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Sunday, 07 July 2013 16:10

Avoiding the zero-sum game

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An Indigenous Australian project-based perspective on creativity and research dissemination.

Sandy O’Sullivan raises important issues relevant to academic researchers everywhere, such as what counts as legitimate research output and how should it be assessed. As she points out, non-text based outputs are now generally acceptable in the arts, but is there as case for these in other areas too, especially in Indigenous research contexts? And when it comes to justifying what counts, who should justify this and what criteria should be used to do so?

Don't forget to watch Sandy's video at the end of this article too.

Dr Sandy O'Sullivan - ARC Senior Indigenous Researcher (Wiradjuri), Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, Northern Territory, Australia.

In 2010 I began an Australian Research Council [ARC] Discovery Indigenous Project to explore the capacity of national museums to represent Indigenous Peoples. The project, nearing completion, has explored three broad national sites: Australia, the United States of America and somewhat controversially, the United Kingdom. This paper explores the broader academic landscape in which this work is being developed, and explores structures and issues around the use of creative arts methods for dissemination of research, and the widening scope for valuing non-text based contributions, particularly in Indigenous research contexts.

The research has used review, site-based analysis and interview as core research methods, with predictable and, at the time of application, required research outcomes. These have included journal articles, a few conference and keynote presentations, and a comprehensive summary of the outcomes in the form of a book currently being prepared for standard print publication. This is the trajectory of most research, whether Indigenous-centred or made; but should it be? Is it the most appropriate tool of dissemination for the kind of research we are undertaking and the audiences and communities we are writing to, and how can these dissemination decisions be accommodated in an increasingly competitive and research-focused academy?

When I was asked to contribute to an exhibition in 2012, an idea formed to disseminate some of the research findings that had no easy place in the existing research outputs. It would be an added extra outcome, and not part of the original research agreement. Because of recent changes in the measurement of research outputs, a creative arts inclusion would be claimable, but because of historic requirements under the funding arrangement, it had not been accommodated in the initial proposal. I am an Aboriginal Australian academic working on international Indigenous contexts of performative and exhibited inclusion in the museum space. My research training – indeed my PhD and most of my twenty years of teaching in universities - has been in the field of the practical creative arts.

 1.eye sos culture

I'm here again, waiting.
Happy to be here; pleased to represent.
My culture, always at the edge.
Repair, remain. The remnant.
Are we teetering... imagined there by these narratives and stories that others tell? Are we at the edge? Or is it these strange keeping places that contain, contextualize, a strange other. Leftovers, obsolete but interesting.
[text from Culture at the Edge of the World] (O'Sullivan, 2012a)

Since completing my PhD in this field, I, like many other creative arts researchers, have been encouraged to contribute to text-based research works, rather than creative outputs. This has been largely because research income to higher education institutions is based on the capacity to report research outputs using particular conventions that until recently excluded creative arts methods. A new Australian Government process (ARC, 2012a) of measuring research capacity has delivered some solutions to this dilemma. The introduction, however, has also highlighted academic acceptance issues that face both creative arts and other disciplines that work to extend research outcomes beyond the standard and, for many communities, unwieldy spaces of the research journal.

Under the recent national process, known as Excellence in Research for Australia [ERA], creative arts researchers at higher education institutions across Australia have been able to count their creative research towards an institutional research ranking system. (ARC, 2012a) This change has led to universities and higher education institutions considering research beyond the written word, and has provided a means to support alternative dissemination forms, framed under ERA as 'non-traditional outputs': a legitimate research outcome, although often without the institutional structures that underpin it (Krauth, 2011; Hutchison, 2009). The irony of previous iterations of research output rankings was that a significant exhibition or performance contribution demonstrating or disseminating years of research material through practice-based or practice-led processes would count for nothing, while a peer-assessed review of the resulting research would garner a research output for the writer and their institution.

The capacity of institutions to comprehend and respond to this new inclusion of a non-traditional output is a quandary not unfamiliar to Indigenous researchers both within and outside of the creative disciplines. It was at this intersection of creative and Indigenous disciplines, and the suitability of the outputs across both broad areas that led me to disseminate some of the findings from my current research work in the both more accessible and appropriate creative form. As a creative researcher working across the disciplines of Indigenous Knowledges, I have – along with many other Aboriginal academics – used alternative dissemination as a means to deliver relevant information back to communities as a matter of course, and at the risk of this dissemination not counting in the national measurement or funding of quality research. To do so seems to be both rigorous and, in countering the language of 'non-traditional', entirely culturally appropriate and 'traditionally' relevant. (Smith, 1999, p.125)

Indigenous Researchers across the disciplines have challenged standard disseminations, indicating the paucity of material available to communities, and the need for these materials to be more available and accessible so that communities can become partners in the process. (2002 Henry et al, 2003; Martin, 2007; Nakata, 2001; Rigney, 2006). While the existing outcomes, increasingly undertaken by Indigenous researchers as our numbers rise in the academy, continue to be legitimized as a viable research outcome, the capacity to effect this knowledge-transfer back to the community will continue to be a struggle that perpetuates distance between communities and the academy without the capacity to count alternative, equally rigorous outcomes in our research outputs.

The lobbying, while benefiting largely the creative arts, also includes some other disciplines that can argue alternative forms will support better research outcomes. For example, dictionaries, above 4000 words, have been included thanks to lobbying by linguists, however datasets that may have elements of analysis, are a legitimate research output, are cited, and require no further contextualization continue to be challenged as a destination research output (Musgrave and Hajek, 2011). Beyond the arguments of whether this operates as a legitimate research output, it presents a problem in the support that universities are likely to provide, where capacity is measured, and funding is apportioned, according to guidelines of what constitutes a measurable research output.

Within the context of language, this becomes a significant Indigenous imperative; without incentive for institutions to support the development of these expensive datasets, pragmatic financial decisions could have an enormous impact on Indigenous languages that remain critically endangered. While there are other programs supporting the maintenance of these languages - many introduced by the federal government - there are continued risks around furthering a research culture that may result in fewer linguists. (Musgrave and Hajek, 2011)

Interestingly Liddicoat in Applied Linguistics in Interdisciplinary Contexts (2010, pp14.12,14.8), that the management process of Fields of Research Codes [FoR]– a central order within ERA, that bind academics to a limited number of codes – encourage academics to maintain work within a more narrowed set of disciplines. Liddicoat argues that this actively discourages multi/inter-disciplinary research programs that produce a greater amount of academics interested and contributing research in linguistics. This also offers an intersectional problem for many Indigenous researchers, who frequently operate across discipline boundaries. A central tenet of Indigenist theory is that boundaries and research silos are counter-intuitive to the Indigenous struggle for the development of new epistemological frames of engagement in the academy, and more broadly in the understanding of Indigenous Knowledge. Rigney argues that only a challenge to these systems of fragmentation will create a truly Indigenous and Indigenist research method (2006, p.32). To support this concern, in the recent major Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, commissioned by the Australian Government, Recommendation 26 promotes: 'That the Australian Research Council and the Australian Bureau of Statistics work together to create an Indigenous research code to better identify research relating to Indigenous knowledges' (DIISRTE, 2012 xxiii). A single FoR code, could, using Rigney's argument, strengthen Indigenous Knowledge work in the academy, rather than erode the emerging Indigenist strategy of an epistemologically counter-disciplinary approach. With the current system, however, there is a limit to how many FoR codes any researcher may publish into, thus controlling co-operative academic action under the guise of building identifiable research strengths (DIISRTE, 2012).

Further, the Review cites a submission from the National Tertiary Education Union, that

...argues that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research should be treated separately from ERA because it: may not conform with Western research methodologies and protocols ... [and] is applied ... and motivated by achieving practical outcomes rather than prioritising publication in prestigious international journals. (DIISRTE, 2012, p.121)

While in theory, this remains far from a zero-sum game, with an emerging capacity to at least count some alternative dissemination forms, if the ERA requirements continue to centre on legitimacy, it seems that across at least some disciplines the two choices are to either engage in standard dissemination, or to challenge this space by resisting and disseminating appropriately. Under the management of ERA assessment, many forms of dissemination could only be counted if the discipline regarded it as appropriate dissemination. FoR Codes and researchers whose codes do not support non-traditional forms or where those forms are challenged by ERA discipline reviewers, may have their work excluded, and for them any resistance to the narrowing space may be unhelpful. Although published before the ERA was introduced, Nakata in Disciplining the Savages: Savaging the Disciplines (2006) foreshadows concerns about boundary management of research that focuses on Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous Knowledges, and the risks that it reduces the capacity to deconstruct colonializing engagement and maintenance within the academy. Through previous and current iterations of research measurement, datasets and other forms of citable material have not been considered appropriately analysis-rich to be a direct research outcome. This decision has caused difficulties where the interpretation of a dataset as not meeting these requirements, fails to recognise the background work and analysis involved in certain knowledge gathering. Who owns this information? Who has the right to be named as an author of this research? Under the current system of ERA, the capacity is around end points of dissemination and named, peer-assessed authoring processes. This extends the difficulties for a community that may own a complex, analysed and contextualized set of cultural knowledge to have control, authorship and authority over the dissemination of that information, and this issue of ownership, particularly in Indigenous contexts, is frequently at odds with current standard research dissemination (Smith, 1999, pp.118-119).

These complex decisions aside, to consider that we have broken the barrier, at least in the creative arts, is further challenged by the process required to measure and evaluate this research output. As a standard dissemination practice, laboratory-based scientists have used practice-based and practice-led work to create research that is then described using text-based research outputs. Under ERA, the same requirement has been imposed on creative arts outputs, requiring a text-based narrative that aims to describe and position the research output, presumably because the work itself is unable to operate as research, without this narrative explanation.

If we can move beyond our response of defending the legitimacy and rigour of our disciplines, we may prove to create a space in which other disciplines can explore alternative dissemination strategies in ways that are appropriate to their research. In the way that Indigenous and Indigenist research can lead methods of engagement that can, as Nakata suggests (2007), grow the culture of the academy, then perhaps accepted alternative forms can show methods that might provide better clarification of their analysis.

In Painting Monkey or Painting Elephant?: Some Comments on Measuring Research in the Creative Arts, Elliot (2011) reviews the highly vocal perspectives from members of other disciplines, who regard alternative dissemination and its measurement as unfathomable. This is a space that might, as Elliot ponders, call for some eye-rolling from creative artists engaged in rigorous academic practice as research work, but this is the space and discipline boundaries that Indigenous researchers, too, will often find themselves inhabiting within and outside of the creative arts. If we cannot convince our colleagues across the broad humanities and beyond that our work holds research value, then how can we hope to encourage them to explore alternative dissemination within their fields? And while some changes in the measurement (ARC, 2012b) have led to support of alternative research outputs across a range of disciplines, the language and assessment to consider these research outcomes has not yet been fostered, and the more complex discussions are only now beginning.

Perhaps we should be reversing the question, and asking for researchers in the broad humanities to demonstrate the veracity of a text-based approach? Could we suggest that they show the value of their research using practice demonstrations, providing opportunities to test ideas and hypotheses within the liberal arts. How would a researcher demonstrate the Deleuzian concept of immanent experimentation as a creative exploration, rather than passive analytical recasting that explores identity and unification? What would that look like creatively, and what opportunities would that hold for extending understanding of the concepts? Without complex conversations around veracity, these discussions become Creative Arts problems that only intersect with other disciplines in project or program-based activities. Conversely it is creative artists and others arguing for alternative dissemination, who have been forced into explaining how their research is research and not just art, (Elliot, 2011) through a very familiar process of the academic narrative; effectively a small research paper positioning the work, as though the work could not provide this research outcome by itself.

If this argument seems to only peripherally deal with the issues that affect Indigenous researchers and Indigenists, it is important to consider that the struggle that both creative artists and Indigenous researchers face is about breaking down existing, unhelpful boundaries, and doing so with a legitimate, authoritative and rigorous process. The ERA process is, following the argument of Rigney, a direct threat to Indigenous research capacity building, and would seem counter-intuitive to the goal of the ERA in building national and international research capacity. It also puts atwhat Maori theorist, Linda Tuhiwai Smith refers to as the organic development of agentic multidisciplinary cohorts (Smith p.130).

Since commencing my nationally funded research project, Reversing the Gaze, there have been constant questions, not of the central thesis that examines best practice in first person's stories in the museum space, nor in understanding the need to better improve Indigenous representation, but specifically around the inclusion of one site: England. The project, as an interrogation of cultural representation, used the standard Indigenous practice of informal discussions with Indigenous people, specifically elders across communities (Smith, 1999, pp.176-77). One Aboriginal elder inquired as to why we were not including England (2010). I explained that the United Kingdom wasn't being included because national museum systems were being examined to determine how they best represent their own Indigenous Peoples. The US and Australia having clearly identified and named Indigenous communities, and communities engaged and represented in museums, were relatively easy inclusions. The Elder explained that she understood this, but that our research team should consider that you can tell a lot about how a culture represents other cultures, by how it represents its own people. Wise words. If the project was to support and build on meaningful representation, this seemed a perfect space to explore. The story of this advice has been recast in my academic writing as direct narration of the conversation: at conferences and in publication, and because it followed a conversation that could easily be written down, it seemed appropriate for it to be a reported in this form.

3.hand sos cultureedge

I was explaining a conflict I had to the curator. I drew a crude map of the museum.
She said, that's like your people... that looks like the art of your people.
Does it? Or does it look like a museum map hand-drawn by someone annoyed that you couldn't get some basic information right?
Sorry... what?
I asked if she meant my people, Wiradjuri people?
No, the Aborigines?
Oh. Well that's tidier.
Those colours that matter to your people, red, black and yellow. They're important colours right? Important to your people?
All colours are important. Aren't those three colours important to YOUR people?
But I know without saying it that she doesn't think she has people and she wonders, too, after my flustered anger, if I do either.
And I, in the light of this interrogation, end up wondering the same.
(O'Sullivan, 2012a)

At first, when I was provided the opportunity to contribute to an exhibition, I viewed it as an opportunity to disseminate in a way in which I am skilled, and that will extend the body of work in a form now appropriately considered research. It also provided two other opportunities: a political action around the capacity of art to demonstrate research, and an opportunity to express an aspect of the research in a way that would provide a more accessible outcome for a range of visitors to the gallery and in the online forum/form.
The most significant impact on dissemination, however, was more unexpected, and certainly in the initial stages of inclusion in the research plan, surprising. The multimedia/soundtext/performance installation work provided a solution to a constantly difficult discussion around the inclusion of the English/England in the study. And while the story of why the country was included in the study was met with reverence for a clever idea from an Elder, it continued to be a sticking point in understanding what this idea of culture, ethnicity, place and belonging might mean in the context of a dominant culture recast as 'native'. The exhibition provided a radically different recast of the story beyond the conversation with the elder, and brought the viewer/listener/visitor into the physical realm of the museum space, and I was able to provide examples and meaningful illustrations of the experiences documented over the course of the research data gathering. The work focuses on overheard conversations in museums and uses, as a part of its structure whispering, barely heard voices and broken narrative. The work aims to suggest three key ideas: to consider the effect of overheard museum conversations might have on a listener, to retell some ways in which the work challenges ideas of identity, and finally to ask the listener/viewer to reposition their ideas around who is the viewer and who is the viewed. It became clear as the work developed, that this was a set of research outcomes that could not easily be recast in text form into which most of the other research outcomes were being managed. It did, however, represent a relationship between formal data gathering, and rather than challenging or dismissing the standard data outcomes, the artwork operated within a coaxial research space. culture SOS

She says, do you think there will still be Indigenous people in 200 years?
I say, of course - but I'm not so sure about museums. They're teetering.
On the edge.
On the edge of the world.
And those overheard comments just wash, wash over, reinforce my fears about the museum space as apologist.
They aren't like real Indians are they?
They aren't like real Aboriginals are they?
They aren't like real Scots are they?
What are they afraid of?
(O'Sullivan, 2012a)

The political aspect of making art as a research contribution is a broader national project by many who are arguing for the veracity of creative and alternative research outcomes. It was, because of the nature of the funding, also an opportunity to flex a concern about the capacity of ARC programs to support projects that employ alternative dissemination. DIRD Grants, like this museums project, are aimed at increasing research capacity for Indigenous academics and Communities and are intended to extend our work in a meaningful way. Jenny Wilson, in her journal article Creative Arts Researchers: A long path to acceptance (2011, p68), a title that could be recast to describe Indigenous academics across the disciplines, worries that in addition to measures not being well-thought through and counter-intuitive to creative arts research and practice, significant research funding continues to exclude creative arts material.

At the time that I applied for a Discovery Indigenous Researchers Fellowship and Grant, creative output alone would not have secured the funding, nor would the promise of an outcome that included this suite of potentially appropriate forms of dissemination. Indigenous communities and museums are the most likely target audience for this work, many of whom are unlikely to read or review complex research publications (Wilson, p.73). This kind of top tier national strategic funding is significant because it contributes considerably to research rankings and provides further income through Strategic Research Engagement funding. For this reason alternative dissemination was not a part of the original proposal, with the risk to my institution and the project too great and the likelihood of funding too small. One wonders how many other projects have failed to realize their full potential or been redirected away from creative and alternative outcomes because of this narrowed view.

If there is a range of risks that operate in the current academic climate of managing the boundaries, there are also opportunities in challenging these processes, even from within the ARC. A challenge to formal data sets failing to be counted as research has been made by a range of projects that have been funded under existing ARC programs. There is a strong example in AusStage (2012), a project funded for many years by the ARC and managed across many higher education institutions. Its brief is to create and maintain a database of live performance in Australia. Contributors and researchers primarily work in practice-based outcomes across research, teaching and industry practice with the program including industry partners. The idea behind AusStage was to create a set of historical and contemporary records that could be used by researchers and the Industry to better understand Australian history and contemporary performance practice. With over half of the thirty Chief Investigators on the project working within research-practice contexts, it marks an example of a program that will, as the database grows, be used to create works that respond to this historical dataset, not just reference it. The risk, then, does not only become about the need to recognize the analysis within the structures of the database, but the capacity for partner higher education institutions to continue to fund the development of the database, and not just the development of research as response.

There is, finally, an irony that, like many writers that explore these issues around the veracity of practice-based and practice-led work have identified, I contribute here in a way that will be recognized easily as a legitimate research output, and one that requires no extra information, and no further interpretation through, say, artmaking. But the final question is, should it? Or should the outcome be less concerned with how it is managed within the constructs of traditional or non-traditional output, and more concerned with delivering research in a way that furthers invested communities, the disciplines and academic scholarship.


Ausstage. (2012, November 01) Retrieved from

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Nakata, M. (2007) Disciplining the savages, savaging the disciplines. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

O'Sullivan, S. (Artist). (2012) Culture at the edge of the world. [Web Video]. Retrieved from

O'Sullivan, S. (Artist). (2012) Culture at the edge of the world. [installation]. Wollongong, Australia; Wollongong City Gallery.

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Smith, L. T. (1999) Decolonizing methodologies, research and indigenous peoples. London & New York: Zed Books Ltd.

Unidentified Elder. (2010, January) Interview by O'Sullivan S [Personal Interview]. Discussion around national museums project: Reversing the gaze. Personally held data archive.

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Sandy OSullivan

Dr Sandy O'Sullivan is an Aboriginal Australian academic working in the research area of Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education. Sandy is a lifelong Australian Learning and Teaching Fellow exploring alternative dissemination for Indigenous research training, and is a current Australian Research Council Fellow completing a multi-year international project on Indigenous inclusion in the national museum space. 


Culture at the edge of the world Sandy O'Sullivan
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