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    Creativity, Funding and Research in Canada

    I am puzzled. Highly skilled artisans, artists, creators and designers are perhaps among the most sophisticated researchers our society produces. In order to succeed, they have to not only understand the context of their creative work, but also the impact and possible market for their ideas and objects They have to develop sophisticated models and prototypes to test their ideas and they have to be able to translate their research and practice into something that can be understood by many different people often with quite differing interests. They have to have skills that might best be described as ethnographic so as to understand if not sense both the demands of their communities and also the resistances those communities have to change and new insights. They have to negotiate complex collaborative arrangements to produce outputs that will reflect great technical expertise as well as vision.

    Yet, for the most part, their work is neither recognized for its research value, nor substantively funded as research in Canada. (Great Britain and Australia have overcome this problem.) My sense is that conventional research in this country has over time become defined in a rather narrow way to benefit those people, institutions and disciplines that have historically received money from governments, foundations and private benefactors. For example, what is the difference between a researcher in political science and one who studies and researches politics in order to produce a film? Does a list of publications and books mean more than a list of well-made documentaries? Today in Canada it is still unusual for a funding agency to accept the CV of someone who has devoted themselves to media and forms of expression that are not traditional. It would be even more unusual to accept a work of art like an installation as evidence of rigour, forethought, insight and inventive thinking. These are among the criteria that are expected by juries in assessing the value of applications for funding.

    I cannot go into the history of funding for disciplinary research in Canada, nor examine within this context, the very particular mandates of the funding agencies that have over time developed specific areas of emphasis to the exclusion of many of the creative disciplines. The purpose of this short piece is to raise some issues about the future of research within the conventional boundaries that have been in place in Canada for decades. The secondary purpose is to argue that the models presently in place and in use by the main funding agencies are tired, reductive and repetitive and that the standards used to evaluate research have precipitously narrowed over the last fifteen years.

    Qualitative and quantitative research are based on a set of standards and criteria that have evolved over time within the context of disciplines that are for the most part pursued within the university context. Those disciplines range from the hard sciences, medicine and engineering through to the “soft” social sciences and humanities. The fields involved are diverse and often contentious. Some the disciplines are newer than others with the more scientific health-related disciplines receiving the largest amount of money. This is because of their perceived utility to society, the assumption that medical research for example, will have the most immediate impact and the further assumption that innovation occurs in those areas because of their empirical nature.

    The common and dominant popular metaphor for research is the science laboratory, an environment of experimentation within which purposes and goals are supposedly clearer than research that might be pursued in a library or through fieldwork. The other metaphor and it is one that also rules the popular imagination, is that research has to have concrete outcomes for it to be valid. In other words, “real” research will produce “cures” in medicine or a better understanding of physical reality or technological innovation. Of course, good research in any discipline will hopefully have productive outcomes. That is a given. But, good research is rarely linear and often (as is the case with AIDS, for example) takes decades to produce results.

    In fact, laboratories are notoriously conservative places often using research paradigms that produce little value either for participants or for the public. (See the work of Bruno Latour, but also the work of Thomas Kuhn for analyses of the cultures and working practices of scientific research.) This does not mean that universities should close those labs or shut down those disciplines that show little for the sometimes-massive investment in them. It does mean, however, that policy makers have to look with great care at accepted and conventional assumptions about output, results and their translation into highly specialized journals. In saying this, I am not suggesting that the only model for research is an applied one. In fact, I am arguing the opposite.

    Research in all its varieties is fundamental to all forms of learning and the development of new knowledge and is the foundation upon which new, useful and great ideas come into the public sphere. The assumption that there is one method or one way to arrive at results is something that most good researchers would argue against. And yet, that is the reality of the distinctive manner in which research is funded in Canada. It also underlies the assumption that the PhD is the only consistently valid tool of evaluation of researchers who wish to pursue innovative ideas, so that for example, an MFA is seen to be less significant even if it is a terminal degree for some professions.

    Part of the challenge, part of the beauty of research is that it trains the minds of learners, researchers and teachers and provides everyone with the intellectual and practical tools they need to pursue their interests and their passions sometimes with important and positive results. Research builds on disciplinary histories and practices, mode of enquiry, crafts and the multi-faceted use of technology.

    This potent combination is also at the heart of post-secondary education and learning and is the source of what makes universities and colleges so important to our society. However, value in research can be drawn from many sources and from many different practices. The isolation of research into particular institutions and specialized disciplines slowly leads to practices that are less innovative than they could or should be. This is largely because of the manner in which disciplines develop, their tendency to devolve into silos and most importantly, the departmental and faculty structure within universities, which tends to validate the history and shape of specific disciplines.

    In Canada, funding agencies have bought into the argument that excellence can only be found and developed in large universities, which have infrastructures to support their ambitious research goals. Often and ironically, the faculties in those universities are no larger than their smaller sister institutions, but nevertheless garner the majority of the money in any disciplinary competition. Excellence has become a quantitative game. Fund enough research in one place and you will undoubtedly have some winners. Very little research has been done on faculty at the large universities who do not provide research that matches their ambitions, particularly in areas like the social sciences and the humanities.

    Public policy in this area has to change. In particular, Canadian funding agencies have to realize that they are not recognizing value, innovation and creativity in most of the institutions across the country. Instead, they are perpetuating a vague notion of excellence based on the capacity of large universities to garner most of the money. All of that would be fine, if the claims about research being made by those large institutions were not based on exclusivity, to the detriment of the quite extraordinary richness of the work going on in many other institutions and as is often the case within the creative disciplines. The latter receive an infinitesimally small amount both compared to the number of people seeking funding and to the growing importance of the creative industries in Canada.


    How Long Will It Take Before All Artists Have Their Own Television Channels? 

    This question was asked by Stoffel Debuysere. It could be argued that every web page developed and maintained by individuals is in fact operating within a broadcast model. The screen real estate may be different, and the time and place of broadcast may be 24/7, but the reality is that we now live in what could best be described as a world of webs, semantic clouds and visual and aural clusters.

    This ecology or imagescape is multi-layered and lends itself to an endlessly proliferating messagesphere that is infinite. I would suggest that self-broadcasting (which is at the heart of the brilliance of Facebook) now determines the ways in which we recognize ourselves in the world. I am not suggesting that the material world which we inhabit and recreate on a daily basis has ceased to exist. Rather, the material world has increasingly developed into mixed messages, which in combination with human action and interaction means that words, for example, can be taken more literally than ever before (the rise of religious fundamentalism) in parallel with an increasingly powerful and rational scientific model (that is at the heart of the engineering behind the Internet). Religion and science now co-exist in an uncomfortable relationship that is strained and for the most part in conflict.

    To self-broadcast means to communicate with the unknown, since for the most part readers of web pages and facebook sites are anonymous. You may have 600 friends on Facebook, but you can't know when they are viewing your pages unless they leave you a message. For the most part, broadcasting in this way is asynchronous.

    It is of course the same thing with books which exist in an asynchronous relationship with readers.

    How long will it take before all artists have their own television channels? Well, they always have been broadcasting whether it was through the gallery system or via picture books or in large museums. The notion of self-broadcasting is as old as most of the systems of communications that we have created over many thousands of years of creative activity within messagespheres and this includes cave paintings.


    James Cameron on "5D"


    To Read (in the digital age)

    Is there a difference between reading and skimming? In some circumstances, skimming web pages for example, a great deal of information can be assimilated quickly and efficiently. The danger in the digital age is that skimming will become the norm for reading and the more detailed and beautiful aspects of the English language, the nuances and shades of meaning found in metaphors and worked over sentences will disappear.

    Language and the ways in which humans use writing to express the complexity of thoughts and emotions cannot be reduced to a quick look or a quick read. Language is an elastic and infinitely changeable medium. It can accommodate a wide variety of shortcuts (UR for "you are") as well as abuses. But, the ways in which we use writing in particular to express our deepest as well as most profound thoughts, requires sensitive and careful readers. As skimming becomes the norm, the question to ask is whether or not we can slow down the process of reading effectively enough to grab its subtleties.

    Ironically, the Kindle does just that. The comfort that we have developed with screens is translated beautifully and simply into the Kindle. This light, thin and carefully thought out technology may just create the balance between skimming and reading that will keep the power and beauty of language from disappearing.

    We need some new definitions and explanations for reading in the digital age. 


    Teaching, Learning and Making in Design Education  

    One of the major assumptions in design education and pedagogy is that students have to “make” or “produce” objects, from for example, web pages to bicycles to books in order to prove that they have learned to become designers. This philosophy is further amplified in popular journals like Applied Arts, which features the work of designers (much as photographic magazines feature the works of photographers) as examples both of production and professional capacity as if the works themselves have enough presence and force to stand for the creative process.

    This outcomes based strategy is pervasive in disciplines that frame learning through the products or objects students create. The assumption is that students become more active learners if they transform information and knowledge into something tangible. To varying degrees, this approach has immense value. However, my sense is that the focus on outcomes often reduces the students need to engage in wide-ranging and critical analyses and therefore to make possible the kind of self-reflection that is essential to learning. In other words interpretation, discourse and critique become less important largely because the object is meant to stand not only for function but also for meaning, process and aesthetics. There is in this approach a thin border between 19th century vocational learning and teaching and the depth that should be required of university students in the 21st century who wish to become designers.    

    The tradition of making that dominates contemporary art and design educational organizations is often portrayed as one of the essential differences that design schools have with more traditional institutions. Making is given a higher value than just thinking or research that may have no pragmatic or immediate outcome.  I would like to argue in this short article that the underlying philosophy of “making” to show progress in skills acquisition is fraught with dangers, among the most important of which is rampant anti-intellectualism. Furthermore, from my perspective, the learning process both within design and generally, is by its very nature so interdisciplinary that the focus on outcomes (most fully exemplified by the fourth year graduation project that comes to stand not only for years of learning but for the general capacity and competence of the student) tends to distort if not undermine creative process as well as innovative and speculative thinking. Of course, I am not suggesting that making is an end in itself, nor that the fabrication of prototypes or objects is harmful or without merit. Rather, one of the most important elements of any creative discipline, in my opinion is that learners become creative problem solvers. In order to achieve that goal many different pedagogical approaches are needed, not the least of which is an awareness of the differences among skills, learning and research. Gaining that understanding means that design students (and for that matter design teachers) cannot approach learning in a linear fashion. There is no easy or simple road to creative and innovative thought or production, unless the purpose of the educational process is framed by a limited understanding of the vocation or discipline within which both learners and teachers are engaged.

    In contrast, experience design is part of an effort to recast design process so that at a minimum fabrication can meet creativity in a middle zone, a space where designers can reach out to potential audiences or users, a space that is both highly contingent and not entirely framed by use. The challenge for successful experience designers then centres on communication, language and quality of interaction, that is, how to fabricate a relational environment that may or may not have objects as their focus. Experience design suggests something about the challenges that now face all designers as the ground upon which creative engagement shifts from makers to users, inverting the creative process so that the latter is often more responsible for their experiences than the former.

    Ironically, this is the same problem that artists face. The fabrication of something from nothing and the translation of ideas into artifacts cannot be reduced to a series of mechanical decisions, but requires a combination of self-reflection and self-appraisal as well as external evaluation and critique. Concepts don’t become aesthetic objects just because the craft needed to make or create something has been well learned or even well executed. If creativity were a simple matter of craft or even technique, then there would be little aesthetic or technical difference among artists or designers or users. Self-reflection can be learned. At the same time, learning to work beyond the limitations suggested by any craft or technique is the foundation upon which both innovative and critical articulation rests. The challenge both for learners and teachers is how to open up an increasingly narrow and narrowing set of assumptions about the pragmatic outcomes of the learning process. This is one of the key challenges both for the discipline and the institutions that teach design.   


    Is this the Landscape of The Hunger Games?


    Inference and Reference

    In 1981 during a public presentation in Paris at La Cinémathèque Française, Jean Rouch said the following:

    “I am an ethnographer and a filmmaker. I have discovered that there is no difference between documentary films and fiction films. The cinema, which is already an art of the double, which presents us with a constant movement from reality to the imaginary, could best be characterized as a cultural configuration which balances between various conceptual universes. In all of this the last thing to worry about is whether reality as such has been lost in the process of creation.” [i]

    Lest Rouch be misinterpreted by purists of the documentary genre he went on to say that as a filmmaker he creates the realities he films. He sees himself as a ‘metteur en scène’ as well as someone who has to improvise everything from camera angle to camera movement during the shooting of a film. This process is inspired by the kind of personal choices which inevitably rely upon the imagination of the filmmaker. The key to Rouch's approach here is the role which he sees artifice playing in the construction of any image or as he put it, the way the filmmaking process irrespective of genre is ultimately a sharing of dreams at the level of production and performance. Rouch's statement can be seen as a counterpoint to efforts on the part of documentary filmmakers to overinvest in the realist enterprise. It could also point the way to an examination of why images which “look” real have such a seductive appeal. Most importantly what Rouch suggested is that the image doesn't play as important a role in the production of meaning as filmmakers would like to believe. In much the same manner as Chris Marker in “Sans Soleil,” Rouch's statement questions the place of referentiality within the documentary form and to some degree looks outside of the image for an understanding not only of the message but of its relationship to performance and projection. 

    [i]From documents presented at the celebrations for the 50ieth anniversary of the National Film Board in June of 1989.


    Thinking by Inference

    To varying degrees, images have always been integral parts of human efforts to construct livable environments. They have always helped shape and form the spaces we inhabit whether they took the form of drawings, markings or pictures in caves or defined the architecture of churches and museums.

    Today, as images and screens have become more and more prevalent, they have begun to redefine human action and human subjectivity in even more sophisticated ways than in the past. The extension of image use into digital technologies has further heightened not only their importance but their role as mediators of human experiences in general.

    Interestingly, digital technologies rely on inferential thinking. They do not so much make the real come to life as they create an awareness of the many different planes on which our perceptions of the real depend. One of the best examples of this is a CD player and the CD’s themselves. One may infer that a particular CD will play a certain sound and that inference will have a great deal to do with the experience. The properties of the CD that generate the inferential process are not physically apparent either on the CD or even when the CD disappears into a player. In other words, we begin the act of listening within a virtual space of expectation devoid of sensory stimulation yet flush with internal dialogues and feelings and expectations. The laser that helps to generate the sound is invisible. The electric current that energizes the music, gives it a shape and broadcasts it to us is also invisible. Yet, the expectations remain constant. Inferential thinking is at the heart of digital technologies and I will be exploring this mode of thought in greater detail over the coming months.