now being addressed. For example, the value of the exhibition as not only a research outcome but as part of a methodology of research assessment or the value of catalogues and reviews as evidence of peer reviewed esteem. The physical and social sciences have well established research methodologies and systems of assessment and in large part the creative arts could be seen to be emulating their research quality assessment methods, in some instances perhaps inappropriately. However, it is also possible that the assumed empiricism involved in the methods of traditional academic subjects, and especially their review and assessment procedures, is not as deep as expected and the frameworks and systems for evaluation can be based on somewhat arbitrarily established "traditions". This is not to suggest that such research is not rigorous, for it is; just that things might not always be as they seem and that it might not be such an unexpected development that the creative arts are able to contribute to and derive value from such academic practices.

The creative arts, with something of a "blank slate" in this respect, have an opportunity to develop forms of rigour that, in some interesting respects, are absent in traditional research subject areas. That might sound paradoxical, but it is this conundrum that is at the heart of a number of the interdisciplinary programs described here.

To establish context, and to ground the essay on some hard figures, it is interesting to note that in a matter of a few years research funding in England from the AHRC, for the arts and humanities in higher education, has risen from nothing to 61 million GBP per annum. As a proportion of overall HEFCE research funding (in excess of 1000 million GBP per annum) this is clearly far from the lion's share but it is historically significant and current policy documents show that AHRC funding, as a proportion of overall research funding, is set to grow at a higher rate than that envisaged for other research councils.

61 million is also a significant figure when compared with more traditional arts funding sources, such as ACE which in 2003 allocated 235 million GBP across all the creative arts in England as well as a further 120 million through Lottery funds. Whilst ACE's funding to the arts remains significantly higher than HEFCE's the year on year shift in figures shows that the rate of growth in HEFCE funds, like Lottery funds in the past, is outstripping core ACE funding growth. Given recent HEFCE policy statements it seems clear that this trend will continue and that whilst this does not imply an erosion of traditional arts funding it does suggest a realignment in where the funds come from and how artists might access them.

Another example of new and unusual funding horizons for creative arts funding within HE is exemplified by art and design departments in such institutions as Brighton, Sheffield Hallam and the Royal College of Arts being successful in bidding for funds from the Scientific Research Infrastructure Fund (SRIF), a Department of Trade and Industry initiative with 1000 million GBP in funds to spend per annum on the technical and material resource base of scientific research. In these cases the funds have been directed towards developing the resource base for creative arts research projects largely involving new technologies and media.

These figures show that the overall envelope for arts funding in the UK has seen significant growth and diversification over the past several years, after what was a long period of attrition during the 1980's and 1990's, and that the emergence of new funding avenues such as the AHRC, the Lottery or the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (total funding disbursements in 2004 of 12.5 million making it too a major source of public funds) and the Wellcome Trust (400m GBP per annum for research funding, several millions of this being directed to the creative arts via the Wellcome Trusts Sci-Art and Public Engagement Programmes) have meant that artists have found new ways of working just as they have found new ways of being funded.

A significant change that can be seen as reflective of this funding context has been the emergence of the artist/researcher who exists both as an independent artist and as a research academic; either as a faculty member, often with teaching responsibilities attached, or as part of a research team associated with one or more institutions. This funding context can also be seen to have had a significant, perhaps profound, effect on those artists who choose not to work in some form of relationship with research oriented institutions.

Frameworks that facilitate artists who have chosen to work within or close to academic contexts include Trace, the online writers association based at Nottingham Trent University, the work of looser groupings of artists such as those associated with the Centre for Arts Research, Technology and Education (CARTE) at Westminster University or the more formalised but equally diversely oriented SMARTLab at the University of the Arts (formerly the London Institute).

Artists who have chosen to work outside formal educational institutions, but which can be seen as exemplary of a new research based approach to practice, include Blast Theory, the live and new media artists group who have gained international recognition for their interventionist and interdisciplinary projects. Another such group is Proboscis, composed of artists and researchers initiating large scale public arts projects that focus more on social formation as the subject and materiality of their work rather than on processes or objects as outputs. Each of these groups has adopted methods not dissimilar to the formal research methods found in academia and have been successful at gaining significant funding from sources associated with both academic and traditional arts funding. To some degree they have found themselves working with, and even within, academic contexts as they have evolved their research strategies. The emergence of such approaches to the making and situating of art could be seen as related to changes in the funding context artists are working within as much as it might be associated with developing tropes in arts practice itself.

Artists, money and academia

In the last decade or so concerted efforts have been made in the UK to establish institutional frameworks for arts, new media and technologically based research and practice with a number of high profile and relatively well funded initiatives of particular interest. These initiatives, along with the evolution of a broader culture of academic research in art and design within UK Universities, has led to the questioning of the relationship of artistic practice to research, academic and otherwise, and how each facilitates and constrains the other.

There have been a number of academic conferences on just this topic (for example the University of Hertfordshire's series on practice based research in art and design, the latest being 2004). Another (international) example is the Digital Arts and Culture conference series (most recently in Melbourne, 2003) which brings together artist researchers, academics and theoreticians from around the world to debate the latest developments in the field.

Academics love to reflect upon their own state and some might seem to be employed as professional navel gazers. Conferences convened to debate the value of practice led research within a larger research ecology might seem especially self-reflective, but such conferences are also evidence of real changes in how the creative arts are situated in academia, not just as a subject to be taught but as an area of human inquiry and research that eventuates in real world outputs.

These developments, and others of similar character (eg: the Free Cooperation and Network conference at the State University of New York Buffalo 2004 or the Creativity and Cognition series, the most recent in Sydney, November 2004) have led to the emergence of a new kind of critical language and indeed new discursive contexts where artists are often engaged as protagonists rather than as simply the "subject". This evidences a change in engagement by artists and in their roles relative to notions of audience and the practices of other disciplines.

The ACE/AHRC's current Arts and Science Research Fellowships programme of support for artists in research environments, based itself on the earlier New Technology Artist Fellowship programme of 2002, run by ACE in collaboration with Cambridge University and Kettles Yard Gallery, is an excellent example of the kind of burgeoning research culture such conferences seek to engage. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has also initiated a complementary funding programme supporting scientists working in art schools and other creative practice contexts and the success of the AHRC initiative is shown by the announcement of its second call for proposals in September 2004.

The ACE/AHRC initiative is not about facilitating artists access to new tools and resources (although that was supported and did happen) nor about promoting or diffusing scientific methods and products (such as the Wellcome Trust Sci-Art program has set out to do) but rather was concerned with the development of new models of interdisciplinary research that will hopefully go some way beyond the old two-cultures debate; a debate that is very much alive and kicking within elements of UK academia and society.

One successful project, developed as part of the Arts and Science Research Fellowships, centred around the work of London based choreographer Wayne McGregor, who has produced a series of works noted for their innovative use of new media and interdisciplinary approach. This project involved working with researchers in neuroscience, psychology, design, anthropology and Human-Computer Interaction with the objective of developing new models of notating and interpreting dance and relating this to the physiological and psychological state of the dancer. McGregor used the opportunity to produce a new dance work, titled AtaXia, which explored the choreographic potential of disruptive stimuli that can cause the dancer to lose control.

Whilst McGregor's project exhibits a sophisticated approach to interdisciplinary work a significant issue can arise here regarding the appropriation of one discipline by another, for its own purposes, without real understanding of what drives the other discipline. All sides of the debate, including artists, technologists, scientists, academics and funders, can be complicit in this. On the one hand artists can be seen to be seeking access to the instruments and resources of science to enhance the technological basis of their practice and on the other scientists could be accused of looking to artists as potential apologists or pedagogues at a time when science has been having to defend itself from sustained criticism in relation to issues such as genetically modified organisms, stem cell research, mass immunisation programmes and questions around the social responsibility of science.

It is early days with projects such as those initiated through the ACE/AHRC Arts and Science Research Fellowships but the hope must be that the long term objective here is to build research networks that cross our cultural divides and allow artists, scientists and social scientists to collaborate on developing not just new research programs but new notions of value and discourse in creativity. If the result is that artists become apologists for science or technologists technical problem solvers for artists then a real opportunity for cultural engagement across disciplines would have been lost.

Old research cultures

There is an area of creative arts practice where there is a long tradition of practice related research in UK academia; music. Whilst art departments in the UK, with a few notable exceptions (the Slade, Goldsmiths, Reading or Ruskin, for instance), are largely to be found in the new universities (and thus developing within the non-research oriented educational cultures of the previous polytechnic system) most music departments are to be found in the old universities. Whilst music, like the other creative arts, had no formal research council to support them prior to the formation of the AHRC (1997) it did benefit from close association with other research active departments and the ethics they foster.

Two of the most highly regarded music research departments are those at York and Birmingham Universities. These two departments, and others like them, have had dynamic research cultures evolving over decades which have led to the establishment of a depth of research activity and a momentum we would normally associate with the physical and social sciences.

At York a significant research project, undertaken by the Music Technology Research Group, is RIMM. This involves developing Real-time Interactive Multiple Media content generation systems employing high performance computing and multi-parametric Human-Computer Interfaces. RIMM is a trial of contemporary technologies that unites various computer music technologies, surround sound and computer graphic generation all under the control of the performer. This is a large research project funded at a high level by the European Commission's 5th Framework Information, Societies and Technology Programme. It is a challenge for any institution to gain the support of the European Commission, given that they usually fund only very large scale projects. For a visual arts institution it would be an even greater challenge, given the distinct histories noted above.

Birmingham University hosts the Birmingham Electro Acoustic Sound Theatre. BEAST has developed what is arguably the worlds most advanced 3D sound diffusion system for use in both composed and improvised performance of electro-acoustic and electronic music. The BEAST system uses up to thirty channels of sound, separately amplified, each pair having characteristics which make them appropriate for a particular position or function. The performer can create an infinite number of possible sound images and sculpt the spatial, dynamic and dramatic implications of the music in particular concert environments. To develop such high performance and robust systems requires resources not commonly available in a typical art school, even at university level (although the examples of art and design departments gaining SRIF funding marks the beginning of movement in this direction).

The reasons why the visual arts and music have such different positions within UK academia, and therefore different histories, could be seen as originating in antique cultural tropes. The proposition here is that music has historically been seen as an intellectual pursuit and visual art, originating in the guild based system of crafts and skills, as rather more concerned with the practical issues of "making". Whilst artists and the artisan traditions they worked within often had close relations with the church through numerous building commissions musicians, and especially composers, had an elevated position within liturgical society, creating and maintaining the musical traditions that underpinned much of the religious calendar. In this they were not too different to the architects who commissioned individual artists to detail their mega-structures.

Early universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge, Venice and Florence, were founded by or in close relation to the Church and music was, from the beginning, part of the remit of these institutions. The visual arts, on the other hand, with their close relationship to the guild system, found their educational niche in skills based and technical education. As these educational systems developed the disciplines of music and visual art built upon their respective traditions and thus we ultimately had, in the UK, the university and polytechnic distinctions dominating their place in education and, to some degree, their broader social status. Now, with the establishment of the new universities, this age-old distinction has begun to erode and art and music find themselves delivered, cap in hand, to the same funding agency, the AHRC.

International context

The situation in the USA might be of interest here as in the US educational system most art and music departments both traditionally exist within the university system. It would seem that, as in many things, the US has been less bound by the historical weight of institutions and thus the stratification with which we are so familiar in Europe is far less pronounced there. However, the situation can be shown to be not quite that simple.

Most of the older (Ivy League) universities in the USA do not feature fine art departments amongst their subject specialisms. Most such departments in the US university system exist within the State University sector. Whilst many of these universities are centres of excellence it is the case that the state sector in the US does not attract the same inscription of status as the Ivy League institutions and has a far smaller proportional share of research funding. Just as in the UK, where four institutions (Cambridge, Oxford, University College London and Imperial College) absorb the greater part of research funds, in the USA non-State sector universities, such as Ivy League institutions Harvard, Cornell, Brown, Princeton, Yale and Columbia and research universities such as MIT and Stanford, are the beneficiaries of most US research funds.

It is also the case that whereas most academic research in the UK is funded from educationally based funds, via the various research councils, in the US much state funding is channelled through the Pentagon or its related agencies and is complemented by a far higher proportion of corporate funding. This duality of funding, once described by President Eisenhower as the "military-industrial complex", has come to dominate the character of US research methods and outputs. Due to this much US research often has a military and/or industrial flavour and is usually target or output driven. Whereas in the UK the funding system still allows space for blue-sky non-target driven research in the US there are far greater pressures on researchers from their funding agencies, whether public or private, to deliver results that will be of direct benefit to either a defined market or defence requirement. As such, research as a form of play is not tolerated to quite the same degree as it is in the UK and Europe. This has significant implications for fine art research funding in the US and it is in areas such as this that European institutions have the cultural attitude and resources to out-perform their US colleagues.

However the situation in the UK is evolving. The funding councils continue to tighten their regulations and quality control systems which results in a greater requirement for researchers to demonstrate quantifiable value in the outputs of their work. This, allied with government driven targets, seems to be leading inexorably, as in so many other realms of public life, towards a situation not too distant from the US model but without the benefits the US enjoys (or suffers from, depending on one's point of view) of private and corporate patronage.

As always, the situation in continental Europe differs in a number of ways from that in the UK. Generally other European countries, and especially the larger economies of Germany and France, as well as certain other more Northern states such as the Netherlands and Finland, have been more generous in their overall funding for both education and the creative arts. However, aside from some high profile examples, the evolution of the status of art schools as centres of academic excellence and research activity has not occurred to the same extent as it has in the UK.

A key indicator, in this respect, is the number of research students working within the UK HE creative arts sector who have come to the UK from Europe (as well as from further a field, especially the far-East) having been unable to pursue the option of developing as an artist-researcher within their own academic environments. Few European countries are as yet offering artists and related professionals the option to pursue their practice and research within the formal structure of a PhD or other terminal research degree (the USA does have this option, in the form of the Master of Fine Arts, a terminal research based degree that most American artists are obliged to take if they wish to gain a Professorship in a US art school).

In some European countries the art education system still allows its artist/educators resources and facilities for their own practice which are very generous by UK standards. Some art schools reserve large studios for the exclusive use of senior artists/academics. In a sense this could be seen as another, perhaps more traditional, means, by which to encourage and sustain professional practice, and thus research, amongst arts faculty whilst ensuring participation in the daily life of the institution.

As UK art schools have developed their research cultures the number of PhD places has rapidly increased to the point where we are now starting to see the formation of staff/student/project arrangements that quite closely resemble those to be found in the traditional research active subject areas of the physical and social sciences. This has also been the experience in a number of other English speaking nations which have evolved their education systems out of the UK model, notably Australia which has had significant success in attracting high-fee paying international students from Japan and emergent economies such as China and Malaysia.

Whether academic institutions in Europe will follow this trend remains to be seen. There are certainly moves in this direction within the Dutch education system and there are the notable examples of research centres such as the Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM, Karlsruhe), University of Media Arts (KhM, Koln) and IVREA (near Milan).

Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (Interaction-Ivrea) is an independent non-profit organisation, founded by Telecom Italia and Olivetti, and now part of the Progetto Italia initiative of Telecom Italia. Based in Ivrea, it offers a two-year Masters Programme in Interaction Design for participants from all over the world with prior college degrees in design, architecture, communications, computer science or psychology. It is a research-led institute where students are expected to develop their projects within a research model but as yet it does not offer a formal PhD option. Due to current funding issues there seem to be some significant concerns regarding the future of IVREA, evidencing the potential volatility of joint state and commercially funded initiatives.

ZKM has a distinct identity in that it exists as a museum, a research centre and an education institute. It is almost unique in its formation and whilst it has had a high profile and central role in the development of the new media arts in Germany, and world-wide, its very uniqueness evidences the larger context in Germany where a creative arts education, unlike the UK, has changed form little in recent decades.

An institution that does represent something potentially more significant within German higher education is KhM Koln. This independent publicly funded university was founded during the early 1990's as a research-led centre and has established a reputation for the excellence of its courses and the quality of graduates. Notably, the institution is dedicated to education and research in the area of media art. Students are expected to develop their work as research projects, often within a collaborative and interdisciplinary model of experimentation and practice, and this has led to the emergence of a certain type of artist from this context which intriguingly shifts the potential social role of art. However, as elsewhere in Europe, students at KhM are as yet unable to pursue the more rigorous option of a practice-led PhD.

Thus the UK, along with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, has developed a form of research culture in the creative arts that rarely exists elsewhere and, pursuant to that, begins to see shifts in the practice of art and its social function.

Whilst the UK is closely associated with a number of other English speaking countries, and shares other traditions with them, it is part of Europe and shares in the complex and diverse funding agencies that are responsible for managing social spending within the EU. The primary source of funding for research in the EU is encompassed within the Fifth European Community Framework Programme covering Research, Technological Development and Demonstration activities, and the Fifth Euratom Framework Programme covering research and training activities in the nuclear sector (jointly known as Framework 5, or FP5, soon to be replaced by the FP6 Programme).

FP5 has a multi-theme structure, consisting of seven Specific Programmes, of which four are Thematic Programmes:

Quality of Life and management of living resources (Quality of Life).
User-friendly information society (IST).
Competitive and sustainable growth (GROWTH).
Energy, environment and sustainable development (EESD).

Three are Horizontal Programmes, which underpin and complement the Thematic Programmes by responding to common needs across all research areas:

Confirming the international role of Community research (INCO 2).
Promotion of innovation and encouragement of SME participation (Innovation/SMEs).
Improving the human research potential and the socio-economic knowledge base (Improving).

Whilst the themes determine the areas within which funding is available the horizontal programmes function to prioritise and gauge proposals. FP5 is very much concerned with promoting European integration and addressing issues that arise from the specific European situation, such as the North/South divide or linguistic diversity. This often makes it seem distant to the actual interests and real needs of potential applicants. The inherent complexity of the funding system also contributes to this impression. In reality FP5 makes up a significant and increasing proportion of the research funding envelope in the UK.

One of the requirements for many submissions to FP5 is that the application is made by a group of bidders from a minimum number of EU states. Preference is often given to bids which include proposers from a mixture of countries reflecting a range of socio-economic circumstances. In this sense FP5 could be regarded as an example of social-engineering. This can lead to debate about the function of research and/or art. Where you stand in this argument will be a reflection of your politics and what you see as the social function and obligations of art and science.

An example of a current FP5 project involves research into Distributed Interactive Audio-Visual Virtual Reality Systems, expected to complete in early 2007. The goal of this project is to create an open source Internet platform for multi-user, interactive, distributed, high-quality 3D graphics and audio for home, public and personal use. The platform will support high-quality 3D-graphics as well as high-quality 3D-audio and acoustic simulation. The lead organisation is the Kungliga Tekniska Hoegskolan of Stockholm and partner institutions include the Fraunhofer Institute of Munich, Germany (one of Europe's leading VR research centres) and highly respected universities such as the Helsinki University of Technology. Other partners come from Hungary and the Netherlands, again evidencing the importance of an EU wide approach to such research projects.

New research cultures

New avenues of research funding and new definitions of what might constitute research, as has been argued above, lead to the development of innovative research cultures and can foster further novel models of what research can be. Implicit within this is the idea that current research models, and the value systems they are constructed upon, are open to fundamental questioning. Due to this we are witnessing a period of change in both academic research and in professional artistic practice as a dynamic interchange evolves between the two.

The example of Wayne Macgregor, given above, is evidence of this, as is the ITEM project initiated by FACT. In the ITEM project we have artists, other creatives, academic and industrial researchers working together in various combinations on research projects whose outputs are not overtly pre-defined (as is also the case with the ACE/AHRC Fellowships, in contrast to the output led character of the Wellcome Trust Sci-Art programme) and which thus seem to offer the potential of longer term value to all those involved.

At first it might seem unusual that experimental artists, such as are involved in ITEM, have found themselves at the heart of such a culture of research, with all its associations and affiliations with institutions and organisations that would once have been seen as anathema to the practice of art. However, what many of these artists share is an involvement with new media, particularly digital tools, and as we have seen the computer and its affiliated technologies, such as the internet, has become a facilitating and even the determining technology of social action and particularly of research. It is therefore not so surprising that new media artists, as developers and interpreters of new technologies, often find themselves associated with this essential instrument of research and thus with those institutions associated with its development.

An explicit example of this can be found in the burgeoning online discourses around new media arts. Online resources such as CRUMB, Fibreculture and Nettime have come to function as the networks that bind a global community of new media artists, researchers and activists together. This is not one community but many, often very different, groups with often divergent interests and objectives. However, by its nature, this development can be seen to lead to combinations and recombination's from which emerge constantly new approaches to practice, criticism and new forms of output. Thus we see a technology employed to facilitate exchange and discourse becoming an active determinant in the form and value of the artwork that emerges from and is the subject of that discourse. That each of these online and offline technologically mediated communities, and many others like them, are run within or in association with academic institutions is also a directly relevant factor in this.

A major issue in all of this revolves around how the creative arts are assessed and measured in relation to research agendas and, ultimately, access to funded support. Clearly the assessment criteria and methods employed in the physical and social sciences are unlikely to be appropriate to the evaluation of the success, or otherwise, of a creative arts research project. What does the idea of success mean in the arts? In the sciences it is possible for a research project to deliver a negative result in relation to a hypothesis. A negative result is as valid a result as a positive one, even if unwelcome. If the arts are to be truly experimental then obviously failure has to always be an available option, but clearly failure in this sense means something quite different to a negative result in physics.

As yet the metrics, methods and criteria for assessment remain fluid and ill-defined. Progress is being made and it is interesting to see the AHRC liaising closely with ACE on a number of fronts, suggesting that the well developed models employed by ACE are being transferred, to some degree, to the academic sector. Nevertheless, the debate on all this remains open and volatile and it will be some time yet before the guidelines involved mature.

Whilst there has been significant change in the academic status and funding of the creative arts it is still the case that they are not given the same access to resources or the same academic status as traditional research subject areas, as can be seen from what is described above, although fundamental changes in how academic and research institutions are composed are leading to a realignment in research cultures and how they are funded such that the arts do now have the opportunity of a look in. It is not yet an equal footing, certainly in terms of funding, but it is a start on which there is now the imperative to build, or lose the momentum.

Recent legislation before the UK parliament, embedded within the Higher Education Funding bill (which included the contentious and headline grabbing proposal of student top-up fees), facilitated the changing of the Arts and Humanities Research Board into the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This minor change in the name of the AHRC represents a major shift in the obligations and authority of the body that oversees arts and humanities research in the UK and suggests the further accrual of value to creative arts research. Whilst it is clear that the new AHRC will be looking to the established funding Councils for funding models, as well as models for establishing the character and value of methods and output standards, the Council will, by its structure, become more and more the product of the research communities it services (and vice versa). The creative arts, and the new media arts as part of that, will participate in that development and will causally effect funding strategies and priorities into the future.


If one looks at how arts practice has developed in the UK over the past decade, especially in those arts practices, such as new media, which are distant from the traditional arts market place and thus have always been funding dependent, it is notable that much of it has moved away from the artists studio. This is possibly due to universities being able to offer environments where artists are supported to do the work they wish to do. The universities do this because there now exists a research infrastructure and the attendant funding which they are chasing. They bid for artists to join their research communities as, in the long run, the artists outputs will generate more income through the Research Assessment Exercise than they have cost the institution to employ. This also encourages departments to nurture the professional artistic careers of their younger faculty in the expectation that some of them will be successful and result, again, in enhanced research income. It is all down to economics. The impact of this on a significant number of artists careers has been profound.

Whilst it is true that this is a dynamic at work in shaping how and why artists are employed in institutions it is also true that art, and artists, are often regarded as somewhat dilettante and thus expendable within the larger considerations of academia. Seen as unattractive potential administrators artists in academia often find their career opportunities limited. It is also true that opportunities for career development, especially in respect of research in the new universities, is often seriously compromised as there is not the comprehension of the value of research, and its relationship to knowledge transfer, that there is in the old universities. Given that most art schools exist in the new universities we therefore see that many artists who work in such institutions are not as supported in their research careers (which to the artist is equivalent to their professional practice) as are researchers in more traditional research subjects.

Whilst imbalances continue to exist between the status and resourcing of the creative arts and that associated with conventional academic subject areas there will exist a need to establish a social context that sees research as valid in diverse areas of social engagement, whether the physical or social sciences, arts or other areas. Once that is established, and the political will to follow through the implications of such a social realignment embedded, then the resources will likely be made available, with the required consensus, and the research infrastructure required to achieve that goal attained. It will likely be a long process.

The UK experience has been uneven and difficult and, in many instances, still is. The key events were the creation of the new universities and the establishment of a competitive and more or less open framework for research funding. The first allowed art departments to have access to the same formal status as traditional university research areas. The second freed up the system such that these art departments could then bid for research funds which, until then, had been the preserve of traditional academic subjects. The foundation of the AHRC was central in this development.

Whilst it is generally recognised that there is an essential relationship between knowledge transfer and knowledge creation (teaching and research) the downside of recent developments is that UK academia now has to live within a more market driven and rather corporate notion of education. Higher education is no longer primarily about the creation of knowledge but about its transfer and, further to that, how this can be applied to generate added value (eg: profit) in the market place. The most recent developments (the creation of Foundation Degrees and the emergence of the next wave of non-research active universities) is evidence of this trend. This makes for an environment where certain ethics, many closely held in creative arts communities but also within other research oriented contexts, are seriously challenged.

A key event was the recent review of research funding, known as the Roberts Review. Initially, from the recommendations that emerged in 2002, it seemed that by the end of the current academic research cycle (2002-2007) things were going to be profoundly different and possibly not at all good news for arts practice based research models. Now though, as the recommendations have been fed through various consultative layers, they have become so watered down that it is clear there will not be any radical change in how things have been done. There is still a lack of clarity around Unit 63 (previously Unit 64) of assessment (Art and Design) and related creative arts research areas, and there are some stirrings that might suggest a less benevolent funding regime in these areas come 2008. What is clear though is that Unit 63 will continue to exist, at least in this cycle, in its current form and thus arts departments will still be playing the same game (although in a minor league) as the traditional research led departments. What is also clear is that for the foreseeable future academic research funding will continue to grow whilst the traditional funds available through direct arts funding (Arts Councils, etc) will remain, at best, static. Thus we can assume the continued evolution in how art is practiced in the UK that we have seen over the past decade and, central to that, the further enhancement of art based research, with all the implications that carries for how art is practiced and received.

Simon Biggs
Sheffield 02.02.2006