Exploring the relationship between theory and practice, thinking and making

15 – 16 March, 2009 | School of Tourism and Hospitality, Bunting Road Campus, University of Johannesburg


This international colloquium, hosted by the Visual Identities in Art and Design (VIAD) Research Centre at the University of Johannesburg’s School of Tourism and Hospitality, engaged with those discussions which have developed within international academic institutions and more recently, in South African universities, around the complex relationships between creative practices and production, and research.

In the fields of Visual Art and Design, the roles of the artist/designer and the researcher have come closer to one another and often merge in productive ways. This merged, or ‘integrated approach’ can be considered as a critical component of practice-led research (PLR). The colloquium was complimented by the 2009 FADA Staff Exhibition, also hosted by VIAD. Through the exhibition format, the curator, Rory Bester, explored how creative processes can give rise to research questions, and, in turn, marshal research arguments and conclusions.

For the purposes of the colloquium, PLR was considered as a ‘self-reflexive’ form of research within which:

–       the artist/designer/creative practitioner provides a rigorous critical analysis of their work, positioning it within broader contextual/theoretical/historical/discursive research paradigms

–       articulation of the processes involved in making the product of research form an important part  of the research findings

–       articulation and dissemination of the research findings takes place both through the product of making and established academic means; these are seen as dialogical and interrelated.

In line with the model proposed by the University of Art and Design Helsinki, the colloquium advisory team (comprising Alexander Opper, David Paton, Eugene Hön, Rory Bester, Anthea Buys, Alex Dodd, Marc Edwards and Dr Myer Taub) proposed that PLR is based on the following premise: “[t]he product of making ‒ the artefact created during art and design practices ‒ is conceived to have a central position in the academic research process” (Mäkelä & Routarinne 2006:12). In keeping with this premise, the term ‘practice-led research’ was consciously adopted, as the notion of practice-led emphasises practice as an active component of the research process. Taking this premise further, if the product of making and the processes of its making lie at the core of PLR, it can be seen to inform and provide the basis or catalyst for other forms of research, which collectively, together with the product of making, can combine to constitute PLR. These forms of research work systemically ‒ they can ‘feed into’ and support each other, as well as feedback directly into the product of making. These research forms include:

–       exhibitions/curatorial practices

–       undergraduate teaching curricula

–       academic textual outputs

–       research projects

–       collation and dissemination of research

–       post-graduate degrees in art and design which place practice at the centre of the research process.

–       In conjunction with the exhibition, speakers at the conference attempted to address the following questions.

–     The emergent connection between research and creative practices, particularly art and design, in South 

African universities has prompted much discussion concerning the dialogue between theory and practice, or ‘reflecting’ and ‘making’. How might these be combined in productive ways?

–     What kinds of connections currently exist between art/design and research practices?

–     How do the above-listed research forms work, individually, collectively, and systemically, to inform and constitute PLR?

–     How can productive relationships between creative practitioners (‘makers’) and theorists (‘writers’) be formed?

–     How is this ‘integrated approach’ applied to/currently operative within South African art and design, within both universities and industry?

–     What are the relationships between practitioners of PLR in university and industry contexts, and how can productive interactions/collaborations between them be forged?

–     How can exhibition production as a research methodology be grown and developed, and specifically, how can creative processes contribute to methodological innovations in curatorial practice?

–     How can PLR generate intellectual capital?

Aims of the colloquium were to:

–     continue and advance existing debates concerning the complex relationship between creative practices, particularly those of art and design, and research, in terms of both content and modes of presentation

–     stimulate PLR production

–     position PLR as an important form of research within university contexts.

Given the urgent need for dialogue and debate around PLR-based degrees and assessment criteria for creative outputs in the Visual Arts and Design disciplines, the colloquium proved to be of major significance within the South African creative/academic community. Representatives from almost every national Visual Arts/Design department/faculty were present, as well as representatives from the Department of Higher Education and Training and the National Research Foundation. International keynote speakers included Dr Maarit Mäkelä (University of Art and Design Helsinki); Danny Butt (University of Auckland); Dr Anna Birch (University of Surrey); Prof Kenneth Hay (University of Leeds). A national keynote speaker was Prof Mark Fleishman (University of Cape Town).

The range of presentations included not only conventional paper presentations, but sessions designed to enable art and design practitioners to comment on their production in relation to the ways in which it aligns with PLR; sessions which enabled dialogue and debate between professionals involved in the above-listed research forms which constitute PLR and a ‘walkabout’ hosted by exhibitors on the 2009 FADA Staff Exhibition.

Source cited

Mäkelä, M & Routarinne, S (eds). 2006. The art of research: research practices in art and design. University of Art and Design Helsinki: Gummerus Kirjapanino Oy Jyvaskyla.


Click here to download the programme


On making: integrating approaches to practice-led research in art and design